Sweat gathered in pools at the base of Zarabethe's neck and ran down her back, soaking her shirt. Her dark purple hair was starting to come loose from the braids she had looped on the back of her head, and strands blew around in the gritty wind. The heat that rolled off the desert was suffocating. All of this she ignored as she carefully chipped piece by minute piece off of the stone dais she was excavating. It was painstakingly slow work, but she seemed not to care as she carefully perched on the edge of the hole dug out around the structure. The dais was part of a larger piece, some kind of altar to an Old God built by the Qiraji. There were words carved around the base of the altar, and she was trying to carefully remove thousands of years of sand and buildup so they could be read and translated. This structure was not a very important one, out here in the middle of the Silithus desert instead of closer to Ahn Qiraj, the center of the Qiraji empire, but every piece was important in the discovery of history.
Several yards away in the shadow of a stone block, lay an enormous black nightsabre. Upon closer inspection, he was not quite solid black, but black stripes on dark grey, and on his muzzle and around his eyes was a dusting of slightly lighter grey, revealing his age. Old scars and healed wounds marked his flanks and back. He looked quite intimidating if you ignored the sound of snoring coming from his massive head.
All around the pair dwarves worked diligently on unearthing the structure. Sweat gleamed off of ruddy foreheads, sun reflected off beards of many colours. Shouts and curses rang out, as well as random bits of singing. The dwarves were in high spirits: they only had two more days left on this digsite before they could collect payment. Several of the younger dwarves were gathered in a circle, eating a meal and starting early on the ale. There was not much left to do besides cataloging and packing, and none of them were too enthusiastic about it. Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Zarabethe kept working: she wanted to clear this inscription before they left, and if that meant skipping a meal or two she was going to do it. She'd be happy to work all night as well, but it was too hard to see, even by firelight, and she didn't want to accidentally destroy the markings she was trying to uncover.
The night elf remained nearly motionless as midday turned to evening. The dwarves got rowdier and rowdier as more of them put down their tools to join in the celebration. As the sky started to darken, an enormous shadow stopped his gentle snoring, stretched, and slowly ambled towards his engrossed master. He flopped down behind her with a thump, and whined deep in his throat.
"Almost done, Zar," she said without looking. It had become a tradition that each night she and Zar would take a run after the sun set. They usually started out slow the first night, learning the curves and shape of the land. Each night they went faster and faster, pushing themselves, memorizing the path until they traveled at breakneck speed, dodging predators and leaping dunes as if they had lived here their whole lives. As old as Zar was getting, he never faltered on their runs. Zarabethe felt a twinge in her chest as she once again thought of how she needed to retire Zar soon. Although she had many pets throughout her life as a hunter, Zar had been her companion for longer than any other. They moved together in a synchronous rhythm, anticipating the other's moves in a fight. But Zar was old, far older than any other pet she had ever had. She liked to take him on digsites as there was not a lot to do but lay in the sun, but for long journeys, she was beginning to prefer one of her more spry companions from her menagerie. Zar was a good cat: it was time for him to live out his life being pampered in the stables of Darnassus.
All this weighed on her mind as she cleaned up from the day's dig. She was nearly done uncovering the inscription and she would have plenty of time to finish in the morning before she helped pack up. She dusted the sand off her clothes as best she could, and tied her long braids back more securely. As she donned her pack for their run, she heard a crunching behind her, the sound of a stumbling gait on shifting sand.
"Won't ye be joining us around the fire then, lass?" came a loud slur. Zarabethe stifled a sigh. Although the dwarves were content to leave her be during the day, nearly every night as more ale was consumed, inevitably one would try to convince the lone night elf to drink with them. They probably draw lots after supper, she thought to herself irritably. She forced a light tone to her voice as she turned to answer.
"Unfortunately, no, I was just heading out to take Zar for his run." At the sound of his name, Zar appeared at her side. He leveled his eyes at the swaying dwarf.
"Jus' this once? Me an' the boys will be missin' yer pretty face," the dwarf grinned broadly and the scent of ale washed over her like a wave as he leaned closer. She couldn't keep a grimace off her face. Stouthelm was this one's name. He must be pretty far in his cups to think she would come anywhere near that ruckus. She made it very clear at the beginning of every dig, that she was to be left alone. She slept alone, excavated alone, took meals alone, and she did not drink socially. Beside each night's polite inquiry, her fellow archeologists did not usually have a problem adhering to these conditions. She worked very hard for the Explorer's League with the single-minded focus that she applied to her passion of history and discovery. They overlooked her quirks and never turned her down when she applied for a job. But some individuals could not seem to understand her need for privacy, sometimes escalating to a threat before relinquishing. She could tell this situation was quickly developing into the kind that had to be dealt with in force.
She sensed the movement before she actually saw it. In a flash she had deftly moved to the side of the dwarf's reaching hand, drawing her dagger. The dwarf blinked. He looked quite comical, frozen in place with one hand outstretched, staring at her dagger pointed at his chest with his mouth slightly open. He might have been reaching to take her hand, or even to just pat her on the arm, but the intent to touch her was obvious. Stouthelm swallowed loudly and stuttered.
"S-sorry, lass," he said with distinctively less slur to his words. "Ah'll just be joinin' me boys then and leave you to it." He backed up slowly, then turned and stumbled quickly to the group of dwarves gathered around the bonfire. She heard the roar of chatter die down minutely, then pick back up again as Stouthelm shook off the encounter and dove back into his ale. Zarabethe sheathed her dagger, then wiped her sleeve against her pant leg with a shudder. Her skin felt prickly with the anticipation of unwanted contact. Zar bumped his head against her hip, and she scrubbed his ears.
"Alright Zar, we're going." The run tonight would wipe the uneasiness from her mind. Bouncing on her heels for only a moment, she turned and took off, coming up to speed quickly as they sped through the now-familiar path. The wind was up tonight. Little eddies of sand swirled at their feet as they reached the top of a small dune and saw the town in the distance. It glowed for only a moment then winked out of sight as they dipped down into a valley. Zarabethe could hear the soft sound of Zar's massive paws on the sand behind her as she pushed herself faster and faster, as if she could outrun the flicker of anxiety that still trembled in her from the dwarf. She forced it away as always, focusing on the hidden rhythms of the world around her: the thudding sound of feet on sand, her breath steady and even, the wind blowing in her ears, her own heartbeat. Patterns and repeating motions steadied her mind, and the anxiety flowed away from the core of her being, like water sliding over rocks and through cracks, returning to the earth.
Dealing with anxiety was as familiar to her as breathing. Over the many years of her life she had developed a hardened will against the edges of madness at her brain. It was not something she ever discussed, but she had spent most of her childhood with her anxiety completely out of control. She could only remember snatches here and there of it, and none of it was good: hiding under her blanket in her closet for days to avoid people (the reasoning behind it had slipped away, leaving only the vague sense of people that made her anxious), pulling and yanking on her hair until she developed bald, bleeding spots (the pain was something she could focus her will on while the world swirled around her) and of course, the bees. Every night and some days she dreamed of bees swarming around her. Every single room she entered had to be searched top to bottom, but most of the time she just imagined she had missed them because she still heard their horrible, horrible buzzing. She spent so much time under a blanket hiding from the bees that entire chunks of her memories were dark. And then of course, were the people with bees inside of them. No one ever believed her, and in fact she barely believed herself, but she could always hear the buzzing the bees made whenever someone came close to her. She took her studies and training by herself, through books and sometimes private tutors (after she checked for bees of course) but they were still everywhere. She was always worried that really she was just crazy, and that she was just in denial of it.
It had taken a long time for her to realize that the bees weren't really there. When her anxiety ran high, and threatened to get out of control, she heard a buzzing in her ears that got louder and louder until the noise itself drove her mad. Over time, as she came up to the grey area between adolescence and early adulthood, she started to fight back. She began to be able to find the order in the chaos of the world: the patterns in the bark of the trees, the hidden tempo in the song of a bird, the music in footsteps, the pulsing beat of her heart. Her most powerful weapon, however, came from an unexpected source. Her mother had insisted from a young age that she learn to sew. It was her own profession, and as most of the time she just couldn't do anything at all with her young daughter, she figured she might as well learn a trade. Zarabethe hated it. She had no desire to create clothes or to do such menial tasks, but she found that sewing held a rhythm: a rhythm that she could hold in her hands and create whenever she needed. Although she never had the talent to piece together dresses or shirts, she could stitch designs on things all day long. The edges of all her sheets and blankets were covered in little leaves, flowers, and swirls, although her mother drew the line at her own clothes. Sometimes she even let Zarabethe embroider the edges of the clothes that people commissioned her to make. Sitting on the floor of her mother's sewing room, carefully stitching the hems of ornate robes and fancy dresses while her mother sewed at her table, was one of her favorite and calmest memories of home life.
Over time, with her arsenal at her disposal, she began to figure out her triggers, and what caused her the greatest distress. Although she could spend as much time as she wished with animals of all kinds (in fact preferring to spend her times in the stables and animal pens instead of the shops around town) people made her nervous. She imagined an invisible barrier between her skin and other people, like a shield, which helped, but anyone that touched her outer barrier dissolved it. Although she had long ago put aside such fancy, anyone that touched her still brought about an intense wave of anxiety. Touching skin-to-skin was her limit. With clothes or armor between them, she was okay, at least for a brief time, but touching someone's skin made her hide in the shower, scrubbing and scrubbing until every sensation of it was gone.
Hiding in books brought about her love for history and with it, figuring out puzzles. Although she was trained in marksmanship and survival, and had served in several wars (including the War of the Shifting Sands and the campaign in Northrend) her passion was right here, covered in sand and sweat, eking out the story of the past, piece by piece.
The lights of Cenarian Hold shown through the dusty darkness as the two approached the only evidence of civilization in this wasteland. The inn and small group of buildings clung to the side of a large sandy hill determinedly, providing shelter and amenities for the few visitors to the desert. They mostly consisted of archeologists, historians, and adventurers, there to gain favor with the local Cenarian Circle sect. She herself had spent many nights in that tavern shaking sand from her boots for that very reason. Tonight though, a single figure broke the desolate facade of the horizon. Zarabethe slowed, curious as to who'd be out on such wind-blown night. The figure appeared to be struggling against the wind and the sand. Probably too drunk to know where he was. As she came closer, slowing to a walk, she realized with a start she recognized the ancient night elf before her. In all the years that she had been traveling through Silithus for jobs or adventuring, Baristolth was a constant presence in the small town. A relic of a long-forgotten war, time and injuries had not been kind to him, and he did not appear to be completely right in the head. Often he was seen sleeping against the side of a building during the heat of the day, but at night he would often assail passers-by with war stories, tales of giant beetles and massive creatures that he had fought against. Sometimes he would sit around and babble to himself about dragons and their secret plots. Zarabethe found him mostly harmless and took pity on him often, leaving him something to eat or drink. Tonight though he seemed different: he was not shouting or raving, instead his forehead gleamed with perspiration and his movements were more erratic, weakened. His dark face seemed pale and his gold eyes wild as he stumbled along, muttering and clutching a large leather satchel. Zarabethe knew that he would probably die if left alone to the elements all night, so steeling herself she carefully grasped only his sleeve.
"Come on old man, let's get you to the tavern," she said, steering him back to town. He obediently turned and walked with her, swaying against the wind. The aroma that rolled off his clothes was pungent, and she wrinkled her nose and tried to hurry him along. They traversed without incident until they were nearly to the light shining on the ground from the doorway of the tavern, when Baristolth suddenly pulled up short.
"No!" he shouted, seeming to gain life again. He pulled his arm from her grasp, and pushed his ancient leather satchel in her face. "Anachronos needs this! I need to give it to him!"
He fell to muttering again, but he kept shoving the bag at her like his life depended on it. Wanting nothing more than to be away from this old man that was finally cracking, she took it and slung it over her shoulder.
"Yes, yes, Anachronos. Sure, no problem," she said, trying to direct him towards the tavern. The innkeeper often took pity on the old night elf and let him stay in an unoccupied room occasionally. He would definitely need supervision tonight.
"You'll bring this to him?" The old man pleaded with her. By Elune his breath was foul.
"Yes, fine, I will," she said, continuing to move him towards the tavern. He seemed to relax then and let himself be taken inside, stumbling as Calandrath took his arm and led him to an unoccupied corner of her inn. After settling him in with a blanket by the fire, the blue-haired night elf took Zarabethe aside.
"Thank you for bringing him in. He hasn't been himself for days—not eating, not sleeping unless I make him drink some peacebloom tea. I don't know where he drug that old bag out from, but he's been accosting people with it and no one has taken it yet. Would you mind terribly just disposing of it somewhere? There's no telling what's in it, but maybe it will give him some peace to not have to worry about it anymore." Calandrath glanced back at the old night elf where he leaned sagging against the wall. The light from the fire deepened the lines on his face, aging him even more than his many years. His eyes were closed and it was only the very shallow rise and fall of his chest that indicated he was even alive.
"For as long as he lasts." Calandrath shook her head and returned to the bar that she had been scrubbing when they had burst in. Zarabethe fingered the strap of the bag. The events of tonight had piqued her interests in the contents of the old man's satchel, and if she was asking her to take it.....might as well indulge that fantasy.
"I'll see it makes it to its proper location."