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The Lich King: Zlinka's story
#1
In the Moment
Zlinka stood by Oryx on the circular platform at the top of Icecrown Citadel, surrounded by her friends and guildmates.  An arctic wind blasted over the top of the tower, buffeting them, piercing them, and tearing at their weapons and armor.  Their fighting force was a huddled mass of greys and browns, covered with crusty, unmelting snow.  Clear icicles hung from Oryx's muzzle and chin.  Zlinka pressed close to him, burying her hands inside the warmth of his cape.

A tall, icy staircase rose before them from the far side of the platform.  A heavy figure was crunching down the stairs, at the center of a vortex of whirling ice and snow.  His black cape did not flap in the wind, as though the air itself were afraid of him.  He carried a massive sword, etched with glowing blue runes.

Oryx bent his head toward hers,  "This is it," he whispered, "We've worked for years to get this far.  Are you ready?"

Zlinka nodded.  "I'm ready."  She squeezed Oryx under the cape.

This battle was for the Echo Isles, for Mulgore, and for Durotar.  She drew her threadbare memories close around her, memories of warm sand between her toes, memories of rolling green hills and a quiet lake, memories of vibrant red cliffs.  

Quiet campfires burned in each of these homelands, illuminating faces wise and old, young and smooth, blue and green and brown.  Zlinka was here to keep these faces safe, wherever they might have come from.  Each one of them deserved to have a full life, a life that unfolded into its own story.

Zlinka withdrew her hands from the haven of Oryx's cloak.  With briefly warm palms, she melted the crust of frozen sweat that had formed on the hilts of her daggers in the past few minutes.  

Tirion Fordring stood before the fighting force, his head bent before the wind, facing the Lich King.  The wind whipped their words away.  The Lich King raised his hand and he encased Tirion in a snapping, cracking prison of ice.  The small force gasped.

Then Lich King was upon them, massive sword raised.  It crashed on the first shield; blue sparks flew and were snuffed out by the wind.  The fighters converged upon him.

Zlinka plunged through the crowd towards Arthas, slashing at his back and knees, narrowly missed by swinging axes and incoming arrows.  An illness hit her within seconds, nastiness rose in her throat, and she staggered away to vomit her burden of virus on some of the Lich King's own minions before priestly hands touched and cured her, and she lept back into battle.

A creaking, rumbling sound vibrated her bones. The edge of the platform crumbled away from under her feet.  Zlinka sprang to the remaining solid ground, while boulders crashed and spun into the void below.

A scream.  Zlinka looked up. An armored, feathered shape swooped into the fighters and sank her claws into one of their druids and began dragging him toward the edge.  The battle shifted suddenly into saving his life.  Zlinka darted toward the struggling pair.   Arrows hissed by her head, thunking into the valkyr; magical lighting seared the valkyr's side. A smoking blackness appeared almost under Zlinka's feet.  She sprang aside.  But the creature flew inexorably on, over the poisonous blackness, dragging her prey toward the precipice.  Unable to reach them, Zlinka sprinted ahead.  A two-inch strip of platform stretched between the pool of blackness and the drop-off.  Zlinka edged along it on her toes, her heels hanging over the mile-high drop, until she stood between the valkyr and the void.

Come to me, you bitch.

The valkyr flew ever closer, still clutching her struggling prey.  As soon as she came within within reach, Zlinka slugged the monster with all her strength on the side of the head.  The valkyr stopped, blood trickling from her ears, momentarily stunned.  An arrow, sure and true, struck her between the eyes.  The valkyr sank into the smoking pool beneath, white feathers shriveling to blackened quills as she sank.  Her twitching, dying claws released her prey.  Zlinka roughly pulled the druid from the life-sucking magic.  He staggered to his feet, shaken, but already bracing himself for a return to battle.  Zlinka dashed back to the Lich King.

Shrieking ghosts swirled overhead, ghosts that dipped and swooped among the company.  Against their immaterial bodies and their contorted, transparent faces, Zlinka's daggers were useless. She could only run from them, and run she did, for her very life.

Then Zlinka saw her chance.  The Lich King's exposed back: broad, open, and momentarily vulnerable.  She sprang at him, grabbed his shoulder with one hand and thrust her dagger through his cloak with the other.  The muscular body beneath her hand radiated devastating, mind-numbing cold, even through the layers of armor and cloth between them.  The plate armor beneath his cloak blocked her blade, jarring her arm to the shoulder.  She scraped the tip of her dagger downward, metal on metal, seeking any weakness, any irregularity.  She felt a groove.  She shoved the blade into the narrow gap with everything she had, deep into flesh and viscera.  She felt him tense with pain.  With a powerful twist of her wrist she angled the blade up toward his lungs.  Freezing blood flowed over the hilt of her dagger, over her fingers and hand, numbing her arm to the elbow.

Arthas whirled around to face her, wrenching the embedded hilt from her grasp.  He cast her away with terrifying strength.  For a moment, she glimpsed his ice blue eyes, cold with contempt, and his cruel, lined face.

His long, frozen blade caught the light as it sliced through the air toward her head.

Zlinka leapt back, but she was not fast enough.  The edge of the Lich King's sword smashed through the side of her skull, splintering the bone.

In that moment, the last moment of Zlinka's life, her perception of time detached from reality, stretched endless before her, hours and days passing in a fraction of a second.  The blow that was killing her slowed to a glacial pace, a subjective eternity.  As its sharp leading edge hewed through neural tissue it triggered smells and tastes and sights, spilling memory after memory into a consciousness that seemed eternal.

Her nostrils filled with the yeasty, pungent smell of beer mingled with the acrid odors of sweat and leather, smells from years past.  The inn of the Crossroads swam into view, more vivid than the frozen reality of Icecrown Citadel.  Her ears filled with the low chatter of people resting after a hot morning hunting in the Barrens, chinking their mugs together.

It was only a few weeks after she'd left her home on the Echo Isles.  She had nothing but the pair of daggers hanging from her belt, a wooden flute, a pack full of thieves' tools, and a little bag of shells and sand around her neck.

She'd thieved her way across Durotar and the Barrens, taking on odd jobs, accepting payment, and then robbing her employers on the way out the door.  She sent most of her spoils home to her large extended family, but kept just enough for herself to buy bread, keep her blades sharp, and buy a half-broke raptor to ride.  She needed nobody, and nobody needed her.

She peered into the inn, looking for unattended moneybags.  She scanned the customers, a motley collection of strange shapes and faces.  A thick-necked Orc rested his feet on his backpack.  A green-haired Troll leaned on the counter, laughing with a friend.  Every few seconds, he touched his pocket, unconsciously checking its contents.  Zlinka's eyes moved on.

A money pouch arrested her gaze.  Its long cloth neck was loosely knotted around a belt.  It hung beside an assortment of totems tied on tightly with strong leather straps.  The pouch's owner was a shaman, like her father, but he was a Tauren.  His hide was white and he had a dark, neatly braided beard and odd, pale eyes.  He leaned over the counter to speak with the innkeeper.  His expression was open and eager, his eyes bright and curious.  He looked excited to be here.

The white Tauren was tall compared to the Trolls and Orcs, but he was overshadowed by a great red Tauren looming over him.  This Tauren was enormous, a red cliff, with a massive head jutting over a broad, granite wall of chest.  His eyes were set deep under heavy brows, peering out like a wary animal in a cave.  He held a wooden shield tightly to his side, and his hand rested on the hilt of a sword, though the other patrons had placed their weapons on the floor near their feet.

The innkeeper pushed two frosty drinks across the counter to the white Tauren.  He picked up one in each hand.  The great red Tauren made his way to a table.  The crowd parted to let him pass, but he did not heed it.  He must have spent his life in that respectful space, the space created naturally for the very strong, a space that had to be earned by the small and weak.  The crowd closed behind him, squeezing on the white Tauren following in his wake.  Their legs bumped his totems, their shoulders jostled his elbows.  He had a hard time not spilling the drinks.  The moneybag still dangled unheeded from his belt.  Zlinka's fingers twitched.

They sat down at a table.  The white Tauren pulled a package out of his backpack.  He unwrapped folds of clean linen, pulling out a loaf of home-baked bread.  He broke it and served the red Tauren and himself.  Both Tauren had the remains of fresh flowers braided lovingly into their manes and wilting garlands around their necks.  As they ate, the white Tauren pulled off his garland and began picking the flowers and stems out of his hair.  He sorted them neatly into different piles.  The red Tauren ate absently, occasionally dipping his muzzle to close his eyes and sniff softly at his garland.  They were both utterly absorbed.  The white Tauren's money pouch hung loosely between the spars of the chair, unguarded.

Unseen and anonymous in the crowd, Zlinka slipped into a chair behind the white Tauren.  She lifted the moneybag in her palm and, without looking, slid her thumb into the loose knot and teased it free.  Almost.  The loose drawstring caught on his belt as it slid away.

The white Tauren whirled to his feet.  His hand closed on Zlinka's wrist, twisting her arm, wrenching her from her chair.  The red one sprang up with a roar, leaped forward, and bashed her across the face with his shield.  Pain shot through her head.  She cried out.  Staggered from the blow, she fell against the white one.  The warrior raised his shield for another blow, but the shaman shouted, "No, Ibex, enough!"

The red Tauren made a sweeping grab. The white one yanked her behind him, just out of the red one's reach.  Frustrated, the warrior exclaimed, "Dirty little thief!  I told you something like this would happen, Oryx!  This is how things are, outside Mulgore!  Can't you see it now?"

Zlinka struggled in the creature's grip.  Blood from the gash in her forehead flowed down her face, gumming her lashes, tickling her cheek, running warm and salty into her mouth.  With her free hand she tried to pry his fingers off her wrist.  His hold tightened.

The shaman gestured with his free hand.  Zlinka braced herself for the burn of magical lightning, for the fibrillation of her heart as the electricity jolted through it.  But the shock did not come.  Instead, she felt soothing warmth on her injury.  The tissues prickled and tingled as they knit together.  It was a deeply familiar feeling, and for a moment she saw her father picking her up after a fall and cradling her in his arms, saying, "Just a little hurt, so just a little heal will do."

What kind of person would heal someone who had just robbed him?  She looked up.  His face, tilted a little to one side, was open and friendly.  She stopped struggling. Oryx nodded, and let go of her wrist.

"Now, give that money back," he said.  "My brother was wrong to hit you, but you did rather startle us, you know."

Zlinka paused.  The corner of her mouth quirked up in a crooked smile.  She twitched her arm, and the money pouch slid from her sleeve into her hand.  With a graceful twist of the wrist, she handed it to him.  He tucked it deep into his vest.

Then he nodded to an empty chair at their table.  "What's your name?  Where are you from?"

"Zlinka, of the Echo Isles."

"You carry quite a few knives, I see.  You know how to use them for more than slitting purses, don't you?"

Zlinka glanced at him quickly.  She nodded once, then looked away.

Oryx's pale eyes narrowed.  He seemed to be thinking.  Then he leaned over the table toward her.  "Will you join us for a drink?"

Ibex groaned in exasperation.  "Oryx, please..."

"Sit down," Oryx gestured her to a chair.  "I have an offer to make you."

Cautious but curious, Zlinka slid into the chair.

"On no you don't, Oryx," snapped Ibex.  "I will not travel with a thief."

Oryx ignored him.  "I'm Oryx from Thunder Bluff, and this is my twin brother, Ibex.  We've taken on some work, but as a healer and a shield-bearing warrior, we are slow to finish our jobs.  We're looking for someone to join us, someone good with weapons, someone quick on their feet.  We'd split the spoils and rewards evenly.  What do you say?"

Ibex buried his face in his hands.  "I can't believe this.  You are hiring a thief, an assassin.  Why not a nice, honest Tauren hunter?  I saw one traveling alone in the Stagnant Oasis this morning.  I think I recognized him from our stay in Bloodhoof Village.  Why not him?"

Not looking at his brother, Oryx said softly, "Maybe I'm not looking for the safest possible option.  Maybe I'm willing to take a few risks."

Ibex's brows lowered to form a heavy ridge over his eyes, "Does it every occur to you that I get tired of looking out for you?"

"Then maybe you should stop."

Ibex leaned back in his chair.  It creaked under the strain. He pressed his lips tight together, and the corners of his mouth paled, but he said nothing more.

Oryx turned to her once more.  "In deference to my brother, here, I'd have to ask that you not kill or rob us in our sleep.  Can you promise me that?"

She laughed.  Who were these people?  "I won't, I promise."

Ibex frowned and looked away.

Oryx leaned forward, "So, you accept?"

Zlinka looked from one face to the other.  She needed work.  She'd been greatly battered and bruised while working alone.  It made sense to join forces with others.  But these two?  She closed her eyes. In fifty years, what would she wish she had done in this moment?  Go adventuring with these young men, one of whom distrusted her, while the other trusted her too recklessly?  Or pass them by, to wait for a safer option?

Safety had never been her top priority.

She opened her eyes, "I do."

Oryx's answering smile was lost as the Lich King's blade sliced through the visual cortex at the back of her head.  Tiny irregularities along the edge of the blade dug microscopic, textured furrows perpendicular to the gash, eliciting infinite overlapping visions and flashes of exquisite color.

As the point sheared diagonally downward, her eyes filled with the most beautiful light of all: the vibrant orange light of late afternoon, her favorite light of the day.  Its beauty took her breath away.

The fiery orb of the sun shone over the Southern Barrens, casting long, stilt-like shadows on the far side of the road.  She pulled her raptor to a stop where a path split off the Gold Road. An old signpost, half-hidden in the grass, pointed west toward a place called "Dustwallow Marsh."

Zlinka looked down the narrow dirt road.  Through a U-shaped dip in the line of hills, she could just glimpse the sea sparkling like a distant jewel, the sun casting a bright, flaming path on the water.  Her throat tightened.  There was nothing more beautiful than the sea.  Nothing.  She let the light on the waves burn into her retinas, into her memory, soaking it in, ignoring the floating purple spots outlined with halos of forest green.  She could hardly breathe.

Ibex rode on unheeding.  Zlinka darted off the road so often he no longer turned around to look.  She'd leave the path to dig for minerals, peer inquisitively into holes, and climb trees in search of birds' nests.  She ate the eggs straight out of the nests, crunching the shells, savoring the rich, warm yolks as they slid down her throat.

Oryx reined in beside her.  He glanced down the road to the marsh, then back at her.  His eyebrows rose.

"This is it, you know," Zlinka said.

"This is what?"

She pointed at the view to the sea, "This is as good as it gets."

He peered down the road, then back at her.  "I just see a dusty road."

Zlinka shook her head, "Look again.  No matter how many times you look at the sea, it will never be the same from one moment to the next.  Look at the sunlight on the hills.  Look at the shadows.  We're well fed, we've put in a good day's work, and tonight we will sleep around a warm campfire, where we can look up at the stars until we fall asleep.  Life is good, Oryx, in this moment.  This is what happiness looks like."

Oryx stared down at the sea, hard, as though he could unpeel layers to reveal an inner beauty he could not quite perceive.

Eventually, he said softly, "Zlinka...  do know that there are terrible things happening in the world right now?"

Zlinka nodded, not taking her eyes from the patch of sea on the horizon.

Oryx continued, slowly, "Doesn't that upset you?  How can you be happy, knowing this?"

Zlinka inhaled a deep breath of sweet, fragrant air.  "Do you refuse to eat, because somewhere, somebody is hungry?"

Beside her, Oryx sat on his kodo, reins slack, not moving.  Zlinka basked in the light until its fiery intensity dimmed to pale yellows, and a cool breeze whispered through the dry grass.  The moment was over.

Zlinka gathered her reins in and glanced up at him.  She expected him to be looking at the light, too, waking from the same contemplation.  Instead, she found him looking down at her, his eyes thoughtful.


The memory tore as the runeblade cut deeper, exploding the orange of the waning sun into flashes of yellows and golds and coppers.  Her mind struggled to make sense of the cascade of colors in the midst of catastrophic injury.  It seized on the round gold shapes seared by the sun into her retina.

She was staring down at a handful of luminous gold pieces in her palm, coins that flickered and flashed in the warm light of the evening campfire.  She counted them again.  She had ten gold pieces.  It was the most money she had ever had at one time in her life. She'd send eight gold to her family at home and keep two for herself.  Two gold would keep her gear repaired and her daggers sharpened and poisoned for three weeks.

A step crunched behind her. Oryx settled down beside her, an herbing bag in his lap.  He untied the mouth of the bag and began to sort through handfuls of fresh herbs, tying them into neat bundles.  He glanced over at her.  Then he froze, a sprig of briarthorn in his hand.

"Zlinka, where did you get all that money?"

"From the inn in Camp Taurajo," she replied, lifting a coin to examine it better in the dim light.  "The innkeeper just left it laying there in plain sight. It was foolish of him."

Oryx's hand tightened around the briarthorn.  His voice, when he spoke again, was quiet and tight, "Take it back."

Zlinka swiveled to look at him, one eyebrow cocked.  "Do you want some?" she asked.  "I found it, but I'll split it with you if you like."

"No, I don't want it," he enunciated carefully.  "You must return it."

Zlinka gaped at him.

Ibex, rolled up in his sleeping hides on the far side of the campfire, began to laugh, a bitter, knowing laugh.  He sat up.  "I told you it was a bad idea to let her join us, Oryx.  She's nothing but a..."

"Let me handle this."  Oryx broke in.

Ibex shrugged and lay back down, his shoulders still shaking with vindicated laughter as he turned away.

Oryx took her hand in one of his and scooped the money from the palm.  He moved with such calmness and certainty that she did not even try to close her fingers.  One by one, he dropped the coins back into the moneybag, clink, clink, clink.

She stared at him.  "What are you doing?  I don't understand what the problem is.  I have never stolen from you, not since that first day.  Isn't that what you wanted?"

He shook his head.  "That's not enough."

"You can't mean..."  The enormity of what he might be about to ask of her made her head reel.  "Oryx, this is all I know.  This is what I do."  She drew away from him.  As her fingers slipped through his he clasped them and held them tight.

"Wait." He seemed to be searching for the right words.

"This is part of who I am, Oryx."

"Zlinka... In Razorfen Kraul we saw Scourge with our own eyes, just this morning.  Here, in our land!  Do you know what that means?  The evils of the Eastern Continent are getting closer.  They will destroy Mulgore, the Echo Isles, and all the beauty that you enjoy around you.  If we are going to keep our homes and families safe, the Horde has to stand together in order to fight it.  Every time you steal...  please don't pull away...  every time you steal from Horde, you erode our strength from within.  You bring defeat closer."

Her cheeks drained of color, leaving them a pale, cold blue.  She shrank back from the picture Oryx was painting for her.  He was wrong.  Beyond the Echo Isles she was an outsider, scavenging whatever bits and pieces other people left behind, and sending it to the only people in the world she cared about:  her family.

She jerked her hand away.  She hid her face in her hands and gazed at the fire from between the bars of her fingers.

In a small, muffled voice she said, "I'm just a... small-time thief, Oryx.  I can't hurt much, and I can't help much.  But I can scrape a living for my family."

"You can do more than that."

Zlinka shook her head.

Oryx tapped the hilt of one of her daggers with his fingernail.  "I've seen you wield these," he said.  "I think there would be a place for you in the battles ahead."

Zlinka said nothing.  She imagined herself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of strangers, fighting their private battles for them.  It was ludicrous.

She'd lived through the attack by the Kul Tiras fleet as a child.  She still had nightmares about it, the flaming thatch roofs, the burning palm trees, the retreat over the sea to Durotar through greasy water clogged with debris, wyverns screaming overhead.

She helped in the fight to retake the Echo Isles, she remembered Zalazane's betrayal, and saw his masses of horrible, ensorcelled Trolls turn against them. Most of the Darkspear had retreated back to Durotar, but her family had managed to recapture and hold their own small island against Zalazane.

Zalazane was the enemy she had grown up with, a Trollish enemy, a cancer within her own world.  She was no coward:  she had killed more ensorcelled Trolls than she could count as they emerged from the surf onto her island.   This was her battle.  The conflicts beyond her own beloved islands did not concern her.  Let others fight their own battles.

"This is not my fight, Oryx."

Oryx lowered his voice.  "Yes, it is.  This threat is much larger than any regional battles you've seen.  It concerns us all.  Think of the beauty you saw two days ago, when you saw the sun reflected on the water.  Isn't that worth fighting for?  Think of your family.  Aren't they worth some personal sacrifice?"

"My family is not in danger," whispered Zlinka.  Not from the outside, at least.

Oryx nodded.  "Not yet, no.  But they will be, if everyone waits until the evil is upon them.  Then it will be too late.  We have to confront it before that."

Zlinka was silent.  She imagined undead armies overwhelming her home, her family crushed between them and Zalazane...  she closed her eyes.

"I'm going, too," said Oryx.  "I will master the elements; I will bend them to my will; I will bring them with me into battle as a healer."  He leaned forward, "Come with me."

From across the campfire, Ibex snorted.  Zlinka jumped.  Over the red glow of the coals Ibex was watching them. His eyes were angry.  But he wasn't looking at her.  His stern gaze bored into his brother.

"We're going back to Thunder Bluff once we've dealt with the centaurs."

Oryx frowned into the dying light of the campfire, "There are worse things than centaurs, Ibex."

Ibex shrugged.  His lip curled, and his eyes were cold and dismissive.  "Not for us.  We will do well not to get involved in other peoples' wars."

Oryx shook his head, but said nothing more, staring into the coals.   He did not move as she crept to her bedroll.

Zlinka lay on her back, looking up.  She did not like the ugliness in Ibex's face as he voiced opinions that she held herself.

The world seemed a much bigger place, full of dangers and evils and threats much larger than herself.  Larger even than the Darkspear.  It was a daunting sight, like seeing the vast reaches of the night sky for the first time, the infinite black vault twinkling with thousands of distant stars.  The sky above seemed to press her into insignificance, one small pickpocket with a pair of little knives.

It was all too enormous to contemplate.  She closed her eyelids, blocking out the immensity above.  Instead, she imagined Camp Taurajo, and the warmth and welcome of the inn.  The innkeeper, a heavy-set Tauren with two long braids on either side of his neck and a bronze ring in his nose, had served them refreshing water drawn from a deep, cool well just outside the camp.  He'd wrapped loaves of fresh-baked bread in linen cloth for them, though it didn't look like he had much cloth to spare.  And when he thought they weren't looking, he'd slipped a couple apples into each package.

And for this, she had robbed him.  She'd slipped his moneybag into her sleeve when he was busy with their packs.  She'd smiled at his naivete.

She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.  He didn't deserve to be robbed.  He was just helping a couple Horde strangers on their way.  Doubtless he'd be less generous next time.  In her own small way, she had made life harder for travelers in Camp Taurajo.  The glee she'd felt in her cleverness melted away, leaving only sadness and an odd, uncomfortable ache.  The dull pain made her restless and kept her from falling asleep.

In the middle of the night Zlinka gave in to her own wakefulness.  She crept away from camp and rode north along the Gold Road, her raptor streaking through the dark on silent, predatory claws.

Outside Camp Taurajo she dismounted, draping the raptor's reins over the side of the well behind the inn.  Like a shadow, she slipped inside the inn, walking softly, rolling each step from heel to toe, putting her weight on the outer edges of her feet, making no sound.

She replaced the money behind the counter.

Back outside, she perched on the edge of the well.  Never had she gone through so much trouble to put something back.  She imagined the innkeeper finding the money in the morning...€“ she'd hidden it under a small pile of linen.  She smiled.  But her smile was short-lived.

She pulled her thieves' tools from her saddlebag.  They were scratched from much use, but so polished they shone in the moonlight like slivers of silver.  She ran her fingers over the angle of her tension wrench, and touched the many tiny points and shapes of her ring of picks.  They clicked softly in her hand.  She squeezed them tight in her palm, so hard they left purple grooves in her skin.

Then she dangled them over the well.

She should just let them go.  It would be much better if she did.  Except that it felt like cutting off one of her own hands and dropping it down a well.  

Her mother had made these tools with her, telling her the name of each tiny pick, and what its unique shape was good for.

Just drop them.  Be done with it.

The tension wrench was a gift from her father, fashioned out of a metal hinge from a Kul Tiras chest he used as his special bench at the family campfire.  He'd replaced the hinge with a leather strap, which was never as good as the original, but he always lied and said he liked the leather one better.

Her arm shook.  The picks jingled like tiny bells.  Just drop them.

Was there any way to use her skills as a rogue without hurting others? Was there anything good she could do with these?  There had to be a way.  If there wasn't, then she had nothing to contribute.  She'd be a scavenger all her life.  She'd have to find a way.

She couldn't drop so much of herself down a well.

Tightening her fingers around her tools, she drew her hand back.  She pressed them to her chest.  Her heart pounded as though she'd been running.  She buried her tools in the deepest pocket of her saddlebag.

She reached their little camp just before dawn.  She had just one more bit of unfinished business before she could crawl into her bedroll and pretend to have slept.  She drew the little bag from around her neck, the one she used for her most cherished possessions: a bit of sand from her island and three shells.  Mixed in with the shells was a single silver coin, shiny from much rubbing.

She bent over Oryx's sleeping form.  His body rose and fell with each deep, even breath. He smelled faintly of spices and fresh-picked herbs.  Tucked loosely in his pack she found his moneybag, the same one she had tried to steal weeks before.  She slipped the coin inside.  It slid to the bottom and chinked among its fellows.  There.  Now she had given back everything she had taken from others.

She curled up in her bedroll.  It was so good to lie down.  Too bad she'd have to get up in just a few minutes.  She'd just close her eyes for a bit, first.  Just for a little while.

The memories became fragmented as the Lich King's blade tore through the center of her brain, memories spilling like pearls from a broken string, a cascade of sounds and smiles, touches and tears.

Oryx, watching his brother ride away to Thunder Bluff alone, then turning to her, his eyes eager for the next adventure.  Pulling a little baby Tauren from the ruins of a burned building in Camp Aparaje and cuddling her to her chest:  little Luna.  Sneaking through the molten depths beneath Blackrock Mountain for months, seeking the ore so coveted by the Thorium Brotherhood.  Holding up the gleaming, lava-forged Nightfall axe, and presenting it to the warriors of the Horde.  Picking hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of locked treasure boxes for her friends.  Plunging through the blistering heat to thrust her knives into Ragnaros and watching his hammer fall.  Finding a baby Maghar orc in Sunspring Post and bringing her home: little Zora.  Slashing her way through the Undercity to recapture it after Varimathras' betrayal.

Enjoying an evening in Dalaran, her head on Oryx's shoulder, his arm snug around her waist, Luna and Zora playing behind them. Feeling the slight pressure of Oryx's mouth on the top of her head, and hearing him whisper, "This is it, you know: this is what happiness looks like."  Smiling at him, she burrowed her face in his mane.  She inhaled his familiar, beloved scent of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

The runeblade stopped.  Time slowed to a standstill.  Her final moment stretched into eternity, a moment of joy frozen in time, delicate and exquisite as spun glass.

Arthas placed a foot on her chest and wrenched the blade out, slick and red with spilled memories.  The edge grated on her skull, but she did not hear it. Her head slumped forwards as the blade tore free.  Warmth poured down her face, but she did not feel it.  Arthas shoved her backwards.  She crumpled to the frozen ground, rolling beneath the pounding feet of the other fighters, Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, Elves and Undead, and came to rest on the ice grey stone.  She lay still, huddled in the center of an ever-widening splash of vibrant red, her unseeing eyes reflecting the vastness of the sky above, a sky filled with twinkling dreams.

She was still smiling.
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#2
Epilogue

Zlinka opened her eyes.  She was laying in a bed in a dim room - her own room, the one she shared with Oryx in their quarters in Dalaran.

Oryx was sitting on the side of the bed with his eyes closed, head almost touching his chest, dozing. Dark lines, like smudges, colored the pale skin below his eyes.

Her limbs were stiff and sore.  She shifted her weight.  Oryx's eyes opened.  He looked dully at her for a moment, his face grey and bleak, as though he had done this many times already.  But then his eyes rested on hers, and his face broke into a smile of relief.

"Welcome back," he said.

"Is the Lich King dead?"

Oryx nodded, "Oh yes.  Tirion brought you back.  He brought us all back.  We all...  but I'll tell you about that later.  You fought well.  Don't you remember?"

Zlinka shook her head.  Pain lanced through her skull.  She winced and closed her eyes.

"Don't move too much yet," Oryx said.  "You had a...  nasty injury.  Without Tirion's skill I'm not sure you would have pulled through."

"I'll have to thank him, then."

"You should.  He said such fine healing was wasted on a rogue."

Zlinka smiled.  "I've heard that before."

She reached up with one hand to touch the side of her head.  A thin, semi-circular scar ran from her left temple around the back of her head.  She shuddered.

"Tirion thinks the hair that grows from that scar will probably come in white from now on.  He said something about the surface of the runeblade, but I didn't catch it."

"Too busy healing others, hmm?"

Oryx shook his head.  For a moment, his eyes gazed down at something she could not see, and he seemed unable to speak.  He curved his arms in front of him, as though he were cradling something against his chest.  Only then did Zlinka notice a dark stain on the front of his tunic, much scrubbed, but still interlaced with a few long, turquoise hairs caught in the seam of the shoulder.  She looked slowly up at his face, and what she saw there made her throat tighten to the point of pain.

She reached across the blanket to take his hand, "I love you too, Oryx."

Squeezing her fingers hard, Oryx nodded.

They stayed silent for a long time.  The room grew dark as twilight turned to night.  When it was almost too dark to see, horizontal lines of light flickered to life between the slats of the shutters, casting soft yellow bars of light against the opposite wall.  The streetlights were coming on.

The faint sounds of celebration filtered through the shutter from the city outside.  Firecrackers popped and whistled in the distant square.  Giddy laughter passed by their window.

Oryx's head drooped.  He leaned gently to one side, then startled back upright, only to start sagging again.

With a small smile that was lost in the darkness, Zlinka pushed herself up onto her elbow. She twined her fingers into his mane and eased him down next to her.  He didn't open his eyes, but the tenseness of his shoulders relaxed as he settled onto the bed.

Zlinka curled into the crook of his arm, her head on his shoulder.  She pulled the far edge of the blanket over them both.  For a long time she lay awake, her eyes gleaming in the dark, listening to his steady breathing.

Then she, too, slept.
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