This was my entry for the 2011 Writing Contest. Ever since I first came across this character, I wanted to expand on her story, either through a Letter, tinfoil hat, or other writing. Writing actual fiction was not what I intended, as I don't typically do this, but it was fun to do! And including other characters or little references was basically icing on the cake.
I wasn't one of the winners this year, but I'm still very glad I participated - like NaNo, it's one of those things that if you successfully finish/enter at all, you win automatically on some level. And HUGE CONGRATS to Catulla for placing as a Runner-Up, and Celine for placing as an Honorable Mention! :D
(Also...look for the mention of the word "Sha" here, meaning light. I submitted this story only a week or so before Blizzcon and the Mists of Pandaria "Sha" announcement, which is why it was so fresh in my mind, and why I freaked out about it. ;D)
Heart of Dust
The girl gasped and jerked awake. Dazed and disoriented, she tugged herself upright and looked around.
A heavy, impenetrable darkness surrounded her, a world of deepest night. She looked down at herself, spread her fingers before her eyes. Nothing.
She gagged and coughed. Her mouth felt like a campfire dwindled to ash. Grimacing, she licked vainly at leathery lips and rolled over, blind and groggy. A splitting pain in her head made her wince, but she clenched her teeth and rose to her feet.
Awkwardly, the girl began to explore her surroundings, numb hands stretched tentatively before her. What she felt was not the soft linens of her bed, but rather coarse wood, splintered and moist. Her nose crinkled at the sickly scent of mildew.
The girl shivered nervously. Her skin felt cold and clammy, and her entire body felt sluggish. She didn't know if it was from the chill in the air or from some other, unknown malady.
She continued her blind search, hoping to reveal a lantern or lamp, but her efforts revealed only a cool stone floor and mounds of loose dirt beneath her feet. Her skin crawled as she wondered what lurked in the darkness, watching and waiting.
Panic and claustrophobia began clawing their way up her throat, choking her. Meanwhile, the pounding in her head continued to beat its staccato rhythm upon her brow.
The girl took a deep breath, ignoring the staleness of the air that flooded her lungs. She could manage this. She just had to remain calm and deal with her problems one at a time.
She closed her eyes and uttered the long-memorized words to a simple healing prayer, calling upon the Light to soothe her weary nerves and alleviate her pain. It was one of the earliest spells she had learned, back when she was but a child. The unexpected recollection made her smile, and she waited for the Light's gentle touch.
Instead, a burst of searing pain exploded in her brain, hurling her to her knees. She writhed and gasped as it ran down her spine, raking and clawing. The pain coursed through her limbs and clenched its terrible grip around her heart. It was unlike anything she had ever felt before.
Helpless, muscles burning from her unseen assailant's assault, she crumpled to the floor. No cry escaped her lips; she had no breath to spend.
Frightened, alone and paralyzed with agony, Lilian Voss whimpered into the dirt and waited for death.
The Cathedral had never looked so magnificent. Crimson banners hung proudly unfurled, and hundreds of blazing candles bathed the grand hall in a warm, soothing glow. Dozens of crusaders and priests mingled within, their scarlet cloaks and surcoats blending together in a sea of holy blood and valor.
"Wow!" breathed Lilian, peeking in from outside, where she and the rest of the initiates were waiting. She ducked back from the massive oaken doors and looked around for "Uncle" Doan, who would surely lecture her about proper decorum and improper behavior if he caught her.
Fortunately, the old mage was nowhere in sight. Lilian shoved the heavy door shut - an act which took all of the young girl's strength - then skipped merrily down the stairs. Her best friend was waiting for her on the lawn, doing his best to look stern and failing miserably.
"You're not s'posed to DO that!" Gebler hissed. "Arcanist Doan said this is a big day, and they said we need to wait here and be quiet!" The boy emphasized his words with a sulky frown.
Lilian rolled her eyes and pursed her lips in an exaggerated mockery of her friend's dour expression. "A big day! A big day!" she harrumphed, lowering her voice to sound like their dreary chaperone.
Gebler's mouth twitched, and the two children were soon giggling helplessly. A few of the older initiates glared at them, which only made them laugh harder.
"I'm sorry, Gebler," said Lilian brightly, brushing a rogue crease out of her friend's new tabard. "It's just so boring out here!"
She took a moment and peered down at her own outfit, marveling at the pristine white silk and bold crest emblazoned on her chest. That morning, the Grand Crusader had given each initiate a special gift - a brand new tabard, marked with the Crusade's famous symbol. It was the first time any of the children had been permitted to wear the Scarlet Flame.
Lilian had squealed with delight, and had eagerly jammed the tabard over her head in such haste that her head and arms had gotten hopelessly entangled. It had taken both Gebler and an exasperated Doan to free her from her prison.
"You dummy," Gebler had said to her afterward. "It's just a tabard. It's not like we got swords or armor!"
Lilian's reply had been a punch in the arm and a firmly extended tongue. Gebler didn't really understand. None of the other children did. After all, none of their fathers was the High Priest. They didn't spend hours each night being quizzed and tutored about the evil Scourge, the Holy Light, and the constant battle between good and evil.
"When can I help you, Daddy?" she asked, night after night. "I want to help you fight the monsters. I want to be one of the good people who fight evil with you!"
"When you are ready, child," her father always replied, before pulling up her covers and blowing out the lamp. "When you are ready, we will both wear the Scarlet Flame and vanquish the evil together. This I swear."
Finally, that day had come.
Lilian mopped a hand across her brow and wiped her palms on her breeches. Overhead, the sun blazed down upon the initiates without mercy. She hoped the Grand Crusader would be ready for them soon. Beside her, Gebler surrendered to the heat and reclined on the lawn. Lilian had glared and prodded him with her shoe, but then saw that most of the other initiates had done the same.
Lilian remained standing, alert and awake. She was too excited to sit still, and it was so hot, she thought she might fall asleep if she were to lie down. Instead, she marched in place and stretched her arms, and tried to imagine what kind of brave things she and her father would soon be doing.
Maybe they would give her a big hammer to hit the undead with? She inspected her thin arms critically and told herself she would have to get stronger. Those hammers were probably very heavy.
Then again, perhaps she would end up in the clergy like her father, using the Light to burn her enemies to cinders. She grinned at the thought, and decided this would also be an acceptable path.
Lilian was dreamily imagining a glorious battle against a sea of growling Scourge, battling alongside Gebler, her father and the Grand Crusader, when she realized with a start that the Cathedral's doors had swung open. She kicked Gebler hurriedly as she snapped to attention.
A lone knight stood at the door, his bright colors a vibrant splash against the ancient stone walls. He perused the sea of initiates and, spotting Doan, gave a respectful salute. The aged arcanist (who looked just as uncomfortable as his bleating wards) bustled about the courtyard and herded the initiates inside.
It was blessedly cool inside the Cathedral, and Lilian let out an enormous sigh of relief and closed her eyes in delight. Her shirt and tabard were sticky with perspiration and her hair lay limply plastered to her skull, but by that point she didn't care.
Gebler poked her in the side, abruptly interrupting her reverie. She turned, glaring, and was about to poke him back when she saw the serious, nervous look on his face. She quickly straightened and followed his gaze. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight.
Countless members of the Crusade lined each side of the Grand Hall, standing shoulder to shoulder, facing inwards. Dressed in full battle regalia, the crusaders were an awe-inspiring sight. Lilian started as the huge doors swung shut behind her with a thunderous crash.
To her left, the Crusade's knights stood like statues, powerful and indomitable. Their gleaming plate mail shone like rubies, and they clutched giant swords and hammers nearly twice her height.
To her right stood the Crusade's priests and mages, who looked no less majestic in their traditional scarlet robes. She peered down the line, looking for her father, but it was too dark to make out any faces beneath their lifted hoods. She knew he was there somewhere, though, watching her.
A regal carpet ran like a river of blood down the center of the Cathedral, leading to a small landing. Atop the steps loomed Grand Crusader Dathrohan, the most honored member of the Crusade. He towered over the room, his presence both comforting and terrifying. Behind him lay an ancient, massive bier carved from marble. It was draped with banners and thick tapestries, proud records of the Crusade's gallant cause.
The candles flickered, washing the Cathedral in crimson hues. Slowly, deliberately, the Grand Crusader spoke.
"Honored members of the Scarlet Crusade, we gather here today for a most important duty," he said, his baritone voice rumbling throughout the Cathedral. "Our cause is just, our will is strong. But though the blessed Light favors our mission, we are but mortal beings. When one of our number falls in battle, he falls forever."
Dathrohan paced slowly across the landing, looking out at his silent audience. "But we are pure of heart, and pure of blood. Our children are brave, and will take up the blade as it falls from our tired hands, until the foul disease infecting our land has been purged and eradicated!"
A deafening cheer erupted from the galleries. Dathrohan raised a gauntleted fist skyward. "For the Light!" he bellowed. As the cheers continued, the Grand Crusader swept his gaze over the initiates. Though his eyes were kind, they were also stern. They pierced each initiate, saw into their souls, judging their commitment and worthiness. After a moment, he nodded, satisfied. Lilian let out a sigh of relief.
The Grand Crusader unsheathed his sword, the blade rasping softly as it cleared the scabbard. He tapped it lightly on the bier, sending a clear, crystalline note ringing throughout the hall. A solemn hush fell over the crowd.
"Initiates! You have trained since you were but babes, learning our proud history and studying our ideals. And now, the time has come for you to leave your childhood behind...it is time for you to become a full-fledged member of our sacred Brotherhood!"
He stepped back and placed his sword gently down upon the altar. He unrolled a large scroll and began reading.
"Abbendis, Lynnia. Daughter of High General Markus Abbendis. You are called. Step forward."
A girl Lilian's age stepped onto the pristine carpet, and marched proudly down the hall. As they had been taught, she ascended the rostrum and knelt before the bier, head bowed in reverence. The Grand Crusader placed a small golden brazier upon the altar, and poured a silvery powder into the bowl. A small flame materialized, barely larger than a candle's flame, but Lilian knew it was much more.
She watched with pride as her fellow students were called forth, one by one, and underwent the ritual. She grinned as Gebler strode down the hall, and clasped her hands in shared triumph as the Grand Crusader welcomed her friend into the Crusade's ranks.
Finally, after nearly an hour of watching her peers embrace their destinies, it was her turn.
"Voss, Lilian, daughter of High Priest Benedictus Voss. You are called. Step forward."
Lilian took a deep breath and stepped onto the carpet, acutely aware of the dozens of eyes watching her every move. Her feet wanted to sprint down the hall, but she forced herself to remain calm, though her heart was hammering against her chest.
Carefully, she climbed the steps, petrified of tripping and ruining the moment. That crisis averted, she knelt before the Grand Crusader and awaited the words that would change her life forever.
Dathrohan lit the brazier and gestured for her to look into the flame. She lifted her head obediently and stared, determined to find whatever the Grand Crusader wanted her to find. Beyond the bier, Dathrohan's shadows danced wildly across the walls, trapped and caught by the flickering light.
Lilian concentrated with all her being, and stared intently at the small flame. It was mesmerizing...and comforting. She felt a strange warmth seep into her, setting her soul ablaze with righteous purpose. She gasped softly. Her father had described this feeling to her, many times, but she had never truly understood the rapture on his face. Until now.
"Lilian Voss, do you solemnly swear to commit your life and soul to our noble cause? To battle the undead blight until the end of your days, and serve the Light, a divine weapon of justice?"
Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. She turned and stared boldly at the Grand Crusader, flames flickering in her eyes. Flames and fervor.
"I swear, my lord. For the Light!"
The Grand Crusader smiled down at her, and extended a gauntleted hand. "Then arise, Lilian Voss, and welcome to the ranks of the Scarlet Crusade. You're one of us now."
Muscles aching, Lilian pulled herself weakly to her hands and knees. What had happened to her? It was bad enough that she seemed to be trapped or buried alive, but to also be deprived of the Light...it was her worst fear, given form. Her mind reeled as she imagined the raw, jagged emptiness in her life if the Light would no longer answer her call.
She shook her head violently and thrust the thought aside. There had to be an explanation. Once she got back to the Monastery, surely one of the scholars or magi would know how to help her.
She made her way over to a wall, and began following it, taking slow, careful steps so she didn't trip over anything else. Her hands traced along the stone, then suddenly plunged into a deep recess. She explored the area and discovered it was some sort of hollowed-out shelf carved into the wall, a few feet off the ground. The recess was empty, though her probing fingers slid into a sticky, oily substance, which she quickly scraped off on the wall.
Lilian pondered the opening, then realized with dread what it might be. She placed her hands back on the wall, but ran them upwards, reaching above her head. Sure enough, her fingers found another shelf, higher off the ground. She stretched her hand up and reached inside, and felt the rough grain of a large wooden object within.
She withdrew her hand in disbelief. She knew what the object was.
It was a coffin.
By the Light. She was trapped in a tomb! The sweet, cloying smells, the loose dirt and rubble... Lilian gagged in shock and threw herself back against the wall, staring wildly into the darkness. She was likely surrounded by corpses, and could not help but imagine them rising from their caskets, slowly advancing towards her, unseen...
Discipline, Lilian scolded herself. If there were Scourge down here, you would hear their rotted feet dragging through the dirt, and you would hear their awful moans. She froze, listening intently, but the tomb remained still and silent.
She leaned against the wall and considered the implications of her discovery. Someone had tossed her unconscious body down here amidst the dead, but why?
Grimly, she realized that the Brotherhood would never treat one of their own with such disrespect. Fallen champions of the Crusade were entombed with honor in the Monastery's sacred crypts, or if the death occurred in the field, far from home, they were cremated, their ashes sealed in sanctified urns until they could be properly laid to rest. No Crusader would ever unceremoniously dump their brethren into a putrid pit in the ground.
Which meant she hadn't been left down there by the Crusade...
Lilian concentrated, trying to remember. She heard the clash of blades, the sound of the Light sizzling into rotted flesh, but the memories were vague and indistinct. They could have been a week old, or a year. She couldn't tell.
Her musings were cut short by a muffled thumping coming from above. Someone (or something) was approaching. Quickly, Lilian combed the ground and found a long plank of wood. It was no sword, but it was better than nothing. She hefted it to her shoulder and followed the sound over to the wall.
The footsteps descended and stopped, and Lilian heard the metallic jingle of a key fumbling at a lock. She crept to the side, so that whatever entered would be facing away and might not notice her. Pressing herself into the stone, she held herself perfectly still and waited.
A jagged creak filled the room, followed by a blinding shaft of light that scorched her eyes. Lilian flinched and looked away, furiously willing her eyes to adjust. After a few seconds, she cautiously cracked an eyelid.
A hunched figure had shuffled into the room, holding a lantern in wasted fingers. The lantern's light sputtered, giving the tomb a ghastly, flickering appearance. Lilian winced as she saw her prison for the first time. Dozens of bodies lay scattered on the ground, men and women, humans and elves, all in various states of decay. Off to the side, a pile of discarded, shattered coffins had been roughly shoved against the wall.
Lilian wanted to retch, but the sickness was replaced with anger as she looked at the figure. Ragged hair hung in clumps from its scalp, and sickly skin was stretched taut across its face. It wore tattered scraps of what used to be a robe, but it was so filthy Lilian couldn't begin to guess its color or design. Patches of skin were entirely missing from its torso, and she could make out broken ribs jutting obscenely through putrefied flesh.
Her lip curled in disgust. The evil creature had come to desecrate the bodies interred within the tomb! Grimly, she realized why the coffins had been emptied, their contents deposited cruelly on the bare ground. That's why she had been locked in the tomb - they thought she was dead. She shuddered. Light only knew what atrocities these monsters committed upon the dead...
The undead had limped over to the pile of bodies and stood over them, one withered hand stroking its chin as if deep in thought. Not Scourge...Forsaken, Lilian realized, though there was little difference in her mind. An undead abomination was an undead abomination, after all. They were monsters, and nothing more.
The High Priest stared blankly at his daughter. "What did you just say, Lilian?" he demanded, aghast.
The girl took a step back, surprised. "I, I just wondered...those undead people, the Forsaken, that live over in the old castle...are they really like the Scourge? Didn't you say they can talk and think and do things normal people can do?"
Benedictus frowned and set down his quill. "You misunderstand, child. They can communicate and speak, yes, but they are not like us. They are simply beasts that can bark and yelp in unison, much like a pack of wolves can move as one to surround their prey." He sighed, seeing the confusion in her eyes. "It is true, these 'Forsaken' do possess a crude, bestial intelligence, unlike the Scourge that mindlessly roam the land. But do not make the mistake of thinking that intelligence implies humanity, Lilian! Scourge or Forsaken, both will rip you to pieces and devour your bones, simply because you live. The only difference is that the Forsaken will be laughing while they do it."
"But they can talk, they can think!" protested the youngster. "We should talk to them, maybe we could work together, or leave each other alone, or something!"
"Ware your words," growled Benedictus. "You know our stance toward the undead, Scourge or otherwise. They are deviants who walk outside the Light! There can be no mercy for monsters, and it's time you realized this, Lilian!"
"No! It's stupid!" she yelled, fists clenched. "I read the books in the library! They didn't ask to be turned into monsters, the Lich King did it to them! He's the evil one! They're probably just really sad and want to live in peace! Maybe they just need some friends!"
The High Priest surged to his feet, knocking over his chair with a crash. Lilian jumped and flinched, but stood her ground. "Child, you go too far! Your naive curiosity I can understand, even expect, but to hear such treacherous words from my own blood! You have shamed me today, daughter. You must be disciplined."
The fight, and the blood, drained from Lilian's face. "But Daddy, I -"
"But NOTHING!" he roared. He reached forward and slapped his daughter furiously across the cheek, knocking her to the floor. He seized her sleeve and dragged her, crying, into the hall. "Vishas!" he bellowed, his cry echoing throughout the quiet halls. "Vishas, attend me!" After a few minutes, a slender man in red leather jogged up, out of breath.
"What is it, High Priest?" he wheezed, glancing casually at the whimpering girl at his feet. "One of the inquisitors told me you needed me. Is anything wrong?"
"Indeed. My daughter here has been having impure thoughts regarding the undead," said Benedictus, dragging Lilian forward and depositing her on the floor in front of him. "She is but a child...she means no harm, but these blasphemous thoughts must be eradicated."
"I agree completely, High Priest," said Vishas, a glint in his beady eyes. "Leave it to me." He crouched down so his face was level with Lilian's, who recoiled in fright. She didn't like the hungry look on his face, or the way his fingers twitched towards her. "How long should your daughter and I...talk, about her concerns?"
"As long as it takes, Vishas. May the Light guide your hand."
"Daddy, no! I'm sorry, please, I was wrong," sobbed Lilian, clutching at her father's robes, eyes wide. "Please don't let him take me! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Benedictus stared down at her, his face resolute and hard, as if carved from stone. Then, gently, he knelt and cupped her bruised cheek in his palm. "Lilian, my daughter. I love you and wish only the best for you. Some day, you will understand...that this is for your own good." He dropped his hand and nodded at Vishas, who plucked the screaming girl up under his arm and strolled off.
"Oh, Vishas, one more thing," called the High Priest before they disappeared from sight. "She is young, with a full life before her. No scars."
The loathsome Forsaken seemed completely preoccupied with the bodies in front of it, so Lilian padded closer, moving carefully over the debris-littered floor. Probably deciding which one to eat first, she guessed. Lilian raised the board and swung it two-handed at the creature's skull, which crumpled under the heavy blow with a satisfying, meaty crunch.
Dropping the weapon, she lunged forward, deftly scooping up the lantern before it hit the floor. Holding it above the twitching corpse, Lilian shuddered. That was the problem with the undead. You never knew when they were actually dead. She stomped the broken skull under her boot until the body lay still.
The Forsaken had not carried any weapons, so she grabbed the ichor-stained board and crept to the door, eager to leave. The brief exertion had been surprisingly tiring, and pangs of hunger stabbed her gut. She wondered how long it had been since she'd eaten anything.
Beyond the door, crumbling stone stairs spiraled upward, dimly illuminated by trickles of moonlight. Lilian could hear more voices from up above, some male, some female, but couldn't make out their words. She prowled slowly up the stairs, board raised, ready to strike.
Rounding a corner, Lilian caught sight of the open sky and started to rush forward, then caught herself. Discipline, she reminded herself, lowering herself to her belly. Slowly, she crawled up the remaining steps, not wanting to emerge into a Forsaken ambush.
Lilian peeked over the top step and groaned in dismay. She was in a pine-filled glade, surrounded by steep hills, and she was surrounded by the undead.
A Forsaken soldier stood a few yards away, while another perched next to him on a rotted stump. In the distance, Lilian could make out the ugly, twisted silhouette of Forsaken architecture. One of their towns, or maybe just a camp? She wasn't sure.
A horde of mindless Scourge littered the field between her and the buildings, milling about aimlessly and bumping into each other. Rows of graves stretched across the ground nearby, many alarmingly empty.
Lilian's reconnaissance was interrupted as a pale, glowing figure descended from the sky. She ducked back into the stairwell, but the figure didn't seem to have noticed her. It looked like a human woman, except it had translucent white skin and large feathered wings. It wore intricate, rune-covered armor, adorned with skulls and cruel spikes.
Lilian had vaguely heard of such beings, though she had never seen one herself. They were Val'kyr, undead warrior women of the barbarians that lived in Northrend...and servants to the Lich King. What was one doing here?
Dread flooded her heart as the Val'kyr hovered in front of an unsullied grave. "No...they can't be..." she whispered to herself, hoping she was wrong.
The winged undead shouted words in a guttural language, and her hands began crackling with magical energy. She gestured at the grave before her, and dead, decayed fingers burst from the soil and began clawing at the dirt. In moments, a corpse stood before the Val'kyr, looking quite disheveled and confused, but undoubtedly "alive".
Lilian clenched the board, digging her fingers into the moldy wood. She had to get back to the Monastery. Her father needed to know that the war against the undead had just gotten a lot trickier.
The Val'kyr had moved on to another grave, and the two Forsaken were addressing their new brother. Lilian stole out from the tomb, making her way over to one of the large pines that littered the glade. She estimated that she could sneak her way past, using the trees for cover, as long as the Forsaken were focused on their unholy rituals.
She slid around the trunk and slammed head-first into an armored, mailed chest. Startled, she toppled over backward, losing her grip on the board. A huge male Forsaken holding a sword and shield towered over her, looking down at her. She scrabbled for her weapon, trying to bring it to bear before the creature attacked.
To her surprise, he did nothing of the sort, simply stared at her curiously. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Get away from me, abomination!" Lilian spat, clutching her feeble weapon and backing away cautiously. The undead's sword appeared dented and rusty, but it would be more than a match for her makeshift club.
He gave her a blank, puzzled look. "I'm not an abomination. I'm simply undead. I just want to speak with you."
Lilian snorted, and kept the board raised defensively. A trick, surely. "The undead are a taint upon Azeroth!" she sneered. "Every one of you creatures deserves to be destroyed." This undead seemed particularly dim-witted, and she guessed that if she could keep him talking, she might be able to slip under his guard and escape.
"Don't be like that," he said in a friendly tone, something Lilian never thought she would hear. "I'm not your enemy. My name is Darnell." He sheathed his sword and extended his hand.
Now! Lilian smacked his hand away and dove underneath his shield, rolling smoothly to her feet. She started to sprint away into the woods when Darnell spoke again, his words stopping her dead in her tracks.
"You do realize that you are undead yourself, don't you?"
She whipped around, eyes wide. Darnell still stood by the pine, unmoving. He made no move to draw his sword or approach.
Lilian laughed. For a miserable undead, this Darnell was clever. His words had caught her completely off-guard.
"A nice try, monster!" she called, mockingly saluting him with her board. "I must admit, your lie surprised me, but I would rather die than become one of you wretches. The Light would never let that happen to me."
Darnell didn't speak. He simply watched her, a pitying expression on his scarred face.
A cold chill ran through Lilian's heart. Slowly, she held a trembling hand up to her eyes. The flesh was ashen, her skin shriveled and taut against her bones.
I'm sick and dehydrated, she thought frantically. And who knows how long I was in that damned tomb? This is just a trick meant to make me drop my guard.
She snarled and took a step towards Darnell, who didn't move. "You're lying! The Light will protect me! My father will protect me!"
Darnell lifted his empty sword hand, and Lilian's eyes narrowed. But the Forsaken simply extended a bony finger, pointing at her side.
It's a trick, don't look, she screamed at herself. Do not look!
But she couldn't help herself.
A low moan escaped her lips, and the board fell unnoticed from her grasp. A gaping hole yawned in her side, just beneath her ribcage. The edges of the vicious wound were ragged and torn, thickly crusted with dried blood. Her tabard, once so beautiful and pure, was nearly black with gore.
An axe, or possibly a spear, said her brain clinically, even as her shaking fingers confirmed the awful sight. Her hands dropped limply to her side. She was an experienced fighter and had seen countless wounds like this before. She knew it was a fatal injury. But if that was true...
She slumped to her knees. She couldn't think. She couldn't breathe. This had to be a dream...no, a nightmare. Surely her father would wake her soon, telling her that it was time for their morning prayers to the Light.
The Light...the Light had burned her! It wasn't been sickness or a Forsaken curse. It was the Light rejecting her.
And the Forsaken had entombed her with the dead, not because they hadn't realized she was still alive, but because...
Numb, Lilian didn't stir as Darnell slowly walked over to stand before her. It wasn't until he placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder that she recoiled in terror, screaming.
"Noooo! Get away from me, you monster!" she wailed, eyes clenched shut. "Don't look at me! I'm hideous! I CAN'T be undead! Not me! Not me..."
"You're not hideous," said Darnell gently, digging in his pockets. "Here, look in this mirror," he said as he handed her a small, pitted piece of glass. "See for yourself."
Lilian stared into the polished glass. A monstrosity stared back. Her hair, once the color of burnished gold, had turned a sickly green. Hideous scars crossed her face, deep gouges that had never healed, the jagged flesh still torn and raw. The skin on her jaw was peeling away, and she could see bone protruding through. And her eyes were little more than sunken pits, glowing an unholy, terrible icy blue.
She looked up at Darnell, unable to speak.
"You see?" said the big Forsaken cheerily. "You're one of us now."
Lilian threw herself onto the bench, gasping for breath, her arms trembling. Of all her training routines, the martial exercises were her favorite. Just herself and a sword, practicing her strikes on a target dummy, or sparring against one of her peers. She enjoyed the exertion, and secretly, she enjoyed besting the brash, overconfident crusaders who challenged her, chuckling at the sight of her slender frame.
Most of all, however, she enjoyed the company. Her other lessons were all private, individual endeavors, due to her "special" status. Woodlore and archery with Loksey. Stealth and subterfuge with Vishas. And of course, religion and history with her father.
But worst of all were her sorcery lessons with Doan. Lilian was, at best, an embarrassing mage, but her father insisted she gain a rudimentary knowledge of every possible skill the Monastery could teach her.
"It is essential you understand every aspect of our mission, my daughter," he said when she had asked if she could stop her arcane studies. "Many of our undead foes are capable magic users, so even if you yourself are not able to hurl a blazing fireball or summon a roaring blizzard, it is vital that you understand how such spells operate, and how you can prevent them."
Lilian could see her father's point, but so far she didn't understand at all, and would often return from Doan's "lessons" scorched and frozen. She couldn't help but wonder if the old mage was getting back at her for all those years of childhood mischief.
The other Crusaders her age didn't have much sympathy. Lilian saw them pointing when they thought she wasn't looking, heard the jibes they whispered about her behind her back. And she knew that the only reason they were willing to spar with her was because they all wanted to defeat the "chosen one."
Lilian sighed, idly drawing in the dirt with her training sword. Sometimes it was difficult being her father's prodigy. She wanted to be strong and become a champion of the Crusade, but she had never expected it to be so lonely.
"Ah, daughter, there you are," came her father's voice from behind her. Surprised, she jumped to her feet and saluted. The High Priest rarely visited her during her training sessions, something she was secretly glad for. Alone, she was a match for any of the Crusader's warriors, but if her father was watching, she would inevitably falter or fumble under his intense scrutiny, and end up embarrassing herself.
"Put your sword away, my dear," he said, beckoning. "Today is a very special occasion. The Grand Crusader has taken note of your efforts, and he has decided to personally mentor your growth. It will be as if the Light itself was guiding you, Lilian. This is a tremendous honor!"
Lilian's eyes grew wide, and she hastened to join her father, who was already striding down the hall. The Grand Crusader! The order's most esteemed, powerful figure, and he wanted to train her? Suddenly, the long hours of solitude seemed a small price to pay.
Her father led her to the Hall of Champions, where the Crusade honored its fallen heroes. Lilian had always felt at peace in the sacred chamber, as if the massive statues were somehow watching over her and protecting her.
The Grand Crusader was within, casually inspecting the statues and their memorial placards. Lilian hasn't spoken with him since her initiation, and she was delighted to see that he looked as strong and hearty as ever.
"Greetings, Grand Crusader,” said her father, bowing deeply. “As requested, I present to you my daughter, Lilian.”
“Thank you, High Priest. You may leave us. Lilian and I have much to discuss.”
“Light be with you,” said Voss, closing the ornate doors behind him.
Lilian stood at attention, excited and nervous. Dathrohan eyed her carefully, then nodded in mute approval. “Yes, your father was quite right. You are talented. You will be perfect,” he said with a smile. She tried not to grin.
“Follow me, child,” said the man, walking over to one of the statues. He reached up and tugged on a nearby torch sconce, and a heavy grinding sound filled the hall. Lilian gawked as an entire section of the wall fell away, revealing a small, dark staircase leading down into the ground.
Already descending, Dathrohan looked up at her expectantly. She snapped her mouth shut and hurried after him, chastised.
“Sha,” said the Grand Crusader, and a glowing sphere of light appeared in his palm, brightening the narrow passage. Behind them, the wall swung shut as they left the Monastery behind.
Lilian began to shiver, her training doublet chilling quickly in the dank air. Wherever they were headed, it was far beneath the Monastery grounds.
Finally, the stairs leveled out, and they entered into a cavernous chamber, too large for Dathrohan's light to fully illuminate. He waited for her to step into the room, then shut the iron door behind them. The heavy, grating clang sent a shiver down her spine, and it echoed hauntingly for a few long moments.
“I'm sure you're quite curious what I will be teaching you,” said Dathrohan congenially, walking forward. Lilian moved to follow, but he shook his head. “Just wait there, I won't be long.” He moved off into the shadows, his light growing fainter and fainter, dwindling away to nothing. She looked down at her hand to see if she could make it out in the darkness. Nothing.
“Your teachers are doing a fine job so far, but there are things beyond their capabilities,” came Dathrohan's voice, hollow and distant. “Your father is quite correct. You have a grand destiny before you, Lilian Voss, but not what you might expect.”
The darkness exploded into sepulchral hues, and she cried out as the sudden burst of color stabbed into her eyes. Frantically, she rubbed away the spots and staggered back, squinting.
Dathrohan stood across the room, dwarfed by a hideous statue of a winged, snarling humanoid. Hundreds of braziers lined the room, blazing with sickly purple flames that bathed the room in an unnatural gloom. Monstrous, distorted shadows twisted wildly around the Grand Crusader, reaching out for her. They curled around her body, freezing her blood, sapping her strength.
"You are talented, with great potential, but you are not ready for the darkness," droned Dathrohan. "But this will change. One day, you will lose everything. Your life, your love, your hope. And when that day comes, when your Light has deserted you...then, you will be ready."
Struggling, Lilian saw with horror that they weren't shadows as much as they were patches of...nothingness. She stared into the darkness and saw an infinite, yawning chasm, from which no light could ever escape.
“Don't worry, I'm not going to harm you, girl. I'm just going to give you a little...gift. You won't even remember after we're done here,” murmured Dathrohan, his voice growing heavy and sonorous. “Though feel free to scream all you like.” Profane shapes burst from his skin, his bones cracking and jerking. His body seemed to waver and elongate, melting into the shadows streaking through the air. The darkness swirled and hung heavy in the air, ragged tears in the world. It plunged down upon her.
Exhausted, Lilian leaned back against the bars of the cage and waited. A soft rain cascaded down, soaking her shredded garments, and the evening breeze chilled her pallid flesh to ice.
She didn't notice.
It hadn't been hard to escape the Forsaken. In fact, they seemed content to let her do whatever she wanted. Lilian had wandered aimlessly into the woods, and collapsed on the ground. In the back of her mind, she knew she should tell her father about the Val'kyr, but the idea of facing him in such a state terrified her. He would be so ashamed.
Still, there was always the chance that someone at the Monastery would be able to help her. Perhaps there was a remedy. The Light watched over its own.
Her mind made up, Lilian had marched up to a small Crusade outpost, shocking its yawning guardians, and demanded that she be taken prisoner.
"My name is Lilian Voss, daughter of High Priest Benedictus Voss!" she shouted. "I have urgent information for the Grand Crusader. I am NOT a Scourge, nor a Forsaken!" She spat on the ground, glaring. "I am telling the truth, I swear by the Light!"
After a hushed, whispered conversation, a squad of crusaders had emerged, weapons drawn. She kept her arms raised and let them escort her inside the gates. She half-expected them to lose their nerve and cut her down, but to her relief, they instead locked her inside a heavy iron cage atop a guard tower.
As she suspected, they didn't trust her, but they also didn't want to risk murdering the High Priest's daughter. And she also knew that moments after the lock clicked shut, a rider would be on his way to alert the Monastery. Now, it was just a matter of waiting.
She heard footsteps coming up the tower, and she sat upright expectedly. The man who emerged was not her father, however.
"Gebler! Oh, Gebler, I'm so glad to see you,” she blurted, relief flooding through her. “Tell me, have you heard from my father?" He nodded, studying her warily through the bars. She couldn't really blame him. "What did he say?"
"Lilian Voss, the High Priest denounces you as a daughter,” said her friend, his eyes cold. “He's ordered that you be executed immediately."
Lilian froze. "What? No!" she stammered. "This can't be...Gebler, you know me! We were friends once! This must be a mistake!"
Gebler's lip curled in distaste. "The High Priest sends his regrets," he said. "He had hoped that one day you would be a powerful weapon against our enemies." Lilian slumped against the bars, his words piercing her like lances. "Unfortunately, you were too dangerous in life, and you're far too dangerous in undeath."
He unsheathed his sword, held it up so she could see it shining in the night sky. "Gebler, father, why would you..." murmured Lilian as stared past the blade dully, uncomprehending, her dead heart crumbling to ruin in her chest.
First the Light had abandoned her. Now her best friend.
And her father. She had given everything for him, devoted her life to him, and this is how he repaid her.
How dare he, she thought, her sorrow quashed with sudden rage. How dare they betray me like this!
"I will enjoy killing you, you Scourged witch," said Gebler, thrusting his sword between the bars.
Something ignited within her. Suddenly, Lilian remembered Dathrohan's words from years ago. What he had taught her, and what he had made her forget. She reached deep within herself and cast her mind back to those terrible hours spent with the Grand Crusader.
She became shadow.
Gebler's sword entered her chest, but hit nothing except the bars on the other side of the cage. Lilian looked up at her childhood friend, a sad smile upon her face. Purple flames erupted from her hands, but instead of heat, Gebler felt only an intense, impossible cold sweep over him. The torches nearby flickered and died as the violet flames raced over Lilian's body, devouring it, leaving behind a ghostly, featureless apparition.
The horrified crusader backpedaled as Lilian walked through the cage, drifting through the heavy iron like wisps of smoke. He flailed his sword desperately, but it passed harmlessly through her translucent form, the blade trailing tendrils of shadow as it emerged.
She leaned in and embraced him tightly. "Goodbye, Gebler."
He screamed, and burst into flame. He staggered back a step, then collapsed as the shadowy fire consumed him. Within seconds, there was nothing left of her would-be executioner but a smoldering patch of darkness.
Lilian looked calmly down at the stain before turning to the horizon, toward the Monastery. "Daddy..." she whispered.
She stepped off the tower into the night, and was gone.