The gryphon crouched low to the ground before surging upwards, its wings beating steadily to carry her into the evening sky. Aerana turned her head, watching as her Guardians - all of them - arranged themselves in a formation around her. Her hood billowed as the cool air swirled around her and she tightened her grip on the reins. To the south, just above the forest's canopy, she could see the telltale spire of Northshire Abbey.
The intervening week since her last meeting in Stormwind had given her the time and space necessary to control her feelings of anger and betrayal; indeed, the hours in thought had provided perspective and insight to analyze the situation in various ways. Stress and anxiety, largely brought on by worries over the Empire and the Senate’s ostensible ‘treatments’ for her, had made sleeping difficult so she had spent the extra time awake writing down her thought processes.
As Ezraeil had recently pointed out to her, it was entirely likely that Donnelly had smugly touted his 'informant' simply to cause division within the ranks of those who still stood by her side. After all, she was well aware that such tactics would be employed where benefit could be derived from unrest. And if anything, Donnelly was a tactician. Beyond Donnelly’s words, the Guardians had no concrete evidence that word of their movements and observations were being leaked to the Senate. Without more, there was no reason to act, to diminish their already small numbers.
"Regardless," Aerana had said after Ezraeil had fallen silent, "we must be cautious and aware that it is possible that our words may not be kept in perfect confidence." She glanced at Myaka and Ezraeil and then lifted her head, watching as the two shadowed forms of Tarashan and Dracila drew closer on the horizon. "I shall trust that you both will be wary so that, should Donnelly’s alleged perfidy prove true, she cannot alert others as to our intended destination. We must see to this matter first before we can refute the Senate’s attempts to tear the Empire away and I do not wish for them to thwart these efforts."
Aerana kept her gaze forward, her jaw tightening slightly. Slowly, the familiar sight of the Abbey’s walls came into view. And within those walls, the Brothers who would show conclusively that the Senate’s words were naught but lies.
The medical journal that the Senate flaunted as the foundation for their actions was a matter that all of the Guardians agreed must be addressed. It was the Senate’s sole piece of ‘concrete’ evidence, used to bolster their precarious position of power. It seemed that the Empire had taken the Senate’s words as truth without bothering to substantiate or authenticate the book. Indeed, the book was disseminated and used to sway Empire with impunity, to justify the Senate’s actions. If Aerana hoped to refute the Senate’s malicious allegations, the Guardians noted, she would need to find a way to show, conclusively, that the journal was a forgery.
Aerana Dantay had grown up on the Abbey’s grounds and knew well the peaceful Brothers who resided within its walls. She would speak with them, sharing the import of the Senate’s misrepresentations.
Surely the Brothers' words would help reveal the Senate's lies.
The quietude of the Abbey was not as oppressive as some silences are — not for Aerana, at least. She found the hushed voices and muffled footsteps comforting, providing a welcome undertone of serenity and nostalgia to her otherwise unsettled and anxious mind. Fond memories of reading in this little alcove or browsing through that large bookshelf came to the forefront as she walked, causing her footfalls to slow as she made her way through library. The Abbey was, in her mind, a place of light amid some of the darker memories of her childhood: where she had first lost herself among the joyful words and theories of books, where she had happily traded simple theories with Brother Neal, and where she had smiled with childlike pride at the praise she received her studious habits.
Too soon, her steps brought her to her intended destination. It was just as familiar as the rest of the Abbey, if not more so. Myaka stood behind her, waiting in respectful silence as Aerana raised her hand to knock on the wooden door to Brother Neal Newton’s office. Aerana paused, remembering how she had knocked as a child with unabashed excitement at the prospect of discussing her latest reading with Brother Neal. Now, however, her knock was more measured and steady.
“Come in, come in,” came the reply from within the small study.
Aerana opened the door and entered, with Myaka following and closing the door behind them. Tarashan and Dracila had been posted near the entrance of the Abbey, while Ezraeil had been posted near the entrance to the library wing. She did not anticipate that they would remain at the Abbey for long; regardless, she felt it necessary to have all of her Guardians nearby should something unexpected occur. These were troublesome times.
The little room was just as she remembered, although the piles of books had grown larger over the years. She had sat in this very office as a child, listening with rapt fascination as Brother Neal regaled her with stories and allegories of the Light, its blessings, and its followers. Her eyes were drawn to the piles of books next to the desk and she wondered briefly if some of her favorites were among their number. Despite the brief musing, her attention focused almost immediately on the sole occupant of the study.
The years had been kind to Brother Neal, although the passage of time had certainly left its mark on the elderly priest’s face. His skin was lined between his brows (a mark of his studious habits) and at the edges of his eyes (a mark of his jovial nature). Wisps of white hair stuck out erratically and Aerana was momentarily reminded of the younger man with similarly erratic brown hair, wandering back and forth between the garden and the Abbey, humming all the while.
Brother Neal looked up from his desk to smile warmly at whoever had come to visit him. “Light be with you,” he said kindly before blinking his owlish eyes. “Oh my, little Aer! Welcome, welcome,” he added upon recognizing her, hurrying to stand up from his cluttered desk. “I haven’t seen you in so long!” He shuffled towards her, holding his arms outward to embrace her.
Aerana inclined her head graciously, tensing only slightly as the elderly man hugged her. “Brother Neal,” she greeted with warm formality. “It has indeed been some time,” she agreed, lifting her head to regard the man. He smiled affectionately.
“Come, sit down,” the priest invited, motioning away from the desk and towards the worn but sturdy wooden bench near the adjacent wall. Aerana nodded and moved towards the nearby bench at the Brother’s solicitous urging. It had been one of her favorite places to curl up with a good book when she was younger.
“I fear that my presence is not merely to reminisce of the past nor enjoy the stories that were once told in this room,” Aerana murmured as she sat down. “More solemn matters bring me here this day, Brother Neal.”
“Is this about what that little fellow came by to talk about?” the priest asked. “I’ve been worried about you since then. Are you alright? You look tired, child,” he added, eyeing her judiciously.
Aerana twitched involuntarily at the mention of the ‘little fellow’ and pressed her lips together. “I am sleeping as well as one might,” she answered politely, dipping her head to acknowledge his concern.
Brother Neal chuckled quietly as he looked down at her. “Oh, I recognize that look, even if you’re older now,” he said, gesturing towards her face. “Come now, what’s bothering you, child?”
Aerana returned his look, her features smoothed to impassivity. “I fear the one whom you speak of is Tinox Smartgear, Brother. And I believe that he took more from your visit than you might have intended.” Aerana frowned now and tried not to press her lips together in a flicker of displeasure.
“Now what do you mean, Aer?” the priest asked, finally lowering himself to sit next to her on the worn, wooden bench. “Was the journal not helpful?” His look was full of worry.
Aerana blinked once in surprise, and then again, clearly caught off guard by the priest’s question and the mention of the book. “You gave him a journal? The Abbey truly kept such a record, Brother?”
“Oh yes, of course we did,” Brother Neal responded as he scooted some books to the end of the bench to make more room next to him. “The journal chronicled what we could gather of your mother’s illness. It stymied our best healers, as you know. And little fellow looked worried about you, I daresay. When your friend--”
“He’s not my friend,” Aerana interrupted firmly.
Brother Neal stopped talking abruptly and gave her a troubled look, his eyes searching her features. “I apologize,” he said, after taking a moment to regard her. “When your colleague came to speak with me, I didn’t know what else might help. He seemed genuinely concerned…It was a concern I remember. Your mother’s case was the same, for all of us, Aer,” the Brother reminded her gently. He frowned a little. “Did the journal trouble you? I didn’t mean for it to. I thought it might help you think about things differently.”
Aerana turned her head slowly towards the man. Little motes of dust swirled around his head, illuminated by the last rays of sunlight streaming through the westward facing window. It gave him a strange, glowing appearance — like a shadow surrounding by a halo of light. “It matters not that such a journal actually existed,” she said after a time, her voice low as if speaking to herself. “I am certain that matters within were exaggerated – a mere seed of truth to give shaky foundation to a tree of lies for the Senate’s benefit.”
Brother Neal’s troubled look deepened as he listened to her words. “I don’t know anything about your ‘Senate’ or what they’re doing, Aer. But you look very pale,” he said carefully, gesturing towards her face. “And like you haven't been sleeping. Child, just look at those dark circles under your eyes,” he added, shaking his head sympathetically.
“She hasn’t been doing well, Aer,” the Brother had warned her quietly as they made their way to the wooden door. “You can’t blame yourself though; she would never have wanted you to delay your studies, not really. You know that, right?” He gave her an encouraging look.
Aerana nodded slowly. “I thank you for your words,” she murmured in response, offering the priest a kind smile. She reached a hand out to knock on the door but before she could knock, the door swung open wide.
The change in her mother’s appearance was startlingly dramatic — even with the Brother’s warning. Her chestnut hair, which was once combed almost religiously, was mussed and clung together, unwashed. Her mother’s face was wan and pallid as she stared at her daughter. The dark circles under her eyes almost looked like bruises against the pale skin.
Aerana blinked and the Brother put his hand on her shoulder, giving it a kind squeeze.
Recovering quickly from the flicker of shock and concern, Aerana offered her mother a small smile to hide her heartbreak. “Mother,” she said in greeting. “I’m sorry it has been so long.”
Aerana shook her head, dispelling either the memory or Brother Neal’s concerns. She pulled free the copy of the medical journal that Ezraeil had recently given her and held it out to Brother Neal. “Is this the journal?” she asked quietly, her focus on the matter at hand.
The priest carefully took the journal and opened it, perusing its pages for a short period of time before nodding. “Yes. The handwriting is different than mine but the substance is the same,” he affirmed. He looked up from the words, eyeing Aerana curiously. “Come now, child, why do you shake your head like that?”
“There must be some mistake,” Aerana replied disbelievingly though she tried to keep her tone steady. She motioned to the journal and ignored his other question. “They used the words within to undermine my leadership, Brother,” Aerana added, a note of pleading entering her tone as she willed him to understand. “They use it to sway other against me and to justify their actions.”
“Did they now?” He asked, frowning again as he hummed, looking down to the words of the journal. “I told him it was an illness. Such things must be dealt with delicately.”
“They’ve done nothing but plot and whisper at every turn, acting surreptitiously in clandestine meetings and trying to pull me from my position,” Aerana explained, lowering her head to stare fixedly at the journal. She missed the priest’s sudden startled look at her words.
“Now, now, Aer,” he interrupted kindly before she had the chance to take a breath and continue her explanation. The Brother put a gentle hand on Aerana’s shoulder, ignoring her habitual flinch at being touched. He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Remember the vegetables?” he asked, softly but firmly. He stared at her, watching closely for a reaction.
“I don’t understand, mother,” the child said plaintively, eyeing the pile of food with a hunger and longing more common to a child pining for sweets. She was tired of their nightly meal of bread. Plus, Brother Neal had brought the basket by that morning despite the ongoing futility of the delivery.
Her mother patted her head. “I know you don’t understand, Aer, but it’s the truth. You have to trust me; all the signs are there.”
“But I watched Brother Neal pick them from the garden this morning. He didn’t do anything to them, I promise,” Aerana rationalized.
Her mother took the basket from Aerana’s hands and carried it away to the counter. “No, no. You tried to watch but you’re just a child. You wouldn’t have seen it. But they keep trying…”
Aerana’s eyes widened and she shook her head again. “This is different; there are no similarities,” she said, not looking at Brother Neal as she refuted his implication. “Political machinations are not to be underestimated nor can any comparison be drawn to that from my past.” She moved her hands to her lap, fidgeting with her fingers.
A soft smile came to Brother Neal’s lips at the sight. “You used to do that when you were younger too,” the elderly man noted kindly, setting his hand atop hers. She could feel the warmth from his skin seep into her chilled fingertips.
She was staring at the floor, fidgeting uncomfortably.
“My mother said we don’t need any more food from th-the… Abbey, Brother,” she explained quietly, not elaborating on exactly what her mother had called the Abbey.
Brother Neal’s eyes softened and he leaned forward with a smile. He never seemed upset that the vegetables went uneaten; it bothered Aerana more than it did him. “Don’t be sad, little Aer. You didn’t do anything wrong. Your mom is just a little confused right now. I’ve got a new idea. Maybe you can plant your own garden, so that she can see it and be comforted knowing that there’s nothing wrong with the vegetables grown there. How’s that sound?”
Aerana looked up, her little blue eyes shining. “Do you think that will work, Brother Neal?” she asked hopefully.
He smiled. “I don’t know if it will work. But we can try, right? We can always try, little Aer.”
“Empress,” came Tarashan’s voice over the stone that Aerana wore around her wrist. “Smartgear and Larmont are here.” Aerana, however, did not respond to the report nor did she give any sign that she had even heard Tarashan’s voice. “The vegetables,” she repeated quietly, looking away from the priest next to her. She blinked slowly, her hands tightening unconsciously around his. She stared, eyes glossed over, at the pile of books on the desk against the wall.
“Mother, you are the one who does not understand,” Aerana tried to explain, not for the first time. She had rehearsed the speech several times that day in preparation for this moment. She held up the basket proudly, displaying the neatly stacked carrots, potatoes, and peas. “There are no conspiracies to monitor your thoughts through the vegetables. They’re planted as little seeds and then they grow in the ground, watered before being picked — with my own hands. The Brothers did not touch them, I promise. You watched me as I tended the garden. You know.”
Her mother, thinner now than she had been months before, shook her head sadly. “No, Aer. You say that but you can’t know. They could have come in the dark, slinking around while you slept. They want to know where we are…where we are…” Her mother’s voice trailed off and her eyes flicked away from Aerana and then back to the child. It was a tic that Aerana had grown accustomed to.
“They know where we are, Mother,” Aerana replied reasonably, not commenting on her mother’s nervous tic. “We have lived here for years now. The Brothers visit often. They have nothing to gain from using the vegetables that way.”
“No, not them,” her mother said, shaking her head. She reached out to take the basket away from Aerana. “The others. The Horde. They're watching, you know.”
Aerana’s grip tightened around the basket. “There are no others,” she said, her lips pressing together with childlike frustration at the invisible fears that terrorized her mother but that Aerana herself could never see. “Let me keep the vegetables. I can make them into a stew. I know how to do that — we’ll just put them into the pot. We can do that, right?” The question was almost a plea as Aerana looked up. Then you can make stews of your own when I --”
“No, we’ve still got some bread and dried meat. No need for that,” her mother disagreed. “Give them here and I’ll check them. Now, Aerana!” her mother said, raising her voice when Aerana did not let go of the basket.
Shoulders hunched now, Aerana’s eyes brightened with unshed tears at the torrent of memories and realizations that flooded her mind. After a moment, the liquid spilled over, sliding down her cheeks. Brother Neal raised his hand to wipe away the tears when it became apparent that Aerana would not. “Oh, Aer,” he said softly, drawing her into a hug. He patted her back. “Shh, shh, it’s alright.”
He had opened the door before she had knocked, looking down at her in obvious surprise at the late hour. Before she could say anything or explain, Aerana started to cry.
“Oh child,” he said, drawing her close as the tears flowed freely from her eyes. “Come here now, there’s no need to cry. Shh, shh. Did your mother have another nightmare? Did she not like the vegetables?”
Aerana sniffled as she was drawn into the hug. “I don’t know how to make her understand, B-Brother Neal,” she said between the sobs. “I’ve tried it all! I have, really!”
“Sometimes people just don’t understand things, no matter how much you try to talk about it and work through it, Aer,” he said soothingly, patting her back. “But that doesn’t mean we give up. Your mom’s just sick now; we can’t blame her for that. We’ll just do the best we can, right? Remember the little parable we read yesterday?” he asked with a small smile.
She nodded, still trying to swallow back the tears. “Y-Yeah. But--”
“No, no,” he interrupted quietly. “No buts, little Aer. If you care about her – and I know you do – you’ll remember that. You’re going to be alright, I promise.” He hugged her again, wiping the tears away with a smile. “And I promise that we’ll take care of your mother, when you go off to study. I promise.”
She remembered his arms, which had seemed so unbelievably strong when she was younger. Now his limbs were frailer and thinner. But his hug, as he wrapped his arms around her, was just as comforting as the hug in her memories. She bowed her head against his shoulder.
“Am I…” her voice was nothing more than a muffled whisper against his shoulder. “Oh Light, am I…?”
The nightmares that made true rest impossible. The maliciously observant whispers that no one else acknowledged. The shadows that no one else seemed to see. The constant fear…
“They’re planning, Guardian. They’re watching…” Aerana remembered saying, speaking of the Senate.
“They’re planning, Aer. They’re watching…” Aerana’s mother had murmured fearfully of the Horde.
“They will use whatever means they have at their disposal to follow us,” Aerana had noted, unclasping her guild stone and pressing it into the elemental that stood by her side. She motioned for her Guardians to do the same.
“They will use things you wouldn’t recognize, Aer, to find us. They’re always searching, you know,” her mother had warned her, motioning for Aerana to bring the squash to her.
“There is little rest to be sought in these days, for there are matters that require my attention,” Aerana explained sadly.
“Go to sleep now, Aer,” her mother said, patting her head. “I’ll sleep later. I have some things to do first.”
“Empress,” Dracila’s voice interrupted over the guild stone, more urgent now. “Tinox and the General are here. They wish to speak.”
Myaka looked towards Aerana, though the guardian made no move towards Aerana and the priest. Brother Neal shook his head, murmuring quietly into Aerana’s hair as her tears spilled onto his shoulder.
“There, there,” he whispered. “You’re going to be alright, little Aer,” he promised, smoothing her hair. “It’s alright…”
Aerana gave no sign that she heard either Dracila’s or Brother Neal’s words.
“Katelle has suggested she speak to you alone,” Tarashan’s voice added over the stone, followed by a knock on the door.
“We have company,” Myaka said finally. “Do you wish to let them in?”
Brother Neal motioned for Myaka to open the door as he continued to pat Aer’s back, rocking her back and forth like a child.
The knock sounded again.
Aerana, roused by the motion and the words, looked up with reddened eyes, still gripping Brother Neal tightly. “I, ah,” she hesitated a moment, blinking as she tried to regain her bearings. “What is it?” She lifted a hand, signaling for Myaka to open the door.
Ezraeil walked in, his dark robes looking out of place in the bright halls of the Abbey. “I…Empress?”
Aerana cleared her throat after using her gloves to dry what evidence of emotion might remain on her cheeks. “Yes?”
“Are you…I…Is something amiss?”
Aerana shook her head slowly, lowering her head. She cleared her throat again. “I--” she paused to regain her composure. “Worry not, Guardian. Is there something to report?” Beside her, Brother Neal gave Ezraeil a curious look before turning his attention back to Aerana.
“Katelle desires to speak with you,” Ezraeil informed her.
Aerana blinked. “Katelle?” She looked around the room suddenly, eyes widening fearfully as she searched for an escape. Brother Neal gently squeezed her shoulder.
“I’m here, little Aer. And it looks like your other friends are too,” he whispered, nodding towards Myaka and Ezraeil. “You’re going to be alright. You don’t need to be so fearful. Your might be unwell, but you’re not exactly like your mother, child. You can face whatever you need to.”
Casting Brother Neal a sidelong glance, Aerana swallowed. “Ah, I see," she said, trying to sound steady. "J-Just Katelle?”
“Just her,” Ezraeil affirmed.
Despite the gentle reminder of her irrational paranoia, Aerana could not help but to look to Ezraeil and Myaka. “You’ll stay with me?” she asked, a frown coming to her lips at the sliver of fear that crept into her words. “In case something happens? And the others as well?”
“I will not leave your side unless you desire it,” Ezraeil answered promptly.
“I will stay with you, as long as you need,” Myaka said with a nod.
Soon after, a very pregnant Katelle Larmont walked through the doorway and into the little cluttered alcove. She nodded in thanks to Ezraeil before her eyes snapped to Aerana.
The flicker of shock, concern, and heartbreak on the General’s features were undeniable as she caught sight of woman still seated on the bench. “Aerana. Oh Aerana…”