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Saphiara

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Several Months Ago

Five paces. Turn left ninety degrees. Seven paces. Turn left ninety degrees. Four paces. Turn left ninety degrees. Seven paces. Turn left ninety degrees.

It had been her routine for months. 

Theoretically, she was supposed to be getting cured of whatever insanity had possessed her. Attacking Sanctuary and Grim alike. Meddling with time travel. Splitting dimensions. On the outside, she understood how it could seem insane. It wasn't from her perspective, however. The weight of her mistakes was buckling her. Too many had died because of her. When provided with the chance to go back and stop those mistakes, to erase the deaths of those who had fallen, who wouldn't take the opportunity? It was hardly insane.

"You still owe a debt."

She didn't bother to stop her pacing to look at the individual now sitting on her bed. "Zidormi. How many times must I refuse?"

"I actually know the answer to that." The woman smiled, and for the briefest moment Saphiara had to remind herself that her instincts were correct - this was no human before her, but a member of the mighty Bronze Dragonflight. "I'll avoid spoilers, though. I know you hate the appearance of fate. Are you tired of being here yet?"

Saphiara looked around the small cell where she had been held since her trial. Ostensibly a patient at a hospital in Silvermoon, she was in reality a prisoner in all but name. Her sentence was indefinite, and so far there seemed to be no urgency on the part of her jailers to declare her cured. As it stood, she wasn't particularly interested in the declaration either. The distinction between sanity and insanity was largely academic in her eyes.

"Are you at least visible? The last time you visited, I was isolated for a week due to the appearance of holding conversations with myself."

The dragon smiled again. "I may have isolated us in the time stream for a few moments. We have our privacy." Zidormi stood and smoothed her robes. "On to business then. You have languished here long enough. It is time for you to return to action."

Saphiara glared at her cellmate. "For what purpose? Killing another friend? Further breaking a broken situation? You must forgive if I don't find my presence in the world terribly pressing."

The smile faded. "The Legion will return, and soon."

Saphiara stopped her pacing to stare in disbelief at Zidormi. "Gul'dan." She had heard of what happened in the alternate Hellfire Citadel, how the orc mastermind had been tossed to the Nether by Archimonde. The speculation had been true, then; Gul'dan had survived.

"Yes. He has emerged to finish what his counterpart in our timeline failed to during the Second War. The Old Gods are also moving against us. The chessboard has been shifted, and the endgame has arrived. If Azeroth does not act with all it has available, our world will fall."

Saphiara closed her eyes, remembering the horrors of the Third War, remembering the stench of Outland and Draenor as fel power overran both copies of that doomed world. She remembered the fear of the First and Second Wars as she desperately awaited word of her parents' fate. The entire world has felt fear in those days. This new war, this Third Invasion, could eclipse anything seen so far. "This is the ninth time you have visited me. I assume I had to refuse eight times?"

The Bronze, appearing full of confidence, nodded her head. A light flashed, and a second individual stepped into the cell. Malethia - specifically, the time-lost copy of her Saphiara had accidentally pulled from her own world - stepped forward. "The Lady Blazestone has been offered a place in the Timewalkers. You may have the same, if you wish."

She glanced at the young mage, still feeling guilty for her part in the woman's accidental abduction. "I do not follow orders terribly well."

Zidormi smiled once again. "That's fine. Neither do the dragons these days." She nodded to Malethia, who began the casting of a portal spell. "We travel to Shattrath. You must be healed of your injuries - both physical and spiritual - before you can serve as our agent."

Saphiara glanced through the bars of her cell, where a guard stood frozen just around the corner. Two guilds would soon learn of her disappearance, and surely at least one of them would have interest in hunting her down. She would be safe where she was - but she would be forsaking her duty, the one thing that had continued to drive her forward even in her darkest days.

With a deep breath, she stepped through the portal.

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Saphiara had wondered on occasion what might have happened had she wandered into Shattrath in her flight from the Sunfury. Perhaps her child might have been saved. Certainly, she could have joined the Scryers, the group her parents had given their lives to help liberate. Was there a timeline where this had happened? Could she possibly step through a gate and find herself in a world with at least a bit less loss? Surely her presence in other events wasn't so critical that she would be missed?

A pipe dream. She would likely never gain access to the timeways, at least not unsupervised. She had already proven herself a threat once. For now, she followed her draconic supervisor as she entered the Terrace of Light. It was impossible to stand in this place and not have one's eye drawn to the massive being in the center of the temple. A'dal, one of the most powerful of the known Naaru, was a glittering representation of the Light. Saphiara inwardly flinched as she remembered feeding on M'uru's energies.

Welcome, Zidormi of the Bronze. Khadgar informed me of your pending arrival and requested I grant you an audience. Saphiara's ears heard only a light tinkling noise, though the words reverberated in her mind. Most of the other individuals in the Terrace went about their daily business, unaware that the naaru was now engaged in conversation.

Saphiara Sunspell. Her attention returned fully to the energy creature hovering before her. Once, you walked with us in the Light, though you did not know it. I am saddened that your abilities were stripped from you just as you began to embrace them. Her hand went to her chest, where she still felt the empty void. That void had only grown since the death of Falore, to the point where it felt like her soul had been sundered. Suddenly, she felt a glimmer of hope. "Can you restore my powers?" The words were barely a whisper, barely believed and thus barely allowed to exist.

Walk with me, child. There was a blinding flash of light, and suddenly she found herself floating in an endless bright void. Intellectually, she knew she was still standing in Shattrath and this was simply a mindscape. Spiritually, however... it was as if she were being embraced by warmth after standing in the bitter cold for too long. She felt the full weight of the naaru's attention upon her.

To answer your question - no, I cannot restore you. The damage done by the experiments upon you are beyond my ability to repair. Your skills as a paladin are lost to you forever.

That final denial of hope, delivered by one of the most powerful beings she had ever encountered, threatened to overwhelm her. If a naaru couldn't restore her powers, nothing could.

Do not despair, young one. The Light has not forsaken you. Though you have wandered, lost and afraid, we have always been with you. At your core, you are one of our champions. You have never been beyond redemption.

She felt a tear slide down her cheek. Was that real, or an aspect of her mind? Until that very moment, she hadn't even recognized her need for redemption. There it was, however, an aching need in her heart. 

You blame yourself for the deaths of your compatriots. You blame yourself for not  doing enough to prevent the misery and strife around you. Your husband, your daughter, your parents, all of the death around you is not at your feet. You can only be asked to do as best you can, and you have done so. I trust you will continue to do so.

Complete absolution was impossible in her mind, but the words - coming from what many considered a literal embodiment of goodness - struck home in her heart.

I grant you the greatest gift I can offer - permission to heal. Accept this gift of freedom, and release yourself from the shackles you have placed upon yourself. Those you have lost do not require you to sacrifice your own life as well - indeed, it is their desire to continue to live through you. Live your life to its fullest, and in doing so you honor the Light as well as the sacrifices of all those who came before you.

A tendril of energy snaked down from the naaru, touching Saphiara on her breast above her heart. Suddenly, the weight eased. The pain subsided. She had spent so long trapped in the past that any possibility of a future was deemed a dream, and the idea that the dream was not only real but even desired was suddenly there to be grasped.

Stand tall as a Champion of the Light, Saphiara Sunspell. Your strength will be tested in the days to come, but you will not be alone.

Her eyes opened, and she stood once again in the Terrace. The entire conversation had indeed seemed to have taken place between breaths, but she could still feel the wetness of tears on her cheeks. Around her, business proceeded as normal.

"Welcome back. It looks like you got what you needed." Zidormi gestured, and Saphiara realized that there was a blade in her hand. Lost in wonder, she raised Quel'Delar before her eyes. The sword had been lost to her during her flight from Garrosh's regime - and yet here it was, once again in her grasp.

With the sword came the familiar feeling of warmth in her chest. However, she now knew in her heart that the warmth didn't radiate from somewhere else, but from within. She no longer needed to rely on tricks to call on the Light - she could do it herself. Though she couldn't wield it as one might wield a blade, it was no less powerful for being trapped inside her.

The dragon smiled at her. "Excellent. Our business is concluded here, then. Come with me."

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The root structure underfoot was treacherous, but Saphiara navigated it with ease. Her footfalls were silent, the grass and moss forming the forest floor whispering softly with her passing. Her prey was nearby - she could feel it in her heart.

Truth be told, she could have completed this task hours ago, but the urge to enjoy herself had been too strong to resist. How many years had she spent now ignoring her happiness? The Krasarang Wilds were remote and unoccupied - now that the war between the Horde and Alliance had concluded, anyways - providing her with an excellent arena to test her skills. She couldn't remember the last time she allowed herself to let go even in the middle of a mission.

No... she did remember. Outland. She hadn't been alone back then. She'd certainly started off as the rigid, duty-bound daughter of noble-born soldiers, but associating with a certain lowborn scoundrel scout had loosened the restraint her entire life had spent building up. She'd occupied her entire childhood being trained for adulthood. Elphorus had allowed her to be the girl she was - still was, if she had to be honest. She was well into her second century of life now, but in elven culture that barely made her an adult. The fall of Quel'Thalas had forced her generation to grow up far too quickly.

A faint noise intruded upon her thoughts. Saphiara glanced around, then scrambled up a ruined wall - remains of some kind of ancient Mogu fortress, it appeared - and surveyed the shallow valley before her.

===

Three Days Earlier

"Your first task is complete. You have forgiven yourself and been renewed in the Light. With your spirit healing, it is time to focus on more physical matters." Saphiara looked away from the ceiling in the Caverns of Time - its half-material, half-spatial nature had long mesmerized her - to watch Zidormi approach. "You are a hunter, and a hunter requires a companion."

Saphiara felt a tinge of fear, deep down. "My companions abandoned me after Falore was killed." She could hardly blame them - a self-destructive mistress was unworthy of such noble loyalty as a companion gave to a hunter.

"On the contrary - you abandoned them."

The statement gave the elf pause. "I sought to leave this reality. Why would they follow a hunter so eager to leave them behind?"

The dragon took a seat opposite Saphiara, who felt fairly certain the bench hadn't been present just a moment before. That was the way of things in the Cavern - objects had never been present and simultaneously there all along, and it was simply a matter of deciding which reality was true and which was only a possibility. The fact that Saphiara felt certain the bench wasn't always there spoke to her growing comfort with multidimensional possibility.

"True in part, but not the core of the matter. As a huntress, your companions have always represented individuals with whom you have a connection. This is a truth you have always known, but do you know why this is the truth?"

"Projection. I impose my will upon the animals under my command, and subconsciously imprint them with a personality related to an individual."

Zidormi smiled. "True, in a way, but describing the bond in that way is like describing a rainbow as refraction of light. You apply the scientific and miss the artistry of it." The dragon stood and began walking, an unspoken request for Saphiara to follow. "Your preference for self-reliance and seclusion are not character strengths. They are self-inflicted punishments, which your heart rebels against. Your companions don't gain personalities as a technique to relate to them - they gain personalities because your heart craves the companionship your mind rejects."

Saphiara stopped in her tracks, her mind racing. The two stood quietly for several long moments as the elf worked out her thoughts. "I have spent years thinking only of my final days with Elphorus. I ignored the joy I felt with him and focused only on his death."

"Thus the tiger, representing him in your mind as the wolf represents you. The white owl representing your now-estranged sister. The stag of your father and the dragonhawk of your mother. Each of these companions represents a bond with an individual, your heart reaching out to cling to those memories, protecting them as your mind attempts to forsake them."

===

Saphiara dropped to the forest floor, the tiger a few short feet away. It would have been little effort for it to leap forward, crushing her beneath its weight and raking her with its claws. Her sword was sheathed on her back, and her armor would provide little protection should it go for her face.

She had no fear.

She took to her knees, haunch to heel. "Hello, Elphorus. I know that is not technically your name currently, but it will be shortly. I have been tracking you through these trees for hours now. You are the most noble of the tigers that prowl this forest."

The tiger regarded her with curiosity, then yawned and sat down itself.

"You are named for my husband. He was a rough soul, much like you. Ill-regarded, overlooked by those who thought themselves better than he. His was a quiet nobility, earned not through birth but by action. He exhibited a zest for life, a joy for the small things. I have watched you bound through this forest for two days now. I have seen you chase a butterfly to enjoy its color. I have seen you drink at a stream with a hare, for you were not hungry and felt no need to terrorize one smaller than you."

She reached out with one hand, palm up. The tiger looked at it for a moment, then at her face, and stood once more. He approached, sliding his cheek into her hand and receiving a welcome scratch in return. His tail flicked, and he roared as if announcing his intent. This hunter was under his protection now. He had accepted her, as she had understood him. The bond was accepted.

Saphiara smiled and rose to her feet. "Thank you, Elphorus. Perhaps a run to celebrate? This looks like a particularly enjoyable stretch of ground." The tiger roared once more, and together the pair bound into the trees, each taking a path forward that occasionally separated them to avoid obstacles, but always brought them together again.

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"Whatcha want, toots?" The goblin tied an apron around Saphiara's neck, and suddenly she felt apprehension fall over her like a net.

"Are you certain you are certified to do this?" The vast majority of the goblin's head was smoothly bald, with only a topknot present to speak of any hair at all.

"Course I am. There's my licence right there." The huntress leaned in towards the mirror, where a small card was taped against the glass. Pulik Swiftsnip. Kezan School of Professional Coiffasseures. Certification Expires 1/1/28. Glued to the card was a small picture of a goblin - who could or could not be the one standing behind her, she couldn't tell - sporting a hairstyle that could only be described as "pink caltrop".

"Your licence has expired." The urge to run was rising.

"Hey, listen toots. You try living in an endless crumbling void and tell me how easy it is to take your qualifying exams." A pair of scissors snipped menacingly close to her eartip, and suddenly Saphiara felt regret at choosing Area 52 for her hair salon. Perhaps choosing Undercity and its likely result of murder at the hands of a wandering Grim would have been safer. "Now, whatcha want? I ain't got all day, there's a whole line of clients to serve."

She bit back the retort that she HAD lived in a crumbling void - this very one, at that - and glanced over at the only other client, a gnome wearing a full containment suit that she wasn't entirely certain could come off. "A coloration. And a styling. Something... fun." She had been wearing a wig while traveling around Azeroth of late, hoping the black hair would throw off any pursuers searching for a blonde. A wig was becoming impractical, however.

She had always worn her hair for work, not for style. Typically it was cut short, to fit in a helm or tied up into a tail to remain out of the way. After her run through the Wilds, however... she wanted it free to fly.

"Can do. Just sit back and let me do my magic!" As the sound of crackling electricity hummed into life, Saphiara closed her eyes and tried very hard to retreat within herself.

===

The Next Day

"Feel better?" Zidormi strode up the rise, standing next to Saphiara and gazing down at the ancient forest beneath them. The Grizzly Hills, one of the most primal places remaining on Azeroth. Of course, the war between the Horde, Alliance, and Scourge had left its mark here, not to mention the Iron Dwarves and the trolls. And the worgen. And the furbolgs corrupted by an Old God.

She had forgotten how potently dangerous this place was during the Northrend campaign. The land seemed to have started healing, but the druids were starting to whisper that something within the Emerald Dream was stirring here.

The redheaded huntress blinked as she released the farsight technique and gave her attention to her dragon companion. For once, the Bronze was in the dark. "I assume you wonder what brought me here?"

"Yes. Curiosity more than concern. You seem to have taken charge of your own healing, which is a development I can only approve of."

"Before her death, Falore represented myself in the pantheon of my companions. The wolf - a loner, dogged, intuitive. Fitting, perhaps. I feel a change has come over me, however. My instincts have brought me here, to Northrend. This campaign was where I grew into myself. This is where I began the transformation to what I am today, even if that road was much longer than I imagined."

Saphiara swept her hand in an arc before them. "Somewhere out there, living in the trees of this land, is my new Falore - my new sense of self. I intend to find her once again."

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She was dressed in very little - a slip, really. Fortunately, save for a few trappers, some druids, and a bunch of salmon-hunting bears, Grizzly Hills was largely uninhabited. Modesty was hardly a necessity, but she maintained at least an illusion of it. She wasn't sure whose sake it was for - nobody had seen her unclothed since Elphorus, and now she wondered how comfortable she was about her own nudity. Largely academic, since there were no courtiers in her immediate future.

Sitting in the flow of a cold mountain stream gave her focus she found difficult to obtain on her own. The pounding water of the fall deadened her to all other sound save her own thoughts, and the chill of the water made her intimately aware of the flow of the Light within her own body. Once upon a time, this exercise was for punishment rather than meditation, but her focus had changed since those days. With her senses deadened, Saphiara reached within to her mystical gifts; her hunter training, combined with the Light, allowed her to sense life around her.

The bear was the first she sensed, being the closest and largest of beasts nearby. It was a guardian, built for strength and endurance. A short few years ago, before her life had crumbled once again in the wake of Garrosh's rise, the bear might have been the correct choice. Since losing her paladin abilities, however... she wasn't a guardian any longer - at least, not one inclined towards that style of combat.

The wolf... her old self. In a lot of ways, that was still who she was - the loner who longed for the pack, the cunning hunter. However, the wolf also represented loyalty, and Saphiara no longer did. She had abandoned everything she once held dear in pursuit of... of what? What had her plan even meant to accomplish? Assuming success was even possible, she would have ended up in a new world with a doppelganger who had likely never even met Elphorus, and where history was even worse than in her own timeline.

...what had she done?

The thought threatened to knock her out of her meditation, so she abandoned it for now. It would require deep examination later on, however.

Her senses pushed out further. There, a stag. A masculine animal, and for all her faults and attempts to act otherwise she was still a woman in her core. So that was not her choice.

Saphiara's awareness touched upon a serpent, and she paused. A beast of rebirth, shedding its skin to emerge unscathed. The bearer of knowledge, often forbidden. She had never forged a bond with a snake before, and she felt drawn to it - but something felt wrong, and she couldn't tell what it was. So she was closer, but still searching.

Giant moths in a vale - no. Oxen in the fields - no. She was starting to despair, wondering if her instincts had guided her incorrectly, when a sudden realization came to her. She was searching along the ground.

Her awareness extended upward instead. Overhead, a flight of eagles. Her heart warmed as one stopped its glide, beating its wings to stay aloft as it searched the ground. It turned, using a tight circle to descend safely, landing upon a rock and regarding the elf with curiosity.

Saphiara opened her eyes, and the two regarded each other for a long minute. Finally, she knew she had found what she was seeking.

"Greetings, Falore.

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