((This is an old story I finally got around to finishing. It belongs to Sarunaveine Darkail, mother to Athorius and aunt of Lunauviel, the woman who raised them both. The setting is shortly before the launch of Wrath of the Lich King, during what came to be known as the zombie invasion. On Feathermoon server, Auberdine was invaded and decimated during these attacks, and those events inspired this story.))
Sarunaveine sat on her balcony in northern Darkshore with a whetstone in her hand and her three-bladed sword braced against a small table, watching the clouds weep into a gray-green sea, far off-shore, as she sharpened the weapon. The waves scuttled nervously, frothing, darting up the sand. There would be rain tonight- the wind was already here. It played with white strands of hair escaped from her braid, whipping across her eyes and catching in her mouth, defying her work.
There was a note in the wind, an unsettled tang in the late afternoon air that made the tattoos splayed across her face itch. Sarunaveine could still remember those thousands of years before when her mother had taken her to the artist for this rite of passage, how she’d resented it, how the woman had laughed at her defiance and remarked her stubbornness would do her great hardship. The stylized marking, like abstract hands about her eyes, were a reminder- to hold her eyes open to joy, the woman had said. Sarunaveine snorted at the thought. All they’d ever done was itch like mad when trouble was coming.
They’d itched the morning of the mission outside Nordrassil that took her right arm and got her posted to this spit of a town. Hal’anaar, but over centuries of service, she’d come to simply think of it as the village. Like most of the communities dotting the darkshore it was populated by fishermen. Aside from the priestess and the storekeep who brought goods from Auberdine, Sarunaveine was the only one who did not sail. Officially she was assigned to the sprawling communications net that allowed the Sentinels to protect the lengthy and remote expanse of kaldorei lands. Mainly what she did was write reports, polish her gear, and watch the sea. Even the wars of seven years ago had scarcely touched this little hamlet. After so long the anger of being put away was faded into bitterness and resignation. Life was what it was.
Tonight though…she frowned, her brow furrowing. Something was coming, carried on the wind and the rain and the darkened water. She could feel it in her bones. She wanted to be ready. The stone rasped along the metal. Once, a villager passed by her house and looked up waving, but Sarunaveine offered no response. She was what she was, too.
The sky faded into night slowly, the sun veiled by the thick cloudbank. Eventually she set her work aside, waiting. The boats came in at dusk, a brief upwind cacophony of neighbors greeting each other and inquiring about the day’s catch. There weren’t many houses in this spit of a town, Hal’anaar; about half of their scant number lived on their boats. One snatch of conversation caught her ear.
“-blasted thing, can’t ever tie it up properly, wish-“, Seffani said, before her voice was lost.
A shadow of contempt flickered across Sarunaveine’s face. Her son had used his talent to wake the wood of her boat, making a ship of living timber that could sense the waves and breeze and sailed truer than any in the village’s docks. It was a gift to mend what was by then past reconciliation, but Seffani had always hated it. Though, Sarunaveine knew, it was really her son Seffani resented, and in that she could not fault her. So like his father in so many ways.
Twilight became true night, and still she waited, restless, uneasy. The rain came in drumming.
A light flickered against the horizon.
At first she thought it lightening, but dismissed that notion quickly. This was not a terribly violent storm. She leaned against the rail, straining her eyes, and after a moment she was rewarded. A lantern- a ship’s lantern- out in the dark on uncertain waters. She sped down to the beach.
Several people were already there, dressed in heavy leather boots and long woolen covers over their ears, prepared to go after the vessel if it foundered. Sarunaveine glanced at one of the oldest fishermen, Jethorne, a question on her face.
He shook his head, replying with the slurring Darkshore accent that still offended her prim Hyjal grammar after centuries of being washed in it. “All ours are accounted for. It must be from down current. They’re in a bad way.”
The group watched the ship silently, occasionally stamping feet or rubbing forearms to keep warm. There was an unspoken atmosphere of mixed hope and resignation. The elves of the village had been less affected by the destruction of Nordrassil and their racial immortality; they courted death every day when they put themselves at the mercy of the ocean. Funerals were not so unheard of here.
But even if it was acknowledged, it was not invited, and they all held their breath as they watched the tiny image dance fitfully with the storm. They spoke quietly amongst themselves, some debating the vessel’s odds, others offering whispers of prayer. Steadily their numbers grew until it seemed half the town stood upon the shoreline.
Among the last were her daughter-in-law, accompanied by a young man who looked only vaguely familiar to Sarunaveine. Frowning, she strode towards the pair, stopping about three feet back, her arm folded over her stomach. “Seffani.”
The woman returned her harsh gaze evenly, unabashed, and lifted her chin. “Sarunaveine. To what do I owe this honor?”
Of the hundreds of possible replies, most biting, she chose directness. “Where’s Kaelis?”
“Asleep.” Seffani’s expression hardened. “On Flotsam. Like most children her age at this hour.”
“I see.” Her silvered eyes drifted between the two elves. “How nice that her schedule allows mother and child both to get their playtime.”
The girl had the grace to look away. Sarunaveine stared at them a few beats longer, then turned her back, returning her attention to the plight upon the sea. The couple shifted uneasily behind her. Good.
Gradually, the boat grew larger.
Jethorne cursed in astonishment under his breath, then barked orders. “Mirlandil, Danua, take the Dreamer and see how close you can get. Don’t risk yourselves. Take whoever you need but don’t overload the vessel. Their ship is lost, but they may be enough out of the storm to save their lives. Go.”
The elf was an authority among the fishers. Those he named motioned several others and they set out for the docks immediately. The rest of the group remained on the beach, watching, waiting.
Sarunaveine was aware of a quiet presence at her side. She looked over at the ever-serene Uravin, her pale hair loose and her arms folded into the sleeves of her flowing white robes. Uravin was all grace and movement, her ribbons seemingly never still, but in a way that was so natural to her that she never appeared restless.
The priestess smiled slightly at Sarunaveine’s attention. “Elune light your path, Sentinel.”
“And yours,” she replied, automatically. “I am surprised to see you out of your house for this.”
She shook her head, her earrings chiming softly with the movement. A shadow seemed to cross her porcelain face as she watched the boat.
Sarunaveine always felt dimished in Uravin’s presence. Beautiful even by the ethereal standards of the kaldorei, and ancient enough to have called Aszhara her queen, she seemed a deep and still pool that made a mockery of Sarunaveine’s fitful plights. Nobody knew her age exactly, or how long she had dwelled on these shores. She had been here when the first boats arrived, and she had never explained her affections for the sudden company after so much solitude. Uravin was appreciated by the villagers, providing healing and teaching alike to the people of the town, but she had no close companions and none claimed to understand her fully.
Least of all the village sentinel. Sarunaveine was justly surprised when the priestess spoke, barely above a whisper, as if for her ears alone. “That vessel carries not fish but fear. Mindless panic, out of Auberdine. Desperation. Trouble.”
“Pirates?” Sarunaveine asked, her thoughts going to her newly sharpened triune.
“No! Not criminals. But dangerous.” Her brow furrowed faintly, a darker crease in her lavender skin. “They are too frightened to be coherent in their thoughts. I cannot tell the source. We must be wary.”
Fishing boats, moving away from the docks, came into view as they sailed for the doomed craft. By mutual unspoken agreement the gathering on the beach shifted towards the docks. Village’s docks were of gray salt-weathered wood, replaced every hundred years or so, to the limits of their materials. Nearly every adult in Village had a trawler of some kind. This was their staple and their livelihood. Some of the catch was smoked, dried, or otherwise preserved for shipment to Auberdine and beyond, trade for the parcels of goods they could not make for themselves, but mostly it remained here. The flesh fed them, and they produced oil from the fish, mortar for their foundations from their bones. Uravin made a kind of ritual paint from the scales that she traded further for their welfare. And of course, in addition to being fishers, they possessed a myriad of other skills, hunting, woodworking, weaving. In a town of this size by necessity every member was of multiple capabilities.
They stood on the old boards as they had on the beach, stomping restlessly, faces blank and prepared for the worst. By gradual, backwards steps, the troubled ship and its helper staggered towards shore. When the limping vessels finally docked there was a sudden rush of activity, everyone surging forward with open hands and blankets, ready to receive friends and strangers alike. Sarunaveine hung back, her hand going to a nonexistent weapon in reflex against the unknown. Danua was the first to disembark, her arms wound around a female elf dressed in ragged finery, silver eyes dimmed in exhaustion.
“Auberdine,” Danua stated curtly, turning to help the next passenger. “Pleasure ship. Not meant for this kind of journey. Haven’t been able to get more sense out of them yet.”
“We shall hear it at the temple,” Uravin declared. Though she was assisting the salty, soaked, and bedraggled lot, her robes remained immaculate, her serenity scarcely dampened. Sarunaveine glanced down at herself, already soaked from a careless passenger, and scowled faintly.
Jethorne nodded his agreement, and the collection headed towards the hollow that was Uravin’s strange home, sheltered marginally by tree limbs and shrubs, and consecrated to Elune. It was also the only dwelling of any kind large enough to comfortably host the gathering. Immediately, the elf priestess went to her hearth and retrieved bowls of rice, which she distributed before commencing preparations for a more substantial meal. The strangers tore into it as though they had never seen food before.
Sarunaveine could not resist studying them. The cut and weave of their clothing, modern and bright, indicated wealth, as did the golden ornaments clasped at their wrists, throats, and ears. There were six women and five men dressed in this fashion, all with elaborately styled hair that was sadly mussed by their adventures. A young girl clung to one of the men, making twelve in all. They were frightened witless, showing in their shaking hands and overflowing, almost inappropriately deep, gratitude. The sea could do that to the inexperienced. Still, there was something haunted in their faces that unsettled Sarunaveine, and made her think that this was more than an afternoon’s yachting gone awry.
Finally, as one of the women reached the end of her rice bowl, she lifted her head and spoke in a quavering voice. Sarunaveine recognized her as the first one Danua had helped by the purple of her dress.
“Thank you,” she said, again, “You have no idea what a nightmare this has been.”
She pushed the empty bowl away from her, reaching to the side and twinning her fingers with one of the men’s, composing herself. “There is an evil behind us. One which I have never so much as dreamt in my seven thousand years, but which is not without certain commonalities in certain areas.”
She stopped here, swallowing, and her companion drew her closer, securing his arm around her, and took up the narrative. “It came on one of the human ships, a merchant vessel. Grain, they said, some bound for Darnassus, some on its way to Desolace. It had an evil smell to it. My sister is- was- harbormaster. She saw the bags. It is her responsibility to see that damaged goods do not continue through our port. The merchants became angry when she refused the transfer of the grain, and one of them, declaring that his cargo was- some idiom, I do not know it, but nevertheless, he took up some of the grain from his sacks and ate it, to prove its worth.”
“He became sick,” the woman took over, somehow finding Sarunaveine’s eyes and staring into them, emptily. “They took him back to one of the inns near the dock. It was after dark when the screaming began.”
“The screaming?” she asked, confused. “For what?”
“The grain…changed them.” Her voice was haunted. “Apparitions, monsters, no word is sufficient.”
“Dark things. Hungry things.” The woman once again spoke. “They overran the inn before anyone else noticed something was awry. And by then there were so many…” She trailed off. “Nothing left up by the docks but corpses.”
“Corpses?” Uravin’s interest sharpened. “Undead?”
“I- I suppose that’s what they were.” The woman looked up, her face wet with soundless tears. “Do you know of such, priestess?”
She pursed her lips. Sarunaveine thought she detected a note of cold anger. “Unfortunately I do.”
“How much of the city survived?” The sentinel grimaced at her own tone, so matter-of-fact in the face of their grief, but her duty was too ingrained.
“We don’t know.” He shook his head wearily. “We barely got away ourselves. It was a fight just to get to the boats. We’re not sure how many others made it. Then the storm blew us off course.”
She forced patience upon herself. They weren’t expecting another courier for a week, and they would have their hands full down south. There was no call beyond her own curiosity to distract them. Any answers to be had would be theirs in good time.
Uravin rose gracefully, her hands of pale lavender spread wide in invitation. “You have experienced an ordeal this night. Further questions can wait. For now, please, eat and rest, in this, the house of Elune.”
She bowed once, to which the refugees responded with grateful nods and tired, vacant courtesies. The villagers knew a dismissal when they saw one, and gradually they trickled out, returning to homes and boats, still gossiping quietly over the evening’s events.
The sentinel was among the last to slip away. She was taken aback when the priestess followed in her wake, catching her arm before she could turn onto the path that would take her back to her own house. Sarunaveine arched a curious brow, waiting for her to speak.
“I like this not.” Uravin shook her head, her jewelry tinkling like a wind chime with the motion. “I have heard, and indeed seen, the ghosts of our kin in the old places of the Darkshore, spirits both malicious and benign, and all of them confused, out of their time. I have never heard of such as this.”
“Does it matter? I hate to be so cold, priestess, but this evil is not here, and there is naught we can do to aid such a city as Auberdine.” Sarunaveine uncharacteristically and impulsively put her hand on the woman’s shoulder, a Sentinel reassuring her charge. “We should concentrate on the survivors…I am sure we will learn more in the week to come.”
Though she nodded, Uravin did not look content, some secret half-formed concern lurking in the depths of her silver eyes. But she only said, mildly, “Elune light your path, Sarunaveine.”
“And yours.” With that, Sarunaveine began the somewhat perilous walk down the rocky ledge, now slick with the rain that had begun to fall gently on the shore, most of its energy spent at sea. Her bed would be warm, and her bones were tired. There had been enough excitement for now.
Indeed, Sarunaveine was deeply in dreams much later that night, in the small hours of the morning when midnight is only a memory and dawn still a fantasy, when it seems like the whole world stands cold and empty. Her dwelling stood apart from the rest, not unlike its owner, but still within the village proper, and the wind blew the sounds of their life into her ears. At this hour there should be nothing but silence.
Instead, what she heard was…a yell?
Her triune was not far from her hand, not on this night, and her fingers closed about the grip before Sarunaveine was even fully awake. More yells, coming from the bulk of the town, with no words that she could make out. The visitor’s tale drifted back to her. It was after dark when the screaming began…
She hauled herself out of bed and began to strap on her armor, clumsily, as always, cursing her disability with language strong enough to peel paint. They were right to send her away from Hyjal. What use was a one-armed warrior to anyone? She must look a fool to them, an old woman with washed-up notions of grandeur.
Still, she got the last of the straps tightened and once again seized her weapon. Sarunaveine was the only Sentinel Hal’anaar had, so she’d have to do.
The fact that the noise got louder as she neared the temple didn’t worry her. It was the way it was cut off suddenly, as sharply as a blade. She hurried up the path, anxiety making the tricksome stones fly under her feet like the smoothest of boulevards.
Uravin stood before the gateway enveloped in golden light, her face as stern and merciless as a highborne statue. It gave Sarunaveine pause; she’d never seen the woman in such a state of frigid rage. But it wasn’t meant for her, but for whatever Uravin’s keen eyes saw out in the blackness they hunted with such malice.
The priestess barely paused to acknowledge her as she grew near. “Sentinel.”
“What’s happening?” Sarunaveine inquired, rather lamely, feeling every inch a toy soldier amid the full force of Uravin’s priestly might. “I heard shouting…”
“They carried the evil with them,” she stated plainly, in a tone that promised all manner of vengeance on her enemies, one that made Sarunaveine shrink from her. “The house of Elune will NOT bear it.”
She turned towards Sarunaveine then, and she saw a swift hint of fear skitter across the priestess’ face. “I must hold this place. The things ran off into the night- I know not where. You must warn the town. If you see the evil, do not let it rip your flesh! It seems to spread this… vileness.”
Sarunaveine opened her mouth for the first of several questions, when a scream tore the air and caused both their heads to turn. Uravin recovered first. “Go, sentinel, quickly!”
The command turned her feet, sent her down the path to the village, at a dead run through the rain and the brambles. Few lights were lit, and the clouds hid the moonlight from her eyes. She thought of Jethorne’s house, the best person to help her organize a defense against the unknown, but when she arrived the sight that met her was beyond horror.
There were two bodies sprawled in the entry, which she recognized as his two sons despite their mangled state, but that was not the worst of it. She’d seen bodies before. Their mother crouched before them, her long fingers lengthened further into something almost resembling claws, levering gobbets of their steaming flesh into her hungry mouth, too intent on her task to notice Sarunaveine’s sudden gagging, her eyes empty as the sea. Of Jethorne himself there was no sign.
There was no thought in her mind but to stop this unnatural madness and she lunged at the woman with a yell, her triune finding easy purchase on the body. But what should have been a debilitating wound hardly slowed her down; instead the woman whirled with an eerie cry, throwing loose the weapon and flinging Sarunaveine into a wall, before focusing on the sentinel and charging, those claws outstretched and her bloodied mouth gaping. Half her face was gone, torn away by what looked like some kind of animal from the shape of the wound, and only the battle-laced blood hammering through Sarunaveine’s veins saved her as she slid to one side.
Thankfully, Jethorne’s mate, or whatever she had become, was still wary of the whirling blades of the triune, allowing Sarunaveine to establish some ground. The woman was no better a fighter than she had been in life, and if anything was more clumsy and slow, poorly coordinated. The sentinel followed a gut instinct and delivered a solid kick to the woman’s sternum, knocking her over, and followed it up with a swipe of the triune to her throat that took her head from her body. The corpse twitched, and was still.
Sarunaveine sagged against the wall. What manner of evil was this? Uravin, it seemed, was justly angered, and justly frightened. Now, so near the heart of the town, she could hear more shouts rising, along with distended screams and other sounds of battle, and it was clear what tragedy occurred in Jethorne’s home was not unique. The village was lighting up as well, as the noise rousted people from their beds, in a steady progression towards the docks-
The sentinel felt her hot blood turn to ice in an instant. Kaelis. Asleep aboard Flotsam, Seffani had said, and that girl was Elune-knew-where now- her boyfriend undoubtedly had his own boat. The village was a safe place. There were no doors to lock and nobody worried about leaving a child above the toddler years unattended for a spell. What could happen, after all?
She passed many small knots of fighting as she ran, the villagers banding together against the threat, and she shouted encouragement or instructions where she could, but her feet didn’t slow. Among the enemy combatants she recognized some of those taken off the Auberdine ship, and some of her neighbors. All exhibited bite wounds. It appeared Uravin was correct on that score. There weren’t many of them, but they each fought as viciously as Jethorne’s mate, and the villagers had less experience with combat than she. It wouldn’t take much to lose the town.
But Sarunaveine didn’t spare much thought for that. Those worries could come after she found her granddaughter. She hardly knew what she’d tell her son if- she hardly knew what she’d tell herself. She was only a little girl.
The sentinel came in sight of the docks only just in time. A group of the shambling undead apparently went around the bulk of the houses, by accident or intent, and were converging on the boardwalk. There were few lights in any of the craft. She counted four of the creatures. Four was a lot to take on even against standard opponents, too many. Sarunaveine had to raise the odds.
The creatures had yet to see her. She looked at the nearest boat, in easy swimming range for someone with two arms and no baggage, and cursed again. If she could get ahead of them somehow, get to one of the boats, roust its occupants, then she might have a chance.
Her eyes fell on the ladder dangling from the dock fifty feet from shore, still wading territory, and hardly far enough up the dock to evade the undead. They’d see her for sure. But if she ran, maybe she could find help in time. Maybe.
The creatures were moving up the dock. She was out of options. Without any further thought she raced into the ocean.
The water was cold and thick, slapping at her calves and then her thighs as she went deeper. She sloshed through it as best she could. Her triune was a dead weight in her hand, something for the swells and wavelets to grab, and her armor might as well have been lead. It seemed half an age before she finally reached the little ladder, and another year after that for her to awkwardly bunny-hop her way up the rungs and flop onto the dock.
But she’d beat the shambling mass of bodies. She could hear the wood of the dock creaking under their weight, nearly invisible in the dark. Closing in.
Sarunaveine hauled herself to her feet and sprinted towards the first boat. Nobody locked their doors in Hal’anaar. She barged into the cabin, startling its sleepy occupants. The sentinel didn’t pause for their questions. “The village is under attack! Arm yourselves or leave!”
The force of her words, laced as they were centuries of experience and all the authority of a sentinel protecting her charges, pressed them into action. The elves swiftly began preparations, one of them flying out to the deck to try to cast off, the others gathering what implements they had that might pass as weapons. Sarunaveine couldn’t wait, but left as swiftly as she came, repeating the exercise several times as she made her way up the dock towards Flotsam. The ghouls had caught on by now, their howls standing up the hairs of her neck, and propelling her forward.
Flotsam was dark in the water when she pounded onto her deck. The boat’s cabin was two-roomed, the front serving as a kitchen and common area, and the back as sleeping quarters. She found Kaelis curled up on the bed, her small hands folded under her head, and Sarunaveine was flooded with relief. She crossed the room in two strides and picked up the little girl, blanket and all.
The girl shifted, confused and tired. “Anuri?”
Sarunaveine was somewhat amazed the girl had managed to stay asleep this long. “Shh. It’s alright. We need to get out of here.”
Screams rang out from the dock, muted only a little by Flotsam’s walls. Kaelis flinched away from them. “What’s happening?”
“Shh.” She pulled back the curtain and peered through the bedroom’s small window. Shadowed figures fought in the darkness just outside the relative safety of the boat. She pursed her lips and tried not to look as worried as she suddenly felt. That was their only way out.
Kaelis started to cry, huddled against her chest. She patted the girl’s back and tried to think. The ocean. It’s the only way.
As quietly as she could, she walked back out of the cabin, pausing in the door to set the child down. “Kaelis, this is very important. I need you to sit here and be very still and very quiet for a little while. Do you think you can do that for me?”
Big silver eyes stared up at her from a little face soaked with tears. “Anuri, I’m scared.”
“I know. It’s going to be alright. I promise.” She smoothed back her hair. “But right now I need you to do as I say. Do you think you can be a big girl for me?”
Kaelis shuddered, but managed to quiet her sobbing. Sarunaveine brushed her hand over her hair again, and then stole out onto the deck.
They were fortunate it was so dark a night. The sentinel had never been much of a scout, but the darkness was a great aid in allowing her to approach the dock unseen, and uncoil Flotsam’s mooring in hopes of getting the craft into open water. She doubted very much the ghouls were good swimmers. The living wood of the ship was more than capable of looking after itself; she could anchor it off-shore and swim back to offer what help she could. Kaelis would be safe enough on board. Flotsam herself seemed to sense Sarunaveine’s intentions, trimming her sails in preparation.
Unfortunately, it was not quite dark enough to hide so large a motion as an entire ship pushing away from the dock. One of the ghouls let out an unholy scream and launched itself at the figure standing on the deck. Sarunaveine dodged to one side, slashing at it with her triune, but the damage was only superficial, and the motion forced her back towards the bow. Two more of the creatures landed heavily in answer to their comrade’s call.
She frowned, took a breath. They were between her and her granddaughter. Sarunaveine could just make her out, huddled in the doorway, balled up with her head hidden in her knees and her hands clamped tight over her ears. She was shaking.
The sentinel’s eyes snapped back to the ghouls with a surge of cold anger. Her hand tightened on the triune, her feet testing her balance on the springy wood.
The ghouls were beyond any ability to read the fury in the woman’s face, but they understood the sudden ferocity of the attack that followed well enough. Sarunaveine sprang forward, the edge of one blade opening a deep gash along the abdomen of the nearest ghoul, which howled in agony as its putrefied organs spilled over the deck. She smiled fiercely. That was one.
As it fell, one of its companions tried to flank her, rushing her side with its mouth gaping open and those claw-like fingers extended, intent on snatching her. She whirled out of reach and delivered a solid kick to the side of its knee, and felt something crack under her sabaton. The creature’s leg collapsed under it and sent it tumbling to the floor. Sarunaveine swiped at its back, but she was too intent on her victim, and gave the third ghoul an opening.
It bounded over its fallen brethren, knocking her to her back and sending the triune flying. She only just got her feet between herself and the creature as it bent desperately over her, snapping its jaws wildly. Sarunaveine turned her head instinctively to shield her face and pain blossomed in her ear. Her good arm delivered a punch to the ghoul’s face that seemed to momentarily stun it. She took the opportunity to kick it off her, with so much force that it rolled to where the gangplank and been and dropped overboard between the boat and the dock.
The injured ghoul had recovered. It crawled forward and sunk its grimy nails into a joint in her leg armor. She shoved her over foot into its shoulder, snapping its collarbone, and it loosened its grip just enough for her to get loose. Her hand swept up the fallen triune and she planted it in the creature’s back. It screamed. The sound seemed to go on forever, filling her stomach with bile and trying to pry her fingers loose with primal fear. But the sentinel held tight, and gave the blade a twist. The ghoul jerked, and lay still.
Sarunaveine leaned heavily over it a moment, breathing deeply, before yanking the triune free and scrambling across the deck towards Kaelis. The child was sobbing continuously now, the sound low and pitiful, but there was little she could do for her at the moment but take her away from this scene. She picked her up and turned towards the dock.
The boats that could leave had done so, but the noise had attracted too much attention. She could see more figures, too many, shambling towards Flotsam, and her heart sank. They’d never get the boat far enough away in time.
Then she turned the other way, towards the open water, and a grim smile touched her face.
It was the work of a few moments to sit down and undo the armor that had taken her so long to get into. It helped that she was slicing through the leather straps where she could, rather than fumbling one-handed with the buckles, and soon it lay in a heap on the deck. Kaelis crowded against her, frightened, and as she worked she explained her next idea. “The dock’s a bit crowded, darling. We’re going to have to swim.”
And with the girl in hand, she jumped over the side.
Sarunaveine kept a hand clenched on Kaelis’ shirt as they hit the icy water. Kaelis was a true daughter of Hal’anaar and had been swimming since before she could walk. The sentinel was more concerned about losing her in the dark than keeping her afloat. She had some concerns for herself in that area- kicking alone didn’t lead to strong swimming- but the ocean was calm tonight and the current this close to shore led directly to land.
Her feet kicked against the boat, putting distance between them and whatever might come aboard, before turning towards the shoreline. She could feel Kaelis kicking alongside her, though she didn’t loosen her grip until she could feel sand under her toes. Kaelis shivered on the beach.
Sarunaveine found her hand and said, more gently than she thought she could, “Come on. We need to find you a blanket.”
The little girl and her grandmother slowly made their way up the hill, to the larger building that served as a town center of sorts. She found that the surviving villagers had barricaded themselves inside, and the several ghoulish corpses lying out front testified to its effectiveness. Sarunaveine noted their identities, dispassionately, but kept herself between them and the child. There was no need for her to see any more of this.
Uravin was there, as well as Jethorne. Sarunaveine prepared herself to give him the bad news, but when he glanced at her, expressionlessly, she saw it would be unnecessary. The priestess came forward immediately, wrapping the girl in her own cloak, and looked up at Sarunaveine. “Seffani?”
“Elune knows.” The words came out coldly, and she was glad of it, something in her very pleased to see her son’s treacherous mate shame herself in such a fashion, even as she was aware it was petty and thoughtless.
Uravin just shook her head, at the situation and satisfaction both, and gently led Kaelis away, back into the building. Sarunaveine let them go. Hal’anaar was miniscule, and there were not many children. They deserved the full protection of the village’s defenses, such as they were, and should be hidden behind them.
Her place, however, was here. She demanded and received what passed for a weapon, and set about organizing the remaining defenses. They obeyed her instinctively, even though she wondered a little at it. It would seem that no matter how indifferent her treatment of them, or her own disability, she was still their sentinel, and they trusted her with their lives. Even though the circumstances were horrific, it was a… good feeling. She could almost imagine herself back in Hyjal, before her arm was taken, when she still had value.
The night was long, but when the sun rose, they had prevailed. The infected were dead. The village was a disaster, and there was little cheer to be had, as they began the long process of planning for the dead and the living alike, but it would recover, in time.
The sentinel had little expertise to offer here. It was not the first time she had seen comrades die, but she knew well enough there were no words or actions to make it easier. She retrieved her granddaughter and went home.
Her house, on the outskirts as it was, had been little affected. She was glad of it. It was a place Kaelis knew, untainted by the recent horrors, and she felt vaguely that it would help her to be there. Now that the crisis was passed she found she still wasn’t quite sure what to do with this child, her kin, just like she’d never known what to do with her father or his cousin left in her care, but that was alright. She knew enough.
Dawn passed into mid-morning, and brought them a visitor.
Sarunaveine heard him before she saw him, and uneven staccato of clawed feet on her entryway, accompanied by breathless panting. She rounded the corner in time to see the dark saber resolve itself into the figure of a man on all fours, his forehead against her floor and his green hair soaked through with sweat. She tilted her head at him. “Your timing, as always, is impeccable.”
Her son raised his head and eyed her from the floor, an expression of mixed exhaustion and incredulity.
Her eyes flicked to his hands, which had left small smears of blood on the wood trailed by similarly inked paw prints, and widened in surprise. “You ran here from-“
“Auberdine.” He coughed. “There was a terrible- disease. My mount- foundered- I needed to warn-“
“You’re too late,” she said tersely, remembrances of the evening past flickering in her mind.
Athorius paled. “Kaelis-“
She had intended to make him sweat, just a little bit, chiding him for his own irresponsibility which at times could be the match of his erstwhile mate’s, but his daughter had apparently inherited his knack for showing up at precisely the wrong moment, because she chose that instant to run into the room and fling herself at her father. “An’da!”
He managed to catch her, wrapping his arms around her and rolling over on the floor so she lay on his chest, his hand leaving sticky blood in her hair and his eyes closed in an echo of the relief Sarunaveine herself had felt, when she saw the girl sleeping on her mother’s bed. It irritated her, inscrutably.
But then, after a long moment, he looked back up at her, and said quietly, but fervently, “Thank you, ana’sha.”
She could only nod. They both looked so vulnerable, lying there. It was an odd thought. His neck was stretched by his position, laying bare his throat, and she found she couldn’t stop staring at it. Her ear twitched and brought with it a fresh wave of pain that snapped her back into reality.
Athorius was staring at her.
“What?” she asked, crossly.
“Your ear… what happened to your ear?”
Her fingers reached up, probing, delicate, and she found suddenly that they could only trace up an inch or two before her right ear ended in a bloody stump. The memory came back in a rush. The deck hard under her back, the ghoul snapping at her- biting at her…
Her gaze returned to him, a mask of dread, and her blood suddenly felt like ice. She forced composure. She would not give into this fear. She wouldn’t let him see it. Briskly, she replied, “It was bitten during the attack.”
She looked away then. She didn’t have the strength to watch what the declaration did to him. “Just a small bite,” she mumbled, as if chastising herself over some small slip of courtesy. “Takes longer I guess.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Kaelis into the stillness, discomfited by their unexpected grimness.
Athorius said something or other to comfort her; Sarunaveine didn’t hear it. She watched through a fog as he took the child into the house. She heard them shifting around, as he settled his daughter, doing what she’d tried to do last night, insulate her from the horror of what was happening. She was going to need a lot more than a security blanket and some soothing words, after this.
By the time he returned she had made a decision, cool action replacing her terror and allowing her to conduct herself properly. “Do you have sorrowmoss on you?”
He stared. “No.” His tone was flat, rejecting the question outright. It wasn’t an answer.
She repeated herself, her voice laced with frigid calm. “Do you have any sorrowmoss?”
“We’re not even going to talk about that.” He looked disgusted. “We’re going to take you straight to Uravin-“
“She doesn’t know how to fix it.” The words came out in a hiss, and she caught his arm in an iron grip. “I will NOT do what has been done here yesterday to my own, I will not. For the final time, do you have sorrowmoss, or must I make some less comfortable arrangement?”
“I…” Athorius swallowed, looked away, but she could see his resolve crumbling in the face of both the truth and her authority. He cleared his throat. “I’ll… Go lay down, I’ll bring it to you.”
She held onto his arm a moment longer, then nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She turned and went upstairs into her bedroom. What was there to say, anyway? As if anyone could fix a lifetime of animosity in a farewell. She snorted to herself. The very thought was ridiculous. She lay down and waited.
It wasn’t very long before she heard footsteps approaching, and she peeled open one eye to see her son standing over her with a cup of steaming tea clutched in one hand. He held it well away from his body, treating it like the poison it was. His face was unreadable.
Sarunaveine sat up a bit. “Give it here.”
He held onto it. “Ana’sha-“
She rolled her eyes and something in her winced, painfully, as he flinched at the casual cruelty of the gesture, but she didn’t let it show. “What, you want some tearful mockery of a goodbye, pretending things we don’t even feel?” Her voice softened somewhat, as he stared at the floor, even if it didn’t lose an ounce of its gruffness. “We already know all there is to say.”
She watched him swallow, master his own anger and grief, not wanting to give her the satisfaction either, and thought she ought to feel proud, to have taught him so well. All she really felt was empty. When he did look up, he was calm- except for his eyes, which she could not meet for more than a second. He thrust the cup at her. “Fine, then. Have it your own way. You always do.”
The cup hovered between them a moment. Then Sarunaveine reached up and took it, and took a sip, as if this were a simple cold, and the mug full of peppermint and honey. Somewhat to her surprise, he sat on the edge of the bed, against her legs, and folded his hands in his lap.
“You want to watch?” she almost spat over the rim.
“No.” He shook his head slowly. “You shouldn’t need to do this alone. I’m sorry I’m all you have, but it will have to do.”
She made to tell him to go, to unleash the cold words necessary to damn well make him leave, to not put him through this, but they died on her tongue. She took a second sip, and then down the rest in one long gulp, scalding her throat, not that it mattered.
He held her hand. She stared at the ceiling. The silence stretched, waiting, almost predatory. Her eyelids were getting heavy, but she fought it, life instinctually struggling against the long night, no matter what she willed.
He squeezed her hand. She couldn’t see him very well, but she heard him say, almost too soft to really make out, “You did well, ana’sha. You saved her, and them. It’s ok now.”
She sighed. It wasn’t much, but it would do.
Athorius sat on her balcony, in the house where he grew up, and watched the sea. His daughter was a ball on his lap, asleep at last, and he touched her every so often, compulsively smoothing her hair or rubbing her shoulder, as if to reassure himself she was still there. The ocean was calm today and its salty breeze against his face was appreciated.
It snatched up sounds from the village, hammering, the occasional weeping, bits and pieces of voices trying to make sense of the senseless. He sat and rocked his daughter, not ready to go to them and do his own duty as a druid, in lending them peace and healing. He had, at the moment, none to offer.
Eventually he saw a figure come running up the road, its purple hair steaming in that same breeze, pounding into the house. He didn’t move from his seat. Footsteps crept along the halls and through the rooms, cautiously, and then up the winding ramp where they ended with a strangled gasp. The bedroom, certainly. He left his mother there, looking more peaceful than she ever had in life, until he had the strength to deal with the necessary rites.
He felt it when she came up behind him and stopped a few steps shy. “Oh my goddess, Kaelis, Ath-“
Her ragged breathing convulsed into a strangled sob, grief and relief in one breath, but he didn’t so much as turn his head. “Seffani. How happy I am that you made it through the attack alive.”
The flatness of his tone gave her pause. He heard the wariness creep back into her voice, that same tone she always used when she lied to him, again and again, whenever he visited home. “Elune, Ath, your mother- I’m so sorry.”
She tried to put her hand on his shoulder, but he flinched away, and she snatched it back as though burned. “She was infected. There was nothing to be done.”
Seffani swallowed. “When I came back from my walk and found Flotsam empty, I thought the worst.”
“Don’t.” There wasn’t even anger anymore. Just certainty and fatigue. “Please, don’t, Sef, you’re embarrassing yourself.”
“I don’t understand.” She sounded almost forlorn. He could have laughed if it wouldn’t have hurt so much.
“Did you really think I didn’t know?” Athorius did turn to face her then, continuing in that same flat, calm tone. “Goddess and ancients both, but who didn’t, Sef? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have confronted you when I returned from Moonglade and saw you both there, in my home, but I confess I didn’t know what to say, and part of me was curious about how long it would take for you to come clean. I never thought you would take it this far. I thought I could trust you with her at least.”
“Moonglade.” She swallowed. “That was years ago.”
“Yes.” He turned back to the ocean.
There was a long silence, then Seffani reached for the girl. “I need to take her home-“
Athorius shifted in his seat, carrying the child out of reach. “She needs rest. It took ages for her to fall asleep.”
Her eyes flashed with anger. “You’d dare keep her from me.”
“Be sensible, Seffani. She’s going to need her mother when she wakes up. It would be nice if you could pull yourself together enough by then to act the part.” He held his daughter tighter. “Go cry yourself out on your boyfriend’s shoulder. I’m sure he’ll be glad to be of use.”
Seffani flushed white, and then deep purple.
He stared at the ocean. ”I’d like you to leave now, please.”
And miracle upon miracles, for once, she did.
Athorius ignored the departure, looking down at the girl, tracing her cheek with his finger. Soon, she’d wake. Soon, he’d have to deal with the corpse in the other room. Soon, he’d have to go down to the village, prod buildings back into shape and see to injuries, mouth words about how nature would restore the balance of their lives, for whatever use that ever was to shattered people, and generally attempt to live up to the responsibilities of his order.
But for now, he could sit in his mother’s chair, in the sunlight, and be a cradle and a comfort to his child, and for now, it was enough.