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Dust and Ashes [Short Story]
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The dusty planes of the southern barrens were already a rather pretty red in the daylight, but the evening had a rather special effect on the landscape. The plateaus and mesas cast off an odd, otherworldly glimmer which her people had always ascribed to being a window into the spirit world. But she was no shaman. She was a quite large tauren of tawny pelt, strapped down from head to toe in heavy saronite armor. It was pitted somewhat, as it had been in her service for years and the metal was no longer so easy to come by anymore, but nonetheless, she had grown comfortable in it. Her hooves and large horns were black, and her mane wild. Her countenance was harsh, and strapped upon her hip was her shotgun, and upon her back was her claymore. It was razor sharp, just like her eyes. Her name was Ashepta.
By her side was her companion, somewhere less than half her height. Her hair was tied up to keep from out of her eyes. Always curiously complicated, it was an odd contrast to her rather plain armor. The dwarf kept a shield, one that she had downsized so that she might keep her rifle upon her back as well. Her mace hung on her hips, managing to keep pace with the giant she walked besides. She was pale of skin and her face typically bright with cheer; not today, however. Her name was Venhildara, and today, she feared her friend was in trouble.
Ashepta had started their journey very specifically today, so they might arrive at this time. It was important. They would have had to wait a whole day otherwise if they missed this window of opportunity. And arrive on time they did. Before the two was the sundered entrance to a once peaceful camp called Taurajo.
Venhildara stopped and shook her head, “Y’don’t have’ta do this.”
Ashepta didn’t look down at her friend. Her gaze remained on the graveyard that was once her home, “I do.”
“Why? ‘cause some stuffy ol’ bull wit’ funny eyes told’ja so?” The paladin huffed rather indignantly.
Ashepta’s answer was as typically blunt as ever, “Yes.”
Venhildara scowled, “Ya didn’ even know’im! Just walked up on us outta no’where an’ yer gon’ta listen to ‘im?”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” the heifer stated, finally looking down at the stout little warrior, “I just expect you to have some patience.”
Venhildara blinked and paused for a moment, “What’s that supposed’ta mean?”
“It means you have no clue what I’m doing. You are a dwarf. I am Shu’halo. It is as simple as that,” Ashepta insisted.
Venhildara stammered, “W-wait a bloody-“
“You are a shaman for your people-“
“Paladin. Your people listen to you when you speak to them of the ways of your spirits. Do they not?” Ashepta stated, unusually thoughtful.
Venhildara crossed her arms, “Aye. It’s not the same.”
Ashepta snorted, “It is.”
Venhildara opened her mouth to say something, then sighed and shook her head again, “A’ight. A’ight, jus’… Ah dunno…”
The sunwalker stepped inside the town. She reached into her bag where she retrieved several pouches that the shaman had given her. She had memorized the rites as a child, as tauren were want to do, and made her way to the bonfire at the center of the camp. Opening a pouch, she sprinkled a handful onto the old fire pit and stepped back as it burst to life with an orange, almost greenish flame. She looked over as her friend found somewhere to sit, then knelt by the flame. She sat and thought for a bit, then applied the second pouch, applying a somewhat odd smelling green paint to her face. After giving a small offering into the fire, she closed her eyes and imbibed her flask, a sapta. The fluid was a powerful, pungent thing, spicy, bitter, sweet, rich, dry, all the senses at once; it was overpowering.
And in taurahe, the first voice came to her, “Oh dear Ashepta… You look so tired. Come, rest.”
When she opened her eyes, a familiar, old tauren sat beside her. Ashepta regarded the white pelted woman quietly, “Elder Half-Moon…”
The blue eyed tauren smiled, “It’s been so long since you went away. You’re so strong now. Your mother would be so proud.”
Ashepta nodded quietly, silent. After a moment, she sighed, “My mother... Is she…”
Half-Moon shook her head sadly, “I haven’t seen Naracha for a long time now. I’m not sure how long; time in the land of the dead is so…Strange… Why, it seems like just yesterday you were a calf barely old enough to hold her spear.” The elder snorted with laughter, “Why that didn’t keep you from beating all the other children with it. Oh, how they complained to me when they made you angry.”
Ashepta stared intensely at the elder and shook her head, “I don’t remember that.”
“Ah-…Ah… I see now,” Half-Moon mused, “You were sent to me, weren’t you?”
“I was, elder,” Ashepta grunted.
The spirit tapped her chin, “We needn’t rush things then. We have all the time in the world. Would you help me? I still need to fetch some water.”
“Of course,” the sunwalker nodded and stood, offering her hand to her elder to help her up.
The old tauren snorted with laughter, “take care dear, and do try not to get lost on the way.”
Ashepta blinked, and she was alone, somewhere upon the plains of the spirit world. She clutched her spear tightly and started walking. I didn’t matter where in particular, she knew, she simply needed to move and she would arrive eventually. So she walked, and she walked for a long time. The haze of the spirit world never changed in time, perpetually both night and day.
“Hey look who came back!”
Ashepta clenched her fists, instantly remembering the voice. Her eyes darted over her shoulder, spotted four young tauren starting to circle her. It was the one with mottled, reddish fur that caught her attention; a pretty female who matched her size, but not her competence. The others were vague when she could not focus on them, one blonde, one tall, and another with black fur. But it was this one that spoke, and jeered her, “Daroma.”
“Ashepta,” The spirit dirtied her name with the stupid stuck up smug grin that she was so familiar with, “What’s an ugly freak like you doing back here? Shouldn’t you be off running away again?”
The heifer didn’t hesitate to retaliate, not with words but with the butt of her spear. It was all too familiar a feel to send her rival sprawling to the floor instead of voicing a sharp retort. But there were always more than she was, and she never had anyone on her side. So it played out like it always had. They swarmed her. She kicked Garrul in the face, and when Sharra grabbed her hand, she gored her in the face with her horns, when Hardok punched her in the stomach; she clocked him in the jaw. But things played out like always, and once again, she found herself bleeding in the dirt.
Shuddering with rage she picked herself up off the ground and wiped the dirt and blood off her clothes. Her hooves couldn’t hold her however, and as she took her next step she tumbled to the ground again.
“What are you waiting for? Do it!” Daroma barked.
Ashepta looked up into the eyes of a young bull. He stared back at her, frightened, ashamed even. Daroma turned him around and shook him, “You don’t want to be like her, do you? Who’s more important, us, or that ugly freak?”
“But...She can’t even…” The young male protested.
“Do I look like I care?” Daroma snapped, panting angrily, “Get out of the way!” The leader snatched Ashepta’s spear from his hands and broke it over her knee, throwing it back at its owner, “Later ugly. Orphan freak.”
The male looked between the two as Daroma and the others started to leave. He glanced down at Ashepta, “Are you okay?”
The heifer answered by punching him in the face. She struggled to her hooves again, and started walking forward. She had water to fetch after all. She let the surroundings blur as she focused on moving forward. She just needed the water. Time and distance numbed again, and she wandered across the plains endlessly.
“Why do you keep showing your face ugly? No one wants to see it!” Daroma’s jeers followed her again. Ashepta narrowed her eyes, once again surrounded. She cracked her knuckles, then whipped her spear across Daroma’s face and sent her to the ground again. She was ready for the fight once again. What she wasn’t ready for, however, was to win. So she remembered; it was on this day she was stronger. She spotted Ashorn hiding, but didn’t look at him for long. She couldn’t risk them finding him. They fell upon her, and for the first time she beat them back. She tossed Sharra, still scarred from her horns into Daroma as she stood and beat Garruk into the ground. Hardok hit her over the back with a small log, and she back handed him hard enough to send him spinning away. Daroma and Sharra charged her, and Ashepta flipped Sharra over her head with her horns onto Garruk. Daroma punched her in the face, and they fell to the ground fighting. After a second the mottled tauren scrambled away, “Alright! Fine you freak, leave us alone!”
The others fled behind Daroma, and once again, it was just Ashepta and the male whose name she could not remember. The young bull offered his hand again to help her up, “They don’t talk to me anymore. I’m-.”
Ashepta knocked him out with one good swing. Once again brushing the dirt off her clothes, she collected her spear and kept walking. She walked for a long time, she felt it, and she grew tired. She wandered until she found herself on a small hill. She remembered this place; this was where she would go to be alone. The others never found her here, and she could spend her time in peace. She sat down to rest for a moment before she realized she wasn’t alone. She snapped her attention over to the intruder.
The bull stopped suddenly, “Are you okay?” He approached warily, “I was just trying to get away. Daroma’s beating everyone up. She’s furious she lost; she’s trying to get better than you. And well… you’re the only one who can stand up to her. And well… Your brave enough and you’re so strong…” He didn’t notice Ashepta clenching her fists, “And well, she always says you’re so ugly, but I…I think your pretty…”
Her temper snapped. She whirled around and backhanded him, sending him rolling into the dirt, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” Hot, angry tears spilled down her face, even as she kept hitting him. His name still eluded her, and she left him curled up where he fell. With no other recourse, she simply referred to him as ‘liar.’ It was appropriate, for all she was concerned. She continued on through the spirit planes, shivering with anger. She remembered more now, she remembered all the anger and hate of these days.
Ashepta found herself on the edge of a rise. This day was far too familiar. It was the day of her first kill. She peered down below the rise, down into a quilboar camp. They were readying to attack her home, but she and the others had the advantage of surprise. So they took it. She sprung into the lead, charging off the rise. She knew there were others behind her, but she couldn’t remember who they were. But she remembered every last detail of the quilboar below her. He looked up with a surprised squeal. His clothing was a filthy blue, stitched together with makeshift cloth and thorn vine. His eyes were filled with terror, then pain. She ran her spear through him, watching in slow motion as she lifted him up, and then flung him aside. He twirled through the air and smacked into one of the giant vines. His clothes caught onto a barb, and there he hung, limp. He was the first, but not the last. The charge suddenly lost momentum. She found herself wandering. She shook her head suddenly. The water, she just needed to fetch some water.
She snorted angrily as she wandered through the dusk, memories of the liar came flooding back to her. How he kept trying to help, how he tried to act nice to her, how he pestered her. There was no way to vent her frustration but through fighting. Overhead a horde banner rose into the sky. This was a very important day, she remembered. The name, Captain Ragebreath, came to mind. He was the observer…For recruiting. She squared off with Daroma, keeping her spear tight in her grip. Her rival snorted back, clenching a wooden two handed sword. Daroma rushed her, swinging her claymore overhead. Ashepta swatted it to the side, swatting the spear’s butt at her rival’s face. They had fought so many times that this was expected; Daroma ducked it, using the momentum from her parried blade to swing round at Ashepta’s side. Ashepta stepped back and thrust forward, coming just short of Daroma’s chest. Her rival stepped to the side and connected her weapon with the back of Ashepta’s calf. She snorted smugly then reeled as Ashepta once again stuck her across the snout with her spear. Her heart was hot with rage and she swung again and again as she clubbed her opponent with the years of pent up anger. Daroma reeled, buckling to her knees as she tried to fall back and managed to get her wooden sword into position to block the practice spear, only for it to shatter under the force of Ashepta’s hate. The bystanders moved too slowly to intercept and Ashepta delivered a fierce blow with the butt of the spear to Daroma’s sternum. She watched as her rival exhaled, then struggled for air as her lungs collapsed. The intermediaries rushed to her aid, but the two glared hatefully and knowingly at each other. Someday this would be settled with blood, but not today. Ashepta looked over at Ragebreath, and the old orc smirked and nodded. She took a deep breath, scanning the ring. The liar was watching as well. She glared at him, brushing past Ashorn as she made her way…
The water; Ashepta shook her head again as the memories started to take longer to pull away from. She was close now, close enough to make out the well off in the distance. But there was one last vision she knew was coming. She shivered with dread, already remembering the day.
One of the scouts came back one day, only to die at the gates of the town. There was a quilboar spear in his back. Ashepta was the first to respond, sprinting past to where the hunting party had left earlier that day. All of the young tauren had gone that day, managing to convince the elders that nothing would happen. Ashorn had already gone off to become a druid. Ashepta uninvited herself for her own reasons. She couldn’t remember what they were, and she hated it. It was only now in hindsight she realized that it was the same place she had shed her first blood that they had been ambushed. She came over the same rise, spotting half of the group. It was Daroma’s clique, and… Ashepta tensed in shock. Daroma herself lay slain, half slumped against a tree. She slowed to a stop and knelt by her. She clenched her fists tightly. The quilboar took it from her. She was supposed to die by HER hand, not the filthy pig men. Shuddering with aimless fury, she snatched the claymore that her rival once used. If she couldn’t kill a few of the monsters, then Ashepta would have to finish the job.
She scanned the environment, and the tracks lead onward in the direction she had been going.
It wasn’t long before wretched snorts of her foes turned to shock and pain. She charged into their camp, splitting the first in twane and hacking another across the chest. She split open many, ten, twenty, thirty, the entire camp was dead at her hooves before they stopped coming. She counted three more of the hunters; there was only one more missing. The liar… She turned around and she found him, slumped against the well. As she drew near he looked up. With one hand he held his innards, with the other he reached for her, “I thought… I thought we… Could be…” Ashepta knelt beside him, eyes wide with shock. He struggled to make words that never came. The life fled from his body, and there was nothing she could do. Why couldn’t she remember his name? She cradled him and sobbed into his mane, and she still couldn’t remember his name. What was it? Why did it bother her? How could she need it so much? Why didn’t he just leave her alone?
“There there…” The motherly voice of Half-Moon came back to her, “Sssh ssh. It’s alright.” The elder spirit stood beside Ashepta and tucked her into her embrace.
The sunwalker sobbed into the elder’s shoulder, “I don’t understand. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, nothing at all,” Half-Moon murmured soothingly, “Your sad Ashepta. And it’s okay.”
“Why wouldn’t he leave me alone?” Ashepta cried, pulling away and shaking her head.
“He loved you,” the pale furred elder said calmly, “And he saw something in you. Something you need to see too. You remember now, don’t you?”
“Aratonshe. Aratonshe Cloudsinger,” Ashepta said definitely. She hung her head, “Is he…?”
The elder shook her head, “No, he’s long since moved on, just like you need to. Let it go, let us go. We loved you very much Ashepta, but now it is time to say goodbye. You are needed back with the living. Live with them now, we will always be waiting.” The elder smiled, “Now come on. That water.”
Ashepta nodded. She turned and dipped a stone jar into the well, filling it to the brim before following the elder on back.
Venhildara looked over as Ashepta came out of her trance. She yawned, and then walked over, “Oy. Ash. Y’alright?”
The sunwalker looked over, and then nodded quietly. She took a sip from the jar silently, taking the time to wash off the paint. She let out a long sigh, “…Come on… Let’s get going.”
Venhildara put a hand on her friends shoulder while she sat, “Ashepta… Yer sure yer okay?”
The tauren looked over and nodded, easing the worry off her friend’s face, “I just had to say goodbye.”
The paladin watched, and then started on out of the ruins. Ashepta gave her home one last glance, then followed her on out.
Just some back story for one of my more complicated characters.
For some reason I still don't quite feel satisfied with this. But endless tweaking gets you nowhere.
It is intended to feel a little disjointed.
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