The next morning, Idira woke with a start, a blanket over her. A mug of coffee stood on the bedside table along with a platter of fresh fruit. Tucked up beside it, an assortment of sweet biscuits. Only the faintest trace of Khadgar's singular scent remained. She eased up and touched the coffee. Cold. She shivered, not from her inner cold, but from pleasure. Her plan had worked, he had seen her in her shift. Wait. She looked down at the blanket, frowning. Had he conjured a blanket for her or had she done it and not remembered? She had been cold. No. She remembered now, half asleep, she had conjured the thing, sometime after she had fallen asleep. She bit back a curse. Typical.
She cast a small spell and warmed the coffee again. She sipped, enjoying a fresh ripple of pleasure despite her annoyance over the blanket. Khadgar had been here, looking at her again, a small part of her found his private surveyal of her delicious, erotic. She slid her hand under the pillow to pull out his journal, thinking to read her favourite parts again. She reached further in. The pillow tumbled onto the floor, she scrambled under the sheet, frantic, searching. His journal was gone. He must have used the raven while she was absorbed in his journal. She bit her lip, her cheeks burning with shame. How could she ever face him now? He knew she knew his secrets, had read his most private, intimate thoughts, forcing him to return to his sanctuary to remove the book while she slept.
There could be no turning back from this. Whatever slim chance she had had with him was now gone forever. She eyed the raven, despondent.
‘I'm sorry,’ she whispered to it, though its eyes were dull. ‘I only wanted to know who you really are, and now that I do, I want to be yours more than ever. Khadgar, there is only you. I could never love anyone else.’
The raven flew closer and landed on the bed's footboard as though drawn by her words. It eyed her. She sat up, uncertain. Could Khadgar hear her without her knowing? The raven edged along the footboard, flapping its way, awkward, over to the bedside table. It stole a biscuit and returned to its perch on the back of one of the chairs. She sighed, relieved. Khadgar hadn't heard her after all. The bird just wanted to eat. She took one of the biscuits. It was delicious. She smiled. The bird had good taste. She tossed it another one, grateful for its companionship at least. If only it wasn't a bird, if only it was a human, someone she could talk to, someone who would make her feel less alone.
She watched the raven work its way through the biscuit, a wild idea coming to her. She scoffed. It was a ridiculous notion. It came back, stubborn, insistent, taking shape. She toyed with her coffee cup, considering. There had been an obscure text in one of the arcane tomes relating to what she was thinking, but the spells it referred to were another thing entirely. It would never work. Wait. She sat up straighter, her skin tingling. If she could conjure the gowns she wanted with her Light why could she not do this as well? Why stop at gowns? There might not be any limitations to what she could accomplish. A rush of pleasure surged through her. All the time she had spent in Khadgar's sanctuary she had believed herself inferior to him, but what if her awakened and empowered Light had granted her power as great as his? Something such as she was considering would require powerful magic. The magic of an archmage, at least. She jumped up and pulled on her dress, her thoughts racing ahead, thinking of the hurdles she would need to overcome. It didn't matter, now she had thought of it, she couldn't think of anything else. She grabbed another biscuit and ran down the hall to the library. It was time to see just how powerful she had become.
It took almost the whole day to prepare, time spent checking and rechecking vague texts, puzzling over interpretations, desperate to reassure herself no harm would come to the poor raven, who watched her, curious, as though intuiting the part it would soon play in her experiment.
Long past the dinner hour, Idira stood back, scarcely daring to breathe. She had done all she could, had cast several wards, laid down seven runes, and encircled both her and the raven in the centre of the library behind a seamless, unbreachable boundary.
She called to her Light. It awakened, responding to her request, stirring. Dozens of thin tendrils shot out, her violet Light spiralling around Khadgar's raven perched on the back of the chair. Caught within its grip, the raven eyed the darting lights, uneasy. Idira held her focus, visualising the end result, drawing more of her Light to her. It hummed, pulsating, surging to life. A bolt of energy rose up within her, shooting through her, filling the enclosed space with her Light, another bolt, then another bloomed from her, the enclosed space vibrating, shuddering from her Light's growing intensity. She kept her eye on the raven for as long as she could, shielding her vision from the glare. The Light thrummed, rotating along the edges of the boundary, spinning faster and faster, until there was only a blur of her Light, crackling with energy. It stopped, abrupt and collapsed inwards, a silent rush of sapient energy, falling straight into the raven, surrounding it in a brilliant explosion of violet light, its force throwing Idira backwards, staggering against the glassy surface of the boundary. White light sheared through her vision, blinding her. She cried out, realising the profound depth of the Light's power, as it moved far beyond what she had asked of it. Waves of the Light's energy pulsed over her, ancient, primal, deep, so vast it lay beyond even her newfound abilities to comprehend. She juddered as another shock bored its way through her, bizarre symbols impaling themselves into the structure of her mind, telling her the Light was not her power. The symbols progressed, inexorable, pitiless. Idira Northshire is a vessel. She has one purpose: to carry the Light of Azeroth to Sargeras.
Idira sank to her knees, stunned. A vessel. How simple. How elegant. It explained much. Finally she understood why none could comprehend her power; why she had been shunned and ridiculed, the Light within her so terrifying, so intimidating, so foreign, only those with the greatest fortitude could bear her presence; why she had been protected, even to the cost of lives; why she had never been able to love Logan, and why she had been directed to Khadgar, not for him, but for this, his energy-laden sanctuary locked outside of space and time, brimming with the books her Light needed her to access.
Her thoughts lurched to a halt. And what would happen to her once she carried Azeroth's Light to Sargeras? Would it leave her and she would become Lightless, an ordinary woman? Or would she . . . No. She wouldn't think it. Azeroth would not be that cruel, that heartless, just to use her and cast her aside, making her whole existence apart from completing her task meaningless. The white light faded and by degrees her vision returned. The boundary melted away, the runes vanished. On the chair, movement. Idira crept closer, her heart in her throat.
She caught her breath. The raven was gone. Khadgar looked at her and smiled. He held out his hand to her. She took it. It was warm.
‘Can you speak?’ she asked as he brought her to her feet, her eyes raking over him, taking in the silver scars on his face, the stubble on his jaw, his steel-grey eyes. It was him. No. It was almost him.
The echo shook its head, slow. Not yet. She wondered if she had missed something. Tomorrow she could think about it, but for now, she was relieved not to have to hear his voice as well as see him. It was easier this way.
‘But you hold his thoughts, his wishes, his dreams, you are Khadgar's true echo?’ Idira continued, hesitant, amazed by how real, how solid the echo was.
The echo nodded. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her fingertips. Idira felt her heart clench. The echo looked no different than Khadgar, though she knew the truth, the echo contained no sexual organs. She had purposely chosen this restriction, since she feared what might happen should he be able to function the same as the real Khadgar. He stood and pulled her towards him. She caught her breath. He even smelled the same, leather, cedar wood, warm earth. His arms came around her, his hand coming up to cradle her head against his shoulder, his broad, solid chest rising and falling as he breathed.
Her emotions tumbled, confused, cutting her adrift. She shook her head and pulled free. It wasn't real. He wasn't real. He was nothing more than a construct of powerful magic, a fantasy made into flesh. What had she done? Disappointment and exhaustion swept over her, sharpened by the raw agony of her epiphany. She turned away, tears blurring her eyes. The echo came after her, taking hold of her arm, holding her back. He brushed the hair away from her brow, tender, his eyes saying what he could not.
I understand. I am not him. But I can still comfort you. Please. Let me. He tugged her, gentle, back into his embrace; stroking her hair, reminding her of Logan's affection, given without expecting anything in return.
In the echo's reassuring embrace, she sagged, stricken. He picked her up and carried her, effortless, to the bedroom. He lay her down and waited. Idira looked up at him, her heart aching for the real Khadgar. A spear of cold slicked through her as her latent magic turned against her. She shivered. The echo didn't wait for an invitation, he pulled off his shoulder collar and tunic and lay down beside her, pulling her against the battle-scarred torso of the man she had been waiting for her entire life. Despite herself, she huddled closer to Khadgar's echo, seeking his warmth, though she found none. She sighed and closed her eyes, her head tucked against his shoulder. He tightened his hold on her, his fingers moving through her hair, soft, soothing her.
As she relaxed under his gentle ministrations, she thought of Khadgar's journal, of his desire for love, and his deepest longing to find the one who could match him, understand him, support him. She could have been that woman, given enough time, but she didn't have time. The echo's arms tightened briefly, the gesture filled with reassurance. She wondered if he could hear her thoughts. Fresh tears gathered in her eyes as she thought of the words of Azeroth. Her one secret, unshakeable hope had always been her belief that her connection to Khadgar through her Light meant she was destined to be with him. Rather, the bitter truth was her life had never been her own, and her long-awaited meeting with Khadgar had only been to serve one purpose, to bring her to his sanctuary to prepare for her confrontation with Sargeras. A tear slipped free and slid down her cheek as the layers of her life peeled away, showing her path in a new light: its through-line suddenly clear, her destiny driven inescapably to this place and time; her path, the one she had thought had always been her own had instead been determined by a power so great, so distant, so unfeeling, she felt she was nothing more than a pawn on a vast chessboard. Hollowness clawed at her. The echo reached up and wiped the tear from her cheek, his actions heartbreakingly gentle. She looked up at him, and saw the sadness in his. He kissed her brow, his arm tightening around her, protective.
Guilt slammed into her for what she had done. How was she any different than Azeroth? She had created a sentient being for her own selfish purposes, taking away from him any chance of knowing what it would mean to fully love her. She felt the echo's lips brush against her brow again, soft, forgiving. Despite her roiling thoughts, exhaustion pulled on her, offering her an escape. She fought it, but the tug of sleep dragged on her, relentless. Within the sheltering arms of Khadgar's echo, she let go. Khadgar, her heart called out as she tumbled, plummeting into the realm of her broken dreams, please, just once, love me, before it is too late.
When Idira woke, still in the arms of her echo, she had a moment of blissful forgetfulness before the memories returned. She pulled herself free and sat up, pushing her hair back from her face. Her echo rolled onto his back, still lost to sleep. She turned, surveying him, her heart aching. How like Khadgar he was, his hair had become messy, and lay tousled over his brow, which bore creases of worry even as he dreamed. She wondered what it was like to be him, to be Khadgar in every way, yet not be him. Guilt sliced through her again. She had done a terrible thing, and what would Khadgar say when he learned his raven had been made into an echo of him? She groaned and rubbed her hand against her forehead. It seemed being left to her own devices had driven her straight into mischief. Perhaps she should return to studying. There were still hundreds of books she hadn't yet read. At least studying was safe.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, deciding to conjure herself a new dress. If she was going to have to face a Titan, she might as well spoil herself first. She took off her dress and cast the bathing spell. Freshened, she considered what she would wear. She closed her eyes and called to her Light. It spiralled around her, weaving a silken gown from her shoulders to her feet. She went to the mirror and caught her breath. A violet gown, precisely the same colour as her eyes glittered with tiny points of her Light all across the bodice and skirt, reminding her of the stars she had seen in the night skies of Westfall.
‘The constellations of the heavens,’ a warm, familiar voice murmured from the bed. She turned, her skin prickling. He could talk after all. The echo sat up, eyeing her with approval. ‘An appropriate choice for the Daughter of Azeroth.’
‘How could you—?’ she breathed, though she suspected she already knew the answer.
He crossed the room and took her hands in his. ‘Because I am him, yet I am not him. In many ways I am more than him, having been imbued with so much of your Light.’ He glanced at himself in the mirror, curious. ‘It is intriguing to be carrying his memories, his thoughts, his feelings . . . his yearning. He aches for you, Idira, I can feel it—’ he pressed his hand against his chest, over his heart ‘—here.’
She pulled herself free and backed away in an agony of torment. ‘I should not have done this. I don't know what I was thinking.’
‘There is no need to regret your actions, I for one am very pleased with this arrangement.’ He bent to retrieve his tunic, pulling it over his head, his muscles rippling. It was unbearable. Idira looked away. ‘But I do think,’ he said as he straightened the material, ‘you ought to be prepared to make me invisible should the need arise.’
She glanced back at him as he ran his hand through his hair, combing it back with his fingers, his movements achingly familiar to Khadgar's.
‘Don't you care I made you for my own selfish ends?’ she blurted, trying to distance herself from her confused feelings.
He turned to her, relaxed, a half-smile playing on his lips. ‘Although I might function as you do, able to breathe and feel, I know I am not truly real. For me to become real, a soul from the Nether would have to join with me, and in this form there could only be one soul which could do so. Khadgar's.’
Idira started. ‘Wait. Are you saying—?’
‘You didn't know?’ The echo's brow quirked, intrigued. ‘Long ago, the Faceless Ones learned how to create an echo of themselves so when they died, they could be reborn once more and live again, their version of immortality, though not without cost. I thought among other things I was practice for you.’
‘Practice?’ Idira gaped, flummoxed. ‘For what?’
The echo settled his shoulder collar in place, his fingers working, deft as they fastened the leather straps. ‘Well, obviously not,’ he smiled at her, his eyes gentle. ‘It seems you just wanted me for me. That doesn't happen very often. In fact, this would be the first time.’
Idira considered him, the man who looked and behaved just like Khadgar apart from the bizarre things he said. He raised his eyebrow at his reflection in the mirror, admiring himself, vain. A bolt of relief shot through her. Khadgar wouldn't have done that. It helped.
‘Doesn't happen very often?’ she repeated his words back to him, hoping he would enlighten her.
The echo pulled his gaze from his reflection and went to her, his eyes moving over her, taking his fill of her, his appreciation obvious. ‘I am made of the stuff of the Nether, held together in material form by the deepest magic of all, the Light of creation; of life. I have lived a long time, an eternity actually, but every now and again I am brought into some form or another. Usually for nefarious means.’ He looked down at himself, pleased. ‘This manifestation makes a refreshing change, although I would have preferred to have had my testicles.’
Idira felt her face begin to flame. She turned away. ‘I couldn't be sure . . .’
He touched her arm. ‘I understand. I was only teasing. What would I do with them anyway, your heart belongs to another, and quite right.’ He gestured to the door. ‘I heard you thinking about reading some more books. Shall we?’
Idira nodded, trying to get used to the idea her thoughts were no longer her own. She stopped and turned back to him, a tremor of embarrassment filling her. She had thought about studying the books before she had cast the bathing spell. ‘You didn't—’
The echo shrugged, unrepentant, a playful smile tugging on his lips. ‘Of course I did. You made me a full-blooded man after all.’
Despite her apprehension for having manifested him, Khadgar's echo proved to be an amiable, kind and patient companion, filled with a wealth of esoteric knowledge. He spoke with the books, sending them scurrying off to awaken some of the most ancient tomes, locked away in secret compartments, instructing the younger books to carry the elder ones back to her. In one day, she learned much. Far more than she had learned in all the other days combined. Under his tutelage, her abilities expanded, deepened, perfected.
Late in the evening, she conjured food and wine, and they ate, companionable, discussing some of the deeper aspects of the arcane texts she had studied. He told her he had been manifested in other universes, that the energy which comprised him existed outside of the material realms bound by time. She listened, fascinated as he told of her of other worlds and other beings, some strange, some familiar, some which had even heard of Azeroth despite existing in altogether different universes.
She drank the last of her wine and looked down into her empty cup, fatigue stealing over her. ‘I need to sleep,’ she murmured, stifling a yawn. ‘It has been a long day.’
‘Of course,’ the echo slid off the table and held out the crook of his arm, escorting her from the library. Just outside the bedroom, she held back, hesitating, uncertain.
‘Would you prefer to change in private?’ he asked, soft. ‘If you'd like to wear that transparent nightgown you are thinking of, don't refrain for my sake. I can only look, after all.’
Idira dithered. ‘What if Khadgar comes in the night and sees you?’
A twitch of his brow as the echo suppressed a smile. ‘I rather think it might go in your favour if he does. Nothing triggers a man more than the threat of competition.’
‘True, but he could hardly be threatened by himself,’ Idira answered, wondering at the echo's mild attitude toward her predicament. She had thought to send him away, to sleep in one of the other bedrooms, just to be safe.
‘Put your nightgown on,’ the echo said, tilting his head toward the bed, ‘I will wait here until you decide if you'd rather my company tonight or not.’
She went in and slipped behind a folding screen, sending her gown back into the Nether, wavering, indecisive for several shivering moments before giving in and replacing it with the shift she had hoped Khadgar would see. She glanced down at herself and sighed. What was she doing? Of course he would not come. It was already very late. He had not even used the echo's eyes to check on her over the last two days. Maybe the Leader of the Kirin Tor would never check on her again, so deep had been her betrayal of his trust. Perhaps he would just create a portal for her when he wanted her to leave his sanctuary, ensuring he wasn't on the other side when she arrived. Her heart clenched, filled with recrimination. Why hadn't she resisted reading his journal. Why?
Her heart heavy, she left the privacy of the screen. The echo stood waiting outside the door, he looked at her as she approached, his gaze lingering on the curve of her breasts.
‘By the Light, you are extraordinary,’ he said, reverent. ‘I can see why Khadgar does not come to you. I find it hard to believe any mortal man could withstand such a vision without losing their senses.’
Idira scoffed, though she felt a glimmer of warmth at his appreciative look, wishing it was Khadgar who looked at her that way. She turned away from the echo, to avoid his look. ‘Right now I am glad for your 'discrepancy',’ she said, shy, ‘because when you look at me like that . . .’
She listened to his footfalls as he moved across the stone-flagged floor, coming to standstill behind her. She turned.
‘Ah, but I am not the man you desire,’ he said, despite looking exactly like the one she wanted. The scent of him washed over her, stronger. She didn't question it. She leaned closer, drinking in the masculine bouquet of the man she loved.
‘Hold me,’ she said, soft.
The echo took her into his arms, folding her against his chest. He stroked her hair, tender, protective. She leaned against him, suddenly exhausted. She was tired of it all. Tired of waiting, tired of longing for a man she would never have. As though sensing her despondency, the echo picked her up and carried her to the bed. He knelt and lowered her onto the cover. He waited, watching her.
She reached up and touched his jaw, resisting the urge to trace her fingers over the scars on his cheek. She shivered, icicles of cold scouring her. ‘Stay with me, and keep me warm,’ she murmured, suppressing another quavering shudder.
The echo caught her hand. He kissed her fingertips, slow. Keeping his eyes on hers, he undressed down to his leather breeches. He slipped down beside her and pulled her into his embrace, pillowing her head on his shoulder. She nestled up against him, shivering, longing to feel warmth.
He kissed her brow. ‘Sleep, sweet Idira,’ he whispered. ‘Dream of the one you love.’
She sank, willing, into the welcoming arms of oblivion, dreaming of Khadgar's hidden life; reliving in rapid succession his sorrows, his battles, his fears, his longings, the brutal burden of his loneliness. The dream slowed. He stood over her, watching her sleep, his gaze raking over her, burning with longing. His look swept over his echo holding her close, his expression changing, darkening. He turned away, riven with anguish, his eyes bleak, and raw with jealousy.