Chapter One : A Withering Rose
It began with a cough. A very light shiver every now and again. And for a few days, she thought she'd pull through. The whole building had been living on a bi-weekly supply of Arcwine for months now. And what little that was delivered to them had to be shared between at least two dozen of them. It wasn't enough, but she was young, still a mere fledgling Nightborne.
Briar Secundis lived among family and friends in a building that seemed far from being fit to house them all. But with what little gold these people had, this was all they could afford in the grand city of Suramar.
She had a little corner to herself on the top floor by a window, where a pile of pillows made do for a bed. A makeshift bow leaned against the wall which was lined with several hand drawn pictures of various plants and critters. A stack of books walled off her corner from that of the next person.
Shifting in her pillow bed, the young girl leaned against the window and gazed at the outside world. A fractal shimmer of light in the sky gave away Suramar's shield, or at least what was left of it. Glancing down at the streets below, she noted the exact same number of city guards as usual, in the exact positions Briar came to expect. They were still a week away from their next Arcwine delivery, but Briar could already feel an intense cold settling within her. She had to force herself from shaking. A quick glance from a boy across the room startled her. Could he see it? The boy in question didn't look like the paragon of health himself either, but at least he didn't seem to be holding on to his own arms to keep from shaking like she now was.
"Briar," a familiar voice spoke. Looking up, Briar was met with the worried expression of Deannah Brightmoon, her aunt. She had a gaunt face with glowing lilac eyes, her black hair dangling in a braid over her left shoulder. "You do not seem well, my child," she spoke softly. As the woman placed her hand on the top of Briar's head, it sent a shiver down the girl's spine.
"I'm fine," Briar retorted in protest, but she could not hide the coughs that had been creeping up in the back of her throat any longer. Deannah frowned and tossed a glance over her shoulder.
"Voltas, are you sure there is nothing left?" she asked. Briar let out an exasperated sigh. She felt like the entire room was now staring at her. She was right.
"Not a drop," came the melodic voice of Voltas, a flamboyant yet tired looking male Nightborne Elf. "I'm sorry, she'll have to hold on," he added as he walked towards the two of them, looking equally worried as Deannah as he took in Briar's fragile appearance.
"I'll be fine," Briar mustered. "I'll just stay inside until Vanthir comes next week," she explained, considering this plan to be nothing but reasonable. Both Deannah and Voltas frowned at this.
"Don't look at me like that!" Briar groaned. "I'm not-" a cough cut her off mid sentence. "-dying."
The next couple of days passed by slowly. Briar would gaze out of her window for most of it. She'd scribble down some notes on how many times 'bearded man on Manasaber' passed by their building and would draw pictures of 'woman with pointy sword'. Many people passed by their building, it seemed. Most of them were a part of the city guard. And none of them had been Vanthir.
After a week Briar had become used to the perpetual cold she felt. The coughs still startled the others awake in the middle of the night, but by now she was no longer the only one in this state of what the Nightborne called withering. Briar had never actually seen a Withered but the stories left little to the imagination. Turning into a brainless husk of what you once used to be did not sound like an appealing future at all. It was the stuff of nightmares, for some of them quite literally so. Briar had found that the best way to combat the nightmares was to stay awake as long as possible. And so she gazed out of her window some more, and looked at the people passing through the street some more.
One particular night, when all the others were fast asleep, Briar quietly crawled to her feet. She'd been sitting in the same spot for so long that her legs felt a little wobbly. Concentrating really hard to maintain her balance, the young Nightborne looked like a fawn taking its first steps through the woods as she tiptoed through the room and down the stairs.
Vanthir should've shown up, but he hadn't. Something was wrong, Briar was sure of that much. As she passed through all three stories of the building, she saw both her aunt and Voltas sound asleep.
"I'll be right back," she whispered. Pulling the hood of her cloak over her head, she opened the front door and stepped out into the street.
Suramar City was the kind of city that never slept. There were always people out and about, no matter the time of day. What kind of people you met did very much depend on the time of day, however. Tavern dwellers and folks of questionable intent roamed the streets during the night. And among them now was a Withering little Nightborne girl.
The Waning Crescent was a few blocks from here. That was the name of the Tavern where Vanthir worked. That's where Briar reckoned she would find him. Or at least it would be where she would find out what had happened to him.
Briar quickly made her way through the streets, avoiding eye contact with anyone she passed. The City Guard didn't even seem to be noticing her presence. There was nothing out of the ordinary about her, after all. Nothing they could see, at least. The terrace of the Waning Crescent came into view and Briar sped up her pace in a jolt of excitement. There was still movement around the Tavern which meant it still had to be open. Several people were hovering around the terrace. But the closer Briar got, the slower her pace became. The people in front of the tavern weren't enjoying their beverages or singing shanties. The people in front of the tavern consisted of City Guardsmen and Fel creatures dragging a handful of very pale looking Nightborne out of their seats.
"Out with you, feral scum!" the low voice of a demon creature growled.
"Please, one sip of Arcwine and I'd feel just peachy again!" one of the Nightborne men cried out. The guards ignored the man's pleas and continued to round up everyone they'd considered 'feral scum'.
"Where are you taking us?" another shouted.
"Out of the city. Withered are not welcome here," one of the guards replied.
All the while, Briar stood frozen, trembling on her feet as she gazed at this display of violence and hatred. Tugging on the corners of her hood, hoping to hide her face further, she realised her complexion wasn't exactly the shade of blue the guards would like to see at this very moment. She took a few steps backwards, but in doing so, accidentally tipping over a vase. The sound of pottery shattering was deafening. Briar dared not to look in the direction of the Tavern's terrace. But the City Guardsmen were certainly looking in hers.
"Hey you!" one of them called out. Acting on pure instinct, Briar whirled around and made a run for it.
With every step she took, Briar could feel her strength fading. And yet she kept on going. She could hear several sets of footsteps coming in pursuit behind her. There was yelling but Briar could barely make comprehensible words out of the sounds she heard. She just kept on running. She'd cut a corner here and there, but as she was nearing the house she came from, a sudden realisation crept up on her. If she went straight home, she'd lead the entire guard right to a house full of sickly Elves. Gasping for breath, Briar could feel herself slow down. In a split second, she made the decision to take a turn in the opposite direction of where her home was. What she was supposed to do after that was still beyond her.
The footsteps behind her grew closer. One glance in the corner of her eyes sent a jolt of fear through her entire body. There were many of them and they were closing in on her. Turning back to focus on the road ahead, Briar was unpleasantly surprised to see the road was leading straight towards the canals. Unable to stop nor turn around, the best thing Briar thought to do was to squint her eyes shut and wait for the inevitable. But there wasn't a splash. There was no cold water. Instead, there was a firm grip of a hand wrapped around her arm. She was pulled into a direction she could not see, for she was feverishly holding on to her eyes-closed plan. She could hear commotion. Confusion, even. The footsteps behind her had stopped. Now there was the sound of a splash. Someone had jumped into the water.
"She's not here!" someone called out. "Great, now I got my briefs soaked for nothing," they sounded disgruntled.
"Don't worry, she can't hide forever," a second voice called out. "Let's get back to the tavern. See if there's any more low life scum we can boot out of this god forsaken city!"
Briar realised she was tensing up so much she was holding in her breath. A tickle in the back of her throat alarmed her that a coughing spree was up ahead. Not yet, she thought. They haven't gone far enough yet.
"Breathe," a soft voice urged from behind her. Briar gasped for air in shock and opened her eyes. She'd been pulled into an alleyway, behind a stack of crates and boxes. The person that had grabbed a hold of her before she could take a nosedive into the canals had let go of her arm and was now standing before her. The gasping turned into coughing, and Briar bent over, nearly folding in half, hands leaning on her knees, as she tried to collect herself. "Look, if you're going to throw up, please aim somewhere other than my boots," the stranger mused. Briar looked back towards the stranger, arching her back. She stood a few inches shorter than Briar herself. She had fair skin and blonde hair that was adorned with a golden circlet. The stranger was wearing white robes and there was an ornate staff attached to her back. Briar's eyes widened with every new detail she noticed about the stranger. She'd never seen such a person.
"Who are you?" her voice filled with wonder as if all memory of previous events had momentarily faded away. The stranger smiled a gentle smile, and then seemed to realise something.
"Oh, it would appear I forgot to put on my mask," she breathed.
"Mask?" Briar echoed, nearly mindlessly, still staring.
"Nevermind that now. I have something for you. Please take this, you seem to be in a grave need of it," the stranger spoke, and she began rummaging through her belongings. Before Briar could even respond, the stranger had taken out a flask and handed it to her. This seemed to break whatever staring spell Briar had hurled herself in, she knew exactly what was in this flask and there was so much of it! It was as if some kind of instinct took over. There were no manners, no thank yous. Briar yanked the cork from the flask and put it to her mouth. She drank as if her life depended on it, and quite frankly, it did. Savouring every last drop, she put down the flask and wiped her mouth.
"Thank you," she whispered. There was no response. Only then did she realise the stranger had gone. "Wait!" Briar called out. She could feel the Ancient Mana of the Arcwine coursing through her veins. Stretching out both of her arms, she could see colour returning to her skin, the tribal tattoos adorning it glowing with life. She knew it wouldn't last forever. But this certainly was the most Arcwine she'd tasted in a long while. "Please don't go! I want to know who you are!" Briar called out in one last attempt before realising she should probably head back home.
The guards that chased her had now long gone, but Briar kept on her toes the whole way home. She snuck back inside, crawled up the stairs and curled up in her pile of pillows. She reached for her notebook, pulled out a pencil and began sketching a face. It was the most beautiful face she'd ever seen. And she was determined to find it again.