Chapter 9: Unforeseen Antihero
Nolin Quaed crouched on the edge of a purple slate roof, his rheumy eyes watching the city writhe in barely-leashed panic below him. The tree, The Tree – Teldrassil, the new world tree grown by great amounts of kal’dorei power and sewn with the hope of a once-immortal people – burned and smoked and crackled and screamed, flames leaping up the sides of its massive trunk and spreading quickly through the young, beautiful night elven capital at its top.
“Papa,” said a girl’s soft voice that he imagined came from over his shoulder (but in truth it came from somewhere much closer to whatever dessicated thing served as his undead heart), “… look at them. They’re really scared.”
He didn’t answer. He never answered when the job called for silence, and she expected that.
His yellowed gaze searched the crowds of long-eared purple people that surged here and there. Some fleeing flames. Some rushing towards them with buckets or magic. Some dashing in to them for loved ones or perhaps treasured belongings. Purple heads, blues, teals, greens in multiple shades, a rainbow of shadowed forest hues in the gaudy hair of the kal’dorei race.
And, here and there, the rarer silver-white head like the one he sought. But never her.
As five minutes turned to ten, Quaed cursed under his breath and darted over to the next roof that wouldn’t burn him to cinders. More crowds. More panic. More smoke. People rushed into the Temple of Elune’s broad archway, led or called by priestesses.
But never her.
“Rot!” the rogue barked it aloud, no longer worried about detection in the thick smoke and the tragic din.
“Are you frustrated, papa?” the child asked, her little tin voice by his ear.
He had no reason not to answer her, this time. “Yeah, Tali. Frustrated.”
The ghost contemplated that. “You really wanna find the silver lady, huh?”
Quaed didn’t like his daughter’s question because it made him think more than he wanted about why he was in the damn burning city, as it was. He stared out over the crowd, his attention focused, but he also answered her honestly. He was always honest with Kitalia. “Yeah. I guess I do.”
“For Mister Leo?”
Though he frowned, he shook his head. “Nah. Well, a bit for him. But for… everyone, Tali. She’s a good one. Guess I figure the world should keep more of the good ones.”
He sighed softly, cursing his own sentimentality. Death should have stripped him of that, and maybe it had at one point. But then a damn fool undead bastard got himself grabbed by the Scarlet Crusade and saved by a night elf with more heart than sense. He learned that some people, some living people, didn’t immediately hate him for existing past his own death. Maybe didn’t hate him as much as he hated himself. It-
“Papa, there!” Tali’s voice was filled with childish excitement, and he could just imagine her broad smile. She didn’t need a hand to point for him, and his gaze snapped to where a familiar priestess ran in front of a crowd of frightened civilians, the golden glow of her magic shielding them from the worst of the smoke as they all reached the safety of the Temple of Elune.
“Bout damn time,” he said with what passed for a grin on his rotting face, and he dashed across the rooftops, strategizing just where he’d intercept her.
Five minutes later, the rogue was congratulating himself on his own cleverness as he whipped a hand out from his hiding place and snagged Rhoelyn Silverwing’s arm. Her own momentum spun her into the shadows with him, a shocked inhale passing her lips as she drew breath to scream. He was ready, a gloved hand slapping over her mouth as he pressed her up against the Temple’s pale stone wall.
“Don’t scream, girl. It’s me. Quaed.” As her wide eyes searched his face, he pulled off his leather helm and the faceguard that covered his mouth. “See? I-”
Rhoelyn’s eyes narrowed, and Light flared in the blue-touched silver. Before he could do more than think that he might be in trouble, she wrapped her thin hands around the wrist of the arm he had braced against her collar bone and grimaced. Magic surged into his hand, searing and white-hot and angry, Light like fire and rage, and he staggered back, his other hand snagging a dagger from the bandolier across his chest.
The undead rogue moved like lightning, but the priestess in front of him acted with the speed of thought, not moving an inch. It made her faster, and the poisoned blade that was meant to knick her arm bounced back, instead, encountering a barrier of gold-white Light in the breath before it reached her skin.
“Do not touch me, again, Quaed.” The priestess’ voice was rough, already, made hoarse by what he presumed to be the smoke. It was a husky sound for her, wounded. And angry. “Why are you here? Did you… ? Of course, you must have to even be here. How many of my people have you slain, today, I wonder?”
He shook his head. It wasn’t a game he wanted to play, and, this time, her anger wasn’t sha-inspired. It was probably simply justified. He’d stopped counting at some point in the long day of fighting.
“Stop resisting me. Ain’t here to hurt you, girl.”
“Of course, you’ll excuse me if I disbelieve you,” the little healer said coldly, her arms folded across her chest, hands tensely gripping the opposite forearm. Despite her wariness, her gaze darted back over the burning city beyond the Temple’s secluded terrace, and some of that ice melted with grief.
“You are all here to hurt us,” came her quiet words.
The rogue pressed his lips together, annoyed. His damn hand hurt, now. More than every other part of him always did.
“Don’t be stubborn,” he growled. “No army at my heels, is there?”
“Not any longer,” Rhoelyn admitted, trying to step around him. He blocked her escape. It earned him that glare, again, this one less hot and more sad. “Did you leave your unit to come find me?”
“Yeah,” he snapped. “And it ain’t like we have time to stand here ya-”
“So you fought. You followed orders, this time.” The kal’dorei’s voice was something filled with a mixture of resignation and disappointment. The priestess dropped her arms and clenched her fists, facing him squarely, the golden glow of her protective shield gilding her skin. “You defied your Warchief once, when the people he killed were your own. Yet you follow her now that the people she kills are mine?!”
Quaed growled, rasping, “It’s war, girl.”
“No, that was war!” Rhoelyn threw a shaking hand toward the southwest, where the night elven army lay broken and bleeding amidst the falling forests of the Darkshore and the vicious might of the Horde. “A war we have already lost…”
And then she turned to stare out over the burning terraces, tears shimmering in her luminous blue eyes as she reclaimed that hand and wrapped her arms back around herself.
“This…? This is murder, Quaed.”
He grimaced, following a pair of frightened civilians who struggled through the flames by a tailor’s shop with his rheumy gaze. He didn’t have to like it. Didn’t even have to understand it. But he certainly didn’t want to see it through her eyes, didn’t want to remember that ashen taste of hopelessness and futility that sat in the back of the mouth as your world crumbled around you.
He turned his back to the burning city, crowding her farther into the alcove. “Fine. It’s murder. And it’s already done. No going back, now, so call it whatever you want, Rhoelyn. Just do it while we run. Come on.”
“No.” She shook her head, fixing him with her dense, complicated gaze. “My people are dying… and I will not leave them to suffer alone. We will not leave our brothers and sisters behind. That is what it means to be a priestess of Elune. I’m going back out to help who I can.”
In her eyes there was a determination that was stoked higher than the flames of the burning city, and the undead rogue cursed as she bit out, “Now move from my path. You cannot prick me with a blade and drag me away when I am shielded, and if you try to touch me, I will burn your right hand to match the left.”
“Fel curse you, girl! Don’t be a damn martyr!” He surged forward only to slam into the shielding bubble of Lightbound magic that lifted free from her skin, pulsing outward like an inflating balloon. She watched him shove uselessly against it, too confident, resigned and calm.
With the look of someone who has accepted their own imminent death.
“Let me go back to my calling, Quaed,” Rhoelyn demanded, her words softly spoken but as unyielding as the tide. Inexorable. “I would not like one of my final acts to be harming you further.”
The rogue grit his rotting teeth, clenching and unclenching his fists around the hilt of his drawn dagger as he considered the beautiful and sad woman before him. Capable of loving an enemy with all her heart. Capable of saving a stranger she should have hated at first sight. Capable of giving her last breath to a dying city. The debt between them was supposed to have been cleared in Pandaria, with her sister’s life, and yet… he didn’t want to see her die in the flames.
Not for Leothir, but for himself. For everyone.
With a growled-out curse, Quaed stepped aside, sheathing his blade. “You’re a fool, girl,” he snarled, sour.
“No,” she answered calmly as she strode past him in her golden bubble, “I am a daughter of Elune and a child of the stars.”
He scoffed, frustrated and watching her as she paused and turned her head in profile to him, her tearful gaze lowered. “When you go back, will you… will you tell Leothir… that I have loved him? He, I fear, may not already know that well enough.”
The undead grimaced, considering and rejecting many lies before he finally just sighed and said, “I’ll see to it.”
Rhoelyn nodded, not letting relief round her shoulders the way it wanted to. Instead, she squared them and dashed back out into the burning city, praying silently that Elune see fit to find her life worth many of her people’s… and that She see the rest of her family safely through whatever was to come after she was gone.
“Papa,” Tali asked by Quaed’s shoulder, her little voice as sad as the priestess’ eyes, “is the silver lady gonna die?”
Quaed sighed and scrubbed a hand over his rotting face, answering her quietly, “Yeah, Tali. If she has her way, she’s gonna die.”