The Abbess of Stratholme

Sooooooooooooo once upon a time, Blizzard’s CDev group did these Creative Writing contests. I wrote this story for the first of those contests, but never really shared it broadly. I was reminded of it today when the @Warcraft Twitter asked about “what’s your character’s backstory?” and an art friend of mine pressed a little about the same thing.

I haven’t done anything to spruce up this story from how I wrote it eight years ago. I like to think my skill has improved since then, but I wanted to get this story posted some place where people could get to it if they were interested.

So allow me to present the origin of my primary character in WoW, Aerienne, in “The Abbess of Stratholme.”


PROLOGUE

Give in.

I dog the hunter’s steps as he tromps through the woods ahead of me, jogging down hills, sliding down drifts of late summer leaves. The dwarf sets a hard pace, despite his short stature. The highlands that house Stratholme are no longer safe. Whenever I stumble, whenever I cry out, or whenever little Pyra loses hold of my hand the dwarf stops.  He sets the now-orphaned baby boy down on the leaves and pulls some contraption from his backpack. The rest is brief, long enough only for me to catch my breath, for me to whisper another prayer that mends our many cuts, dulls our many bruises.

No prayer, no hymn could soothe the searing pain of the memories just made. The image of my home burning, set afire by the very prince who’d come to protect us… it stings.

Give in, the darkness whispers at me, but I close my eyes, drawing a deep breath. I opened them just as the hunter looks up at me and scoops the swaddled boy from the ground with barely a grunt. He says nothing, only nods. I nod back and squeeze Pyra’s hand tightly. This is our language now, for the dead hear everything, and the woods of Lordaeron’s highlands are filled with the dead.

The dwarf’s trap is set. Every time we push ourselves to the run once more, I hope against hope that every clever device of the dwarf’s strange craft ends the pursuit.

The darkness…it laughs at my hope.


CHAPTER 1 – SALVATION

[Hours ago, in the City of Stratholme…]

Shouts. The sound and taste of fear greet me as I run into the Abbey. A baby is crying. My heart is beating too fast to be torn by its wordless plea. I run through the narthex, into the sanctuary as dozens pray amidst the noise.

A woman’s voice cuts through the tense serenity of the sanctuary. “…and your petty hubris will be the death of us, Abbot!”

The Abbot’s response is as calm as he is portly. I want to shout, but there’s no air left in my lungs. “Our faith in the Holy Light shall protect us from this sickness. Only those who lack the purity of the Light in their hearts need fear.”

“The city burns!” I scream. Could they not smell the ash?

The eyes of many shoot my way. Standing before the Abbot of Stratholme, who is in the middle of his afternoon devotions, are Lady Eris and a Knight of the Silver Hand. Marduk is his name. They too turn, and Eris Havenfire towers over where I lay crumpled on the floor, catching my breath. She kneels, and a whispered prayer sends a ripple of the Light through me. I stand, shakily at first, as Eris holds my arm for support.

“Speak quickly, Sister Aerienne.” It’s a command and a plea at once.

“Prince Arthas has come to the city to fight the spreading plague. But he comes with the sword. He’s butchering people in the streets, setting fire to everything in his wake. I saw him cut down the first of them myself. A demon appeared, whom the prince named –“

“Speak not a demon’s name in the place of the Light!” The Abbot says imperiously, gaining a glare from Eris.

“Silence, you fool!” She looks back at me, and I go on.

“I heard not what they said, but the demon… he waved a hand, and the people whom the prince cut down… they rose up again! The Prince and his men hacked them to pieces! I could bear no more and ran here.”

Havenfire looks right through me, fear passing over her like wind from the high peak. It is there and gone when she speaks her command. “Blackpool,” she says to the paladin. “Use your vision. You can see further than any of us.”

Yet when I look to Sir Marduk, I see glorious Light fading from his dark eyes. “What she says is true. The prince fights the living dead, but slaughters the living as well.” He swings his plumed helmet onto his head. “Protect the people, Eris, and my children. I shall put a stop to this.”

Without sparing time for argument, Marduk strides down the steps, shouting for the Crusaders to rally in the square. Already, people are running out of the cathedral, dashing to their homes, hoping to gather what little wealth they have and flee. But suddenly the entrance is jamming as others rush in, confirming my story with their breathless tales of the terror from which they fled.

“This plague…” whispers Eris, anger cracking her silken voice, “and now the Prince… this city is a death-trap. We cannot stay here…” I watch as plans and plots flitter past her thoughts, conjured and discarded in an instant while I can only watch, dumbfounded. “We can leave the city through the western shepherds’ gates. From there we can pass over the mountains to Hearthglen.”

“Does fear turn you so easily, Havenfire?” says the Abbot.

“If you have no fear,” she says, biting her words, “go and meet the Prince yourself. Or wait here for the demon to come pay his respects.”

“Ha!” The Abbot claps the end of his staff on the step of the dais before him. “Any demon who sets foot within this Cathedral of the Light… yes, it shall be set ablaze by the radiance of our faith. But flee, Eris, if your heart so commands you. The Light keeps none who would cast aside its protection at the whisper of a threat.”

Eris says nothing more to him. She turns, placing an arm around my shoulders, and speaks to the gathering mob of panicking cityfolk: “Citizens! If you wish to live out this day, then have no fear! Keep the Light in your hearts, and follow me!” We walk together, Eris and I, for the narthex, and throngs of the people part to let us through, falling into line behind us. Eris Havenfire was a bastion of the Light – if she feels there is reason to flee, who would be foolish enough to ignore her?

Behind me, I can hear the Abbot casting his benedictions, as though this were the normal end of his devotions. “Return with the Light of a new day, my friends!”

The crush of fearful citizens swells as we pass through the narthex, but I stop when little Pyra runs to me, wrapping her arms around my waist. Tears stream down her face as she looks up at me, the dark eyes of her father Marduk mirrored in her own. “Sister Aeri, my father is gone! Where did he go?” Behind her, on a bench, the baby Randon, her brother, lay in swaddling clothes keening. Months ago, Marduk’s late wife had borne a son just before she died.

I look to Lady Eris for aid. As the panic in the throng increased, even Havenfire looks flustered. “The people need me to guide them. Blackpool’s children are in your charge, Sister. Follow me closely, and we’ll be safe soon.”

“But my lady,” I say, stroking Pyra’s hair, “is the Abbot not right? The Light of the Cathedral, our Abbey – is that not enough to protect us?”

Havenfire shakes her head, and despite the madness growing around us, a small smile breaks on her face, the last ray of light in a dying day. “The Abbey is just a building. It’s the Light of the people within that makes it a place of power.  It’s a leader of pure heart, a fountain of that Light that protects the people. Our abbot is a fool to think the stone and wood of this place will protect him. You want to protect the people, sister?” I would be a fool not to nod eagerly. “Then that makes you the Abbess of Stratholme. Now stay close. To the western gates!”

Heartened by her words, the people push past, flooding from the Cathedral’s doors. I stand still, statue-like, the words seeping into my heart, as Pyra buries her face in my robes, asking in mumbles for her father. I think of my family – my father and sister are in Dalaran on business. My mother, like Pyra’s, passed into the Light long ago. My grandfather… he’s in the city, isn’t he? I shake away the rising fear.

I kneel down and hug Pyra close, whispering a calming prayer to the Light. I pull her back gently, and speak fast. “Your father has gone to save the city, Pyra. But he wants you to stay close to me. We’ll follow Lady Eris, and when this is all over, your father will join us too. All right?” She nods, as I had to Eris. “Let’s get your brother and…”

I freeze. The narthex was silent with the people gone. We see nothing on the bench where the baby lay crying only moments before. Pyra shouts his name. As one, we rush outside, where the stench of ash is already beginning to descend. “One of the people must have picked him up, we—“

“It’s about time, Aerienne.” I spin to the source of the voice, pushing Pyra behind me. But my breath explodes in shock and relief when I see who stands there, leaning easily, the baby boy in his arms.

“Grandfather? What are you doing here?” There are reasons my father was always on edge around his father-in-law. I don’t know all of them, but I know how off-putting it is to have my grandfather simply appear without any preface. It was always such as a pleasant surprise when I was a child.

My grandfather Daedalan is haggard, but hale. He is as strong as my father, a fact he loves pointing out whenever possible. His arms cradled the baby like he was his own. I know those arms to be covered in sailor’s tattoos, though the sleeves of his coat concealed them now. In those arms, the son of Blackpoole sleeps despite the chaos around him. “Time for stories later, my child. We’ve a long road to go.”

“Lady Eris heads for the western gates, Grandfather,” I say, “If we hurry, we can catch up.”

“If the western gates were our destination, then that would be brilliant. But it’s the wrong way.” With that, he steps down and makes for the eastern gate from the Crusader’s Square.

Pyra’s question echoes my own unspoken one. “Where is he going?”

He speaks over his shoulder at me. “Now’s not the time for arguments, girls. Come now!”

What choice have I but to follow? He holds my charge in his arms, and is he not my kin, whom I can trust above all? What would be my fate if I follow Eris, as all my reason calls me to do?

I grasp Pyra’s hand tightly and give her another smile. “He’s just taking us on a shortcut. We’ll catch up to Lady Eris in no time.” She nods again, and we set off after my grandfather, our steps quick but quiet.

Lies are an affront to the Light, but…


CHAPTER 2 – DESCENT

The street before us is abandoned. Festival streamers hang between the houses. Nothing moves, though nothing burns either. I say as much to Grandfather, who stops short, peering at the stillness with sharp eyes.

“Hm.” He presses the baby into my arms, turns on his heel, and walks to the first door on the right. It is a florist’s shop. I came here for a flower arrangement to adorn the Abbey’s altar last Noblegarden. Grandfather pulls a leg up and kicks the door off its hinges without so much as a grunt.

All the assertions of his strength that I have heard in the past now have context. My father is a strong man as his trade requires, but Grandfather is an alchemist, a scientist. But I’m getting distracted – I ask a different question instead.

“I thought we were leaving the city. Are we hiding instead?”

“No.” As though he’d been here a thousand times before, he stalks up the wooden staircase behind the door, while I follow close by.  “We need the high road.”

“The high road?” Only half of me asks the question – the rest of me wonders if the old lady and her sons, who run the flower shop, have already fled. I don’t remember seeing any of them with Lady Eris, but there were too many faces to track. How many faces would I never see again?

“The rooftops,” he said. “We’ll be able to spot trouble further ahead that way. Just stay low, stay behind me, and watch your steps.”

Our egress to the ‘high road’ is a window on the florist’s top floor. Something is wrong… I know the florist is gone, but somehow the house doesn’t feel empty. The once-lovely scent of flowers is overpowering. Grandfather strides towards the window, likely to kick it out just as easily. He steps in front of the bedroom door.

The door explodes in a shower of splinters and planks, and while I cover my eyes I hear a low moaning, and the sound of feet dragging across the boards. Pyra screams. I hear steel leaving a scabbard, and when I look up my grandfather is stabbing a man in the chest – only the man is already dead, his face half-gone, bite-marks perforating his bleeding flesh. I watch as Grandfather uses his hilt-deep dagger as a lever, and with a turn and a shove, the dead man flies over the rail down into the flower shop below. Pottery crashes. Grandfather throws a savage kick into the next dead thing – it disappears back into the bedroom before I can mark it for anyone I might know.

Am I dreaming? The dead are walking again, as they did with the demon and the prince. And this is the old man who made flower-crowns for me when I was a child. Yet here he is, his dagger as fast as a bee-sting, his feet a blur as they plant on the chest of one corpse after another, sending them back into the room from which they crawled.

“The window, Aerienne.” Grandfather said. His command is clear, but he says it with all the urgency of asking me to pass the sugar at morning tea. I move like he’d shouted, clutching the baby to my chest and holding Pyra behind me, away from the melee. Another dead thing scrambled out of the room. I throw the latch on the window and push it open on well-greased hinges, and hold a hand down so Pyra can climb through. I follow suit, and as I look back through, Grandfather pulls a glass bottle from his cloak. He pulls the cork with his teeth and throws the bottle against the wooden floor. The glass shatters, but Grandfather fills the view from the window as he walks towards me, bending over to come through. As he straightens, I look past him and see a fire raging.

I fix him with a stare. “Fire oil? You’d burn the city too?” Maybe it’s petulant, but it won’t serve for my grandfather to do the prince’s work for him. I look back inside. One of the florist’s sons becomes clear to me as he flails about soundlessly, his flesh blackening from the unquenchable flame.

“The dead can’t walk if they are turned to ash, granddaughter.” He straightens his coat, and pulls out a white kerchief to clean the blade. “Say a prayer for them if you like, but we have only a moment here.” The dagger snaps into its sheath once more.

I turn and do just that. Behind me, I hear my grandfather kneel down. His voice takes on a quality that the old use with the very young – I cannot remember hearing it since I was Pyra’s own age.

“We have not been properly introduced, my child,” he says. “What is your name?”

This conversation was familiar. The little girl says what I said. “Pyra Blackpool.” The name is different, though.

“Lady Pyra, I am Daedalan Harcourt. I have served your father, the Lord Marduk.”

“You don’t look like a knight.” He didn’t look old enough to be my grandfather when we first met.

Like the first time, Grandfather chuckles. “Many men serve your father who are not knights. But they are men of honor, like your father. And often has he spoken of his pretty daughter, his little firefly.”

Her dark eyes blink. “Only my father calls me that.” What was the surprising thing he had said to me? I can’t remember now…

“I tell you this so that you may be sure that Lord Marduk has trusted me in the past. Will you trust me now, to keep you safe?”

Pyra looks at me for assurance, and I give her the small smile I’m able to muster. She needs to be sure of something, if just to stave off the panic. She looks back to my grandfather and gives a single, curt nod. How much has this little girl aged in just the hour of time since we fled the Abbey? What did I know of trust when I was but ten summers old?

“Then come. Take my hand. Aerienne shall keep your brother safe, and we shall leave this place together.”

She reaches up her hand, dwarfed by the scarred but skilled hand of my grandfather.  He straightens and starts walking, and Pyra looks back at me as I step up closely behind.

Briskly we walk along the rooftops of the city, following a masonry path that weaves like the spine of a great constructed snake. In the near-distance, columns of smoke rise up, strongest above King’s Square. The fires of the Prince to cull the city burn their hottest there, creeping further in the way that only flame can. From our vantage we can also see deeper into the city, and a different darkness hangs over the Promenade beyond Elder’s Square. And while I feel a growing sense of dread with every step, my grandfather is taking us closer and closer to that darkness.

No wonder he asked for Pyra’s trust, asking my own with the same speech. This did not seem to be a path to safety… more like a path into madness. Yet was not the whole world mad when the dead are still quick?


CHAPTER 3 – PURITY

I hear the sounds of fighting, of swords and battle cries, and the shouted words of power uttered by Dalarani wizards. These sounds grow louder, until I creep closer to the edge of the rooftop and look down.  We are right above Prince Arthas and his company as they fight through the hordes of the risen dead.

The prince himself is a silver dervish, a golden-haired blur as his warhamme shatters the broken bodies of the dead. The power of the Light flies from him as arcs of golden paint, and he draws a portrait of righteous destruction with every swing. Beside him fight men and women clad in the armor of Lordaeron’s High Guard, the prince’s personal bodyguard.

I could spit. I want to exult in the prince’s presence, to cheer him on and bless him with the Light, but then again, had this not started when he entered the city? The plague came before, shortly before, but it is not the plague that makes the dead walk; it’s the demon. And even if the prince is fighting the dead to destroy the demon, he is killing the living at the same time.

The prince, the protector of the people, was slaughtering the innocent in the streets. I look away, and trail after my grandfather instead of bearing any more of it.

Before too long, we stand over the Promenade, the city’s northeastern quarter. Normally, the sound of people haggling amongst the finest shops of the city dominates, but now the place is still, unnaturally so. The sounds of the embattled prince are distant, but growing. Darkening red spatters the masonry, and more redness paints the cobblestones, but the bodies from which the blood has spilled are nowhere to be seen. The air chokes with the bitter flavor of ash and the balmy scent of terror mixed with death.

“Mister Harcourt, I can’t—“ Pyra coughs, and Grandfather stops. He pulls a kerchief from his coat and whips it open. “Keep an eye out, Aerienne,” he says as he folds the kerchief into a mask to cover her mouth.

I do as I am told, and look down the Promenade, seeing nothing familiar about the place I called home. A sound breaks the silence, though, and I step closer to the ledge once again.

Metal-clad feet stamp against the road as the Crusaders run by, Lord Marduk at their head. The darkness thins around the paladins, as though their very presence could cleanse the area. The dozen Crusaders fan out behind Marduk as they move through the Promenade, though Marduk himself stops. I see the plume of his helm turn one way, then the other, before he brings his shield up over his head. Something clangs against his shield from the nothingness, and he sinks, receiving the blow but standing his ground.

The demon appears, the leathery bat-wings unfurling to reveal an armored body over hoofed feet. Two great horns, black as night, tower from his forehead, atop a drawn but mirthful face. The fiend is chuckling. The low rumble of his voice rolls out like a torrent across the Promenade, his words laced with poison and honey. “Very insightful, my lord. I can see that yours is a brutal spirit.”

Lord Marduk shouts something back that I don’t catch. He leaps forward, wings of Light sprouting from his shoulders, and brings his sword crashing down on the demon. The demon blurs to one side, deflecting the sword away off his bracer. “We must do something about that pesky sense of righteousness…” With that, his clawed hands come together into fists, which he slams into the ground.

Cobblestones explode upward all around the marketplace, eliciting shouts of surprise from the gathered paladins. The dead rise, skeletons and the freshly dead, and claw at every Crusader. I watch in horror as the holes in the road spew forth the dead like ants from an endless hive. But my gaze is drawn back to the demon as he continues to dodge Marduk’s furious assault.

The creature laughs aloud. “Could you imagine having this power at your command, my lord? The power over death, and thus life itself?”

I grit my teeth. I want to leap down from the roof, bringing the Light to heal the Crusaders, to lay the dead to rest, and to bring down this demon, the true author of all this suffering. The Prince Arthas would have no reason to destroy my home if not for this beast! I am not Lady Eris, but my faith in the Light is strong! Strong enough to overcome the darkness of this monster, if I can get close enough…

I take a step forward to do just that, when the baby boy in my arms stirs, and I look down to see his tiny face contorting in discomfort. My grandfather chooses this moment to whisper: “Time to go, my dear.”

I look at him, my mouth forming words with no sound behind them. Does he see what is happening to Lord Marduk? How can we do nothing?

“We’ll have to jump to that roof yonder. It is not a far drop, but you must be careful. Keep your knees bent, or you might break your legs. I’ll take care of Pyra.”

No! Take the children and run, Grandfather! I will help Lord Marduk! I can’t simply –

“Are you all right, Aerienne?”

Give in.

Large hands grip my shoulders, and my grandfather shakes me, just once. Suddenly my mind clears, and I take in a breath of the awful air, regretting it instantly. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t know what …”

“This darkness is getting to you,” he says. “You can’t stay here any longer. Can you make this jump?”

“Don’t worry about me.” I look at the alley he wants us to vault and shiver. “Please, Grandfather, lead the way.”

“Is that—“ Pyra stares at where Marduk fought with the demon. My grandfather wastes no time, and scoops the girl up in his arms. “Hang on, little one,” he says. With that, he takes a run at the edge of the roof, his feet sure against the tiles, and leaps.

I rush to the edge, and see Grandfather land in a roll on the roof below, a full storey down. Pyra is screaming for her father.

I square myself on the ledge, and look down at baby Randon in my arms, who has returned to his serene sleep. I close my eyes, and whisper to the Light alone, “Please, gracious Light, lift our spirits with your mercy, and lift our feet to the task of your holy service. This we pray.” With that, I step off the ledge.

With my eyes closed, my other senses light up. The wind between the buildings carries a stronger smell of the dying city, so strong I can taste it. Were there anything left in my stomach to purge, that scent would be more than enough. My ears hear the sound of men shouting in combat, of steel cleaving flesh, of bones snapping, the low lamentations of the endless dead. The sound of Pyra crying out for her father is a distant and saddening thing. The air around me, thick with evil, caresses my cheeks as I fall with Lord Marduk’s child held tight to my chest.

“Aerienne,” says my grandfather’s voice. I open my eyes, and find myself floating over the roof where Grandfather stands. I thank the Light with a thought and my feet drop to masonry.

“Daddy! Daddy!” the little girl screams, “Fight them Daddy!”

A new sound joins the clamor; dead bodies fly back into the Promenade as Arthas and his company join the battle. “Mal’Ganis!” The prince shouts, and again I dare the thought of leaping into the fray.

Grandfather touches my shoulder again, and I look to him. “It’s not far, Aerienne. Come now!”

Never had my grandfather looked at the battle, nor at the demon. He throws Pyra over his shoulder when she refuses to look away from where her father fights valiantly. He runs ahead of me, long legs taking long strides over the high road, looking no direction but forward, save when he looks back to me.

The more I stand here, torn between flight and coming to the defense of my city, the more I want to fight. A voice whispers the idea in my mind, begging me to set aside the child in my arms. But my grandfather runs back to me, and grabs my arm, pulling me away.

He is right, and I hate him for it.

I can’t spare another look. I hug baby Randon to my chest and follow Grandfather down the high road.


CHAPTER 4 – REUNION

We drop from the rooftops into an alley, where rats go about the business of being scavengers, nonplussed by the death around them. Grandfather ignores them. Pyra has screamed herself hoarse, and does little more than stare blankly ahead as she is led by the hand.

I can’t smell the stench of this place. Will any normal thing appear rancid or rotten to me again, with what I have seen today?

We move quickly away from the din of battle, reaching a high wall that backs the buildings. A narrower alley runs behind, more an open sewer than anything else. This is the cleanest place in the city at the moment; hours ago I would have been disgusted by it.

A pile of crates covered with a ratty cloth stands against the high wall. Grandfather throws the great rag aside and sets to moving the boxes. He speaks roughly while he works:

“I made sure that this passage was open before I concealed it. I meant to place more supplies here, maybe tether some horses at the other end, but there wasn’t time.”

Why would he need an escape route from the city unless… something splashed down the alley behind us, but I was too busy realizing the truth. “You knew this was going to happen? The prince? The demon?”

He does not spare me a look. “I have my resources, Aerienne.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Why didn’t he tell me? “You could have prevented all of this!”

The boxes are cleared now, revealing a metal gate. A passage leads into inky darkness behind it, and a large lock holds together the chains that keep the gate closed. Grandfather pulls another vial from his coat and pours the contents on the lock. I hear a hissing sound as he turns to to me. “Please believe me, granddaughter,” he says, “Nothing could have prevented this.”

“How can I believe a single thing you say?”

He doesn’t bat an eye. “Because I have never lied to you. The Light lets you see the truth of things. If you don’t do as I say and go down this passage, you will surely die here. And I love you too much to let that happen.”

I held his gaze, adamant. I knew he was right again. I don’t want him to be right; I want him to be wrong, to be repentant. Has he not done wrong? Shouldn’t he feel some measure of guilt? Some responsibility for what he let happen to the city?

“Time is running out, my dear.” The sound of his dagger drawing brings me out of our staring contest. The knife flies from his hand, past my head, and I hear it sink into flesh. There is a groan and a crash, and I turn to see a corpse covered in tattered clothing twitching in a pool of filth. This is a new thing – there is a noose tied round its neck, and a single eye dominates its head; the eye houses my grandfather’s knife now, and is still.

He walks past me, drawing his knife out of the corpse and anointing the thing with fire oil. As the scent of burning ichor assaults me again, he speaks like nothing happened.  “More are coming. Go now, and I’ll cover the gate behind you.”

He’s staying here? Why? “But you’ll die here!” That can’t be the reason… it makes no sense…

“Leave that to me.” He kicks the lock on the gate, and it shatters. “When you get to the end of the tunnel, pull the chain to open the exit. Once you’re outside, you’ll be on your own. The eastern road to Tyr’s Hand should be safe, but don’t tarry there. Find a boat heading south, fast as you can.”

“There has to be another way…” Though I can’t think of one, now that the lock is destroyed.

“If you don’t go through that gate,” he says, and for the first time he seems concerned, “then it won’t matter. Please, Aerienne, go.”

The next moments were slow, as I struggled for something to say, something to give reason to the madness around me. The passage was dry, but dark as starless night. I step inside, and behind me Grandfather kneels down before Pyra, as he had done before on the high road. The little girl leans forward and whispers something I can’t hear in his ear. Then she pulls the kerchief away from her face and offers it to him.

“Keep it,” he says with a little smile, “and go. Don’t let go of Aerienne’s hand, all right?”

The little girl nods once more, and runs to me. Grandfather shares a last look with me, then sets to shoving crates back into place. The darkness creeps up around us, like the sunset on a cloudy day. In the blind murk, I turn down the tunnel.

I whisper a prayer, and a ball of light sparks into existence before me, revealing the passage. It’s barely tall enough for me to stand straight, but I do so, and grip Pyra’s hand tightly in my own. She tugs at it, and I bend down, bringing my ear close.

“What’s going to happen to Mister Harcourt?” Her voice is cracked and low, the sound of one who’s seen too much.

“He will be fine, Pyra. He is…” I need to convince myself, but how? “He’s very good at what he does.” Curiosity strikes me as a great way to escape my failure. “What did you say to him, just now?”

“I told him ‘thank you.’”

A pang struck me, like a fist to my stomach, when I realized I’d said no such thing to him. Even if he knew about the danger before it came, it wasn’t his fault, was it? He’d done right by helping us escape… he deserved at least a word of thanks from his kin, didn’t he?

I shook my head – we have to escape the city, or everything I hadn’t thanked him for would be fruitless. I give the little girl the strongest smile I can, and we set off at a run down the passage, the little ball of light leading the way.

We reach the end of the tunnel quickly. Every step we take away from the city lightens my steps – the Light has seen us through, and even though we have lost much, there is still some hope against this darkness. But I can’t allow myself to celebrate until Blackpool’s children are safe. That won’t happen until…

The end of the tunnel appears suddenly around a corner. The exit is covered in a metal grate similar to the one at the entrance, but no lock holds it closed. Instead, I find the small alcove set in the side of the tunnel, where a well-oiled chain hangs down. I check outside and see a serene forest, so I pull the chain. The grate slides open soundlessly. When I let it go, it immediately begins to reset; I rush through with Pyra close at hand, ducking my head as we go.

The grate is well-hidden within the disguise of a fallen tree-trunk, invisible unless someone was looking directly into it. The grate clamps shut behind us; how was anyone supposed to enter using this tunnel? I stop myself from the wandering thought: all the grate has to do is keep the dead inside.

“I think we can rest here, if just for a moment.” The fallen tree is a tiny blessing.

Pyra is looking back into the darkness. “Do you think my father is okay, Sister Aeri?”

“I have faith that he is.” Lies are an affront, but the girl deserved some comfort. “He is a very strong man, even against the evil we’ve seen today.”

She doesn’t look satisfied. I wouldn’t be. She sits for the first time in hours, and for a moment she seems like a child again.

A thought occurs to me. “Will you hold your brother for a moment, Pyra? There’s something I have to try.”

“What is it?” She takes the baby from me, rocking him idly.

Absently I brush dust and ash from my sleeves, adjusting how I was kneeling in preparation. “Your father is very strong in the Light, and can use it to see great distances. I’m going to try something similar, to see if I can check on him and my grandfather. So keep an eye out, and if something happens, just touch me on the shoulder. All right?”

Pyra nods. “I’m hungry…”

“We’ll find some food soon.” No idea how. “This won’t take long.”

The little girl cradles her brother in her arms and looks out at the woods.

I only learned this prayer a few days ago, and I’m not certain how it works.  But I have to find some way to communicate with Grandfather. I close my eyes once again, whispering the prayer and sending my vision to his eyes. This connection should let me at least send a thought to him, show him we’re safe.

Let me tell him “thank you.” I don’t know if those words are enough. I wanted –

I can see, though not through my eyes. My vision turned though I knew my head was staying still. I’m back in the city, in a different alley, fires burning all around me. Burning death fills my nostrils once again.

I look down and see my grandfather’s hands wiping blood from his dagger with a filthy kerchief. I’m seeing through his eyes! Something is wrong with the prayer!

I hear a voice behind me, and Grandfather turns to face it. Down the alley more of the noosed dead creep forward, stopping before drawing too close. A man in black robes approaches, undisturbed by the dead things which part before him. Thin white hair hangs from his head. Blood-red stripes decorate his face, intersecting his eyes. I have never seen him before, but Grandfather has.

“Having second thoughts, Harcourt?” His nasal voice has none of the honey of the demon, but is no less cheerful. He stands with arms over his chest, like an instructor chiding a wayward student.

“Not at all, Maleki.” Maleki? My grandfather sounds annoyed. “I held up my end of the bargain. The city burns, just as your master planned before his untimely death.”

The pale-faced man chortles. “Kel’Thuzad’s death was anything but untimely. He shall return at our true master’s hand when the time comes. Not that you’ll have a part in that glory.”

Grandfather sighs. “I wondered who would try to fill the Archmagus’ shoes as leader of this cult. Though I imagine you’ve already killed much of the competition, haven’t you?” Cult? Competition?

“You still think of death as an ending, don’t you Harcourt?” The man uncrossed his arms and took a ready stance. “Death is a gift, if immortality follows it. And I plan to delay your death as long as time allows…”

The noosed dead leap forward as one, and the vision goes blurry: Grandfather doesn’t have to look at his hands as they drive knives into the rotting corpses. His eyes are locked on pale Maleki, who stands back, blue energy forming around his hands. Grandfather is moving so fast, I can’t track what he’s doing. A thrown knife flits past Maleki’s head, and the necromancer laughs as his frozen energy shoots forth a bolt from his hands. It grows and grows in my vision, until suddenly there is nothing but blue darkness to blot out the dying city.

Grandfather, no!! I fail to shout, trapped in the prayer…

The blast of intense cold, like a bucket of ice upended over my head, throws me out of the vision. I fall back against the wooden trunk, suddenly in my own mind again. Tears stream like hot rivers down my face, and Pyra, her eyes terrified, knelt beside me. The baby is crying again. My shoulder aches.

“Sister Aeri! You—you were screaming! I tried touching your shoulder like you said but you wouldn’t stop and I hit you and then Randon woke up and… and…” And now she is crying too, sobbing, taking in deep gasps of air as I try to make some sense of what I saw. I take her in my arms, as much for my own comfort as for hers, and hold her and the wailing child close. The tears… the tears won’t stop.


CHAPTER  5 – BALANCE

That is how the dwarf finds us – my scream and the sound of the baby crying drew his attention. I nearly jump out of my skin with fright when he appears in front of the tree trunk, his rifle at the ready. He takes a hand from the wooden stock and lowers the weapon, telling us not to fear.

He wastes no time with questions. “If you’re waiting for anyone else to come out of that tunnel, ye can stop. The whole city’s burning. And these forests will be crawling with the same evil if we don’t run.”

How can I even gather the strength to stand, much less run?

Next to me, I feel a shiver. Pyra clutches at my robes, quivering, her eyes locked on the squat frame of the dwarf. They are rare enough in Lordaeron, but I had seen them before. The city and her family were her whole world before today. Aside from all the terrors she’s seen so far, anything new would be frightening.

Strength finds its way back into my voice again as I squeeze her shoulders. I think of Lady Eris. “Pyra, he’s here to help us. Come now, let’s go.” She is pale as death, her lips dry and cracked. I look back to the dwarf with a plea.

“Do you have any water? She is— oh, thank the Light for you…“ Before I even finish, the dwarf has pulled a canteen from his pack and handed it to me. I pull the stopper and hold it up to Pyra’s lips, encouraging her with calming words. I take a quick sip myself, and realize for the first time how dry my own throat is.

“Afraid I’ve got nothing suitable for a baby, sister.”

“We’ll manage. Please, lead the way.”

He gestures outside, and we walk past him. I hear the sound of metal clicking, and look back to see the dwarf setting a metal platter down on the ground in front of the grate. I ask him what it is.

“Just a little present in case something unsavory should find that tunnel.” He tucks the rifle under one arm and holds out his free hand. “Let me lighten your load there…”

I blink, but then hand him Randon, who has settled down once more. “This is the calmest baby in the world.”

He gives a wan smile. “Thank the Light for little blessings, then. Let’s get them someplace safe. Stay close, and stay quiet.”

We run through the woods, following the hunter’s surefooted gait every step of the way. The baby starts to wail as soon as we leave the trunk, and the sound is a cacophony in the silence of the woods. He tells me only that his name is Dain Redhall, promising his tale when we are safe. He focuses wholly on the run forward, his head darting this way and that as he scans for any movement that would belie something that should not be in the forest.

My thoughts are clouded by the darkness of the present, the fearful cries of the baby as it bounces in the crook of the dwarf’s arm. The wailing fades slightly as the dwarf slides down the hills into drifts of dead leaves, and I follow close behind, holding Pyra close.

I hear whispers again, from the darkness I felt while I watched Marduk battle the demon. It challenges me to stand and fight, to command the power of my faith and righteousness to turn the tide of death that has destroyed my city, my home. Still I run from its call. I am no hero, no warrior. I am not Eris. But the darkness is insistent.

You have that strength within you. It struggles to reach out and strike down your enemies, if only you would guide it.

A great bird screams in the sky overhead, and my eyes shoot upwards. I never saw a hunting bird like this one before; its feathers were blood-red, with a white tuft at the base of the neck, like a collar. At first I draw back, but then it lands delicately in front of the dwarf hunter.

The bird squawks, and Dain’s head snaps to the west in response. “Damn it.”

“What’s wrong?” Though I already know.

“We’ve been marked. Here—“ and he presses the keening baby into my arms again, “I’ll be needing both hands for this…” The bird takes flight at an unspoken command, and I don’t look to where.

They are coming for you. As if on cue, the distant moans of the dead draw closer. Over the rise to the west, I see shadows against the trees, moving against the dim light of the clouded afternoon. First come the noosed dead, the ones my grandfather died fighting, scrambling amongst the brush. Behind them, the walking dead, some little more than skeletons of bleached bone.

Behind them all, however, is the worst devilry of all: a great mass of flesh, made of the bloodied corpses of men, sewn together by some foul art into a mockery of humanity. Four great arms bear mattocks dripping with ichor, all orbiting a great distended belly of bones and rotting organs. The face of the thing has but two eyes that blinked, but many more decorate the head of the creature, staring lifelessly at nothing.

I will relish the day I pass from this world into the embrace of the Light, even if my only security is knowing that I will never see something of such unmistakable evil as this… abomination.

This is not the last.

“Keep running to the south, sister,” Dain says, pulling back the hammer on his rifle, *click* “I’ll be right behind.”

I tear my eyes from the thing as the hunter’s gun goes off, BOOM! Out of the corner of my eye, I see a noosed ghoul’s head explode from the bullet that punches through it. *click* All I can see now is the wood before me, stretching infinitely on in peace, as though the aberrations that chased us were no more than wolves coursing prey.

BOOM!

Is that all you are now? Prey?

*click*

I stop, and Pyra gets a step ahead of me before my hand holds her back. “Sister Aeri, why are we…?” I kneel down, looking around carefully. A hollow tree-stump stands nearby, and I run to it, handing Pyra her brother as I draw lines in the dirt. My training begins to flow back into me again as my fingers etch runes of protection, a ward against evil. The rifle click-BOOMs behind me again and again as I press the baby into her sister’s arms, giving him a kiss on the head as I do.

“We can’t run any longer, Pyra. I’ll be back in just a moment.”

She screams for me not to go. *click*I unclasp the cloak at my throat and throw it around the two of them, noticing for the first time how dirty it has become from the escape. I ignore that, and ignore Pyra’s pleas. I cannot run any longer. I cannot allow anyone else to die in my stead. BOOM!

The dwarf marks that I am walking back towards him, *click* his glances quick as he focuses on aiming his rifle again. BOOM! He shouts something that I refuse to hear, and I close my eyes, saying a last prayer to the Light for strength. When I open them again, it is to set my gaze on the oncoming wave of the dead. I command the Light to smite them, and I see a swath of golden energy blast into one of the walking dead. It crumples to the ground.

Not enough.

The hunter’s bird swoops in, tearing the skull from a skeleton like it was stooping for fish in a pond. Another ghoul gets taken by a bullet and tumbles in mid-leap. I paint the woods with the Light again, and another dead thing falls. The horde of dead men draws closer, but one by one, more and more of them fall. I try not to lose myself in the destruction, or to the darkness that riles within me, angry that I refuse to give in.

The abomination draws closer, rushing down on Dain. The blood-red bird is little more than a nuisance as it dives. The dwarf’s rifle explodes again and again, slug after slug punching through the great horror’s flesh but having no effect. I paint the creature with the Light, but it shrugs this off as well. Another prayer comes to me suddenly, and I shut my eyes against the guttural moan of the great dead thing and the repetitions of the rifle. I whisper the words quickly, and the Light lances from me, splashing against the monster again but now sticking. The Light forms into chains which latch onto the ground, onto a nearby tree, and hold the abomination fast. It toils against the shackles, and I struggle to hold my concentration, maintaining the strength of the prison with my own will power.

How long do you think you can keep this up?

Dain realizes that he focused too much on the abomination as the remaining dead things scramble towards him. The rifle *clicks* but does not BOOM, and he tosses it away with a curse. His hands go to his belt, drawing twin hatchets and twirling them in his hands as the dead bear down. One zombie goes down headless, while another skeleton loses everything from the collarbone up to the stooping red bird.

Each movement of the abomination strains my every thought, as impossible physical strength tries to break the hold that grips it. I can barely afford to acknowledge that the hunter has killed the last of the lesser dead. Dain shouts something to me that I again cannot understand. Then the shackles break, and the monster is heading for me. Dain jumps in the way, digging his two hatchets into the mountain of flesh, only for one beastly arm to backhand him. The blow sends the dwarf flying into a tree with a sickening crack. I can do little more than hold my arms up over me and whisper a prayer when the thing finally draws nigh, raising its four mattocks to strike me down.

The Light forms into a shield around me as my desperation reaches out, and the abomination roars as it fails to rend the flesh it so fervently wishes to strike. I go to a knee as the attacks hammer the shield over me. This is the end! I can do no more than this!

Yes you can! You have but to ask!

The shield dwindles, the Light fading fast. Soon there will be nothing left, and death shall claim me in my pride. What cursed existence awaits me now?

The Light has failed you!

The Light has… the shield shatters, and the abomination roars in triumph, raising two of its implements aloft. They come down, and I see them swing in as though they moved through molasses, cutting the air slowly. Then suddenly there is a flash, and blackness coats my eyes. Here, now, is the feeling of death…

…and yet I continue to feel, to sense. The huge creature goes flying backwards, as though struck by a great mauled fist. I feel the cold suck of air as the space before me empties of its awful presence. I look down and see that I am on my feet once again, that my hands are stretched out before me, and I realize that the blow came from me. I look to myself.

What I see confuses me at first. I imagine wood burning in a fire. Red blossoms of flame lick their way up from the crackling log, wisps of smoke trailing from their tips. Only now, the fire is not red and searing hot, but instead black and cold. Instead of a log burning, it is my arm. It does not burn, but it is still aglow with this dark shadow, covering my hands, flickering over my skin, rippling up my splayed fingers.

I should scream, but I don’t. I turn my hands over, this way and that, and see that the shadow truly covers everything. My senses feel dulled – my eyes see as though through dark gauze, my ears filled with cotton. The soft wind that belied a serene forest is gone, like I suddenly donned a heavy cloak.

The darkness is around me, within me, whispering the promises of power to me, begging to be unleashed. As the abomination rises up again, I see it differently – not merely a construction of body parts sewn together and animated through necromancy, but a roiling storm of the spirits of those whose bodies were used in the making. The mind of the thing is dominated by whatever dark master it serves, fulfilling a singular purpose, and the meager pain felt by the body is meaningless. But the mind… the mind remembers pain like the dead remember life: strongly.

The darkness shows me how to command pain, and the abomination stops in its tracks. The meaningless moan becomes a scream. The four arms drop their mattocks in unison, and four mismatched hands grab at the distended flesh of the skull. The fat fingers dig in, searching for an unscratchable itch.

I smile without mirth. The darkness becomes a hammer, and I drive nails into the mind of the accursed thing. The pain drives it into a frenzy, and it lurches forward again – and the darkness snakes from my hand like a whip, coiling around the creature’s head and squeezing.

The darkness… no, my darkness is a vise, and I turn the screws.

The creature still manages a step forward, then a second, but then falls to two uneven knees. Enough is enough. My darkness is a torch, and the mind lights afire as though it were covered in pitch. The abomination’s body, dead again, dead forever, falls before me, spilling putrescence on the fallen leaves.

The darkness is jubilant. The dead cannot stand against me. The demon’s guile cannot persuade me to mercy. I will sow the destruction of the unrighteous and reap a land of peace once again…

“Sister Aeri!”

What is that voice? I can barely hear it.

“Sister Aeri, Mister Dain is hurt!”

Pyra is tugging at my robes again. My eyes follow her path as she leads me to where Dain is struggling to get up. His labored breathing, the way he winces, the blood on his lips that dribbled into his beard… broken ribs? A pierced lung? He was struck so hard, but I’m not sure if…

The darkness burns around my eyes. There’s a city to avenge! I ignore it, or try. I whisper a prayer to the Light for clarity, but none comes. Pyra is crying, holding the dwarf’s hand in both of hers. His eyes sharpen and blur, and words try to eke past the blood but fail. What is one life against those who have already been lost? My hands fumble with the straps of his backpack, having lost the certainty from scants seconds before – he has to lay flat or the wounds can’t be mended properly. What is one life against those we can save together? The straps come loose unevenly – Dain lurches to one side and howls in pain. “Sister Aeri, what’s going on? He’s —“ I call on the Light again, begging for the power to close the wounds I couldn’t see, and get silence in return. The darkness whispers to me:

Think of your grandfather. And I freeze.

I think of him, and I remember him struggling against the dead and pale Maleki. He was a part of the city’s destruction, and I trusted him.

I think of how he comforted Pyra, telling her he had served Lord Marduk. Was it true? I didn’t know. But the girl needed someone strong to guide her forward.

I think of when he burned the bodies of the florist’s sons. Callous, but they would have followed us if he hadn’t done so.

When I was younger than Pyra and first attending devotions, I was confused about the Light as an entity and the simple light cast by a candle. It was Grandfather who made it clear to me, or clear as he could at the time. “The Light can’t exist where the shadow is, just as shadow can’t exist where the Light is. If you look to the Light, you’ll never fear the shadows.”

“Why would anyone look at shadows?” I asked him that question.

He smiled a knowing smile, and I know now that there was much he couldn’t tell me. Much that he would never tell me. “Sometimes the shadow can be useful. But it’s the Light that shows us the way, right?”

“Right!” He beamed at me proudly.

The Light….

The Light has failed you…

My eyes snap wide. I grit my teeth. My mouth and my mind scream a command, and the darkness over my vision cracks like a shattering lens, the pieces falling soundlessly away.

Like a match struck in the night, the Light washes over me, warm and perfect and glorious and cleansing. I take it in my hands, wrapping it like a cloth around the convulsing dwarf. He grows still, his breast slowing to a normal pace, his blue eyes blinking in shock. Gingerly he reaches a hand up to feel across his chest, his probing more insistent as he realizes that he is no longer about to enter the Great Dark Beyond. He laughs in spite of himself, and regards me with a nod.

“My thanks, sister,” he says, amazed, “I’m in your debt.”

I smile back at him, while the glow fades around us. “The Light’s not a lender, sir. There’s no debt.”

Dain laughs, more hearty this time. I thank the Light, and breathe the first easy breath of the day.


EPILOGUE

Far from the city, and far from the abomination’s rotting presence, I sit in the narthex of the Basilica in Tyr’s Hand. Other survivors from the city are trickling in. Many people are rushing to the gates now, hearing word that Uther the Lightbringer has arrived with more. Everyone struggles to find loved ones they thought they had lost, while some learn the fate of those who did not escape.

Lady Eris is not among them. No one who left with her has been seen. I know that Grandfather isn’t coming.

The steward of Blackpool’s house arrives, taking Pyra and Randon into his care. Pyra cries at our parting. I tell her not to fear. As acolytes of the Church escort the steward and the children to quarters, the Inquisitor of the Basilica approaches me. Fairbanks is his name.

“You have been through quite the trial, Sister Aerienne,” he says. “I wonder if you won’t reconsider your decision.”

“I appreciate your concern, Your Honor,” I bowed as I spoke, “but there is little time for rest. The plague is spreading throughout our nation, and Prince Arthas has no idea how to fight it. Somewhere, the secret of a cure exists. I will start my search at the libraries of Dalaran and Stormwind, and report to the Church as often as possible.”

The Inquisitor looked uncomfortable. “Take a care, sister. Ever have the Kirin Tor eschewed the Light in the name of darker studies. Our faith may not cure the plague, but–”

“Forgive me, Your Honor,” I interrupted, “but what I have seen today has shown me something important, something that I fear many in the Light’s service fail to recognize.”

“What is that, my child?” He keeps his voice free of reproach.

I choose these words carefully, and speak them the same way: “The Light guides us and protects us, and may even be a weapon. Sometimes, however, the shadow is just as necessary.”

Fairbanks considered this for a moment, and then nodded his assent. “Then go forth, with the Light at your side, Abbess.”

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