What lurks in the darkness (Old Age)

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Anadelonbrin
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What lurks in the darkness (Old Age)

#1 Post by Anadelonbrin » Sat Aug 01, 2020 4:29 pm

The young Warden hesitated outside the mouth of the cave. The air was crisp and cold, and his breath froze in puffs of white. He was a brave man, no doubt, but this? This was not what he had signed up for. He would gladly have faced a bloodied battlefield instead. He stepped from foot to foot and rubbed his upper arm to keep circulation going, glancing over his shoulder as if hoping someone else would magically appear there to take this bitter cup from him. Alas, there was but one set of tracks in the snow behind him. The trek up here had been long and arduous, and he realised with a sinking feeling that unless he was going to just go all the way back down with his business unfinished, he did not have much choice right now other than to get it over with. He let out a deep sigh and grit his teeth, ducking into the darkness.
The contrast from the white of the snow was stark, and even with Kaldorei eyes, it took some time to adjust. The first few steps were blind, but as he progressed, his surroundings became visible little by little. Some snow had drifted in from the entrance and the frozen moss crunched under his gentle feet. It seemed impossibly loud as the sounds from outside faded the further in he went. The tunnel was about as wide as it was high, and he had to crouch slightly to avoid his head scraping against the ceiling. Soon enough, the temperature started to rise. He noticed it first when the moss went silent, just softly sinking away and slowly springing back up as he moved on. Ahead, he could see pale dots of light from fluorescent fungi. The dank air carried a musty scent. Oh, how he wished he could just turn around and leave! But no. He must steel himself. Almost there now. Just a little further. He had a duty.
By now, his eyes had fully adjusted, and the dim glow of the mushrooms were more than enough to let him take in the sight as he reached the end of the tunnel. It opened up into a slightly wider and taller space. He took another step forward and straightened his back. Before him lay what appeared to be a large mossy boulder, spotted with clusters of bioluminescence. Except boulders don’t move. This one did. A trickle of cold sweat made its way down the side of his neck. He cleared his throat. It took a few tries before his voice would carry, speaking the ancient words of the ritual he had memorised. Then he fell silent again. Nothing happened. Nervously, he shifted his weight and cleared his throat to speak again, but before he could do so, there was a foreboding tremble in the darkness.
“Who disturrbs my slumberr?” A deep rumbling voice as though the earth itself was speaking filled the cave. He swallowed soundly.
“Warden Berion Silverstrike, grandson of Telbannian Silverstrike.”
There was a pause. The sound of air drawn in. Berion held his breath.
“Too soon! You have awakened me too soon, Silverrstrrike!” The gravelly voice reverberated in the claustrophobic space loud enough to make streams of dirt, sand and dust fall from the low ceiling. The boulder rose from the ground and turned to face him. He stumbled back and hit his head against the edge of the tunnel, hastily stuttering a stream of apologies.
As the inhabitant of the cave moved towards him, he fell backwards. The creature kept moving until it stood over him, one massive clawed paw on either side of him. It turned its grisly muzzle down to inhale his scent, then snorted in his face. The fur that had once been white hung in matted tufts, discoloured by dirt and growth, between the moss and fungi.
“They sent a whelp?” she scoffed. “This had betterr be imporrtant…”
The bear took another step forward. Berion braced himself and shut his eyes tightly. He doubted he would survive getting stepped on. But the bear took another step, kept walking and none of the paws landed on him. As she moved on towards the mouth of the cave, he let out a breath he had not been aware he was holding. That went well. He felt his body go limp with relief. He just lay there in the moss until the bear demanded from outside:
“Well? Explain yourrself!”
He scrambled to his feet and hurried after her.
“Ah, yes, I am so very sorry to wake you before spring, but you see... The orcs have come.”
“The orrcs? All of them?”
“All of them, Shan’do.”
It seemed his words put a new glow in the bear’s eyes, and she set off down the slope at a lumbering but efficient pace. Usually, when she was made to rise out of turn, it was for a crisis. Some new threat to be dealt with. Another generation of foolhardy leaders of the factions finding reasons to butt heads. There was always destruction in the wake of war. The memories of many of the short-lived peoples had no space for balance but could hold a grudge for generations. Still, there had been harmony in the Dream this time. Years of regrowth, not destruction. For once, she left the cave with a rare sense of delighted anticipation.
The world was still a bit fuzzy around the edges after the abrupt end of her long sleep. Step by step, the walk through the snow brought her back into the world, brought her memories back like waves rushing in over the sandy shore.
So much time had passed since that vision of the future, deep in Blackrock Mountain. A future that had become a past. The price had been paid in blood. She had not expected to live through it. Yet somehow, she had done what she did best. Survived against all odds. Too many others had not. She had watched them grow, bud, bloom, seed and wither. She had watched too many be picked, dried up or trampled before their cycle was completed. Such was the nature of things. Telbannian had warned her against befriending humans, told her it would only bring her grief. But what is mourning but the proof of happiness shared? She carried most of her losses gracefully.
When Nomine disappeared, she kept a straight face, or perhaps a mask. She had to be strong. For Syrawenn. For Eileena. For Chit. For those who knew him while there were still gaps in his armour. For Starlight.
When Syrawenn passed, it was almost surprising. Although she had grown old, her hair as white as Ana’s (another twin, Stoen might have said, recalling a conversation by a lighthouse long ago), she still had that defiance of hers, a defiance that seemed like it might even stand up to death itself. In the end, it didn’t. Tikál had been the one to find her. Even years later, when the two of them spoke of her, he would keep coming back to the smile she had on her lips.
Two losses, however, cut deeper, far deeper.
The first one was Shirala, her sister in all but blood. Even after all these years, she had not forgiven herself for not being there to save her. Shirala’s friendship had changed her, helped her learn how to be a person, how to laugh, and, together with Ilastar, how to be a friend among friends. But perhaps her loss had shaped her even more. Taught her to cherish what she had, for she never knew when she might lose it. Taught her a sense of duty, something that set her on so many dangerous paths. Something that made her save so many lives. Maybe even something that in the end kept her alive.
The second was Chit. Over the years, Chit had aged while she had remained the same. Fine lines in her skin deepened into furrows. How often she had watched them while Chit slept and she rested at her feet, keeping them warm with her soft fur? She remembered the mixture of love and dread that would overwhelm her on some of those nights, how this black knot of fear of the inevitable formed in the pit of her stomach and she could not sleep a wink. Her friend would grow old and die. She would still be the same.
Physically.
Nothing could ever be the same without her beloved Kit.
In secret, she had experimented with elixirs of longevity. What if she could extend Chit’s life just a little longer? Just a few more years? In the end, it was not age that killed her. She found one last way to make herself useful. To make a difference in that discrete and efficient way of hers that no one seemed to expect. She had remained ever the uncrowned Queen of Underestimation. No one saw it coming. Not even Ana. While the grief of her loss hit her harder than perhaps anything she had ever been through, it was built on love, respect and admiration, not on guilt and regrets.
The pain had driven her out of Stormwind, not just away from something, but also towards something else. A clearer focus. With that strongest of bonds severed by death, the vision got her full attention.
Oh, if only Chit had been here to see this day…
They reached the foot of the mountain, the old bear and the lanky young warden. Here, a bird chirped in a tall pine, there, a squirrel chittered from the branch of a spruce dressed in heavy white garments. Berion struggled to keep up with her, his feet sinking deeper than the big snowshoe bear paws. Then came the scent of smoke between the trees, and soon after, the sounds of firewood being cut, of cheerful voices speaking in different languages. Darnassian. Common. Orcish. As the camp came into view, a voice of the latter tongue cried out: “Grandmother!” It took her a while to recognize who it belonged to as the young orc rushed towards her. Krisha had been a little girl last time she saw her. Now, she was a woman, all grown up. Had it been that long?
“Come, child. Let me look at you,” she rumbled. The orc stood before her, back straight and proud as those pine trees, dressed in a leather harness with fur over her shoulders, a hatchet in her belt, a leather cord around her neck with a talisman. She remembered the talisman well. She remembered the day Eritis gave it to her along with many other things she had asked him to find. She remembered the day she hung it around Roh’nak’s neck. She remembered the pride in his eyes and his solemn vow: “I’m gonna grow up to be a strong warrior, Ana. This talisman will protect me. And every day, I’ll think of you. I’ll make you proud. Just you wait!” Oh, had he ever… And here it was around the neck of Roh’nak’s descendant, so many generations later. A small trinket can be a powerful symbol.
She nodded with approval and the young woman touched a fist to her heart. No matter how straight and proud she stood, the old bear could see the love shining in her eyes. The joy of reunion. Her own gleamed with the same.
The other orcs flocked around her. One of them approached, leaning heavily on his staff, the orc as old and gnarled as the wood holding him upright. She remembered bouncing him on her lap and singing nursery rhymes to him.
“Grandmother,” he started with a warm, yet formal smile. “Clan Heartfang greets you.”
It had not been without conflict. It had not been without bloodshed. But it had been a dream worth fighting for. The orphans of Shattrath had grown up with less bias than many in the worlds around them. Some of them had gone on their own separate paths, but some had taken to heart a concept brought to them by that one druid who kept coming back: Strength in Unity. They had little to return to in the societies that they have been removed from, most of their knowledge of their cultures came from books and stories, not from life. When they were too old to stay at the orphanage, the druid helped them build a place for themselves. They were only a handful at first, but with time, their numbers grew. She had been there for the birth of the first child.
On that day, she had been dubbed Grandmother.
On that day, the clan took her name.
She could think of no greater honour.
“Is it time?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“It is time. The old settlement is getting crowded. The young ones need their own space.”
“Then tonight, we feast. Tomorrow, we grrow.”
“Looks like you’ve done enough growing, Ana-mom! You’re covered in moss!” a cheeky voice called from way back in the crowd. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Annie!” With some effort, she rose up on her back legs to look over the orcs, Berion hastily stepping out of her way. There. Movement. Someone making their path through the throng of bodies. It did not take long for the elf to weave and elbow her way up to Ana, who, without hesitation, wrapped her in a literal bear hug.
“I figured you’d need some help If you’re going to grow a whole village,” Annie spoke into the fur on Ana’s chest. “Besides, I couldn’t let you wake up without a proper breakfast.”
“Fish?” rumbled the bear, hopefully.
“You know it!” the younger elf replied with a hearty smile as she was released from the embrace. Together, the bear, the elves and the orcs moved towards the camp.

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