Leva Dawnbreeze was the first to move when she realized her patient was no longer there. Whatever took Toriah left no marks on the floor or walls. All that remained was the naaru remnant, lying at the very edge of the Sunwell. Its light still pulsed, softly and faintly, as if it were a sentient creature in the middle of deep thought.
Halduron Brightwing, Ranger-General of the Farstriders, simply remained where he stood. He stared hard into the depths of the Sunwell’s fount, past the spot where Toriah had been sitting. To his surprise, Orion was still laying by his feet. Usually the overprotective cat was the first to go seeking out his mistress at the slightest hint of trouble. This time, however, Orion merely stayed. The lynx’s golden lantern-like eyes gazed, calm and unworried, into the Sunwell. Perhaps he sensed his mistress’s presence within and, therefore, did not fret.
Taking a hint from the hunter’s companion, Halduron sat down on the chamber’s floor, folding his long legs beneath him. The head healer turned to gape in confusion.
“What are you doing?!” she said, her brow creasing with worry. “We need to find her!”
“I am— I have to be content to wait,” Halduron said, nodding toward the relaxed yet watchful lynx. “The Sunwell took Tori for a reason, and that is enough for me.”
Healer Dawnbreeze raised and dropped her arms uselessly several times. She finally bent down to pick up the crystalline shard, but the other elf stopped her.
“No, we should leave that there. Just in case.” He inclined his head toward the corridor leading out of the Sunwell’s chamber. “You should go ahead. I’m sure you have other duties to attend to. I will watch for her.”
Heaving a sigh of resigned acceptance, Leva turned to go. “As you always do, dear boy,” she murmured, out of earshot. “As you always do.”
By the Sunwell, Halduron gathered his cloak about him and got comfortable. “Guess it’s just you and me, old friend,” he said congenially to the vigilant lynx.
Orion shifted his gaze to the elf, snorted, then went back to watching the Sunwell’s light.
Toriah couldn’t see.
Rather, she could see, but it was all in the hues of bright, blinding, and eye-searing. Yet none of it actually hurt. Even her injuries from the Broken Shore didn’t hurt anymore. She had never felt better in her life. All around her, the Light and arcane energy swirled and eddied and sang. It swept her up in its current and buoyed her along the invisible waves. For a while, she floated. She allowed herself to just… exist. Her mind was at peace, despite being stripped of her senses and faculties. They weren’t needed right now, and it brought a sense of restful calm to her being.
A calm she didn’t deserve.
Tears suddenly stung her eyes. Her mouth formed the words before she could stop them: “I’m sorry.”
There was a slight shift in her surroundings. The song took on a questioning lilt, as if it were asking something in response to the elf’s words. Before she could begin explaining, the energies that held her aloft wrapped themselves around her in a tight, but kindly, embrace. It was the gesture of a parent welcoming back a long-lost child who had gone astray. Fragments of thought and sentiment spoke without an audible voice. All of them pooled together in the center of her mind with one clear message.
Welcome home. Now, let go and heal.
Toriah’s hands, which had been clenched into tight fists, relaxed. She leaned into the current, into the Sunwell’s flow. For the first time in years, the veteran hunter allowed herself to be forgiven— starting with absolution from herself.
The song of the Sunwell soared with joy.
Orion suddenly sat up, his large ears angled forward with eagerness. Halduron Brightwing clambered to his feet as he felt the energy of the Sunwell rise. The shard’s light began pulsing faster, then filled the crystal to its jagged edges, as if threatening to burst forth. The Sunwell’s light filled the chamber once more. Its song was a triumphant, beautiful roar.
Ethereal tendrils of holy and arcane energy gently deposited a resting Toriah onto the floor by the Sunwell’s edge. Halduron and Orion waited until the Sunwell reverted to its normal flow before rushing to the elf’s side. They slowed as she stirred and sat up, opening her eyes.
Eyes that were now alight with golden-white energy.
Next to her, the naaru remnant lay completely inert. She picked it up and, giving it a moment’s thoughtful consideration, tucked it back into the pouch on her belt. Toriah glanced up at her approaching companions. The smile on her face froze when she saw their looks of confusion.
“What?” she said, raising a long eyebrow.
The hunter’s lynx drew closer, carefully, sniffing the elf for a full minute before letting out a satisfied purr and nuzzled her. Halduron visibly relaxed.
“You just look a bit different,” he said.
“Are my ears shorter or something?”
“No, nothing like that. See for yourself.”
He drew one of his daggers and held the blade up for Toriah. She drew in a quick breath once she saw that the faint sun-like glow reflected in the blade was coming from her. Her eyes were no longer green with the energy of fel magic. She felt more like herself again, like she had been missing a crucial puzzle piece.
Toriah let Halduron help her up from the floor and nearly toppled over again. Her spirit had been bolstered and made whole, but her physical body still needed time. The wounds weren’t completely healed quite yet. At least they no longer felt as severe and crippling. For the moment, she only needed one of the crutches to be mobile. Her breath felt easier, less labored. That would have to do. She’d made more progress tonight than she had over the last several months; that was nothing to dismiss lightly.
She faced the Sunwell, standing up to her full height as the crutches would allow her. “Thank you.”
A fragment of the magical fount’s energy reached out one last time in benediction. Toriah led her companions out of the chamber and back into the predawn air. Birds were beginning to wake in their roosts with rustling and song. In the distance, however, a discordant sound reached Toriah’s sharp ears. It was the cry of a creature not typically found in Quel’thalas.
Over the water, an avian silhouette flapped awkwardly into view, as if injured. It landed roughly on the grass, crying out once again as it did. Toriah bolted over, followed closely by Halduron and Orion. The creature was indeed a bird, though it had deep purple feathers and intricate ornamentation on its bloodied wings and body. Around its neck was a moonstone set within a silver paw surrounded by delicately wrought branches and leaves. It was a design the hunter readily recognized.
Halduron immediately stripped off his cloak and handed it to Toriah. She knelt to cradle the broken creature, carefully wrapping it in the thick fabric. “Aria! Ariadwyn, what has happened to you?”
Luminous white eyes flickered open, then closed again. As they did, the body elongated into something more humanoid. The wings shifted into long, wiry arms and the feathers melted away. When the transformation was complete, a kaldorei druid lay in Toriah’s arms. For a moment, the only sound in the morning air was Ariadwyn’s shallow, raspy breathing. Even the birds had ceased their music.
“Tori,” she finally said, the effort making her gasp, “I had to find you. She attacked. Darnassus is lost. I don’t know… I can’t… Why?” The druid’s words were lost in the midst of another coughing fit. She struggled to catch her breath.
“Who attacked?” Toriah asked.
Minutes slipped by before Ariadwyn could speak again. “Sylvanas. Your warchief.”
Toriah whirled on Halduron, the gold-white light in her eyes blazing bright. “Did you know about this? Does Lor’themar?”
“I didn’t— I had only heard rumors from some of the other hunters and in passing. I had also heard about what happened in Arathi Highlands some time ago, when she and King Anduin allowed human and Forsaken friends and family to reconnect. What she did there was…” Halduron trailed off, his lean face pale. “I didn’t think she’d do something like this next.”
The ranger-general paused, anger now creasing his brow. “And as to our Lord Regent, I can’t even begin to fathom what he knows or doesn’t know.”
Ariadwyn coughed again, this time spraying flecks of blood onto the grass. “Aria, stay with me,” Toriah said, turning back to her friend. “We’ll get you to a healer and you’ll be okay. Just hang on.”
“No.” A small, sad smile touched the druid’s pale lips. “Not this time, my friend. My path ends here. I trust you will make things right. For the sake of Azeroth.” She fumbled for something in a small pouch at her side and held it up to the other elf. It was a small stone with runes carved into the rough surface. “Take this,” she said softly. A moment later, she tugged at the moonstone pendant hanging around her neck and pressed it into Toriah’s hands as well. “These will grant you passage to Teldrassil and back. There are still… You can save… Please help them.”
Toriah gently shushed her friend, trying to calm the druid’s agitation. “I will do what I can, Aria. I promise you. Rest now.”
A ghost of a smile fluttered across Aria’s battered face. She raised a shaking hand toward Toriah, touching her finger to the hunter’s forehead. “Elune-adore,” she whispered. Slowly, her eyes dimmed, then became flat as the light completely left them. Toriah gently laid her friend’s head onto the soft grass. She stood up, stumbled, but did not fall. Her face was a grim mask of grief-stricken determination.
“Who was she?” Halduron asked.
“Ariadwyn Starclaw, druid of the Cenarion Circle, kaldorei, and one of my staunchest allies in the fight against Deathwing,” Toriah said, her voice hardening with each syllable. “She was my friend.”
Without another word, the Farstrider captain held up the stone and began to invoke its teleportation magic. Halduron hurried forward, holding Toriah by her shoulders.
“What are you doing? Your wounds haven’t completely healed. You’re unarmed. The last place you should be going is a war zone!”
“Someone has to put a stop to this, Halduron. Ariadwyn risked her life to bring this information to me and did so with her dying breath. This is all wrong and you know it!”
“I do know it! I also know if she finds out, she will kill you!”
“I still have to try.”
Halduron knew there was no changing Toriah’s mind. He reluctantly let his arms fall back to his side. For a brief moment, he let his fingers linger against her hand. She gave him a wan half-smile and took an unsteady step backwards. The Farstrider captain disappeared in a swirl of smoke and sparkling blue magic. While he waited for her return, Halduron worked to prepare the deceased druid for funeral rites.
As the teleportation spell took her, Toriah immediately sensed something was wrong. It was as if there was interference in the hearthstone’s magic. She’d used these magical stones many times during her adventures, even in the midst of battle, and had never encountered such a turbulent ride. The magic abruptly dissolved around her, throwing her back into the real world. She crashed into the rocky shore slick with seawater. Shaking her head, Toriah glanced around to gain her bearings.
And realized why the stone’s magic had failed to deliver her to the intended destination.
To her anguish, Toriah saw she was too late. Teldrassil burned.
Without looking to see if anyone else was about, she activated the stone again— this time, to take her away from the grisly scene. As the spell deposited her back on the grassy hills of Quel’danas, she fell to her knees, sobbing. Orion and Halduron were there in an instant. Once she regained her breath and composure, Toriah described what she saw from the nearby seashore: of the World Tree in flames.
Fastening the moonstone necklace to her belt, Toriah Sunstorm, Ranger-Captain of the Farstriders and Quel’thalas, stood facing the dawn glittering on the sea. Orion sat by her feet, gazing longingly up at his mistress.
“Requesting permission to return to active duty, general,” she said.
Halduron Brightwing came to stand by Toriah’s side, looking out at the placid waters. “Permission granted, captain,” he said. “While you complete your rehabilitation, you may want to meet some of our other newest allies like the Highmountain Tribe of tauren. Something tells me you’d like them a lot.”
“That will be my first stop, then.” She turned away from the sunlight, casting sharp shadows across her face.
“But, first: I need to bury a friend.”