“The blasted beast staggered about, knocked senseless.” Anders, ragged and weathered from his experiences in the Lordaeron wilds, gestures about in a drunken manner while retelling a conquest from earlier in the week. “It tried to recover against a tree, grunting and growling in their gibberish tongue, while I nocked another arrow, ready to spear its skull.” The four other men, all chosen to venture out into the forests for game this month, draw in closer toward the fire and their story-spinning companion. “The bastard charged and I – “
“Whimpered there while I pulled the tripwire you were supposed to lure the Troll into beforehand.” Hunter pushes off of a thick tree, tired of the stories, and stands opposite his friend. The fire dances toward the Captain while the shadow of a hefty log, slowly burning to cinders, saves Hunter’s night vision.
The Captain clicks his tongue, “Damnit Hunter, really?” The other members of the party laugh and polish off their rations while the two trade glares.
“Yes. Really. While you gallivant around the Trolls could be tracking our fire.” Glancing out toward the tree line, Hunter scans for movement. The air draws tight and the crackling flames fill the supposed haven for a time until Anders sobers from his story.
“Right. We’ll celebrate when we’re home.” Anders smothers the fire, careful to use the mud prepared earlier to stifle any smoke. It will be obvious they were here, but a day between them and the village seems worth the risk.
“And while you lot celebrate, I’ll mourn for – “A sharp leer from Anders silences Hunter. The group is not without casualties this month. Lilly, a rival to any inhuman beast, paid the ultimate price to see the group to safety after a botched attempt to slay the Trolls pursuing them throughout the month. Once out, the fire leaves no smoke and the hunting party returns to their village, though Hunter can’t stomach the revelry.
Outside of the village, near the northern coast of the continent yet to be called the Eastern Kingdoms, lies a mass of old ruins long since silent and longer since recycled to nature. The twisted columns dig into the earth while fallen pillars of a foreign material hold up nothing but the open sky. Nowhere is this ruin’s duplicate, nowhere is stonework like what he’s seen here. This spot is often where Hunter spends his time. The ocean waves, the sea breeze, the roiling storms far out to the horizon all call to him and he yearns to venture back to the fabled homeland of his fore-fathers. The ruins, he assumes, are theirs and takes to exploring them whenever he can. It’s an activity he can stomach over hearing the tales of Tyr for the thousandth time.
A fool is Hunter’s opinion of the legendary figure. A fool who was too weak to best the mighty terror of the North on his own, a fool who had the power to regain his own hand yet chose not to. Glory through sacrifice? No. Glory through strength, cunning, and tenacity are the tenets Hunter lives with.
He catapults across a void split chasm, the light on his torch briefly going out from the rush of wind. This section of the ruins he’s explored time and again and could walk it blind, but tonight he plans to go deeper. A collapsed hallway, lined with reliefs and carvings of Trolls and wolves he fails to understand, used to block his path and through his own strength has he moved boulder after boulder to secure passage.
Squeezing through, Hunter trips. The passage gives way to a gaping maw of darkness filled only with his echoing grunt and falling rocks. Catching the ledge nearly cost him his torch and waving it reveals nothing, only an empty space of an impossibly large cavern. Below he hears a faint rush of water, likely inflow from the ocean, and the thought to give himself to the black crosses his mind. This is not the first time such thoughts press his senses and is something unique to this place the further he goes.
Hunter regains his wits after a surge of willpower. These thoughts are not his and he hoists back up to the ledge. He studies the wall at his side and spies a path. Lifting his torch overhead he shimmies along at a careful speed, only looking forward, always moving forward, until his front foot drops off. Keeping his balance he tests the depth and finds purchase on a step. A staircase, it seems, guides his descent into this chasm.
After three flights Hunter reaches a platform carved much in the same way as the exterior. Surveying the area he concludes this is the end, though nothing waits to reward him. Annoyed, he yells. The empty dark taunts him, yelling back his frustrations until they fade.
“There has to be something here. A barren platform makes no sense. There’s no function to it!” Hunter snarls, scanning the area once more for anything not rock.
His exploration finds an inset in the cavern wall reminiscent of a brazier. Dipping his torch into the inset bowl, it ignites. From there more holes illuminate the stairs and the path he crossed earlier and continues on as more dots of light begins to speckle the vast darkness. Hunter stands in awe as the image of a Human of titanic proportions clashes with a three headed wolf of a size unmatched takes shape in a pattern of faux stars. A rumbling takes his footing and he trips on the platform, torch rolling off the ledge.
“YOU WHO HAVE TRESPASSED HERE, WHAT IS IT YOU SEEK? WHAT IS IT YOU DESIRE TO FIND?” A voice, lupine and feral, sends a terrific chill down Hunter’s spine and fills him with the urge to flee, to run, and to escape the maw of this beast before it closes on him.
Panic gives way to a passionate resolve to face this fear, to conquer it, and prove to this power he is not some prey to flee. Hunter stands and draws his dagger, the blade shaking slightly in his hands.
“Who are you?” Hunter yells.
“I AM SHE WHO HUNTS IN THE VEIL, WHO STALKS IN THE DARK PLACES IN MORTAL’S HEARTS. SPEAK YOUR INTENT OR YOUR FLESH IS FORFEIT.” The cavern rumbles again as if something strains the very foundations of the rock. Hunter stands his ground.
“Your threats are meaningless. I’ve ‘trespassed’ these ruins for years, slept in these very halls, and nothing has harmed me.” In truth, Hunter has no clue what he speaks to and hopes he has called this predator’s bluff.
“DO NOT TEST ME, MORTAL.”
“I will test a caged beast as much as I please.” An ease loosens his grip on his dagger and he sheathes it. “Give me a name.”
At his request a shadowed figure coalesces before him. The ambiguous figure, now cloaked in a veil of smoke and darkness, studies the man before giving an impossible smile of jagged teeth. “Tell me, Mortal, what is it you seek in this wolf’s den?” Its wispy voice, still feral in nature, grins and awaits his answer.
“Power,” Hunter states. This question is simple. One who has power has control, one who has control survives. The shadowed figure approaches and trails a hand up his torso and across his collar as it glides past to the platform’s center.
Outstretching a hand, the figure calls forth a void touched energy, summoning tendrils of smoke from the image of two overlapping circle carved in the platform. A book, a simple black tome fades into being and the figure steps aside, gesturing for him to approach.
“This tome is my knowledge and this cavern my cage. Take it, mortal, and know power beyond your makers.”
Hunter approaches. The tome opens. He eyes the figure and its grin. “What’s it doing?” He asks.
“It knows your deepest thoughts. Go on. Read it. See the path to conquering that fear.”
The pages of pitch swirls and bleed until an inky black array of text and symbols fill the papers. A sentience within the tome draws upon the mortal’s fears and desires until it finds what drives him. Hunter draws breath as he reads, comprehension dawning upon him. The tome tells of a ritual, one to prolong one’s life, his life. Glancing to the figure he attempts to study it, to look for a sign of treachery. A single eye, diagonal above the grin, begs him to take it. Reaching out, Hunter’s hands settle beneath the black bound tome.
He closes it and steps back, facing the monster. “I stride forward with my own power, demon. I don’t need the last vestiges of some pitiful beast.” His strides to the staircase echo throughout the chamber as an unnatural silence stifles all else. The figure evaporates into the darkness as the dots of light blip out one by one as Hunter again squeezes through the passageway, safely leaving the cavern.
Emerging from the ruins, Hunter looks upon a twilight sky enveloped in reds and oranges as the sun dips off somewhere on the horizon. A renewed resolve fills him as he moves with a bolstered confidence. Nothing was sacrificed, nothing was lost. He faced a terror and won under his own power, sacrificing nothing to his own arrogant eyes, and so too shall he overcome the trials he’s sure to face in his life.
Trials of strife, warfare, famine, and death fail to sunder him as he lives out this life in the northern forests of the Eastern Kingdoms. These trials forge him into a leader of men, a glimmer of hope for this generation of those abandoned on unfamiliar lands and they carve out a foothold. This life, full of triumph, of love, of pitfalls, and toil flashes before him on his deathbed. Surrounded by sons and daughters and their young, he is comforted. They will carry on his memory and through them he shall live.
As the last vestiges of life fade from him he feels a sense of loss so deep it breaks through to his very core. He opens his dying eyes to view his entourage. Shadow and smoke veil their forms and freeze their frames, leaving only white silhouettes of their expressions to contrast the darkness enveloping them. Phantom memories of a life fulfilled, of fears conquered, of paths taken and foes defeated are pushed back as Hunter remembers who he is and the choice he made.
The real choice he made.
In this darkened room he remembers not a full life, but a broken one. A life where a ritual, learned from a black book, rules his existence. A ritual to prolong the life of his soul, with the sacrifice of another, shackles him to preserving that cycle. Thousands have fallen to this ritual and millennia has passed as he makes no progress other than to keep living, always molding his next vessel, and always choosing the best route to keep his rituals going.
Sure, he gained power, enough power to rival the strongest of Azeroth’s immortal protectors at their best, but at what cost? His life is empty, meaningless, and his fear rules him still to this day. In darkness he sinks as memories of the life he gave up disappear and with each one they chip away at the reservoir of his soul until there is nothing but a thin wisp remaining; the memory of his choice to take the Black Book.
A grinning darkness closes in, devouring the pitiful soul of a Human terrified of its own morality.
Accalia laughs as another prey falls before her. Though while Hunter is consumed, Tirien’s body still floats in a void, trapped in nightmares.