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Vionora

Nightmare: One Last Breath

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Vionora    10

Vionora spent the morning of the Eclipse at the Darkmoon Faire.

She'd never been before. Curious, she wandered around the fairegrounds, looking at the various booths. There were games of questionable safety, foods of dubious origin, and acts of arguable quality. And people of every race and calling one could imagine, many with unique qualities she'd never seen before. Here, Vionora didn't even stand out with her gray-glowing gaze and dark skin with bright hair and well of fel and seal-marked soul. It was strange, but at the same time, affirming. Maybe, she thought, if she lived, she'd join the faire. A torch-juggler on a unicycle wheeled by.

It was strange, now, to care whether she lived or died. She had spent seven years not caring, living her life by rote, by what she was supposed to do. Before those seven years, she had struggled; after those seven years, she had given up. And now it was different. She stopped on the edge of the dock, looking over the mist-wreathed waters, and took in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the cool air. Alive. She wanted to be alive.

The Blue Child was steadily making its way up from the horizon.

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Vionora    10

A few had already gathered before she arrived.

Malhavik was there. Vionora came to his side silently. He and others were listening as Xaraphyne spoke. The trolless was a veteran of the last Eclipse and was telling them what to expect when Accalia came... and what would happen if they defeated her. The trolless' gaze rested on Vionora briefly, unreadable, but she did not address her. Some of the others looked at her suspiciously; the one called Ruuki scowled at her, but none acted. Vionora remained silent. Malhavik did not speak to her.

More trickled in as the designated hour drew closer. Some were restless. Vionora watched as Darrethy left to scout out the isle. Then Brinnea arrived. Vionora spoke to her briefly.

"You're brave," Vionora told her, after they'd spoken of the tremulous truce between the Horde present and any Alliance who arrived to help in the battle versus Accalia.

"Or especially stupid," the death knight woman said. "I've been called both in the past."

Naheal approached and spoke to both of them. Then Smithe arrived. His condition had deteriorated considerably, but he was ready to hold up his side of the agreement with Malhavik to lend his support versus Accalia. With Malhavik there and watchful, Vionora was sure Smithe would try nothing else.

Violence erupted suddenly. Alpha appeared from the shadows between the trees, taking down the tauren warrior who had stood at Xaraphyne's side. No one reacted fast enough to counterattack before the great fel-touched worg got away. The woods filled with menace as the party tried to reorient; then the Harbinger arrived.

The white-furred Fhenrir leapt into the midst of the group with a bestial howl. The impact was augmented by the power of Accalia's shadow magic, sending a wave of force outward. Vionora was struck down, nearly unconscious. She blinked and tried to focus, aware of Malhavik's voidwalker come to shield her from further harm and little else for several moments as the chaos of battle commenced.

Pushing herself to her feet, she summoned the Light to her, and sent it cascading out to all those gathered to repair a small amount of the damage done. She saw Brinnea grimace and knew the human woman felt its burn even as it healed, just like she did. But her attention soon returned to the battle versus the Harbinger. He sought to weaken them before Accalia's coming. Nothing else.

"This fight... doesn't matter.." she murmured.

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Vionora    10

No one heard her as the battle raged on. What she said or did didn't matter either. The Blue Child grew closer to the sun under the cover of the overcasting clouds, unseen but sensed by all as the shadows of the isle grew deeper.

There were a great many powerful fighters facing Fhenrir, but his power was only growing as the Eclipse approached. Vionora watched as he deflected more blows than he took. He was determined to see his destiny made manifest, to sacrifice this world to rule another... Because, she understood, there was nothing in this one for him.

If Vionora had ever wanted something, she might have done the same, with nothing in this world to make it worth protecting to her.

It was true she had sought to end it anyway, but it was only the end she'd desired, and not the means to an end. And when she had found something to want, it was in this world.

Her gaze moved to Malhavik, who stood nearby waiting for an opening. He was as cautious as ever, recognizing that they should not expend all their efforts on the Harbinger when Accalia was still to come, although as a top-level marked he had power to spare. No sooner had this thought crossed her mind than the realization came to her.

And it was that same moment that Fhenrir let loose a piercing howl and an irresistible command. Malhavik dropped to a knee, covering his face with his hands. "Malhavik!" Vionora whispered. Distorted, feral memories surfaced of the battle against Sinaku, and the command he'd had over her and the other top-level marked then. Now with his stolen power, Fhenrir had it over those Vionora had marked. She reached toward Malhavik helplessly as he rose and flung a spell of corruption at Inzema, his own guildmate. The voidwalker who had been guarding Vionora froze.

There was nothing she could do as his companions turned on him and Shokkra, who was also afflicted. With Naheal's mark removed, of the top marked, that left only...

Vionora turned around only to find Smithe standing there. He seized her hands with ease as she raised them defensively. "You have no one to look out for you this time, little one," the dark priest said. "I will not fail now."

His mark glowed brightly, but unlike the others, his mind was his own; the mark she had given him had only overlaid the first. "No!" she gasped as she felt his shadowy magics encircle her soul. Malhavik did not so much as notice, intent on spreading corruption to as many as possible.

Others, however, reacted swiftly. "Vionora!" Brinnea shouted. The death knight sent dark tendrils to seize upon Smithe. At the same time, Anton, the priest of the Righteous Light, reached out with strands of light to pull Vionora toward him. While Smithe rooted himself to the ground with his dark powers, they were torn apart as Vionora fetched up against Anton with some shock. She looked at him with wide eyes.

"I didn't much like the look of what the good reverend was doing," he explained matter-of-factly.

And Smithe's attack had gotten Fhenrir's attention as well. The Harbinger raised his gun and fired a volley of shots at the dark priest, who trembled when the bullets ripped through him and fell to his knees.

The act inspired consternation amongst the gathered defenders. Xaraphyne quickly realized what reason lay behind it. "He needs her alive!" the trolless said. "The mark. He only has her mark while she's alive!"

"Fhenrir needs her alive," Naheal agreed calmly. "If she dies, the chain's severed."

Suddenly the defenders were turning on Vionora. She stood there, looking back at them. "Accalia will come, regardless," she said quietly.

Those words didn't matter either. The mage called a meteor down where Vionora stood, sans regard for allies that stood nearby. Without thinking, Vionora shoved Anton away, sending him stumbling out of range. But then Naheal was there, wrapping his arms around her and enveloping them both in an anti-magic shield.

The impact was averted, though the effort cost him. Looking at him as the energy dissipated, Vionora gently laid her hand on his face. "Save the others," she said.

Naheal didn't have time to respond. Alpha had joined the fight again. He released her and turn to face the great worg, the runes on his blade glowing as he moved to attack. Vionora stepped back.

Toward the shore, Smithe had been chased down where he was attempting to flee by Anton and Brinnea. But then he turned and struck out at Vionora again from a distance. She gasped, and this time, the threat penetrated Malhavik's state. He wiped the black fluid streaming from his eyes and blinked as though waking from a dream, trying to understand what was happening. But Smithe had expended the last of his energy and had to save the rest to defend himself from Brinnea and make his retreat. Vionora sank to the ground in relief as the grip on her soul subsided.

She looked up in time to see Alpha had pinned Naheal. The beast's great bloodied maw was descending to tear out his throat, his runeblade lying a distance away. Again without thinking, Vionora threw herself over him, and the shattered teeth sank into her shoulder instead, only to suddenly be ripped away. Vionora cried out in pain. It was another member of the Righteous Light, the warrior Hegran, who was attacking Alpha, distracting the great fel-touched worg. Malhavik reached her and grabbed her, dragging her out of danger. She held onto him gratefully.

Still, the others battled Fhenrir, who was weakening slowly under the onslaught. Naheal limped to his runeblade and picked it back up to rejoin the fight against Alpha; Smithe got away from Brinnea and Anton and was making his way to a boat that had come for him. Vionora looked upward, and a break in the clouds revealed that the edge of the Blue Child had reached the corona of the sun. She put her hand on Malhavik's arm.

"Mal... she's coming..." she said.

"Are you prepared?" he asked, his voice low.

Vionora met his black eyes, and nodded faintly. He had been honest with her about this; he suspected she would not survive what came next. But it was her only chance to be free, if Accalia was not destroyed. Free. And truly alive.

Finally, she was ready to be alive. She had waited her whole life for this.

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Vionora    10

The battle raged on. Many of the defenders took serious injuries, but their sheer numbers were overwhelming. The Harbinger's allies were nowhere to be seen. It seemed their efforts with him had been token at best; there were always other timelines, after all.

The Blue Child moved steadily over the bright disc of the sun, bringing darkness more and more to the Isle. Things stirred in the woods. When Fhenrir fell, his heart pierced by Xaraphyne's arrow, it was not the end. No ragged cheers went up... only one lonely howl.

Then, the mark returned to her with a surge of energy. Vionora gasped as the power hit her all at once. She'd almost forgotten what it was like -- and it was intensified by the coming Eclipse many times over what it had been before. She struggled to control it, to contain the urge to hunt and howl at the moon, to attack everything in range that possessed that spark of life just begging to be put out.

"She dies," Awatu said. His soldiers moved forward; Malhavik didn't budge from her side. Vionora closed her eyes and pressed her face to his shoulder. He had risked so much for her, and here at the end, she had asked him to continue doing so. And he would, again and again, until it broke him.

"Accalia's comin'," Xaraphyne spoke up. She looked upward, away from the corpse of Fhenrir, at the blemished sun. "Her Herald doesn't matter anymore."

It gave everyone pause. Only a dimming crescent of the sun remained. Vionora could feel the energy gathering just north of their position, and found herself gazing that direction.

"Ready, Malhavik?" Naheal said.

"It's nearly time," Malhavik responded. "I'm going to remove the talisman from Vionora."

His commander didn't look pleased. "Proceed," Awatu said. "It is your head, should it fail."

Then, Accalia's minions came flooding out of the woods. Lupine, no, worgine creatures attacked in a frenzy of slavering jaws and amber eyes. The defenders set about bringing them down, splitting into several parties to defend the Isle. Shouts, cries, and howls filled the air. And the energy gathered in greater and greater amounts.

Vionora's breath came ragged as Malhavik performed his preparations, her soulstone in his hand, but she couldn't concentrate on what he was doing, the dual specters looming before her making rational thought impossible. Even if she lived through the seal's removal, they had to face Accalia herself. And it was the nightmare that had destroyed her seven years ago.

She was afraid, so afraid. Afraid Malhavik would fail, afraid Accalia would consume them, afraid the nightmare would destroy the light she'd found and plunge her back into shadow forever. But most of all, she realized, she was afraid none of that would happen. Even still, she shied away from embracing life. It had simply... hurt too much. Hope had always been rewarded with suffering.

But why?

Her mouth went dry as she clutched Malhavik's arm. He stood by waiting for the moment of Accalia's entry into the world, the moment the seal could be removed possibly without killing her. She looked up into his unmasked face and understood it was she who had always sought the suffering.

Vionora let go and stepped back into the twilight.

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Vionora    10

She ran straight toward destruction, as she always had.

The power to the north was growing staggeringly as the daylight waned. The sun was nothing but a sliver now, and more and more howls filled the woods, despite the many beasts brought down by the defenders. In the washed-out twilight through which Vi moved, the worgs glowed amber with a fel touch around the edges, a shocking and nauseous combination. They ignored her, focused on their prey. Even now, the mark of the Herald Vionora bore fed Accalia. Once again, her life was required. A sobbing laugh escaped her as she ran.

Before an empty grove, Vionora fell to her knees, releasing the twilight. The colors and sounds of the unmuted world returned in full force, but they were nothing compared to the energies swirling in front of her, invisible to the naked eye but screaming on her magical senses. The mark on her right hand burned, brilliant and agonizing. She clutched it helplessly.

Everything that had mattered was falling away. Naheal. Darrethy. Aaren. Malhavik. Tirien. All of the people who had tried to convince her that life was worth living. She had done this, she had brought this on herself, as she always had. They couldn't save her from herself. No one could. Time and time again, she had thrown her life away, and this time, she had gone too far. There was no going back, now. She could only wait and reap the consequences of her actions.

And even if she lived this time...

Malhavik's hand came to a rest on her shoulder; he knelt down next to her. It was time. Vionora looked at him again, at his black eyes, and the regret was crushing. He had only ever been exactly what she had wanted, and it had been monstrously unfair to him to have been caught up in all this. She had pulled him into her self-destructive spiral for which there was only one end.

She thought of Tirien, safe on the other side of the world. Far away from her. If only she had understood sooner... But she hadn't been capable of understanding before. Only when the light inside of her had been lit did she understand that the only way to protect what it illuminated was to put it out.

"Mal," she said, but whatever she would have said next was lost forever.

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Vionora    10

The last of the daylight winked out, plunging them into utter darkness, and Accalia moved into the mortal realm.

The power it took the Ancient to penetrate even the thinned veil between worlds was immense. Malhavik was prepared for it. He gathered the excess energy and focused it through the soulstone, sending it arcing through the seal on Vionora's hand and soul, and out through the mark of the Eclipse, back to Accalia in a feedback loop. Vionora gasped and clutched onto Malhavik as the massive amount of energy ripped through her, incising her soul.

She was barely even aware of the great many-headed worg that loomed over them, that the defenders had attacked, who tore through with lunar power and mind alterations and swarms of minions. Malhavik ignored the pitched battle around them as he worked single-mindedly to lift the seal from Vionora's soul.

It was the most excruciating thing Vionora had ever felt, and she had endured unimaginable things.

But before Malhavik was done, Accalia turned on them.

The Beast-God was weakening, torn down by the defenders despite her great power. Like seven years ago in Moonglade, her mortal form would be defeated this day. But also like then, she intended to retreat and survive to try again someday. And to destroy to as many as possible on her way out so that they would not be there to challenge her the next time the curse was unleashed. To that end, she grasped as much power as she could.

THE HUNT NEVER ENDS. EXCEPT FOR THE PREY.

Accalia's metaphysical jaws closed around the talisman-seal, still anchored in Vionora's soul, and tore it out of Mal's grasp like stealing candy from a baby.

Vionora experienced a moment of weightlessness, of something beyond disbelief or acceptance or even relief. She had spent many long periods of her life not caring what happened to herself, to others, to the entire world; but now, none of it mattered in the slightest. Nothing mattered anymore. She had done everything she could, or ever would, do. In that moment, she experienced the ultimate surrender.

Then, with another wrench, the Beast-God ripped her soul from her body and devoured it.

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Vionora    10

Vionora slumped in Malhavik's arms; gone. He stared down at her in disbelief. The soulstone rolled from his slack hand to the ground.

Accalia fell, but she was not yet finished. Even as the sun was freed from the shadow of the Blue Child, and a spear of light shone down, she lifted her head weakly and spoke to those who yet lived.

FOOLS... MORTALS... YOU THINK YOU HAVE DEFEATED ME?

YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME IF YOU CANNOT OVERCOME FEAR ITSELF!

The forest floor opened beneath the defenders, a giant, slavering maw. Into a nightmare they all fell.

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Vionora    10

Can you dream when you don't exist?

Her soul had been devoured, torn into shreds and dissolved into energy to feed Accalia. But Accalia yet existed, and therefore, a shade of Vionora existed within her.

She couldn't form complete thoughts, or feel much emotion; her memories were made vague and irrelevant. But she understood what had happened and her current situation, and through the twilight void that was both Accalia and Accalia's prison, the faint echo of her soul wandered.

Vionora didn't know it, but her circumstances were not unlike those someone she had encountered had endured.

All she really thought was that the absence of suffering was peaceful. Death was peaceful. Although she still existed in a way, the idea of ceasing to exist did not trouble her.

She might have continued on this way until Accalia was destroyed, except that she wasn't alone in the twilight.

The thoughts of another latched onto the echo of Vionora, and, for a time, gave her a semblance of life again.

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Vionora    10

She returned to peace after that. There was nothing more that could be done. Whatever chances she'd had were gone now; whatever regrets she had were moot. And though nothing mattered anymore, that was not a bad thing. It simply... was.

But there was another trapped in the twilight whose thoughts called to her, summoning the remnants of her essence.

She was given a chance to make a difference.

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Vionora    10

Vionora tried to hold on, to remember why it mattered, to not lose how those precious moments felt… but Accalia’s power faded with the crumbling of the nightmare, and the will of another alone was no longer capable of holding her together. She dispersed back into the darkness, and it swallowed her once more in the peace of numbness.

Only the faintest impressions remained; an echo, perhaps, of the person she had been. There were brief wonderings, almost thoughts, but not quite.

One such almost-thought reflected on how it was impossible to say if she had truly seized the chance to help someone she had cared about. How much had been the true Vionora, and how much had been the person Tirien had wanted to believe she was? As with Malhavik, it had been Tirien’s will that gave her form again, because there was simply not enough of her left to have a will of her own. What she had done, what she had been, for a little while, was probably more a product of Tirien’s wishes than anything else. In the end, an echo sounded different depending on what reflected it.

Yet something about this vaguely acknowledged concept disturbed whatever remained of Vionora.

It was like the stirring of the lightest breeze, or a barely discernible ripple in water.

Her life, her entire, miserable life had been spent suffering the rejection of who and what she was. She had been blamed for her heritage, reprimanded for showing distress, and despised for the actions she was driven to. Yet there had always been a part of her that knew it was unfair. There was a part of her that refused to ever internalize what she was told – to try to change and become whatever it was the rest of the world wanted her to be. It was true she knew she couldn’t be anything other than herself, anyway, and that trying would only be futile… but she also knew she shouldn’t have to be.

She wanted to be accepted and loved just the way she was. Everyone did.

At the end, she had believed that she would always instinctively seek out self-destruction, and that that would endanger those she cared about. But that self-destructive bent had been instilled in her by the cruelties of the world. It wasn’t what she wanted, but what she had come to believe she deserved, and believed too deeply to be saved in time. She understood that now, when it was far too late.

When, then, had she had a chance to be what she really was?

Malhavik had outright tried to make something of her she wasn’t. And while Tirien had tried to help her, no one could have saved her from herself at that point, and now all he could see was what he wished she’d been able to become. Which wasn’t real – it was cheating. She hadn’t done it on her own.

All of this was merely a trembling in the twisting nether, a vibration in the energies within Accalia’s twilight. But it was all she was.

And this… this one the one thing she would never give up.

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Vionora    10

The Nightmare realm was disintegrating. One by one, those who had been drawn in overcame or fell to their own inner demons. Structures, people, worlds built of feral, fel-tinged twilight unraveled, exposing more and more of the twilight realm's featureless horizon. The shade of Vionora observed, so much as something without opinions can observe, but there was something more, now. The faintest hint of expectation. Of waiting. A whisper of intention.

At last, there was only one nightmare left. Naheal struggled to fend off his own nightmare after assisting with others. Perhaps focusing on others had only served to delay his facing of the insurmountable. But as it turned out, he wasn't alone. Sinaku was there, as were Aaren, Taozhu, and Caldrien, having plunged back into the twilit nightmare to save him. Together they faced the last active fragment of Accalia in a bitter battle. The shade of Vionora watched as the tide turned against the Beast-God and the last nightmare began to unravel. At the last moment, Accalia turned to flee.

There was enough of Accalia's essence left, undefeated, that if this part escaped, she would recover in time. The cycle of the curse of the Eclipse would continue. Vionora's suffering, her life, and her death, would have all been in vain. Nothing she had done would have made a difference, her every action, her every wish and desire, negated and discarded by the world. And the part of her self that had never given up, had refused to change despite the suffering that resulted, and which carried just enough will to have survived being absorbed by Accalia, acted.

When she materialized this time in Naheal's nightmare, she knew that she was truly herself. She wasn't being formed of Naheal's perceptions of her, or anyone else's. She was barely there, a ghost of a ghost, but her will persisted. And it was sufficient to hold Accalia in place. Accalia howled and struggled but was too weakened to escape.

The others didn't waste any time questioning her presence. With the use of the Sacren Stone, they gathered the energy of the collapsing Nightmare realm and turned it against Accalia. Vionora felt it as the energy came rushing at the remnant of the Beast-God. She was still holding Accalia in place; but the truth was, even if she had let go, she would have been swept into the energy regardless. She was a part of Accalia now, and only existed within her. Vionora closed her eyes as the power overwhelmed them. Accalia would be defeated, once and for all, this day.

It was enough.

Into the Twisting Nether the last remnant of Accalia fell, and with her the faint shade of Vionora.

******************

On Darkmoon Isle, under mist-wreathed trees, a discarded soulstone glimmered ever so faintly.

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