Johnny halted beneath one of the great trees of Val’sharah, kneeling to bring his hand to the ground below. His gloved fingertips gently traced the imprints within the soil as his eyes flicked farther down the path, watching the footprints trial off into the thicket. The hunter hummed in approval, wiping his hand onto his greaves as he rose. Beside him snuffled Bjorn, the bear’s great shoulders hunched over as he shoved his nose underneath an exposed root of the tree in search of a snack. Johnny extended his hand to his companion, resting his palm atop Bjorn’s head to grant him a loving scratch. The tip of his finger accidentally nicked one of the boils that had nestled between the creases of the bear’s decaying ear, causing it to ooze pus and mat the fur around the busted wound. Bjorn sighed in what sounded like relief, shaking his head roughly moments after to clear his fur of the liquid.
The pair continued down the road, walking at an almost leisurely pace as they departed from the path. Johnny had been tracking for a few hours now, ensuring that he kept a healthy amount of distance between himself and the party. It had given him time to drink in the serenity of Val’sharah; at least, the sections of the forest that had been untouched by the cardinal corruption of the Nightmare. He was not concerned of losing their trail, as the elf within the group seemed to hold no desire to be untraceable. Perhaps he really is cocky, Johnny mused to himself as he gently slid down a small slope, Bjorn happily plodding along behind him.
Khadgar had hinted this during his talk, of course. Anarchaia, the woman he sought to speak with, would be accompanied by a rather large demon hunter that held no fear of showing his strength, as the Archmage had put. He was uncertain if the two other companions Khadgar had mentioned would be alongside her. The hunter lifted himself over a large root, his mail softly clinking as he landed on the other side. Soon after Bjorn followed, leaving large claw marks within the bark in his wake.
Johnny had thought Khadgar’s request to be oddly timed, but found himself agreeing to it nonetheless. It had allowed him to take a breath from Trueshot Lodge, and perhaps revisit some thoughts he had locked away on his own accord with current events. He felt himself trailing back to his conversation in Dalaran.
“Do you think it wise to have me speak with her? She does not know me in the slightest,” Johnny had inquired.
“I believe you of all people would understand the views of her condition, and could provide her an air of confidence regarding the appearance of her undeath,” Khadgar responded, gently smoothing out his robes.
“Should she have any suspicion as to who you are, simply show her Maalus. She will know of the insignia, and of the rings origins.”
Johnny supposed Khadgar had been correct in his thoughts; there truly was no better person to console someone of their undeath than a person who had experienced the unpleasant revival as well. If the mage would be keen on listening to Johnny’s words, he was unsure, especially if he would be appearing on what was supposed to be Anarchaia’s day off from her duties.
Johnny paused at a small creek, granting himself a glimpse of his own reflection. Over the years the skin of his gaunt face had given way to the bone of his lower jaw. Small flakes of skin would occasionally sluff off and settle to the ground, and his once vibrant eyes had glossed over, seeming to radiate the corruption of undeath rather than the purity of life. His hand rose to gently touch his cheek, lingering over the thinned skin before his fingertips brushed along the coarse texture of his hair. He had spiked it up into a rather profound mohawk, taking great pride in the appearance. As simple as it was, the mundane action of hair styling alone seemed to help remind the hunter that he was still very much alive; albeit in a different way than most.
A low rumble resonated within the chest of his companion, drawing him back to focus. “I do hope this works out for the better, as Khadgar intended,” the hunter murmured, allowing his lips to curve upward in a soft smile as he removed himself from the side of the water.
Bjorn groaned again as he shook his head, ridding himself of an insect that had suddenly taken great interest with his soured ear canal. “I suppose you are right,” the hunter replied, his eyes returning to the forest floor to skim the tracks before him as he continued to walk forward. Bjorn watched Johnny for a few moments longer before sneezing, littering the leaves beneath him with a concoction of mucus and pus. Seeming pleased, Bjorn rose to his feet and proceeded to follow the hunter once again into the great woods.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“It’s incredible that you have the ability to complain about everything…” Anarchaia sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose as her lip twitched in annoyance.
“I’m just saying. It’s your day off from all responsibilities and the one thing you decide to do is…” Grimory trailed off for a moment, his hands moving about the air as if he was seeking to grasp something.
“Work?” Anarchaia offered.
“Work,” Grimory grunted, shaking his head.
The mage shrugged, seeming to take no mind to the demon hunter’s ramblings. It was true; she had always thrown herself into her work. She took great pride in what she accomplished, regardless of if it was for her own personal gain or for those around her. She allowed a quick glance over to the elf, amusement rising within her throat. He was settled beneath one of the great trees of the forest, resting his arms upon his bent knees as he twirled a blade of grass between his fingers.
“I don’t know why you chose to come with me when you knew you would get bored,” mused Anarchaia as she returned her attention to the quill that had been rapidly scribbling notes on a scroll beside her. Upon watching it jot down a line drawn from her own thread of thought, she crinkled her nose and gave her hand a wave, dismissing the idea. The quill quickly slid across the previous words, crossing them out before returning to the forefront of the passage.
“You never know what could happen,” Grimory replied, his attention still stuck upon the blade of grass.
“Because solving an enigma is incredibly dangerous,” the mage chuckled, her hand gently skimming the cool surface of the floating cube before her. It pulsated with a blue aura, its runes softly chiming to those within earshot. Had Anarchaia not known better, she would believe the cube to be a prank; it procured many playful puzzles for those who had managed to unlock it, and nothing more. Some mages believed studying the object to be a waste of time, but she found the process to be rather soothing.
“I just don’t want anything happening to you, all right?” Grimory said, his chest puffing in defense as his eyes rose to look at the mage. Anarchaia felt her cheeks begin to burn at his comment, her fingers pulling down her mask even further to ensure that her face could not be seen.
She looked to the scroll her quill had been working away on, internally reeling at the sight of a small heart drawn on the side of the text. “Quit that!” She quietly hissed, frantically waving her hand in the air as her quill—reluctantly, it seemed—scribbled out the doodle.
“You say something?” Grimory inquired, raising his eyebrow.
Anarchaia turned to face the demon hunter, flustered. “I said—”
In one swift movement Grimory lurched to his feet, pressing his index finger to his lips as his ears twitched ever so slightly; he had picked up on a foreign sound. His other hand instinctively moved to one of his Aldrachi Warblades, his eyes narrowing as he did so. Anarchaia tensed, her hands beginning to tingle with the warmth of an awaiting evocation of fire as she looked in the direction Grimory had begun moving towards.
The elf paused for a few heartbeats in front of the thicket, allowing himself a couple of breaths as he steadied himself. When the figure emerged from the wood, he struck.
A vibrant splash of green dazzled the evening light as a large clang sounded through the air, knocking the demon hunter back a few paces. Even through her mask, it took her a moment to regain her sight from the sudden flash of color. Her mind began to tick as she processed what was before her.
A man clad in black mail armor stood before the pair. The hues of green came from the hand he held above his head, his palm outstretched in a protective manner. It encircled the figure in what Anarchaia could only compare to a turtle shell. She tilted her head, studying the intricate lines that seemed to have imbedded itself within the shell’s surface.
“Sheath your blade, I am a friend.” The man’s voice was calm, bearing a gentle rasp to his words.
“You sure as hell don’t look familiar to me,” Grimory growled, regaining his ground on the man as he drew his second warglaive.
“You don’t know me … directly,” the foreigner began, choosing his words carefully in attempts to diffuse the situation. “I know Khadgar.”
Grimory tensed once again, the muscles of his legs tightening in preparation to bound towards the man once more. “I don’t believe you,” he hissed, narrowing his eyes.
The man moved to grab something from the satchel that had been around his shoulder. Taking zero chances from the unknown item that was about to be retrieved, Grimory lurched forward once more, impacting the shield with full force.
The barrier shattered, its energy dissipating around the man as he stumbled backward. He blinked, regaining himself, but not before Grimory attempted to land another blow. Just as his blade was about to hit his flesh, a large mass tackled into Grimory’s side, shoving him away from the figure and into the ground.
While nothing shielded the man, Anarchaia took a moment to study the stranger. True, upon first glance he seemed to hold human features, and yet …
Anarchaia gasped, bringing her hand to her mouth in shock. Her eyes slid to the decay that flecked his skin and trailed down his neck into the safety of his armor. He wasn’t human. He was undead.
Two guttural growls to her left released her from her initial shock, making her turn to face Grimory. He was in the process of shoving a rather large—and angry—bear off his form, crying out in rebuttal. He disengaged from the beast, landing near the mage. She gave him a quick once over; his skin had hardened, jagged ridges spiking through his skin in a protective manner. The subtle demonic transformation had caused his flesh to turn many shades darker, seeming to make his tattoos burn brighter in contrast.
A sharp whistle was heard within the air, and the beast charged back to the undead’s location, standing in front of him as he drew his mangled lips back in a menacing snarl. Grimory drew back his own, exposing his fangs to the pair that resided in front of him.
“Leave, now,” he hissed.
“Not before my business is finished,” replied the undead.
“Get out of here, Forsaken!” Grimory spat the word with great malice.
The use of the word made Anarchaia jump, her eyes wide. Her heart lurched at such a poisonous tone, and she swallowed hard.
“I need to speak with her,” the undead replied, his tone still calm as his eyes looked over to the mage.
“He may be of no harm,” began Anarchaia, her eyes returning to the bear. He was more grotesque than his master; exposed ligaments could be seen nestled within the thick fur of the animal, and pestilent boils scoured every major surface of its hide. She looked into its dark red eyes, and inwardly felt a wave of uneasiness rise within her chest. Undead hunters were far and few between within Azeroth.
“They are nothing but deceitful creatures. We shouldn’t listen to anything he has to say; nothing good ever comes to someone who chooses to listen to the undead,” growled Grimory, his eyes narrowing.
“I won’t be leaving until I speak with her,” the hunter firmly stated.
“Then I’ll make you leave,” the elf growled as he raced toward the undead once more. While his companion braced himself for the impact of the weapons, maw open wide to release a guttural roar, the hunter shoved his hand into his satchel and retrieved what looked to be a rather small item.
Anarchaia narrowed her eyes, attempting to grant herself a better view of the object. It was a golden ring; set within the peak of its arch resided a decently sized fire opal. As she traced her eyes along the ring’s design, immediate realization smacking into her like a brick wall.
“STOP!” Anarchaia shouted, throwing her hands forward. Almost instantaneously, the ley lines beneath her feet reacted to her request, providing her a surge of power that both thrilled and ignited her veins. She caught Grimory mid charge within her energy, proceeding to shove him back a few feet to where he once was. Grimory, who had been taken aback by Anarchaia’s actions, threw her a puzzled and angered look.
“Do you not realize what that is?” She asked, pointing to the ring. “It’s one of the Savage Hallows.”
Grimory continued to look at her with confusion, causing anger to lace her tone.
“Khadgar made each of the Savage Hallows, granting them to someone reliable to wield,” she impatiently explained, her eyes fixating back to the piece of jewelry. “I have only heard stories and read books about it, but I have never seen one up close!” Her tone rose with excitement as she began taking a few steps forward, completely entranced with the artifact.
“Ana…” Grimory warned, extending a hand to her.
“Hush,” she snapped, continuing to walk forward. “I can handle myself. Anyone who owns one of these rings knows Khadgar incredibly well.” She paused, turning to face the demon hunter. “Trust my judgement.”
Grimory conceded, a heated sigh escaping his lips.
“Who are you?” Anarchaia asked as she halted a few feet away from the undead, ensuring a distance was kept between herself and his companion.
“Huntsmaster Johnny,” the undead began, a soft smile framing his lips. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Anarchaia. We have much to discuss.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Much to Grimory’s chagrin, the Anarchaia and Johnny had spent the remainder of the evening discussing the intricacies of the ring, their personal experiences within the Broken Isles, and all things related to Khadgar. He held no interest in the conversation, and found himself to be incredibly thankful when stars began to speckle the night sky. When he offered to call it a night, the two reluctantly broke their conversation to assist him in setting up camp.
After the initial fire had begun to spit and sputter, Johnny was the first to offer to collect more wood. Bjorn had happily accompanied him into the forest as he collected a small amount of lumber to rekindle the fire, taking the opportunity to scavenge for more insects.
By the time Johnny had returned to the camp, Grimory had been sound asleep. His soft snores rumbled within the still night air, drifting high above the leaves of the trees. He turned his attention to where Anarchaia had been sitting, noticing her absence. He gently clucked his tongue as his eyes scanned the area, drinking in his surroundings. After feeding the flames with more wood, Johnny whistled softly to his companion. With a great yawn, his companion complied, settling himself beside the newfound warmth to doze off. With a quiet sigh, Johnny took off in the direction he had assumed Anarchaia traveled to.
It wasn’t long before he found himself within the field where he had initially met the pair. Before him sat Anarchaia, resting her chin upon her knees as she listlessly gazed at the enigma floating a few yards in front of her. It seemed she had finally unlocked it; the cube’s grid-like patterns fluttered quickly against the grass in an array of color before settling to a matte yellow, hiding the path from all but those who took the time to memorize the design it had created. He stood there for some time, taking in the breeze while the mage continued to mull over what Johnny could only assume to be unpleasant thoughts.
“He doesn’t know, does he?” The hunter gently murmured, making his presence known.
Anarchaia remained still, nuzzling her nose further into her robe. His question had verified her suspicion of why Khadgar had sent him here, leaving her unsure on whether to feel angry, appreciative, or despondent. “No,” she quietly whispered.
Johnny slowly made his way over to her, sitting down at her side. He looked at the cube that silently floated before them, studying its intricacies with the mage before breaking the silence once more.
“In the first few weeks of my undeath, I often wondered what the living thought of me,” Johnny began, a bitter smile framing his lips. “I had already accepted my loss of the friends I had known in life, but I could not bear the thought of having no chance of acceptance among new friends in death.”
“You saw with your own eyes what Grimory thinks of undead,” Anarchaia said flatly.
“Untrustworthy. Deceptive. Nothing good ever comes from us,” she recited, each word seeming to drive deep into her heart as they rolled off her tongue.
“The same words were said about the Illidari upon their release,” the hunter replied, cocking an eyebrow.
“That’s different. The Illidari provide a purpose to this world, regardless of their past,” Anarchaia reasoned, shifting her weight upon the grass.
“The only difference I see is the fact that they were able to choose to become what they are. We, however, weren’t given the opportunity to have a say in the matter.” The hunter leaned back on his palms, tilting his head to the stars above.
Anarchaia sighed, turning her head to look over at Johnny. She rested her cheek gently against her knees, studying him carefully. He wasn’t as battered as some of the other undead she had met during her travels. While his lower jaw seemed to be the primary target of decomposition, the rest of his face mirrored what she assumed he had looked like in life. She gently bit at her own lower lip, testing the skin’s durability. It felt soft. Malleable, like any other lips.
“I am not so sure if Grimory is willing to give me the same acceptance others have shown you,” she murmured.
“You act as if I have never faced rejection with what I am now,” Johnny replied, lifting his arm from beneath him to bat away a small gnat that had been tirelessly buzzing around his face. “As I am sure you know, you begin to figure out who will be accepting of your state and who will not before you even reveal it to them.”
The hunter looked back down at her, a soft smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I think you know the answer as to how he will respond. Maybe you are simply too scared to admit it to yourself. Love is a powerful thing.”
Her head shot up at his comment, heat beginning to flush her cheeks. “I never said anything about love!”
“You didn’t have to,” he smiled.
Anarchaia settled her head back into her lap, disgruntled. She heard him laugh, the noise lifted by the gentle Val’sharah breeze. It sounded genuine; happiness in one of its rare forms. Johnny looked out to the patterned squares from the enigma before them, his grin becoming wider. The hunter stood, his bones ever so quietly creaking in the night as he did so. He turned to her then, extending a hand.
The mage looked at him in confusion; at first she simply sat there looking at his outstretched hand. When he motioned for her to take it once more, she reluctantly moved to do so. He pulled her up, maintaining a gentle grip on her hand.
“Would you care to dance?” He asked.
The question caught Anarchaia off guard, causing her to pause and register if what she had heard was correct. “I’m sorry?” She half-laughed.
“Khadgar is your mentor, no? He must have dragged you to one of his galas at some point,” Johnny mused. “I had to attend a few formal ones with him for the sake of politics. Not particularly my kind of atmosphere, but I really didn’t have a choice.”
“I … don’t really dance.”
“Don’t, or won’t?” Johnny inquired, raising his brow.
Anarchaia gave him a final look, seeming to pause to consider her own thoughts. She shook her head, a quiet laugh trailing from her lips as she did so. “Fine, but there’s no music.”
Seeming satisfied, Johnny playfully tugged her in closer. She awkwardly placed a hand upon his shoulder as Johnny’s free hand moved to her waist. The two began to sway in small circles, shifting places every so often as their feet continued to stamp down the grass.
“I’ve come to find that finding the little things to enjoy in our second life take the bite away from the darkness that lingers,” Johnny murmured gently. “That sometimes here in this grand scheme of things, when we fail to find light, we make some of our own.”
With that, the hunter gripped Anarchaia and swung her outward, causing her feet to land upon the first few tiles of the enigma. Once she had realized what she had done, her body tensed, knowing of the versatile teleport the cube would give to the user should they incorrectly answer its puzzle. The ground where her form had touched glistened with newfound light, a clear chime of a note drifting to her ears in synchronization of the tiles she had stepped upon. Her breath faltered uneasily, a wry smile beginning to play about her lips.
Johnny soon joined her on the luminated platform, seeming to pay no attention to the penalties of an incorrect foot placement. He continued to twirl her, guiding her about a small section of the grid as her grip tightened on his shoulder.
“Many say that all of our worries fade when our existence does,” Johnny began, speaking gently above the notes. “They didn’t take into consideration of it returning in mass with a second chance. It’s important that with some of these moments,” he took a grand step and swung the mage around in an elegant circle, eliciting an immediate response from the grid beneath their feet, “We let go of all of our troubles.”
Anarchaia felt her stomach rise within her chest at the movement, making plans to adjust her footing the moment she landed, but caught herself in her analysis. She listened to his words, seeming to think over each syllable until something within her shifted. An abrupt giggle caught within her throat, lifting her spirits as she gave way to the recklessness of the dance.
She began to anticipate the twirls, finding great delight in setting herself upon the new fragments of the grid as they continued to move. The music of the enigma rose in volume, its melody drifting through the air as its lights continued to rise and twirl around the two undead.
I should be concerned about confiding, perhaps even dancing, with someone I only met hours before, regardless if he’s Khadgar’s friend, she inwardly thought. She watched as another wave of lights rose around the pair, sparkling in time with the music as they continued to dance. Her eyes flicked to the glove that grasped hers, thinking of the withered bones within that mirrored her own. But I’m not, she confirmed.
The darkness that often whispered to her began to recede, if only for this moment. The depression and fear that often seeped into her very bones had begun to diminish, every negative worry she held fading with each step she took with the music. It was something raw she hadn’t felt for quite some time … something that encouraged her to figure out what she desired, what she felt, and how to handle the problems that have always faced her. This moment of uncorrupted bliss provided a window of clarity to the mage. The only thing she had to do was to make everything—
She paused at the noise, looking down at her feet. The two had reached the end of the grid, and were now standing beside the cube itself. It pulsed with a comforting glow, chiming in a way that Anarchaia could only describe as contentment. She looked behind her shoulder, her eyes retracing the path they had taken to reach the enigma. While their dancing had been careless, the lines they made had been precise. They trailed in perfect symmetry, mirroring what she could only assume to be the pattern that it displayed in array of colors an hour before.
“What—” She murmured, smiling to herself, extending a hand to the cube.
Its surface reacted almost immediately to her touch, withdrawing itself to reveal a small compartment that had been hidden within. It opened, revealing a small sapphire gem. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight.
“This is the first time one of these has actually contained something interesting,” she whispered, slowly taking it within her hand. She turned, facing Johnny once more. “I want you to have it.”
The hunter shook his head. “Gems really don’t suit me.”
“Take it,” she insisted, pressing the gem into his palm. “As a thank you.”
“A thank you for what?” He inquired.
“For helping me find a start on how to figure out…” she motioned to all of her, “this.”
Johnny smiled, closing his fingers around the gem. He looked up at the sky, allowing himself a big stretch.
“I left Bjorn with your friend, you know,” he hummed.
Anarchaia paused, pressing her hand to her mouth in worry. The two looked at each other for a moment before saying simultaneously, “We should head back to camp.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~ ~ ~ ~
The next morning, Anarchaia had awoken to the almost overbearing amount of sunlight that shone down upon the makeshift camp. She blinked, rolling her shoulders to further rid herself of the grogginess that clouded her vision. She turned her gaze over to the spot where Johnny had fallen asleep beside Bjorn, and was disheartened to see that the two of them were no longer there.
She was about to wake Grimory so the two could return to Dalaran as a small object within the clearing caught the corner of her eye. Her head snapped back to the spot Johnny was at, standing to move over to the area. Upon the ground was a pouch, small enough to tie to one’s body without much notice. She lifted the pouch, noticing that it was too heavy to be empty.Cautiously, she untied the cord and gently stuck one of her fingers into it. Her index came in contact with a small piece of parchment, to which she retrieved and unrolled.
May this act as your light when needed most.
She blinked, carefully tilting the pouch so it would empty the remaining contents into her hand. Ever so gently the sapphire gem rolled from its encasement and settled itself into the center of her palm, shimmering within the morning rays.