In the forgotten recesses of both uproarious dread and victory, a familiar gnomish woman is snuggled in cotton-swathed tranquility under plush mountains of sheets and pillow, somewhere in the murky scope of Menethil's inn. She is still. No smile or grimace flinches her supple puffs of cheek. A face of stone is engraved into a craft of ashen flesh, lips parted. Her soft breath leaks at an eerily steady pace, and her silvery hair is matted, dull, and clammy. An unnaturally chilling aura teems from her limp and motionless body; a sense that an extraordinary presence embraces her soul with sagely love.

Penlink gazed numbly to her hands. They pressed amongst a flat surface, engulfed with velvety coils of milk-white mist. They rose, and rose, until at last spiraling into faded wisps. I'm kneeling down somewhere... she realized at last. How did I get relocated outside the inn? Is the air really this dense with miasma this morning?

Very slowly, Penlink lifted her chin to glaze her skeptically narrowed eyes over her bright, haze-licked surroundings. Her expression softened with awe. Beams of light surged from nowhere. Beyond this, only a starless night lingered.

Suddenly a tiny figure emerged through the thin veil of smoke. It floated serenely, growing larger... larger... and larger... Colors bloomed vaguely into sight and slowly sharpened. A tender smile lured Penlink over this mysterious visitor. It was a gnome clothed in a snow white gown like her own. Vibrant green hair in a fashion precisely mirroring hers framed a beaming face that twinkled with tears.

Penlink froze. Her lips shuddered as tears of her own instantly swelled from her bulging, glittery eyes. "S... Soila...?" She quaked violently.

"Yes, Penlink," replied a kind voice. Something panged relentlessly in Penlink's chest and swam to her jaw in tingling strings. Surely the sound had toyed with her ears in dreams, countless dreams, but this vividly? This pure? This memorable? Penlink choked on a sob and tightly scrunched her eyes. Ensnared in the fierce binding of nostalgia, she felt her spirit morph into the ambient-eyed four-year-old from which she'd long ago evolved.

Soila’s ethereal eyes darted side to side. “I mean—ahERM! Peeeenliiiink Spiiiirocraaaank…!” She wiggled her fingers for dramatic effect. “Whooooo…!”

Penlink burst into an incredulous giggle, her arms still wobbling in blissful astonishment. “Auntie, is that really necessary?”

“Well of course it is!” Soila snapped gleefully, propping her fists onto her hips. “I’m a ghost, you silly little goose! Now come ‘ere and give your ol’ auntie a big hug!” Her arms bolted open.

In a cloud of ecstatic tears, Penlink popped immediately to a stand and dashed to the hovering apparition, giving a tiny squeak and leaping into her arms. Soila caught her with ease. The young woman shuddered as she relished in her aunt’s velvety warmth, her tangible warmth, the warmth in which she'd dimly indulged herself only through remembrance. Still she quivered in flabbergasted joy amongst a body that once seemed crystal smoked flashes of fantasy, lost eternally into the pools of immortalized slumber. Her nose nuzzled with disbelieving ardor into Soila’s neck.

“Auntie Soila, what motives have you to bless my dreams with your presence? You feel so…” Penlink broke into yet another sob. “—so real…!”

She suddenly shivered as Soila’s delicate fingers sunk through her hair and gently combed through its choppy layers. Another gushing tendril of tears rolled down her cheeks. “And—and I—“ Penlink released a tiny huff of laughter. “Holy knuts and bolts, I feel six years younger at least...!”

“You remember, sweetheart,” Soila replied sweetly. “Seemed like combing your hair was an hourly ritual whenever your parents were off and away.”

Penlink nodded slowly, but said nothing.

“Listen, honey bunch, your question was a good one. I’ve been watching you like a thousand monitors in a security prototype. You've given me many reasons to be proud of you, Penny.”

Penlink felt a warm kiss press amongst her forehead. Her smile tore lovingly across the scape of her face.

“But there have been important matters on your mind. Those of trust… those of friendship… and those of love, committed love, am I right? I come to you to address them, and to assert something to you. Of course you realize the magnitude entailed. Not every day I come to you for assistance,” she chuckled merrily.

“I wouldn't expect anything less," Penlink replied sincerely. "You... really must be everywhere.” She smirked, and then sniffled.

“Now what part of ghost did you not understand?” Soila asked with mocking sternness.

“Oh ho!” Penlink began, reflecting her teasing air even in the midst of her dampened face and reddened eyes. “You came all the way from ghosty land to enlighten me with timeless guidance.”

Soila drew away from the embrace, flicking a stray string of hair from Penlink's collar bone before clutching her shoulders. “Nope. You’re going to be doing the talking, honey. If there are any questions, they’re gonna be from me.”

Penlink quirked a brow.

“You’ll see. Now you know how it goes. As with every set of problems, you must tackle one at a time to ascertain your answer isn’t flawed. Correct?”

The young warrior giggled softly. “Of course.”

“Well then.” Soila smiled, releasing Penlink and straightening her back. “Problem one. You don’t know who to trust now. Why?”

Penlink swallowed and said nothing for a few moments. Suddenly she pierced a ray of light with a cold stare. “Surely you’ve observed Aeletria’s insidious actions.”

“How are your outlooks on Baines and Kazdra coping?”

Penlink revisited her attention to Soila and blinked sharply, still adapting to the notion that her aunt could even have indefinite names of these friends. “He did something terrible, but he was sorry. You know what he did, yes?"

"Yes, I do," said Soila. "He tried to join our realm by his own forceful will. I ask this because I have a vague concept of your opinion in regards to suicide."

"Correct." Penlink paused, her air beset by grave reflection. "Suicide is… it’s insensitive, and even cruel and selfish to those who love you. It’s irrational, cowardly, and downright absurd. It goes to show what little regard you have for the astounding beauty and opportunity of life."

"So yet and still he made the attempt. What now, Pen?"

Penlink's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Well... he also stopped himself. I hear he even made the effort to repent. I doubt I’ll prove capable of viewing him in the same fashion exactly, but you understand, yes? I forgive him. As for Kazdra… she may have spied out of curiosity and worry, but it was still erroneous and super rude, and I have yet to see her apologize to Aldenaar or Bellana. Maybe she did and I wasn’t aware. Anyway, it’s… pardonable with a sincere sorry.”

Soila nodded sagely. “And what of Aeletria?”

A bitter frown tugged at Penlink’s lips. “Aeletria… has brought incalculable disgrace to her name,” she said flatly. “She’s executed more than one offense and I’ve only seen her beg and manipulate in turn.” Her eyes bubbled. “Can you believe it, Soila? I liked her once! I thought she was spiffy. I opened myself to her and she exhibited only kindness and reassurance. That was lost as quickly as putting card A into slot B and watching a month-long awaited apparatus explode into smithereens. She is beyond the regain of my trust, much less my friendship!” There was a hot pause. Finally, Penlink released a heavy, drawn-out sigh. “…I would give a second chance, but I haven't seen her try. With the preceding statements made I’ll be frank. My trust has been violated and tainted.”

Soila nodded again with a light smile. “Your current emotion is justifiable, Penlink. But do you recall the ‘ways of science’ you utilized to assist Alriah in her time of grief?”

Penlink hung her head. “Yes. I know.”

“Do you now?”

A softer sigh fled through Penlink's nose as her eyes gave a slight, playful roll. “I know that science changes on a relentlessly sporadic basis and the more limitless evidence obtainable, the firmer a conclusion can be deemed.”

“That definition would certainly suffice. So let's look at it scientifically. How many people have you met well enough?”

Penlink smirked with an almost knowing prediction, as though somewhat conscious of where her aunt's purposeful questions would lead. “I’ve known perhaps 732, not accounting anything less than an acquaintance.”

“And how many knowable souls reside on Azeroth, adding to consideration the newly welcomed draenei people?”

“...That was known to equate to a couple billion, wasn't it?”

It was Soila’s turn to smirk. “Your sample isn’t a good representative of your initial population.”

The smile echoed over Penlink’s lips, but remained shut.

“Pen, nothing has changed. I’m not suggesting by any means that you trust whomever you see, but you don't very well have to wizzily worry yourself over that nonsense, do you? You're already rather skeptical. Just keep your eyes peeled to a reasonable degree, you know?”

Penlink nodded, her brows furrowed in pensive understanding. “Yeah.”

“Good… You seem at ease about the problem now. Are you?"

"I only require some time to swallow it all in," Penlink said with a light grin. "That was good advice, and I appreciate it muchly, auntie. Thank you"

"Wonderful, and you're quite welcome!

A doting silence filled the void of conversation for a few moments.

"...Now we can discuss your fiancé.”

As though by instinct, Penlink immediately shriveled her head into her neck, a rosy blush tinting her cheeks. “No Soila, we haven’t done anything that bad.”

Soila firmly lodged her knuckles into her hips once again. “Don’t think I didn’t take an accidental looksie at what you two did the night he proposed! That was naughty, chickadee! But it did give me ideas…”

"Hee hee hee!" Penlink nearly keeled over in uncontrollable giggles, now blazing a hot scarlet. “Ha ha! An accident my little captain’s quarters! You didn’t really--?”

“No, no, I assure you it was only an embarrassing five nanoseconds,” Soila sniggered.

“Five? Five whole nanoseconds! For shame!”

“Hey now," Soila grinned, a bit more sobered. "I had a serious question you know! Do I have your 'graced' permission to deliver it?”

“Oop!” Penlink swiftly composed herself. “Sorry Soila. What, um…?” As quickly as she calmed, her face fell to a tense preparedness. “What should you inquire of me?”

Soila imitated the abrupt change of mood and gazed to Penlink with a sincere staidness. “How do you see Aldenaar, Penlink? Describe him to me.”

A gentle, loving air crept over her eyes with a wild sparkle merely at the prospect of answering such a measureless question, or at the very least, the futile attempt. “Soila, how do I even consider commencing the endeavor of such an impossible project? For the first time I feel undeserving of someone’s heart.”

“Undeserving, you say?” Soila intervened. “Go on.”

Penlink neglected to offer so much as a nod, but continued. “The more time I spend with Aldenaar, the greater ludicrousness in the belief that preceding lovers knew love at all. Aldenaar is so gentle and considerate, so perceptive, and so amazingly wise. I doubt I’ve ever met someone so selfless and protective. It’s made me cry with glee to myself. And he has a patient respect that seems almost unnatural. And… his vast intellect is absolutely breathtaking! By far he is the most gifted artist I’ve ever acquainted with. He can weave astounding poetry of chilling, speech-impairing beauty right on the spot like it’s simply second nature to him. He interprets all situations with such peace and moral, with such intellectual analysis, and with such noble and honorable conclusion. And he has a flabbergasting charm. The largest piece of evidence that suggests life is irrational is the fact that all inhabitants on Azeroth aren't killing each other for the immense honor of his heart."

Soila felt a warm smile delicately spread across her ghostly features. “Aw, Pen...”

“His charisma leaves me spell-bound. And his voice enraptures me... It's deep and vibrates through me with such warmth, and yet it’s so tender. His movements are always spilling with might and grace everywhere he trots; another perfect reflection of himself. This... this man who asked for my hand in sacred matrimony doesn't just breathe beauty, or smile with beauty, or make something beautiful with his touch- he is the very epitome of beauty. And, by a means through which I shall never completely grasp, he's decided to grace me with his love and… and an infinitely long commitment.”

Soila beamed. “Penny dear, your love for Aldenaar is truly unquestionable. And from what I've observed it couldn’t be returned with a greater degree of passion. I couldn’t be happier you’ve found someone so wonderful. You really are a heartwarming match.”

Penlink’s smile gleamed.

“He asked you to be his wife, Penlink. He’s a draenei. I never thought I’d see you doubting your worth to any man… What do you think this means to him, and to you?”

“Well I—I’ve considered long and hard and…” Penlink swallowed, her eyes suddenly moist. “I… This is what makes this so mind-boggling. He’s about 250 years old. That corresponds to about 3.125 of our lifetimes. And he claims he's never married. Therefore throughout that entire increment of time, two and a half centuries, he never thought of any woman worthy enough to wed, or perhaps he was rejected. Then we meet. This soon, he kneels before me, making his heart and himself completely at my mercy. Do you… have even the slightest fraction of an idea how much that means? How stirring that is? How overbearing that is? How… h--?” Penlink slowly shook her head, succumbing a to hushed, squeaky weep. Soila lovingly reached behind her niece’s neck and stroked her hair.

“Soila! This is--!” A heavy sob disrupted her. “I-I’m sorry I’m getting so super emotional, but you and Aldenaar and— there’s so much to process.”

“I understand…” Soila said gently.

“And… and he’s brought this issue up many times… The—" Sniffle. “—the awareness that I’m going to die and that he’s immortal doesn’t do a gosh-darn thing to stop him. He could have chosen to share his life with another immortal, or decided to marry over again after I'm dead, but he’s not even intending that! He’s willing to watch me age while he can't, and to watch me die, and to live on without ever marrying again. How can an--?” A quiet burst of tears erupted. “How can anyone without flaw submit to this fantastic promise? On a typical basis I would be skeptical… But I’m not! He’s just… Do you not see his passion, his devotion, his downright perfection?”

“I would normally agree with skepticism as well, but by golly he can fool a ghost like me if he’s lying. And if you still somehow doubt yourself, Penlink, do you see that despite his ‘perfection,’ he not only finds you worthy as his wife, but worthier than 250 years of women, worthier than any woman who could share his immortal life with him to the fullest extent (and any other woman for that matter), and worthy enough to never seek another lover even after your demise? Penlink, I question if even I've been witness to such love before. Why do you hold back in accepting this bondage?”

Penlink nibbled uneasily at her lip. “Because I-I didn’t feel ready. I admit there are other reasons in addition, but marriage is the ultimate echelon of romantic avowal. I always viewed it that way. But now it’s an even bigger deal. I just… I just wanted to be careful, for my sake and especially Aldenaar’s, due to the circumstance. And I’m scared, Soila. People change. Relationships change. I’m scared of what the future would pound down on us. And..." Fangs painted a sickly green promptly gnawed at Penlink's stomach. She nibbled at her lip, her wide ears drooped. "Bellana… I care for her dearly and she’s an extraordinary, strong person, but she bothers me. She still has a romantic admiration for Aldenaar, which I can understand since he’s so super, but… It bothers me. It really does. I know they’d probably make a splendiferous couple if it weren't for me, but that’s beside the point.”

“Good catch. Obviously, Aldenaar feels that you two would make a better couple, yes? Your friends think very fondly of your relationship, you know. I know you know this.” Soila grinned impishly. “Besides, I may be mistaken, but I believe something might be sparking between her and Korkyta Stellarwind. No guarantees of course.”

A light smile twitched at the corner of Penlink's lips. "I suppose."

“Leave Bellana out of the equation, honey bunch. You say she’s strong; you're right. She’ll realize there’s a better suited match for her somewhere. And don’t be jealous or unnerved, Penlink. You’re the undisputed keeper of Aldenaar’s heart, as he is with yours. This scale’s likeliness to tip is 999,958,067 to 1. Besides, you’ve had plenty of admirers yourself. A picky state of mind had to arise from somewhere.” She winked.

Penlink rubbed the back of her neck and smiled. “Well… I just don’t want either of us to realize he went in too deeply too quickly. That’s part of the reason I insisted to delay the marriage.”

“Even considering the love exchanged it is possible. There’s no rush, right? He has the respect to wait as long as you need to. It’s your duty to know when you’re prepared. And you’re a warrior, yes? Be brave of course! This is a new sort of battle, and very feasibly, the most difficult and complex to undertake. I can predict that there would be no greater regret clinging to your life than shying away from marriage to the man you so long for, simply out of fear.”

Penlink nodded earnestly. “No arguing that logic… Soila… You’ve assi— Soila?!”

Soila’s ghostly form slowly began to fade into the mists. She hastily wrapped her arms around the alarmed woman, lovingly stroking her hair as the shafts of light surrounding them broadened to blinding beams. “It’s time for me to go, deary. I’ve kept you too long.”

“Gobbledygook I say!" Penlink cried, gripping passionately at the loose, silky folds of Soila's dress. "I… Well I missed you… Please, you don't have to leave...?”

Soila smiled kindly as she watched the arm draped around Penlink's shoulders slowly diminish. “I've missed you too, sugar plum. I just wish I could have gotten to you this way previously… That reminds me. Pen, I came to you in your dreams through a certain school of magic. You know me and magic. I probably screwed it up big time somehow. Just be prepared if something seems off. It would most likely manifest as a time-concern.”

“Wait! Please, let me thank you at least?”

Soila nodded with a bittersweet smile.

Penlink drew reluctantly from the embrace and clung to Soila's shapely biceps. A stare flickering with heartfelt, glittery warmth fell upon her aunt's with an earnest directness. “Soila, your appearance in my time of need, let alone your excellent assistance, will be something I’ll treasure and reminisce for an infinite remainder of my existence, alive or dead. I feel like I dumped a whole jet engine off my back and splashed into a lake." She released an awkward giggle at her odd analogy. "Just… thank you… Thank you so much…!" Sniffle. "My life will proceed as always in honored thoughts of you.” A thin, clear stream hurdled down Penlink's face with a squeaky sniff as her smile glowed with undying admiration. “I love you, Soila.”

Now a mere tinted shadow, Soila trailed her pudgy hand down Penlink’s cheek and enfolded her palm about her chin, beaming with motherly pride. “I love you too, Penlink. Happy dreams.” The voice trailed off into an echo, and Soila was gone. The lights and mists shrouding the air dimmed into untainted darkness.

Penlink bolts to a sit with a high-pitched gasp, smothered in warm sweat. She's frozen for a moment, as though attempting to register her abruptly new atmosphere... It's silent. Her bedroom fluctuates with the soft scarlet silhouette of the fireplace. She raises a brow to it. Lively embers dance within. But I never lit a fire...

Penlink glances at a nearby mirror. The reflection is shaken. Her eyes are stale and red, while her cheeks remain stained with tears.

There she dwells for hours, staring intensely at herself in profound thought...

Finally, at perhaps two o'clock in the morning, Penlink hops out of bed with a tiny grunt.