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Catalinetta

Lie - Die - Sanctify

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Sister Freida had been an orphan matron for half of her life now. She had started an orphanage in Ironforge many years ago before she realized her aid was needed elsewhere. After that, she had moved to Lordaeron to safeguard the children made orphans by the Scourge War. Of all the children Freida had ever taken in, Charlotte was by far the most energetic. Now she lived in Thelsamar, watching over the child full-time for Brinnea Velmon. The old dwarf paladin could not keep up with the child’s energy anymore.

            Somehow, late in the night, Charlotte had collapsed from exhaustion and had gone to sleep in her bed. Freida was just tucking her in when she noticed a pair of yellow eyes staring at her from the corner. She jumped, frightened, but it was just Brinnea’s other child, August. The boy had been raised by worgen during his younger years, so he acted much like a wild dog rather than a normal human boy. He was unnervingly quiet, and could move fast when he wanted. He often spooked Freida in the dark with his unnatural stealth.

            “August!” she chided quietly, so as not to wake Charlotte, “You nearly gave me a heart attack! Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

            “I don’t sleep much,” the boy said simply. He had not learned the Common tongue until this year, so he often said little if he said anything at all.

            “Trouble sleeping, boy?” she asked sweetly. “I could brew you a lemon tea that would help you with nightmares, if that’s the sort of trouble you’re having. I know how much you like my lemon tea!” The scruffy boy smiled and nodded. She ruffled his hair affectionately and set to work on the tea.

            There was a storm out tonight. Thunder boomed and rainfall echoed on the hilltop the hovel was built into. The weather didn’t bother Freida much, but August seemed frightened of the sounds. He shrunk into a corner away from the fire, shivering each time the thunder pealed outside. Freida waved him over to her side. “Come sit by the fire, August. It’s far too dim over there.” The boy did not budge. The dwarf sighed, set a kettle of water over the fire, and walked over, sitting down beside the boy. “It’s only a storm, boy. Nothing to be scared about.”

            A loud boom sounded just outside the door. August yelped and shrunk his head into his arms, trembling. Freida regarded the front door with confusion. Am I imagining things, or did someone just bang against the door? Another bolt of lightning let off a loud boom, and she shook off the feeling. “That one was a bit close, huh? Not to worry, child. We’ll be alright.”

            Another boom broke the door off its hinges. Freida gasped and stood between the dark silhouette at the entrance and the children. August shouted and tried to dig himself further into the dark corner. Charlotte was stirring in bed, rubbing her eyes. She saw Freida grabbing her hammer and muttered sleepily, “Wha—what’s going on? Sissy Freida?”

            The silhouette at the door entered the house, walking down the dwarven stairs and leaning to avoid hitting its head on the low-cut ceiling. It was a tauren woman, dressed in a Sunwalker’s regalia and armor. Sister Freida took up her hammer warningly. Then another figure entered the hovel. And another. And another. Soon, the room was filled from one wall to the other with paladins baring weapons. Frieda kept up a brave face. She had faced odds such as these and survived, she was sure of it. That was a long time ago, though. She mustered up all her bravery and said, “What do you knights think you’re doing, breaking into a private residence in the middle of the night?”

            The tauren gestured lazily at the dwarf’s weapon. “Put that down. You’re outnumbered, we could bury you before you ever had a chance to hurt one of us. We’re here for the girl.” The tauren pointed at Charlotte, who was now fully awake, and stood on the bed in her pajamas.

            “You’re bad people, aren’t you?” the five year-old questioned harshly. “Mama said if bad people ever tried to take me, I should do this!” She cast a fireball that flopped on the floor at the tauren’s hooves. The two men in the group laughed. Frieda gestured for Charlotte to stay behind her. “No, child! Don’t do anything reckless!”

            “Oh, I like her spunk,” the human knight said with a cocky grin. “Can I have her after we kill the dwarf bitch? I haven’t had one that young in a long time.”

            “No, Leon, you great big pervert,” the group’s dwarf said with a slap to the man’s back. “We’re not to harm the girl. Orders are orders.”

            “Indeed. Take the girl, no harming her,” the tauren said, drawing closer to Frieda. The old dwarf was backed up almost to the bedside.

            “And the dwarf? Surely we don’t need her,” the elf of the group said, clearly bored.

            “Kill the old woman, but spare the boy. He’ll send the death knight a message for us.” With that, they were on Frieda. Her old instincts kicked in quickly. She threw a shield of light up around her just as two swords aimed at her neck fell low. With both the elf and the human guarding low, she aimed high. Her hammer crumpled the elf’s breastplate like it was made of tin and sent him falling over on his backside. He gasped loudly, his lungs crushed by the weight of the swing. Frieda growled as her shield dropped, and blocked a vicious high swing made by the man, Leon. The human aimed high again and again, forcing her to compensate for her height by blocking high. His strikes led her away from the bed, leaving the dwarf woman and the tauren to seize Charlotte and August, who both struggled to break free, futilely.

            Leon’s blade fell from up high, and Frieda tried to block again. But her old arms had grown tired and slow. Leon severed her right hand at the wrist. Blood squirted across the room violently, and the old dwarf paladin fell to one knee, her hammer fallen to the ground. She screamed as pain wracked her body from her bloody stump. Leon kicked her hammer away before she could grab it again. Shivering from the pain, Frieda’s last sight of the children as they were taken out into the storm was fuzzy. She saw August’s terrified yellow eyes looking at her with fear, and heard Charlotte’s loud yells as the knights failed to gag her properly. Tears streamed down Frieda’s face, mingling with blood from her spurting fountain of a stump. She wept not because she was about to die, but because she had failed the children she was sworn to protect. For the first, and last time in her life, she had failed them.

            “Nighty night, old hag,” were the last words Frieda heard before Leon’s sword chopped her head off.

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During his time at Light’s Hope Chapel, Xoan made himself as invisible as was possible for a new recruit. He was interviewed and eventually placed with a small group of trainees, where they spent most of the day performing practical exercises. Having been raised in a fairly devout family, he had no trouble reciting the philosophy of their beliefs, and physically was in good enough shape to keep up with their training. By the end of the day, he made a few friends. It didn’t take them very long to gossip about the goings-on around the chapel. From the attack by the Ebon Blade, to a splinter group’s  crusade against rogue death knights, to the sudden discovery that the Light could somehow bring death chargers back from the dead, there were plenty of things to talk about.

Xoan kept his mouth shut through most of it. When they mentioned the young bull who survived the purge in Windrunner Village, however, he kept his eyes open. The bull was soon pointed out in the yard, still injured, and Xoan was already formulating a plan. Thankfully, after the fight, the Sunwalker was given a small room to himself where he could recover. That would make things easy, and as day turned to night, Xoan waited for the moon to hide behind a group of clouds before hiding in the shadows himself. 

He wasn’t the best fighter by any means, but Xoan had grown accustomed to sneaking. Something about it came naturally to the elf; the slow languid movements, the silent way of stepping. He let the shadows consume him as he crept toward the Sunwalker’s room, checking the name on the door just to be sure before letting himself inside.(edited)
It wasn’t quite morning yet, but it was also past midnight. Soon enough the sound of training would hit the yard outside, and the Sunwalker would rouse himself awake. For now, however, he was safely asleep. Xoan approached him silently, dressed in black to hide his form in the darkness, the moon still shrouded by clouds to keep it that way. Only his fel green eyes cast enough light for him to see his way through the bull’s room, and as he looked down at the sleeping tauren, Xoan smiled a little to himself. The thick fur of his kind would certainly come in handy, here. No one would notice any irregularities.

Careful to position himself behind the headboard, Xoan reached for the rope wrapped around his leg and carefully wrapped it around one fist. He would need to do this quickly, and cautiously. Too much of a struggle would rouse suspicion, and tauren were certainly stronger than he was. That’s why before actually strangling the bull, he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a small damp napkin. It smelled of lilies and hyacinth, but when placed against the bull’s nose, sent him into a sleep even deeper than the one he enjoyed.

With that out of the way, Xoan wrapped the rope around the bull’s neck, twice for good measure. Pulling on both ends, he cut off the bull’s windpipe and watched as his victim struggled to breathe. Fortunately, the relaxing poison he inhaled was enough to keep him too deeply unconscious to move very much. There was a twitch in his arms and legs, but nothing more. Xoan waited for all of the twitching to stop before letting the rope go slack.
With his victim dead, now the real work began. Looking for an appropriate beam at the ceiling, Xoan climbed atop a chair and made a noose from his killing instrument. It would be just high enough to appropriately hang the tauren, but he would have to actually get him into it first. Stepping off of the chair, the elf reached into his other pocket and pulled out a strength potion. It would only work for about sixty seconds, but it would be enough to lift the tauren and hang him from the noose.

Staging the scene only took a few extra moments. The chair was left at its side, to indicate that the tauren simply climbed up, formed his own noose, and committed suicide. He made sure to remove every other indication of his presence; the napkin, the flask of potion. They both went back into his pocket, and with his padded gloves and boots, not even fingerprints would remain.

When the Silver Hand found the bull the next morning, they would mourn his choice. It was not unheard of for a knight to take his life, be it out of pride or sorrow. Clearly he felt such a blow to his ego after having been released by a single death knight that it damaged a part of him that could never be repaired.

Xoan heard about it from his friends, the next day. 

“He hung himself?” The elf said with no small amount of surprise. “What a shame.”

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The smells of roasted meats and warm, nourishing soups began to fill the west side of the home, the staff quiet save for the clinking of trays and glasses.

Amalyn made her way from the drawing room towards the kitchen, checking on everything before arriving at the hall, gazing over the smaller table setup for the four- no- three of them. The set up meant for Evie smacked Amalyn in the face and made tears well up once more. She clutched the white table cloth, shifting everything on the table unintentionally. She needed to pull herself together, this breakdown could happen later... her family needed her.

When more staff began to arrive, placing out bowls of fresh bread, carting in a tray of wine, Amalyn straightened up. Her handkerchief wiped at her face as she made her way around the room, trying to look busy while waiting.

Aetheril was next to arrive. He swept into the room as surely and smoothly as the pleasant smells wafted out of the entire wing. His expression was calm, not unpleasant, but it was still set, almost masklike. He looked to Amalyn, and inclined his head.

The was a momentary silence, as he took in the room -- seldom had Aetheril been able to enjoy a dinner like this with family. He was lost for words for a moment, the silence reaching an awkward point. Finally, he spoke.

"Amalyn. Thank you for this," he said, simply. The signs of strain and tiredness were there, in his muted tone and too-stiff features. But he was, at least, glad of the comfort of home.

Cat walked into the banquet hall in Amalyn's provided blue dress. She looked sullen and broken, goimg through the motions without actually feeling anything. Seeing Aetheril and Amalyn, she gave them both the best smile she could muster. "Evening."

Looking around, she seemed to grow a little anxious when she noticed someone missing.

"Is.. Eive joining us?"

Amalyn forced a small smile for her brother as she circled to stand behind her chair at the circular table. Lush, red velvet skirts dusted along the floor, a contrast to how little fabric was used up top. "You need not thank me, Aetheril, we are all family here."

Cat was a distraction from another line Amalyn was tired of using around Aeth, a true beauty in the dark blue. She so badly wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked, but held her tongue; Cat deserved an answer first. "No, Catalinetta, I apologize but she will not be able to be with us tonight." Green eyes darted at a nearby server and he ducked, swiftly taking away the fourth placeset, "We have all done Eiverlyn a great disservice and I do not fault her for not being here." The priestess's knuckles turned white as she gripped the back of her chair, using it to balance as she looked at the two in front of her.

Aetheril let out a small sigh, increasingly aware of the tension in the room from the very moment he entered.  He blinked, returned a twitch of a smile that she had offered him, and nodded, slowly and deliberately.

"A shame. I was hoping to make a proper acquaintance," he said, addressing it rather directly. "Very well. Shall we?"

He looked to the chair in front of him.

"You... you would have liked her very much," her voice quieted as she pulled her chair out to sit, "Aeth." It was so uncommon of her to shorten his name, anyone's name really, that perhaps it was a mistake. Amalyn's eyes had grown somewhat distant in the time it took for them to be seated, noticing a small mark in the pristine white tablecloth.

Cat followed directions and sat down. Her face was blank, but there was clearly concentration happening. Licking her bottom lip, she closed her eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath. "I was going to ask her to help me find Kreyen. If she's not coming, I'm going to leave after dinner. I know someone who can help me." She looked pointedly at Amalyn and Aetheril, as if waiting for them to say something, but there was an unusually grim determination in her eyes.

The usually gentle priestess, all warmth and smiles and hugs had been replaced with a stern look and a very even tone. "That is a very spoiled notion that because you cannot have what you want right now, that you will simply just leave whenever you would like." Her head turned, eyes boring into Cat as her hands flattened to the table, "Specially a home that you have put under un-do danger."

Aetheril tensed in his seat, stopping mid-reach for the bread. He felt his throat go dry.

Cat pursed her lips. "Well maybe I am spoiled. I'm not used to my fiance leaving out of nowhere.." she bit her tongue. "..he's not like that. He left for a reason, and I'm going to go find him, and the further away I am from this home the safer it is. I'm not going to wait for him to come back. I'm not going to spend my un-life waiting."

Aetheril bit his tongue. He took a hunk of bread and began to spread butter on it, the only sound he made the light clink of silverware. Anything to feel preoccupied for just a moment, while he gathered himself.

Her voice rose just ever so slightly, yet she kept it even, "And you thought I would not procure another mage for you? That they would not be here by the morning to do whatever it is you were going to USE Eiverlyn for?" A short, manicured nail began to scratch at an errant thread, it seemed these linens had been in the closet for too long, "You will be safer here, despite what you have done, than leaving again. I will not permit you to go."

The smaller of the two death knights blinked away tears. She was used to being chastised for her rash decisions, but not for being thoughtless. The idea that she wanted to use Eiverlyn struck a chord. "If you bring someone else here, they'll know about me. So you'll put another outsider in danger. The less people know I'm here, or anywhere, the better. If you're worried about anyone's safety, worry about yours, or your daughter's. Because me being here just makes this place a target, and I'm a death knight. I've already died once. I'm not going to let it happen again, and I'm especially not going to let it happen to you and your family."

"Cat," Aetheril finally blurted out, laying down his silverware. His voice was flat, low, and weary. "It's already too late for that. This family knows the risks. Fel, do you know what they, what we have been through for years? Why my brother has all...all this?"

He waved indistinctly over his shoulder, at the walls, the ceiling, everything.(edited)

"I can't wait here anymore," Cat argued, swallowing a lump in her throat. "He could be out there somewhere, alone and hurt and I'd have no idea! I'm supposed to just wait safely while I have no idea where he is?? I-it's too much! Kreyen promised he wouldn't leave me, he promised." Her fingers clutched the dark blue fabric of her dress as she struggled to keep her voice even. "I have to find him, and I have to find him now."

Aetheril clenched his teeth. Passively, her mounting panic hit him hard, as much as she tried to keep it in check. He was too tired, too weary to shut it out.

Amalyn was just about to speak before Aetheril jumped in, her mouth closing slowly to let him speak. He had a part in this and would receive his own admonishing in time. "Yes. You are to wait here until we hear back from Faelenor or he returns. You must trust in him and KNOW that what he is doing, is for your best interest and safety." Was she just telling Cat these things, or perhaps it was something Amalyn had to live by day to day? It was hard to tell anymore.

The girl's own hurt was beginning to mount on Amalyn's, for she too was too tired to block it out. A ripping pain began to gnaw away in the center of Amalyn's chest, but she ignored it to press on. "You speak as if this family has not seen battles, that I even haven't seen horrors beyond comprehension." A small glance down at her bracelet gave her away to anyone observant, it held a black pearl that swirled in an other-worldly way. "Your safest place to be is Here. With. Your. Family." Her words had a finality to them.

"And how long before Faelenor gets back?" Cat asked with a rising amount of panic. "I trust Kreyen, that's why I have to find him! Because he'd never just leave me without telling me, and if he were out there, he'd try and let me know he was safe! I know him, and if he's been gone with no word it has to be because something is keeping him from me. How can you ask me to just wait?? You've seen battles and horrors, then you know what it's like to want to be with someone. Or at least know where they are. Why is it so wrong for me to find him? I'm not completely incapable, I'm not helpless.." She had to stop twisting her dress for fear of tearing it. "..Kreyen is my family, too."

"Not long actually," Came a voice from the entrance to the banquet hall. Dim eyes peered over the gathering, narrowing as they crossed over the death knights respectively. "Whether or not that is good news to anyone here will remain to be seen." The tapping of his boots began as he approached. They echoed with an intensity, purposefully making his presence known to them. He parted the crossing of his arms to remove the hood that had been keeping his features under guise, revealing only a cold stare. No warm smile, no soft sighs, only a frigid tone and a directness that could not be mistaken. "Before I begin with what I have to say...let me grant your worries respite. A favor some of you seem to be unable to grant others around you." His stare hit Cat first, moving towards the other death knight as if to remind him that this has not been forgotten.

"Kreyen, much to his own fortune, is safe and out of danger. I saw to it that he make it to safety at the completion of something foolishly dangerous...he seemed to have a trust in me that I expected from my own kin. On the subject of seeing him. If you do not wish to break him further, I will advise that you keep a distance until he returns to you. He asked that I keep you out of harms way and I aim to keep that promise." He pulled a chair from the table and leaned on its backing, stare still drawn to the guests of the manor. "I wont sweeten it for you or lie to you about the situation...simply put, your actions were the reason he ran...and he will continue to run until you can learn that what you do has an effect on more then just you. One does not get to be a hero and have family, Cat...Eventually one of you will break...is that what you want?"

The fork that Amalyn had begun to worry between her thumb and forefinger clattered to the table, the knock against her plate a mar on the otherwise silence. Her mouth went dry as his face came into view and her back straightened, a reflex really. Her gaze fell to the table, another wave hitting her as his anger swept over, another rip in her chest. The exhaustion doubling as she struggled to not crumple under its weight.

Cat's eyes lowered to the table. There was nothing she could say or do after Faelenor's explanation, but the life and excitement once so prevalent in the death knight's demeanor seemed to leave her eyes.

Aetheril went rigid, his face returning to that masklike quality it had before. He shivered for just a moment, a visible rise in his shoulders as he sharply inhaled. Nothing to do for it now. He wasn't exactly unprepared for this, but it didn't lessen the sting.

Fael was coldly livid -- somehow, it was more unsettling than if he'd been openly raging. At least then, it'd be a crack in the facade, a break in his impenetrable character. Something to dissect in the open, even if it were messy.

With nothing else to do, he took a bite of the hunk of bread, absently. It was a mechanical thing, chewing away, but it gave him time to set himself in order. He swallowed with difficulty, retaining composure.

"Not one of you has a single word to say? No excuse for any of the things that occured? Nothing?" He pushed away from the chair, palms reaching down to press on the table. He leaned so that they could see him and spoke out once more. "Playing the broken mess when you've caused someone troubles, unwilling to own your mistakes and take responsiblity for those actions. Do you honestly think you have a reason to be silent, to feel broken when the right thing to do is to get your shit together and make it right for Kreyen? He loves you...risks his life for you and you repay him by retreating to that little place in your head that justifies and validates you? Tell me Cat...do you love him?"

Aetheril didn't take the bait. It wasn't time to hash things out with Faelenor. It wasn't time to talk specifics - this was Cat's move. But he couldn't help but look between the two of them, his own eyes settling keen and cold in their orbits.

The death knight didn't answer right away. It didn't seem as if she were capable, as blank as her eyes appeared. Despite her ability to breathe, something she did more out of habit than necessity, Cat sat rigid and still, more corpselike than alive.

When she finally did speak, it was in a low voice, scratchy in the way one would expect the dead to talk. "..yes."

Another stab and her back bent in an odd way forward, both hands flat to the table. She knew he wasn't speaking to her but she was feeling that icy-cold wrath reguardless. On top of Cat's defeated sadness and Aeth's swirling of emotions Amalyn was doing all she could to keep it together. She couldn't even look at her own husband, no matter how badly she wished to see his face.

"Then fix your mistakes, live up to them and remind yourself how things got this way everytime you have the urge to play the hero card. I may not be around often and I am certain that I make Amalyn worry about me, but I take every precaution to ensure that I come back alive... no heroics...no thoughtless decisions, just the notion that I have to come back and the understanding that one mistake could cost me. So if you love him, and you have to be in a situation where things could get messy...you have to be willing to take every measure to return to him." He moved towards the black haired death knight and pulled the chair next to her, sitting beside her. His tone softened, stern but no longer a frigid wind of emotion. He placed a hand on her shoulder and sighed. "No matter what that measure is...even if its remaining in the safety of our home until we can take our fight to those that would threaten that happiness. Use every resource at your disposal to return to him, especially when that resource is your very family."

Cat didn't move under Faelenor's hand. Her bare shoulder was cold to the touch, a faint pulse beating slowly, just enough for her organs to function, though her lips turned a pale shade of violet and her chest remained still. She gave no indication that she was actually listening to Faelenor until he finished speaking. At that point, her grip on her dress had gone completely loose, and her hands slid limp against her lap.

"Okay," she eventually murmured, her voice still scratchy, as if she wasn't getting enough air to project. She seemed to exhausted to cry, and instead closed her eyes. "I'm sorry. I know I'm.. I'm.." Her voice faded before picking up again. "I'll do as you say."

Aetheril wasn't sure how to take this.There was too much in play, too many emotions having reached a tipping point. He could only let loose a long-held breath, a bated sigh in response to the change in the color of the room, a release of tension.

He closed his eyes tightly, feeling that at least one of them was involuntarily tearing up. A moment later, he grabbed the bridge of his nose, and rubbed them. Another sharp breath through his nose.

Wet splashes hit the tablecloth beneath her, her eyes still burning from the tears before freshened anew with pain. The tipping point had come and gone and now it ebbed out from her shoulders and through her fingertips. She ached to be held by him as he had before when the cacophony of emotions had gotten to be too much, but instead she would wait.

Aetheril had noticiably relaxed, and it allowed her to do as well, returning to her straight-back position in her chair. But with this change, this ease, more emotions began to trickle into her periphery. The staff, who'd all wisely stayed behind the swinging door, were full of worry and fear and she ached to reassure them everything would be alright. That everything would work out, just like it always had.

"Don't do as I say because I said it, but because you understand what the right thing to do is." His hand raised from her shoulder to pat at the back of her head like an older brother to a grieving younger sister. "For now, think about the words I've said. When you have given yourself the opportunity to reflect we can discuss how we go about handling everything that has occurred. I want this to end as much as the rest of you..."

Cat opened her eyes slowly and nodded. The light behind them was dim, casting a pale light on her gray face. It was just enough to highlight the red rims of her eyes. Again, she spoke just enough to convey her acceptance of the situation, a low tone that sounded as if there were no steam left in her to fight anyone.

"..okay."

Aetheril lowered his hand from his face, and looked to Faelenor sharply, a little warning in his eyes, sunken and ringed though they were with fatigue. He could sense that Cat had sunk very low indeed, beyond any sort of argument.  This wasn't a moment where she could properly consider what Faelenor had to say, after the initial bombshell. She needed time to process.

"There's not much more to be said right now," he said, his own voice subdued. He shook his head. "Good food, reflection, recovery, peace. All to be put in order soon, but not a moment earlier."

He looked at the bread in front of him, then to Amalyn, and then back to Cat and Fael.(edited)

With Aetheril's interjection, Cat's head lowered just a little more. If it was shame that kept her from looking at anyone, it continued to cow her under the weight of their presence. "..may I be excused?"

Fael gave no acknowledgement to Aetheril, sharp stare and warning eyes met with the side of his cheek and nothing else. His turn would come in time. "I do not bind you to this dinner though I suppose that is not up to me. If you need to walk away for now then you should."

"You are not our prisoner, Catalinetta." Amalyn's voice broke around the tears that had yet to fall, "Please take the time you need," She finally looked up, eyes softening to the girl, "my suggestion being the rose garden or the library... they are places I enjoy going to think."

She said nothing else, still trying to filter and sort out the turmoil of emotions writhing through her.

Cat stood from her chair and bowed politely to Amalyn and Faelenor in turn.  "Thank you for dinner, ma'am. Sorry for my outburst. It won't happen again."

Her walk from the table and into the hall was slow and without rush. It seemed she didn't have a particular place to go.

Aetheril shook his head again, exhaling softly.

He folded his hands in his lap, and let her go without comment. Largely at a loss, he simply had to accept that there was nothing to be done to "fix" the current problem -- at this tender stage, Cat needed time alone. And so he sat in near-awkward silence, trying simply to put his own thoughts and emotions in order.

Out of the room, out of sight, Amalyn broke down. Surrounded by family she didn't have to hold together a perfect facade.  She buried her face in her hands and began to sob, quiet at first until she gasped for air. The burn had moved into her throat, strained under all the words that wouldn't come out. The weight she held on her shoulders settling into its place.

Faelenor walked past Aetheril,  softer steps that moved with little to no anger. There would be plenty of time to have a discussion with his brother but the urgency and presidence Amalyn took won out the night. He lowered himself down to her, digits leading a hand that pressed lovingly on her back. Lips kissed through scarlet locks, slowly at first until he embraced her fully. "Love..." The warmth of his hold shifted, arms moving to lift her from the chair. He continued to kiss her head, feeling the way she shook. "I'm sorry..." He carried her past the doors of the hall, letting the staff walk past him to clean up what little needed cleaning.

His warmth was the first thing she felt, his skin always molten against hers. It radiated until he was pressed up against her, his arms circling around her frame. He always made her feel so small, so protected, that feeling cementing as she buried her face into the crook of his neck. His heartbeat still marched on, a reassurance he was real, as she inhaled the scent of him; pine, leather, and a darkness she couldn't quite ever place. He smelled like home. As she curled her arms around his neck, she laid her wet cheek to his shirt, her sobs quieting as he carried her out.

Gods she'd missed him.

The staff took most everything from the table, one of them approached Aetheril with a bow. "Lord Aetheril. Did you wish to remain at the table for dinner? We can prepare something for you should you request it."

"Aetheril will do," he corrected, softly, though a slight jagged edge crept into his words, a raggedness born from the general atmosphere. "The only Lord of this House is already in attendance. Sir, if you insist," he added, almost dejectedly.

"Apologies," he quickly amended, shaking his head and clearing away his tone. "I will remain, and have a little of whatever I'm smelling -- a soup, was it? Yes. Then I shall retire."

Aetheril sighed, and was left to his own thoughts. He wasn't about to flee to his own quarters, or offer excuses for today's misadventure. He and Faelenor would have it out in time, and he'd take whatever responsibility he must.

After the light meal arrived, he ate in silence and solitude, only the clinking of silverware breaking the stillness. Worry lines cracked an otherwise-impassive face.

Edited by Catalinetta

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Christa raced through the dark blue-tinged woods with Charlotte in her arms. Her only thought was to get the girl out of harm’s way. If Brinnea survived the battle that was inevitable, they would find each other later. The girl in her arms wriggled and shouted, making the journey rather difficult. “Let go of me or I’ll burn your face off!” she shouted, little fists pounding at Christa’s breastplate.

            “Stop that! I’m trying to save you, girl,” the knight replied.

            “I don’t know you! Mama says never to trust strangers!”

            “I knew your mother years ago. She’s in for a rough fight back there, and I don’t know if she’ll make it out alright. I have to make sure they don’t hurt you.”

            “My mother never loses! She’ll come and find us and she’ll hurt you!” With a flash of arcane light, the girl vanished from Christa’s arms. The paladin gasped and began to panic, whirling around trying to spot her in the dark.

            “Charlotte! Charlotte, wait!” she shouted after the girl. No response. She growled angrily and kicked a tree stump. An arrow landed beside her foot. Jumping backwards, she tore her sword from its sheath and took on a defensive stance.

            “Don’t be foolish, Knight of the Silver Hand,” a voice echoed all around, its source invisible. “You could never see my arrow coming, much less stop it from penetrating your skull. Put the sword down.” Christa cursed and did as she was bid.

            “Who are you?” she called out into the dark, “What do you want?” A figure dressed all in black, from his hat to his long overcoat all the way down to his leather boots, appeared to her side with a black arrow drawn on his black bow. All she could see of the man’s face were his grim, unamused blue eyes. He kicked her sword far out of reach.

            “It’s not about what he wants,” a second voice said, its source appearing just behind the paladin. He was dressed in the outfit of a Gilnean noble, and carried a rifle and a very long knife. “It’s about what’s best for the girl.” The snap of a branch drew Christa’s attention up to the top of a nearby tree. In it sat a man wearing a brown vest partially concealing a pair of pistols. He held a machete in one hand, and Charlotte’s bright red hair in the other. The girl’s throat was threatened by the edge of the long blade, forcing her to stay still.

            Christa scowled at the nobleman. “Let her go, now!”

            The nobleman laughed with amusement. “You don’t give commands, girl. I am a lord of Gilneas, and you are just some fat, upstart bitch who tried to steal my new ward. Normally for stealing I would only take a hand, but in this case, you stole a noble lady who is quite valuable to me. I will take your head for that, and leave the rest for the crows.” He snapped his fingers and more men appeared in the shadows from all around. Christa couldn’t count them all, but many of them carried rifles aimed at her. The lord stepped forward and aimed his rifle at her leg. “You make a move and I make your death slow.” He leveled his knife to her throat. A lance flew through the hand that held it. The lord screamed in pain, and his rifle went off. But it was off-target and hit the ground beside Christa’s leg instead. Instinctively, Christa threw a protective shield around her, just as the black-garbed man’s arrow flew at her head. Gunshots rang out in the night, some aimed at her and others elsewhere. She didn’t stop long enough to see where.

            Christa raced towards her sword, and scooped it up in a swift motion. The man in black was aiming at her again, but before he could take a shot, a death charger screamed its way right over him. He was thrown to the ground violently, and stopped moving. The lord with the spear through his arm was shouting at his men to stop whoever was attacking, but with all the gunfire, Christa couldn’t hear what exactly he said. She formed a hammer of light in her left hand and hurled it at the man in the tree. He took the blow to the chest and slipped off the branch into the foliage below. Charlotte blinked out of existence and reappeared beside Christa. The paladin took the girl around her arm protectively. “Do you believe me now, girl?”

            “Yes,” the girl replied with a smile. “But I was right too. Mama’s here!” Christa grimaced at the sight across the clearing. Brinnea certainly was here, and she came with a vengeance. She rode through the line of gunmen, her sword and knife flashing deadly blue arcs wherever she rode. Blood flew faster than the gunshots, and soon the Gilneans were routed. The lord had been helped onto a horse by two of his men and rode off into the night. The man in black remained unconscious on the ground. Christa checked for the brown-vested man and found he’d disappeared as well. Gone just as quickly as they arrived, she thought sourly.

            Brinnea rode over to Christa and the girl, her armor, horse, and blades equally stained with blood. She looked no worse for wear: her armor was dented in a few spots where gunshots had ricocheted off, but no hits had landed directly. She was an expert rider, just as Christa remembered. The death knight glowered down at her, blade still in hand. “Release my daughter, Silver Knight, or I’ll cut your arms off and beat you to death with them.”

            Christa let Charlotte go, and the girl ran to the horse, hugging it happily. “Hey, Sparklehoof! I’m glad you showed up, boy!” The girl stroked the undead horse as if it were a pet dog. Christa gave her a confused look, but said nothing of it.

            “I didn’t take her to hurt her, Brinnea. I was trying to keep her from harm. The other knights were using her to lure you into a trap, but it seems to have backfired on them. They expected to use those other paladins in the village to bolster their numbers, but you arrived just as the Ebon Blade did, seeking justice for their order.”

            Brinnea eyed Christa carefully, a hint of recognition and much sternness written across her scarred face. It was difficult to see, but Christa could tell it was the same face as the little girl she had known. It was masked by a stony expression and a scarred exterior, but she could sense the warmth of old lingering within. The death knight replied, “It didn’t matter how many there were. Their fate would have been the same. Pawns for Lord Walden’s game, perhaps, but dead pawns when I was done with them. You are no exception. You took part in my daughter’s kidnapping, did you not?”

            “I did, but I had no choice,” Christa replied truthfully. She had taken a vow to obey the orders of her superiors, so she did.

            “Then there isn’t much left to say, is there? You put Charlotte’s life at risk, so yours is forfeit. Take up your sword if you wish, it will not save you.” Brinnea kicked and her death charger trotted forward. Charlotte cried out, “Wait, mama!” and the charger was halted. “She said she was trying to help, mama! Don’t hurt her. She says she knew you, too.” The girl clung to the side of the horse’s saddle, beseeching her mother.

            Christa drove her sword into the dirt. “The girl speaks truly. You may not recognize me, but I sure as fel recognize you, little sister. I’m the same Christa Velmon who carried you from Andorhal to Gilneas. I’ve been hoping to find you ever since the Wall fell, and now we finally meet.”

***

            Leon grunted and groaned all the way back to Windrunner Village. He had hidden among the trees until the others had all cleared out, all the while healing and bandaging the wound in his knee. It still stung like a hot poker was jabbed under his kneecap, but he pressed himself to limp forward all the same. Nalysia’s plan had failed spectacularly. All the knights in their party were dead now, except for him. Well, myself and Christa, and the draenei bitch, I suppose. I’ll deal with both of them shortly, though. He had suspected Christa would turn against them from the start, but Nalysia didn’t bother dealing with it. The dumb tauren bitch just wanted to get the whole thing over with, as if it were some chore. She thought the whole thing was beneath her, like it was grunt work. Her pride had blinded her to how dangerous the game was. Leon had seen it all, and that’s why he was still alive, and the rest were all dead.

            He returned to the camp to find all the squires dead, stuck to the ground with their spears stuck through their backs. Leon cursed. On top of everything he had to deal with today, he also had to make his own dinner. There was no way that tasty-looking deer was anywhere near warm by now. I wonder who killed them? Some cutthroat happening to pass this way? The local militia? But he saw no signs of tacks leading into the camp. Those Blood Knights had never bothered to check the whole village for anyone else before parading themselves back to Silvermoon. Then he noticed bloody prints in the shape of hooves leading around the nearest hut.

            Something wrapped around Leon’s neck and pulled taut. He choked, yelling with effort to try and pry the garrote off his neck, but it remained fast on him. A voice shouted in his ear, “You are no knight! You are just a brigand in fancy armor! A savage rapist! I’ll tear your Light-damned head off!” Velbina shouted, applying all her strength to strangling the man with what he supposed was an old silk curtain or something. I will not die here, he thought to himself as his vision went blurry. I will not die in some Light forsaken elf ruin strangled by a blue goat woman!

            He kicked hard, shoving her backwards. They fell onto something, and she screamed. Her grip loosened. He fell forward, coughing raggedly and gasping for air. Slowly, his vision returned and he could take long, but non-ragged breaths again. He looked back at Velbina. The draenei had fallen backwards through one of the spears stuck straight out of a squire’s belly. Her body fell down through the spear slowly, oozing blue blood out of her intestines. She was still alive, and screaming at the top of her lungs. Leon sighed, and drew his sword.

            “Will…you…shut up!” he shouted between heavy breaths. He shoved his sword through her chest so he would collapse a lung. She continued bleeding to death slowly when he withdrew the blade, but now she couldn’t get enough air to scream. Only enough to gasp and sputter as she drowned in blood spewing from her mouth. “Much better,” he remarked while cleaning his blade casually. Then he sheathed it and trotted off to find himself something to eat. Maybe I will get a decent meal, after all

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Leon approached the village from the north, mounted on his warhorse. They watched him as he rode into the parameter with skeptical eyes and tight grips on their spears and hatchets. The tusked, toothy faces glaring at him as he followed his guides deeper into the village set him ill at ease. Savages, all of them. Not a scrap of silk or even wool. Leather and linen as far as the eye can see. Oh, and the stench! The knight tried his hardest not to react to the smell of rotting fish meat and whatever else polluted the air. Trolls wouldn’t have been my first choice, but thank the Light Lord Walden didn’t send me to the ogres. I would have slit my own throat and be done with it!

            His guides sprayed some Zandali dialect at him that he obviously didn’t understand. The trolless translator wearing a collar around her neck interpreted the command in the Common tongue: “She asks that you remove yourself from your horse and follow her into the caves.”

            The caves in question were gloomy and humid. A horrid air flowed from within, setting Leo to sweltering under the summer sun. He hoped it would at least be cooler inside. Better wet and cool than wet and hot. The knight began to dismount, and replied to the translator, “It’s ‘dismount,’ woman. Not ‘remove myself from my horse,’ that sounds ridiculous and takes too long to say. ‘Dismount.’”

The translator bowed her head, though it made her no less tall in comparison to the human, who stood a solid head’s length below her. “I apologize, lordship. She asks that you – dismount – and…”

“And follow into the caves, yes. I understand,” the knight interjected, waving his hand impatiently. “Please, tell the huntress to take good care of my steed. Feed her well, brush her down, and try not to eat the damn thing, she was expensive.” The translator blinked, trying to think of the words quickly, then she spoke Zandali to the huntress in a polite manner. The huntress laughed boisterously, rousing a hearty chuckle from her spear-wielding posse. She spoke a quick line of her native tongue and a troll split from the group to take the knight’s horse elsewhere. The huntress urged him to follow once more.

The caves were even more humid than Leon had anticipated, though fortunately it was cooler than the outside, sunny air. If I sweat any more than I already have, I’ll rust my armor, he thought to himself bitterly. The huntress spoke to the knight, and the translator relayed the message attentively, “In these caves, we train our young from birth to learn the hunt. They receive their markings, spears, and clothes by proving themselves in the wild.” Leon looked around at the scene. The young trolls, no older than ten, were all naked and unmarked as the adult hunters all were. They ran around, fighting one another or mimicking a hunt with sticks instead of spears. The children older than ten were all lightly clothed in small bits of leather or linen loincloths. They carried spears made of wood and stone. The young adults wore the bulk of the armor from what he could gather. Leather covered their vital parts, but left their arms, necks, heads, and of course, their feet all exposed. Among them, some carried stone axes, polished wooden clubs, leather straps fitted with raptor claws or old troll tusks, a few had rudimentary bows, but the vast majority were armed with crude spears.

The older trolls, more seasoned in combat by the looks of their scarred bodies and many tattoos, were practicing some strange battle tactics in a patch of dirt by a pool of spring water. They wore cloaks and hoods that covered their whole bodies with grass, and when they lay flat along the ground, they appeared – impressively enough – as ordinary patches of vegetation. They were drilling a crawl that looked almost like ordinary grass moving in the wind. Leon noted that as a potential asset. Many other adults were engaged in other sorts of activities. Out in the open, most by the pools filled from the ceiling streams, unclothed trolls copulated loudly and violently. Leon was intrigued. He had never been with a tolless before. Their bodies were lithe, tall, and strong. Rugged and unkempt, they dominated males just as much as the men dominated them.

He also noticed their ornaments, both dressing the environment and the trolls’ own bodies. Most were either carved wood or bones. Many of the older, more battle-hardened trolls wore jewelry with human or orc body parts wreathed together. He noticed several pink and green ears, severed tongues, shriveled eyes and heads, fingers and toes, and one imposing warrior wore enough bones to count for a full suit of armor. The fetishes and totems scattered about or in the hands of shamans carving them were made of wood and bone. All of them had faces shaped into them. Some of them had rotting pieces of corpses scattered around them or attached with wooden stakes or twine. He noticed back at the entrance a pair of totems with two arms and legs each, a human and an orc head dressed with a mask on either of them, and a torso strung up by dark, withered-looking entrails. It repulsed Leon, those corpses strung up like scarecrows, but it also intrigued him. This is what awaits our foes, after all.

 “Those that do not return from a hunt feed the birds, which in turn are hunted. That way, the spirits of the Witherbark Tribe never fail. The Witherbark may lose many warriors in battle, but they always get their revenge.” The translator’s eyes dropped sadly at the last part. Leon ran his gaze across the collar around her neck. A war slave, is she? She seems to belong more to a jungle tribe than a forest tribe. Leon noticed that they were following a pathway marked by tapestries shaped like spiderwebs. He inquired as to their purpose.

In response, the huntress’ words were translated, “The Witherbark bow to the Loa of Shandra, the spider queen. These tapestries mark the tunnels that only those of the chieftain’s family or invited guests may enter. Those who come uninvited will be cursed by the Loa for all time.” Leon forced himself not to scoff disrespectfully. Loa curses? As if this failing tribe could muster up the power to affect me.

            The group now stood before a dais with a chair crafted out of bones and leather resting atop it. The dais overlooked all of the Witherbark Cave. A pair of pillars made of stone flanked the dais on either side, along with a pair of torches, casting an eerie light on the large troll seated on the throne of bones. The huntress guide fell to her knees and bowed low to the man in the chair. She chanted in Zandali, and her chant was answered by the voices of the other hunters. The translator urged Leon follow their lead and bow. He reluctantly did so, noticing he was now completely surrounded by spear-wielding hunters and watched closely by the chieftain’s guards. The chief barked something in his tongue and the group stood. The translator was urged to move forward and stand beside the dais to speak for the chief.

            Leon was announced by the huntress, then the chief responded loudly. He must have had the largest pair of lungs of anyone Leon had ever met. The translator spoke like a mouse in comparison, “The Mighty Majin’ba welcomes you to the Witherbark Caves. He wonders why a human would have the courage to face him so directly and ask that he lend the Tribe to his cause, a human cause.” The seated troll scratched his chin pensively at Leon.

The troll was huge: if standing he would have been easily over eight feet tall, a full foot taller than any other troll Leon had seen in the tribe. And he was far from lean as many trolls were. His muscles rippled and veins popped in both arm and leg. His body was largely uncovered, though he wore leather armor across his abdomen and a raptor skin across one shoulder with fangs and claws jutting out of the pauldron. He wore a massive necklace across his chest with countless trophies from his hunts. Leon noticed human and orc teeth, raptor and buzzard talons, and a large purple jewel set in the heart of the amulet. That necklace must have been worth more than anything else the tribe owned. But even more impressive was the weapon lying along the man’s lap. It appeared to be a blade of sorts, but shaped large and flat like a club. Along the edges of the wooden “blade,” jagged bits of obsidian were set like razor-sharp teeth. In the wood, a scene depicting hunting, spiders, and skulls crushed under a large foot were carved.

Leon replied to the chief’s inquiry respectfully, as the troll seemed the type to be angered easily, “Honorable Chieftain, I humbly thank you for accepting me into your fearsome domain.” The translator spoke his words in Zandali as he went on, “I was also very glad when our messengers returned with word of your interest in our plans. The Knights of the Silver Hand are always open to accepting new allies into the fold. There are many enemies we share in common. However, today I am not here to ask you to pledge yourselves to our order and offer undying loyalty. No, you deserve better than a demand for service. Instead, I come before you to ask of you, oh mighty warrior, to help us help you help us all.”

When the slave troll translated the phrase, the chief and many of the gathered hunters gave Leon a confused look on the brink of anger. The chief’s brusque words were translated, “The Great Chieftain demands you cease the flattery and confusing words and get to your point.”

Leon took a deep breath, calming his nerves, and cleared his throat. He extended his arms outward and spoke again, “Honorable Chieftain, too long have you and your people been oppressed under the thumb of knights and Horde warriors. Too long have you stood by while the world surpassed you in greatness. Too long have you stalked the shadows only dreaming at achieving the vastness of the once mighty Zandalari Empire. What you have here is mere trash before the greatness of an empire. And that is what I offer you today, Mighty Chief! The chance to claim an empire for yourself!” He paused, waiting for the seated troll to decide the merit of his words.

“The Grand Chieftain wonders how you are to grant the Witherbark an empire. He also expresses his distaste at the thought of receiving the power as a gift from a human, let alone a knight of an order long known to oppose his claim to the land. The Witherbark do not trade and do not receive gifts from old enemies. What they earn they earn through right of conquest and strength.” The chief finished his last line by thumping his surprisingly solid throne with a fist.

Leon grinned. It was all playing out according to plan. “Honorable, Wise Chieftain. You are right. Conquest is the only true path to glory. Even a pious knight such as myself know it to be true. That is why I extend an invitation to join in a conquest already under way. As we speak, my enemies conspire to oppose me and my Order from their home in the south. Greenwarden’s Grove, a sanctuary for elven cowards, stands defiantly against myself and my allies. I have no use for the Grove itself, but its defenders must be punished for their blasphemy. They conspire with your enemies as well! The Knights of the Ebon Blade butchered your former Chieftess, Ojin’ba, in Stromguarde. Not only did this show a horrendous dishonor by underhanded tactics, it also removed your last foothold in the once great fortress. But, if you ally yourself with us, we will aid in your reconquest of the fallen city, and we will leave you to spread your tribe to the Wetlands, starting with the Grove. You may make use of the land as you see fit. All I ask is you pledge yourself to the right cause. Your own. Do what will make your people strong again!”

The chieftain sat in silence a long while. He had stopped scratching his chin and started rubbing the jewel at his chest fondly when the knight had mentioned Ojin’ba. Leon wondered if the jewel might have been a gift from his former mate, who had led the Witherbark’s efforts in Stromguarde earlier that year. The entire cave seemed to have drawn quiet when Leon’s words had been fully translated. At long last, the chief stood from his throne, hefting his brutish weapon from his lap. He walked close to Leon, hunching over to gaze the knight in the face with his dark green eyes. He spoke a word, and Leon tensed, the troll’s weapon close to his face. Then the translator said, “Yes.”

The chief tore his gaze away from Leon and spoke to his people. The translator drew closer to Leon to be heard over the Chief’s roar, “To my people, I promised this: we will slay our foes to the south, we will hunt them down like prey, we will impale them on our totems and leave their dismembered corpses to fry under the sun and be eaten by the bugs! We will build an empire to rival the Zandalari! A spear, we shall be, for the Loa to strike at their foes! This Greenwarden’s Grove will fall to us and these Knights of the Silver Hand! It shall be a new home for out tribe, one through which we will extend our reach as we once did from our home, Shandra’alar! Our empire will spread! Our numbers will grow! Our warriors will taste the blood of our foes! And at long last, we will have Stromguarde, the defiant human castle, to do with as we please! Then we shall reap our vengeance as is the way of Shandra! The Knights of the Ebon Blade will fall so that Ojin’ba’s spirit may forever hunt alongside our warriors! This I swear before the Loa! This I swear before you! For I am Majin’ba! I am death itself!”

By now the cave was alive with the warcries of the trolls. Spears shook, long limbs waved rhythmically. War dances were employed to honor the vow of the chieftain. From below, drums were beat and the traditional troll flute was played to echo along the walls of the cave. Voices lit up in the midst of the tribe’s music, singing Zandali rhymes to the Loa. The slave translated the chorus the huntress led the people in singing, “We sing this song so that it may be heard in the realm of the spirit. We sing this song so that our enemies may hear it and tremble.” For a brief moment, Leon truly believed that far to the south, the Night Vanguard heard their death singing to them

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