Even as a fallen paladin of the Stormwind Order, she knew she could never trust a warlock, let alone anything further. There was no fanaticism to it - her reasons were her own. Yet the chance to se...
It had been a fitting end to their conversation, telling of what lay ahead. When he had confronted her to demand the truth of her findings at the Monastery, she had never expected things to go toward such a direction. Yet truthfully, she could not think of any other way. Zantharus Mashem was a driven man, if anything. He would no doubt spend his last breath restoring his House from the cursed rubble of Lordaeron.
She considered his words once more as she worked through the rope-knot, untying her horse from where he lazily grazed, nipping at the buds in the courtyard's small garden. Had it been under any other circumstances, a smirk would have graced Neila Anwyl's features, but there was no room for amusement - not as a tumult of fear and uncertainty coursed through her veins.
In little more than what must now be eight minutes, they would come to blows in front of Stormwind's massive gates. She knew it had been coming to this. Months of conflict, the reminder of the hatred that seethed within her - hatred of his kind, hatred of his choices, hatred of herself. There must be an end to all of it, and as her thumb brushed over the hilt of her sword, she knew that end was nearing. Yet, she never expected to feel so... ill, at its sudden approach.
She hefted herself onto Gareth's back, the gelding giving a derisive snort, but no further protest. Perhaps he could sense, as she barely nudged him into motion, the reins hanging awkwardly from her outwardly-placed hands, that something was not right. She had entered a meditative state internally, calming the ebb and flow of emotion that would never win her a battle. It was something she had learned early on; something that had set her apart from most of the zealous paladin order, and yet a tool she could rarely put to use when she wished for it.
Images flicked through her conscious mind, of a time when she needed such control the most. She bled for him, slumped over his dying form, her body wracked with her wrenching sobs. She yelled at him through the tears, pounded her fist into his chest. She forced the Light into him, until darkness clouded her vision.
She realized now, it had been a mistake. In truth, she realized it years ago, even as she wandered through Legion territory, foolishly alone, throwing her life to what may choose to claim it. A part of her, the small glimmer that shone against a barricade of dark anger, wanted to believe that there was nothing she could have done for him, that she bore the scars proving of his derangement and betrayal. Yet she was reminded that she still had those scars, in every sense that she could hold onto them. As a physical reminder, she still had the long scar that had opened the flesh of her chest. The same scar rent by her blade - the blade he had given her at their wedding - his fingers twisted around it as it was plunged into her. The same blade strapped to her side. The same blade she would use again, perhaps for the last time.
She reached the bridge before she realized, Gareth's stride plain and dutiful, matching her own posture. A soldier nodded to her, watching her through the slits of his visor. Anymore she could not be certain whether it was from her own presence and the whisperings that cluttered the streets, or the sigil she wore, emblazoned on her cloak - a pale crescent moon set against a midnight blue. The city had known both she and Oaris Sunfall, recently appointed Battlequeen of the Night Elven house, as children, yet seemed to be bewildered by them entirely as adults. It was a conjoining of outcasts; a last hope of something intangible.
And yet her opponent was of this same creed, of the same longing for answers to questions that burned with torment. He too wore the sigil of Ithil en'Calenmir, House Jademoon, but she knew it would be of little comfort or protection to either of them when they clashed. For a brief moment she wondered what her Battlequeen would think of losing a member of the House to internal strife, while human numbers within their ranks were already so low. Perhaps it did not have to end in such a fashion, but Neila could think of no alternative. One of them would give his or her blood, feeding into the sense of loss that hung over the city of fallen noblemen.
Pushing the thoughts from her mind, Neila dismounted quickly, her boots hitting the hard surface of the stone-paved walkway. She did not consider herself a woman prone to fancies of thought and superstition, but as she led Gareth over the sacred bridge, she could feel the stare of the statues of heroes long departed. Doubt swelled in the pit of her stomach, thoughts that screamed of her short-comings and misdoings. She tried to scream back, but managed only a silent, feeble whimper. A disturbing thought threatened to make her turn back. Who was she - she who had so little to show for tossing her life to a black abyss of hatred and vengeance, driven by violent emotion - to lecture a man responding by the same devices.
The thoughts were forced to an abrupt stop as her boot touched the rugged cobblestone of the outbound path. She focused her gaze to see him standing aside from the path, nearly at the crest of a snow-spattered hill, the same stifling calm and neutrality he had worn when they parted shrouding his features.
She left Gareth to flank the other side of the cart-strewn road, patting his neck affectionately. Her fingers slid to the clasp at her right shoulder, in the cold metal of a crescent moon. The weary paladin freed her cloak from its tooth, draping it over her horse. She rounded her shoulders, shrugging her protective armor into place. She checked all of the straps mechanically, as though she were going into any other battle. Her hair somewhat disheveled from the day's earlier travel, she pushed a strand from her eyes - cool grey eyes from which all emotion had been forced - and moved to take her stance as a duelist.
She looked to her opponent, briefly searching for something, though even she could not place what it was. When she found only a practiced patience, she drew her sword from her left side, holding it before her, a perfectly positioned center line. Never flinching, and with a smooth, slow gesture, she raised it, signaling her ready.
Just as its tranquility settled over the openness of their makeshift grounds, the calm was struck from the air by a bolt of withering black energy, a distorted and grotesque howl shifting through the wind. Caught off-guard, Neila steeled herself for a feeble block, thrusting one hand before her, a barrier of light shielding her body. The darkness writhed and contorted, stricken away by the shield, deflected around its form.
She had little time to dodge the swiftly following spear of purple magic, writ and called from some demonic text not meant for the tongues of Lordaeronians. She rolled to one knee, propelling herself up once more. As he commanded another bolt toward her, she was ready. A burst of blinding white struck from her palm, rushing over the darkness, tearing through to the attacker.
He was knocked away from his spell-calling balance. Neila saw her one opportunity and prepared to take it. Her sword held protectively across her body, she sprang toward him, readying her strike. As her blade closed in toward his cloth-covered torso, her eyes stung with some magical irritant. She was forced to close them, a mistake she knew she would be made to pay for. Momentum kept her arm moving forward, however, and the tip of her blade connected with something, but pain seared through her arm, burning hot in the hilt of her sword. A weakened flash of light emitted from her hand, and she managed to stumble backward, somehow maintaining her footing. As the contrast lessened, he stood there, though with perhaps less of a self-assured stance than before, tendrils of darkness swirling about his form.
"I have no desire to kill you, Neila; it would be a waste of a valuable life. But I warned you once. If you stood in my way, I would not hesitate to do what I must."
She caught her breath and her balance, hefting her blade with determined resolve. She looked up at him, studying his features. The vibrant green had faded from his eyes, replaced by a shallow depth of black. Harsh shadows cast over his gaunt face. He stood perfectly balanced, perfectly aligned with the vortex that manifested about him. There would be no reasoning, yet pride-filled words tumbled from her mouth just the same.
"And I warned you of the same. Do not spare me, Zantharus. I'm not stopping until my goal is reached." She echoed his last words. "I'll do what I must."
"So be it."
She predicted his movement, raising her sword as it became empowered with a bright energy, physically blocking the sharp concentration he hurled toward her, shattering its formation. Time and again they met, in a furious dance of tainted souls, choreographed in evasion and attack. She would pursue and manage the briefest cut through his defenses, and he in turn would propel her backward, keeping the distance. She began to feel herself on the aggressing side, hoping to turn the tone of the duel in her favor with a well-timed slash. But at the same time, something in her knew he was waiting. He allowed her the paces that would get her in range, and he struck, not as a fierce warrior rending his foe with an overt motion, but in a far more sinister manner.
The tendrils that had previously merely stirred and writhed in response to his movement sprang out into a wisp of swift force. As it surrounded her, enclosing her in its thick haze, Neila felt her skin begin to burn, the sensation in her eyes from before intensified through her body. Her stomach lurched, and the color fled her face, leaving her with no stability.
The hilt of her sword was foreign, the blade heavy and awkward. She could feel the blood pounding through each finger as it lifted and locked. She watched the weapon drop, as though it were suspended; agonizing, unattainable. Though it was cushioned by the brittle shoots springing from under winter's icy grasp, the sound of it hitting the ground spread through her, tearing at her limbs. Her knees buckled, and soon she fell.
Through some involuntarily miracle, her hands thrust before her and she caught herself before she could make complete contact with the ground. With one knee bent for support, her other leg unable to lift from the ground, she leaned down, steadying one hand over her heart, trying to calm the haggard rise and fall of her chest.
She felt more fatigued than if she had fought for days straight, and her muscles seared with a pain of over-exertion. The color that had drained from her face now stole away from her neck as well, leaving her devastatingly pale. Her hair had easily loosed from its bind, and large strands hung over her features. It was all she could do to remain kneeling.
"By the Light... what have I done?"
The voice was familiar, and yet oddly distant; laden with concern and a contained bit of panic. The soft yet frantic footfall of cloth-tied boots grew closer. The figure kneeled, and Neila glanced over.
His hair fell in chaotic streaks, his hood brushed back. The shadows that had defined his face were pushed back into some unknown oblivion, replaced by a thin line spattered with fresh blood that traced the curve of his jaw. Neila couldn't help the barely noticeable smirk that played on her lips - apparently she had managed to connect through his invisible shields, at least once. But the dark stains on his shirt told her it had been more than once.
"What have I done..." he repeated, in more of a trailing, pained murmur than a true question.
A part of her wanted to say something, assure him that he had only been fighting for what he believed was right, just as she had. Avenging his family's gruesome slaughter at the hands of the Forsaken was something he needed to do. Perhaps it was her pride that stopped her from uttering any words of reassurance; pride that would shakily reject his hand as he tried to help her up.
Somehow she stood, though only for a moment, as pain wracked her body and she fell to her knees once more, gritting her teeth. Her ears were ringing, and she barely registered what he mumbled as he shook his head.
"You should never hurt the ones you..."
As his words trailed away, she met his gaze briefly, trying to read him, before his eyes fled and he became suddenly and directly attentive to anything but her softening expression. She had stopped him, at least momentarily. If he should continue to Lordaeron as she lie out in that Light-forsaken battlefield, gasping a choked and dying breath, at least she would not die the fearful coward she inwardly believed herself to be.
Yet even as she thought it, Neila knew she would not die beside the gates of Stormwind. Color already began to flush her cheeks as life returned. Whatever he had done, it had merely been meant to daze her in preparation for a killing blow. The sudden realization that he had not taken his open chance hit her with full force. Questions formed in her mind and threatened to steal from her lips, yet she hushed them. As much as she feared her anger and hatred, these questions were dangerous, and struck her as far more terrifying.
She glanced up once more, wearing the calm neutrality he had adopted before. All traces of detached duty and sinking malice had left his face. He was no longer a driven man prepared to eliminate any obstacle that stood between him and his goal. A panicked sort of fear creased his brow, and he looked just as haggard as she. The man before her was no drone of the Legion, a servant to dark temptation. He was just a man, and that second realization seemed to pale her further than any damage he could have inflicted.
She barely heard his tumbling words, yet there was no mistaking their frantic inflection. "Please, please you must forgive me for what I have done. I never meant to... I would never..."
He could not seem to find the right words to complete his thoughts, but there was no need. She spared him, rising. Though her muscles still seared with every movement, she found it far easier to stand and maintain a center. She surveyed the extent of his injuries, though unable to gauge much through the fabric. Her lips twitched into a frown as she noticed much of his shirt was now drenched through with blood.
"You must do something for me." Her light accent touched her words and felt foreign even to her when attached to the statement.
As he said the word, she could sense he meant it, a thought that frightened her beyond placement. Her heart raced from something other than her strain, she knew, but she did her best to ignore it. There was no jesting in her features as she uttered her next course of action, only a hard certainty locked in her eyes.
"Follow me back to the Cathedral."
The stares they received as they walked at a safe distance through the streets of Stormwind matched and befitted their appearance, Zantharus clutching his side and suppressing the faintest hint of a limp, Neila walking slowly and precisely, fighting for every step as the nausea and fatigue continued their attack on her body.
Though the Cathedral district was not that far from the trader's entry and main gate, it felt like a steadily paced eternity as the same questions from before plagued Neila's mind, prying at her thoughts. She would have almost preferred someone shout to them, ask them some answerless drivel, or at least speak out what they were thinking - anything to silence her own conflict.
She had not turned to look at him since they entered the city proper, keeping her gaze straight ahead as she had done many times in the past while walking through Stormwind. She suspected, just as practiced as she, he must be doing the same.
In an inaudible half-swear, half-praise, she remarked on the sight of the Cathedral as it loomed into view, preparing herself to ascend the steps. It was a place she strove to loathe, yet somehow she always returned. She expected no questions. Zantharus may have been a friend of a few of the bishops, as he had triumphantly pointed out to her months ago, finding her in the catacombs at her most vulnerable time, kneeling before her husband's ashen remains, but they knew she did not welcome their help. They collectively kept clear of her, to the point where the young altar boy made himself scarce in her presence. If they had need, they would call, yet she never made an attempt to call upon them.
She let herself into a distant side room met by winding halls, taking a rusted key from the pouch at her belt. It was a room of study and healing, into which only elite members of the knight order were allowed. Despite her aversion toward its teaching, Neila had indeed climbed the needed ranks in record fashion, and possessed her own key, molded and cast.
Her suspicion of its occupancy was confirmed - the room was completely empty. Perhaps it would fill more as afternoon slipped into evening, but for the moment, she welcomed the solace. Finally glancing back, she held the door ajar and gestured for Zantharus to continue through. He managed his limp down to an awkward hobble, and passed through the entryway. She moved her arm and allowed the heavy door to fall shut on its own.
The shock was visible across her features as he complied with little more than a weary stare and a frown. No words of protest, no teasing jest to throw her off-course. She grew worried, and crossed the small room to an unadorned chest propped against the wall. She bent to open it, yet suddenly felt the hindrance of her heavy armor. Her hand snaked toward the straps of her breastplate, loosing it until she could slide both parts over her head. Chain hung heavily over her frame, and she gathered it as well, setting both protective pieces aside.
When at last she finally returned from the corner, she carried a roll of bandages and some form of cleansing salve. Though the paladin commanded full use of the healing properties of the Light, she was uncertain what effects it might have on one such as he; if it would even help at all. Yet as she unquestioningly fussed with the fabric of his shirt, pulling it free from his latched belt to lift it up, she knew she would need more than simple bandaging.
"What are you doing?" He questioned, flinching just the slightest.
"Well I don't plan to just let you bleed all over. Then everyone would claim I had not given you a fair fight." Though her words were jesting, there was nothing humorous in her tone.
The wound was deep and messy, and she could claim to take no form of satisfaction from having inflicted it, as her normal pride and vanity would dictate. Instead, concern and guilt settled over her and she kneeled to better inspect.
"I don't know what kind of effect this is going to have..."
Even as she began her warning, she lifted her hand steadily before her, feeling the warmth emanate from her palm as it pulsed with a dull yellow glow. He winced visibly, tensing in preparation. As her hand touched his torn flesh, her gaze locked onto his expression. His eyes were downcast, nearly closed, his teeth gritted. Her palm contacted the wound, and instead of the cry of pain and grimace she had expected, the muscles of his face slowly relaxed, his eyes opening.
A soft, pleasant warmth fell in waves with the pulse of the light surrounding her hand, spreading through his torso. She could feel the wound begin to pull and close itself, the slow but lethal flow of blood ceasing. His gaze flickered and caught hers, and she noticed the captivating color had returned to his eyes. A flush began to spread up through her neck, and she forced her concentration back to her work. The questions tugged and threatened to overpower her into answering them, set in tune with the quiet serenity and intimacy they presently shared. Healed or not, she had to get some distance.
She stood, more abruptly than she would have liked, and mechanically fashioned a bandage, spreading the salve over its surface. Bending to wrap and place it, she was not unaware of his warm breath raggedly touching her skin, nor the proximity with which she had to practically encircle him to secure the bandage. He stayed still, betraying nothing, and as she returned to her composed posture, one of her questions tumbled from her mouth, base and still.
"Why didn't you kill me?"
Silence hung in the room, yet she was certain he had heard her. His steeled expression flashed in turbulence for just a moment. She knew he was an honest man, as he had proved to her many times before, shattering her beliefs. Yet her breath caught in her throat. She was uncertain if she was prepared for his honesty, whatever he might say.
He skipped anything else he might have been thinking - some roundabout explanation or stammer as she might have done - and conveyed the answer in its most simple, yet dangerously complex, form, barely more than a whisper.
"I care for you."
It had been what she was dreading and secretly hoping, somewhere in the back of her mind, but her neutral faÃ§ade seemed utterly shocked. She could only sputter out an unintelligent question in return. "...What?"
If in any other mood, he would have teased her about not hearing him properly. Instead he moved past the statement as though it were one of common place. "And as I said, it would have been a shame to end your life when you have far more to do with it than I." Though his statement was caustic, there was no hint of malice in his voice; only a trace of some abrupt and quiet sadness, as though he were suddenly defeated.
Zantharus held his hand over the bandaged wound and rose from the chair, tugging his shirt back down. He gave a half-hearted nod of thanks, seeming to see their agreement as concluded. She had asked nothing further of him, and he had not offered.
Would he return to Lordaeron, even now?
The unspoken question gripped her with something she could not place, and she suddenly felt as she did inside on rare moments - small, helpless, and alone. He stared at her for a moment, almost silently imploring, yet she remained externally rigid, impervious to his seeking gaze. Finding nothing, he nodded as if to himself, and turned to leave.
Panic. That was the feeling. Panic and a sense of forthcoming loss. It shook her even more as his eyes left hers and she faced only his back. Her mind seemed to jestingly scream that she stop being a fool, and for once, she agreed.
"Hell..." She murmured.
Her arm thrust out, even before her thoughts could catch up with her actions. She gripped his sleeve between her fingers and pulled, causing him to turn abruptly. Her hand pressed intently against the right side of his face forced him to meet her halfway as she closed the distance between them, her lips crushing fiercely to his.
Stunned and unresponsive at first, he quickly recovered, pressing back with equal force, a torrent of passion and unspoken frustrations bonding them to the moment. Yet as swiftly and abruptly as it had begun, their connection ended. She felt Zantharus' arms slip around her waist, pulling her closer, and though a part of her eagerly welcomed the embrace and the further connection it entailed, some rational part of her mind seemed to snap back into place. Her hands moved to his chest and she pushed him away, a wash of guilt mixing with everything else as she realized she had shoved him close to his wound.
He released her, startled, and gasped in slight pain. Her deeply flushed face darkened with embarrassment and flustered bewilderment, her breathing offset by passion and the fear at what it might become. She hated everything this man stood for. She hated everything he had done. She hated him.
And yet, she understood why he had taken such measures. After seeing the records of his family, it became painfully clear to her that if anyone's quest was worth fulfilling, it was his. His actions were fully justified; at times she wondered if they were even more so than her own. And she could not claim to hate him. Even as he prodded into her life, past her continued refusal and near pleading with him not to, toying with her emotions in the catacombs, she could not claim to hate him.
The only relevant conclusion blanched her, and she stammered a fleeting mumble. "I... I can't do this. I have to go."
She left him, half-running and fleeing before he had the chance to even register what she had said. She bit her lip until she tasted a faint trace of blood, keeping the tears that welled in her eyes at bay. Indeed if she hated anything at that moment, it was her inability to sort through the overwhelming tide of emotions that threatened to strangle her. Neutrality did not even come easily, and she knew several members of the Cathedral must have seen her storm away. Away to where she had led Gareth with them. Away to where the fierce pounding of hooves against dirt could cut through her intruding thoughts, and her tears of helplessness could be brushed back with the wind.