Stepanos looked down at his feet, taking note of the stained and torn socks that covered his feet. "Well," he said. "The last time I saw my boots, they were near the wagon out back."
"They are in Yak pen," Swan said, placing her hands on her hips. "You should go find them. Do your stern friend favor and take bath, too." Nineeve ignored the woman's quip about her demeanor, but did manage a wry smile.
"Perhaps I shall, Swan," Stepanos said, wobbling toward the door. "But I will be back! You have the best drink in town and I am certain you will miss me."
"You are wrong," Swan replied, lifting a glass to dry. "When you leave for good, it will be happy day for me."
Stepanos laughed and blew the woman a kiss. "You say the nicest things, Graceful Swan," he said. "I will see you soon."
Swan rolled her eyes and waved a paw for Stepanos to leave; which he did, though not before banging his shoulder against the door frame on the way out.
Once outside, Stepanos looked around the courtyard for the wagon he called home. "Ah," he said, spotting it beside the tavern. "There it is. Hopefully a yak didn't eat them."
Nineeve gasped, covering her mouth with a hand. "A yak?" she exclaimed. "You actually sleep in a yak pen like the barmaid said?" Stepanos shrugged and bent down to crawl under the wagon.
"It works," he said, sliding under on his hands and knees. "It's a dry place... OUCH!" he said, ducking his head to the ground and rubbing his scalp. "Bloody wagon!" He banged a fist against the axle, earning himself another round of pain.
"Do not blame the wagon for your demise, High Commander," Nineeve said. "It had nothing to do with it."
"Stepanos," he said. "Just Stepanos. Hey, I found one." He slid from beneath with the trophy held proudly in his hand, lifting the dented and rusting sabaton high for Nineeve to see. "Right where I said it was."
"That's one," she said. "Though it looks ready for the refuse heap. Perhaps you should look there for the other." He shook his head.
"No," he said. "It should be..." he stood and walked to a stack of crates behind the tavern. "Right here. See?" he said, showing Nineeve he still had his wits about him. "Now I have two."
"And the rest of your armor?" she said, shaking her head and crossing her arms across her chest. "If it's in as sad a state as those, you might as well stop looking. Wearing that garbage, a Kobold could kill you with a candle without so much as trying."
Stepanos shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Not like I am planning to use it again. I just figured I'd show you I still had it. A trip down memory lane, as it were." He licked his lips, looking eagerly toward the tavern. "It's hot out there. Perhaps another drink?"
Nineeve shook her head. "ONly after I see the rest of your armor," she said. "I still can't believe you are the High Commander I once followed."
"I'm not," he said, his hand straying to his waist where a dented, tin flask hung from a leather cord. "I once was, but that was before I got everyone killed in Nethergarde, and in Stormwind." He lifted the flask, unscrewed the lid and took a deep drink, sighing with relief when finished."
"That was not your fault, High Commander," she replied, earning a sigh of resignation from Stepanos. "We were not ready to face such a challenge as Voidblade. When you reform and get yourself together, we'll know better."
Stepanos stopped drinking at her words, his lips still curled around the flask's mouth. "Next time?" he said, lowering the container. "There will not BE a next time, Nineeve. Darkness won and I am good with that." Nineeve's gaze softened and she walked forward, gently taking the flask from Stepanos.
"You need help, Stepanos," she whispered, his eyes watching the flask being removed from his care, then widening as she poured the drink to the ground. "I cannot stand to see you in this state."
"Hey!" he said, reaching for the bottle as the liquid was dumped to the ground. She moved backwards, keeping it out of his reach. As every drop fell to the ground, his demeanor sank as if it was his blood being spilled. "Stop it," he said. "I need that."
"You need the Light," she said, tossing the flask into the bushes. "And you need help."
"What for?" he said. "It abandoned me, you and everyone else. The world is sinking into Shadow and there is not a thing we can do about it except drink."
"Pardon me," a large, black and white Pandaren said, approaching from up the path. "I could not help but overhear your discussion. Let me introduce myself. I am Brother Hao Ling of the Tian Monastery," he continued, bowing at the waist and clasping his paws together. "We would be honoured to help you find your way back to the Light."
Stepanos lifted an eyebrow, glancing at Nineeve before returning his gaze to the monk. The Pandaren wore simple leather vest and pants, fastened across the middle with a deep-red, corded belt. A green symbol was in the middle. Nineeve snorted, but said nothing.
"Why do you think I need help?" Stepanos said. "Perhaps I like the way I am."
"Living like a yak?" Nineeve stated, crossing her arms. She nodded. "I am certain everyone wants to live that way."
"The Sha takes many of your kind," the monk said. "Most times leaving one completely unaware that they are lost. There are many types of Sha and each one is very dangerous." He shrugged. "Who knows which one has taken you, but I can sense it. in your eyes, in the words you speak - the actions you take."
He nodded. "You must seek help," he continued, then extended his paw. "Please. Allow me to guide you to my Master. He will see that you get the help you need to combat the Sha which has taken you."
Stepanos looked at the extended paw, staring at it and feeling the conflict build inside. The Soju called, he could hear it in his head - summoning him to the tavern to revel in it's glory. He could sing, he could sit and he could drink. No responsibility, no command, no one to worry about but himself.
"Darkness takes us all, Stepanos," it whispered, the tone hinting of the spicey drink he loved. He licked his lips and turned toward the tavern. "Yes, share in the Soju, Stepanos."
Nineeve appeared in his vision, her hands placed on each of his shoulders. "High Commander," she said, twisting her head so she could meet his eyes. "Stepanos!" He blinked, then saw her - his face scrunching in confusion.
She nodded. "Yes," she said. "Nineeve. Come with me to Stormwind. Leave the bottle behind, Stepanos, and I will be yours. For all time. Just come with me to Stormwind. Now."
He cocked his head. "Come with you?" he whispered. "Now?" he looked toward the tavern, his hand reaching to the cord that had once held his flask.
"Soju waits, Stepanos," the voice in his head whispered. He wasn't sure it was an actual voice, but it certainly was compelling. "Come to me, High Commander. SOJU."
Nineeve nodded, moving her face close to his - their eyes meeting, though his were glazed, while hers were sharp. "And I will be all yours, Stepanos. All yours."
He pushed her away, frowning and looking toward the monk. The Pandaren simply watched, his hands clasped together at his waist. "No," Stepanos said. "No! Not this way." For some reason his eyes were moist and he rubbed one with the back of his hand - leaving a dirty smear across his face.
"You would do that for me, Nineeve?" he said. She nodded, but said nothing. The voice in his head was strong, but the look on Nineeve's face was stronger and he pushed the Soju's call further away. He looked at his hands, tilting them up to really see. He grasped his torn tabard and ripped it from his chest, holding the moth-eaten tatters in his hand.
He leaned forward to see his toes, noting how large his gut had grown since discovering the drink - seeing his ragged socks and filthy toes as if for the first time. "Oh, Light," he whispered, feeling shame wash over, then fade into something he had not felt in over a year.
"No, Nineeve," he said, giving her a knowing and compassionate look. "You honor me with the offer, but I am not ready for such a gift." He turned to the Monk, who stood watching as if this were an everyday occurrence.
"I will go meet with your Master, Brother Ling," Stepanos said. "If there is a way to recover from this, I believe I am ready. Though, I make no promises." The monk clasped his hands as if in prayer and bowed.
"It will be my honor to escort you, Stepanos," the monk said. "Bring your armor, your weapon and your mount. Leave everything else behind." Stepanos nodded, then chuckled - turning his gaze upon Nineeve.
"I'm not sure I even know where Stout is," he said. "Probably ran off to find someone worthy."
Nineeve smiled. "You are worthy, Stepanos," she said. "You will see that soon enough, I hope. As to Stout? I would think he is right where he needs to be, waiting for you to come to your senses."
Stepanos moved to offer his hand to Nineeve. "I am in no condition to hug," he said. "I smell like a yak pen."
"Yes," she replied, "you do. However, I will hug you anyway."
"I will wait by the road, Stepanos," Brother Ling said, turning to walk. "Take no more than ten minutes to gather your things, for your journey beings in that moment."
"I will see you soon, Nineeve," Stepanos said, breaking the embrace and hastening toward the wagon.
"Until then, Stepanos," she said. "I eagerly await your return. May the Light be with you."
"Yes," he said. "I certainly hope it is."
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