Word Count: ~4100
The light of the forge threw deep shadows across her face as she hammered and heated the metal, pounding free a spray of sparks. Each strike echoed across the meadow like the ring of a tired bell. She worked each section until the moon rose high over the forge. Rather than leave it to cool in the open air, she wrapped the unfinished piece in a thick, insulating wrap, slowing the escape of heat.
Leaving the forge to wane on its own, she stepped out into the cool night air, her right step falling heavier than her left. A strong framework of metal and leather stood firmly strapped around her right leg, supporting each joint from ankle to hip. She had designed, built, and customized the brace herself, and there was nothing else in the world like it.
A warm breeze danced across the meadow, trailing warm fingers across her shoulders and arms. Wrinkles had begun to touch the corners of her eyes long ago, but her hair had forever been that same silvery white. She had seen miracles, damnations, and everything in between. She had born a daughter and lost a son.
Something back in the past had marked her as some sort of champion, and that mark had drawn her close to the most beautiful of sights and the most terrifying of horrors. She had killed and known the near embrace of death. She had spoken with angels of both light and death, fought onrushing hordes of undead, naga, soldiers, seen wondrous spires, and flown through the Twisting Nether. Medals had been pinned on her chest, and the blood of innocents had stained her hands.
She was what she had earned: a veteran. Long ago, she’d given up her surviving daughter to her own father and left them behind in a world that knew no safety, all for the sake of the battle. It was what she knew. It was what she found her worth in.
And here she stood, alone in chosen solitude, bearing the scars and wounds of a life spent on one battlefield after another. No armor, no weapon. Just memories.
Every day, she blocked out the sounds of friends and foes, screaming and cheering, with the steady breath of the forge and bark of the hammer. Every night, she pounded metal into shapes that she could control, that she defined and guided. When the moon rose high enough and her strength began to dwindle, there came a time when she could no longer ignore the past.
“I don’t regret what I’ve done.” She said quietly, crossing her arms as the spectre stepped from behind the woodpile where it had been waiting.
“What is there to regret?” He drew his hands through the tall, wild grass, affecting nothing. Every night, he did it anyway. “Are you still brooding over the–”
“No.” She cut him off before he could get started. “No, out of everything I’ve done, avenging you is the least of my worries.”
“Well, I appreciate the effort.” Aurileus grinned, crossing his arms to match. “You missed the bishop, but he got what he deserved in the end. So what are you worried about?”
Eithyne took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Ah…ah ha.” The ghost of her long-dead brother pointed at her with a teasing grin, his steel blue eyes and silver-white hair matching her own. He still looked–what, eighteen? nineteen?–whatever age she could last recall. His skin even still seemed tan from hours spent in the pastures. “I know that sigh. You’re restless.”
“Are too! Look, Eith, you’ve retired how many times now? Twice? Three times?” He spread his hands. “You keep going back. You’re never going to stop wanting to get back into the action.”
“I care too much.”
“No, you care just the right amount. Problem is, you don’t do anything with that caring.” He drew closer, footsteps leaving no mark in the meadow. “You beat yourself up for wanting to protect others and save lives, but you can’t bring yourself to actually pick up the hammer again.”
She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the forge, and he rolled his eyes in true Aurileus fashion.
“You know what I meant, smart ass.” He pointed at her again. “You’re restless.”
“I have nightmares every night and day. I see dragonkin flowing out of the Mountain, naga crawling from the Depths, demons and devils and all manner of void seeping from every shadow.” She rubbed her face. “When the call to actions come-”
“You step up. Again and again. You lend support where you can. Eith, no one can bang a shield back into shape like you can.”
“While my friends stood and died on the frontlines.”
“You couldn’t have saved them.”
She looked at Aurileus sharply before realizing that he wasn’t the one that had spoken. Turning towards the forge, she saw another spectre pass through the furnace. The ghostly figure was grey, through and through, as if he had forgotten what color was. Long white hair hung around sunken eyes.
“Wilhelm.” She stared. The progenitor of her bloodline had never once before visited her under the moonlight. He never left the cemetery, rarely left his dusty bones, and yet, here he stood, walking and talking like the youngest of the phantoms that haunted her.
“You’re not a fool, Eithyne.” The old ghost stood next to her, and Aurileus gave him room. Wilhelm pinned the young man with a thickly veiled stare. Wilhelm’s visage flickered and, for a moment, the ghoulish patriarch’s sunken, intense eyes, high cheekbones, and broad forehead were replaced by a strong, filled out jaw, a brightly intelligent gaze, and smooth skin. Two faces, one soul. “What does your heart tell you?”
“That I’m tired.” She could not look at him. As himself, he was hard enough to look at, but when the flicker came and went, she couldn’t stand the memories. “That I missed my time to pass and now I exist beyond my expiration.”
He laughed, a ghastly sound that lingered between a wheeze and a death rattle. “We are Stormdoves. We do not have an expiration.”
She paused. “I thought I broke the curse years ago.”
“Oh, you did, my dear. You did. Rhoswane will live to see her own children grow up happy and healthy, and then she will pass into the Shadowlands as any other human should.” He gestured out to the meadow with a skeletal hand. “You kept her from our fate, and there is nothing else to be done.”
Eithyne took in a deep breath and uncrossed her arms, placing her hands on her hips, on the leather belt that supported the hip and leg brace.
“You’re scared, Eithyne. You’re scared that–” A flicker washed over him and his voice changed to a healthy, deep tenor. “–you will die on a battlefield and never find your way home.”
She fell silent.
“You’ve gathered us here over the years.” Wilhelm gestured again, this time, to the distant forest. “A mausoleum of the long dead that once were Stormdoves. A strange collection.”
“I couldn’t leave your bones scattered across the world.” Her voice hitched, and that surprised her.
“You gave us all a home, my girl. You should be proud.” He chuckled with a low rasp. “But now you are afraid to leave us unprotected, I think. Afraid to leave us and die on some distant battlefield, where your bones will never be carried back.”
In the direction Wilhelm had motioned, behind a demure curtain of trees and foliage, a large cemetery of above-ground tombs lay silently between the trees. Made of stone and metal, each and every one held bones or relics of a long dead ancestor: one for each generation and every one labeled with a deeply scored name.
Of them all, only one boasted two names: Wilhelm Stormdove. Tyrian Stormdove. One soul, two generations, faces, incarnations.
“When my wife’s father first laid the curse upon our family, we had no idea what it meant.” He shook his head, pulling her back to the moment. “She died, and I thought that was the end of my life. I hoped I would join her. Then, I died and I remained here, caught between the worlds, wandering.”
It took him a moment, but neither Eithyne nor Aurileus interrupted him.
“When my child died, I was there and our spirits wept together. As the generations passed, so did my mind, and we lost each other, all of us.” He looked to the moon above. “When each Stormdove died, no one was there to tell them what had happened, why they would linger for eternity. We fell once to death, again to confusion and grief.”
“We were lucky that the generations continued until someone could find a way to break the curse.” Aurileus offered, still standing slightly behind Eithyne now, as if she could protect him should the severe old man wish him discipline.
“Mmm.” Wilhelm didn’t snap like Eithyne expected him to. Instead, he closed his eyes. “Over the years, the rules became clear: one Stormdove would be born to each generation and only one. When they died, they would remain between the worlds, for eternity, unable to join their loved ones, forever separated, forever wasting away. Burning out, as you call it. We are lucky, Aurileus, yes, we are very lucky that only one child must suffer.”
“What changed?” Eithyne looked at him more steadily now, studying the wrinkled, sunken features. “What happened to my mother? Who was Tyrian?”
“Ah…my dear, I wondered when you might ask these questions.” He did not look at her, not yet. “When I was alive, I was a warrior suffering incurable wanderlust. My companions were excellent comrades in battle and lovers to one another. When I met my beloved, they welcomed her into the fold and we four, two husbands and two wives, sought such freedoms and treasures.”
Eithyne looked back to the distant cemetery.
“Araghet, my friend and wife to Oeskat, was a scholar of some magics. A Ghostwarden, they called her. I found later that she knew of the curse, but could not devise a way to dispel it. When it was my time to die, she comforted my soul. When I…began to lose my way, my senses, my mind…it was she who found me, bound me to the orb.” He waved his hand, as if that were enough explanation as to what the orb was. Eithyne had never seen it, never found one in all her searching. “Without her, I would have long ago faded into mindless mist.”
“But…it takes decades for a Stormdove spectre to lose their minds. Hundreds of years at least.” She frowned.
“Ah, you see, Araghet was an elf. Is an elf.” He paused, looking nowhere with a frown. “I no longer know.”
“What did she do with this…orb?” Aurileus drew closer, out from behind his sister’s protection.
“She ensured that I was to be…reborn.” He smiled slightly and the flicker passed over his face again, giving him that different face, that different personage. “By then, due to my slow fade and the trauma of being born once more, I had lost all that had made me Wilhelm. I became Tyrian, and she schooled me in my youngest years. Reminded me who I was.”
He paused, studying the moon.
“We have enough time.” Eithyne shook her head.
“With Araghet’s guidance, I was determined to break the curse, but by the time I was reborn into my own bloodline, our family had drifted so far from honor and our curse had become a fairy tale. I had to fight my own mother to gain my freedom.” His voice had settled into that easy tenor again, and his face caught up.
Tyrian Stormdove was a tall, handsome man, strong features, but a desperate sadness in his eyes. That sadness seemed to be the only thing that persisted between his flickers.
“I was killed by my own child, who desired the riches and shadows of our wayward bloodline, as if gold and infamy were more important than his very soul.” Tyrian lowered his head a moment. “Araghet was there, again, to capture my soul, to try again.”
“And she didn’t protect you?” Aurileus looked a bit incredulous.
“A woman with her own family and duties cannot exist everywhere at once, yet she did what she could.” Wilhelm huffed. “When I died, we knew we might yet have another chance as the bloodline continued.”
“And Tyrianne? My mother?” Eithyne prompted.
“The way Araghet explained it to me, because Tyrian’s mother was not of the Stormdove blood, the child within her could be usurped by my own, old soul more easily.” The old ghost sighed deeply, as if releasing pain with the breath. “Maai Almava–”
“Our grandmother.” Aurileus looked at Eithyne.
“Yes, Maai Almava was of Stormdove blood. She suffered the curse herself. Something of it caused the child’s soul to…stick. Persist. Remain.” Wilhelm shook his head. “I do not understand it myself, and I would wish to ask Araghet of it when next we meet.”
“In the end, Tyrianne was born with two souls, one innocent and unknowing, the other ancient and traumatized.” Eithyne winced, shaking her head. “It is no wonder she went mad.”
“Mad.” Aurileus scoffed. “Mother would scale the barn and scream at the top of her lungs for hours. She would tear her hair out in handfuls and feed it to the horses alongside their hay.” His eyes burned with anger. “Then she would hum to herself and mix poultices for those in town, bandage injured travelers, dispel fevers…before returning home and draping herself over the rafters for sleep.”
“I could not soothe her anguish, though I suffered alongside her.” Tyrian’s voice was slow and measured. “I saw her pain and could do nothing. When she became pregnant, I had hoped that–”
“Were you going to try to…pass into the birth? Leave her body?” Eithyne frowned, rubbing her dry, chilled arms. “Why didn’t you?”
“I tried to leave her, to give her all of her soul back, but I was trapped.” Tyrian shook his head. “I did not know how, and Araghet had disappeared, and no matter what I tried, I could not break free from her soul. We were trapped together.”
“You were stuck, too. Like Tyrianne.” Eithyne looked at Aurileus, studied him. As in life, the young man never seemed to be without a smoldering anger in his eyes. When he was alive, even the barest slight would be enough to set him off. It was the same with her as a child. It had been the same with Rymarille.
She looked away, towards the cemetery. Tyrianne’s spirit had been quiet for many days, though once in a while, her humming would reach the forge if she wandered closely enough. She was grateful for the peace.
“You had three chances and failed each time?” Aurileus snapped.
“Having three children born into a Stormdove generation was a miracle enough.” The tall man held his hand out as if to offer peace. “But I tried. I did try.”
“Instead, all you passed onto us was her misery. Her insanity.” Aurileus spat.
“If I had known–”
“Why didn’t Araghet tell us what was going on? She had been watching us for hundreds of years, sheltered and comforted each of us as we passed into our entrapment, but all of a sudden, when you needed her the most, she disappeared?” Eithyne tried to interrupt the moment as best she could, softly voicing the questions she still held.
Tyrian seemed relieved at the change of topic. “I do not know. The last I saw her face, she was releasing me from the orb into your mother’s body. I never heard from her again.”
“Well, it seems like the curse bounced back.” Aurileus motioned to Eithyne. “One living Stormdove.”
“I carry the blame for your death and your sister’s death.” Tyrian lowered his head a moment. “Rymarille was a beautiful child.”
“At least she died before she could go off like Mom did.” Aurileus reigned in his rage after his last biting comment, turning away to pace through the tall grass.
“And that’s why I lost my second child.” Eithyne pushed hair out of her face. “Because I hadn’t yet broken the curse.”
Tyrian nodded. “But you did, in the end. You took it all within yourself and guaranteed that you would be the last Stormdove to suffer this end.”
“And that’s why I’m afraid.” The words slipped past her lips. “I have no beloved to mourn, but…if I die on a battlefield and my bones interred in some mausoleum, how could I return here? To my family?”
The wind whipped the tall grasses into a frenzy, catching the last bit of heat from the cooling forge and twisting it into a warm, rough embrace.
“And that is why you remain here, suffering your own limbo.” Tyrian looked at her, his eyes as grey as the rest of him. “Because you are afraid to follow your own wishes and desires, to risk being lost to us. You are trading your passions for the hope that you might lie with us.”
“Why don’t you ask someone to bring you back? Leave instructions, or…” Aurileus cut himself off.
“Who would I leave instructions with, Auri?” She rubbed her finger across her lips. “Who yet remains that doesn’t have agendas or needs of their own?”
“Seek out Araghet.” Wilhelm mumbled, as if grasping at a thought, his visage sinking and wrinkling in on itself. “Return to the battlefield, rediscover your passion, and seek what you can of my missing companion and her husband, Oeskat. Pass onto her the duty of maintaining our spirits until we have all burnt out.”
“And if I cannot and die in battle?” Eithyne felt a shiver run up her spine. The moon was leaning into the treetops.
“One way or the other, we’re going to be left without a watcher.” Aurileus offered quietly. “You can’t take care of us forever, Eith.”
Her eyes unfocused, though she was still listening. Aurileus was right. Eithyne had spent years of her life gathering the lost remains of her cursed family, cared for them, protected them and assuaged their wounded souls. She spoke to them and heard their stories.
One, the oldest she had managed to recover besides Wilhelm himself, had been well on her way to burning out, an old candle left forgotten in the sewers. She had not known Eithyne, and had long since lost memory of her own name, but she was of the Stormdove line. Eithyne had seen at least some recognition pass through those nearly grey eyes when she gathered up the crumbling fragments.
She had laid the woman’s remains to rest in her own grave, and Wilhelm had provided a name. Ariste. Ariste Subvari. Eithyne engraved each letter deep into the stone.
A year later, Ariste Subvari had burnt out, faded into non-existence with a moaning wail. Aurileus had stayed by Eithyne’s side while she wept.
So many more bodies lost, so many she could never recover. So many Stormdoves that had been lost to nothingness without a guiding hand or comfort.
Even if she died here, at home, there would be no one to care for their spirits when the time came for them to burn out and fade, at the end of it all.
“So I should leave here and search for an elven woman that no one has seen in over forty years.” Now it was Eithyne’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “And hope that she would be willing to curate a collection of spirits.”
“She will do it, I know she will.” Wilhelm set his jaw firmly.
“And if she doesn’t?” Aurileus slid back behind Eithyne’s shoulder slightly.
“Then Eithyne faces her own fading by herself, alone, after the rest of us have passed.” The patriarch’s cadaverous features seemed to be disappearing even now.
Eithyne sought the sky and found it filled with stars. The trees were swallowing the moon now, and the darkest hours of night approached.
“Why would I return to the battlefield if all I need do is seek out Araghet?” She kept her eyes on the stars.
“Araghet is a Ghostwarden. She goes where the spirits are. She always has, for it is a part of who she is. And because you wish to, Eithyne. Your needs and passions are just as important as you will be the last to fade. You have years to explore now. You should not have removed the executioner’s blade from your neck only to live in fear of it.”
“You really should lead with those details next time, old man.” Aurileus snapped, wrinkling his nose.
“I will take my own time with my own words.” Wilhelm shot a glare at him.
Eithyne sighed and listened to them banter until the moon dipped below the trees. Their voices softened to whispers and their forms to the barest impressions of shapes. After a few moments, they moved off towards the cemetery, leaving her alone outside the forge.
She turned and started for the small, modest home. Her right side ached from standing so long, but the braces’ hinges still operated as they should. She was able to bend her knee to ascend the steps, and lock it in place when she stepped inside.
A single room consumed most of the home’s design and rafters and every inch of wall and rafter space was taken up by armor, shields, and weaponry. The soft glows of enchantments kept the darkness at bay, and she needed no torch or lamp.
Armor racks boasted full sets of armor earned through battle, gifted by faction leaders, or carefully shaped by her own rough hands. One particular set laid apart from the rest, on a table in the middle of what should have been a kitchen. It was plain, but she loved it. Simple curves, a mobile design, muted colors with little flair or flash, and best of all, no glowing bits. It fit well with her leg brace, allowing her to stand her ground.
She had been living here for years now, watching over the cemetery, blacksmithing during the day and communing with her ancestors at night until she collapsed, exhausted, in the small bedroom up in the loft. Never once had Wilhelm appeared so robustly, spoke so freely about their family’s history. Never once had he offered up the knowledge of what exactly had driven her mother mad. Something had changed, and perhaps it was time to surrender those fears.
If she died on a battlefield for good, bereft of the luck and blessing of the Light, and her body never found its way back to the Stormdove plots, she would be lost, alone, and doomed to fade. But they were right. Either way, she would be the last. At least this way, if she embraced her restless passions, she might die doing what she loved and find a caretaker for their spirits along the way.
Araghet. Ghostwarden. She hadn’t gotten a description or a last name for the mysterious adventurer. She could be a millennium old.
Pushing herself up off the table, she moved for the stairs. As she went, she dragged her fingers over the armor and shields. The Outlands. Draenor. Blackrock Mountain. Amani Empire. The Plateau. Battles and wars, skirmishes and onrushing, overwhelming odds.
For once, her heart didn’t sink at the thought of nightmares. It swelled with the idea of once more feeling the strike of a warhammer on her shield. She would have to rebuild her brace to be battle ready again. No sense meeting a charging foe with a locked up knee.
As she mounted the stairs and left the collection behind, she rested her hand on her hip. It had been a debilitating wound, crushed bones that demanded a great deal of healing from both the Light and Nature to mend. Yet, she had never considered simply giving up. As soon as she could get a pencil and paper, she had started drafting up the brace’s design. When she could stand, she dove into the forge.
She had always known she’d go back. Even in her deepest mind, she had known.
Follow her heart? Follow my shield. She reached the top of the stairs and touched the outline of her second favorite shield. Sure, it glowed a bit, but she had carried it through many of the worst battles of her life, and still it remained intact. Her most favorite shield waited next to the bed, where she could get to it when needed.
She let the door close behind her with a solid thump.