The light from the fountains surrounding the Temple of the Moon shines up the pillars in the dark of the morning. Koltira wiggles his arm on Anarchaia’s shoulder as though rousing her, though they’re already up and walking. “Look. We’re nearly there.”
Anarchaia sways in place as they walk and she smiles. “That took longer than I anticipated, but still probably faster than the shortcut I’d suggested.” She steps aside as a night elf man on a mare trots by, nodding down at them as he does so. The ground rumbles as they near the temple square and she purses her lips. “That’s…probably not good.”
As they round a bend, Koltira stops, gaping at the destroyed garden, where the corruption has completely overtaken the land. “It’s worse here than we’ve seen before. Let’s see if we can help.”
The mage gives a nod and heads up the hill covered in black and crimson mist. Vines pierce the soil, whipping every which way; they attempt to grab any wildlife that ventures too close. Anarchaia jerks out of the reach of one as it nearly grabs her. “Ugh,” she groans, “I’m not sure how my fire will fare but I’ll try my best.”
Koltira withdraws his blade and nods his agreement. “Well, they are plants…I think.” He leads her to a night elf within the circle of the temple.
“Who are you? What do you want?” a night elf asks suspiciously.
“I’m Koltira and this is Anarchaia. We’re here on official business, but you seem to have a corruption problem. Is there anything we can do to assist you?”
His eyes narrow. “I suppose you could help outside. But what is your business here?”
“We’re looking for Tyrande and Ysera.”
His eyes narrow further. “You can start with the problem outside.”
Anarchaia nods eagerly. “Of course. What is it you need done?” she calls over the loud commotion of temple guardians and their clash with the invading demons. “Besides the obvious. And if we help you, will you tell us where to find Whisperwind and the Dreamer?”
The night elf looks nervously at them. “Prove you’re trustworthy, and I may…”
Koltira nods. “Good enough for us.” He heads back outside to help fight back the corruption.
Anarchaia sighs and follows. “I hate not being trusted. Makes me feel…dirty.” She burns the vine as it makes another attempt to snatch her up as they pass. It withers and dies in a smoldering heap and she smiles. “Oh, good!”
Koltira chuckles. “I’m used to not being trusted. All right, let’s just…start cleaning up, I guess.”
The two make short work of dispatching the malicious vines and returning green life to the tainted soil and roots. The beds of flowers sprout anew and the grass stands tall as the nightmare is purged from their petals and leaves. Anarchaia claps her hands together in a job well done. “That was so easy it’s a wonder they needed any help at all.”
Koltira purses his lips at the forest beyond. “Maybe it keeps coming back…” He shakes his head and takes her hand to return to the night elf. “We have cleansed the temple grounds—”
“For now.” The elf sighs in contemplation. “I sent a messenger to ask about you. You were asked to help us, it’s true, but one of our druids never responded. Thaon, at Moonclaw Vale. Could you please journey there and perhaps help rid that area of corruption, too? If you do this for me I will see to it that all in Val’sharah aid you in every way that you need.”
Koltira cocks an eyebrow at Anarchaia. “Well?”
Anarchaia smiles up at him, squeezing his palm with her fingers. “This is your mission. Even if it weren’t, I’d follow you anywhere.”
The night elf crinkles his nose and walks away, wanting to hear no more.
A gentle smile curves along his lips. “All right, then. I guess we’re backtracking. We can take your shortcut, if you like. Or you can take us straight to Lorlathil since that is a thing you can do…” He gives a toothy grin.
Anarchaia pushes her mask up to tap on her chin in faux thought. “Hm. That thing I do. Mmyes, perhaps.” She turns back to him with a coy grin. “For a price.”
“I’m being charged?” He feigns insult. “I would think my company was payment enough! Or am I mixing up my words… Punishment. That’s the one.” He shrugs and smiles down at her. “What’s your price?”
“Your company is enough. And it’s certainly not a punishment. Think of it as collected interest.” She turns and leans up as best she can, gesturing to her puckered lips with a finger.
Koltira chuckles as he wraps an arm around to lift her off her feet and plant several small pecks on her lips. “I hope that is enough to keep my debt satisfied?”
Anarchaia titters and dangles her feet until they find the ground again. “Hm. Mayhaps. We’ll see.” She pulls her mask back down and wraps her arms around his waist. “Don’t let go or you may leave parts behind or the two us could be irreversibly melded into one being that knows nothing but a life of pain and suffering!” The two disappear in a flash of light.
When they reappear, the lower lid of one of Koltira’s eyes is raised. “Always read the fine print…”
Anarchaia takes his hand and chuckles. “I’m only joking. Come, time is of the essence. Unless you’ve a reason for a break here.”
Koltira jerks his thumb at the inn. “Could always visit the spot I nearly died last night. Take flowers. Mourn. Lovely things like that.” He chuckles and urges her to the path out of town.
Anarchaia places a hand over her heart as she follows. “Yeah, no. I’d rather…not relive that. Heh.” The two saunter along the path until they come upon a small pond, the water still as glass. “Pretty,” she mumbles as they near.
“I bet this was beautiful in the moonlight last night.” He smiles at her, wishing he could reach up to brush her hair to the side and see her smile.
Anarchaia nods. “Perhaps we can return here after your assignment. Have wine and listen to the crickets. Watch the lightning…bugs…” She trails off as she notices something in the water. “Do you see that? A light in the water. Or am I crazy?”
He furrows his brow at the pond. “If you mean that purple glow just there, then no, I don’t see anything.” He winks, then steps right up to the edge to peer into the clear water. Koltira wades into the water to grab at the item, then searches through the silt for more, his hand frantic in the sediment. When he finds nothing, he holds up his find. “Alisbeth’s Maw of the Damned.”
“They’ve been through here, then.” She folds her arms, hugging herself. Her brow then furrows in disgust. “Do you think they’re just moving on as though she didn’t attempt to murder you? But why would she leave her axe…?”
Koltira shakes his head as he gets back to shore. “I’d thought something had happened to her… This was the only thing down there, though.” He stares at the axe in his hands, avoiding meeting Anarchaia’s eyes. “How screwed up am I that I panicked over the thought…even after what she did.” He shakes his head and sticks the head of the axe spikes-first into the ground.
Anarchaia sobers, a plethora of emotions coursing through her at once—sadness, sympathy, jealousy, concern. She places a reassuring hand on his breastplate and shakes her head. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You still love her. What she did doesn’t change that.”
“Would you mind sending that…wherever?” He rubs his mouth. “Don’t be mad if Grimory continued on. Trust me, this mission is priority number one. Even if I had died, I’d expect him to finish. It’s that important, Ana.”
“Of course,” Anarchaia mutters as she pulls the axe from the ground. It lifts into the air and disappears in a flurry of sparkles. “I’m…not angry with him. I’ll be honest, I’m angry with her.” She clenches her fists. “I’m not a wrathful person, Koltira, but if I see that woman I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Koltira takes her hands in his and kisses her knuckles. “I know. Neither do I.” He guides her back to walking, heading for Moonclaw Vale. “But if you think you’re going to do something you’ll regret, don’t do anything. Just imagine Khadgar giving you that scowl of his.” He sets his face in a scowl as close to the Archmage’s as he can. “Ana, I’m disappointed in you…” he says, trying to mimic the human’s voice.
Anarchaia smiles and gives a dry laugh at his imitation, then frowns and looks away. “He’s already going to do that. I’ve honestly been anticipating a peck on the back of my head.” She groans. “I’ve only seen him truly angry once. This… He’s going to be furious.” She sighs. “But you’re right. I’ll restrain myself.”
He reaches over to stroke a reassuring thumb across her cheekbone, then frowns. “Damn your mask. Don’t worry about it. I really don’t think he’s going to be that angry. What were you supposed to do? Let me die just because you’re not supposed to bring others into the Hall?” Koltira shakes his head. “Then again, I might be biased since it was my life at stake.”
She purses her lips and swallows. “Technically, yes,” she mutters. “But, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe he’ll be in a good mood and I’ll get off easy.” She shakes her head. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” She glances up at the path ahead. “Speaking of bridges…”
Koltira purses his lips and furrows his brow as he takes in the area. Corruption totems lie shattered on the ground. Demon corpses litter the area, their bodies broken and burned. A night elf sits weeping at a cave entrance a distance from the two. “The only thing that would make those two’s presence more obvious is a lit sign saying ‘Alisbeth and Grimory were here.’” He shakes his head. “Let’s go talk to her. Ask what happened here.”
Anarchaia chuckles despite the chaos before them and nods. She trots up the path and kneels down to the sobbing woman curled up on her knees. “Excuse me, miss,” she says quietly, a hand on her shoulder. “We’re here to help. Are you in trouble or need of anything?”
Evelle looks up at the mage, startled by their presence. She shakes her head and sniffles, wiping her cheek. “No. A couple adventurers were here earlier to aid. Thaon… He’d fallen victim to the Nightmare. They…they had to…” She breaks down again. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. There’s nothing for you here. Please, tell the others of Thaon’s fall.”
“I fear his fall is only the beginning,” Koltira says low as he leads Anarchaia away. He growls in frustration. “We doubled back for nothing. We’re wasting time.”
“I can teleport us back to the temple. We can give them word of Thaon and they’ll tell us where Ysera and Tyrande are.” She frowns at this irritation. “It’ll be okay. Not sure what the time limitation is but I’m sure we’ll make it…”
We may already be too late. Koltira nods at the mage’s suggestion. “Let’s get going, then.”
Anarchaia nods and wraps her arms about him again, her forehead clunking against his armor before they disappear yet again. The night elf guard from earlier recognizes them and steps forward. “That was quick. What word have you from Thaon?”
“Dead,” Koltira says somberly. “The Vale is cleansed, but he succumbed to the corruption. Another pair of adventurers took care of everything.”
The elf grows grave. “This is sad news, indeed. But a bargain is a bargain. You can find Tyrande a half days’ walk just up the path at Starsong Refuge. Take care, the corruption grows more treacherous the deeper you travel into it.”
Anarchaia nods. “Thank you, kind sir.” She turns and continues on up the path, once again dodging the vine from earlier. She stops to look at it, brow furrowed in amazement and horror. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Let’s just hurry,” he says. Koltira takes her hand and pulls her along, doing what he can to not remain in one place for too long.
~ * ~
It takes hours of walking, and by the time they find Starsong Refuge, Koltira has had about enough of creeping vines and hostile creatures that would otherwise just mind their own business. He picks Anarchaia up by the waist and moves her to his other side as yet another vine comes creeping onto the road for her ankle. “Either you’re made of plant food, or they’re attracted to your magic.”
Anarchaia gives an embarrassed grin and shrugs helplessly. “Well, I’m a corpse so technically I am plant food. Heh.” She burns another vine as it snakes closer. “But the latter may be more accurate.” A druid eyes them warily as they approach the small encampment. He asks them their business and Anarchaia gives the most genuine smile she can, though no one can see it. “We were told Tyrande was here. May we speak to her?”
The druid blinks, then smiles. “Oh, you must be the two I was hearing about. She’s just inside.” He motions at a cave behind his tent.
“Thank you,” Koltira says, bending at the waist in a respectful bow. He sets a hand on the small of Anarchaia’s back and guides her to the cave.
Tyrande kneels in the corner, her face grave. “Hello, travelers. I hope you do not need anything from me. I was just leaving…something has happened.”
“I know,” Koltira says. “Ysera is—”
“No… My beloved has been taken by Xavius!”
Anarchaia’s face falls. “Malfurion was taken?” She clenches her fists and squares her shoulders in determination. “We’ll help you find him! Where do we start?”
“A scout found feathers stuck in pools of blood. They are from my husband, I know it. Come, we will follow that trail.” Tyrande pauses in the mouth of the cave to look down at the two. “Thank you so much for your help. It means a lot to me.” She sweeps from the cave with grace befitting her reputation.
Koltira nods. “This is a complication I didn’t foresee. It’s very worrisome.” He sighs down at Anarchaia.
“It really is. I sincerely hope he’s all right.”
“Have I told you recently how much I appreciate your company on this mission?”
Anarchaia flushes and waves a hand, smiling to herself. “That’s very sweet. I’m just happy to be of some help.” She turns to look up at him as they follow Tyrande. “And I like being with you.”
Koltira smiles at the mage. “Your presence helps this all seem…not quite as terrible as it really is.”
Tyrande bends to inspect a pool of blood with feathers in it. “This way. Into the village. We should split up to cover more ground.” She indicates a fork in the road and takes off down the left fork while pointing them down the right.
Anarchaia’s smile widens and she turns away as though he may see her blush more. Her grin fades, however, when she sees the pool of blood and familiar feathers floating atop it.
“Let’s hurry before anything happens to him.”
She nods dutifully at Tyrande and ties her robes at her hip so they may progress quickly. “Let’s go.”
“Tyrande! Where are you?” Malfurion’s voice echoes through the forest.
Koltira pauses. “Where did that come from?” He scans the area, scrutinizing the dilapidated houses. “Let’s look inside those. You get the one on the left.” He rushes for the house on the right.
Anarchaia nods again and blinks to the open doorway. She gasps when she sees Malfurion himself, kneeling below the banister to the stairs and bound in malicious vines.
“Where is Tyrande…?” he breathes as though exhausted.
Anarchaia rushes to kneel beside him. “She’s fine. Don’t worry, I’ll untie—” The Archdruid suddenly disappears in a cloud of choking smoke. “An illusion?!” The mage coughs. Her knees leave the floor as gnarled hands wrap about her throat.
After a quick search, Koltira surmises the house is empty, save the corrupted roots reaching through the floor and warping the walls. He goes outside. Realizing Anarchaia is not waiting for him, he goes to check.
“Ana!” He runs in, unsheathing his sword and throwing decay beneath the satyr holding Anarchaia over the floor by her throat. He swings his blade to take off the creature’s arm and free the mage.
Anarchaia scrambles to her feet. “It was an illusion,” she coughs, kicking the detached arm away and sending fire at the monster’s feet.
The satyr succumbs quickly to their attacks and falls, still and bleeding.
“Did you find anything?”
Koltira shakes his head. “No. Let’s keep moving, though. Those shouts came from somewhere.”
“The shouting could be an illusion, too,” she responds, making her way back outside and continuing on to the next seemingly abandoned home.
“So, what you’re saying is, don’t trust our eyes or ears and assume everything is an illusion…” He rubs both palms down his face. Glancing over his fingertips, he jumps, and runs to Malfurion, who is trapped in a tangle of vines and reaching out for help. When the death knight gets there, Malfurion’s form dissolves into a night elf, already dead on the ground. Koltira growls. “This is stupid!”
Anarchaia covers her mouth with her fingers, resisting a giggle at his expense. She sighs down at the druid as she approaches. “Indeed it is.” She cocks her head as yet another groan for help breezes through the air. “We may as well check them all, though. Better to be too careful than not enough.”
Koltira withdraws his sword and holds it in one hand while he takes Anarchaia’s hand in the other. “Careful.” He motions down the path ahead, which is filled with corrupted moonkin and lasher flowers, pacing in their torment. Near the end of the path lies another Malfurion, face down in the leaves beside the red lake. “Well, it’s a good thing these are all flammable.”
Anarchaia grins and nods. “Truer words have never been spoken.” She releases his hand to run a few paces ahead. Arms outstretched, a vortex of flame spirals out in all directions with her at its center, burning vines, lashers, and corrupted foliage to ash. The flames flutter into cinders as they subside and she makes her way to the bound Malfurion with caution in her steps. His visage fades to that of another slain elf and she gives a grunt of disapproval. “This is stupid.”
Koltira puts his arm around Anarchaia’s shoulders. “Yes. But as you said, it’s better to be too careful than not enough. Just…don’t get your hopes up, I suppose?” He steers her away from oncoming tainted satyrs, leading her to the lake. He sets his foot on the surface and a sheet of ice spreads out beneath him. “Come on, short cut.”
Anarchaia allows herself to be led where normally she’d complain he’s being too pushy. She takes his hand and follows him across the red water. “I wonder how Tyrande is faring.”
“Let’s see if we can find her in this mess.” He steps onto the bank and helps her up the little muddy hill. “I hope that one is an illusion,” he says, pointing at a Malfurion who seems to be dead. “We’ll find Tyrande after we check.”
Sure enough, once he touches the Malfurion an image of Xavius appears and laughs down at them. “Sorry! No luck here.” He fades into nothing along with the Malfurion illusion.
Koltira’s brow lowers in annoyance. “I hate this place.”
Anarchaia swallows at the sight of the Nightmare Lord as though his presence brings her discomfort. “Me, too.” She glances about looking for more leads, then points at one more apparent visage near the entrance to a dense thicket. “One last try before we give up and drown ourselves in the lake?”
Koltira lets out an exasperated breath and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Okay. Okay. One more. Then we find Tyrande… Then we can pretend to drown for as long as you find it to be a fun activity.”
Anarchaia chuckles and trots over to the unconscious Malfurion who, as expected, disappears. Xavius’ visage laughs at their misfortune and fades into nothingness. Anarchaia blinks and smiles. “Okay, now we can kill ourselves.”
Koltira sets two fingers at his neck and two at hers. “Oh, would you look at that. Done and done. Onto Tyrande, then?”
Anarchaia chuckles again and gives a tired nod. She takes him by the hand and leads him back down the trail. “I sincerely hope she’s had better luck than we.”
Koltira spots Tyrande a short way up the path on the other side of a bridge. She’s shouting, but at the distance he can’t make it out. He picks up his pace, trusting that Anarchaia will keep up. When they reach the priestess, he follows her gaze and stops. We’re too late. Hovering in the air before them is Ysera, red and black rather than green as the corruption has seeped into her heart and consumed her. He sets his jaw, knowing what must be done—what he was ordered to do.
Anarchaia stops dead in her tracks as she catches up. It takes moments for her to understand what she’s seeing before she shakes her head. “No… Gods, no,” she whispers, tears springing to her eye. “Is this—… How? Why?”
A shadow of Xavius laughs across the river. “I’ve got your beloved, priestess. You can come save him or…” He waves his hand and Ysera roars, then flies away. “You can go and save your precious temple.”
“No!” Tyrande shouts as the shadow fades from the world. She buries her face in her hands.
Koltira sets a tentative palm on her shoulder. “I have my orders, Tyrande… And they’re not for your husband.”
Tears moistening her mask, Anarchaia gives Koltira an incredulous glance. “But Malfurion!”
Koltira takes the mage’s hands in his. “Ana, we have to save the temple. And I have my orders. I’m sorry.”
Tyrande nods. “He is right. We must save the temple.” She bites back tears and begins the March back to the temple.
Anarchaia sniffles and looks frantically between Koltira and the High Priestess. Finally she nods. “Yes. Yes, okay.” She chases after Tyrande. “I can teleport us!”
“Do it,” Koltira says.
Anarchaia grabs Tyrande’s hand as well as Koltira’s and swallows hard. You know you can’t teleport three people. No! I have to try! If I open a portal, demons may follow through. “Don’t let go,” she reminds them and grits her teeth. The trio disappear in a flash of light. When they reappear, the mage stumbles to a knee, bracing herself with her hands on the ground.
Koltira drops to a knee and sets his hands on Anarchaia’s shoulders. “Are you okay?”
The mage shakes her head. “I’m fine, just go and—” She pauses, then looks up at him, eyes wide. “What does your assignment call for you to do?” she asks through her daze.
Koltira purses his lips. “You have to promise not to interfere.”
Anarchaia furrows her brow and attempts to stand up quickly. “N—!” She stumbles again, the mana drain weighing heavily on her. “Koltira, no,” she breathes, reaching for his greaves. “Don’t…you dare.”
“Ana, stay back here.” He backs away from her and runs to the temple. His feet freeze in place as he sees druids and elves all fighting to protect the temple from Ysera’s rampage. “Gods forgive me.”