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River Rising
#1
((River Rising is a stand-alone short story. It is not a story about Zlinka and Oryx. It started as a character portrait, but it took an unexpected direction!))

Summary: Sara Townsend's farm lies directly in the path of the Scourge. Can she escape the undead army and the dark secrets from her past?
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#2
River Rising

Sunrise was always beautiful on Sara Townsend's farm. The soft morning light greeted the old farmhouse, her childhood home, as it nestled between its younger siblings of stable and byre and dairy. Pigeons cooed on the roof of the old barn, proud in its fresh coat of red paint. The pale grey cobblestones of the farmyard blushed pink as the sun touched them. Between the farmhouse and the road stood an apple orchard in full bloom, already humming with bees. Over the waking farm shone rugged, granite mountains that shielded valley and village from the rest of the world.

But this dawn was not like the others. No children scattered grain for the chickens, no men harnessed heavy horses to the plow, no women carried buckets of fresh milk to the cellar. The farm was empty.

All was still, but for two things: a wagon and its passengers, and an old woman standing by its bright yellow wheels. The old woman wore a widow's black shawl around her shoulders and a long dress of sensible brown cotton. Her iron-grey hair was pulled tightly back and skewered in a bun. Sara did not believe in frivolities.

In the wagon, Sara's daughter-in-law, two grown grandchildren, and three little great-grandchildren sat bundled for a long journey. The wagon was piled high with furniture, rugs, and pots. The great-grandchildren were crying, but the daughter-in-law did not cry: she held the reins stiffly, her lips pressed together into a tight line.

"Drive safely, and drive fast," Sara told them, "I will be along in a few days with the last load."

Sara's daughter-in-law flicked the horse and the wagon pulled away. She did not look back.

As the wagon rumbled away, Sara listened to the end of all she had built over fifty years.

I have risked everything, she thought. If I am right, I've saved their souls. If I am wrong, my family is ruined, and I will die a fool.

A month before, Sara had listened closely to the strange tale a traveler had brought from the north. He had stopped by her farm, the northernmost farm of the village, to ask for something to eat and drink. He was gaunt and shaking with exhaustion and hunger, but he would not stay the night in the barn. He had to keep going, he said. He tore into some bread, watching constantly out the window with hunted eyes. As he ate, he told stories of illness and suffering and death. He broke down as he spoke of family members that sickened and died and rose again, murderous and mindless. He whispered of graveyards desecrated, of centuries of dead generations rising together and turning on their descendants and neighbors. He told of dark riders commanding these armies of the dead, fearsome riders that swept down on villages with their great, black swords drawn. When he was done, he grasped Sara's wrist and told her to flee, flee now, while she still had time. Then he was gone, heading south.

Her neighbors had laughed at this tale when she had repeated it -- campfire stories from a crazy drifter, they had said -- but Sara had not laughed. This man's fear was too real, his descriptions too graphic to be invented. Sara believed him. Without consulting anyone, she formulated a plan and took action.

Sara had called a family meeting of her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, and great-grandchildren, all of whom lived and worked on her farm. Theirs was the largest and most prosperous farm of the region. Sara had built it up herself from a scrappy little holding over the past half century. She informed her family that they would be leaving in three weeks' time. Cries of outrage greeted this pronouncement. One of her sons actually stood up and shouted at her:

"Have you gone MAD? We can't move this farm! We'd lose the entire season! And what about the land and buildings and the orchard? We can't abandon all our property!"

Others followed, half-rising from their seats and shouting.

Sara silenced them with a wave of her hand. Her voice, when she spoke, was stern, "I own every nail of this place, every animal, every tree, every grain. You work for me, on my land. I will dispose of my property as I wish. If you don't like it, leave, and never come into my sight again."

They sat back down, red-faced and shaking. Nobody left.

She calmly told them her plan: one son and two grandsons would head far south immediately to find a suitable farm they could buy. She would send them with a sufficient down payment to close the deal. The rest would begin packing up everything that could be moved. As soon as the new farm was purchased she would start sending wagons south. She closed the meeting.

Such was their awe of her that they filed out in silence. Sara could hear words hissed between husbands and wives outside the room, followed by the sounds of muffled sobbing and packing. In fifteen minutes her son and two grandsons were mounted and bidding goodbye to their tearful families. They did not speak to her. Their rage at her glittered in their eyes.

A frenzy of packing followed their departure. When word came that a farm had been bought, Sara sent a wagon of supplies to get it started, then sent wagonloads of possessions. The dairy herd, the grain, the flock of sheep, all their tools, and all their portable wealth went south under the supervision of various family members. She told them not to return.

And today, she had sent off the last of her family.

Now that they were gone she listened to the silence. It was over. She surprised herself by leaning against the fence of the apple orchard. She bent her head. She hadn't realized how exhausted she was. It wasn't just the fatigue from the weeks of planning and packing that she was feeling, or the massive gamble she was making with their livelihood. It was a lifetime of responsibility come suddenly to an end. Her sense of duty had held her together like an iron band around her chest: its release was both exquisite and frightening.

Sara needed to lean several times on the fence to make it back to the farmhouse. That puzzled her. She hadn't needed to do that before. She sat on the porch steps to rest before continuing with the final packing. She didn't want to pack. She didn't... want to rejoin them at all. She just wanted to rest. She felt drained and weary.

As she sat on the porch, a corner of a piece of paper caught her eye. A letter was tucked under the mat. In the excitement of the morning's departure, she hadn't noticed it. She picked it up. It was an unusual letter, sealed with the crest of the Kirin Tor in Dalaran. She had never received such a letter before. She broke the wax and unfolded the heavy piece of paper. Only a few words were scrawled on it:

"Sara," it read, "Wait for me. I am coming for you. Danaven."

The blood drained from Sara's face. She reread the short message over and over again. Then she stared past the letter for a long time, her fingers caressing the paper's texture. Then slowly, deliberately, she crushed the letter in her fist and dropped it on the porch.

After all these years, Danaven? she thought, You are too late.

Sara leaned her head against the porch railing and breathed in the fragrance of the apple blossoms. She closed her eyes, remembering an earlier, happier time.


[center]***[/center]


It had been a warm day just like this one when she and Wynnie had walked to the village dance together through a tunnel of apple trees in bloom. Sara had dark hair back then, wild black hair tamed into braids and bound with tight red ribbons. Her eyes were slate blue like the mountains she contemplated daily from her window.

Sara didn't often get time off, what with keeping house for her widowed father, raising her little siblings and helping run their struggling farm. Wynnie often fluttered by during her free time, wearing her pretty clothes and chattering about the latest happenings in the faraway city, to coax Sara off someplace when her chores were done. Today, it was to a dance. Sara disliked dancing, but it was a chance to get off the farm, so she took it.

At the village social hall Sara cast her eye over the usual collection of young people. She knew them all. None of them seemed to have much potential. They were all headed for life as farm hands and ploughmen, farmer's wives and servants. Sara hoped for more for herself, much more. She didn't want to spend her life farming. She wanted to leave this village behind, see the world, go to the city and make something of herself. And yet she could not leave her family; they needed her so badly. She did not know how to escape.

Her eye was caught by a small crowd in one corner of the dance hall, near an old wooden table laden with bread and beer. A group of people was gathered around a young man that Sara didn't recognize. He was dressed in deep red robes trimmed with silver thread, incongruous as a jewel-colored macaw in a chicken yard. He leaned against the table with casual discourtesy, blocking others from half the food and drink. He looked away from his listeners frequently, as though he didn't care whether they heard him or not. The village youths had to lean forward to catch his words.

Curious, Sara joined the group, Wynnie flitting along behind her. The stranger was talking.

"... finished a course of study in Lordaeron. I plan to go to Dalaran in the fall to get more advanced training in the arcane arts," he was saying. She liked his accent. It was from beyond the mountains, and in its tones she heard the waves of the northern sea upon the shore.

When he paused, she asked, "Who are you? How long will you be in the village?" Please, don't say you're leaving tomorrow.

He turned to Sara. He had sharp brown eyes that raked her appraisingly from head to toe. Sara held her head high. She would not be intimidated.

"I'm Danaven, from Lordaeron. Mage in training. I'm here all summer, visiting relatives." he said.

Sarah nodded, not showing her relief.

"And who are you?" he asked.

Your match, she thought. You're going to get me out of here. But she didn't say it.

"Someone who isn't afraid of you," she said. He raised his eyebrows. She smiled and held out her hand. "I'm Sara, from the end of the village."

He took her hand. His grasp was cool and firm.

She smiled at him, "Now get away from that table and let people eat. Come talk to me. Tell me about Lordaeron."

He laughed, shrugged, and followed her. They began to talk. He was keenly intelligent, but no more than Sara was. He told her about the beautiful city of Lordaeron. They talked about magic and politics and the latest antics of the prince of Stormwind, young Llane, and his two friends, Lothar and Medivh. Their conversation picked up speed. Gradually the rest of the crowd wandered away. Only Wynnie remained, standing silent in their shadow.


[center]***[/center]


Sara woke shivering and disoriented on the porch. It was night. She must have slept the entire day on the porch. She was stiff and cold and ill. For the first time, she felt old. She clutched her shawl tighter around her shoulders, but it didn't help. Pain had invaded her body, radiating from her chest. She tried to climb to her feet but found that she could not. The cold and the pain were too great.

She rested, her body shaking under her shawl. Her eyes fixed on the letter, lying crumpled on the porch. With a quivering hand, she picked it up and smoothed it over and over with her hands. She folded it up and slid it into a pocket.

She struggled onto her hands and knees. She grimaced as her weight crushed the thin skin of her knees against the rough texture of the boards. She knew the pressure would leave deep blue and black bruises. She dragged her knees, one at a time, along the porch. A splinter jabbed deep into the heel of her hand. Balancing precariously on three limbs, she tried to locate the splinter but in the moonlight she could not see it. She'd have to wait until morning. Delicately, trying not to drag this time, she picked her way towards the front door.

At the door she strained up to reach the door handle. She had never realized how high above the floor it was. She rested between her tries, head bowed, looking at the threshold, worn smooth by generations of her ancestors' footsteps. Finally, she heaved onto her tender knees, grasped the door handle, and pulled down. The door clicked open, and she pulled herself inside like an injured animal.

She made her way towards an old, horsehair couch that she had decided was not worth its weight to send south. As she crossed the wooden floor her knees began to stick to the floor. She looked down to see that the skin had broken. She was leaving two thin, bloody trails behind her.

She felt a stab of unease. She was totally alone in the farmhouse. Her family was miles away. She had no way to contact them. She had no way to contact anyone, she realized. And now she was leaving a blood trail on the floor that any animal, any thing, could follow. Her mouth became pasty at the thought. She had never felt so vulnerable before.

Her fear turned to frustration at her own helplessness. She fumed at her failure to keep herself standing through strength of will alone. Her body was crumbling beneath her. Here she was, incapacitated in her own damn house. Her eyes prickled with tears of humiliation.

With a surge of pride, Sara shook the tears away and clawed her way onto the couch. She covered herself with a ragged wool blanket that had been hung over the back, but she could not get warm. She shivered uncontrollably. Her body ached. Her torn knees throbbed.

She pulled the blanket tighter and tried to warm herself with memories.


[center]***[/center]


Sara and Wynnie saw Danaven often that summer. They took walks through the countryside during which Sara pointed out the mountain peaks and told him all their names. She asked him about all the places he'd seen, and she reveled in his stories of great forests and steel-blue seas of his home in the north, of tropical jungles to the south filled with raptors and pirates, of swamps alive with crocodiles and mangroves. She let his voice take her to places she had never been, and she dreamed herself there with him.

But they did not talk only of travel. Sara found him to be her intellectual equal and they argued about ideas for hours. Sara thrilled to the challenge of matching wits with him. She had never had conversations like this before; nobody in the village cared, not even Wynnie.

Wynnie did not seem interested in Danaven's experiences and did not participate in their fast-paced conversations, but when Sara and Danaven had talked themselves to a standstill, Wynnie would speak up in her soft, musical voice. She did not debate ideas; she mirrored them back. She did not analyze; she loved. Sara found her company soothing. She suspected that Danaven did, too -- she had met him walking back from visits to Wynnie's home on his own. It was good, after an hour tearing ideas apart, to sit back and listen to Wynnie and Danaven talk quietly about nothing in particular.

Sometimes the three of them spoke of their plans for the future, and Sara learned that Danaven did not have the money to pay for his continued schooling in Dalaran. He'd used everything he had to pay for his early training in Lordaeron. Sara tried to think of ways to raise the money. They all laughed over her suggestion that she could sell flowers to raise the funds, or blackberries from the riverside.

But Sara had a more serious plan, too, that she did not share with him. She wondered, if she married him, whether she could work to support them both until he had finished his studies. Sara confided her idea to Wynnie, but Wynnie was no help. Wynnie's family was well off and she had no head for such practicalities.

Sara thought Danaven would be well worth the investment. Beneath his inexperience and youth Sara could sense real talent, dedication and ambition. He would be a great mage some day. By marrying him she could escape this village and her family forever, without guilt. Perhaps she could even pursue some training herself. It would be a good match. They would both benefit, and as long as they had each other they would never be bored.

That summer was the happiest of Sara's life.


[center]***[/center]


Sara woke feverish on the horsehair couch the next morning. Her blanket was damp with sweat. It hurt to breathe. Her mouth was sticky but the closest water was the pump outside. Her hand felt swollen and sore. The splinter in her palm was surrounded by blotchy, raw skin. A red streak ran under the skin from her palm up the inside of her wrist.

Her breathing came faster as she stared at the infection. Such a small line... such a small, red line. She checked her knees. They were deeply bruised and had black scabs where she had broken the skin the day before. A red line ran up her left thigh, too. She quarantined the next thoughts in her mind, locked them up and shoved them aside.

Perhaps, she lied to herself, she would feel better if she lay in her own bed for a while. She swung her legs gingerly to the floor. Bracing herself on the arm of the couch she pushed herself to a stand. Leaning heavily on the wall she made a circuit of the room until she reached the staircase. Her wool blanket slipped off her shoulders. She left it on the floor, not trusting herself to bend down to pick it up.

The stairs rose into darkness. She took them one step at a time, resting on each step, holding so tightly to the handrail that her tendons showed white through the skin of her knuckles. Far below, the blanket was part of another world.

She was relieved to reach her bedroom at the top of the stairs. She eased herself down onto her bed. She pulled up a quilt and turned to the window. She could see the farm lane and a section of the road through the thin, white curtain.

She was surprised to see a cow grazing on the side of her lane, its rope dragging along the ground. It ambled a few feet then stopped to tear up more mouthfuls of grass. It was a good-looking cow, with a long, straight back and a high udder, a valuable animal. Sara strained to see its owner, pleased to have something else to focus her mind on, but nobody seemed to be with it.

She looked further, towards the road. There were strangers walking down the road, a steady stream of them. They were traveling in twos and threes, leaning on each other, pulling each other along. From their wan faces Sara thought they must have been walking all night. Anxious parents pushed babies and small children in wheelbarrows. Some people drove wagons. These were piled high with hastily packed belongings, teetering and poorly planned. A few people clung to the sides of the wagons. Sara smiled faintly. Her family was better prepared. Then her smile faded. She had been right. The horror was coming south.

Sara dozed fitfully and woke again in the early afternoon. The fingers of her injured hand were stiff and painful.

The refugees were still passing along the road. They were moving faster than they had been in the morning. Some had abandoned baggage. Trunks lay by the side of the road, some broken open, spilling clothing and household items into the dust. A few crows perched in her apple trees, watching the procession. A parent paused to drop a heavy pack, backtrack to pick up a crying child, and continue walking, leaving the pack behind.

Sara felt nauseous. She wasn't supposed to be seeing all this, she had been forewarned, but now she was caught in it anyway. She had a horse and small wagon in the stable, but in her condition they were a continent away.

Her mouth twisted into a bitter smile. Her family, who had never wanted to leave this farm, was safe down south, while she was imprisoned in a place she had always wanted to leave, in a life she had never wanted.

The thought she had tried to suppress pushed itself on her mind.

I am going to die here.

Danaven... hurry. Please hurry.


[center]***[/center]


Late that summer, Sara and Wynnie hiked several miles back into the mountains by themselves. It was Sara's favorite hike; the trail ran along the wall of a steep canyon a few yards above a mountain river. Sara liked to imagine she could just keep hiking, higher and higher, up to the great fields of snow. One day she promised herself she would see what was on the other side.

She knew this river in all its moods, from wandering creek to rolling rapids. Now, at the end of summer, the river was at its peak. Swollen with snowmelt, it foamed and roared around speckled granite boulders. The air above it was humid with spray and the trees and path were wet. It was a release, to come up here after working all week in the heat of the valley below.

After a strenuous climb, Sara and Wynnie stopped to catch their breaths. They leaned their elbows against a damp, mossy log to admire the water rushing a few yards below them. Sara loved this spot, it was a place of fairytales and possibility, a place to nurture dreams. Sara gulped the moist air and lost herself in the ever-changing pattern of the water pouring over the rocks. She would have to bring Danaven up here, she thought.

Wynnie touched her shoulder. Sara emerged from her reverie and turned to her. Wynnie's eyes were sparkling, and she had the smile of someone with an exciting secret to share. Leaning forward to be heard under the roar of the river, Wynnie said, "Danaven asked me to marry him!"

Sara's heart seemed to stop. She gripped the log, her fingers digging into the soft, damp wood. She looked at Wynnie, bewildered.

"He walked home with me from the bridge, and I took his arm. He kissed me. Before he left, he asked me when my father was going to be in tomorrow." Wynnie's cheeks glowed. "He said he had a little place in Dalaran I would love, and he couldn't wait to take me there."

The dream Sara had cherished shattered in her chest. Its broken edges stabbed her from within, flooding her with pain. Sara, who had so many words for ideas, had no words for these emotions. She felt her own future rise around her, filling her mouth and nostrils with water, drowning her in a lifetime of captivity and loneliness.

Before that moment, Sara would have said she was fond of Danaven, that he would make a suitable, mutually beneficial match. But in the searing clarity that comes with loss, she knew that she loved him, wanted him, needed a life with him, with every fiber of her being.

Sara's eyes fixed on Wynnie's smiling face. Wynnie, who had no family duties to shackle her. In that instant Sara hated Wynnie, hated her happiness, hated her future of freedom and love and adventure.

Sara tried to choke out a congratulations, but she could not. Her face twisted in a grimace of anguish. She bit her own hand to stop her tears. Her body began to shake with the effort of controlling the torrent inside. "Go," she whispered to Wynnie. "Go now."

Wynnie took a step back, "Oh, Sara... don't take it so hard. All's fair, Sara, all's fair" Wynnie always, always got everything she wanted. "What about that neighbor of yours?" Wynnie said, "He likes you. You could combine your farms and run them together. You wouldn't even have to move. You could spend your whole life right on your own little farm, think of that!"

Passion ripped through Sara. She seized Wynnie savagely by the upper arm. Wynne pulled back, "Hey! What are you doing?"

Sara wrenched Wynnie close and pushed her, hard, over the edge. Wynnie plunged six feet to the slope below. Her body struck granite, slid down the slope, crashed sideways into a birch by the water's edge.

Sara vaulted over the log. Two strides, she reached her. Wynnie's face was ashen, her limbs limp. She moved her mouth but Sara heard nothing but the river.

Sara heaved her into the water.

The river grabbed Wynnie like a toy. She shot past the first rock, then the current sucked her under. She reappeared, hair soaked and dark.

The river smashed her against the second rock. She vanished under the foam.

Sara stood by the river, alone. She was numb and spent.


[center]***[/center]


A crash downstairs startled Sara awake. The golden light of late afternoon streamed in her window. She heard drawers wrenched open and thrown on the floor. Doors slammed. Voices laughed. Looters, she thought. Fools. She heard the scream of her own horse in the stable, more shouting, and hoofbeats galloping away.

Outside, the refugees were running. Some looked behind them. A man traveling alone faltered to a stop. His face was red and puffy. He sank down in the middle of the road, exhausted. When others saw him they ran wide around him. Nobody stopped to help. A wagon thundered down the road; its driver stood in the seat lashing the horses. People tried to grab the sides but the driver struck at them with the butt of his whip. When the wagon had passed, the man's body lay crushed in the middle of the road.


[center]***[/center]


The entire village turned out for Wynnie's funeral. Her coffin was covered in wreaths of white flowers. Danaven was there. He looked grim, but his eyes were dry.

After the burial Sara found Danaven in the church garden along with other scattered mourners. She put her hand on his arm and they walked quietly together along the brick-lined paths.

She squeezed his arm gently, "I'm here," she said, "If you want to talk to me."

He nodded absently.

She tried again, "I am so sorry, Danaven. I tried so hard to save her. I blame myself. She was my best friend, you know."

He placed a hand on hers; his touch was warm and welcome. She edged a little closer. He turned to her then, sliding a hand under her chin and lifting her face gently. Her heart fluttered as his intelligent brown eyes searched her face.

Please... turn to me now... let me comfort you...

His eyes narrowed as he looked at her, and she quailed at the intensity of his gaze. He drew his hand away.

He leaned his head close to hers and hissed into her ear, "You liar. You did this."

Sara breathed in sharply, "I don't know what you're talking about."

Color rose in his cheeks. He grabbed her arm and pushed her against the churchyard wall. She felt the rocks of the wall pressing into her back. He loomed over her, "I know you, Sara. You should know me by now. I'm a schemer, just like you. So why didn't you have the sense to wait until after I married her?"

"What?" she gasped.

"What do you think you're playing at? You're useless to me as a wife. I needed Wynnie's father's money. With that, I could complete my training and join the Kirin Tor. I would hardly have kept her for long after that. And besides, it's not like you couldn't have had me during that time." The corner of his mouth twitched up.

Sara flinched back against the rocks, feeling their sharp, wet edges against her neck, and then her rage flared. "How DARE you!" Her face was flushed, her heart racing with shame, anger, and yet... still... desire.

I know what you are... and I want you still. She hated herself for it.

"Good bye, Sara. You won't see me again." He stepped back from the wall, his eyes contemptuous.

Danaven walked back along the path alone. Sara watched him go, bracing herself against the wall. Near the church he slowed to nod sadly at the pretty daughter of the second wealthiest man in the village. She was dressed in black, and her eyes were swollen from crying, but she smiled faintly back and paused for him. They left the garden together.

Sara crumpled to the ground like a bird shot from the sky, wings broken and useless.


[center]***[/center]


When Sara woke again, evening was falling outside the farmhouse. Her long, grey hair had come loose and lay tangled and sweaty on her pillow. She panted with quick, shallow breaths. The skin of her arm was tight and shiny, and she could no longer bend her wrist or elbow. Her fingertips were grey. The quilt over her knee was damp with a foul-smelling fluid. She tried to lift the quilt off her leg, but the fabric was stuck to the wound and she could not bear to peel it off.

The road was strangely quiet. Only the sick and weak trudged by, and they no longer looked behind them. An old woman sat on a trunk to catch her breath. A small child trudged by, clutching a doll, too tired to cry. The man's body still lay in the middle of the road. Crows hopped around it excitedly, pulling at it and cawing.

A sick man limped past, head bowed, arms hanging. His face was pale, his jaw slack. When he came to the corpse in the road the crows hopped heavily away, reluctantly making room for him. He stopped, puzzled. He was the first person she had seen approach the body at all. He bent over it and explored it with probing fingers. He lifted his hand to his face and sniffed, then put a finger tentatively in his mouth. He bent over the body, eager now, pushing the rags aside, and began to feed. Sara's heart pounded.

They are here. I am trapped.

Danaven, I don't know what you want from me.

Please come now. I need you... as sure as there is Light above, I need you now.


More figures lurched past now. Some blundered into the dooryard. Sara watched them from her window, her heart racing. Every breath hurt her, but she knew that death would not come fast enough to save her now. A few of the figures found the front door, left open by the looters, and shambled inside. Sara could hear their feet crunching on broken glass. She could hear them sniffing. She heard steps at the bottom of the stairs, climbing.

Sara looked about her. No knives, no rope, no time. It wasn't supposed to end this way.

The latch clicked. Her door creaked open and a humanoid figure shambled in. Sara looked into a pair of white, staring eyes framed with lank black hair. Mottled brown teeth protruded from a lipless mouth. A maggot, pale and bloated, fell from the hole where its nose had been, revealing a writhing mass within. Greasy tendons slid back and forth under shreds of moist skin. The stench of decay filled the room. The figure veered toward her; Sara shrank back. It loomed over the head of her bed. Too terrified to scream, she clutched the letter in her good hand and stared up at the cadaverous face.

I am going to die. This is the last thing I will ever see.

But the ghoul did not attack. It looked back towards the door, then pressed itself against the wall, whimpering.

The house groaned as a heavy tread mounted the staircase. The step was slow and deliberate.

A dark figure filled the doorway, encased in jagged black plate edged with ice. White steam rose from the vents in its metal helmet. The handle of a heavy sword protruded above its spiked shoulder. The temperature in the room plummeted; frost formed and glittered on the inside of her windows. Sara sensed the figure's immense power, and she breathed it in even as she braced herself for death.

The figure lifted off its helmet, revealing a face that could never be strange to her, a face etched deep with lines of untold stories.

"Danaven," Sara whispered.

"Sara." She remembered his voice so well. She closed her eyes and listened, holding on to every moment. She knew she didn't have many left.

"You are too late," Sara whispered. "I'm dying. I can be of no use to you now."

Danaven made a careless gesture, "That no longer matters. I can overcome death."

"Then overcome it now." Her body no longer ached with fever; it was growing numb and heavy.

Danaven was silent for a long time, watching her. "I can give you unlife. Magic will hold you together and strengthen you. I can give you power such as you have never known before. But, Sara... it is not life."

Sara said nothing. Her breath was rasping now, her vision dimmed. Dark walls were sinking down on her. All she could see was the cold glow of Danaven's eyes.

When he spoke again his voice was slow and halting, as though he were talking over someone else's voice. "There is... another option," he whispered. "I can annihilate you. I can destroy you so thoroughly that nothing can raise you again. Let me... give you this. Let me spare your soul from further harm. It is the only mercy I can show you."

Sara's world was dark now. She spoke into the blackness.

"No. You will not deny me what I have wanted... all my life. I will leave this place. Take me with you, Danaven."

There was a long silence. Sara's consciousness lost its bearings. She spun helplessly through time, swirling into infinite dark.

From a great distance, Sara heard the scraping of plate. It faded away as she sank into endless silence.

She felt a searing cold in her hand. A river of power poured into her arteries. It swept pain, fever, and infection away. It rebuilt her from within: it straightened her fingers; it tightened her sinews; it firmed and filled her withered flesh; it reinforced her bones. She was remade stronger than she had ever been at the height of her youth.

Sara flexed her fingers and took a deep, exultant breath.

She opened her eyes. Light dazzled her from the blue runes on Danaven's sword. Etched on the blade, they shone through sheath, armor, and flesh to transfix her. The crumpled letter he had sent her was bright with tightly-written runes, too... runes of infection, and pain, and death.

She looked up, and the walls of the farmhouse swirled and faded before her gaze. She could sense through them, beyond them. She perceived the reflected glow and flash of more runes outside. She felt the suffering of the refugees on the road; she inhaled their fear through her nostrils, savored it in her mouth. It had taste and texture. It intoxicated her.

Danaven was holding her bare hand in his plate gauntlet, watching her transformation. The metal of his armor glowed ice blue beneath her hand, burning her with the sharing of power.

He leaned forward, then, and lifted her to her feet with the strength of a much younger man. She stood tentatively, leaning on him at first, feeling her new vitality, her supple joints and sense of balance. The ghoul by the side of the bed shrank away from them both.

Danaven bent his head close to hers, and murmured in her ear, "Welcome, Sara. Our Master sends us to recruit those we think would make exceptional death knights. I came as fast as I could... I knew I would find a use for you some day. Come with me. I will take you to Him."

He turned toward the door, Sara stepping carefully behind him. They descended the stairs she had never thought to see again. Halfway down, she stopped. He turned to look back at her.

I will only get this one chance, she knew.

"Danaven..." she laid a hand on his cheek. His skin was velvet with age, but his flesh had the unexpected resilience of youth.

I know what you are... and I love you still.

She pulled him to her gently. Their cold breath mingled in a swirl of frost as she kissed him. Their shadows merged for a long, lingering moment. The edges of his armor sliced her like shards of ice, and the last drops of blood froze in her veins.

Outside, two massive warhorses stood surrounded by silent lines of ghouls. Metal rams' horns curled around their cheeks. Their hooves burned white in the night, illuminating the dooryard with unnatural, shifting brightness.

Danaven pulled a sword from where it hung sheathed on one of the saddles. He held the handle out to her. She closed her fingers around it and hefted the sword in her hand: it was perfectly balanced, as though it had been made for her. She felt the sinuous power of its runes slithering up her arm.

She smiled.

Sara mounted the warhorse -- her warhorse. She lifted her new runeblade and looked for the last time at the farm around her, the focus and boundary of her entire life. Ghouls were swarming through it now. She turned to them, and spoke.

"Burn it all."

She stayed until her life blazed into an inferno, until the hot ashes of her past drifted down on her head. Then they turned north, riding through the orchard, past the apple trees gasping and smoldering with black smoke. Side by side they jumped the fence to the road and charged into the oncoming ghouls, scattering them before their pounding hooves. Together they climbed, higher and higher, over the snow-capped mountains, into the outstretched arms of never-ending night.


[center]***[/center]
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#3
As I've told you many times...I love your stories. This one is a bit different than the lighter-hearted tales I'm used to reading by you, but its excellent. You paint pictures with words, which is a rare gift.

I finished this story and am left wanting more. Write.....WRITE MORE!
Shantow the Bear
The Ironsong Tribe


"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." King
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#4
Amazing story Zlinka
I thoroughly enjoyed this. It is good to let your creativity take you to new places.

Bravo

-=((D))=-
Sing True Ironsong!
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#5
I wrote a little more about the character and how I came to write the story as I did.  Warning: spoilers.

This story started with a question:  what would an elderly, terminally ill person do if faced with a choice between death and undeath?  Would it be possible for such a person to view life as Forsaken as a gift, not a tragedy?

I thought there might be a story here.  I started sketching it out -- my original concepts were actually comedies involving a newly-Forsaken elderly woman happily fixing her body up through magic.  I made her an overworked farm laborer, and undeath gave her much-needed relief and power.

As I developed the story, though, I ran into trouble with Warcraft lore:  Forsaken were all Scourge first.  This problem threatened to kill the story entirely.  Nobody in their right mind, I thought, would actively choose to become Scourge --€“ mindless ghouls and zombies -- even on their deathbed.  To make that choice they would have to be irredeemably evil or psychopathic.

... or would they?

There is one form of Scourge that isn't mindless: the death knight.  Is there any way, I wondered, that a non-psychopath would ever choose to become a death knight?

I didn't want to write a story about the pursuit of power -- choosing darkness because that's the next step to achieve greater power.  Warcraft is very much about the pursuit, use, and abuse of power.  I wanted something different.  Were there any other motivations that might impel a character into the arms of the Scourge?

The first motivation I came up with was fear of mortality.  I tried making my protagonist so afraid of death that that anything was better than dying -- even joining the Scourge.  But I wasn't able to make this work.  It was too weak.  Fear of death is near-universal, but even so it seemed to me that most reasonable, honorable people would choose death anyway, rather than become Scourge.  So I threw that out.

I realized that I would have to create a custom-designed character whose arc would build naturally toward that final scene.  The story would have to be about Sara herself, how she ticked, the events that had made her who she was, so that her end-of-life choice made sense.  I wanted to take the reader to her decision point, a very dark place indeed, and have her choice seem -- if just for a moment --€“ reasonable.

So I began building a character that might reasonably choose to become a death knight at the end of her life.  I quickly realized that such a character would have to be much, much darker than the one I had started out to create.

I thwarted her from the things she wanted out of life:  adventure, self-development, education, love, and companionship with an intellectual equal.

I weakened her ties to her community so that her sense of duty would not hold her back.  She must be a free agent, with all her social obligations discharged, left only with her broken dreams.  I gave her poor relationships with her family and neighbors, and I put her family out of danger before the Scourge arrived, to keep her from feeling compelled to protect them.

For her personality, I made her powerful, ruthless, driven, and prone to impulsive, high-risk behavior, so that when given a chance, however dark, of achieving her dreams, it would be in-character for her to seize it.

But all this wasn't enough.  A dutiful-but-thwarted person’s choice to join the Scourge might still seem strange.  She might be seen as a martyr, a victim, an object of pity, or grossly deluded.  That wasn't what I wanted --€“ I wanted her choice to be fitting, not shocking.

To make it feel '€œright,'€ joining the Scourge would need to reestablish moral equilibrium in the story.  To achieve that, I would need to morally unbalance her character in some way, so that '€˜all would be made right' when she became a death knight.  There would need to be some satisfaction in the mind of the reader, some sense of poetic justice, as she rode away.

So I made her the perpetrator of an unpunished crime.  I think of the murder and death knight scenes as linked:  the crime, the punishment.  I tinkered with Sara'€™s level of guilt in the murder scene, rewriting it over and over with more or less active involvement on her part, until I got a crime that felt balanced by her joining the Scourge.

Then...  I encountered another problem with Warcraft lore.  The Scourge do not offer choices to their victims.  It was unthinkable that a regular death knight would offer the possibility of mercy to its victims.  This stumped me.  Sara must have a choice at the end of her life – she could not just be taken, passively, by the Scourge, or the dramatic tension at the end of the story would fall apart.

Resolving this issue gave me the last structural element of the story: Danaven. This character provided the motive for her earlier crime, and at the end he would  have a plausible reason to resist the voice of Arthas, however briefly, to offer her a choice at the end of her life.  His presence also allowed for a warmer set of emotions --€“ love, jealousy, desire --€“ in addition to the cooler shades of ambition and self-fulfillment that are her primary motivations.  

Originally, this story was supposed to be the character introduction for my death knight.  But as the character grew darker and darker, I realized she was becoming unplayable.  Releasing her from the confines of an RP character and turning her into the protagonist of a stand-alone short story was very liberating. Letting her go gave me access to psychological spaces I didn'€™t care to inhabit myself.

In the end, Sara became a sharply restrained, thwarted, and internally passionate 70-year old great-grandmother.  She chooses to become a death knight, fulfilling her lifelong dreams through the agency of the Scourge, at the expense of her soul.  Death gave her a second chance, and she seized it.

I think she will do well within the ranks of the Scourge.
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#6
This is really an amazing story and I think your explanation and choices were the right ones. It reminds me of Dispaya's story although from an opposite standpoint. I knew when I created her that I wanted her to be older and since the Scourge were fairly new to Azeroth I wondered if she could be older than the Scourge. I didn't find any reference that told me there were no undead prior to the Scourge...so I reasoned that there must have been random or undead of other types before the Scourge became an organized force. So I wrote a story in which an innocent girl became undead by virtue of a Wizard's curse and who was subsequently "swept up" by the Scourge when they came into power.

I am actually glad you liberated this character by not taking her into RP land. I think the story plays out better and gives the reader a sense of just not knowing where Sara went after transforming. That gives me a sense of forboding that is very creepy.

Awesome story Z

-D
Sing True Ironsong!
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