They stood there on the edge. Dracila held Tinox in her claws, dangling the troublesome Senator over the Nether, keeping the others at bay while Tarashan muttered an incantation to reopen the portal that Aerana and Myaka had disappeared through moments earlier. As Tarashan completed the spell and the portal opened Dracila pulled Tinox back from the ledge, flinging the diminutive Senator towards Xandric and sprinted for the portal with Ezraeil close behind.
Tarashan took one last look at the group that had arrayed themselves against her and her companions. Xandric Lycus, Julianaz Skygazer, Averila Blacksun, and Brewdin Steelslugs. Of those four, she had thought Xandric and Julianaz would at least stand by the Empress’ side. Only a month ago she had stood nearby at the end of a meeting, watching as Xandric swore a solemn oath to Aerana to stand at her side. After Julianaz’s failed attempt to reason with Smartgear she had thought the Diplomat would see that the gnome couldn’t be trusted. She had been wrong, it seemed. The moment it had become known that Katelle had not become even more ill, that she was instead held under house arrest without her guild stone, everything had changed. Where before everyone had seemed willing to let events unfold with Tinox safely held in stasis, in that moment the tide had turned against the Empress.
Tarashan spat as she looked at them, all oath-sworn, and all standing there in defiance of the Empress. She turned her back on them and dived through the portal, sealing it behind her as she passed from Hellfire Peninsula…
And landed face-first in the damp soil of Baradin’s Landing.
She quickly pulled herself up, brushing dirt from her robes and spitting some from her mouth. “Ow,” the mage said quietly as she stood, quickly taking stock of their surroundings. The Empress and Guardian Winterborne were nowhere to be seen. She had followed the trail, reopening the portal that the Empress had created. Of course, they likely had moved on, but she had hoped they might have been able to regroup quickly. A motion off to her right caught her attention, and the mage watched as Ezraeil smashed his guild stone under his heel with a muttered curse, and Guardian Brownmane popped her own stone from the pommel of her blade and crushed it to powder.
Tarashan looked down at her right hand, her own small white stone set into her glove just above her wrist. She closed her eyes and heaved a heavy sigh as she reached down with her left hand and popped the stone free. Such a small thing, yet it signified so much: her connection to the Empire, to her friends. But it was also a danger, able to be tracked freely with Smartgear on the loose. They had lost this battle. The sacrifice had to be made. She tossed the stone lightly up and down in her hand, voices still echoing in her ear, sounds of surprise at Ezraeil’s actions, curses at the escape they had made from Hellfire. With a snarl Tarashan hurled the stone into the air, quickly following it with an ice lance… which shattered harmless against the stone. It fell back to the ground with a dull thud.
“Dammit…” she muttered as she stepped forward to the stone. “Stupid stone.” She placed her foot over the small rock, her heel resting on it and pressing down against the guild stone. “So much for showmanship.” Under the constant weight the small stone turned to dust beneath her heel.
In a small corner of her mind it amused her to imagine how Tinox must feel about this. He hated when members of the Empire lost their guild stones. She could only imagine how he must feel knowing that five of them had been destroyed inside of this month. First Donnelly had crushed his, now she and her compatriots had destroyed theirs. She could only imagine that Myaka had destroyed hers as well.
Her thoughts were interrupted from such happy musing though as she felt a claw tapping on her shoulder. “Soldier Flamewind.” Tarashan turned to face the worgen, raising an eyebrow as she saw a dagger in the woman’s hand, the hilt extended towards the mage. “I need your help with something.”
“What is it you need, Master Sergeant?”
“My guardian stone,” the worgen replied. “I need you to remove it. Not here though. Follow.”
And so the trio had moved, racing on borrowed mounts to the middle of the spider-infested forest that dominated the center of the island. “Here,” the Master Sergeant said. “The stone is next to my heart. I need you to cut it out and destroy it.”
Tarashan looked around at the surroundings. “Lovely place for surgery,” she said, managing to at least keep some of her irreverent sense of humor despite the trials they had experienced this night. She drew her dagger, using some alcohol from her bag to sterilize the blade. A useless gesture, she realized later, given that her ‘patient’ was already dead. She looked up to see Dracila removing the armor plates that covered her chest. “You’re an idiot, you realize that?”
“Just get it over with.”
And so she had, ramming the blade into Dracila’s chest and removing the stone—“This was your stone, yes? I didn’t grab your heart by mistake?”—and shattered it by hurling it against a nearby tree.
They had moved after that. A portal to Theramore, in hopes that they might find the Empress there, then flying to Winterspring, realizing that there was nothing to do but wait. To wait, it seemed, for Aerana to use the last remaining means of communication they had available. As Dracila explained it, the Empress had some sort of connection to Ezraeil, able to communicate through him somehow. The exact manner wasn’t something Dracila could specify, but they had to hope it would work.
They had landed on Frostsaber Rock and built a small fire, sitting around it and saying very little as they waited. A flash of brilliant green light had made Tarashan nearly fall backwards off the rock, and when she looked over to her right Ezraeil had vanished. The mage had stood up then, moving to look out over the beautiful forests of Winterspring. “Now what,” the mage said softly as Dracila moved beside her
For long minutes the two stood in silence until at last Dracila spoke. “So, what do you make of all this?”
“I have no idea if she’s suffering as Tinox claims she is. You would have a better idea than I.” The mage stared at the Guardian beside her, taller by a head, and armored head to toe in plate. She seemed to search for something in that fierce face, trying to discern some hint as to the validity of Tinox’s words.
Dracila sighed, staring out from their position atop Frostsaber Rock. “Perhaps. Even so there is not much we can do.”
Tarashan nodded beside her. “Regardless, his methods are idiotic. The former Senators have professed to try and help her, and every time she has said that she will speak to any who wish it in private. Yet always they sought public confrontation.”
“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Private, it’s behind closed doors, and by definition sneaky. Public is, as Aer said, a challenge.”
Tarashan nodded again, adjusting her stance and folding her hands behind her back as she stared out over the beautiful Winterspring landscape. Silence hung between the pair before Tarashan finally spoke again. “Is he right?”
“I’m not a shrink,” the death knight responded simply. And as the words fell from her lips, the pair felt the familiar pull of a summons: a hole twisting its way through the Twisting Nether for each of them, just waiting for them to step into it.
In the next instant they stood somewhere a world away from Winterspring — in Feralas, on Lake Dumont, site of the first military meeting after Katelle had her stone taken from her. The meeting where Versies had chased cats, and the Captain had become uncharacteristically angry. Aerana was there, with Myaka flanking her, and Ezraeil nearby. As they appeared the Empress nodded to them both, speaking their names quietly, then raised her voice so they could hear plainly. “As I spoke the words to Soldier Ezraeil, so too shall I thank you both for standing by me in such… uncertain times.” Aerana pressed her lips together soon after though, and her normally placid demeanor seemed to falter for a moment. “I would ask for that which occurred after Guardian Winterborne and I left.”
After they had filled Aerana in on the particulars of the events immediately after her departure, and their own trek to the north, Aerana spoke again. “The wards of my residence have activated. They now search my study and have entered my bedchambers.”
Tarashan spoke softly, the fingers of her left hand playing over the empty socket in her glove where had kept her guild stone. “Out of curiosity, I gave you that bag of guild stones from Tinox’s lab. Where are they now?”
The Empress’ reply was what Tarashan had expected, though being right was hardly a comfort at this time. “The guild stones reside in my Study.” As Tarashan looked down, tracing the pattern of the carefully crafted socket Slaye had provided her to hold her stone, Aerana spoke added. “Yet if we can gather such materials, I could craft more.”
Tarashan nodded. “I suppose it’s only right they find their way to the Empire once again. None of us would wish to cripple them.”
“Indeed,” the Empress said in gentle agreement. “We would not wish to harm the Empire nor its Vision, despite the troubles that now assail us.”
Tarashan raised her right arm, turning her wrist so that the empty socket could be seen in her glove. “We destroyed ours the moment we came through the portal to Tol Barad.”
“Such is appropriate, even though it is painful,” the Empress replied as she looked at the empty holder in Tarashan’s glove, the woman’s own hands rising to the base of her throat. In spite of herself Tarashan smiled a little at that, having herself been toying endlessly at the spot where her stone used to rest. The guild stone was a part of each of them, their connection to their comrades and friends. Without it, they were truly out on their own.
Dracila was speaking again, drawing Tarashan out from her brief moment of quiet contemplation. “—pain was a small price to pay both times to protect the stone. At the beginning, and to help you now.” That stupid stone the worgen had put in her chest.
Tarashan absently touched her glove again and for the third time that night posed the question: “What now?”
The Empress stood there, her lips pressed together, thinking for a moment, her gaze turning from the four that had followed her from Hellfire. “They have entered my residence and I have no doubt that they shall soon search for us. They cannot allow such dissent to run amiss, as we unfortunately did.”
Tarashan stared at Aerana as she spoke, and her question in reply as straight to the point. “Will they search for us, or for you?”
“I believe that I shall be their primary target,” the Empress admitted after a moment’s thought. “Might we… sit for a moment?” The Empress wearily gestured at a nearby tree. “It has the additional benefit of making us less visible than we are at this moment.”
As they settled themselves in the shade of the tree a question came to Tarashan’s mind. “What is the harm in letting them find you?”
Aerana looked at Tarashan, brows drawing together in concerned thought. “I fear that which they may do,” she admitted after a moment’s pause. “For such matters have… been brewing for a time and their words have been ominous in the past.” The Empress lifted a hand toward Dracila, the death knight having moved to stand next to Aerana when they had moved to the tree. “Guardian, if you would summarize that which has occurred up until this point? I believe that Soldier Flamewind deserves to know what it is we know. Begin where such seems logical to you, though I would imagine it stands shortly after the Guardians were revealed?”
Tarashan shifted her gaze towards Dracila, listening attentively as the worgen began to speak.
“Well,” she began, “after Myaka was revealed we made a decision that I would remain hidden and do what I could behind the scenes. As a result, I listened in on a few conversations between the Senators, and made contingency plans should they make a move against Aerana. That night we all met in private and decided to place a spy on the Senate. It was revealed that Tinox was going to make Aerana step away from everything, by force if necessary. Myaka had her own encounters with Rednaxela, which further reinforced that the Senators were up to something. Then, of course, they tried to get Myaka to give up the rest of us. You should know the rest of the story after the Senate was disbanded that night.”
As Tarashan listened to the story, her mind raced. Bits and pieces of it she had figured out for herself, but the thought that Tinox had been ready to force Aerana to step aside by force… well, hadn’t he done that already? She flicked her gaze to the Empress, observing as the woman kept her hands intertwined in her lap to keep from reaching up to touch the bare spot on her neck where her guild stone had hung until just recently. Tinox had stolen the Empress’ guild stone. Had robbed her of her connection to the Empire. Had forced the five of them into hiding.
Aerana’s voice brought her back to full attention. “I would only add that after the disbanding, Rednaxela continued to press Pralea to infiltrate the Military for the Senate. And you know of his and Julianaz’s reluctance in reporting their encounter with Tinox. And, as you are undoubtedly aware, Rednaxela has sought to stir unrest throughout his presence. Yet… there was little I could do for such. Though now I see that my mistake has cost me much.”
“It has cost us all,” Tarashan said softly, touching the empty space in her glove again.
The Empress continued to speak though, her voice dropping, barely above her whisper, her head bowed, the curve of her hood covering her face and making her expression unknowable. “I… apologize for such. I thought not to use…” The Empress shook her head, falling silent.
Into the silence, Tarashan spoke softly, seeking to comfort the woman she called her Empress. “You have nothing to apologize for. I made a choice.”
Dracila was more interested in the second part of the Empress’ words. “Use what?” the death knight asked.
Aerana did not look up, though she did answer the death knight. “To use such force to quell simple whispers. I had thought that in time, such would settle.”
“So did we all,” Tarashan replied, her gaze hardening as she looked at the Empress. “I had never thought we would find so many…” the mage trailed off, then suddenly spat the words out. “So many traitors in our midst.”
Aerana seemed to flinch at the word, or at their force, but she nodded. “To be a traitor to the Vision… I can understand disagreement with me or that which I proclaim to guide the Empire. But to be a traitor to the Empire makes them…”
Tarashan picked up where the Empress had left off. “They betrayed sworn oaths. I watched as Xandric swore an oath to stand by your side, and there he was standing in opposition to us tonight.” Dracila nodded as Tarashan spoke, signaling agreement to the mage’s words.
Aerana raised a hand up to her head, sighing as she spoke. “And yet they were placed in a situation where their hearts were called in two directions. The General…” the Empress trailed off, shaking her head. “Can I truly blame those who heeded Katelle’s words? For is she not their General, despite her actions?”
Tarashan shook her head in disagreement. “She may be the General, yet you are our supreme commander. We swore to follow the orders of our superiors. Are you not that?”
Aerana nodded. “I am,” she answered softly. And to Tarashan, that simple acknowledgement seemed to breathe new life back into the Empress. At last the woman looked up and gazed on the four that had followed her to Feralas. “They should have understood that what I have done has been for the Empire and those within it. They knew not what had occurred, for I wished not to malign those who have yet served. And yet my silence allowed the Senate a foothold, from which to… accomplish that which they did this night.” The Empress once again reached up to touch her throat where the guild stone had so recently been.
“They acted idiotically,” Tarashan said softly, fixing her gaze firmly on Aerana. “You made it clear from the beginning that you would listen to all in private council. But they desired to shame you, and publicly. It started at that meeting, when Rhork asked to be one of your Guardians. After the meeting they confronted you. They questioned your health, your fitness to lead. And for all to see.”
Myaka picked up where Tarashan had left off, and the mage smiled as she saw Aerana nodding at her words. “They never tried honest counsel and help. It was public shaming before, then plotting when they pushed, and then they were angry when you pushed back to make them see that which they do.”
Dracila interjected then. “Though I judge you not for feeling overwhelmed after tonight’s events, Aer, we need a course of action.”
“Of course,” the Empress responded quietly, and Tarashan smiled again as she saw the Empress’ expression shift to that familiar neutral state, though her eyes blazed with renewed purpose and thought. “First we must ascertain a way to communication. I am able to create such stones, provided I have the materials. The materials are somewhat rare. All are within my residence…” The Empress trailed off, looking at the four of them in turn. “Assessment on the viability of a reconnaissance of my residence?”
“Is there a means of teleportation into the house?” The others threw in objections about the house being watched, but Tarashan reasoned that if they could teleport inside the building they could snatch what was needed and leave before being spotted or being detained.
The Empress shook her head. “The residence itself is warded against teleportation as a security measure. Although such could be accomplished outside.”
Tarashan simply shook her head at that. “The point is to avoid being outside.”
“Then such is impossible,” the Empress answered. “The residence was chosen specifically for its ley line placement.”
“What materials do we need, then?”
As Aerana began to list off the various enchanted dusts, Tarashan smiled. Their problems were all but solved in that regard. “Empress,” Tarashan said with a light smile. “I can handle these things. My own enchanting stores are rather well-stocked, and what I don’t have can be easily acquired. Gems as well.”
Aerana nodded, then looked around at the four assembled under the tree. “As for a course of action after such a method of communication is established, I confess that I am at a loss for the moment. I would solicit your insight.” The Empress lifted a hand, gesturing at them, indicating they should speak their minds.
Dracila was the first to speak. “I see two general paths. We push back and dispose of the Senate, fix the damage done. Or we cut our losses with the Empire and move on and start anew.”
Tarashan could see the Empress trying to keep her expression neutral, but the mage simply rolled her eyes and gave her thoughts. “We act as the Senate did in the past. You hid your information against them, but now is the time to reveal it. Smartgear pitches himself as simply wanting to help you. Let us show them that he simply desires power.”
“And how would you propose to do this?” Aerana was staring at Tarashan now. “There are many who stood against us this night.”
“As Tinox did. We appear at meetings. We… agitate. They say all they want to do is speak? Then they can speak. But they do so publicly. Where they can be heard by all, and where they can be exposed. Before we destroyed our stones I heard the beginnings of his conversation with the Empire. He wants to be viewed as savior. He says he just wanted to help you. He does this for your own good.” At those words Aerana’s lips pressed into a thin line once more, but Tarashan continued on. “Even now they hunt you. You said they raided your home. We have been forced to throw aside our own bonds to those we loved and served in order to save ourselves and to help you. Are these the actions of someone that wants help?”
Myaka nodded, cocking her head as she considered the mage’s suggestion. “The guild hall is open all, and we know when the meetings are. I don’t think you’ll want to be there though, Empress. If they do mean something insidious, with the whole of the Empire there, it’s not safe.”
As both fell silent the Empress spoke again. “Then what would you suggest? That others go in my stead to…” the Empress’ voice trailed off, as if she was having trouble getting the word out. “To agitate?”
“I… don’t know,” Tarashan replied after a moment. “I don’t think they can do anything to us in Darnassus. Sentinels patrol the hall and stand watch outside. It’s not like in Tinox’s lab, or in Hellfire.”
Aerana sighed and shook her head, a firm gesture of denial. “I would not ask others to do that which I am not willing to do myself. I understand that you have your duties, but so too do I have mine. Whatever it is that I can do, I will.” Aerana turned her gaze on Tarashan. “The materials for the stones. You are in charge of gathering such.” She shifted her gaze to Dracila. “We shall need multiple locations where we might gather outside of the Senate’s ear. If there are ways to monitor the Empire’s actions from afar, or through speaking to Sarah, see to such. Do not be observed, for they are undoubtedly watching.”
After a few more suggestions of places to hide and suggestions of people who might be loyal to them in the Empire, the Empress rose up wearily and dipped her head towards Dracila, Tarashan, Myaka, and Ezraeil. “That which has been shown this night shall not be forgotten. My life is in your hands, and I thank you for the honor of having you by my side.”
Tarashan smiled, bowing her head slightly. “I swore it once before, but I do so again. You have my loyalty Empress. I’ll stand at your side, no matter what.” She snapped a salute. “Tor ilisar’thera’nal. Now, more than ever.”
As the trio of Ezraeil, Dracila, and Tarashan turned and left, they could hear the Empress giving them a farewell. “Be safe and well, my loyal Guardians. For your actions have bestowed upon you more than oaths could.”