Not having realized the exact distance, the group slows in their progress as the day seemingly wears on them. All but the undead mage, who periodically has to turn to urge them on.
“My paws are killing me,” the shaman laments from the back, his voice radiating from within him rather than his throat. “Ana, slow down.”
She turns and frowns beneath her mask, still lightly jogging backward. “But magic! Learning!” She points at Taveth. “You didn’t take me on your Azsuna trip, so I missed out on that one.”
Eophen chuckles, sweating some in his plate armor but not appearing winded. “Are you sure you are the scholar?” he directs down to Taveth with a playful smirk.
Taveth smiles shyly up at the draenei. “We’re both scholars, really. Ana is more a student, I believe. Though we both share a passion for knowledge, of course. Heh.”
Kel’ori instinctually reaches down to scratch the ghost wolf behind the ear like a dog. “You get used to the walking. Kind of.” She makes a face. “Ugh, I can’t wait to get out of this stench.”
Gildwynn pulls his ears back and leans into the scratch, eyes closing. He blinks his glowing eyes and sniffs at the air. “Stench? I don’t smell nothin’. It actually smells pretty nice here.”
Eophen smiles and sets a hand on Taveth’s head. “I am messing with you.” He musses the elf’s hair to solidify his point.
Taveth flinches as hairs come loose from his ribbon and fall around his face in disarray. “Oh. Heh.” He smiles up at the man, then sets to fixing his hair.
The mage cocks her eyebrow. “You don’t smell that? It’s like a…sickly sweet smell. Like flowers covered in old apples.” She breathes in through her nose and coughs at the smell. “And it’s stuck in my robes.”
Koltira breathes in dramatically and lets it out on a long Aahhh. He smirks over his shoulder. “The perks of a severely diminished sense of smell.”
“There’s nothing to smell,” Taveth says.
The other mage clasps her hands at the small of her back and sways as she continues to walk at a brisk pace, despite being told to slow down. “I don’t smell anything, either,” Anarchaia says a few yards ahead.
“Hard to smell something when you’re thirty miles away,” the wolf calls again, tail low in exhaustion.
Eophen offers the elf woman a helpless shrug. “Perhaps you are ill? Some maladies cause strange smells that do not exist.”
Kel’ori stops and frowns ahead. “Oh… Oohhh. Shouldn’t it just be a stronger smell? But you guys don’t smell anything.”
Taveth shrugs. “I could bring Thal’kiel out and see if he knows anything.”
The mage sneers.
Koltira jogs to Anarchaia’s side and grabs her around the waist, lifting her in the air. He stops walking and leans close. “Your puppy is exhausted. Maybe we can stop for a drink of water?”
Anarchaia kicks her legs gently in surprise, then goes limp in his arms. “And here I thought my dog was dead.”
Gildwynn immediately sits when the others pause for a breath. His form shimmers back to a small goblin reclining in the grass and he lifts a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. “At least it’s not hot here.”
Eophen sits beside him and produces a metal flask from the finely crafted pack at his hip. “Mac’aree is the most temperate of the zones here. It even has flowing water, yet.”
She looks over her shoulder at the tired party and purses her lips. “I’m beginning to miss when it was just you and me.”
Koltira chuckles and nuzzles the cheek of her mask. “I always prefer when it’s just us. But we need their help.”
Kel’ori sets herself gently on a broken pillar base and digs out her sack of bacon. “Mmm. This stuff keeps so well. Would a rat farm be easy to maintain? What would I feed them to make them taste so good?”
Taveth makes a face. “Because that’s not creepy at all… Ana, could I bother you for some ice water?”
Anarchaia gives the death knight an exasperated look he cannot see and simultaneously lifts a hand to conjure a chilled cup of water before Taveth. “It seems more like they need ours,” she drones quietly.
“You’re a life saver.” Taveth smiles.
Koltira’s brow lowers and he sets her down. “Is something wrong? Do you not enjoy the company of your friends?”
Anarchaia blinks, her own behavior suddenly coming into question by herself. “U-uhm. No. Heh.” She shrugs and strides back to the group. “Don’t mention it.”
Gildwynn pulls his eyes away from the couple at the sound of the word rat and looks over at Kel’ori. “Uh…rat bacon?” He turns his look of confused disgust to the draenei.
Eophen laughs. “They are not rats. More like…how do you say…weasels?”
Kel’ori frowns and turns away slightly, suddenly very conscious of her meal. “It’s almost the only thing I don’t vomit back up.”
Gildwynn tilts his head back to look at the mage on the rock. “That bad, eh? I hear soda water really helps.” He clears his throat. “At least…it helped my cousin.”
Eophen looks from the goblin to the elf. “Are you ill? Perhaps you should have stayed on the ship.”
Kel’ori blinks at the draenei, then looks down at the small bump of her stomach as though confirming for herself that it is, indeed, visible. “No. It’s… I’m fine.”
Taveth clears his throat. “So, Eophen, how are you liking being off the ship? For a…whole hour…”
Eophen’s golden eyes briefly follow Kel’ori’s but flick to Taveth’s the second he’s addressed. He smiles, the scars over his lips stretching. “I have not spent my entire life aboard the Vindicaar. Only the past couple months. But it is nice to see Mac’aree again…and that it is in one piece. Mostly.”
Gildwynn’s ears lower. “Imagine if Azeroth were like this…”
Anarchaia lowers to her knees at the edge of the group. “We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Taveth nods with determination. “I refuse to let my little sister live in a broken world such as this.”
Kel’ori hums in agreement. “Diori is too sweet for this shit.”
“If you’re all rested enough…” Koltira says, eyes scanning their surroundings.
Anarchaia quickly rises to her feet once again at the sound of Diori’s name. She scowls beneath her mask. “Yes, let’s keep a move on.”
Gildwynn groans. “Where do you get all this energy from?” He stands and again shifts into a ghastly wolf, following the mage as she trudges off.
Eophen gives the Nightheart pair a helpless shrug. “Impatient, that one.” He stands and offers Taveth a hand up.
Kel’ori whimpers and pushes to her sore feet. “I feel like my shoes shrunk.”
“Do you need to go back?” Koltira asks, pausing in case he needs to escort her.
“No, I’ll be fine. I just want to stop hurting in weird places. And stop being hungry…for rats. And to stop smelling that gods-awful smell! Seriously, how can none of you smell that?”
The spectral lupine pricks his ears at the conversation behind him, then returns to push himself into the backs of Kel’ori’s knees until she falls onto his back. “Just you, girlie. I don’t smell nothin’.” He trots off after Anarchaia, biting his tongue on how much heavier she feels.
~ * ~
After a long while the group approaches a raised area surrounded by ornate, crumbling walls. Within the entrance stands a draenei mage, hands on her hips and thinking aloud to herself in her native language. She starts when addressed by Anarchaia.
“Oh! Adventurers. Hello! I was just trying to get this construct back up and working. It most likely holds important information on the Sigil of Awakening, but…I cannot seem to get it working. Would you be interested in helping me?”
Kel’ori hops off the wolf and sits to hug him. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that. Let’s see if I can conjure some water for you.” She swishes a hand through the air. Water splashes down in front of them, leaving fish slapping at the cobblestone. She deflates and sets her hands in her lap. “I tried.”
“Heh. That’s cool. Not a big deal. Don’t stress it.” Heart filled with pity, the wolf gently bends down to lick the water from the blades of grass.
Koltira nods at the draenei. “That’s what we’re here for. What can we do?”
“We once stored great quantities of energy in conduits throughout the Conservatory. They are still functional, but only just. My device has enough magic to stabilize eight or so, which should be enough to access the whole network. Take it.” She holds out a brightly glowing crystal.
Koltira makes a face. “I’m not touching that. No offense, but the last thing I touched that looked like that burned my hand. Is there anything else you’d like help with while we’re at it?”
Y’mera nods as she offers the crystal to Eophen. “The area has been overrun by panthara, attracted here by the magic of the Wakeners. You cannot avoid killing them, so you may as well see if you cannot reclaim some of the power they have…consumed.”
Anarchaia fidgets, both restless and reserved. “I may not like large animals but I certainly don’t like killing them just as much.”
Eophen pockets the crystal and gives an apologetic smile to the undead woman. “We are really doing them a favor. If we do not cull their numbers, not only will they attack adventurers, but they will outgrow their food source.”
Anarchaia pouts. “Don’t logic me.” She makes her way across the courtyard.
Koltira shrugs. “I thought you preferred logic.”
Anarchaia whirls to look at Koltira with an exaggerated scowl on her face. She simply points at him and opens her mouth, then huffs and turns back around to regretfully blast a panthara with numbing ice until it is completely encased.
Kel’ori frowns as the others pass and abruptly stands, sweeping past the spectral wolf to follow them.
Gildwynn gives the elf woman a fleeting glance before following.
Taveth jumps when he looks up from sketching the construct to find the others leaving without him. He runs to catch up, nose still in his book as he puts some finishing touches on it.
Eophen takes his cue and rushes forward with his hammer. He whispers a quiet apology in Draenei before smashing the beast to frozen pieces. “Eh. Perhaps I am with small mage on this one.” Not even before he finishes his thought, a second panthara leaps onto his armored back to bite at his neck and ear. He growls and throws the animal over his shoulder, then bashes its skull with the pommel of his weapon. He chuckles, panting. “Never mind.”
The goblin bounds forward, form shaping back. He lifts a hand and a stream of water bursts from the center before surrounding the draenei. “Sorry. Heh.”
Eophen gives the much smaller man a thumbs up as his wounds close. He turns to swing at more oncoming beasts attracted by the commotion.
Koltira gives Anarchaia’s bicep a gentle squeeze, then runs to a large gathering of beasts. He drops a red ring of decay, then reaches up and makes a fist. Purple tendrils snake out to grab all nearby pantharas and drag them in front of the death knight.
“Efficient,” Taveth mumbles, sketching out a panthara in his book.
Kel’ori purses her lips and musters all her determination. She forms a large orange ball in her palms, glaring at the color. When she releases it, she teleports forward into the collection of beasts before Koltira; the orange ball shoots strait up in the air, then falls back down and shatters, spraying harmless sparks over Taveth and Anarchaia.
“That’s not what I wanted to do!” the mage shouts and runs to use Koltira as a shield.
Anarchaia cringes away from the sparks, then relaxes and shoots Taveth a look of utter bemusement, hoping he can feel her irritation through her mask. She turns just in time to see the golden, glowing gem being tossed her way.
“Catch!” Eophen calls before another beast leaps upon him. “The essence!”
Instinctively she closes her fingers around the bauble, then yipes and drops it to the grass.
Gildwynn, again on paws, sweeps by to grab the item in his teeth. “Butterfingers,” he laughs, then holds the trinket over the shattered panthara; a small amount of purple energy lifts from the center of the pieces and flows into it. He shifts back to throw a cloud of healing rain over both Eophen and Koltira—pendant still in his teeth—before returning to his wolf visage and running to push Kel’ori onto his back again lest she get herself into more danger. Kel’ori squeals and holds on tight as the wolf carries her away.
Koltira drags the beast from Eophen’s shoulders and slams it to the ground with the rest. When the final panthora drops dead to the ground, he lets out a breath. “Was that enough?”
Taveth strides past to an energy conduit. He finds the panel on the side an pops it open. “Looks like a job for an engineer.” He smiles at Eophen, then remembers Gildwynn. His eyes bounce between the two. “Whoever…wants to…”
The goblin pulls his ears back some. “Kinda babysittin’ here,” he says more to Eophen than anyone else.
After a small thank you to Koltira, the draenei gives a humored smile to Gildwynn and makes his way over to the conduit. He sets his hammer down to bend at the knee and peer inside. He tsks when he has to force his large fingers into the small space, then grins and sits back when it whirs to life. “Simple, really.” He chuckles and takes up his hammer to trot toward the next.
Kel’ori scrambles to stand beside the wolf, cheeks pink as she straightens her robes. “I don’t require babysitting. I can take care of… Wait for me!” she calls and trots after the draenei.
Koltira drags a panthara away from a conduit and keeps its attention. “Let’s move this along.”
Once all the conduits are fully restored and enough essence to make the crystal glow brightly is gathered from the defeated panthara, the party returns to the opening of the amphitheatre. The construct remains quiet when exposed to the full crystal. Archmage Y’mera gives it a swift kick and the head and arms slowly raise accompanied by an electrical hum.
“I am restored,” the Vigilant says in a low voice.
The Archmage deflates. “Oh, no. I know that voice.”
“Exile Y’mera,” the Vigilant drones. “Conservatory resources are not available to one of your… Status.”
“But what of them?”
The machine sighs. “I’m technically obligated to allow newcomers to attempt the trials.”
“Please, tell us of these trials,” Taveth says, pushing up his spectacles with a knuckle as he readies his journal.
Vigilant Quoram sighs and tells the party about the three challenges they must pass: tenacity, cunning, and mastery. “At the opposite end of the Conservatory you will find a large structure. Once inside, your goal is to overcome all the obstacles placed before you. Emerge unscathed and I will be forced to consider your will strong enough to proceed,” he says about the first. He takes a deep breath and continues. “The path to the left will take you to a set of three statues. Use them to collect a Mark of Cunning. To preserve the integrity of this trial, I will not be able to provide hints. If you do, by some miracle, happen to succeed, I will formally recognize your…” he eyes Taveth, “brilliance.”
The high elf frowns as he notes the doubtful tone in the construct’s voice.
The Vigilant shifts and continues. “You will fight what remains of Archimonde’s greatest pupils. These three once held such power in their own disciplines that the Conservatory remembers them now. Their echoes will try to kill you. Best all three with all your limbs intact and I will recognize your strength.” He points a metal finger at Y’mera. “You will stay here and stay out of the trials.”
The draenei purses her lips, then shrugs. “These other-worlders can handle themselves.”
Koltira shoulders his sword and nods to the lightforged woman. “We’ll return swiftly.” He leads the others to the left and stops at three statues. “Okay, bookish ones. Cunning. You’re up.” He motions for the two mages and Taveth to step up to the stone book.
Anarchaia turns toward the death knight. “Actually, why don’t you and Eophen go attempt the trial of mastery? Taveth and I will solve this puzzle, and Kel and Gil can go try out tenacity?” She shrugs. “Might be quicker?”
The goblin furrows his brow and sets his weight on a hip. “I don’t fancy myself the tenacious type.” He glances up at Kel’ori, then looks away. “But if you’re down…?”
Koltira shrugs and motions at the draenei. “Lets go smash things, I guess. Good luck.” He sets his hand on the small of Anarchaia’s back just before leaving, then nods at the other pair.
Kel’ori smiles nervously. “As long as it doesn’t require my magic, I’m sure we can do it. Good luck, Tav.” She pats his shoulder and he jumps.
The elf looks up from the trial tablet. “Oh. People are leaving? What’s happening?”
The undead woman gives him a smile as Koltira leaves, though it immediately disappears at Taveth’s lack of attention. “Would you rather I just do this whilst you sketch?” She looks at the three pillars, each accompanied by a different colored, glowing rune, then past them at the three gateways, each with a rune of unmatching colors.
Taveth’s eyelids lower in irritation for a split second before he turns to the mage. “The Triad.” He lifts his journal to read from what he’d just written. “Augari are we and this is our task. Our hands bear the answers if only you ask. Two together can open the way. Three at one time will keep you at bay.” He points with the end of his pen to the stone slab which holds a book carved from stone. “I translated it while you were ordering the others about.”
Anarchaia bristles, straightening. “Actually, your translation is hardly necessary.” She folds her arms. “The three runes here are primary colors. The others are secondary. Just grab the two that make up the lock’s color and I’m sure it’s bound to open.” She holds out her hands before the red statue, then the blue—the two runes swirl around her head. She taps her chin as she makes her way toward the purple rune. “A five-year-old could figure this out, I’m certain.”
Taveth purses his lips and waits until the mage returns from the building with the purple sigil. “Did you and Koltira have a fight? Is that why you’ve been so…short with everyone since we got here?” He combines yellow and red, taking the orange sigil in his palm.
Anarchaia blinks, then deflates and shrinks some with her arms folded neatly below her bust. “N-…no. I just—” She sighs and hesitates. “You wouldn’t understand.” She takes up yellow and blue sigil and makes for the green doorway. “I’m sorry.”
Taveth frowns and jogs after the mage once he’s secured the orange sigil’s item. “Try me. You’re my friend, Ana. Even if I don’t understand, I’d still like to help.”
Anarchaia bends to pull the item from the newly unlocked and final chest. She brings her lips in to chew on them, then gives Taveth a long, reserved stare when she stands again. “I…” She frowns. “Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
Taveth nods emphatically. “Of course! What kind of friend would I be if I couldn’t keep a secret?”
The undead woman fidgets with her fingers and looks anywhere but at him. “I’ve… We’ve…been trying. For a child.” She rubs at her upper arm. “I figured if he and Ali…” She shakes her head and furrows her brow. “And every time I see that little girl—hear her name—I just… Rrgh!” The toe of her heeled boot collides with the recently unlocked chest and it jostles. Her fists clench. “It’s not fair.”
Taveth’s brow knits and he frowns. “Grim and Ali were alive when she had Dio— Sorry.” He shrugs and toes a small pebble. “I’m sorry. I wish you luck, but…” His eyes tear away from her as he resists saying the truth out loud, as though keeping it quiet will change anything.
Anarchaia finally looks over at him, already somewhat offended by what he could possibly say. “But…?”
Taveth’s frown deepens. “Everyone knows the undead can’t…reproduce. I know you of all people must know it.”
Anarchaia’s fists clench and she straightens. “I know,” she simply hisses and turns, item tucked beneath her arm, to angrily stride away back toward the entrance to the amphitheater.
Taveth flinches and ducks his head. “Then why did you have me say it,” he mumbles under his breath as he slowly follows.
Anarchaia is silent for only a moment before spinning on him again. “And for your information, I wasn’t talking about Diori,” she growls in a low tone and turns back.
Taveth opens his mouth and takes a contemplative breath, then closes it and purses his lips. “Then who are you talking about?”
Anarchaia pauses, for a second wondering if she should retain the information as a sort of payback. Instead she looks over her shoulder and lowers her voice. “Don’t tell him, but it was hers and Kolt’s. Okay? After he died.” She scowls and purses her lips, biting back something else vile to say. “So yes, there is a small glimmer of hope.” She turns back around.
Taveth stops. “How? That’s…not possible. At all. Is it?” He pads after her, a sudden curious excitement making him twitch anxiously. “What happened to it? How long did it survive? Is it still alive?” He claps his hand over his mouth as he realizes he’s nearly shouting.
Anarchaia hisses for him to be quiet as she again turns around. She gets closer. “No. And…” She frowns beneath her mask. “I-I don’t know if that’s for me to tell you.” She shakes her head. “Besides, I’m already sick of talking about it,” she snaps, jealousy again bubbling within her more than ever.
Taveth flinches again and steps away from the mage. “Oh. Okay.”