Chapter 1: Exile
The chime of the alarm is an obnoxious jarring sound, one that causes Sylvanas’s ears to flatten harshly against her skull. To think she had thought it once to be melodious, something she greeted with a long sigh and the satisfying crack of limbs as she stretched out over the sheets, acknowledging the day with a tired yawn and a half smile. Now it's a functionless, mocking clang of metal supposedly signalling the start of the day.
Not that it matters, she hasn’t yet been asleep.
The thin morning light filters in, glinting off the dewy lace of a spider web, constructed overnight in the gap of the partially opened window. Sylvanas allows herself to sit upright, to admire the little spinner’s work while she still can, before the muted tones of dawn give away to true sunrise and the light would once more become a touch too harsh upon her new sensitive eyes.
Eyes she still cannot bear to look at in the mirror... along with the rest of her.
She sucks in an unsteady breath and loathes the way it rattles uselessly in her chest, how her functionless lungs ache for the relief of oxygen as though she were suffocating, yet she knows she no longer has need for it. Her ears flick to the distant chirp of the morning lark, the throaty warble punctuated by an indignant screech and the fluff of feathers as it vyes with a competitor for a perch in a distant tree.
To think they once scrapped and squawked on the ledge outside her window, a commotion that had brought a living ranger to the verge of exhausted tears as she’d pulled the pillow over her head in a groan of exasperation. But now, like all things, they keep their wary distance. Spooked by her undeath, her unnaturalness, her misplacement amongst the ebb and flow of life in the Eversong forest. At least the spider stays, dutiful little fly catcher, unafraid. Carrion creatures, the ones that thrive off rot and decay. Rodents and bats, spiders and roaches, beings that Sylvanas avoided in life. Now she appreciates them for their place in the world, the ones that build their homes where others fear to tread.
With a grimace she notices the stirrings of movement in the rooms below. Another reason why she hates the chime, it means the sanctuary of nighttime is finished and yet again she has to face her living, waking family. A family that she can hardly bear to be with.
But where else does she have to go?
She wonders just how long she can get away with lying here, silent as the grave, pretending she doesn’t exist. The shift of chairs, the scrape of cutlery, the low murmur of voices followed by the commotion of books being packed, of flustered queries for the whereabouts of training leathers and boot polish. Normal, living family things, of elves going about their daily business while she remains up here, frozen and alone. She is relieved though, glad that it appears to be a busy day for the Windrunner family. She idly wonders if Lirath has any exams coming up, or if Vereesa’s envoy to the human kingdoms went well -
-humans, curse the lot of them-
-or if Alleria is once again marching around and barking out orders as the stand in Ranger General she now is.
It’s a little too late now to return to your duties, don’t you agree big sister?
And this is why Sylvanas wonders rather than asks, for one it would only feel stilted and forced as each member in turn would hide the wince at her voice even as their ears perked in hope for any attempt at interaction she manages, and the other reason being that she’s a tissue-thin layer of patience away from snapping out the truly hurtful things her poisonous mind retaliates with each question about them.
And it’s always the same wounded small voice that whimpers at the back of her mind even though each one has a rational answer to it.
Where *were* you all?
She logically knows that Lirath was in Dalaran, stranded and unable to get home as the portal network was seized and shut down. She knows Vereesa was in the same situation, sitting hunched over the kitchen table with Rhonin, sobbing as she was yet again denied passage from the flightmaster at Krasus landing.
She knows that her mother, crippled and unfit for war, still managed to limp in and subdue the traitor-mage Drathir to get Ban’dinoriel’s defenses activated and thus saving Quel’Thalas from certain destruction.
She knows that Alleria was on another world, beyond a portal that she would not return through a couple years after disaster struck.
Still, none of it seems to soothe the feeling of loss and betrayal and the utter injustice of it all that she was the sole Windrunner to stand against him that fateful day.
If only I’d truly died. She thinks, staring daggers at the hairline crack in the tall, curved ceiling of her quarters. They would have grieved, they would have gathered in this very room and held one another while they cried... but they would have moved on. And it was true, her being here in this...state of between. It did nothing for them in finding closure, for how could one mourn their once joyful, living sister and daughter when the resentful ghost of her still darkened the hallways of Windrunner spire.
The commotion of the morning routine finally dies down, Sylvanas allows herself a hollow breath of relief that nobody attempts to knock on her door to say goodbye like so many of the times before. She imagines that they’ve given up on obtaining no response or simply earning a quiet growl at their persistence.
It might sound like she’s being cruel but she cannot stand the way Lirath tries to joke with her the way he used to, as though pretending nothing has happened. Neither can she tolerate the way Vereesa stares at her with glassy, mournful blue eyes whenever she thinks she isn’t looking. At least Alleria seems to be doing her usual tactic of avoiding her at all cost which Sylvanas is grateful for, though Alleria too seems to have come back changed. Even more serious than she once was, terse, jumpy as though she doesn’t trust anyone around her… or herself.
And that leaves her mother.
Lireesa Windrunner doesn’t offer her much more privacy than a cursory knock before entering into her room, drawing the curtains shut so that the harsh sunlight doesn’t hurt her eyes and gently requesting her aid; be it chores or someone to bounce ideas off when pouring over a military map of Quel’Thalas in setting up her new defensives. Sylvanas at first was reluctant to help out, mostly because many of the questions forced her to relive her trauma to some extent when offering her thoughts on where the new wards placement and defensive field coverage. But now it’s the one thing she somewhat looks forward to, if only because it gives her a small semblance of purpose. Defending the nation from another attack is the utmost importance, nobody should ever have to go through what she and her squad went through. No one. Never again.
At the same time though she resents her mother for making her do this. She knows why; Lireesa wants her to have a routine, to go through the motions of leaving her bed, changing clothes, accompanying her to the market so that she gets some interaction outside of the home, but Sylvanas cannot stand it. The pitying looks of the Silvermoon population are one of the most painful, people who once rushed forward and vyed for her attention now look on despondently in muted silence. The children who followed at her heels whispering tales of the brave General now huddle behind their parents, staring at her with wide, fearful eyes. She’s never outwardly reviled, or turned away from any stall, people are respectful, polite- still bowing to her status and fame.
But they are so damn scared of her, and the worst part is she cannot blame them.
And as for this routine? She wonders whether she’s doing it more for herself, or for her family’s comfort. She highly suspects it’s the latter. Sylvanas no longer sweats but she still religiously showers twice a day as if terrified that the reek of undeath clings to her skin and so she wishes to banish it with soap and scented oils. She does her laundry alone, worried that her family might feel uncomfortable about putting their clothes with that of fabric that’s touched dead skin. She’s a stranger in her own home, a cowed mutt that’s forbidden on furniture lest she taint it with her foul corruption. Not by her family’s doing, never by them, but at her own repulsion at herself, at the wretched existence she now endures.
The house is now almost silent, save for one set of footsteps slowly and carefully making their way upstairs. The uneven, limping gait of her mother, made worse since her final stand against Drathir before she shot the spineless coward between his eyes. She freezes at the gentle knock at her door, her tongue like lead in her mouth before she closes her eyes and utters a single word.
She hates talking, she tries to do it little as possible to spare anyone and herself the discomfort of hearing her ethereal two-toned voice.
The door creaks open, brushing over carpet. Lireesa steps inside with a gentle smile on her face.
“Morning, my Lady Moon.” Lireesa places a steaming mug of tea next to her bed and Sylvanas resists the urge to roll her eyes. Cursed, perceptive woman. It was one time you caught me drinking tea, one time! And now you feel the need to bring me a new mug every day as though it were my lifeblood.
She will accept it though, while equally as bland and flavorless as any drink that now passes her lips, she does appreciate curling her frigid fingers around the porcelain and basking in the small warmth it offers. Sylvanas grunts a semblance of a greeting in response and shifts aside to allow her mother to sit next to her because Lireesa now no longer waits to be invited.
“How are you feeling?” Lireesa’s hand twitches, a mother’s reflex response to place a hand against the forehead of a sick child, checking for a temperature, but it remains in her lap for all she will find should she place her hand there is the chill of a corpse.
Feeling? I feel like death, literally and figuratively. I want to curl up in this bed and cease to exist. Were it not to upset you I may well have thrown myself on my own funeral pyre just to end feeling as empty and alone as this!
“The same.” Sylvanas mumbles, keeping her voice barely above a whisper as though it will sound more natural that way. She inspects her hands, lips curled back from wickedly long fangs in a snarl of disgust. Yep. Still as dead as ever, as though somehow a small part of her still futilely wishes it to be a dream, that one day some spell will break and she will stir in her bed, pulse hammering and color back in her cheeks. Alas her skin is still ashen in color, bluish veins webbing across her palms. Her nails are cracked and dry, as brittle as her hair that falls limply over bony shoulders that hunch inward as though she wishes to make herself as small as possible.
Lireesa hums and idly tucks a strand of that same lank hair behind an ear that flicks away at her touch.
“So there is some sensation still?” Lireesa had asked the first time Sylvanas tensed and shuddered uncomfortably under her tentative touch and Sylvanas had idly nodded yet still gently pushed her mother’s hands away, pointedly ignoring the flash of heartbreak and hurt in Lireesa’s eyes, both at her daughter’s suffering and her inability to soothe it.
Touch is a strange thing for Sylvanas, well, yet another oddity in the whole twisted mess that is her body, but it’s something she's actively trying to make sense of.
Most times it’s muted, as though she’s experiencing everything through a thick cloth, but on occasion, such as the brush of fingers against the torn ridge of her ear, or the once comforting scratch of nails on her scalp feels all too strong, bordering on painful. Necromancy, the magic that now animates her, is powerful yet deeply flawed. It’s as though it were a strange twisted mirror of life, forever trying to imitate it but never getting it quite right. Touch is either too little or too much, taste could be flavorless and dull but all of a sudden jarringly sharp and sour on the tongue. It fits in quite nicely with her wild swings in mood as well, ranging from detached to wildly upset and irrational. She feels as though she’s forever teetering from one extreme to another, never finding balance, never finding peace.
“Must you insist on touching me minn’da?” Sylvanas mutters dryly but makes no attempt to shrug her off, she’s done enough of that already and she’s in no mood to see Lireesa fight back tears this early in the morning. Mercifully the fingers that absently moved to gently stroking her hair quickly pull away as Lireesa tucks her hand under her leg as though physically pinning it down.
“Forgive me, I’m but a fool bound by motherly instincts sometimes.” Lireesa lets out a trembling laugh, one so unlike her for all her stern no-nonsense attitude. Sylvanas finds her ears even wilting a little at hearing that broken sound from someone as strong as her mother. Yet Lireesa has already turned her attentions to fussing over the crumpled mess that is her bed sheets, torn and half draped off the mattress following yet another failed night of Sylvanas tossing and turning, attempting to sleep. She hasn’t managed it yet, even though Liadrin has repeatedly insisted she should be capable.
As if a priestess of the Light had any clue about undeath . That’s harsh, other than her mother, Liadrin has done more research into Sylvanas’s condition than anyone, delving into forgotten realms of distant libraries to glean any idea of how to approach a small yet steadily growing list of not-so-alive patients that have come to her practice begging for help.
Though it’s definitely not common. The undead population of Silvermoon is but a handful, some human, some elf, but most as despondent and rudderless as she. Nobody really knows how they came to have their freedom other than one day his voice no longer echoed in her mind. Those of the strongest will seemed to have broken free in his absence they said, Sylvanas doesn’t remember being strong.
All she remembered wanting was to go home.
“I ran you a bath.” Lireesa gestures toward the doorway, all the while smoothing the bedsheet down and tucking it back underneath the mattress with a careful, practiced motion. “Of course it’s not an order, just a suggestion.”
Sylvanas grunts in response. That’s all she does these days. Still she makes a show of hopping down off the bed, glancing at her mother expectantly. When Lireesa makes no indication of moving or offering her any cue to work off, Sylvanas finds her ears flattening in discomfort.
“Towel?” She spits out the word almost like an accusation, as though angry at her mother for forcing her to speak- though in hindsight that’s perhaps what Lireesa wants her to do.
“Where they always have been for the last two hundred years.” Lireesa responds offhandedly, straightening the pillows and giving them a hefty whack so as to fluff them back up. Pleased that her offer has been accepted and her daughter’s bed is no longer in disarray she strides back over to the door, still so graceful and sure of herself despite the limp. “I want you downstairs when you’re finished, you and I need to head over to waystation four ideally before the afternoon.”
Waystation four? Sylvanas’s ears perk with interest. She thought four had been decommissioned since the end of the second war. Quaint little place, really set in the heart of the forest; nestled on the banks of a hidden lake, one that nobody but very lost wanderers and farstriders have ever set eyes upon. But what a sight it was to behold, sparkling waves that rippled in the gentle breeze, crystal clear water that let you see to the bottom, almost turquoise against the chalky white pebbles and sand that made up the lakebed. Waystation four itself was an old lodge, ancient even, a remnant of Highborne architecture with its sweeping roof and the scaled pattern of its tiling. Still, it had held up in storms and wethered the brief moments of wintery climate Quel’thalas rarely experienced where other, more modern buildings did not.
It hadn’t been given purpose in decades; too close to Farstrider retreat to serve as a base for any operation and too small to house more than a few meant that it had lost its function since modern day ranger squads had far more support personnel than they used to. It had mostly been abandoned save for some cursory maintenance to stop it from outright collapsing. What use could it possibly be having now?
Sylvanas catches herself, feeling the unrelenting gaze of Lireesa on the side of her face. It’s too late, she has a knowing look in her eyes, a tinge of smugness that Sylvanas can almost read her jubilant thoughts. Got you curious now, haven’t I?
Sylvanas doesn’t allow her the satisfaction of asking questions, deciding that whatever plans Lireesa has for it will be revealed in due time when they go visit. If her time imprisoned taught her anything, it's how to be patient. She nods curtly, silently affirming that she will be down soon before she pauses, unease swirling in the pit of her stomach.
She doesn’t remember where the towels are kept. Two hundred years and she can’t remember where the thrice damned towels are kept. She freezes, her jaw clenches and nails dig into her palms to the point that even she can feel the sting. It’s only Lireesa’s steady hand on her shoulder, directing her, that snaps her out of that horrible moment of realization.
“Second cabinet on the left.” Lireesa murmures the words into her left ear like it’s a secret and reluctantly drops her arm, hobbling away all the while muttering curses about the stiffness in her knee.
Second cabinet. Right, of course. Her memory is...not as it once was.
Sylvanas snatches up one towel before pausing, sighing and reaching for a second. They smell of jasmine and for a moment a wave of longing washes over her. She remembers this scent and feels unsure of indulging in it; she’s not certain if her sense of smell is truly hers anymore and she’s utterly terrified of ruining her memory of what once was with the false idea of what it is now.
As if it matters, it’s high time she starts getting used to the fact that this is the way of things, no use in lamenting for something she can no longer have. It doesn’t stop her from swallowing anxiously as she enters the bathroom, already warm and humid from the steaming hot bath Lireesa ran earlier. The smooth granite tub is full to the brim with water that shimmers with some pleasant-smelling lavender concoction and towering islands of sparkling bubbles drift languidly in the current. Sylvanas is too proud to admit it out loud, but it does look wonderfully inviting. Slowly, tersely, she peels away the dark leggings and the long sleeved fleece she’s practically lived in for the past few months until she’s completely and vulnerably naked. Her ears are pressed low as she methodically folds up her clothing and carefully places it aside.
She turns toward the bath before a flash of her reflection catches her eye, causing her to let out a huff of frustration at herself for not remembering earlier. She rocks on the balls of her bare feet, pausing for a moment, then another, before sighing in resignation and quickly striding forward, draping the second towel to cover the mirror.
By the time Sylvanas trudges downstairs, clad in what was once her simple training leathers and cloak, Lireesa is already outside speaking with another elf who is nodding eagerly in agreement as she and her mother gloss over a crisp, folded map in the Windrunner Matriarch's gloved hand. Her other hand rests on the pommel of a smart looking cane, index finger tapping idly against the brass as though it were a mere accessory rather than a means of support. How does she do it? Sylvanas wonders, how does she keep so calm, so regal even after the spear took the function from her leg and a skinning knife took her eye. Lireesa fought her last true battle and came back physically half the woman she had been when she left, pale from blood loss and crippled- no longer fit for active service.
But she didn’t lie down in defeat, no, not when she still had four children to order around. The Ranger General in her didn’t die that day, not like it had with Sylvanas. Lireesa still always stands to attention as though addressing a squad, the black leather eyepatch looking smart against her tanned skin as she raises her sharp chin proudly, enrapturing anyone in her presence.
“Ah and here she is!” Lireesa greets Sylvanas as she reluctantly slinks to her side, ducking her head to avert her gaze, knowing the burning crimson of her eyes is quite startling at first to someone who has not yet seen her in the flesh. “Sylvanas, this is Magister Esendre Cinderguard, she’s agreed to portal us out there for today.”
Right, portals, because no horse or ‘strider would let her within a mile of it. Her mother’s ability to pre-plan everything is sickening sometimes; Sylvanas used to think she’d inherited that trait as well… until everything fell apart. Esendre offers her a wave but not her arm, clearly baulking at the thought of grasping an undead’s wrist. Sylvanas saves her the unpleasantry by folding her arms and nodding once in greeting, glad that it's deemed normal for rangers to have their hoods up at all times so she can keep her face mostly in shadow.
Esendre grunts and puffs with the exertion of weaving and anchoring her portal. Sylvanas knows it's an incredibly tricky spell, extremely mana taxing and one slip up or lapse in concentration can cause disastrous results. Portals, even in Silvermoon, a city that seeps itself in the arcane, are quite the rare occurrence. The main network to Dalaran is maintained in shifts, and by highly trained mages armed with a focusing iris. The rumor that elves port around Quel’thalas freely as they please is simply that, a rumor. Most travel across Quel’thalas is carried out by the flightmasters’ network or by horse. A portal ferrying service, especially one such as this must cost a hefty sum of gold.
It’s probably one of the very few times her mother has ever wished to throw around her wealth and status and into something as simple as travelling around Eversong. Sylvanas feels her gut twist with guilt.
“It’s ready.” Esendre announced in a strained voice, but Sylvanas is already aware of this from the sucking displacement of the air as the portal stabilizes and a flash of turquoise water greets her from beyond. “Lady Windrunner, be sure to take this…for your ride home.” The mage drops something small into her mother’s palm as they turn to step through and the elder Windrunner nods in affirmation, clasping it tightly to her chest as she picks up her cane and stiffly steps through. The young mage turns to Sylvanas with a slight bow. “And it’s an honor to finally meet you too, Ranger General.”
Too tired to bother correcting her on the slip-up in title and not wanting to keep the mage waiting, Sylvanas follows on her mother's heels, fighting back a wince as the portal snaps behind her, just a little too close for comfort.
“The magister’s guild really should stop doing us the disrespect of sending amateurs.” Lireesa grumbles, but is already hobbling in the direction of the cabin, ears perked higher than Sylvanas has seen them in a while. No thanks to her.
“Waystation four!” Lireesa announces brightly and Sylvanas freezes for a moment, struck by the beauty of the place that her hazy memory hasn’t done any justice.
The lake shimmers in the early afternoon sun, gentle lapping waves kissing the jetty in a rhythmic lulling sound that even Sylvanas appreciates as soothing. The wind hisses through the reeds, and shakes the shimmering sun-touched leaves of the oak and ash trees lining the riverbanks. She’s struck by nostalgia, of the time before Farstrider’s lodge was constructed where it was one of the last stops rangers made on patrol before hitting the big city.
She remembers a young version of herself standing poised on the jetty, naked from the waist up so that the afternoon sun beat down upon her bare shoulders, fishing spear in hand and her eyes dutifully trained on the slow moving shapes below the shimmering ripples of the water’s surface. She remembers trying to focus even as Velonara teased and taunted her previous misses, suggesting she should stick to tracking game on land if they had any hope for dinner that evening. The alluring flash of fin, the blurred outline of the carp rising to the surface where the flies kissed the skin of the water for a daring drink. She remembers her ears quivering with anticipation, tongue running over the edge of a fang in concentration as her muscles coiled in preparation to strike, only for Velonara’s untimely yell of her name to throw her balance off as the spear struck empty water.
Sylvanas recalls the howling laughter that followed, and the clattering of metal dropping onto the timber boards when she’d cast the spear aside in favor of stalking in the direction of her squadmate, playful murder dancing in her eyes. She’d grabbed Velonara by the scruff of her shirt and promptly shoved the still cackling elf into the lake. They’d had to resort to ration bars and dry oats that night but nobody had really minded, exhausted from their impromptu swim in the lake following Velonara’s brutal induction to it.
Oh they’d been so young then. Young and foolish, whiling the days they spent here focusing on what they were going to get up to once they hit Silvermoon, taking this beautiful place and the solace it provided for granted. Young ranger Sylvanas had only cared then about what mayhem she was going to cause in the capital, what pretty thing she was going to whisk away for the night, awakening the next morning hungover and tangled in unfamiliar sheets but doing it all again the next day. Waystation four had only been a means to an end, the final stop before their wild few weeks of leave, of lazy days in spas and evenings spent in bars before duty called all over again and they cut off their flings and packed their bags, repeating the cycle once more.
The ache of loneliness twists in the empty cavern that is her chest.
How had she not seen it then? Those final days like the perfect calm before the storm, the last moments she and her squad truly spent together as a team before the distractions of city life and fresh blood often had them wondering their separate ways. How had she not savored the evenings under the night sky, of the chirp of crickets and the soft snores of several exhausted elves, worn out from months of marching and sleeping rough, dreaming of the next day, triumphant and peacocking in their regalia as they waved to the excited masses that gathered, welcoming them home. How had she not relished in those quiet moments prior, snuggling in close, sipping at honeyed tea and listening to stories that had been told a hundred times over yet still never lost their value. No, she’d perched at the perimeter, always on watch even as protected as they were within the borders of their nation. Alert and businesslike, taking herself so damn seriously.
She’d been chasing the footsteps of Alleria then- what a foolish notion. She half wished to tear through the fabric of time itself, to drag her younger self in the dirt and scream in her face to do away with such pathetic delusions of her own adequacy. Stop worrying about the future, silly child and live! Live in that beautiful, wonderful moment. Because you don’t know how good you had it, because you don’t know how it feels to die.
I’d thought I’d understood the brutality of war then, that the most heinous acts of war had come from the forest trolls we skirmished at the border. If I’d known the true meaning of cruelty, the depravity of his mind that no mortal could compreh-
All at once the fog of her mind is lifted and Sylvanas jolts at the firm hand at her elbow, grounding her in the present.
“Sylvanas.” Lireesa’s ears are pressed low with worry but her voice is calm and unwavering, as if issuing a command that her daughter’s military-moulded mind will unconsciously recognize, even trapped in the depths of a nightmare. “Ranger, stay with me.”
She realizes that her fingertips are pressed against her sternum, right where the jagged scar itches, and she snatches her hand away as if burned. Stay in the present, right. She has a mission here to do even if her mother is being oddly coy about it.
No longer trapped in woeful reminiscing, she now notices the dismal state of the building. While it remains sturdy and upright, powerful enchants as old as Quel’Thalas itself keeping it standing, nature has been aggressive in its reclamation. Vines snake up the wall, moss and lichen seep through the cracks in the wood and the pathway to the entrance is infested with weeds. The windows have long since cracked and blown out, leaving empty frames where a ragged sheet of a curtain haphazardly flaps in the wind.
“Minn’da.” Sylvanas grounds out, the tips of her fangs flashing as she pulls back her lips in a snarl of frustration. “Don’t tell me you’ve dragged me out here for a restoration project.”
Lireesa lets out a huff of laughter and waves away her daughter’s protest with an airy gesture of her hand. “Someone has to do it, and who better than the captain of the last ranger corps that lodged here.” Sylvanas feels all the more lost as Lireesa starts down the path, cane tapping rhythmically against the flagstones. Then that feeling of confusion quickly turns to anger as she stalks behind her mother, the leather of her gloves creaking as her hands ball into fists at her side.
“Why are you doing this? Paying Belore knows what for a portal out here, keeping silent over the fact that I’m to be out here picking weeds.” She pauses for a moment, trying to reign in her temper but already her emotions have swung into full force as she whips past her mother to stand in front, blocking Lireesa’s path to the doorway. "Is this it?” Sylvanas demands, glaring at her mother who holds her gaze with an infuriatingly cool and unflustered expression. “That’s my task? Lodge renovation, to hammer boards and replace windows like some…”
“Some what?” Lireesa interrupts, stubborn chin tilted up. “Some ranger?” She even dares to take a step closer, as Sylvanas’s crimson eyes seethe like embers in a face that’s considerably darkened as shadows flicker around her clenched fists. “Are you here to tell me that waystation maintenance is beneath your station? General Windrunner?”
“I’m not a General anymore. I promptly discarded that farce of a title the first chance I got.” Sylvanas all but spits the last word out, ears pinned to the point of discomfort.
“Then all the more reason to carry this out.” Lireesa calmly reasons.
“This is not what I’m…”
-Trained for. Sylvanas wants to finish the sentence but knows it to be a lie. Every ranger is tasked with menial jobs like this. Roof maintenance, ditch digging, fence repair… the list goes on with all the assignments her squad carried out, even on patrol toward the border. And why not? A willing group of physically fit elves- ideal to be sent across the nation to ease the workload for the farmers and villagers on the far outreaches of Quel’thalas. No, this never was beneath her station as a ranger, neither was it ever beneath her station as a General. It’s just…
“Remember the time we had an unusual bout of rain.” Lireesa’s voice is insistent, again directing Sylvanas from her current train of thought. “Caught us all by surprise but most of all the farmers with their harvest over at Suncrown. Our squads just so happened to align there, you weren’t so pleased about that fact, avoided me every chance you got.” She snorts quietly and her gaze becomes soft, recalling the century old moment in her mind's eye as though it were yesterday. “And that poor farmer was crying because she hadn’t yet got the bales covered and moved them inside. The rain would dampen the crop, the wheat would fall in quality and she was lamenting her losses even as she tirelessly hauled each one on her back, doggedly marching toward the barn as though she could single handedly complete the task alone. Her sons were in the city, her farm too far from the village to warrant much aid, she was alone. Do you remember?”
“Yes.” Sylvanas mutters softly, distracted from her anger by the sudden memory. “I remember.”
“I knew you would.” Lireesa remarks, the wrinkles at the corner of her remaining eye crinkling as her expression lightens, before she shrugs once, shoulders stiff and businesslike returning to the narrative of her story. “Of course, we did what we could to help but there were fields and fields and we were on a tight schedule to meet the Prince at Sunstrider estate before noon the next day. It was only a matter of time before we had to cut her losses and leave. We had a feast to get to, one you even mentioned you’d been looking forward to following weeks of porridge and ration bars.” Lireesa then offers Sylvanas a gentle, indulgent smile.. “But you stayed. My sources say you stayed and hauled those bales from dusk until dawn, even as the rain lashed at your back and the mud made each step a trial. You didn’t stop until every last bushel was covered and dry.”
Sylvanas shrugs. “It was her livelihood. I had to.”
“Oh of course, duty calls and all that. She was a pretty little thing though wasn’t she.” Lireesa mentions offhandedly even as she allows the hint of a smirk to touch her lips and Sylvanas scowls, affronted.
“I never did it because of that and I’m offended you would even think otherwise! I would have done it had she sported two heads and a...”
“I know, I know.” Lireesa placates, palms outward in a gesture of surrender. “I was mostly teasing, but my point was that surely it helped. ” Lireesa ignores Sylvanas’s scoff and continues. “It’s not a bad thing to want a little motivation in your work, it’s frankly exhausting to be selfless all the time. They have a saying in Lordaeron if I remember correctly; “We’re only human.”
Sylvanas lets out a sharp bark of a laugh at her mother’s heavily accented Common and rolls her eyes. “So typical of humans to point out their flaws yet do nothing about them. As if it absolves them of their sins so long as they know they are bad.”
“Better than our way of acting like everything is perfect, even as the world around us is burning.” Lireesa then stops and lets out a deep weary sigh. One that only highlights her age and all at once Sylvanas notices the smattering of grey at her temples, the fine lines of worry etched in her forehead. Had her mother always had that? Or was this a more recent effect, one that manifested itself with her return. “And it is burning Sylvanas, we can’t ignore that fact even if it is within our nature to do so. What we are doing now isn’t working, we can’t pretend like everything is as it was, that any of it’s okay. It’s not okay, you’re not okay.”
“Good I’m glad that you can finally see the problem my wretched existence brings.”
“I was talking about Windrunner Spire.” Lireesa snaps, grey eyes flashing like cold steel when it catches the light. Did her own eyes once look like that when she was angry? Sylvanas wonders even as she laments their loss. “You feel trapped there, stifled. Can’t say I blame you with one sister who’s heavily pregnant and will remind you daily of that fact and the other who’s acquired manners beyond the portal that would put an Orc to shame.” Lireesa’s attempt at lightening the mood falls on deaf ears as Sylvanas glares at the pathway, never in the mood for a joke anymore. “I thought once or twice about buying you somewhere in the city but if anything you’re more miserable in Silvermoon. It felt like fate when this place came up in conversation, the daughter of the deceased landowner wished to sell it rather promptly and I snatched it up. It’s remote, peaceful and I know you had good memories of the place, I do as well. This place could be yours, my Lady Moon, somewhere you can call your home. Think of it as that woman at the farm all those years ago, think of it as your... motivation.”
“So you’re kicking me out?” Sylvanas whispers, hating that her voice isn’t quite alien enough to hide the tinge of hurt.
“No.” Lireesa’s cane scrapes the pathway as she steps closer. “Never.” For a moment she pauses as an offshore gust from the lake whips across the pathway. The trees hiss, the empty timber frames from the old lodge groan in protest as it howls throughout the building in a low eerie moan. It’s going to need a lot of work, Sylvanas summises, starting with fixing those damn windows. She then internally curses herself for falling into the trap of even entertaining the idea. “I’m giving you a choice.” Lireesa stresses the last word, expression open and her body poised as if wishing to take her daughter’s hand but fighting the urge.
A choice. Sylvanas hasn’t been given very many of those lately. A less than ideal choice, but it's nice to hear it just the same.
“The top floor is passably habitable.” Lireesa continues, realizing that her daughter might require some further selling. “It has functioning water, a fireplace and I’ve taken some measures to put in some basic furniture. But of course, as you can see, this is definitely a project. One that I believe only us Windrunners would be brave enough to undertake.” Lireesa shields her eyes from the glare of the sun as she glances up at the Lodge with a pensive expression on her face. “Picture it as a blank canvas, a place you can truly make yours.”
Sylvanas doesn’t think she can ever call anything hers again, not when even her own body is now something she has to actively fight to control, but she sighs anyway, one that fills and exhales from her useless lungs and provides no measure of comfort.
“And I can back out of this choice any time I want?” Sylvanas questions, tone sharp.
“Of course.” Lireesa doesn’t even hesitate. “Say the word and you can come home. There will always be a room for you at the Spire.”
Home. Sylvanas internally snorts. Isn’t this old desiccated building meant to be her new home now? Fitting, she supposes.
“I will need to pack my things.” Sylvanas admits slowly, scowling at the pleased expression Lireesa tries to hide, at the hopeful perk of her ears that her daughter has taken some interest in restoring Waystation four.
Sylvanas doesn’t need a lot of things, in reality she doesn’t need any. When one does not require food or shelter or even the basic necessity of comfort, she could curl up in the freezing rain and be no worse for wear. But her towels, her scented oils, her leathers, the wraps that bind and cover the mess that is her ruined torso. Her bow. A small flicker of… well excitement is perhaps far more than what she would put it as, but hopeful anticipation at the fact that she can now hunt uninterrupted puts her in slightly better spirits. Any meat will be useless but furs, trophy antlers- things of decorative value would make the trip worthwhile.
Okay. She admits, she has come ‘round to the idea. Lireesa seems to sense her shift in mood as well because already she’s straightened to her full height as though the relief of finally doing something right by her daughter has ever so slightly eased the burden from her shoulders.
“That can be arranged, oh, which reminds me.” Lireesa pulls the small stone the mage gave her out of the pouch at her belt. “Your hearthstone, guard this with your...look after it well.” Her mother tactfully amends herself and Sylvanas can’t help but raise her eyebrow in amusement at the almost slip-up.
It’s not her original hearthstone. Hers is long since lost, lying forgotten in a puddle somewhere, stamped in the mud under the tramp of a thousand decaying feet as he marched his armies west. But she accepts the weight of this one in her palm with a reverence, knowing the value of having one made is.
Does she mean for me to attune it here? I’ve only just agreed to this… ‘project’ of hers, this place does not even come close to any semblance of home for me.
Reading her mind, Lireesa speaks up. “Use it when and where you see fit, just thought it would save at least one trip without having to pester someone for a portal. Speaking of which, come on- they should have one for us right about now, wouldn’t want to miss it.” Lireesa turns to walk back down the path from where they came, pausing only to frown and scuff at a particularly rough patch of weeds with the heel of her boot.
Ah. Yes. She’s going to have to figure out how to get around that glaring issue, sooner she’d trek the distance herself than rely on a mage for anything. She glances once at the hearthstone in her hand, then at the run-down lodge, watching as her mother fights back a wince, clearly bothered by her ruined leg as she subtly shifts further to lean on her cane, taking the weight off it.
“Why.” Sylvanas simply asks, ears lowered forlornly. “I’ve been nothing but resentful toward you. Why do all this for me?”
Lireesa pauses, then turns... and the expression on her face is almost one of exasperation, exasperation and heartbreak, raw on her usually stoic face.
“Because Sylvanas, because you are my baby.” Lireesa lets out a trembling laugh, as if it's the most obvious answer in the world and turns back down the path.
If she didn’t know any better, Sylvanas could have sworn in that moment that her dead heart gave a sluggish twitch in her chest.
Chapter 2: Stranger
Sorry it took so long to get this one out, work got me super busy oof :(
Yes chapter count up to 5, it was getting weird trying to fit the story into 3 I don't know what I was thinking ahaha, its never that simple.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It’s late at night , Sylvanas reclines in the old, moth-eaten reading chair that her mother must have portalled here not too long ago. The fire is burning low in the hearth, sending a warm flickering glow over the yellowed pages of the book she’s currently browsing- some drivel Lirath gave her about Kaldorei carpentry she’s only half paid attention to. For a while she’d spent the days sweeping the floors and dragging furniture around, boarded up the windows so that the wind no longer incessantly shrieked through the empty building like a particularly pissed off poltergeist. But it didn’t take long for her to tire, not in the body but in the mind, any previous interest quickly fading away at the sheer daunting scale of the task. There’s just so much that needs to be done and she hasn’t even got as far as clearing out the building yet. Her mother seemed inclined to help but somehow Sylvanas feels like this has to be her own personal project... or personal exile, she isn’t sure what to name it just yet, but either way the Windrunner family is strictly barred until she feels ready to welcome them again. The cabin groans as if in pain, bowing against the whip of the wind outside, unusually frigid and strong.
The weather has been a mess ever since the protection enchantments of the land were so crudely torn apart, the sunny, temperate climate of Quel’thalas occasionally giving away to unruly storms and icy rain that soured crops and further taxed the already dwindling food supply. Hunting parties needed to travel further and further south, clashing with the remaining human outposts that staunchly defended what they believed was theirs with little remorse. The lines at the food banks growing ever longer as more and more fields fell to ruin. The sickness of the land is one not so easily dispelled and rage seethes within Sylvanas’s gut at the thought that no help has yet come from their Kaldorei brethren. Was their prideful disdain at her nation’s use of arcane so great that they refused to aid them in their most desperate time of need? Surely the ancient knowledge of the druids would glean some insight into salvaging their farms, but alas the letters sent by both her mother and prince Sunstrider have fallen on deaf ears, what little in ships they had to spare coming back empty handed, or failing to return at all.
What’s worse were the crumpled papers Sylvanas had fished out of the wastepaper bin in her mother’s office and painstakingly pieced together. The lengthy document had highlighted the sorry state of the Quel’Thalas military, hostilities with the human kingdoms at an all time high and worrying reports of a troll uprising over in Zul’Aman. Sylvanas cannot stand to think her nation was able to push him back only to risk buckling under the duress of the horrifying aftermath. She should be out there, with Alleria, training the new recruits and providing relief and security to the nation she sacrificed so much to protect. But it’s futile, for who would ever willingly trust or even take orders from a corpse? Besides, Sylvanas snorts to herself, why should she care? She gave her life for Quel’Thalas only to be halfway shunned for it in return, tolerated but never welcome and made to feel so very alone. With an empty sigh of resignation, Sylvanas knows however, that she does still care. For despite what they whisper, how lowly they may think of her or how little they trust in the freed undead, should the time arise again where Quel’thalas calls for aid, she’ll throw down her life once more, or at least, what’s left of it.
She didn't, however, expect to have to act upon that declaration so soon when she hears a distinct thump from the floor below.
The book slips from her hands, tumbling against the floorboards in reply. She freezes, ears pricked and alert, straining for the tiniest disturbance as her mind somersaults in a frenzy to pull up an explanation for the late night interruption. No other sounds follow but Sylvanas isn’t fooled, the tingling sensation of magic causing the skin at the back of her neck to prickle in response. Cold magic, foreign magic, magic that most certainly doesn’t belong to either friend nor family. Invasive, wrong.
Slowly, with catlike grace, she rises from her chair, hand inching toward the dagger she always keeps close by. Her bow and quiver aren’t far either but if the disturbance is already inside then it will be useless in close quarters. For a moment the magic wanes, the house itself seeming to have fallen deathly quiet, the very wind that hammered at its walls momentarily lulling as if willing to assist Sylvanas in her diligence. The silence stretches on, to the point that Sylvanas starts to doubt herself, even though she was so sure of an intrusion before. The handle of the knife digs into her palm, her ears betray her as they flick to the distraction of a crow taking off in the distance, the whistle of its wingbeat rhythmic in the cool air. She lets out a hollow sigh, wondering if she’s finally snapped and gone insane, the floorboards creak beneath her boots as she shifts her weight forward, focusing on keeping her breath shallow and even. Except, she realizes with a widening of her crimson eyes, she doesn’t need to do even that.
So she stops breathing altogether.
It’s truly noisless now, her ears ring from the lack of it, every fine blonde hair on her forearms raised in discomfort at the charged feeling in the atmosphere.
She waits a non-existent heartbeat, then another and… there! A shallow, yet unsteady intake of air, a breath that’s not hers, something small and trembling, like a rabbit cowering in its den as the wolf passes overhead. It’s enough for her to spring into action, knife brandished, taking the stairs two at a time. Reaching the kitchen, she skids on the tiled floor as she comes to a stop, eyes bleeding crimson, lips pulled back from her fangs in a threatening snarl only for her face to contort into confusion.
Nobody is there, yet she’d heard the stuttering breaths, clear as the waters of the lake outside. She’d sensed the fear, the reek of arcane and distress. But glancing wildly around the empty, unfurnished room she sees nothing, no crouching outline or shape, no elf or beast waiting in ambush. The kitchen counter is blanketed in dust but undisturbed, devoid of fingerprints or any evidence of footfall- as far as she can tell, she’s alone. Again she questions her sanity. Perhaps her paranoia has finally sent her tumbling into the realm of delusions, hearing voices that aren’t there, sensing magic that doesn’t exist. Unless, unless he’s finally decided to hunt her down, that perhaps he always has been, waiting, watching, poised for the perfect moment when she’s finally alone to strike…
All at once the world around her seems to shrink, the walls closing in as the lurching sensation of her stomach all but drops through the floor.
No, no. He couldn’t have known she was here, she defied him, she escaped! He wouldn’t have come for her, not here, not now! The barrier is impenetrable against his magic, there would be no way for him to cross. Surely.
Oh but ‘surely’ had been what she’d told herself before, moments before the wards came crashing down around her and he’d turned his steed and nudged his feet into its decaying sides in a slow purposeful walk as though he’d known all along....
No, no please no. Not yet, not now. I’m not strong enough to face you again.
Wrenched in the grip of fear, Sylvanas lets out a hostile growl through clenched teeth, eyes desperately darting from one corner of the room to the other. “Agent of the Scourge, I know you’re here. I can sense your foul magic.” She hisses with far more venom and bravado than she’s feeling inside. “Reveal yourself so that I may gut your rotting insides from where you stand.”
Another sharp inhale of breath is all it takes, Sylvanas’s eyes zero in on the source and she lets out a harsh cackle before whipping her gloved hand across the dust covered counter, blanketing the invisible assassin so that their outline is revealed. Coughing, the foiled agent stumbles back, frantically trying to brush the dust off themselves before the cloaking spell drops and Sylvanas feels the alien rush of something move through her as they blink toward the doorway to escape.
Hah a mage! Of course. They’re quick but Sylvanas is quicker, sprinting over to slam the door shut as the mage desperately fumbles at the handle, a frigid blast of arcane throws her back like a punch, snapping her head to the side in a move that might have incapacitated her might she still have been alive, but if anything all it does is serve to enrage her more. She snarls and surges forward but not before the mage attempts to wrench the door open a second time and promptly slams it shut in the fallen elf’s face.
In a less pressing circumstance, Sylvanas might have stopped to think about how she simply tore the door off its hinges in a feat of unnatural strength before stomping angrily outside, seething at the sheer audacity of her attacker. The splintered wood cracks under her heavy boots as she kicks it aside, bristling as her gaze catches sight of her would-be-attacker stumbling over their own feet as they struggle to orientate herself after another panicked blink.
What kind of assassin was this?
There is no danger here, Sylvanas realizes, this is simply a hunter now stalking her prey. It will take too long for the mage to cast any portal out before she’s upon them and from the looks of it, they have little experience in any hand to hand combat. Besides, these woods are hers and it won't take long for her failed killer to realize this, it will be a woefully short hunt.
She doesn’t even give the mage the honor of looking like she’s trying to chase her, merely keeping pace in a tireless loping jog so that the heavy footfalls and wisps of waning arcane alert her to their whereabouts like the spilled drops of blood from an injured buck. A perverse part of her thrills at the chance to finally stretch her legs, to satisfy her rage and thirst for vengeance. She’ll slice this deceitful little agent’s neck, and then pin their corpse to a tree for good measure as a warning for all to try again. She hears a distant panicked whimper as a twig snaps underfoot and her lips pull back from her fangs in a feral, mirthless grin as she silently stalks in their direction.
The mage flags all too quickly, breaths wheezing and unsteady. Exhausted and...alive. Sylvanas tilts her head at that. The mage is living, unusual but not unheard of; Arthas had many agents in the past, working undercover and greedy for power and the traitor Drathir had been a prime example of that. Female as well, from the pitch of her breaths and the slightness of her form... but she could be wrong, Sylvanas isn’t close enough to be final in that speculation. It’s about time she fixed that.
Effortlessly she speeds up her menacingly casual pace to a run and all too soon the mage is seen crashing through the woods, tripping over roots and tree stumps and coughing as her lungs struggle to provide her exhausted body with enough oxygen. Pathetic really.
Risking looking back, they cry out in a horrified scream and Sylvanas admits she must look terrifying, with red eyes and a ghoulish face streaked with burnt tear marks like something out of the fables of horror, flashing sharp white fangs as she snarls, ready to tackle her squirming prey into the dirt. So she’s shocked when she collides with something cold and hard and definitely not the soft body she’d been prepared to pin.
Ice. Sylvanas lets out a frustrated snarl as her knife connects with the solid mass, sending chips of it flying as she digs the blade in to no avail. From behind the frozen wall, a distorted face stares back at her in abject terror.
“You’re wasting your time mage.” The duel tone of her voice barks out in Common as her crimson eyes flare. “Sooner or later your mana will fail, and there will be nothing to keep my blade from your throat.” Sylvanas again stabs the ice to punctuate that sentence, sending more shards showering, and the mage cowers within her temporary sanctum, pressing against the back wall, as far away from her hunter as she can possibly get. “So what did he offer you? Power? Wealth? Protection?” She almost scoffs at the last word, face leering through the frozen window as her gaze burns into the wide blue eyes of the cowering human. Of course it’s a human. “What did you expect by coming here to kill me? That you’d actually succeed? I was one of his most powerful assets, an officer of the scourge unlike any other. To think you had a chance to bring me down is laughable.”
She laughs cruelly before leaning closer so that her lips almost brush the frozen surface of the icy cage, dropping her voice into a menacing growl. “But what’s more sickening is that despicable rats like you are twisted enough to betray your own kind, and that you’re stupid enough to think you’ll get anything out of it. He’ll kill you anyway you know, and will torture you beforehand for your cowardice. However, it’s your lucky day; unlike him I will be merciful enough to end your life cleanly, much more than you deserve.” She lets out another outraged growl, thumping her fist into the ice which groans in response but doesn’t give.
“You’re… not… Scourge?” The muffled voice from inside the ice surprises Sylvanas and she frowns and scrapes at the frosted surface of the block to get a better view inside.
“And you’re not?” She questions, tone sharp. “For someone lying in ambush in my very own home you’ve made me quite inclined to believe you are. Unless…” she groans under her breath. “Don’t tell me you’re some righteous Scarlet Crusade lackey with your head filled with bigotry and propaganda.”
“No! I’m… I was hiding.” The voice answers before sitting more upright in her icy sanctum. “Tell me, is it true? That you are undead but no longer Scourge? I heard stories of those who’d managed to break free from his rule, but to see for myself…”
“Not anymore.” Sylvanas growls, interrupting the voice that, despite being moments away from death, is laced with curiosity and wonderment. “My will is my own and nobody else’s to command. Never again! My arrows are fletched for nothing but ending his heinous existence on Azeroth.”
“If I say I’m not scourge, will you still kill me if I remove this barrier?”
Caught out by the question, Sylvanas narrows her eyes, tilting her head in silent question. “That depends, did you wish to kill me back at the cabin?”
“No, I promise I had no idea that you even... I didn’t know anyone lived there, I assumed it was abandoned and thought it a good place to take shelter from the wind.”
“You are correct in that nobody lives there anymore, but the place is mine and you are not welcome.” Sylvanas seethes, left hand still wrapped tightly around the handle of the knife embedded in the ice before she ducks her head and relents with a reluctant sigh. “But I have many questions, namely how a human managed to pass our borders undetected. Is there yet more corruption within our ranks? Did you bribe someone to let you through? Or is there a weakness in our wards that we’ve overlooked.” She trails off in her speculating before fixing the mage with a renewed glare. “No matter, you will answer my queries back at the cabin. I will not kill you, but I will gladly put an end to any false move you make once I have you in custody. I will question you and you will answer everything. Then I suppose after that, you’ll have to hope my people are merciful when I hand you over to the Silvermoon authority. Pray that it’s not an execution.”
Sitting at the dusty kitchen table, the human shifts awkwardly under the unrelenting glare of the undead elf across from her before hesitantly clearing her throat, unable to take the silence anymore.
“So... you said you had questions for me?”
“I do, but I’m figuring out how to word them.” Sylvanas snaps in response, bothered that the human has once again thrown her off by speaking first, before continuing to sit, arms tightly folded and crimson eyes narrowed.
“You could start with my name, it’s Jaina by the way.” The mage tries a hesitant smile but it promptly fades as her captor’s stony expression somehow manages to further darken. “Tides,” she breathes, the color further draining from her face. “You really are…”
“Cursed? Forsaken...dead?” Sylvanas’s ears pin back as her lips curl over fangs as if daring the human to finish her sentence. Predictably she doesn’t rise to the challenge and sits a little straighter, shoulders stiff and looking away as if ashamed. Feeling merciful, Sylvanas opts to move on from the subject, deciding she’s much more comfortable demanding answers from the human than having to entertain any morbid curiosity she might have in return. “I firstly want to know why you came to be here; it is known that Quel’Thalas has closed her borders to the human kingdoms with no exception. That fact that you’re sitting where you are right now is clearly by no invitation, what has driven you to cower in my cabin like a stray?”
“Your wards.” The mage...Jaina replies, hands twisting in her lap as she shifts distractedly, knee bouncing the entire time. Sylvanas has only spent a couple days alone and she’d already forgotten how irksome the living were with their inability to sit still. “They are ancient, and truly powerful. They drove him back once, I want to study their nature so that I may build my own to keep my people safe.” Sylvanas finds it faintly amusing that even the humans seemed to avoid the use of his name, as though, like her, they too believed it would summon him if said aloud.
“ Your people?” Sylvanas sneers. “Do you proclaim yourself a leader now? And of what? The humans of Lordaeron? You do realize it was your kind that caused this in the first place. You would think us willing to trade defensive secrets to the very kingdom that produced that abhorrent manchild. And if that wasn’t enough , then proceeded to hunt their own people, people whose only crime was that they died? ” Sylvanas can feel herself quickly losing her self restraint, so she swallows noisily and wills herself to lean back and relax, lest she find herself lunging across the table and gripping the insufferable human by the neck.
“Not Lordaeron.” The mage interrupts quickly. “Theramore.”
“Theramore?” Sylvanas tilts her head before a wry smirk crosses her lips. “You’ll have to try harder than that, human. I was not born yesterday, nor have I remained within these borders like many of my kind. I know every human province from Westfall to Gilneas and this.... Theramore is most certainly not one of them.”
“You’re right.” The mage responds sadly. “Theramore doesn’t exist...yet. But it will do, one day. It will be a safe haven to those who...have survived. I wish to lead my people across the waters to safety, and there Theramore will become more than just a dream. It will be... it has to.” The last part is said in a soft sigh under her breath but Sylvanas doesn’t miss it, a chord struck by the desperation in the human’s voice, before her expression hardens into a cruel sneer.
“So you wish to study the nature of one of the most closely guarded, ancient and powerful elven wards ever constructed in order to reconstruct one of your own to protect a city that doesn’t yet exist?”
Sylvanas lets out a long, defeated sigh, staring at her gloved hands as she slowly unfolds her arms and presses them flat against the wood of the table. The morning sunrise casts thin beams of light across the pale, sanded wood and she inches her fingers toward it as though wishing to feel the warmth, before stopping and curling them into fists with a creak of leather. She gathers herself for a moment before offering the human a withering look. “I almost wish you were sent to dispatch me, that at least would make more sense than this insanity. I don’t have the patience for this, if you’re simply looking to waste my time I may as well hand you over and hope that the Silvermoon authority can glean more information than this utter waste of a…”
“It’s not insane!” The human raises her voice, standing up abruptly with a scrape of her chair. “This is survival.”
“Survival?” Sylvanas shoots back, remaining seated and fixing the human with a cool glare, more than done with playing this foolish game. “Sweet little living thing like you, what could you possibly be running from?”
“Everything!” Blue eyes flare white and Sylvanas almost catches herself impressed at how readily the air crackles with arcane as the human’s emotions flare. “Lordaeron is in ruins, the power vacuum has caused all sorts of madmen to rise from the shadows, hungry for their share and if we are to obtain peace we have to sail to the forgotten lands, lest we drive ourselves to ruin by staying here.”
“So you wish to speed up that process by smashing the sorry fools that follow you against the unforgiving waves of the great oceans.” Sylvanas shrugs offhandedly, “understandable, perhaps allowing you knowledge of our wards isn’t such a bad thing, considering that information would die with you long before you’d ever catch sight of the shoreline.”
“Call me crazy all you want but you’re the one with holes in your defensives, for here I stand. At the very least you cannot mock me when I all but strolled into your lands with nobody the wiser.”
She has a very good point and Sylvanas snaps her jaw shut with an audible click, her frustration palpable that yet again the human has once again flipped their dynamic and caught her unaware. “So you say there’s a weakness you can exploit.” She eventually states, keeping her voice even and low and mostly free of the ethereal echo. The human offers her a decisive nod.
For a moment both are silent, equally proud and angry, both held back by their desire of knowledge from one another. Sylvanas’s fingers slide from the table, curling around the handle of her knife before she slowly rises from her chair and makes a show of sheathing it in her belt. The human tenses, then relaxes at the action. “Show me.”
It’s bad. It’s more than bad, it’s a disaster. The only thing keeping Sylvanas from bursting into Silvermoon court declaring an emergency is that maintaining this glaring issue as a secret is most likely the only thing that will protect them from certain destruction should the wrong party catch wind that Silvermoon is woefully vulnerable.
Vulnerable is an understatement, they may as well be holding the gates wide open and inviting every hostile army in to give invasion a try.
“Does anyone else know of this?” Sylvanas remembered backing the human against the tree fists clenched and teeth bared. “Did you tell anyone!”
“No!” Came the trembling response, cowering under her furious gaze. “It was by blind luck that I discovered it myself and even then, only after years of studying your defenses. I promise you I am the only one who knows of this particular flaw.”
“So are you suggesting that there could be more?” She remembers her voice rising in pitch and volume before the human hesitantly nodded, even as she went pale at the thought of delivering more bad news to the enraged undead elf. Part of Sylvanas regrets thinking about how she had flinched when her fist collided with the tree, bark cracking beneath her knuckles.
This mage...Jaina... can’t fix it, at least that’s what she proclaims, saying that she would have to understand the mechanics behind its construction in order to offer a solution. Sylvanas half expects it's a trick, some ploy to get information, but then why would the human show her the cracks in the wards in the first place if she had any nefarious plans against Silvermoon?
She doesn’t know what to think, she doesn’t know what to do . Her prisoner is in possession of information that could quite literally cripple Quel’Thalas, but at the same time Sylvanas is hesitant to hand her over because the very nation she’s trying to protect is also one she doesn’t quite trust. Drathir did a fine job of blowing apart any semblance of confidence she ever had in any of the court officials that outwardly swore to protect Silvermoon.
She considers perhaps telling her mother but, unlike her, Lireesa still is painfully loyal; intentional or not, word would still get out if she insisted on her handing Jaina over.
Jaina, who’s currently furiously scribbling away at some diagram in her scrappy notepad murmuring to herself as though nothing has changed in her routine other than she’s now being reluctantly escorted by her undead captor. It’s infuriating. It’s like the little mage knows she’s tied her own hands here and has proceeded to make a nest for herself in the kitchen of what was supposed to be Sylvanas’s place of solace and solitude.
“I don’t know what to do with you.” Sylvanas voices her frustrations aloud, wanting the human to at least understand her vexation of being tasked with this unwelcome intruder.
“Then do nothing? Let me study the wards in peace while you continue to...decorate your home or whatever it was before you met me.”
“Don’t say it like that, there is no ‘before and after’ meeting you, this isn’t a change in my existence.” Sylvanas growls back. “You are a mere irritating blip until I figure out how to go about handling this.”
The human shrugs silently in response, eyes never leaving the book as she again chews on her pen in a disgustingly irritating habit and frowns in concentration, underlining a passage twice before turning the page. “If you’re so keen to wash your hands of me,” she eventually says, still without looking up, “you could always fetch me something from your library. Any books that involve key words like: Protection Enchantment or Warding would be greatly appreciated and maybe even help me figure this out all the more quickly so I can learn the nature of this, fix the gaping holes and leave you alone all the sooner.”
“Absolutely not.” Sylvanas spits through gritted teeth. “I’m not sure I even want a human to be studying them, let alone attempting to patch them, how could I ever trust in a complete stranger with the protections of my nation?”
“Well, then hand me over.” Jaina offers, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and Sylvanas is half inclined to slap the notebook out of her hands so as to garner any other response than this sudden detached calmness that the human now exuberates.
She needs to tell someone… she can’t trust anyone. She dithers for a while, wondering if she closes her eyes for long enough that she can will away this less than ideal problem she now has on her hands before sighing in frustration and stalking upstairs. She’ll be able to listen out for any signs of escape but at least she doesn’t have to sit in the same room while the mage pointedly makes a show of ignoring her spiteful remarks.
This is the last thing she needs, she came here for peace, she came here to be alone and now this… human has thrown everything on its head. How can she even think to continue repairing her new place when said new place seems to include an unwelcome squatter that Sylvanas now feels like she has a responsibility for.
And she’s not afraid of me, why isn’t she afraid?
Well...Sylvanas ponders as she bends over to pick up the book she’d promptly chucked on the floor following the disturbance last night. She’d been pretty afraid when she’d stalked her through the woods, but following their terse introductions, it’s like a switch has been flipped. She’d been so quick to call her bluff, realising that Sylvanas had very little desire to kill anyone who wasn’t Scourge.
Does she care so little that she speaks to a corpse? How can she remain so stoic in the face of death? And why does it bother me so much that she does?
She’s become such an anxious thing now, afraid of her own shadow, that she’s reeling from having to interact with this stranger. Well. She squares her shoulders, she has that responsibility now and she’ll simply have to deal with it, just like she needs to deal with everything else. So she nearly jumps out of her own skin at the sound of gentle knocking against the bannister as Jaina makes her presence known at the top of the stairs.
“Sorry to bother you again but since you’ve made it quite clear I cannot leave, it’s been a fair few hours since I’ve gotten any sleep and was wondering if you had any suggestions?”
“The bottom of the lake” Sylvanas replies flatly, ears pinned as she refuses to look up.
The mage lets out an unamused hum of confirmation, unfazed by hostile remark. “I’ll...just figure something out downstairs then.”
Sylvanas watches her leave before she slams the book down on the reading table and calls out after the human. “There’s a bed, second door on the right.”
“That’s not yours? Surely I’d be intruding if I-”
“It is not something I require anymore.” Sylvanas doesn’t even try to mince her words, let the human feel uncomfortable, let her face the brutality of her condition. The mage is simply an unwelcome guest, she doesn’t have to put a show on for her in the slightest. The thought of that is oddly...freeing.
“Oh, you really don’t need to sleep?” Her voice is soft but rather than the pity Sylvanas has come to expect, she is surprised that there is nothing but clinical curiosity swimming in the human’s eyes. “Then yes, thank you, I would greatly appreciate using it in your stead.” She lets out an awkward chuckle before her expression sobers. “And I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” Sylvanas frowns in confusion.
“Well, not sorry for coming here but I’m sorry that you were the one to find me. You look like you could do with a break and I understand I’m not helping matters in the slightest by being here.”
A soft huff of laughter. “That’s why I’m apologizing”
“Hmmph.” Sylvanas doesn’t even bother to offer her an appropriate response, sitting back down in her reading chair to sulk.
She’s running on deficit. That much Sylvanas knows about mages, one cannot continue to conjure food and expect to survive. While it may take the edge off, it won’t be long before the human will lose the energy to keep herself fed with saccharine treats before she desperately needs something with proper sustenance.
How many days has it been now? Already too many, having to put up with this woman, but Sylvanas has found that despite what she dreaded was going to be a huge inconvenience, the mage hasn’t been all that much of a distraction. She’s just been... there, another presence, a coinhabitant of the lodge that Sylvanas has been tirelessly renovating, her previous exhaustion with the project all but miraculously renewed as she’s endlessly swept and cleared and hammered. The place smells less of mildew and rot and more of sawdust and wood glue as she’s sanded and polished the floor, filled in the cracks in the beams and the walls, noticing with a hint of pride the already the place feels warmer, less damp now that she’s kept the fire going throughout the cool, stormy nights.
Now however, there’s the small issue of supplies, what little she had prior to her arrival is running woefully thin. To think she’d been looking forward to hunting, yet her bow remains untouched in the corner- yet another activity denied to her now that she is bound to remain in this little trespasser's proximity. While she’s half inclined to believe the human is grateful for the cabin’s shelter, there will be nothing to stop her bolting out the door the second Sylvanas leaves for the woods.
But she really does need to go to the market sooner or later. She needs brushes and chisels and fresh paint, not to mention a new saw, sandpaper and nails; Belore, she needs so many boxes of nails. It surely can’t take her too long, at her tireless pace she could manage the trip to and from the market within the day, less of course by horse but that’s not an option she has right now… but that would still mean leaving the human alone.
“I have a dilemma.” Sylvanas strides into the little nook of an office Jaina has made for herself in the bedroom. It’s supposedly warmer upstairs, not that Sylvanas really cares, but if it keeps the human off her back then she’s more than willing to make that space for her to work. She’d dragged up a table and chairs, made sure there was carpet for a little more insulation and even hammered in a shelf for her to store her meagre possessions. No, she’s not going soft but simply willing to be cooperative in what’s been a difficult situation, better to keep the human compliant and working than plotting any form of escape.
“And what’s that.” Jaina hums, the tip of her quill poised over the page as she fixates Sylvanas with a patient gaze, yet Sylvanas doesn’t miss the gaunt, drawn expression, or the shadows under her eyes. She’s exhausted, and probably half starved.
“I need to go to the market.” Sylvanas keeps her explanation simple, hoping that her stiff, indecisiveness will convey the rest.
Luckily Jaina’s sharp mind doesn’t disappoint as she nods seriously. “And you don’t expect me to remain here when you leave.”
“I don’t think you would try, you are in no state to do so” Sylvanas points out, though not unkindly, just stating the harsh fact that the young mage will no sooner die out in these woods than find the mana and energy to return home. “But if I’ve misjudged, if any oversight caused you to…”
“You can’t trust me, I know, it’s okay, I know.” The mage’s voice is soft, placating. She pushes away from the desk and stands to face her, hands resting idly on the back of the chair, understanding that this conversation has moved into turbulent waters rather than their usual routine of snide remarks.
She knows I’m unhinged, I can see it in her eyes.To her I’m nothing more than a mad, broken ghost and it’s out of pity that she’s so co-operative.
“I could come with you?”
Sylvanas pauses at that and lets out a harsh chuckle. “Well that would quite quickly get you arrested.”
“Even with my hood up? I can cast a glamor for the... you know-” the human gestures lamely toward Sylvanas, “-ears.”
It earns another hollow laugh from the undead elf, but not enough to ease the tension in her shoulders. “Absolutely not, the city is on lockdown. They have spellbreakers all over the place for that very reason, they would sniff out any enchantment before you even had the chance to weave it.”
“Then I don’t have a solution for you.” Jaina sighs. “With your guidance, I still have enough mana to my name to portal us close to the city as we safely can get, but even then there will be a moment where you will have to leave me...unguarded.”
Sylvanas’s ears perk at the thought of there being a portal, she hadn’t realized that with the human’s help, it could cut hours out of her travel time in getting supplies. She also bites back the bitter taste of irony at how useful she’s starting to find her new companion.
Belore, but she still really dislikes mages.
“Then that will have to be the risk I have to take. Come, I’ll show you a map” And with that Sylvanas turns and strides out with a snap of her cloak, hoping the human will take the initiative to follow.
She’s good, really good. Sylvanas can’t help but be impressed both by the speed in which Jaina weaves the portal and her ability to not nearly sever the tips of her ears off in an effort to keep it open. If anything she makes a show of casually stepping through unhurried, curiously checking her surroundings before letting the portal fizzle out of existence rather than abruptly snap shut like the crude experiences Sylvanas has had to deal with as of late.
“It’s as if the forest becomes even more glorious the closer we get to the city. The leaves shimmer as though dipped in gold paint.” Jaina remarks, crystal blue eyes sparkling with an excitement that Sylvanas doesn’t know how to feel about. She seems curious but not in the plotting sense, more in awe at being so close to Silvermoon. “And to see the spires with my own eyes.” The human breathes, “I thought I would never live to see the day.”
“Move a toe out of place and said day will be your last.” Sylvanas growls, wanting to tamp down on the mage’s wanderlust, gripping her by the elbow and dragging her over to the shade of a nearby tree. The warmth of the human’s skin burns through the thin fabric of her shirt and Sylvanas suddenly feels a rush of shame. Prisoner or not, she loathes the fact that she’d just so casually laid her undead hands on her without thinking. She opens her mouth to apologise but Jaina has already stepped with her, uncaring, still transfixed by the winged peaks of the towers in the distance.
“I heard so many tales of your city. The sparkling untouchable jewel of Quel’Thalas, to have lived in such a place as magical as this, I can only imagine…” Jaina trails off, expression dreamlike and soft. “You must be quite the hero in their eyes to have protected it so.”
Sylvanas’s ears flatten at that naive sentiment and she scowls at the ground. “Heroes live, martyrs die. I am the inconvenient in-between, something that shouldn’t exist, and so they do the best thing they can, they chose to forget.”
“Well… they shouldn’t.” Jaina’s voice is clipped and final, a flicker of frustration crosses her expression and Sylvanas almost has to fight back a wry smile at her youthful decisiveness. But the human is thinking in terms of black and white, she wasn’t there when his voice festered within her soul, when he forced her spectral claws to tear through civilian and comrade alike, watching the frightened glow of their eyes fade as she’d discarded their bodies to the crimson-soaked earth.
She cannot be the hero, she doesn’t deserve to be one, not when so many of her people died by her hand and...
...And the scream .
Even now Sylvanas can feel that horrible energy, seething at the back of her throat whenever she feels upset or angry. It comes to her naturally, like some twisted predatory instinct… the urge to tilt her head back and wail all her rage and trauma and agony so that others can feel half the pain she feels as her wounded soul twists and writhes in grief. When she screams the world around her fades as though the very essence of life is leeched from the surroundings. The most hardened soldiers would whimper and drop to the ground, hands clutching at ears that bled; plants would curl inwards and wither to dust, and those closest would simply be snuffed out, organs imploding...at least their deaths were mercifully quick. She is now in possession of a weapon of such destruction that she cannot let it happen again, she will not. She refuses to even give name to what that monster has molded her into.
I have my body back, I reclaimed what he took from me. I am not what he intended, I am not the title he gave me. I’m an elf, I’m just an undead elf I’m not…
“Sylvanas?” The human’s voice is wary but controlled, just like her mother’s is when she ends up trapped in her own mind. But no, she cannot allow herself to break down in front of this stranger.
“You will stay here.” Sylvanas touches one hand to the rough texture of the tree bark to ground herself, fixing the human with a cold glare. She’s already revealed too much just by answering that idiotic assumption and revealing an insight into her wounded mind, making herself an easy target for pity and exploitation. “If I come back and you’re not here, I will hunt you down and then promptly wash my hands of you, be that in a public execution or justice by my own doing.” The threat is very real but somehow she can’t seem to keep her voice menacing enough to drive home her point.
“Yes ma’am.” The mage thumps her fist over her heart in a poor copy of an elven salute that Sylvanas rolls her eyes at, and just like that the moment has passed and Sylvanas feels the tightness ease in her chest as the two move back into more familiar territory. The mage unslings her staff before settling down in the boughs of the tree and Sylvanas is half tempted to take it, but that will only raise suspicion if she were to march into the city with a powerful mage's artifact at her back. “I’ll cloak myself should anyone come passing by.”
“Best to simply hide.” Sylvanas instructs dryly. “They will sense your magic far quicker than if you take cover amongst the trees.” She then shrugs, casually fixing her cloak as she squints through the leaves. “But nobody will set foot here, we are far from the path and it is unlike the general Silvermoon populus to stray any distance from civilization.”
“Smart of them.” The human mutters under her breath and Sylvanas has to hide a chuckle at that, remembering the loud and clumsy footsteps tripping and stumbling through the brush on the eve of their first meeting. The mage is definitely not one well accustomed to wandering off the beaten path.
It feels wrong when her steps take the human out of her range of eyesight and hearing and once more the anxiety creeps in, settling in the empty cavern of her chest with an old familiarity. Without the mage’s constant chatter and endless fidgeting, noises that Sylvanas found herself starting to get used to, she’s at the mercy of her own mind again and none of her thoughts are ever that kind.
She was simply playing up her weakness, you know she’s already taken off running the moment you turned your back. Your negligence will cost Silvermoon.
No, no. Sylvanas shakes her head, the human is just as desperate for supplies as she is, subtly asking with barely restrained desperation if she’d be picking up any food. She’s lost, she’s hungry and the manner in which she calmly tolerates Sylvanas’s hostile presence suggests she’s incredibly lonely as well.
If you were her, you’d have fled. For what sane person would willingly remain trapped in an old dusty cabin with the unnatural presence of the undead?
Cursing under her breath she almost turns back before steeling herself and willfully forcing her wavering legs to take her to the front gate. Entering Silvermoon, Sylvanas’s pace quickens as she ducks under the wards, wincing as they hum and sap at the necromantic energies that keep her body animated. Alerted by the anomalous blip in the magical defensives, the guards glance warily at her under gilded helms, though none of them dare approach to double check her intent. Her red eyes glare from the shroud of her hood causing any elf bold enough to glance in her direction to immediately turn away, ears lowered as if ashamed at being caught staring .
She’s as efficient as she can be, keeping her demands brisque and to the point. Orders are made, dates of deliveries booked and she takes the time to quickly drop a letter to her mother, updating on her progress. As reluctant as she is to write as though she were a fresh trainee initiate, sent on her first residential camp, it’s best to keep her mother in the know rather than have her needlessly worry or worse, turn up uninvited to her home. The last thing she needs is for Lireesa to find out she’s harbouring some scraggly human fugitive and all the chaos and accusation that would come from that.
Home-related tasks out the way, the last thing she does is pick up some essentials- vegetables and bread and bags of rice and spices; things that the living need to eat and that the market vendor sells to her with poorly contained surprise etched across his weathered face. She even takes a small detour to purchase some fishing line and bait, wondering if the human has any desire to fish in the lake. For once she’s glad that unlike before when she was still the famed and living Ranger General, there’s no posturing nobles or eager children trailing behind, vying for her attention and slowing her pace.
As one hour shifts into two, Sylvanas feels the anxiety further coil within her stomach, by the time she bids her short and less-than-pleasant farewells to the guards and makes it out the gate, her feet have already hit the graveled road in a borderline sprint. She doesn’t even try to mask any noise she makes crashing through the trees, her motionless heart like a leaden weight when she discovers that Jaina’s hiding spot is woefully empty. Rage and loss and betrayal rise in her throat, again that urge to scream behind teeth that clench with superhuman effort, result in a strangled noise of outrage and panic-
-only for it to die in her throat when her ears shift to the crunch of leaves behind her.
“Sylvanas?” Jaina’s voice is barely a whisper as she approaches and her eyes widen when she takes in the view of the utter desperation that is her captor, leaning against the tree trunk as though winded. “I heard someone coming, I worried it wasn’t you so I hid.”
“You didn’t leave?” Sylvanas chokes out, struggling with a mixed emotional cocktail of both shock and relief and ears tilted back in surprise.
“Why on Azeroth would I? Captor or not, you’ve been by far the best thing to happen to me ever since I stepped in these unforgiving forests. Without you I’d have long since given up or become a fine meal for a bear or sabercat, I would be a madwoman to turn down what you’ve given to allow me to continue in my research…” a sharp bark of laughter then suddenly escapes her and the human slaps a hand to her mouth, blue eyes wide and cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help but laugh, it's just the way your ears do that thing when you’re...”
“When I’m what? When I’m frankly baffled at your inability to take the chance of escape when offered to you?” Sylvanas fights the reflexive urge to reach up and self consciously tug at them, before turning to walk toward the direction of the path, wanting to do something other than stand around like a floundering fish and be subjected to the human’s entertainment.
“Didn’t know I was supposed to!” The mage huffs, falling in line beside Sylvanas, struggling to keep up with her longer stride. “Well I’m sorry to have disappointed you.”
“You have, but only because you’ve now denied me the pleasure of hunting you down.”
“Well that’s… comforting to know.” The two of them share a stilted chuckle, a product of both bemusement and nerves before Jaina pulls up the portal and together, side-by-side, they both step through.
It was different after that. With a much needed exercise of trust out the way, Sylvanas finds herself travelling further and further each day, scouting the perimeter of the lake, checking the forest for tracks to see what kind of wildlife has wondered their way, marking which trees she might use for wood in the future. She still denies herself the ever growing urge to hunt but she has indulged in setting up a few snares, bending the fresh saplings with practiced ease as her eyes dutifully scan for any sign of where natural paths have been worn, be it tracks in the wet earth or grass that’s bent or disturbed.
She forages as she would have done as a ranger, pleased that at least her stubborn old habits are now fulfilling a purpose. The more she is able to feed Jaina from the surrounding land, the less often she will need to go to the market which is still an uncomfortable experience and one she would rather avoid as much as she can. And it… feels good in a way, Jaina always takes her findings with a murmur of praise and a grateful smile and it’s been remarkably useful having someone living to remind Sylvanas of what is required in the restoration of her home. Things like blankets and candles, a hanging pot for the fire, kitchenware and a place to stack kindling. Things Sylvanas might have overlooked had Jaina not been inadvertently teaching her how to live again.
She was correct in thinking that Jaina likes to fish. Something about the expressions she uses, the colorful curses she sometimes spits out when she snaps the quill of her pen or burns her fingers on the kettle as she’s pouring them both tea. It reminds Sylvanas of the tradesmen who once visited Sunsail Anchorage with their crude yet intriguing colloquialisms and their stories of monsters and sea-witches. Between her strange little experiments that make the skin on the back of her neck prickle and her ears perk in response to the cloying presence of arcane, and her written studies, she often takes the time to sit on the jetty, the one thing that Sylvanas has left relatively untouched since she came here. The wood is old and dark but still intact and sometimes she finds herself pausing from unboarding the windows to stare at the young human as she swings her legs over the side and gently threads the bait through the tackle, humming a tune she does not recognize even from Sylvanas’s many excursions into Lordaeron.
How strange it is that she’s starting to appreciate her company. Still not entirely welcome but there are moments, moments where Jaina places a steaming mug of tea next to Sylvanas’s knee while she’s hunched over, furiously scraping the chipped paint off the old cabinet or when she looks up and smiles in pleasant greeting when Sylvanas traipses through the door, a stack of logs under one arm and leathers scuffed and torn from where she’s ripped up a particularly tenacious patch of brambles under the patio. Simple gestures of kindness, small snippets of conversation about her day and the casual yet appreciative acknowledgment of the work Sylvanas has managed so far, stuff she hadn’t realized just how much she’d needed until now.
For the first time Sylvanas walks through the door and feels a sense of accomplishment in what greets her. The furniture is nearly all wooden but carefully carved and sanded to perfection- the work of someone who not only has days but also the nights to spare. Blankets and cushions soften what might have looked a little too utilitarian otherwise, but the best part is that it looks lived in; from the blanket that’s been haphazardly thrown over the back of the kitchen chair, to the empty bowl and glass stacked in the sink. There’s paper and books scattered across every surface and while a few weeks prior it would have caused her to curl her lip in disgust, she now feels a sense of warmth deep within her chest that what she’s done has been used and appreciated, it makes her feel like she has a semblance of purpose for once in her undeath.
Something smells delicious, her nose locates it to the bubbling pot over the hearth and Sylvanas feels the forgotten sense of longing to have a taste of whatever strew Jaina has managed to pull together with the scarce ingredients available. Whatever it is, it’s utterly enticing and Sylvanas glances to see if she’s alone, the pad of bare feet in the bathroom upstairs suggests that she is and, with the uncertainty of a mutt stealing scraps from the table, Sylvanas grabs a spoon and risks a little taste-
-only to promptly gag and nearly spit it back out all over floorboards before reason kicks in and she composes herself enough to reluctantly swallow the mouthful down with immense effort. Fuck. And it had smelled so good as well, curse this traitorous corpse of hers and its inability to find pleasure in anything! Still, she finds her spirits no less dampened as she moves the pot off the fire a little, thinking that Jaina would appreciate it not boiling over. She’s glad that at least the human will hopefully find it delicious even if she cannot.
It adds to the homely aesthetic at the very least. She finds herself nodding sagely, before grimacing at her own pathetic trail of thought and promptly deciding she really needs to get out and hunt lest she suddenly become some insufferable home decorator with an overpriced shop in the heart of Silvermoon that attracts snooty nobles from around Quel’Thalas and Dalaran alike. At this rate her bow and quiver are starting to become the dustiest items in the cabin…
“You keep eyeing that bow of yours, what’s stopping you?”
So lost in thought as she is, Sylvanas nearly jumps out of her skin at the sound of Jaina’s voice behind her. The human is dressed warmly, hair tied up and still damp from the bath. Her scent is clean and carries a hint of the oils Sylvanas uses, though the elf can’t find it in her to care, Jaina had asked permission after all. Either way she decides she likes it; lavender and the bite of fresh snow- though the latter suggests that’s more of Jaina’s natural scent than anything, and it makes her wonder if it’s the vestiges of elven instinct that has her so drawn to the arcane, or whether it’s the human herself that has Sylvanas so enticed.
Am I really this lonely? I still don’t even wholly trust her, but the thought of her ever leaving has me… concerned when weeks ago I would have liked nothing more than for her to disappear.
It’s the distraction, Sylvanas summises. Jaina’s an excellent way of keeping her thoughts on track, in the present. In a way she finds that she’s making more of an effort for a total stranger than she has done with her own family and it’s difficult to unpack why. Perhaps because Jaina never knew her from before, and she no longer needs to compete with the former Ranger General who was full of light and life, basking in the prime of her years. Before she’d been so desperate to drag her former self from the grave, to wear her body like a puppet, playing a game of pretend for the sake of her family, but with Jaina she can truly be who she is now, someone who’s irrevocably damaged, someone who mistrusts everyone and everything, most of all herself.
She never knew me from before, her memories do not cloud her view, and yet still she stays, still she shows kindness. Jaina’s lonely too, it’s painfully obvious from the way she finds any excuse to hover nearby, and from the ceaseless conversation she tries and fails to stifle. She’s not had many people to talk to in her fleeting time on Azeroth, Sylvanas can tell, and for a moment she thinks that her and Lirath might connect well over that- being the slightly eccentric studious type with a mind that spooled too fast for others to ever keep up. Too bad they will never meet.
What’s stopping you? Sylvanas knows what, she’s just too proud to admit out loud but she’s scared. Afraid that she’ll fall back in love with the hunt, letting the hours slip by, only to return to an empty home.
“I’m not going anywhere, you know.”
Sylvanas’s ears swivel back immediately and for a moment she toys with the urge to lash out, to scream at this horribly perceptive woman to get out of her head but she simply grunts in response and walks over, picking up the bow and revelling in its familiar weight.
“Bring us back something good. I’m getting so tired of eating nothing but mushrooms and root vegetables.” Jaina casually saunters over with a knowing glint in her eye, tamping down on her excitement as Sylvanas inspects the weapon with a shrewd eye.
“I can’t promise you...” Sylvanas mutters, not taking her eyes off the weapon as she tilts it toward the light, running a finger across the string to check its integrity. The bow is still in perfect condition, there’s really no more excuses for her to put this off any longer. Glancing once at the human, Sylvanas is taken aback at the warm smile the mage is giving her and she realises that it’s simply yet another leap of faith she’s going to have to make.
Bring us back something good. Sylvanas doesn’t know why she keeps repeating that sentence as she sets out for the long trek ahead, quiver at her back and hood drawn, but instead of shying away from the warm feeling it invokes, she chooses to embrace it, jaw set in determination that she will do just that.
Hours later in the fading light when Sylvanas emerges from the treeline with a large buck slung over her shoulder, thick furred and heavy with an impressive rack of antlers she cannot wait to hang up over the hearth, Jaina pushes through the front door with an elated grin on her face.
“Talk about outdoing yourself! Sylvanas, he’s beautiful!” Jaina then pauses to cover her mouth with her hand as she fights back a yawn before blinking to compose herself. “I’m so glad I stayed up.”
She’s not lying, Sylvanas realizes in shock; Jaina looks all too ready to collapse at her feet but the tired, proud smile she offers causes yet another one of those odd, warm feelings to coil in her chest.
She didn’t run, or even retire for bed, she waited up for me.
Sylvanas shakes her head half in fondness, half in exasperation as Jaina stumbles ahead of her, eager to be helpful as human eyes struggle to squint through the dark as she fumbles for the bolt, wrenching open the stable door to assist Sylvanas in hanging up her kill.
“So how does one even handle such a large catch? Are we going to use those antlers and the hide for decoration? How are we planning to store the meat?” Jaina’s endless stream of questions would have been botheresome if it weren’t so endearing and Sylvanas has to hold her hand up to put an end to her chatter with a dry chuckle.
It’s always ‘we’ with her these days- when did that change?
“What you are going to do is go to sleep, you’re dead on your feet... trust me, I would know.” Jaina laughs at first before her expression falters, wary if that's an appropriate response. Sylvanas bumps her elbow to hers to ensure the remark is made in jest and she relaxes back into a joyous grin. “Those of us unburdened by the needs of the living can spend the small hours of the night sorting this out.” Sylvanas runs a hand through the thick, shaggy fur at the scruff of the buck’s neck. “I plan to use every part of him if I can, it will take me awhile.”
Jaina grumbles good naturedly but admits defeat, knowing she’s all but ready to pass out but she does pause at the stable door, looking back with curiosity swimming in those blue eyes of hers. “But you will teach me? Another day?”
“Perhaps another day.” Sylvanas relents and Jaina hums in happy agreement.
“Well then if you insist, I will take my leave and check on your progress come morning when I’m less…” Jaina again covers her mouth as she fights back a particularly vicious yawn. “Well you know less…”
“ Goodnight Jaina.” Sylvanas stresses the word and Jaina laughs at her dry expression as she gestures with a jerk of her head toward the cabin before backing out the stable, closing the door behind her with a soft click. Sylvanas has to step back and lean against the wall for a moment, taking a few unsteady breaths that rattle in her chest.
This is the first time I’ve ever felt something akin to pride in years. And it’s true, she does feel proud of what she’s achieved, hunting this buck down had taken her to the edge of her wits and skill, tracking him with a relentlessness that she admits her living self could never have managed. The wildlife is so scarce in the forest now, she’d hardly believed it when she’d first spotted him poised on the outcrop, like a vision though the ghostly light flitting through the densely packed trees. His hot breath had steamed white in the evening air, hers hadn’t.
A life for a life, release your mortal hold. May your body nourish our bodies and may your memories nourish our souls.
The archaic Darnassian had fallen from her lips out of habit as she'd laid her hand on the still cooling flank and closed her eyes, head bowed in respect. The hunter’s prayer might have felt hollow coming from her had she not been thinking of Jaina the entire time.
I hope you like Windrunner family shenanigans because that's all I like writing these days and next chapter is full of it.
Chapter 3: The Bravest Person I Know
Sorry it's been a while, no excuse other than Shadowlands happened :')
Still got you a 10k chapter to make up for it though!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Something’s different about you.” Liadrin’s voice is seeped with suspicion, golden eyes narrowing as she fixates Sylvanas with a stern yet searching gaze.
“Funny time to start interrogating me while I’m on my back.” Sylvanas grumbles in return, willing herself to relax as the priest places one searing hand at the base of her ankle and the other just above her knee, slowly easing her leg upwards before pushing forward to the point she feels resistance. Sylvanas half expects the mildly pleasant ache of muscles with the stretch, yet it never comes and her skin crawls at the unfamiliar contact. Still, she lets out a long exhale of breath to ease herself into the position as she would have done when she was alive.
“Flexibility is still normal.” Liadrin notes to herself, easing her grip on Sylvanas’s knee, gently bringing her leg back down before her sharp gaze returns to her patient’s face. “Sorry, but it’s true. You do seem different, less… willing to bite my head off.”
“Jury’s still out on that one.” Sylvanas mutters before huffing an errant strand of hair out of her face as she winces at the too-bright arcane lamps that throw Liadrin’s surgery into a harsh clinical light. “So how’s work been lately, busy time for you still?”
“Sylvanas Windrunner,” Liadrin raises her eyebrows in surprise, at the same time her ears prick forward in avid interest. “Are you attempting small talk?”
Sylvanas’s ears, in turn, immediately swivel back, and she fixes her healer with a stern glare. “Make it weird and I won’t say anything at all.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” Liadrin hurriedly admits. “And it’s best we do have you talking, when you greeted me it was as though you’d forgotten how to speak. I suppose it’s been a while since you’ve had a proper conversation, living alone as you seem intent on doing.”
Well, been a while since I’ve had a conversation in Thalassian. Sylvanas amends internally but all she can offer Liadrin is a one shouldered shrug.
Liadrin sighs at that and absently pulls at the hem of the clinical gloves on her wrists before gently nudging Sylvanas’s knees to the side, testing the flexibility of her hips. “Remarkable,” she murmurs to herself. “You seem to have kept your full range of motion, it’s unlike any other… patient I’ve treated.”
“You mean the other undead?” Sylvanas bluntly questions and Liadrin tersely nods in response. “Well,” she again shrugs, the paper covering the gurney crinkling from the movement, “guess the rigor mortis hasn’t quite set in yet.”
“Sylvanas.” Liadrin scolds but can’t quite help a hint of a smile touch the corner of her mouth as she helps her patient sit upright, swinging her legs over the side of the bench and placing her hands either side to fix Sylvanas with an imploring look. “Well it looks like you’ve got your sense of humor back too, morbid as it is,” her voice then softens and Sylvanas has to avert her gaze, hating the spark of hidden hope shining in the priest’s eyes. “You really are feeling better aren’t you.”
“Well… I’m not feeling worse, let’s leave it at that.” Sylvanas offers and Liadrin hums in agreement, stepping back to give her some space as she busies herself with gathering up her notes and clipboard.
“In answer to your earlier question, work has been busy but I’m coping. Thankfully I have patients that are a lot less difficult than you in order to carry out my research.” She points her pen threateningly at Sylvanas who merely quirks a brow in response before the healer’s expression becomes faraway and sickeningly fond. “Your mother has also been wonderful in providing me the resources to study as much as I can.”
“I’m sure she has.” Sylvanas mutters, having to actively refrain herself from rolling her eyes.
There’s a sharp tearing of paper and the click of a pen as Liadrin perches on the corner of her desk, still scribbling down her notes as she asks Sylvanas without looking up: “So when are you going to let her see your new place?”
Oh and there it is. Sylvanas snorts at the predictability of it all but she has to credit Liadrin for lasting this long.
“When I’m ready to.” Sylvanas tenses, already bristling at the way Liadrin’s ears dip in disappointment. But she cannot let her mother find out about Jaina, not yet, not ever. Unable to keep up the pretence for long, Liadrin sets aside her clipboard with a heavy sigh and looks up.
“She barely sleeps you know, and when she does she tosses and murmurs your name. She won’t say it but she’s hurting Sylvanas, and scared. The promise of you seeing me today is the only thing that’s keeping her from marching over and banging on your door and Belore knows I’m not getting any sleep tonight either, it will be an interrogation as soon as I get home.” Liadrin’s voice is calm but Sylvanas can sense the searing passion behind the controlled mask, the accusatory glint in her golden eyes. Pain lances through Sylvanas’s chest.
She blames you, they all do.
But for the first time, instead of turning that hurt inwards, all Sylvanas can think of is how unfair it is to be spoken to this way. “Thank you,” She sneers as her red eyes flare, “for further heightening the guilt I already feel, and if it makes you both feel better, let her know I wish I could sleep too.”
Liadrin stops short at that, her usually tan face pale as her hands unclench from the fists she’d formed unconsciously. “By the Light Sylvanas, I’m sorry.” The healer’s shoulders slump as her ears droop in misery, any previous anger evaporating in one appalled breath of realization. “That was completely out of place and unwarranted for me to say. I’m attacking you having only seen half of the picture and as a healer I’m supposed to be making you better, not have you walking away feeling worse.” Impossibly her ears seem to sink even lower and her mouth twists into a bitter grimace. “That was heinously unprofessional of me.”
“You care about my mother.” Sylvanas simply states, still tense but somewhat understanding of Liadrin’s position.
“I love your mother.” Liadrin replies with enough heat that Sylvanas can’t help but forgive her for her earlier outburst even if she inwardly winces at that passionate declaration. Their newfound relationship is still something she’s reeling from, but she’s glad, glad that Lireesa has someone to fall back on, someone to help her grieve- even if her mother staunchly defends that’s not what she’s doing. “But what I said earlier Sylvanas, I’m so sorry- you have no reason to feel guilt over anything and I hate myself for even insinuating that.”
Sylvanas merely waves away her apology with an airy gesture of her hand, indicating all is forgiven before she sighs at the way Liadrin steps towards her, features smoothing back into detached and clinical as she quickly slips back into her role.
“So, now that little spat is out the way, how long until you’re done with your poking and prodding?” Sylvanas tiredly remarks, already on edge that she’s left Jaina alone for so long.
“Almost, just a few more tests I need to do,” The healer’s expression then turns to one of trepidation, “namely one that involves you sitting up and removing your shirt.”
“Ah Liadrin I-”
“I’m sorry to do this to you Sylvanas,” Liadrin’s ears fold back as she steps away to gather her notes, golden eyes swimming with compassion. “But I would really appreciate having a look at it again, just to answer some questions. It’s only you and I here in this room and you know that I’ve seen it before.”
Well. Fuck. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been dreading this moment, a small part of her had hoped maybe otherwise; but as usual, no such luck.
Sylvanas has to stop herself from ripping the paper covering she’s perched on to shreds as her fingers curl over the edge of the gurney in a white knuckled grip, shoulders tense and her head bowed. Liadrin steps forward once, only to dutifully pause when Sylvanas raises her left hand to stop her movements, the fingers on her right stiffly working at the buttons of her shirt in a slow, agonized process. The shirt slips from her bony shoulders, dropping away to expose skin that’s deathly pale and numerous in scars, before the fabric pools around her jutting hip bones. Her fingers then turn to the bandages wrapped tightly around her torso, reluctantly working on those as well.
“Help me with these.” Sylvanas requests in a whisper-soft voice and Liadrin is quick to obey, keeping her touch as infrequent and light as she can, before unravelling them to reveal the scar in all its horrendous glory.
Nothing about it has healed. If anything it looks worse, Liadrin’s mind having softened the memory of it, soothed the raw and ragged edges, of the blackened webbing of veins reaching out, as though the wound was perpetually spreading its foul corruption like an infection. It’s so deep, so painful-looking, that Liadrin’s palms flare with light, a reflex to lay her hands on the chest of a dying patient and cast her most powerful spell yet, but the way Sylvanas shrinks back quickly reminds her that the Light will only burn.
She feels useless.
“So what’s the verdict doc? Think I can just walk this one off?” Sylvanas lets out a strained chuckle that quickly falls flat when Liadrin’s lips remain pursed, her expression a mask even as her eyes dim in horror that she’s not quick enough to disguise.
Liadrin doesn’t say anything and Sylvanas can’t help the violent flinch as warm fingers press at the blemished skin that marks the outline of it.
“Please. Don’t.” Sylvanas hates how rough and weak her voice sounds, trembling under the foreign touch as Liadrin feels around the edges of the broken skin, jaw set in a determination that tells Sylvanas she won’t be stopping until her job is done.
“I won’t be long.” Liadrin simply responds, fingers resting against her sternum where the top of the scar ends, hiding the grimace as her eyes take in the burnt-looking scar-tissue, similar to the same ones that mar her face with the tears of her final stand. “Does it still hurt?” She asks and Sylvanas nods, then shakes her head… then frowns as she tries to piece together an explanation.
“Some days are worse than others, more so when I’m thinking about it.”
Sylvanas’s nods shakily. “Like now.”
Liadrin offers her a sad smile, before she stands back with a final sigh, pen clicking as she scribbles something down, her lips pulled downward in a troubled frown. “Since nothing seems to have changed, my instructions stay the same, pack it daily with the gauze. then bind it tightly-” Liadrin then waves her hand dismissively, “you already know the drill. I’ll just here to refresh you with more supplies.” She turns toward the cabinet, before fixing Sylvanas with a coy smile and holding up the lollipop like a prize. “And now for the best part, will you accept?”
Sylvanas opens her mouth to say no before she lets out an amused huff and raises her brows in challenge. “You know what? Yes, give it here.”
Sylvanas has never felt more tired as she trudges home, not physically but emotionally- the visit to Liadrin taking more out of her than she’d ever expected. Her ears are lax and her feet are dragging as she pushes through the door with a weary sigh of relief from her hollow lungs at the familiar sight of the hallway and kitchen that greet her. But it’s not the warm flickering embers of the hearth, or the rhythmic ticking of the clock underneath the impressive rack of antlers on the mantelpiece that has her feeling comforted- it’s the small human moving the kettle onto the stove, already in anticipation when she’d heard her footsteps on the gravel pathway outside. It’s the bright smile she gets in greeting as she spins around before her expression dims somewhat at the state Sylvanas knows she must look.
“How was it?”
“Less than ideal.” Every day Sylvanas is surprised at how easy it is to be honest with her.
A sympathetic hum. “Well it’s over, now you can relax and endure me talking your ear off, it’s been so quiet without you today.” Jaina sighs dramatically before her eyes zero in on Sylvanas right hand. “Wait, what’s that you’ve got there?”
“Oh.” Sylvanas realises what Jaina’s referring to and she walks over to Jaina with a slightly embarrassed laugh, handing the lollipop over. “Was given this for being such a brave girl, thought I’d bring it back for you. Not sure if humans share this silly gesture when taking a trip to the healer, it’s meant for the children but Liadrin’s always given one to me because she’s an insufferable little-”
“No!” Jaina butts in, answering the question with her exclamation. “I couldn’t possibly accept that! That’s a badge of honor right there. I would not be worthy!” She dramatically thrusts it back at Sylvanas, who rolls her eyes, and casually steps around the counter, nudging the human’s shoulder affectionately as she moves to take the kettle off the heat.
“So what tea were you thinking?”
“Uhh blackberry and currant?” Jaina tilts her head at Sylvanas’s grimace. “No? Okay fine, what about dreamfoil?”
“I suppose that will suffice.” Sylvanas makes a show of inspecting her nails with an aloof expression as Jaina scowls and jerks the handle of the kettle away from Sylvanas’s grip, slamming two cups down on the counter with far more force than necessary. Sylvanas can’t help the slow smirk that spreads across her face at the human’s antics only further serving to annoy Jaina even more.
“Why even ask if you’re just going to veto my suggestions until I get it right?”
“Because it’s fun that way.”
Jaina grumbles to herself, straining the hot water through the leaves. “I’m going to let that slide because you’ve had a tough day but know your insufferable actions will not be tolerated further down the line.”
Sylvanas bristles at that remark, narrowing her eyes. “I have not had a tough day , all I did was go see Liadrin, hardly a feat of strength.”
“It can’t have been easy all the same,” Jaina softly replies. “I’m proud of you.”
Sylvanas’s stomach twists, good mood starting to fade as a lick of self consciousness starts to creep in its place. “Proud of me? Have I really set the bar so low?”
Realizing she’s treading dangerous waters all of a sudden, Jaina shakes her head. “Of course not! I just know it was something you’d been putting off, I knew it wasn’t something you felt happy about doing, yet you did it anyway. I was proud of you for making that decision.”
“Well it wasn’t hard, so stop treating it like I did some kind of act of noble bravery.” Sylvanas snaps and Jaina’s lips purse as she folds her arms defensively, tea forgotten as her attentions are turned on what is rapidly becoming a situation about to escalate out of her control, not if she doesn’t get a handle on it soon.
“I already know what you’re capable of Sylvanas, you don’t have to prove it.” Jaina sighs softly, stepping forward. “You sacrificed everything to protect your home, you saved so many lives, faced odds I could never have imagined. Sylvanas, the first time I experienced true conflict I…” Jaina’s expression becomes troubled as though wanting to say more, before she sighs miserably, shame etched across her face. “I ran... but you- you don’t run from your problems do you, this was just another example. You did what needed to be done, even though it pained you to do so. So let me be proud of you, because… well…” Jaina takes another step forward until she’s standing to face to face, blue eyes meeting crimson in an unrelenting glare. “Because you’re the bravest person I know.”
And suddenly Sylvanas feels like her feet have dropped away from her because the human has wrapped her arms around her, holding her in the tightest, warmest hug. The first proper hug she’s had in years.
She’s as stiff as a board, ears bolt upright in alarm, but she doesn’t push Jaina away and the human isn’t deterred in the slightest, if anything she tightens her hold and presses her face into the crook of her neck. Impossibly, Sylvanas’s eyes widen and she lifts her hands to gently push the human away, but her body betrays her in wrapping her own arms around Jaina’s shoulders. It’s tentative and slow, stiff and not a natural gesture in the slightest, but she realizes in shock that she’s hugging Jaina back.
Belore she’s hugging back.
Jaina burns like a furnace in her arms, her hair smells nice and her breath tickles against the sensitive skin of Sylvanas’s neck. Her heart beats like a war drum, echoing against her own empty chest and the thrum of arcane is a heady feeling a Sylvanas’s spine tingles with the contact. Fuck, it’s too much.
It’s not enough.
And just like that’s it’s over, Jaina’s disentangling herself, smoothly stepping back even as her face burns crimson in the firelight. “Did I overstep?” She whispers, wiping her hands on her breeches as though finding them clammy.
“No… no you-” Sylvanas has to pause to inhale, realizing she’s not been breathing since Jaina first moved into her personal space. “I-”
Belore, she thinks, I truly have forgotten how to speak.
She settles for a shake of her head and Jaina’s face lights up with a smile. “Thank you Sylvanas.” But when she turns back toward the now cooling tea, Sylvanas finds herself reaching out again, placing an arm on the mage’s elbow to stop her.
Jaina’s smile fades and she looks up at the elf worriedly before Sylvanas gently tugs her back toward her with a beseeching look. “I didn’t do it properly.” She whispers and Jaina tilts her head, confused.
“I can… I can do better than that, can we try again?” Sylvanas feels too embarrassed to wait for Jaina’s response, so she simply pulls her back into another embrace instead and the human is all too eager to follow suit, stepping into her arms as if she now belongs.
“Are we okay?” Jaina finally speaks after a while, breaking the momentary silence. Her voice is so gentle that Sylvanas closes her eyes and nods, ears laid low in submission as she seeks for the warmth and acceptance this human so freely offers.
“Yeah,” She eventually breathes, “We’re okay.”
The last thing Sylvanas ever expected to find so deep within the forest was a horse.
Seeing a large shape moving through the thicket, she’d been about to nock her arrow before quickly realizing that it was far too large to be any buck and its footsteps too loud to be that of a wolf or bear. She’d then crept closer to see a flash of white from its coat and heard the distinctive equine snort as the animal rooted around for something to eat.
What in Belore’s name?
Against her better judgement Sylvanas stands upright, unmasking her steps and heading toward the horse, still in disbelief. Hearing the click of her tongue, the horse’s head shoots upright, ears pricked and alert and Sylvanas, in turn, cocks her head, frowning.
“What’s a horse like you doing out here?” She murmurs, stepping around the tree to come into view. The horse snorts again in answer and eagerly begins to walk purposefully in her direction, clearly tame and lost and seeking solace in the humanoid shape amongst the trees. Getting a better look, Sylvanas admits she’d never seen an animal quite like it, far larger and stockier than any of the chargers bred in Quel’Thalas, with impressive feathered feet that stepped high in an unusual gait. Perhaps an import, she wouldn’t put it past a nobleman to procure a more exotic collection for his stable, but this far out in the forest? Something doesn’t quite add up.
And when something doesn’t add up, Sylvanas’s thoughts immediately jump to Jaina.
Did she have a horse when she’d first arrived here? No, surely not, she would have told her about it, right? Sylvanas doesn’t know why the thought of Jaina potentially keeping a secret like this bothers her so, it’s not like the human is exactly an open book, only really providing information if Sylvanas directly asks. And Sylvanas hasn’t really been one to pry, already respecting that everyone has a past they might not be so ready to bring up, she certainly can agree with that. But what reason would Jaina have to lie about bringing a horse, well perhaps not lie but certainly withhold the truth.
Of course it doesn’t take long for said horse to sense something off about her aura when he immediately freezes, nostrils flared wide before wheeling off in the opposite direction in a high stepping trot.
Sylvanas utters a colorful Thalassian curse.
“Ungrateful brute” she snaps out after him. “You’re half starved in these woods, it’s a small miracle you aren’t a carcass, picked clean by the dragonhawks and you think to refuse me?”
Even after all this time she should be used to animals rejecting her but… it still hurts. Fastening her bow behind her back, Sylvanas lets out a long sigh before turning on her own heel and heading back toward the cabin.
Jaina is raking leaves from the pathway when Sylvanas passes the last of the trees into the clearing, looking up with a worried frown when she notices how soon Sylvanas has returned, and empty handed to boot. She leans the tool against the wall before making her way toward the hunter, eyes questioning.
“I found a horse in the forest.” Sylvanas announces, scrutinizing the human’s face for any hint of recognition yet none is found when Jaina appears equally puzzled.
“That’s unusual.” She eventually remarks when Sylvanas offers no further information, “alone I imagine?”
“Yes, tackless but very tame, he came right up to me before realizing I was undead.” Sylvanas hates that her voice still carries a hint of bitterness, even as she tries so hard to hide it.
“Perhaps escaped? What’s the closest stable to the location you found him?”
“Not one for miles, but the weirdest part,” Sylvanas continues to study Jaina’s face with an intensity that makes the human frown. “He was definitely not a Thalassian-bred horse.”
“I mean, my fam-” Jaina clears her throat “-many human kingdoms used to export their stock to Quel’Thalas. Especially the horses bred to stand steady on a ship.”
“Seems you know quite a lot about it.” Sylvanas dryly remarks only to jolt when Jaina lays a hand on her arm, eyes searching.
“Hey, what’s this about. Are you asking if I brought it here?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.” Sylvanas snips back, wondering why she’s feeling so wound up. So what if Jaina omitted the information of smuggling in a horse, it wasn’t like she’d asked. And it hadn’t been until recently they they’d even started to trust one another, it could have been something the human was working up to say or-
“Sylvanas, no way did I portal a horse to Quel’Thalas. I would have told you otherwise and besides do you know how impractical that would be? How would I have hoped to conceal myself leading around a gigantic beast!”
“Well, you didn’t exactly do a good job even without.” Sylvanas hisses back before relaxing the tension in her shoulders and sighing. “But you’re right, you’d have no reason to. So why is it here?”
“I mean, was he shod? Did he have a brand on him to suggest where he came from?” Jaina absently scratches the side of her face, frowning as though deep in thought.
“I don’t know, wouldn’t let me near enough to figure it out but it has me on edge to think that maybe someone else has managed to get through and this is the steed they’ve left behind.”
“What did he look like?” Jaina suddenly asks, and Sylvanas finds it’s her turn to look confused.
“Big, white, feathered feet and looking like he could tow a galleon if he felt so inclined.”
“Oh no…” Jaina’s fingers twist in her hair as the blood drains from her face. “Oh no, this isn’t good.”
“What, who does it belong to? Is this a cause for concern?” Sylvanas steps closer, eyes a torrent of red as her thoughts become frantic with figuring out Jaina’s trail of thought.
“Tides,” Jaina exclaims, hands still in her scalp. “I portaled a horse to Quel’Thalas!”
“I thought you just said you didn’t!” Sylvanas exclaims, ears pinned with a narrowed gaze.
“Well… not on purpose.” Jaina swears again and whips around as though searching for a solution to pluck out of the thin air before leaning closer to Sylvanas as if admitting a secret. “When I broke my way through the wards to Quel’Thalas, it was a teleportation spell, not a portal.”
“Teleportation isn’t always the best form of moving oneself around great distances with magic, a portal is finite, a fixed tear in space that you can control, but very easy to detect. Teleportation on the other hand, well, sometimes you end up taking unwanted things with you.”
“Like an entire horse?”
“Yes, like an entire horse...don’t look at me like that Sylvanas, these things happen and yes I made a mistake, we all do! Antonidas once told me he teleported part of the building with him when he first tried to-”
“Right, sorry.” Jaina pinches the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “The night I chose to break into your nation, I was sitting on the stable door, spellbook perched on my lap. Ghost was there, I was stroking his neck because I was scared and I needed something to ground me before I took the leap... and well, I always found his presence calming when I was young.” Jaina sighs and looks down at her feet, “I even joked that I wished that he could come with me and… and I felt the resistance, as though I were wading through syrup when the world warped around me. I thought it was because I was fighting through the wards that made the journey so hard, but it wasn’t that- it was because, oh Tides, it was because I was dragging a thousand pounds of horse along with me as well.”
Sylvanas’s ears pin back in shock.
“We have to go find him.” Jaina steps past her motionless form, already headed for the trees. She manages a few steps before Sylvanas jolts back to the present and rushes to catch up with her, clapping a hand on the mage’s shoulder to get her to come to a stop.
“Jaina, I can’t let you just wander off in there, and besides, there’s no way that horse is letting me anywhere near him.”
“But he might come to me! Sylvanas, it was my foolish mistake that brought him here in the first place, he’s been wandering alone out there for weeks! Hungry, afraid and in a territory he’s never experienced before- this is my fault if anything happens to him, I have to know that he’s okay, please!”
“Fuck.” Sylvanas holds up a hand to stop Jaina’s incessant pleading before dragging a hand through her own hair, letting her hood fall back, slipping from her ears as they remain pinned. “Fuck, okay we will try and find him...again.”
“Thank you,” Jaina whimpers, wrapping her warm fingers around the bare skin of Sylvanas’s wrist as her eyes swim with gratitude. “Thank you Sylvanas.”
“This woman is going to be the cause of my true death.” She grumbles bitterly to herself, fixing her hood with a scowl as she follows the frantic human back down the path. To think this was supposed to be her moment of relaxation and respite and instead Jaina has her marching back out into the trees in order to track a lost horse she’d accidentally portaled with her, all the while brute forcing her way through the protective enchantments of Quel’Thalas as though it were a mere arcane puzzle one completed with their coffee on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
She will admit though, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nothing’s ever easy, plans never truly work as expected, and sometimes you have to cast aside your pride and admit defeat, lest you break your fangs biting off more than you can chew. Sylvanas was the first to drum that into any initiate’s head should they have had the misfortune of being placed in her squad.
Jaina has definitely not yet learned this, she still has that brash optimism that comes hand in hand with someone who’s not let lived past one hundred. And yet, despite all her jaded wisdom, Sylvanas finds herself getting caught up in the same foolishness, chasing a frightened horse through the forest all the while dragging a less than agile human who seems to have the survival instincts of a baby bird.
Several hours later and she’s forced to watch Jaina attempt to win a tug of war with an animal that’s capable of hauling a ship into a drydock without breaking a sweat.
“Pull it from an angle.” Sylvanas hisses, “it will throw him off balance and have him step forward.”
“I’m trying.” Comes the heated response through gritted teeth. “But he’s making it mighty difficult with the way he keeps tossing his head. Ghost, c’mon...:” she turns to Sylvanas, sheepish and flustered, “he’s not usually like this.”
“He’s afraid in my proximity, perhaps if I maintain a further distance, he will calm down enough to follow.”
“But I don’t want you to leave me alone.” Jaina shouts back, digging her heels into the ground but still tugging to no avail.
Sylvanas lets out a groan of exasperation. “At this rate it will be nightfall by the time we get him back to the stable.” She pleads, “lets just let him go and be done with it.”
“No! Do you see how skinny he is? Another month out here and he will starve. Besides, do you really want anyone else to find him out here?”
Again she has another infuriating point. If any one of the patrols found him out here it would cause all sorts of riots back at home, squads would be quickly scrambled to sweep the area and Belore help them if Alleria were to catch wind of any of this. Her sister could sniff out discrepancies with a tenacity that rivalled her own, there would be no throwing her off the trail should she or any of her squad come across this.
“I’ll stand a way off, upwind so he cannot catch my scent.”
“I don’t think it’s your-” Jaina breaks away with a grunt when Ghost suddenly steps forward, throwing her balance off, “-scent that’s the issue. It’s your aura.”
“Aura?” Sylvanas folds her arms defensively, glaring at Jaina suspiciously.
“The magic that surrounds you, necromancy… death magic. It’s what- tides he’s strong-” Jaina fights with the rope, pushing back the errant strands of hair that have escaped her braid before trying again, “-it’s what causes that uneasy feeling, what makes animals such as him so frightened.”
Sylvanas’s heart sinks.
“Do you feel it then?” She struggles to keep her voice steady, “some form of unease when you’re around me?”
Jaina shakes her head vehemently. “No, not at all. I mean I can sense the magic but it doesn’t feel nefarious, if anything I feel… safe, around you I mean-” Jaina trails off, a flush to her cheeks that’s not just from the exertion of wrestling with a horse. “And it’s most definitely not your scent, you smell quite... nice in fact...fresh, earthy, like the forest after the rain-” Jaina then winces and promptly shuts her mouth, suddenly finding her boots and the earth incredibly interesting as she gives another futile tug on the horse’s lead rope.
Sylvanas feels her spirit soar, for a brief moment she swears that the perpetual itch from the scar in her sternum fades, leaving her light and free. It’s hilarious really, how vain she is; underneath that mask of uncaring boredom that she wears, she’s still so desperately insecure. She sees herself as a disgusting corpse, unwanted, unwelcome, something the reeks of death and wrongness, something that should be kept out of sight and mind. But sometimes, with the way Jaina looks at her, the way she so casually brushes an arm or places a warm hand on her shoulder, absentminded, as though she welcomes having Sylvanas close- it feels as though she can be so much more.
Here I am, scraping by from the validation of others as I always did, even in life... but fuck she gave me a compliment and I’m floundering here like an idiot, I should say something back, like how how lovely her eyes are or the fact that she smells amazing too-
Jaina awkwardly clears her throat and the moment is gone.
“If you follow behind, just out of sight but close enough for him to sense you, it might encourage him to let me lead him back to the cabin if he thinks he’s moving away from the danger.”
“Ah yes.” Sylvanas remarks. “Flush the prey into the den of the predator.”
Jaina scoffs at her dry tone. “Hardly, you’re no threat to him, he just doesn’t know that yet.”
“And he never will, I am something wrong and unnatural, something that causes his very instincts to flee. We won’t be able to keep him long you know, sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out how to relocate him lest we have a perpetually terrified beast on our hands.”
Jaina frowns, then slings the rope over Ghost’s neck, allowing the stubborn horse a moment of truce before turning to face Sylvanas fully.
“You portal train your steeds, right?”
“Of course, from the moment they are able, it’s the first thing we do.”
“Well a portal isn’t natural.” Jaina points out, absently scratching at the horse’s wither. “A horse doesn’t simply allow himself to be led through an ominous rip in space-time without training nor climatization. In Kul Tiras we feed our horses aboard the ships to have them associate being led onto a vessel as something of a positive experience, it’s what allows them to stand so calmly even as the deck lurches beneath their hooves.” Jaina sighs and in her left palm a blue ball of power coalesces, icy mist drifting between her fingers. The horse doesn’t flinch, though he bumps at her arm with his muzzle, intrigued by the tingle of magic. “Arcane isn’t natural, this isn’t natural but it doesn’t make it bad.”
“But how can you get a living animal to accept you when everything about his nature rejects it.” Sylvanas grounds out, through gritted fangs.
“By proving him wrong.” Jaina lets out a soft laugh, “Allow me this, a moment to keep him, and if we can’t figure out a way to get him to tolerate you then I promise, I’ll find a way to deliver the horse safely out of Quel’Thalas.”
“I don’t know why you’re even asking me, I can tell from the tone in your voice that you’re set on this little experiment of yours whether I agree to it or not.” Sylvanas meant it in jest but the way Jaina shakes her head with a serious frown causes her to tilt her head in a very elven trademark to express her confusion.
“You mean force you? No, never, say the word and I’ll do everything I can to get him back where he belongs.”
The words strike a chord and Sylvanas lets out a long sigh, wondering what happened to reason and surmises that she probably lost it the moment she let Jaina within the protection of her new home. She waves a dismissive hand, ears pulled back as shoots the mage a tired, exasperated look. “So be it.”
Standing outside the stable in the middle of the night, with Jaina’s breath steaming in the air, Sylvanas finds herself at loss of what to do. There’s no way they can keep such an animal, especially not one such as Ghost, a supposed Kul Tiran charger as Jaina had described.
Which only brought up further questions. If Jaina was telling the truth, that she was raised on the island nation, brought to Dalaran to study, then why on Azeroth had she not simply returned home? Kul Tiras was safe, surely? Isolated and out the way, and providing far more trouble that it was worth should one attempt to lay siege to its shores.
Another uneasy thought then hits her, if Jaina was trained in Dalaran then did she know of her brother? Would she recognize Vereesa? Or perhaps studied alongside her husband…
Sylvanas had convinced herself uncaring of who Jaina really was, outside of her magical prowess, that she was simply someone she had to cooperate with for the moment. Someone who she felt she had no desire to get to know, but with every passing day she finds herself asking more and more questions, wishing to get an insight into this strange human’s past. It doesn’t help that Jaina seems intent on parting with as little information as possible, never outwardly lying but definitely determined to keep who she really is shrouded in mystery.
For a wild moment she considers perhaps confiding in Vereesa, wondering if she could delve into Dalaran’s records, glean some idea of who exactly is the person now living in her cabin. But no, it would be foolish, Vereesa would absolutely overreact, panic and potentially put Jaina in danger.
Oh come now, she’s not some priceless pearl that you keep hidden under your mattress, Jaina’s a living breathing human, sooner or later the truth will come out, no matter how hard you feel inclined to keep her a secret.
“So you’ve got to be the one to feed him,” Jaina explains, and Sylvanas blinks, stirred from her tumultuous thoughts. “That way he will start to associate you with something to look forward to. While you might seem unfamiliar and scary, he will realize soon enough that you are the hand that feeds him and then perhaps with plenty of time and patience, he will even anticipate and look forward to your arrival.”
“Doubtful, but I’m willing to try. Unless this is your way of shirking duties unto me,” Sylvanas narrows her eyes in accusation but can’t help the smirk that Jaina brazenly returns.
“Two birds, one arrow.” Jaina simply shrugs and Sylvanas feels strangely proud that she’s starting to pick up some of her phrasing, even if it’s translated into woeful Common.
“I still can’t believe we stole from that outpost though.” Jaina whispers, still looking down forlornly at the bucket of oats at her feet. Sylvanas allows a strained chuckle at how disturbed the human looks at the thought of committing such a harmless crime.
“I wouldn’t say stolen, merely distributed. We took just enough to feed him for the moment, and the ranger’s horses won’t be any worse off for it. If anything I highly doubt the missing supplies will even be noted.” Sylvanas then chuckles darkly, “and if they are it will be an irritating little mystery for my sister to try and solve. She will be furious to be called away from duty for matters as petty as this.”
“You have a sister?” Jaina questions, tone soft as blue eyes, swimming with curiosity, lift to her own.
“Two in fact,” Sylvanas answers, frowning as she peers over the stable door to find Ghost pressed against the back wall, ears pinned and the whites of his eyes showing, “and a brother.”
“Oh!” Jaina seems pleasantly surprised before a ripple of unease crosses her delicate features, “and are they…” she trails off but Sylvanas spares her the discomfort.
“No, all very much alive and well… not in my condition.”
“That’s… good, I guess.” Jaina’s arms hang awkwardly at her sides as she shuffles on her feet, looking at loss. She then winces and sucks in a sharp breath, “I’m sorry, I’m not saying that…”
“-I wouldn’t wish my fate on anyone.” Sylvanas declares, sparing Jaina her empty condolences. “It is a good thing that they are free of such suffering.”
“You are suffering?” Jaina’s voice is small, her expression forlorn at that thought, and Sylvanas finds herself stepping closer, resting her hand on the human’s warm shoulder.
“Not all the time, it’s getting better,” she then pauses and offers a hesitant smile, “with you, it’s always getting better.”
The days continue to fly by, the cabin is almost returned to its former glory, save for the fact that it smells just a little bit too new for Sylvanas’s tastes. It needs a few more weeks of being lived in for the scent of sawdust and fresh paint to fade and she lights a few scented candles now in the evening to help, deciding that she prefers how the place looks in the warm, soft flicker of the flames rather than under the harsher light of the arcane lamps Jaina helped install.
The days are getting hotter now too as Quel’Thalas moves into the end of spring, though the weather is still far more volatile than she’s used to, a bitter reminder that her nation is still greatly hurting. Sylvanas hunts like a woman possessed, bringing what she can back to the market and is received with grateful smiles from pinched, hungry faces. It sickens her to think that after all this time, Quel’Thalas is still as scarred as she is, a former shadow of itself, carved up by his cruel, relentless march.
The itch has started again, starting at the puckered skin of her sternum and spreading outwards, like a poison. It had been something she’d first ignored in her grief, then in her distraction of the waystation and Jaina, but it had never truly gone, festering within her like a caged animal, pacing.
The desire for revenge.
Stop it. Sylvanas seethes to herself. You have a job and duty to remain here, not entertain the foolish notion of sending yourself on a suicide mission. Oh but in the depths of night, with no ceaseless chatter to redirect her thoughts, she turns to her dark fantasies, of standing in front of his prone form as he begs for her mercy yet finding none, or hauling his broken body to the masses, gleeful mirth in her red eyes as they champ and snarl for retribution. Sometimes, she even imagines Jaina beside her, eyes aglow with her formidable arcane and an icelance through his throat as he garbles and chokes on his own foul ichor, pleading for his mockery of a life.
It’s times like these Sylvanas has to ground herself, to focus on the gentle breaths of the sleeping human upstairs just to calm her frantic, disturbing thoughts until morning arrives and she finds herself once more lost in work, her mind filled with easy distractions that mercifully stem her dark desires. She rises early today, the gray morning mist fading with the first rays of sunlight as she heads out into the forest, leaving fresh tracks in the dewy grass.
Despite the early start, her hunt is less than successful. A couple of birds hardly worth their trouble in meat and a skinny rabbit that dangles from her belt as she picks a careful path through the underbrush, noticing how little evidence there is of life within the forests.
The land is still sick, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.
The initial stag she caught is starting to feel more and more like a fluke. Sylvanas purses her lips, red eyes narrowed as she glares at the pale light filtering through the densely packed trees, before her ears shift and she wills herself out of her dangerous thoughts once more. Declaring her hunt concluded, she turns back in the direction of the cabin, knowing she needs to hear Jaina’s voice again, something light and soothing to distract her from her rage.
Strangely enough Jaina isn’t there to greet her as she usually does when she arrives home, but Sylvanas isn’t concerned- she’s probably at her desk, or running the hundredth cold bath as she perpetually grumbles about the hot weather.
For the first time when Sylvanas arrives at Ghost’s stable, he nickers at her in greeting and she can hardly believe her ears. He still won’t come close of course, and will only let Jaina lead him outside to graze in the forest, but Sylvanas admits it’s most definitely progress, one even someone as sceptical as she cannot deny.
“Well hello to you too,” she murmurs softly, unlatching the door and dropping the bucket inside. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen a wayward human around? She seems intent on avoiding me today. Though I suppose you would know all about that.” Sylvanas chuckles and pulls the door gently shut once more, careful not to let it slam. “Don’t you worry, I’m a lot less scary than I look, but let that be a secret between us.”
Sylvanas leaves Ghost to his lunch and ambles toward the lake, arms behind her back and eyes searching, as though she were once again the Ranger General, surveying her surroundings with a shrewd eye. The place is as it should be, nothing amiss except perhaps the lack of Jaina anywhere where she would expect, be it gardening or studying or even fishing on the jetty. Until a splash clues her in of the mage’s whereabouts and Sylvanas curses her lack of perception.
Jaina surfaces from the lake, blond hair darkened from the water and slicked back from her face, her smile is wide as she ducks under, surfacing close to the jetty as she clings to the boards, peeking over the side with a happy grin as Sylvanas approaches her with a perplexed expression.
“The weather is absolutely heinous, couldn’t stand another minute of it so I thought I’d cool off with a dip, I hope that’s okay.”
Sylvanas shrugs, unbothered. So long as she’s still figuring out those wards, Jaina can do what she wants.
“Care to join me?” The mage asks, pushing off the side kicking lazily backwards, the water ripples, clear and inviting, but Sylvanas is already shaking her head.
“No, thank you.” Her words come out stiff and she fiddles with her belt, feeling awkward standing in her ranger’s leathers under the relentless midday sun.
“Then come sit on the jetty with me, I’ve missed you- you’ve been out a long time.”
Sylvanas curbs a scoff but finds herself obeying, cautiously stepping forward before folding her legs under her, and tilting her head to fix Jaina with a curious stare as the human returns to the side, hauling herself up so she can perch next to the hunter. She smells of fresh lakewater and a hint of lavender from any residue soap that’s yet to wash off, stripped to her leggings and a sodden undershirt shirt that clings to her breasts, which Sylvanas finds strange.
Why get clothes wet for no reason other than silly human sensibilities?
She can somewhat understand now, in life she had never been insecure about baring her body but it’s a whole different beast in the harsh reality of the present. Though Jaina herself has little reason to share such a feeling.
“How was your hunt?” Jaina asks, breaking the silence as Sylvanas watches two dragonflies whip around the reeds in a stilted, unpredictable dance.
“Unsuccessful, though to be expected,” she grumbles, shifting so that her leg is tucked under her, chin resting on the sun-warmed leather of her knee. Jaina flicks the water off her hand before placing it tentatively on Sylvanas’s back.
She nods, but declines to further comment, knowing that she's already toeing a delicate line that will lead her to thinking dangerously. It’s best to change the subject, to keep herself on a more stable path emotionally.
“Ghost greeted me today.” The words sound so silly blurting from her mouth, like a child would chatter to their parents about the meaningless happenings of the day when they picked them up from school, but Jaina’s pleased smile makes Sylvanas regret saying it just a little bit less.
“That’s good!” I mean, he’s starting to anticipate you, I can’t imagine it will be long before he even lets you approach. He’s a dumb horse but that does go to show that he’s learning.
“Better a dumb horse than a smart yet stubborn hawkstrider.” Sylvanas laughs, “I don’t think I’d have any hope gaining the trust of one of those.”
“Ugh striders.” Jaina winces and Sylvnas shoots her a searching look.
“You’ve ridden one before?”
Jaina shakes her head appalled, “tides no, I wouldn’t allow myself at the mercy of one of those evil birds if someone promised all the gold in Azeroth.”
“Evil birds?” Sylvanas splutters, affonted, yet the corners of her mouth pull up in amusement at Jaina’s serious nod.
“Pure evil, or at least the one that Kael’Thas showed me in the Dalaran stables, it even hisses! -Like a goose but far more deadly and...and it had murder in its eyes,” Jaina’s voice rises in passion as Sylvanas continues to fight back a laugh at her theatrics, “I swear it- convinced it would have either pecked or stomped me to death were it not for the gate in place!”
Sylvanas fights back more laughter, “then you’ll be disturbed to know they are actually trained to stomp the enemy to the...wait…” she sobers as her red eyes widen. “Did you say Kael’Thas? You know him?”
Jaina then blushes which has Sylvanas’s ears pricked avidly forward in curiosity.
“Unfortunately yes, he propositioned a courtship at the Winter’s Veil ball back in… well, many years ago.” Jaina’s voice dims a little but offers an uncertain smile, wondering if it’s in poor taste to speak of the Prince in such a way. “I declined his offer-”
“As you should.” Sylvanas responds quickly, officiously, “any lady with respectable taste is well within their right to snub that insufferable, peacocking little-”
“Not a fan?” Jaina gently ribs and Sylvanas laughs, before looking down and sighing.
“No, I merely jest at his poor attempt to court any pretty thing that dares make the mistake of glancing in his direction. Otherwise he’s not a bad person, it was he after all that vouched for my right to remain here, that and I imagine my mother would have dueled him on the spot had he said otherwise, but he was key in making sure I was to be welcomed back into Quel’Thalas as a citizen once more.”
“There were people even in Quel’thalas that wished to deny you of that?” Jaina gasped, appalled.
“There were people who didn’t trust me, we were, after all, considered no different from the enemy for a long time. My own mother drew her bow on me when I returned home, even as she sobbed and begged for me to say something, anything, to let her know I was of my own mind once more. I can’t remember what I responded with, it might have even been a terrible joke, but all I remember was her throwing her weapon aside and taking me into her arms.” Sylvanas sighs, swallowing back a sudden wave of longing to see her mother right now, a small part of her wondering what she would think of Jaina. She imagines under different circumstances, in a world far more kind, that she would have liked her, and Sylvanas would have been proud to have introduced her strange yet witty human friend.
“Of course,” she continues, “not everyone was as easy to trust as she, and I cannot really fault them, but my original point being is that for all his spoiled attitude, Kael has good intentions underneath it all, he’s proud and easily lead to rash decisions, but he does care for his people, and he did care for me, even at my worst.” She then shakes her head, embarrassed. “I’m sorry not sure why I said all that, we were here for a harmless chat.”
“No,” Jaina shuffled closer. “It was a good talk, thank you… and you know that right? That I’m always here to listen, should you ever feel inclined to.”
Sylvanas lets out a shaky breath and offers Jaina a nod, not trusting herself to speak before her ears perk up and she shakes the somber feeling off like a mutt after rolling in a puddle.
“Ah but I am in no mood for self pitying chatter, you enjoy your swim and maybe I’ll think about fixing you some lunch?” Sylvanas twists her neck in a satisfying crack that Jaina wrinkles her nose at, before she moves to get up. “How does that sound?”
“I’d rather you joined me.” Jaina’s smile is coy as he shuffles over the ledge, ready to jump back in. “The water feels lovely, you should really give it a try.”
Sylvanas is tempted, but her ears pull back in uncertainty. “I'm still in my leathers.” She mumbles, suddenly unable to meet Jaina’s eyes.
“Then take them off? I won’t look!” Jaina calls out, already making a point of leaping off the side and swimming away, eyes dutifully trained on the horizon. “But it’s okay if you’re too scared!” Her voice drops into something far more playful and teasing as she aims a splash in the general direction of the jetty. It doesn’t come close to reaching Sylvanas, but the intention is clear.
So she wants war, so be it.
Bar Liadrin, she’s never been so exposed in the proximity of another, but Jaina’s making good on her promise of willfully looking away as Sylvanas shirks armguards, gloves and breeches, casting off her cloak as it puddles to the ground with a muted thud. Feeling adequately lighter, she makes quick work of diving off the edge, realizing that despite her muted senses she still tenses and lets out a sharp breath as she impacts the cold water.
She hasn’t thought to swim once since coming home and the lack of any need for oxygen is slightly disconcerting as she kicks toward the surface, but she can’t help but admire its beauty, of the rays of sunlight refracting off the surface of the water, of the deep and soothing blue of the lake depths. Her heart may not beat but she can still hear a roar in her ears, the thrum of her own undeath as her body pulses with the closest semblance of life that she’s felt in years.
As her head breaks the surface she lets out a gasp on reflex, wiping the droplets from her face as she treads water, orienting herself. Jaina’s not far away, and she responds with a delighted grin when she catches Sylvanas’s slightly lost gaze.
“It’s not so bad is it?” Jaina asks, as she slowly moves backward in a lazy stroke. “Or have you forgotten how to swim?”
Jaina is baiting her, Sylvanas knows this, but it doesn’t stop her from ducking under again with determination, moving toward the human in a few powerful strokes. The mage can’t stifle the surprised yelp as Sylvanas pops up next to her, shaking her head, beads of water sparkling in the sunlight.
“No, I think I can still remember.”
“Of course you’re good at this too, don’t know why I would even have suspected otherwise.”
“Were you doubting me?” Sylvanas teases, enjoying the way the human scowls at the mist of droplets hitting her face when the elf flicks her hair again.
“Maybe, you elves are normally such land creatures… can you stop that?” Jaina grumbles, kicking backward to get some distance in and fixing Sylvanas with a disgruntled scowl.
“You pestered me to get in and now you’re bothered by a little splashing.” Sylvanas smirkes, for once not bothering to hide her fangs. “I didn’t think Kul Tiran’s were so afraid to get wet.”
Jaina flushes and her response is simply a larger splash, hitting Sylvanas with a scarily accurate precision. It’s tense for a beat, before Sylvanas ducks under again, mischief in her eyes that has Jaina squeaking and furiously kicking away.
The battle is relentless, though Sylvanas is careful, keeping her distance even as she assaults her foe, not wanting Jaina to accidentally brush against her under the water and ultimately see the wince or shudder that might come from that. But when Jaina turns away, her pace faltering as she coughs up some water she’d unintentionally inhaled, Sylvanas finds herself swimming over without thinking, supporting Jaina by the waist as she takes over treading the water for the both of them.
“You okay?” She murmurs, crimson eyes wide with concern and Jaina hastily nods, turning away to cough some more.
“Yeah..” her voice comes out a strained wheeze as she waves away Sylvanas concerns. “Rookie mistake, at least it’s not seawater...” she clears her throat a final time and looks up sheepishly with a smile. “Guess maybe I just got a little too caught up, it’s been a while since I’ve had fun like that.”
“Maybe,” Sylvanas shrugs, wondering why she hasn’t yet let go, “but it was enjoyable all the same.”
“Yeah…” The droplets cling to Jaina’s freckled skin and hair like diamonds, blue eyes shimmer the same color of the lake, and as if in a trance Sylvanas finds her hands curling further around the warm skin of her waist, her grip tightening as Jaina unconsciously draws closer.
“Thank you Sylvanas,” Jaina murmures and the elf finds herself humming questioningly, even as she leans closer, enthralled. “For finding me, for letting me stay here, I know the circumstances of why I am here are pretty dire, but I’m glad to have met you all the same.”
Sylvanas swallows heavily, knowing her eyes must be burning a torrent of red in her emotion. “Me too.”
They then close and her ears wilt as Jaina rests her forehead against hers, gentle warm breaths tickling the damp skin of her face. A sudden thought strikes her that it would be so easy to tilt her chin upward, to press her lips against the human’s own warm, inviting ones, to taste the earthy lakewater and drink in the essence of fresh snow and arcane… to drown in it. She feels something ripple through her body, a flash of burning heat despite the chill of the water, writhing and twisting like a living thing before settling within the pit of her stomach and lower, a subtle ache between her legs.
Sylvanas feels like someone’s plunged her into a bucket of ice.
No, no this isn’t what was supposed to happen. She’s a dead thing, and such feelings should have died with her... and yet here she is, intoxicated, revelling in how small Jaina feels in her arms, her body suddenly alive in ways she never thought possible. Her hands drop from the mage as though the skin she’s found so warm and inviting before has turned to molten lava under her touch. Jaina pulls back too, a questioning frown on her face as Sylvanas draws away. The sun is still burning high in a blue and cloudless sky, yet it feels as though the world is suddenly cast in shadow.
Quickly, deflect, distract, normalize the situation.
Sylvanas splashes her again, smirking even as her ears refuse to cooperate, still pinned as she wrestles with confusion and shame, she just hopes Jaina’s human enough not to truly understand why. “Some Kul Tiran you are, floundering like it’s your first time without armbands, perhaps you can regain some of your honor and race me back to the shoreline?”
Jaina doesn’t even dignify her with an answer, already setting off in a powerful front crawl that quickly reminds Sylvanas that she’s most definitely a child of the sea. The ranger lets out a hollow sigh of relief and sluggishly moves to follow.
What was she thinking? Holding Jaina like a lover, caught up in the excitement of it all, it had been fun, she’d been enjoying herself, forgetting her place and her unfortunate lot in this life. And now she’s found herself wanting, desiring something that absolutely will never be hers. She feels disgusted at herself for slipping like this and entertains the notion of staying behind, perhaps letting herself sink to the bottom of the lake where Jaina can’t reach her in one breath, and have herself sit there in the depths, contemplating her own very foolish actions.
Only that idea is cut short when the water around her displaces as the very world around her warps and shifts, the vertigo of swimming horizontal to suddenly standing vertically on the ground causing her to stumble, the water sloughing off her body, sloshing to the grass in an undignified slap. Glancing to the left with a wild expression, she can see the human equally trying to find her footing, even as her hands lift in a defensive casting stance.
Jaina teleported them, but why?
Even as she asks that question, she senses that the human’s arcane signature isn’t the only one here, there’s another that carries a scent less of fresh snow and more of the raw, metallic odor of pure arcane, yet it’s equally familiar in its essence. A signature she knows all too well.
The energy flares, forming a blast that impacts with the icy shield Jaina barely manages to throw up in time, causing thin shards to shatter under its power. The human braces against its impact, teeth gritted as her feet skid in the mud of the riverbank.
Dread settles within Sylvanas’s stomach as she finds herself lurching forward, ignoring Jaina’s protests to get back, arms outstretched as she turns to the source of the attacks, expression pleading.
Too late, the second explosion shatters through Jaina’s shield and she collapses in the mud, still clutching her chest even as her body crumples and her eyes roll back into her head.
Technically I did have one other Windrunner right at the end haha but sorry the great family reunion will have to wait until next chapter. All I can say is Lirath is a well meaning idiot but an idiot nonetheless.