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RiktheRed21

An End to Summer

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“She should have visited us by now,” Charlotte said for the sixth time. Once more, and we’ll have good luck, August thought to himself. Waller said seven is a lucky number.

“She’s busy,” the wolf boy replied, uncertain. That the Night Vanguard would be affected by the talk of war August heard daily in the streets of Ironforge, he had no doubt. But Lupa always looked after us before. She thinks of Charlotte before anyone else. Even me.

“Ugh! Why did she send us to this stupid place? It’s so stuffy in Ironforge!” the strawberry-haired girl jumped up and down on her bed, thankfully covered with a mattress since the bed itself was carved from the very rock of the mountain. The room they slept in was fancy, August supposed. He’d only ever slept in one dwarven house before, and it was nowhere near the size of this one. It was enough to make him feel like a blind pup all over again.

August carefully watered his potted plant at the window. Summer was drawing to a close, and sunlight would be scarce in Autumn, so he kept the window open as often as he could. Charlotte had once complained of the draft – the mountain wind was cold no matter what time of year it was – but August was adamant about keeping the plant healthy. “It’s the only plant I brought from the Grove,” he had explained. Charlotte had only huffed and pouted. August was glad she didn’t threaten to burn it like she did everything else these days.

“If she can’t come visit us, then we should go visit her!” Charlotte said.

August shook his head, not bothering to look away from his plant. “She said to stay. She said it was too dangerous in the Grove. We’ll be safe here.”

“But it’s so booooooring!” the girl shouted, falling on her mattress with a loud plop.

Waller entered the room, rubbing his temples sleepily. “Children,” he said in his gravelly dwarven tone, “It’s the weekend. I don’t get to sleep in often. So why in the bloody hell are you making so much noise at the crack of dawn?”

“August opened the window again,” Charlotte complained.

The boy glared at her. “She was jumping on the bed,” he retorted.

“Yeah, well—”

Waller lifted his hands and shook his head, his oddly short beard jiggling as he did. “I don’t want to hear it. Why don’t you two go out for a breather while I catch some more winks?”

“I will, but August is just going to stay with his stupid plant.”

“It’s called Kingsblood,” August insisted.

“Besides, Mama hasn’t visited us yet. She promised to visit us every week!” Guess that’s good luck for us, then.

“Every week she can,” Waller reminded the girl. “Brinnea’s busy. The Vanguard’s at the front of a war. There’s no telling when she’ll be able to come next.”

That didn’t quell Charlotte’s displeasure at all. The girl leapt off the bed and darted by Waller’s legs and out into the long hall that served as their dining room and living space. August breathed a sigh of relief and continued to tend to his Kingsblood. If I keep this up, it should sprout into a full bush, then it can survive the winter.

“Boy, you’d best follow her,” Waller said, dashing August’s hopes.

“But I—ok, fine.” August set his watering can aside and ran after his sister. Brinnea had twice told him to watch after the girl. The first time had been the first she’d ever spoken to him alone. She sat him down on a stump at the shore of Pandaria. He remembered the mountains towering overhead as she spoke.

“August, your mother was a brave woman, so I know you’re brave, too. My daughter means the world to me, and I will do everything I can to protect her. If you want to be part of our family, then you’ll have to do the same. We look out for each other. Can you do that?”

He had nodded, not fully knowing what he had gotten himself into. When they were readying to leave for Ironforge, she had looked him in the eyes and made him repeat his promise.

Maybe I should have just stayed in my garden, he thought sullenly. August’s garden had been his safe place where he grew plants of all kinds, some he didn’t even know the names of. Master Calrin, his druid teacher, had told him how impressive it was for an eleven-year-old to grow so many in so short a time. It made him proud to think on it…

…and sad, as well.

Charlotte had already made it to the front door, but the way was blocked by Waller’s cousin Shea. Charlotte couldn’t stand the portly dwarven woman, but lately she couldn’t stand anyone else, either.

“Doesh the little princesh want to go for a walk in the big, bad mountain?” Shea mocked. She smiled on the side of her face that still worked. August didn’t understand it much, but Waller had told him in private about Shea’s troubled health in her youth. She had once had frequent attacks that paralyzed the flesh of her face. At times, it would droop and she could scarcely control her own tongue, but she had improved over the years. Now, she only slobbered occasionally, and her words were mostly intelligible.

“Move, Shea! And stop calling me that!” Charlotte stamped her foot, but the sound barely echoed beyond the great feasting table resting in the hall’s center. August liked the table. It was made of polished wood to shiny he could see his own face in it, and it was marked with a howling wolf’s silhouette in the center, framed by a full moon. That was Charlotte’s sigil, they told him, but it reminded him of his old home in the woods.

“The little princesh tried to run off half a dozen timesh,” Shea slobbered, “I didn’t loosh half my witsh when I losht half my face. If you’re going anywhere, it’sh with someone who can bring you back at the end of the night.”

“Then August can come with me. Just let me go, already! I’m sick of this stupid place!” The girl yelled in frustration, and a ball of fire formed in her hand. Shea’s one set of working eyelids widened, and she backed up a pace as Charlotte hurled the ball at the huge hearth at the far end of the room. The flames exploded, filling the room with smoke in seconds.

Coughing, Shea ushered Charlotte and August outside by their collars. Waller joined them shortly after, his sleeping gown grey with ashes. Charlotte snickered.

“Oh, so you’re laughing now, are you? D’you think I brought you into my hall out of the kindness of my heart just to let you burn down the place, child? No! No more magic in my hall! I won’t have it!”

Charlotte launched into another round of loud complaints before Shea shook her into silence. August would have felt bad, but ever since he’d come to Ironforge, his druidic magic had forsaken him. This just seemed fair.

Waller sighed. “Listen, girl, I know how hard this is for you. But the reality is, you need to be patient. You’re meant for great things, but great people must be patient, or they’ll let everyone down who looks up to them. Do you want to let people down?”

Charlotte shook her head.

“Good. Now run along and try not to burn down the Great Forge. I don’t know how you’d do it, but I’m sure you’d find a way. Boy, make sure she gets home by sunset.” August nodded, and followed Charlotte, who had started jogging off the moment Shea released her.

The girl started a full sprint once the dwarves were back in the hall and out of sight. August was easily faster than her, but he hung back for now. I don’t want to get yelled at again, but I don’t think I can avoid that today.

The pair wound their way from the West Arm of the Commons up into the Mystic Ward. They passed by the academy where they were instructed in the refined arts and the high sciences. They passed the great stone building layered in runes where Charlotte was taught the ways of the arcane, and they flew by the pools of knowledge where the dwarven mystics conducted rituals. At least, that was what August had heard. Mostly the children just used it for water games until the grey-bearded dwarves chased them away.

Finally, they came to a stop at the foot of a standing stone marked with runes they had been learning to read. Charlotte could already read Common and most of Dwarven, but August was still a novice at any reading whatsoever. Every day when his instructors would point at a shape and say a word, he would cock his head and stare, but he failed to commit any of it to memory. Rather than dwell on it, he focused on his favorite subjects: herbology and biology.

Charlotte sat down by the headstone and kicked her slippers off her feet. She kicked at the water half-heartedly and stared at the ripples. August wasn’t sure what to do, so he sat down alongside her.

“It’s just not fair,” his sister mumbled. “Why would she leave us here? It’s not fair…” She whipped up a fireball and tossed it into the water to make it steam. Her quick and careless use of fire magic made August uncomfortable, especially because she was growing better at it. The mystics taught her all sorts of things in that big stone building, but August wasn’t allowed in, and Charlotte mostly just complained about how smelly the old women were, so he learned not to think on it much.

“You wanna play with Colin?” August asked hopefully. Though he and her were seeing eye-to-eye on fewer things lately, they always enjoyed playing with Colin together.

Charlotte smiled. She sprang up, drew out her fiery orange chalk, and sketched her runes in the ground beside the pool’s edge. As she walked in the circle, filling it in with complicated script, more children came around them, curious of what was going on. August wrinkled his nose at the smell of the chalk. It reminded him of rot and fire, but he supposed it was worthwhile given the result.

Charlotte skipped backwards once the circle was complete. She waved her hands and chanted in her sing-song voice, and the runes began to glow like a low hearthfire. August took an instinctive step back. This part was never precise.

A puff of smoke took to the air, and for a moment the space was hot as the Great Forge half the mountain away. When the smoke settled, a short dog made of living flames bounded about in a circle, chasing his own tail. About his neck was a blue collar with a silvery snowflake pendant, which August knew made it safe to touch the dog. He stepped forward first, aware of the eyes on him as he pet the fiery dog. The other children gasped at first, then burst out in cheers and laughs. They swarmed in, and Colin reveled in the attention.

Charlotte quickly began to explain the dog and the magic that made him cool to the touch, but August’s attention was drawn elsewhere. An old hermit wearing a pointed hat sat on the edge of the pool with a gnarled staff across his lap. Though the brim of his hat concealed much of his face, August could see a single eye watching him closely. The eye was dark and glittery like a black pebble in a lakebed and made him shiver when he looked into it.

“C’mon, August, Colin is getting away!” Charlotte nudged the boy’s shoulder. The fiery dog was halfway to the Great Forge, most likely drawn by the heat of it, and the pack of children were in hot pursuit. Parents were roaring after them, shouting in Dwarven all the while. August began to run, knowing he could catch up to the children and even outrun them without issue, but his gaze kept drifting back to the hermit. The man watched him as he went and raised a hand as a farewell.

When night came in Ironforge, you knew it not by the dimming light nor the position of the sun as August had learned in the shadowy woods of Silverpine. In Ironforge, bells would ring and be heard across the city, ringing once for each hour past midday or midnight. Eight strikes marked nighttime, and August made certain Charlotte knew of it.

It took a great deal of time to get her back home, and by then the ninth tolling had begun, and Shea mocked the girl’s lateness with a jape. Charlotte acted proud and defiant until the bathing started. Once Shea was done with her, Charlotte’s flesh was red and raw. The girl slipped on her bedclothes with many groans.

August couldn’t sleep that night. In his dreams, he ran with his pack, and his heart raced as they neared a kill. He carried a knife in hand, as he always did, but his kin carried only tooth and claw. When the prey fell and it was time to deliver the final blow, he woke in a pool of sweat. Charlotte snored fitfully – when the girl fell asleep, she slept like the dead, only noisier – so August stood up and opened the window to let the cool air in.

He could hear a bird’s cry somewhere out in the grey-black sky. August sometimes dreamed of flying instead of hunting, but in every dream, he had a pack again. He was whole again.

He looked at Charlotte, feeling guilty. Brinnea was like a mother to him, a guardian and a guide like his first Lupa had been years ago. But she was not his mother. Nobody could replace her, though she had not been of his father’s pack. And Father…

The bird’s cry grew louder. August wondered if it was alone, and how long it had been. Birds of prey hunted alone, he knew. Unlike the wolf, the bird did not know family. Did that make the bird happier? Was it better to always be alone? August had no answers, so he tried to tend to his plant a while to ease his mind. But the bird’s cry drew nearer, as though it were right in front of him.

A shadow flew over his head, straight through the window and into the room. August’s first thought was of Charlotte. He whirled around, his knife suddenly in hand. The shadow of a bird had vanished and left in its place the hermit from the pool in the Mystic Ward.

“Oh, hello,” the one-eyed man muttered, “Bloody windy outside. I thought you might have the window shut.”

“Who are you?” August demanded. He wondered if he should shout to bring Waller and Shea, but instead he waited.

“You may call me Wilmar, young one, for that’s my name. To call me anything else would be awfully confusing.” The man’s dung-brown hair was long and seemed uncut for many years. It ran down his back to his waist like a fur cape while his beard jutted out in wild tufts. He had only one eye, and that was dark and red where most eyes were white. He placed his gnarled staff against the wall and drew a smoking pipe.

“What are you doing in here? Why were you watching us earlier?” August tried to make his voice sound strong and sure, like Brinnea’s, but he must have seemed a little thing to this man, and weak.

“I can always sniff out potential, young one. Believe me. And I know what it’s like to feel the call of the wild, only to have it shut away from you like a dog trapped in a kennel or a bird in a cage. That’s why I was watching you. Why I’m here…well, that’s to train you, of course.”

A light smoke filled the room as Wilmar lit his pipe and puffed. Charlotte did little more than twitch at the disturbance. August lowered his knife. “You can train me? You can make me a druid?”

“Well, the Emerald Dream makes the true druids. I can show you a path and tell you how to walk it, and the rest will be up to you. So, what do you say?”

There was little thought in August’s head other than his reply, which was immediate: “Yes!”

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Swords flashed silver and blood spurted green and black across the verdant field. The undead reeled silently, his sword hand fallen from his wrist. Brinnea closed the distance in a long stride and cleft his head free. Only one enemy remained standing.

He didn’t hesitate. With her arms extended mid-swing, the death knight was an easy target. The Forsaken hacked down at her arms with all his undead strength. Steel bit into blackened flesh. Brin gritted her teeth and hissed as she plunged her blade into her final foe’s head. He fell over, twitching. The ground drank his blood greedily.

“Shit,” Brin cursed, looking down on the ruin of her left arm. The Forsaken’s blade had shortened it at the elbow, leaving a black stump spurting corrupted blood. She tore cloth from a dead man’s cloak and fashioned a clumsy bandage with her hand and teeth.

This wasn’t the first time she had lost her left hand. In fact, it was the fourth. The first time her hand had burned off by a witch’s grim spell, which had left a lingering curse on the arm. She replaced the hand, only to watch it blacken and rot away. She shortened the limb even further before replacing it, but the curse remained.

Sighing, Brinnea retrieved her sheath from the undead who held it before she had broken loose. Her arms and armor had been stripped from her, leaving her in breeches and tunic. Without her hand, she had no way of putting on her armor.

It is probably best that I leave it behind anyway, she thought. I may hide my identity in Forsaken lands with some luck and my hood and cloak, but there are too many who know me by the saronite plate. Adding in the lack of mount since her charger had fallen into the spike trap, she had little hope of keeping the armor without dragging it the rest of the way. And she had no net or sack to tie it up in.

She cinched her belt and wrapped herself in her faded shadowskin cloak. She had extra clothes in her saddlebags, but there were too many enemies on her trail to take time backtracking. She stretched her leg – formerly wounded by a pit stake – and found it healed well enough. The Forsaken had been enough to repair her wounds from the fall.

Before she started north, Brinnea glanced back the way the Forsaken hunters had brought her. She had been riding away from the mercenaries when the ground fell away beneath her horse. Jessaya had taken cuts but was able to climb out before the undead came. Brin had been stuck and had to wait until the hunters dragged her out. Given their numbers, she decided playing dead was her best bet, and in her undead state, it was rather easy to pull off. After they had taken her a short distance, she sprang loose and took up her blade. Everything after was simple butchery.

Jessaya got away. The mercenaries are after me. That orc as well. She’ll be fine. Yet she lingered. For the remainder of the day, and the following night. Half the next day passed before the first pursuers came upon her.

She had not been idle in that time. She had arranged the bodies and their skeletal-horse-drawn cart into a defensive position, ringed on one side by a small slope and the other with bodies, arrows from the hunters’ quivers dug into the earth like miniature stakes, and the cart itself on which she stood. The riders ringed her makeshift fort on all sides.

The man with the tauren horn helmet whistled at the sight of the battle. “You’ve been busy, Red.”

“Bronto,” Brinnea said icily, “Your people have bled enough on this hunt. My reward cannot be worth the men you’ve lost.”

Bronto grinned, his smile aglitter with golden incisors. “It’s even more worthwhile, actually. Fewer shares means more for everyone. And now, you’ve got no horse, no orc friend, and…oh! You’re even short a hand. How quaint.”

Brinnea had fixed a dagger to her stump when she heard the hoofbeats approaching. She pointed it at Bronto. “I don’t need two hands to tear you apart.”

“Two hands tend to help, though. Oh, and I wouldn’t count on miraculous last-minute rescues this time. That big green shit and the little blonde bitch you were with? We already had our fun with them. Now it’s your turn.” The Bruisers laughed cruelly, weapons clattering against shields and one another. The horsemen approached at a trot, keeping a tight formation.

Brinnea’s arms felt heavy as lead. Jessaya…

Her sword clattered against the armor of the dead hunters where Brin dropped it. She began untying the dagger from her stump. “You win, Bronto,” she said, “I stand no chance, that is plain.”

Bronto sniffed, looking disappointed. “Aye, true. Can’t say I expected such meek surrender. Bruisers, collect her head.”

Brinnea held the dagger’s point under her chin. “Not so fast,” she warned, “One more step and I’ll end it myself.”

Bronto watched her, befuddled. “I believe you’ve missed the first principle of delivering a threat, Red.”

“You’ll get a heavy purse for me dead, certainly. But if you give me to the right person, alive, then you’re in for ten times what the Alliance have put on my head.” She pressed the point into her skin, spilling a dribble of blood.

The mercenaries looked at their leader, unsure. Bronto looked rather silly with his face scrunched up in deep thought. “This is a ploy to escape. A plot to kill me. Everyone knows you’re not to be trusted, murderess.”

“True. If you took me captive, it would mean greater danger. But my odds of survival are higher – and your reward much greater – this way.”

“Then tell me, Red, who would I deliver you to? Who has such coin and such a passion to collect you?”

“The Knights of the Ebon Blade. I was a champion among their ranks, and gold means less to them than any who offer you bounty. Take me to Acherus and you will have it.” It was a bluff; the Knights cared little for Brinnea, though they would likely accept her back into their ranks if she offered herself. She only hoped her lie was masked well enough.

Bronto thought a long while, then flashed a golden smile. He chuckled, a throaty laugh for the throat of one thirsty. Or hungry. Hungry and lusty and greedy. I’ve won myself another day, at least.

He said, “Agreed.”

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Charlotte yawned loudly, earning her dirty look from the grey-bearded dwarf. The other children were all bored too, she could see, but Charlotte was the only one who made a sound in her boredom.

“Young lady,” the old Master Gorum grumbled, “Is there something you wish to share with the class?”

“No, sir,” she replied sleepily.

“Good. Now, as I was saying...conjuring arcane energy is a balancing act. Too much, and your spell will go out of control. Too little, and it won’t be able to sustain itself.” His grey hairs wobbled as he droned on, almost hypnotic in their movements. Charlotte felt her eyes grow heavy…

She was in the Plaguelands again and sitting astride a donkey. Friede was there, the woman who called herself Sister and had been like a mother to her for her first five years. The dwarf kept Charlotte still in the saddle as they crossed the hidden path in the southern hills near Chillwind Point. It only remained a secret so long as they crossed in silence.

The thrill of the crossing set Charlotte’s heart racing. Her feet jittered in place excitedly. “Cut it out, will you?” the student in front of her said between clenched teeth.

Charlotte huffed and tucked in her legs. Her fingers drummed along her desk as Master Gorum rambled on and on about balancing mana when conjuring arcane power. None of these dummies have ever cast a spell before, but I can throw fireballs bigger than Gorum’s wrinkly head!

Without realizing it, she pulled on the familiar and comforting presence of power always just within reach. Her fingers glowed with orange light as the power wrapped her like a warm blanket all over. Charlotte looked nervously at the lecturing Master, but he was too fixated on a dusty tome he was reading from to notice her.

Charlotte moved her fingers like a puppeteer does to move his puppet’s strings and watched a little flame like a candle’s light up above her hand. She imagined a little man dancing through the air and focused her vision on the flame. Before she knew it, the flame took the shape she had in mind.

The dancing man flickered magically as he pranced above her hand. Charlotte thought he looked lonely dancing alone, so she focused and made a second little fire to look like a woman in a flowing dress of yellow light. The two flames danced together like Charlotte had always imagined her mother and father would.

“Miss Blackmane!” Master Gorum’s voice snapped Charlotte back to reality. The flames died down in an instant. “What do you think you are doing?” He sounded mad, but weirdly surprised, too.

“I, uh—was just testing out what you were talking about, sir,” she replied with one of her winning smiles.

The dwarf’s slate-grey eyes measured Charlotte for a long moment. The girl shrunk into her seat when she realized all the other kids were staring at her with open mouths. How long had they been watching her play with her fires?

“Little lady, step into my office and wait for me. I will speak with you after class ends.” Charlotte’s face flushed as the stupid kids snickered at her. They were all babies compared to her; most of them had never been out of the city. I’ve seen demons and witches and places they’ve only heard of in stories.

The dwarf’s office was decorated with stones, stones with writing on them, shiny stones, stone furniture, and more stones. All the rocks made Charlotte feel like she was being buried alive. Out of spite, she made a new dancing couple and let them prance along the floor. When they left her hand, they sputtered out within a couple seconds, but they were still pretty when they faded into ashes.

Master Gorum entered the room as she released one of her couples. He watched curiously as they leapt up and poofed into nothing. Charlotte folded in her legs and smiled innocently.

“You are a rare talent, young one,” the dwarf said. Charlotte blinked. She thought she was in trouble, but he just sounded impressed.

“Thank you, sir.”

“If I remember correctly, you received some training from your grandfather, Torven Velmon, in Dalaran, yes?” She nodded. “And further training from one Mardalius Anterius, a half-elf and well-known battlemage. Impressive instructors for one so young. Even more impressive are the results of their brief training. A mage with enough mana could theoretically conjure fire at your age, but to have such control over the flames is usually only seen at novice or apprentice level.”

Charlotte shrugged. “My first spell exploded grandpa’s stove. I made ice once, too. I blocked a witch’s black fire with it, but it made me tired.”

The dwarf stroked his beard. “Yes, I imagine it would. I won’t lie, girl, the level of spellcasting you display has dangerous implications. Someone your age using a spell too powerful to contain could have deadly consequences. I have known students to strain themselves so greatly that they drained all the mana they had, leaving them as empty husks. Not a pretty sight. I am going to recommend you for advanced courses. If you show as much aptitude for coursework as you do spellcasting, you may make apprentice before the year is out…”

Charlotte smiled, but on the inside, she was kicking herself. Now I’ll have to listen to even more boring teachers! They’ll have me doing homework forever at this rate!

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Meditating was the closest Brinnea ever came to sleep, and it often proved a poor substitute. She had no need for sleep to restore her physical strength, but her mind was troubled by wakefulness. Unconsciousness, however opened her to reliving her darkest moments, so she avoided sleeping.

In Pandaria, the monks had taught her to clear her mind of the past and future, allowing her mind to focus on the present. With enough focus, she could ease the storm in her mind, and pen those dark thoughts where they could hurt no one.

Brinnea was never very good at focusing on the present, though. In battle, she predicted her enemies’ moves by how their bodies shifted from stance to stance, but that sort of focus was a fixation on what is to come. The future was where her thoughts drifted.

This road is treacherous, and Bronto keeps a large party to ensure I am secured, she thought, breaking into the peace of her meditation, We are bound to meet some unsavory types on the way north, the way he and his Raiders charge everywhere, and me in this cell on wheels.

She opened her eyes, giving up on her focus altogether. She looked at the wrought-iron bars on the cramped cell in the oxcart ploughing along the Arathi road as though going to market with a harvest.

Someone will think to pick the harvest before too long. Only, who will it be?

If the Forsaken attacked, they would kill Brin on sight. With one hand, no armor or weapons, and no mount to aid in an escape, Brinnea wouldn’t make it far even if she could escape the cage. As for the Alliance…

Two days prior, an Alliance mounted scout force had halted Bronto and demanded to know his business. The sellsword had proved shrewd and managed to bribe the scouts to forget they were there. Whatever he expected to get from the Ebon Blade at journey’s end must have been worth quite a bit.

The Alliance likely would not prove useful in earning Brinnea’s freedom, which left only bandits and the tribal folk of Arathi, neither of which would stand against a charge from Bronto’s heavy horse.

Things will be different in the Plaguelands, Brinnea assured herself, Even with the paladins fighting the Scourge constantly, the mindless undead are prolific. One major attack is all I would need.

Which meant that for now, she had to wait. Brinnea shut her eyes and forced herself to ignore the odds of her survival and focused on the present moment. She breathed in and out to center herself, each breath an exercise in and of itself.

“What’s she doin’ in there?” one of the riders said, cracking the fragile shell of Brin’s mind.

“She’s just sitting, forget about her,” another rider answered.

The first rider said, “She’s breathing an awful lot for a dead girl. We sure this is the right broad?”

“Boss says so. I don’t doubt it. Hey, get back from those bars, squirt!”

Brinnea opened her eyes and turned her head to see a boy no older than thirteen shying away from the cell. He was one of the unmounted followers that carried whatever didn’t fit in saddlebags. They also made camp and cooked every night, like squires with no prestige.

The second rider was scowling at the boy. He said, “Do you have any idea who that is, kid?”

The boy answered wistfully, “She’s the Butcher of Kaur-he, isn’t she? She’s like a living legend!”

“Half-living,” the first rider corrected. “Unless she’s pulling the wool over Boss’s eyes.”

“Her eyes glow blue like one of them dead knights,” the second rider said.

“I once saw a wizard make a rabbit appear out of thin air,” the first rider replied, “Glowing eyes ain’t shite compared with that.”

Brinnea looked at the boy, who was watching her like she was some work of art or exotic animal. He’s young and gullible. If I could speak to him alone, I might be able to trick him into giving me something I can use.

Yet when he looked at her, for a moment she saw the same fascination her children would look at her with. He couldn’t have been much older than August, either…

Cast those thoughts away, or you will never escape here. It doesn’t matter how many atrocities you must commit to reach your goal at this point, the world will hate you regardless.

But what is my goal?

Her intention was to reach Andorhal. Whenever she pictured her goal, she envisioned the Andorhal of the past: her home. The real Andorhal looks nothing like that anymore.

A shout grabbed her attention. It sounded like a warning at first, but suddenly changed pitch into fear and pain. Brin looked in the direction of the scream, but it was at the head of the column, her view of which was blocked by the oxen pulling her cart. The column came to a stop.

“What the fel?” the first rider said.

“What is that?” said the second.

The boy’s face was a mask of horror. “By all that is holy…”

“TO ARMS, MEN!” Bronto’s command sent the whole column abuzz like a swarm of bees protecting their hive.

The second rider growled, “Boy! Stay by the cart, and for the love of the Light, keep your distance!”

The youngster replied nervously, taking up a shaky guard with his spear. Brinnea craned her neck to see the front of the column, but with so many bodies and horses moving about, she saw little. Then a horse flew up into the air and fell back down twenty feet off the road.

“Light, deliver us…Tyr protect us…Red Mother save us!” the boy prayed desperately.

“Boy,” Brin said just loud enough for him to hear her over the chaos, “Boy, look at me! I know you have no reason to trust me, but whatever is out there clearly has your friends soiling themselves. I can help.”

“You’re lying! If I let you out, you’ll just run away!”

“Where would I go? Bronto’s horses would run me down before I got fifty paces.” Unless I took one of his horses. “Let me out, and I’ll watch your back. When whatever is out there is dealt with, you put me back in my cage. I swear on my parents’ graves. I swear it on the Holy Light.”

The boy looked tempted for a moment, but before he could do anything, another shout drew his attention. A horse and its rider flew straight for him. He dove out of the way and the armored horse crashed into the side of the cage, sending the whole cart heaving off the side of the road. Brin felt her teeth gnash together, heard the crash of wood on dirt, and the screams of men dying all around her. When she finally stopped moving and her head stopped spinning, she found herself still in the cage, which had fallen sideways.

Not ideal, but this might be my only chance. The Bruisers are being annihilated by something big. Brin stood shakily and grabbed one of the bars at her chest level and activated a rune. Frost soaked the iron, turning it white. It grew colder until the metal began to crack, and then she tugged with all her strength. The bar gave on one side, so she bent until a section snapped off completely, just wide enough to fit through. Two, no, three more bars and I can crawl through. She set to work quickly. The screams were drawing closer.

“She’s coming right for us! Light, what is she doing with…LOOK OUT!” The side of the cage thudded wetly, and a man choked on blood on the other side. Brinnea had heard the sound often enough to recognize it.

The fourth bar gave way, and the gap was finally wide enough. Brin forced herself through, taking one of the iron bars with her. Her shirt tore on a jagged piece of metal and dark blood splattered the grass, but she paid it no mind. A horse whinnied and rolled its eyes nearby, the hand of a corpse still holding tight to the reins. She sprinted for it, glancing at the carnage behind her only to see if anyone gave chase.

Her foot snagged on something and she nearly fell on her face. Looking back, she saw a man clutching her ankle desperately. “Help…us…” he said. Then he vomited blood and fell over limply. Only when Brin stood again did she see the man had lost the lower half of his body.

She continued toward the horse, but someone else had reached it first. She slowed her pace and took aim with her length of metal and threw it. With a clang, it ricocheted off the rider’s head and disappeared into the grass. The rider fell from the saddle and struggled to rise.

Brin leapt onto the horse’s back and chanced a look back at the column. Little moved among the long pile of corpses on the road, but she recognized Bronto by his Tauren-horn helmet. He carried a tower shield and a hand axe and stood before a figure that appeared to be no more than a woman in tattered rags. Rags soaked in blood.

“COME ON, YOU CREEPY BITCH!” Bronto roared. She came. He raised his shield, but her hands crashed through the wood as though made of steel. She hissed and tugged at the shield, forcing Bronto off-balance. He swung with the axe, but it clanged against her collarbone and snapped in half. The mercenary stared at it, baffled.

The woman’s mouth unhinged like a snake, displaying inhumanly large teeth all sharpened to jagged, metallic points. They dug into Bronto’s neck and when she tugged back, half of his throat came with her. Bronto fell with a thud.

While Brin was watching the battle, the rider had stood and grabbed the horse’s bridle. Brinnea kicked at him, and he fell back. Then she saw his face; it was the boy from before.

The woman was drawing closer, down on all fours like some beast. She’s no worgen, though. She scuttles like some spider. Brin wheeled the horse around and gave the boy one last look.

“You’d better start running,” she said.

He did. She took off at a gallop. By the sounds she heard behind her, the boy didn’t make it far.

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Brinnea’s stolen mount fell and did not rise at the border between the Hillsbrad Foothills and the Plaguelands. It had been a long, weary journey, and often the death knight had pressed the horse beyond its limits to evade the Forsaken and Alliance both.

A brook choked with bones and gore nearby as Brinnea gutted the beast and prepared a rune of rebirth. The process was taxing with only one hand, but it gave her time to think. She regretted it instantly.

A noble beast this was, a voice slithered from the shadows of her mind, I suspect it was looted from a fallen knight. A worthy steed. Not for the likes of you.

“Shut up,” Brinnea said, “Go away.”

It is only fitting that it should die in your service. Who is more noble than you? Brinnea the Butcher, scourge of the savage Horde!

“Don’t call me that. Crawl back to the grave where you belong.” Brinnea fixed her thoughts on the rune she carved in a stone tucked between her knees.

Oh, but you need me. Where would you be without me, hmm?

“A better place. Home.”

You mean dead. I have kept you alive all these years. My wisdom guides you, even now. Why, would you have abandoned that boy back in Arathi before you had met me?

“Stop it.”

You wouldn’t have escaped without him to distract that beast. Better he die than you do. What could a lowly sellsword do for this world that you cannot?

“You are wrong. I am no better than he was.”

You survived. He died. That makes you better, hmm.

“No. You’re wrong.”

Then why did you leave him? Why did you leave all of them, hmm?

“They wanted me gone. Wanted me dead. I had no choice.”

There is always a choice for those with the will to make it happen. Those ungrateful fools should have thanked you for all you did! You rid the world of dozens of their enemies. Hundreds, even! Who are they to cast you out, hmm?

The stone shattered between her knees. Brinnea stood and ran. She left the dead beast behind, trailing its blood from her fist as she went.

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Her joints stiffened, and she was forced to stop at the ruins of a village swallowed whole by weeds. Ransacked houses stood roofless, just barely tall enough to be substantial in the enormous field of ghostly grass. Brinnea managed to get herself inside the wreckage of a chapel with an intact door. She sealed the entrance with a fallen beam and collapsed on a pew.

She rested but did not sleep. She focused and cleared her mind, but the memories clawed at her psyche like a ravenous horde. She sat up suddenly when she imagined the sound of banging against the giant door, and the snarls of ghouls.

She calmed herself enough to remain seated. Her body ached like an open sore, and the hunger for killing blanketed her like a swarm of ants. She gazed at the altar and the bent and broken symbol of the Light’s Hand. As if by some reflex, she called out in a whisper, “Oh, Holy Light, watch over and guide me. Oh, Holy Light, reach out ahead and illuminate my path. Oh, Holy Light, cast my foes aside and take me into your embrace.”

Long silence followed, accompanied only by tiredness and hunger. She sighed. Well, what did you expect, Brinnea? Your prayers were never answered before you were a killer. It was her own voice this time, though it was of little comfort in any case.

Night fell. The uncertain sounds of life outside took up a limp chorus, a testament to the weak and weary land. Then a pained shriek cut through the quiet. Brinnea stood. The sound died quickly, and silence took over. The death knight took up a dot of wood tipped with splinters and waited.

Something scraped along the ground outside. The sound approached the chapel and stopped, just outside the door. Brinnea thought she heard a sniffing sound. Then a mighty crash fell on the door. Brin ran to it and braced it with her shoulder. Another crash sent a shiver through her bones. A third blasted a hole inches from her face.

A bright yellow pupil ringed with black spied her through the hole. The creature it belonged to hissed. “I found you, found you found you! It’s finally time! Finally time to taste your flesh!”

Brinnea shoved the wooden stake through the hole, but the creature was quick to avoid it, and quicker to catch it in her jagged, oversized teeth. Brin pulled back the stick at half the size it had been. The creature screeched, and the door shuddered again.

Brin channeled a rune, straining as the hunger grew greater. She flung a blast of cold wind against the door, fortifying it with a wall of solid ice. Frantically, she searched and found a broken window. Brinnea sprinted for it and dove through, ignoring the tear the broken glass made in her breeches. The creature roared, and the door blasted to cold splinters back in the chapel, but Brinnea ran out of sight in the weeds.

This place is bound to have a forge. She moved carefully through the weeds until she found a wrecked forge. Some old rusted hammers and bits of metal lie strewn across the dusty floor. She took up a hammer that was in decent shape and slid it into a pocket, then a rusty dagger, and a sword broken in half, and went outside. No more running.

The hunter scuttled in the grotesque manner it had in Arathi, advancing at the speed of a horse’s gallop. Its limbs were unnervingly elongated and seemed to bend as if made of rubber, but with every movement Brinnea heard a shriek of metal.

The death knight took up the hammer and threw it, but it clanged off the creature’s body and fell in the weeds. The hunter’s limbs returned to a normal shape and it advanced at a sprint on two legs. Brin drew the broken sword.

The creature lunged; an oversized set of claws flashed at Brinnea’s face. The death knight ducked under the attack and drove her blade at the bright yellow eyes. The monster dodged and bit at Brin’s hand, but she wedged the blade into the enormous maw and had her dagger out in a blink. In another blink, she slid it into the soft flesh of the beast’s throat and twisted its head around until the rusted blade cracked.

The beast fell to the ground with a clunk. Brin took a step back and waited, still tensed. A stab of pain shot up her arm. Some of the creature’s green blood smeared on her forearm and hand, where it smoked and crackled at her skin. She knelt and wiped the spots in dirt until the searing pain ceased. Her skin was left pocked with sickly twisted skin.

“Eh-hehehe!” Brinnea flinched and stood, only for her ankle to be snagged. She tumbled to her back and bit back a scream when blades sunk into her calf. The creature stood over her, a massive black tongue sliding across her jagged teeth and hungry yellow eyes eating at Brinnea ravenously. It drew the dagger blade from its throat and ate it in one bite.

“Time to feast! Time to eat! Time to feeeeed!” It yanked the death knight’s leg until the tendons strained and bones crackled. Brinnea yelped and clawed at weeds, desperate to get free. The creature smiled widely, saliva trickling from its mouth. “Rip and tear!”

A sickening crunch followed. Brinnea’s vision went white from the pain. Blood splattered across the weeds, painting the ghostly white canvas with dark red. The death knight became insensate. As her mind went blank, it took over.

It moved her hand and channeled a rune to freeze the wound shut. The creature was busying itself feasting on Brin’s severed leg. The shadow of the death knight clenched its fist and limped at the hunter. The bright yellow eyes looked up from its feast just in time for the fist to smash it with a force like iron.

The shadow punched again and again, until it dented the metal bones it its jaw and shattered its jagged teeth. The loose teeth turned the creature’s tongue into a pincushion leaking acidic blood. Brinnea’s hand smoked, but she felt only a dull echo. Black tendrils slithered from the broken skin in the creature’s cheek and writhed outwards, as if searching for something to grab onto. Brinnea’s hand grabbed them. They gripped at her fingers almost tenderly.

Brinnea’s shadow released the tendrils and pressed the creature to the ground with a foot and gripped its head with a shadowy death grip. The creature grunted and grumbled. It spoke in awe, “You…you feel the same…the same as my lovely lady. My lady, my lady! Have you come back to me, my lady?” The tendrils in its cheek stretched and gripped Brinnea’s hand again. The shadow wavered and Brin felt clarity returning as if waking from a dream.

“No,” Brinnea said, horrified, “You…so that’s who you are.” The creature frowned.

“You aren’t her. Bring her back!” It thrashed under foot, sending Brin flying through the weeds. “Give her back! My ladyyyyyy!” The creature scuttled at Brinnea. The death knight’s eyes widened. Run. I have to run!

She scrambled to her foot and reinforcing the frozen crutch on her stump-leg. She limped as fast as she could, but the creature caught up in seconds. It slashed her back, and the claws dug in like fish hooks. Brinnea gripped the weeds, the dirt, anything she could grab, but she was caught.

The creature grabbed her shoulder and forced her to face it. “I’ll strip the flesh from your face! She must be hiding underneath!” Brin screamed. She froze a dagger on her fist and jabbed it at the beast’s neck, but it shattered on the second shot. The broken flesh stitched itself back together in seconds.

The creature yanked at Brin’s arm. She watched helplessly as raw red tendrils stretched and snapped. Then the bones crackled and splintered. It was an odd thing. To Brinnea, it felt as if she were no longer in her body. She was watching this happen to someone else. It certainly wasn’t the first time. This couldn’t be happening to her.

Her logical side took over. The creature was distracted chewing the meat off her arm. Using her stump of a left arm, she eased herself shakily to her foot and crutch and limped away into a pumpkin patch. Through the weeds, she saw a stream flowing away westward. Somehow, she managed to make it to the waterline and fell in. The monster’s angry screeches sent a last shiver through Brinnea. After that, she closed her eyes and let the bloody flow wash her away.

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Brinnea drifted beneath the night sky, numb to pain and everything else the world had to offer. The stars looked so serene, way up high where no one could touch them. They were safe and bright, like little dots of life in a sea of darkness.

Lines flew between the stars as if some cosmic being were tracing the constellations. They formed a complex pattern, more complex in fact than any constellation Brinnea could name. The lines spider-webbed together to form a face. Her face.

“Look at you, hmm,” she said. Her starry smile shone on Brinnea’s battered body. “You’ve lost some weight. If you want my advice, you ought to have gone in the other direction. You are much too flat to turn any heads, child.”

Brinnea blinked tiredly. “What do you want from me?” she asked.

“Why do you always assume I am the one that needs something, hmm? You look like the corpse you should have been long ago. You are the one who needs me.”

“I don’t need you. I never have.”

“Who was it that showed you your true potential? Who was it that, when you were torn by indecision and fear, pointed you down the right path? I gave you the will to claim justice over the wrongdoers and the power to protect those you care for, hmm.”

“You threatened everything I cared for. You killed people I loved. You broke me.”

“Only in breaking can we be remade stronger. The gods made us with weakness as a cruel joke, but out of spite you made yourself strong. You used me for that. And you want to use me again.”

“I won’t. There is nothing left to fight for. No one depends on me anymore. All I can do is bring pain to them now.”

“Like that girl? What was her name, hmm?”

“Stop.”

“Jessaya, that was it. Bronto said he killed her, did he not? I could feel your quiet rage. You stopped to watch while he was torn apart because it gave you joy to do so. And you say you have no need of me, hmm.”

Brinnea felt cold tears on her cheeks. Or perhaps it was water from the river. “I never wanted to hurt anyone. It wasn’t my fault. I never asked for this!”

“If that was the case, you would have killed yourself years ago, hmm. But you resigned yourself to live on. You used this curse to reshape the world. You took my first lesson to heart. Do you remember it?”

Brin closed her eyes. She remembered…

She rode through the snow in the shadows of dragons. The deathcharger pressed through the snowdrift unflinchingly until it and its rider were swallowed by the cavernous maw of the Wyrmrest Temple.

Brinnea dismounted and dusted snow off the twin lions of her tabard. Seeing the lions split by a line of white powder set a frown on her face. She brushed off an unwelcome thought and pressed on to her mission.

Her contact was waiting in the bazaar by a stand selling glacial salmon. The death knight leaned against the stand as if considering the meat on display.

A black-haired woman dressed in a spider-web pattern robe of green and gold sidled up to the stand with a casual grace that spoke of confidence. She took a steak of salmon meat and inspected it. The merchant smiled at her and spoke his price.

“That price is nearing robbery, hmm. The red dragonflight doesn’t take kindly to thieves in their temple. I’ll take three pounds at half that price, or I’ll have a word with the draconids.”

The kal’uak merchant smiled nervously and conceded to the price. Brinnea watched the whole transaction, befuddled. “I’ve never seen anyone strongarm a salesman like that,” she said.

“Lesson one of living on Azeroth,” the woman said, tossing Brin the salmon steak. “Use what talents you have to the fullest. And never settle for a bad price.”

Brinnea liked her immediately. She introduced herself with an outstretched hand.

“Cynthia,” the robed roman replied proudly, “Cynthia Blackmane.”

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Brinnea woke to a searing pain and a dull hunger. She lay in a simple cot with a scratchy blanket, but it may as well have been a cloud for how much she could feel of it. When she tried to move, her body rebelled and lay still.

Her arm and leg itched furiously. She tried to scratch at her arm but found that her left hand was missing – as was her right arm. Memory flooded back along with another wave of pain. She didn’t bother trying to reach her itching phantom leg.

“Brin, you’re awake,” a familiar voice said at her left side. Brin struggled just to turn her head and look.

“Christa,” she rasped.

Her sister. She stood by the bed looking haggard; her armor was dinted and dingy, her hair messy and overgrown, and her eyes were bloodshot and drooping. She was the most beautiful thing Brinnea had seen in months.

Christa adjusted the covers on Brinnea’s body. “We don’t have a proper healer here for you,” she said, “But I plan on capturing some animals for you. It should help you get back to your feet.” She winced when she realized what she said.

“Where are we?” Brinnea asked.

“A small farmstead. The Silver Hand is helping the farmers get settled in safely. With the Forsaken distracted to the west and south, we finally have some breathing room to rebuild Lordaeron.”

“The war still rages?” Brinnea wasn’t sure why she cared, but she asked anyway.

“Yes, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. Sylvanas escaped when Lordaeron fell to the Alliance. Forsaken resistance is still strong in places. Not strong enough to kick up fuss about us knights.”

“You remained neutral?”

Christa nodded. “And I intend to stay that way. If we play our cards right, Andorhal might be free for human settlement again soon. I thought I might open an inn there if that happened.”

“That would suit you,” Brin said. “I wish I could be there to see it.”

“You aren’t dead yet, sister. Not truly.”

“It’s only a matter of time. Besides, Andorhal won’t be a home for me. Only another place full of enemies.”

“You don’t know that for certain,” Christa said, but she didn’t sound like she believed herself. When Brinnea was silent for a long while, Christa stood to take her leave.

“Thank you,” Brinnea said. “Christa, thank you.”

She opened the door and replied without looking back, “It’s what sisters are for, aren’t they?”

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