Chapter 11: Where Angels Fear to Tread
“Elune,” the priestess coughed, rasping out the quick prayer as she dodged away from the sudden crash of burning timber in her path. “Bright goddess, guide me.”
The smoke in that particular house was too thick to see more than a few feet around her, and half of the second story had already collapsed. Timbers burned openly, fallen across doorways and smashing furniture, looming up out of the crackling gloom. Her eyes watered, and her lungs burned despite the faltering shield that she held around herself. Soot covered her, and her dress was charred in half a dozen places.
But she was called. Though she could never have identified the instinct, she knew that she needed to be in that house. At that moment. For something important. Even though her head swam, and her knees shook.
Rhoelyn shoved her way deeper into the carved hall, ducking down to crawl under another fallen beam. This one wasn’t burning, yet, but it had given under the weight of the rest of the structure when its companions had burned through. Consequently, it was ragged with splinters, great spikes of shattered wood sticking every which way.
She moved carefully, sidling beneath the thick, angled trunk of it. Close. She was close, but she needed to k-
The little healer yelped when her silver hair, hastily braided into one long, thick plait when the first cries of fire had sounded, snagged on the rough back of the beam, the force of her forward step yanking her head back so hard that she fell to the side. Her eyes were already stung and watering, so all she really registered were the new bruises on her hip. At first.
Then she realized that the softness beneath her hand was cloth and flesh. Stunned and smarting, the little woman shuddered and raised a glowing hand, her prayer whispered around a cough. The sudden rush of Light, the effort of the small spell, made her glad she was already on the ground, for her vision faded and she started to topple forward before she caught herself.
Still, the barrier raised, Light flowing outward from her knees along the floor and shoving smoke with it. Unfortunately, there was only so much fresh air left in the ruined house, and plenty of what rushed in to fill the displaced air as the barrier flowed up in a broad dome around her was more smoke. Improvement. But so little.
Rhoelyn coughed and turned her attention to the prone form: a man with vibrant amethyst curls and a soot-stained cloth tunic who lay pinned beneath the fallen beams. The last drop of his life dangled, a wobbling drip stretching long from its container and ready to fall free, and she knew he was beyond her help. It was clear to her in half a heartbeat, the same amount of time it took him to open his pale, pain-glazed eyes and clench his hand around hers.
“I am sorry, brother,” she whispered, hoarse. “Rest in Elu-”
The stranger cut her off by squeezing her fingers, lifting a single digit on his other hand to point. There was no breath left in him to speak, but his lips moved and his eyes pleaded.
Rhoelyn followed his gesture and found herself looking at a slender back off to her left, a woman who’d escaped the falling beams only to succumb to the smoke. The healer knew immediately that she was already dead, the Light of life in her extinguished, and yet…
The priestess nodded and squeezed his fingers, but by the time she’d turned her head back to him, he was gone. She slid his eyes closed, praying for his reception with the goddess even as she scrambled over to the woman’s body.
At first, the healer wondered what she was supposed to find, only smoke and flame and death obvious around her. The dizziness grew by the moment, and she knew her time was running out. But she felt it: even beyond the dying man’s last request, there was something here. The calling had never stopped, Elune’s guidance to something of great importance.
Something she could almost see, a pulsing, too-dim Light from beneath the stranger’s form. Half-blind from smoke and the way her eyes watered, stung even in the clearer air of her flickering barrier, she felt around until she could grasp cold, lifeless shoulders and pull the woman over onto her back, revealing the bundle in her arms.
Rhoelyn froze when the woven blanket fell away from that small head of purple curls, sobbing precisely once as her already watering eyes filled with tears in earnest.
“Alen…” she whispered, the name a small sound she could barely manage through her thick and abused throat. “Blessed Elune…”
Another sob escaped as she extricated the child from his dead mother’s embrace, blanket and all, and clutched him to her chest, cradling him tenderly. He was young, younger than the three-year-old she remembered from a half-nightmare version of reality, half the age of the child who had frolicked in Quel’thalas with a little white and red kitten. A tiny Alensyr, probably only a year and some old. Born, she supposed, at a different point in his parents’ lives.
Rhoelyn’s cheeks streaked with tears as she glanced at his mother’s face and form. He had her nose and the same little perk to his dusky lips, though he’d clearly inherited his father’s hair. And he would never remember either of them; he was, once again, losing them.
In a day that was already thick with hurt, that struck the healer deeply, and she wept in earnest even as she moved. There was no time to stay in the burning house, where the air was running out. And Alen was weak from it all, his little lungs filled with smoke. But…
The priestess couldn’t stand to leave it like that.
She reached out to tug the feathered silver and bronze comb out of his mother’s dark blue hair and then scrambled back over to his father’s empty body. Her barrier was fizzling, swimming along with her head, as she took a moment to look him over. His right bracer, above the hand that still pointed over at his mate, was decorated with a wrapped leather thong threaded with a matching silver and bronze medallion. The crying woman grabbed it and yanked, snapping the thong and tucking the two ornaments in her pouch.
“Alen,” Rhoelyn rasped out a whisper to the unconscious boy in her arms, pouring Light into his weak little body as she scrambled back to her feet, “I will help you remember them.”
Though she staggered when she stood, her barrier dissolving, the healer didn’t pause, hurrying down the rest of the hallway toward fresher air. The house crackled and creaked and groaned ominously around them, smoke and fire choking ever more of the first floor. She followed an instinct, or perhaps a breeze, a whiff of fresh air, and finally saw a doorway a few steps farther through which the flames on a more distant building shone.
Rhoelyn rushed to the opening just as a resounding snap boomed through the house, followed by a chorus of smaller cracks and pops that led immediately to the creaking groan of a burning structure giving way. She screamed as something heavy and hot slammed into the back of her right shoulder, the impact shoving her forward to stagger the last steps through the doorway.
The night elf clutched her precious burden tight as she finally tripped and fell, left scrambling back away from the collapsing house. She gasped for air, coughing, and summoned a hasty Shield to protect them in a bubble of Light as a wave of soot and smoke washed over them, the final exhalation of a dying home.
There wasn’t time to waste mourning it or the pieces of a family left within. Alen needed to be taken to the Temple, to safety, and-
Rhoelyn nearly got back to her feet before the spots on the edge of her vision grew and merged, interrupting her thought and sending her crashing back to her knees, her head reeling and the sounds of the city around her growing distant.
“No,” she managed to whisper it through numb lips, “Elune, please…”
But the healer had asked one too many times, had pressed herself to the limit and was left tumbling over it into an abyss. She felt the world tilt and wrapped her arms tighter around Alen, whimpering.
There was a moment, laying on her side on the grass, where Rhoelyn managed to force her fluttering eyelids open and look down at the boy’s pale face. But it was the last thing she could steal from the darkness before it wrapped greedy hands around her and dragged consciousness away.
The boot that landed beside her head was heavy with impatience, and Nolin Quaed scowled down at the little priestess’ back for just a brief moment, indulging his frustration.
“Bout damn time,” he muttered to himself, leaning down to roll the larger night elf to her back. “Thought you’d neve- Dark Lady!”
Tali gasped happily in his ear as he gaped at the baby in the night elf’s arms, exclaiming, “Oh, Papa! Look how cute. Even his pointy ears are little.”
Quaed growled and leaned down, systematically extricating the extra burden from his real goal. Neither one of them was in a state to argue, and when she asked, later, he’d just-
“Reminds me a little of Matty, that’n.” When the ghost said it, he paused with his hands on the child’s arms, gritting his teeth harder and looking away. “I’ll jus’ bet this one’s gonna love t’climb trees, too. ‘Member how Matty’d f-”
“Tali!” Quaed snapped, cutting her off. Smoke was all around them, a conflagration of a collapsed building far too close. They needed to get moving. They needed to not get distracted. And the purple-haired baby limp in his grip was a distraction.
“Can’t carry them both, anyway,” the rogue growled it aloud, as if he was trying to convince someone. Or maybe convince himself.
His daughter’s soundless response was near-instant. “I ‘member how momma’d make that sling to carry Ava when she was doing chores.” After a brief pause, the ghost in his heart said more directly. “He’s only a baby, papa. He has everything ahead of him, an’ you can save him. You can save them, this time.”
Quaed grimaced, fighting back the old pain, and snapped, “I ever tell ya you talk too much, Tali?”
Her smile was in her voice. “Yeah, ya do. But ya kinda don’t mean it.”
The undead just grunted, grabbing a dagger and cutting away the bottom third of the priestess’ long gown. Though it was dirty and scorched in a couple of places, the loop of fabric was perfect to hang over his shoulder and drape across his chest. He quickly tucked the night elven baby into it, clasping him securely with a tight knot.
“Thank ya, papa.” Tali said it softly. “Ya done good.”
Nolin Quaed grunted as he leaned down and tossed the unconscious priestess across his other shoulder. “Yeah, yeah. I’m a rotting saint.”