(A/N: Disclaimer: Do not own World of Warcraft, that belongs to Blizzard. Yar.)
Once upon a time, before the world fell, simply having enough food for the winter was a good life. Not anymore.
Days were largely the same in the town Lyrell lived in. There were morning prayers in the chapel, patrol until the afternoon shift, then she tended the crops or minded the children with many of the other women, with the occasional Scourge invasion. Together with the women, she worked to coax the plague-tainted earth into giving up its dormant riches, growing straggly plants and tasteless food, with prayer always at the forefront of her mind.
With so many factors out of their control, there was little else to do but pray. The minister of the chapel droned the same prayer every morning, and every afternoon it ran through Lyrell's mind, occupying most space as she worked to cure rotten fruit or turn over the soil.
Light, we have all sinned. You punished us with the Plague, and those unworthy were taken from us. We remain, having been gifted another chance, and with every day that passes we work to prove ourselves worthy.
Stroking Constance's golden hair, Lyrell had trouble believing that the bishops of the chapel told the truth. She watched an eight-year-old boy hack at a battered training dummy with an old, rusty sword. His red hair blended in with the putrid landscape.
Marahna had not been unworthy. One night, far to the west, the Scourge had attacked the Solliden Farmstead and she had fallen. She was, if anything, one of the most religious people Lyrell had known, and left behind her son. With the rest of his family dead – or worse – Ryan Solliden had gone into the care of Marahna's best friend, before she had been relocated.
He had been trained like every other child, and continued to be. Like Constance would be, when she would turn five years old. Lyrell still had not yet chosen which path Constance would take. Perhaps a priest – they had an abundance of healers, but few that knew the offensive abilities the Shadow provided.
All of Azeroth has fallen, but we, the minority, have been spared. Stormwind forsook us, and paid for it – and now Azeroth lies in ruins, teeming with Scourge. We look out to the hills that surround us and see those that were once loved ones now hunger for our blood.
But we will survive. We will endure.
"Constance," Lyrell said lightly, as her daughter watched her adopted brother with wide eyes. "What do you want to be?"
It had been a topic at the breakfast table for the past week, so Constance knew exactly to what her mother was referring to. "Wanna be a mage," said Constance, one finger hooked in her mouth as she watched the redheaded boy, mesmerised. "Just like you."
Slowly, steadily, we reclaim Lordaeron, and then we will reclaim our world. The smallest of steps begin the largest of journeys, and we are well into ours. One day, Azeroth will flourish again, under our gentle hands, and those who have fallen will be driven out.
Lyrell frowned as the droning voice continued in her memory, and unease grew within her. There were rumours. Little whispers that dwelt in shadows, shying away when the lights that were the clergy were shone on them. Rumours that they were beginning to fall, that the foothold they had gained years ago was beginning to slip. That if this kept out, the last survivors of the calamity that was the Scourge would die out…
Light assist us with this gods-given task. And when we prove ourselves, deliver us to the Light. Take us home to be with those who have perished.
And yet, the murmuring of dissent put Lyrell on edge. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps they were cornered, trapped, in the northern hills – not protected as their leaders thought.
Light protect us, all of Hearthglen, and the remaining cities and towns of Lordaeron.
But if they couldn't trust their leaders, who could they trust?
And Light guide the Scarlet Crusade.
Winters were the hardest. Just as the sky had been tainted orange by the Plague somehow, so did the snow refuse to fall ever since the Third War, and instead a misty, miserable rain descended upon the northern hills and mountains. But faithfully, as he did every afternoon, Ryan picked up his sword and wooden shield and trooped out to the armoury to meet his trainer. Marahna Solliden would be proud, if she could see him now. Constance also bundled herself up without prompting and squelched beside her mother in the mud as they headed for the fields.
"Mother?" said Constance. "There's something in the hills."
Lyrell stopped, guard up immediately, scanning their surroundings. Inwardly, she prayed that this day would not be the first that she would encounter Scourge closely - she was ready to panic. "I don't see anything," she said. "Are you sure…?"
There it was – a brief flash of brown, in the foothills. A wave of blonde hair, obscuring a pale face, spindly limbs – and then it was gone.
It was unlike Scourge to be sneaky. The occasional undead would stumble into Hearthglen without warning, but was usually slaughtered immediately. But then, there were sub factions of the Scourge that had more intelligence, such as…
"Did you catch its eyes? Were they glowing yellow?" Lyrell squinted, searching, searching…
"Nuh uh. Didn't see its eyes."
Forsaken. That was bad news. Some had glowing eyes, but – some didn't, too, and when you couldn't tell the difference between a Forsaken and your typical, mindless Scourge, that was even worse news. They didn't often roam so far north, but it happened, and if one appeared, many usually followed. Lyrell's gut twisted. It was one thing for their mindless brethren to become minions of the Scourge – completely another for them to be restored their mind in exchange for servitude to the Lich King. And the Forsaken showed even less mercy than their mindless allies. Her hand tightened on Constance's shoulder.
"Constance, run for the fields." Their house was perched precariously on the outskirts of Hearthglen, even past the fields, and as long as Constance headed inwards she was safe. "I'll notify the Guard immediately."
But if there was one thing, strangely enough, that the Forsaken could be counted on for, it was the fact that they rarely hurt children. Lyrell watched Constance's blonde hair bob through the faint mist. It was almost as if they still retained the slightest sliver of humanity, deep within unbeating hearts.
She scanned the mountains one more time, then turned on her heel and ran.
The patrol remained vigilant, and yet no Forsaken were spotted. But the Crusade knew better than to discount even the vaguest of sightings, and the patrols doubled in number overnight. The Forsaken were the worst enemy yet they had ever encountered, and it always paid to be safe.
Which Lyrell felt far from.
In her house on the outskirts of town, closest to the mountains, she tucked Ryan into bed. He would be nine years old tomorrow. She watched him turn over and pull the thin blanket over him, masking his shivering. Even at this young age, he knew better than to ask for what could not be given. Once upon a time, she could simply have purchased a new blanket. But wool was scarce, as the sheep herds did not appreciate the sparse grass that had grown since the Plague hit and they dwindled more and more in number each yet.
She pulled a chair in front of the window that faced the western hills and sat there, watching. The patrols would pass by occasionally – but not often enough. She would have to watch over her own house tonight.
Nine. Strange, Ryan was too old to be nine. That boy held much intelligence – more intelligence than any boy his age would have held, pre-Scourge. But then, under times of stress, all children had to grow up far sooner than was fair. When spring came, Constance would attend lessons and learn to defend Hearthglen just like her elders. After all, every year, more and more adults died and children grew up far too slowly to replace them…
Maybe her suspicions – and the rumours – were correct. Maybe they were doomed.
She pulled her thoughts from their morbid direction, and took herself down memory lane instead.
Nine. Ryan had been two when the Scourge came, and seven when his mother died. He'd been the youngest child of four, his three siblings far older than him – the third-born was fifteen during the Third War. Lyrell could remember her now. Xantenise had been the most difficult out of all of Marahna's children, and something had been off about her from her earliest years. Still. Like Samuel and Clairabelle, her older siblings, she'd – Lyrell frowned.
No. Xantenise hadn't died, she'd merely vanished from the Farmstead as if she'd never existed. Lyrell suspected she'd tried to fight her way south to Dalaran, where she had known her father lived. With the Scourge attack in full swing back then, Lyrell doubted she had ever made it. It was quite a journey for a fifteen-year-old under normal circumstances.
A twig snapped, and Lyrell's senses roared to the present. She listened. Outside, she heard the whisper of rain, and then – the thick, squelching boots of the patrol as the pair passed by her window.
And yet, it hadn't been them. Unnerved, Lyrell stood up.
She walked about the dilapidated house, senses on alert. Checked all the windows and doors. All locked. Still mostly boarded up against attack. The children were safe all seven times Lyrell checked. But no attack came, and with every moment the patrol walked farther and farther away. They would be out of earshot by now – and would be for twenty long minutes.
"Lyrell?" said a small voice.
Lyrell looked to the bedroom door. Ryan stood there, his sword in hand.
"I thought I heard something," he said.
"Me too," said Lyrell. "You guard the bedroom. Keep Constance safe. You will rest in the morning if dawn comes without event."
This wouldn't be the first time a child had had to go without sleep for most of the night. Ryan didn't even blink as he nodded. Quietly, he slipped back into the room. That was less part of the house Lyrell would have to obsessively check on.
He was too strong for a child. A long time ago, children were children, and not disciplined soldiers in small bodies. And the thought of him and Constance growing up only to die – never to thrive, never to have choices, never to make their own decisions – haunted her.
Dawn came and chased away the clouds, the sun rising, victorious, above the mountains. Ryan was already dozing off. Disciplined or not, children had their needs. Lyrell quietly tucked him back into bed, ignoring the own tug of fatigue on her body, and woke Constance.
In the relative safety of daylight, Constance could run into town for morning prayers and alert the clergy that Lyrell and Ryan would not attend. It was morning prayers or training, and Ryan would not miss training for sleep, and Lyrell would not leave him home alone to pray no matter how much the bishops demanded it. It was one thing to send a small child into town under the watchful eyes of the cover of houses ahead, but entirely another to leave a sleeping child unsupervised by the mountains.
The hills around the town seemed to loom in the remaining dribble from the day before. Lyrell heard distant commands as the extra patrols were called off – nothing had been spotted during the night. The guards could catch up on rest. Order would be restored, and life would go on as usual.
But as Lyrell walked outside to watch over Constance's journey, the hair stood on the back of her neck, and she knew all was not well.
Days passed. Ryan celebrated his birthday with a bigger meal than usual in the evening, and though Lyrell's unease did not fade, whatever danger that threatened Hearthglen did not surface. One evening, as dusk fell, Constance asked to see the new chickens that the Smiths were raising and darted off before Lyrell could answer. Lyrell smiled after her. Lack of discipline was lack of discipline, but let the child have some fun. She was heading into town, anyway, and would be safe enough, and she didn't doubt one of the Smiths would escort her back.
Lyrell slipped inside once Constance had faded from view. The sound of Ryan hacking at the training dummy outside beat like a soothing metronome. She sat in her chair by the window – this time with her back to it – and stared into space.
Lyrell stared at her hands. They'd once been soft as any mage's hands, but her staff had worn callouses into the skin. Gloves, after all, were a luxury now. She sighed, and quietened her mind. Allowed herself to slip out of her own skin. To just be without her thoughts.
After a while, she realised she could no longer hear the sword on the training dummy. She listened, but Ryan did not come into the house. She frowned and stood up. Her footsteps quickened against the floorboards, and the handle didn't twist fast enough as she yanked the door open and ran outside.
The scene that awaited her froze her.
Ryan lay in the grass, and kneeling beside him was a girl dressed in brown. Dirty blonde hair obscured her face – until she looked up, and foggy eyes met Lyrell's own.
"Xantenise?" said Lyrell.
Xantenise did not wear the colours of the Crusade, but – she was alive! Where had she been all these years? In another settlement? Why did she not announce her visit?
Why did she hide in the hills? How could she hide so long without being found?
But – Xantenise was a friend, wasn't she?
"Ryan?" Lyrell's eyes darted to the boy. She wanted to step forward, but her legs did not obey her. Ryan? Are you okay? What's wrong? Why did you fall?
"Lyrell. He's tired," said Xantenise softly. She stood, slinging the boy's arm around her shoulders. The child blinked groggily at Lyrell, but no matter how hard her heart thundered in her chest she didn't dare step forward, not when there were knives at Xantenise's hips, not when she was touching the boy. "I haven't seen you in a long time."
But – but Xantenise was so friendly.
"When did you come to Hearthglen?" Lyrell blurted the words out as her mind struggled.
There was something wrong. Xantenise did not look dead, but… she looked pale. Far too pale.
"Oh, you know how it is, just a spontaneous visit," Xantenise grinned, and no matter how much Lyrell's mind worked she could not sense any falseness in the girl's friendly tone.
But – she wasn't Scourge. She couldn't be. Scourge did not talk, did not appear friendly, and neither did Forsaken. Her warm expression was genuine. She didn't look dead, and yet – and yet she was too pale to be alive. Confusion threw Lyrell's instincts and her mind struggled what to do next. Her feet still did not move. What the hell should she do?
"I'm sorry," said Xantenise. "I'm taking him home."
There were so many contradictions, so many things wrong, so many unknown factors – what was there to do? And the enemy – if Xantenise was an enemy – had Marahna's child in her grasp… to attack her would put the child's life in danger, if it wasn't already!
"Home?" she croaked.
"The Crusade is dying," Xantenise smiled faintly. "It's not safe for him here. It's not safe for any child here. The Onslaught is all but defeated, the Northrend mission a failure, and the Forsaken are slowly regaining Lordaeron. Mother would have wanted me to protect him, don't you think? He'll only die if he stays."
The dying sheep. The endless clergymen who had to purify diseased crops. The amount of adults – even children – that died protecting a ghost town that could not flourish…
Perhaps she was right.
But then Ryan's head rolled against his chest, and Lyrell froze up. "You drugged him!"
"Just a small dart," said Xantenise. "Enough to make the journey easier. Do you see him leaving his doom willingly?"
Who will protect our children when we are dead?
And yet – Xantenise held no hostility. She smiled at Lyrell softly, genuinely. And Lyrell wondered what power the girl had that all the teachings of the Crusade could not sway the trust that had formed in the stranger's intentions.
Perhaps Xantenise was Ryan's only chance to get away from this place.
"Home?" said Lyrell again.
Xantenise's smile broadened. "To a city in the sky to the north that floats above the snow. Father's there. It's Dalaran – rebuilt. He'll love it there, once he settles in. Clairabelle's there, too. And we've got more brothers and sisters, too."
Understanding dawned. Xantenise was a ghost, a spirit come to guide her brother home. The ghosts of Dalaran now dwelt in the heavens with the Light.
So. Xantenise had made it to Dalaran. Perhaps not alive, but her spirit had found her father's, and joined the rest of her family. A sad smile crept onto Lyrell's lips.
Xantenise smiled. "Maybe you will too," she said. "You need to leave. Go south. It's a hell of a journey, but you can't stay here any longer. I saw you have a little one – take her with you."
And then Xantenise turned, and faded out of sight. The boy vanished with her.
Lyrell couldn't tell the Crusaders where Ryan had gone, or the crying Constance who missed her older, adopted brother whole heartedly. She told no one of Xantenise. Now the moment had passed, doubt had crept back in, and she realised still wasn't sure what the girl was.
No Forsaken would have been so kind, or gone out of their way to reassure Lyrell if they'd just wanted to kidnap a kid. The Scourge had no reason to take a simple boy, and yet…
Who else was out there, in this post-apocalyptic world? Was there another faction with pale skin and a dead appearance, a secret civilisation where the spirits of the undead dwelt, a city that looked like Dalaran that hung in the sky above Northrend, where it all began? A city whose people took their loved ones home, to the Light, a place where they could be protected forever from the Scourge?
Surely, no spirit had to resort to drugging their loved ones in order to deliver them to paradise. No spirit would strike when they thought their target was alone, when spirits had the power to take them anyway. And no spirit certainly left footprints – especially footprints that led in the direction of Undercity, to a clearing where they met another set of tracks before they vanished entirely…