Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Icecrown Glacier: Part 3
Death eluded me. I lay on the snow beneath the dragon’s broken skeleton, his voice still echoing in my crash-addled mind. My feeble right hand pushed against the ground as I crawled from the wreckage. The left hung useless, a blackened wound attached to an arm. I tried not to hear his words, the air thick with orders relayed to his minions. No fear touched his voice, not even as the Argent Crusade neared his citadel.
Looking at the frost wyrm’s remains, I wondered how I’d survived. I’d maintained consciousness during the fall, but remembered only confusion. Above, the death knights still battled the Scourge, both sides visible as moving darkness in the sky. From deeper in the mountains I heard gunfire and the occasional shout. Clutching a handful of snow I saw translucent green slime leak out from the white. I’d crashed into the Fleshwerks.
Argent Crusaders speak of the Fleshwerks with the sort of loathing normally reserved for the deepest pits of Hell. There, the Scourge’s best minds work to find new uses for the dead, conducting their labors in frozen warrens dug by abominations. Chemical wastes suffuse the very stone of the mountain on which the Fleshwerks stand.
Twice-killed bodies littered the poisoned snow alongside the corpses of black-robed necromancers. None of the crusaders numbered among the dead. If any of the attackers had perished, enough had remained to take the bodies back to safety, though that did not explain why they left the necromancers whole. Perhaps I’d stumbled onto the aftermath of a probing attack.
I fell to my knees, the earth falling away. The feeling of being suspended in an infinite void returned, a cold pressure wrapped tight around my skull, strangling thought and desire. Words burrowing through mind and soul.
“I am one with the Light, the communion of believers. Not with you,” I said, words tumbling over each other. Standing back up, I focused on the world around me, his voice receding to a distant noise.
Lines of footprints in the snow showed the way to freedom. The trail led up an icy ridge before disappearing around the rock spire. Surely the crusaders had gone that way. If I could reconnect with them, if I again hear the voices of those untouched by the Lich King, I might stay free.
High above, I saw sharpened saronite tips reaching out from the stone. My mind wandered back to rumors of the Fleshwerks and the monstrosities within, described as juggernauts of dead flesh. So long as they possessed enough strength to annihilate my body, I would have no fear.
I bounded up the ridge, desperation freeing me to ignore the steepness of the path. My mind began to slip free of the Scourge’s cage. Beneath my feet, snow turned to plagued slush, and then to the hardness of saronite. I at last slowed, suddenly conscious of the noise I made running on the metal surface. A flicker of vertigo crossed my vision when I looked down, seeing how far and quickly I’d run. More reason for hope, I thought to myself.
In the sky, the frost wyrms seemed fewer in number. I still saw the distant glint of cold runes, the death knights prevailing against impossible odds. But I knew that they’d suffered their share of casualties as well. On some level, I envisioned their losses as more akin to broken weapons than to slain soldiers.
Reaching the end of the path I arrived at a circular saronite platform, edged battlements all along the rim. Recently felled corpses were strewn in heaps around the decaying remains of experiments. Hulks of stitched flesh lay on saronite tables, their dry wounds open to the cold air. Overturned chemical vats released acrid vapors, forming a blistering fog that hovered over the site. Cages stuffed with bones and organs, the components of entire armies, hung by chains from metal spires.
Not even the Scourge’s most monstrous troops appeared to be of much help. I counted the formidable abominations among the dead, their bullet-ridden carcasses looking somehow pathetic. Most of the Scourge’s heavy ground troops were put together in the Fleshwerks. Its fall would weaken the Scourge beyond recovery. There is great folly in setting oneself against an entire world; perhaps Arthas had learned this too late.
Yet my troubles remained. The crusaders had retreated from the bloody outdoor laboratory, though the sounds of fighting still echoed through the mountains. Doubt nagged my mind: had they been routed? A stairway at the other end of the platform offered the only other egress. I approached with caution, broken glass and bone crunching beneath my boots. Amidst the ruin of his empire, his voice remained, steady and indifferent, as patient as a god’s.
The stairway dropped steeply to a broad mountain pass, where ragged mobs of ghouls ran on all fours towards the Argent Crusade's positions. Lumbering monstrosities held the base of the stairway, hurling debris against the invaders. I could not sneak past them; they blocked the exit like a wall of flesh. But perhaps I could hurt them. A single blow from one of their fists would render me useless to the Scourge. They might use bits of the corpse for abominations, but by the time they did my soul would be free. Or so I believed. How could I be sure? I knew little of necromancy.
Only then did the giants part, a column of black-robed humans hurrying up the steps. These necromancers fled the field of battle, rushing in my direction. Seized by unthinking terror, I ran back up the stairway. Any fate was preferable, any cruelty acceptable, so long as it kept my soul from their clutches.
I ran back across the grisly platform and down the path, my feet sliding on the tainted snow, seeking only to put distance between the necromancers and myself. Death knights fought in the sky, too distant to help me. Hurtling down to the frozen ledge on which I’d crashed, I ran past the broken frost wyrm all the way to the precipice. The drop was not nearly so great as I’d first thought. Below, I saw the armies of the dead on the march.
I imagined spellfire consuming my body, the necromancers watching in dismay as the purifying flames rendered me useless to them. Would they? Even for a mage, it is no easy thing to truly destroy a body, especially not one’s own. The Scourge’s necromancers know a thousand ways of trapping the soul within the shell.
My thoughts a blur, I backed away from the edge. Death guaranteed nothing. As I stood there, useless, the necromancers drew ever nearer. Soon they’d see me, and return me to his grip. The living are blessed to not know what awaits them under the Lich King’s rule.
A sort of animal cunning seized me when I noticed the body of a necromancer stretched face-down on the ground, surrounded by dead ghouls. I ran to the carcass, judging it close to my size. Pinning the corpse down with the weight of my left arm, I began to remove the robe, his stiff limbs seeming to work against me. Gritting my teeth I pulled at the cloth, cursing him as I freed the sleeves and then tore the filthy garment from his back. Blood caked the robe’s interior.
I wrapped myself in the stinking garb and began preparing the rest of my disguise. The Lich King finds use for living agents, and humans still dominate his Cult of the Damned. Fingers trembling from fear I put the glass eyes in my sockets, but abstained from the chemicals that restored health to my face. The cult attempts to emulate undeath, and the appearance of too much life might give me away.
My left hand posed another risk. The wound did not bleed like a living man’s should. I tried hiding it in the voluminous sleeve, already crusted in blood, but it remained obvious. Perhaps my mind forbade me from really thinking about my next action.
I scrambled to a fallen abomination, my good hand wrenching a hook from its chest. Placing my left hand on the ground, I raised the hook. I paused, remembering how I’d first lost my left arm in the Hinterlands so long ago. That wound had been possible to fix. I did not think I would be as lucky in Icecrown.
I forced the hook down into the wrist, the massive point breaking the bone. Pain quivered up my arm, cold and pulsating. Strands of flesh kept the hand connected, sickly ichor dribbling out from the wound. I struck again, smashing the already damaged flesh, again and again until only strings remained, and I pulled it away. I held the severed hand reverently, like a monk carrying an icon. I put it in my coat’s inside pocket, beneath the robe, still hoping that some skilled surgeon might one day reattach it. Taking a metal needle from the abomination’s body, freed from the meat by a bullet, I pinned the robe’s filthy sleeve around the stump.
The madness of the situation hit me all at once. What hope did I have of passing myself off as a cultist? Religions have many rules, and I had no reason to think that their wicked faith was any exception. But death offered no escape. I only needed to survive long enough to return to the front. Perhaps I could play the role of a fanatic, eager to die in the Lich King’s service. Maddened zeal is the norm for the Cult of the Damned.
“Brother!” shouted a hoarse voice behind me. I turned around to see the necromancers coming down the path, their breaths escaping in puffs of white steam. “We’re retreating!”
I struggled to think through the fog of dread, to put my feet back on solid ground. My mouth opened, a zealot’s words on my tongue. Nothing came out and I fell, the pain in my wrist intensifying. Hearing his voice giving orders from afar I clutched my head with a hand and a mutilated stump.
I looked into the necromancer’s sallow face, his cheeks concave from hunger, eyes ringed by exhaustion. He held out his hands, white and thin, and I realized I was prone.
“I still live,” I mumbled.
“I know. Here, I’ll help you up. The Master needs us now more than ever.”
I took his offer, the pain in my wrist worsening. The severed hand in my coat dragged on me, a lead weight.
“Did they do this to you?”
As he spoke, he pulled me towards the black-robed mob. I saw the suffering on their faces, parched mouths lined with bloody gums and broken teeth. Some looked ready to collapse, held up only by their desire to serve.
“I must go to the front,” I protested, my voice weak. “Serve him.”
“Don’t be a fool. The Fleshwerks are lost.”
Blackness washed over me, the Lich King’s voice audible through dead senses. I hovered in a dark expanse, empty save for the words emitted in an endless stream from Icecrown. Memories coagulated, old sensations falling into oblivion, past and future crumbling away.
“Can you walk?”
Hearing the necromancer’s voice (interwoven with lifeless whispers) I went slack with relief, sobs of gratitude threatening to spill out from my throat. How close had I just come? I’d felt him return to me, seizing control, only to be saved by an unholy wretch.
“If you cannot walk, I will raise you here as one of the sacred dead.” He looked back to the crowd, and I saw them point in the distance, urgent fear in their hungry faces. “It is the least I can do for you.”
“No. I can walk,” I muttered, and heard his voice in my own.
Unable to think, my actions no longer entirely my own, I joined the necromancers in their march through the snow. Around us lay the corpse of a god, dead eyes in the clouds, the mountains armor for his pallid flesh. From the grave he spoke, the myriad petitioners empty vessels for his will.
I’d come so close. The crusaders were perhaps no more than a mile away. Dreams of escape die under his pitiless gaze. Swept along by some vast current, unable to resist, I surrendered myself. One foot in front of the other to his indomitable will.
What memories should I grasp in the last moments? They bled into each other, the clarity fading. Whatever I chose would become a mockery, barely distinguishable from the surrounding darkness. What had I done? All my efforts spiraled down into nothing.
“Who are you?”
It took a moment for the question to register with me. The necromancer next to me had spoken, his eyes glinting with fever. Lines creased his face, and dark splotches speckled his cheeks and brow.
“What is your name, brother?”
“Destron,” I said, no longer seeing any point in subterfuge.
“I am Lennister. Are you new?”
“Yes,” I said, after a pause. “I joined in Valiance Keep.” A strange gratitude welled up in me. Conversation, however trivial, at least anchors one in the material world. Though I heard his voice in Lennister’s and in mine, I could at least remind myself that there was a world outside of him.
“I first heard the Master’s words after Stratholme. I was but a child. Arthas slaughtered my parents, and I had no place to go.”
I then realized that the withered necromancer was younger than me. Did he know that Arthas and the Lich King had become one and the same? A look of bitterness crossed Lennister’s prematurely aged features.
“Do not let the crusaders take you alive. They are a savage breed,” he warned. “And now they stand at our doorstep. Better them than the Forsaken, I suppose. I pray that I die fighting. The sacred dead do not feel pain, they cannot suffer torment at the hands of the blasphemers.” Words tumbled over each other, Lennister working himself into a panicked frenzy.
“Brother Lennister! We will have victory. The Master guides us,” said another. Lennister’s jaw dropped, and he lowered his head.
“Forgive me, Brother Dotheron.”
Dotheron said nothing. We walked past rows of hulking abominations, the Lich King’s last heavy troops guarding our escape. The cultists walking past took no notice of them, fears of defeat weighing heavy on their souls. A fitting end, but I could no longer take pleasure in that or any other thought.
The thought of escape faded as I trudged, a sheep to the slaughter. How strange that he’d be so near to defeat, yet still so powerful. Perhaps his victory was yet to come.
Though I’d come close, there was no purpose in mourning. I tried to savor the dying thoughts: hot Orgrimmar afternoons, noisy Dalaranese taverns. Yet I no longer had the emotions to appreciate them. All feeling and desire were subordinated to his. A return to the eternal cold, totally alone except for him. I would dream of isolation as he spoke.
“Tell me more of the Master,” I said to Lennister, my voice a whisper.
Lennister turned to me, his face a construct of spectral lines, blurred together and devoid of color. The Lich King’s vision had seeped into mine. The necromancers served him so willingly. If I had no choice, I may as well submit. I would end the fear that had haunted me for so long. I would embrace damnation.
“The recruiters tell the acolytes little. What did yours say?”
“He promised a better, happier life.”
“No. Not a better life, but a better future. This world is an evil place. Through undeath, we find freedom.”
“Though you still serve the Master.”
“Yes, but we are free from the cruelties of the waking world. Imagine undeath like a dream where you are united with your dearest friend, your closest lover. No fear, no anger.”
“You are not yet undead. You’ve been here for some time, yes?”
“The Master needs the living. We are cherished servants, in fact. He gave us a sanctuary in the early days: Shadow’s Haven, high in the central mountains of Icecrown. Austere, but a place of goodness. Our brethren worked together to bring the freedom of death to the rest of the world. He knows that the living have needs. The sacred dead tilled the soil of the Borean Tundra. Simple food filled our bellies.
“Life in Shadow’s Haven was not easy, or luxurious, but there was peace in its black halls. I still remember the days after Stratholme, where men hunted each other like dogs in the street, dying at the hands of those who swore to protect them. Children starving to death in the aftermath, too afraid to listen to the armored beasts promising them food if they came out. I saw them die, one after the other.”
I thought of telling him the truth. But he would not listen. Why did I still walk if mindless undeath waited? Hope kept me, and I hated it for doing so.
“Victory seemed so close in those days,” he continued. “A dream for us all. My wife—”
“You are married?”
“Yes. The Master’s campaign will take a long time to wage, and there must be a generation after our own. We did not truly think to see victory in our lifetimes, though we prayed for it all the same. Her name is Aletta. The Master gave her sanctuary after the Forsaken poisoned her parents. It was hard for her, but she too appreciates the Master’s order. Sometimes I think that the Master arranged the whole thing just so she and I could meet; that is how perfect we are together,” he said with a rueful laugh, a look of longing joy crossing his face. “Though the Master is greater still,” he added.
“Does Aletta still live?”
“Perhaps. I would not deny her the embrace of the Master, so long as he embraces me soon after. I do not know. She is carrying my child. Foolish to conceive, at such a time, but we will need a new generation more than ever. She is stationed near the cathedral; I am sure the blasphemers have not yet reached that place. I think you would like her.”
“I’d be honored.”
“She is a good woman. She deserves the embrace more than I. But I do need her. I like to think she needs me as well. Many of us have loved ones. The Master alone knows how many have been embraced. It is hard to let go; the Chosen spend much time teaching us how. There is no love in denying someone the Master. Still, it is hard. I accept that, however.”
Something, at last, stirred my mind. Cult dogma promised peace on both a material and spiritual level. They paid at least lip service to the idea of love; Lennister’s love for his wife might be constrained, but was not forbidden.
Why would the Lich King allow this? Surely he desired nothing but obedience. Might he find it difficult to communicate with the cult? It is easy to give orders to puppets of rotting meat. Willful worshippers are a more complex affair.
“I am sure, when this is all over, you will find some kind wife of your own. The vrykul will leave Shadow’s Haven and we will return to our old homes, and there will be a place for you. There is a place for each and every soul.”
“There are schools for the children?”
“They are instructed in what they need to know by the Chosen. Parents are not permitted to raise their children. But we can dream of what they might be. What else is there to dream of?”
Turning a corner in the icy ravine, we came to a double-decked saronite bridge, stifling in its immensity, that reached across the valley to the shadows of mountains on the other side. Plumes of blue flame wreathed the sharp-edged supports, billowing up from metal vents on the frozen ground. For all this, the air held not even the faintest trace of heat.
“Corp’Rethar, the Horror Gate,” said Lennister, his tone wistful. “Named for the horrors that await interlopers who trespass on the holy ground beyond. He is a kind Master, but he only loves those who serve him.”
I cannot reckon how long we spent marching miles across the black saronite, the sights around us an unceasing monotony. Weapons of flesh and bone limped past us to the front, twisted limbs kept active by dark magic.
Seeing this landscape of cruelty, I listened to the praises directed at its benevolent maker. The cultists lived in a world so hideous that they accepted any burden, so long as it promised them a home in the greater order. Deliverance through death brought hope, for life in the material realm was too vile to contemplate.
I heard the stories of old Lordaeron as it bled, of children finding the corpses of loving parents, of parents seeing the bodies of their children. Most of the ones around me had pledged themselves to the Lich King early in the Third War. Once these lost souls had feared the undead, but soon learned that the Scourge wished only to bring salvation, and that the prince of Lordaeron hated them so much that he would bring ruin to his subjects in pursuing them. Hungry minds have believed stranger things. They had done what they needed to in order to survive.
The same tongues that once cursed Arthas commemorate the day that the tyrant had accepted the Embrace.
“We wept with joy when he returned to Lordaeron to set things right, and bring his subjects into the peace of darkness,” recalled Lennister.
More flocked to the cult: starving, dying, mad with fear. They came fleeing bandits, Scarlet zealots, and above all the Forsaken.
“I’ve spoken to enough recruits from Farshire and Valiance to know the despair they felt, sent to a distant land on behalf of a cruel king. When the Wise One, Kel’thuzad, first sparked the faith he spoke to the downtrodden. He gave strength to the weak, strength enough to look beyond the bonds of life. I assure you: we will be strong enough to survive this war,” promised Dotheron. This was not strictly true. Though he had preached to the less fortunate, he spent more time bringing the affluent into his cult, so as to gain access to their fortunes.
Dotheron’s certainty in the victory of the grave might have offered inspiration. Retreating from the Fleshwerks, however, much of what I heard from the rest consisted of lamentation for the days when the Scourge ruled Northrend all but uncontested.
When a voice shook with doubt, the speaker’s brethren offered consolation and support. Did I imagine the weariness in their attempts? Around me the world darkened, his voice growing clearer with each step. I walked shorn of identity, a man without skin, vulnerable to every pain.
As they told me their stories I remembered my own service to their cause. The rotting armies again rose up, each of us alone in the multitudes, spurred forward by his will, minds screaming and weeping for relief. Trees sagged from decay, entire towns begging for mercy we could not give. My tongue paralyzed, unable to apologize or beg forgiveness.
In great numbers we uprooted life from the forests. Tattered and weak though we were, the opposition was weaker still. He sent us to slaughter those few villages that still held out in the chaos. Blood watered the fields as robed masters pulled my dead countrymen into damnation. When the last house fell to ruin he set us on the refugees, and they died begging me to spare them, to spare the ones they loved.
I remember the crying faces, so long forgotten. There is no thought of forgiveness in such an expression. I sowed death, brought others to the same hell to which I’d been consigned. How could any action I take absolve me?
I could not hate the Scourge or its cult without also thinking of him seated on his black throne, and his voice grew louder. My timid spirit could not endure. When the cultists wept, so did I.
We rested for short intervals. When we resumed, there were always a few who did not rise from the metal ground. Dotheron put his weathered hand on the brows of the dead, chanting the sacred words. The fallen rose with lightless eyes, walking to the bidding of the master they had joined.
“One day we too shall know that joy,” promised Dotheron. “But for now, he has a purpose for us.”
A second gigantic bridge stretched diagonally alongside the one we traversed, perhaps a mile to the south. Where it connected with ours, Dotheron turned and followed the second path back to the west. In lightning’s glare, we saw Icecrown Citadel’s bleak majesty standing many times as tall as the surrounding mountains, a god in metal. Cowled heads bowed in awe at the sight.
The sounds of wind and footsteps retreated from consciousness. Only his voice remained, an ocean of dead speech. Control slipped away, senses decaying into the numbness of servitude. Crushed by unseen forces I sensed his will in my body, endless orders carried through nerves and flesh. I strained to hear the speech of the cultists, his worshippers an unwitting link to reality, his voice an undercurrent to every word. I was fading.
“Are you all right?” asked Lennister.
“Yes. I am tired,” I said, my voice weak.
“We will soon reach the Cathedral of Darkness. You can see it down there,” he said.
The bridge ended at a lonely mountain ledge. A jagged path descended to the cathedral, black and flanged like the other Scourge monuments. The fools around me rushed heedless into hell while I struggled to remain free, my strength ebbing with every step.
“I am afraid,” I whispered, and noise fell into the whispering torrent of his voice.
“I am too. These are trying times. Keep your faith in the Master. Though all seems lost, he will triumph. Think of the people in your home, still trapped in a prison of lies and ignorance. They need you to stay strong, even if they do not know it. We will put the world under his wisdom.
“When I doubt, I think of Aletta and my unborn child. I came of age in a cruel world, but he will only know the Master’s wisdom. Doesn’t that help? If you think the same of those you left behind? A wife, dear friend, sibling.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
I could barely recall anything. Memories gave way to the directives of the Lich King, orders meant for other victims forming the sterile symphony of a single voice. I had fallen in some harrowed Tirisfal forest, to a brief and merciful sleep, to dream of distant lands and strange peoples before waking in Icecrown. Had I ever been free? I no longer knew. Yet the colorful blank in my life demanded investigation.
Festul’s tear-streaked face stood out with startling lucidity. Anchored by that grisly sight I remembered the circumstances of his death in that ruined city of the Dragonblight. I had found joy in his suffering at the hands of the humans, and killed him to end my obscene delight. Selfishness, not mercy, moved me to action.
Who mourned for Festul? I looked at the battered figures trudging through the endless night, convinced of their Master’s beneficence. Each an unwitting victim of his evil. They thought themselves saints, unaware of the hell they’d brought to so many. Why should the ignorant deserve mercy? Who fights for those they cursed with unlife?
I longed to kill Lennister, to hear his sanctimonious tongue scream pain as I burned flesh from bone. How many could I slay before being overcome? The survivors would raise me and my victims, but what of it? I’d suffer any agony so long as I could inflict the same on them. His voice called to me, and I knew damnation awaited regardless of what action I took.
As long as I dreamed, I could cause pain, leave a mark on the world before awaking again to slavery. Let Lennister and Dotheron and all the others truly understand what it is to suffer. I summoned the arcane currents, heat prickling around my hands as the air prepared to ignite.
The spell died, arcane energy bleaching out into nothingness. The Lich King hadn’t won yet, and perhaps I might find some reprieve. I had to survive. How? I wondered. Surrounded by his domain and his servants I saw no hope of rescue. But to give myself over...
The years of mindless servitude again unfolded in my mind and I began to shake underneath my robe. I still heard him, felt him taking control. Such was the reality I faced. Surely, I thought, the Crusade would destroy me once the Lich King fell.
Or would they? Who can say if they will find every last Scourge minion? It is often supposed that the Scourge will collapse without the Lich King, but who can really be sure? To be lost in some frigid valley, a shambling corpse frozen by his final orders, waiting as time ground the world around me into dust...
I had to maintain control. However slim my hope, I had no choice. Stemming my anger, I thought no more about killing the necromancers around me. Best to endure, as long as possible.
The sight of the cathedral, though ominous, took me out of my grim thoughts. Its size reflects the debased and brutal mind of its creator. A tremendous platform, carved from the mountain rock and sheathed in saronite, towers a mile above the dead earth. The cathedral squats on top like some monstrous insect.
I’d expected to see tents and starving cultists outside the cathedral, yet all lay still and empty. No dark hymn or chant emanated from within the saronite shell. Eternal and uncaring, the edifice betrayed no sign of life. My companions broke into a run, Lennister leading the way, somehow staying balanced on the narrow ridge.
I felt a sort of churning wrongness as I stepped onto the black saronite. The metal twists the rules of reality, preserving a single moment for all time. A fitting substance for the Lich King. Our feet clattering on the ground, we ran past the flanges to the cavernous doorway, an immense wound in dry flesh. Men in black robes stood at both sides of the gate. The chilled blue light of their eyes, their perfect stillness, showed their true natures. Dotheron fell to his knees and the rest of us followed suit.
“Chosen. We have come here on the orders of Scourgelord Tyrannus, seeking sanctuary under the Master,” he said, breathing heavily between words. I saw Lennister risk a quick look through the doorway, his eyes wanting.
A slew of questions filled the air, the necromancers asking the fate of loved ones.
“The Master reigns. That is sufficient,” intoned an undead cultist. “Seek refuge in him.”
Voices died down as they ushered us into the sanctuary. I first saw the column of crimson light descending from the tenebrous vaults above our heads, an altar of metal and bone bathed in the glow. Shadowed by the grandiose pillars, low gray tables ran up the length of the chamber, undead cultists hunched over the stone surfaces in silent prayer. Candles burned dim on twisting metal candelabras, a curiously mundane addition to the gloomy scene.
Control faded, my body moving to the will of another. The world lost clarity, a terrible heaviness in my skull drowning the senses. I tried to raise my head, clench my remaining hand, anything. Nothing obeyed. The voice grew to consume the world.
Some last twitch of the nerve pulled me back and I fell to the floor, the saronite like cold meat beneath my body. Shaking, I tried to force myself up with one hand, collapsing again.
“Brother. Here, let me help you.”
Dotheron’s voice. He put my arm around his shoulders and lifted me. I was once again rendered helpless, saved only by those I hated. I thanked him, pleading hunger and exhaustion. As he led me to the recesses of the cathedral, I heard the blessed sounds of mortal sobs and whispers.
Men and women slumped against the black walls. Many would never rise up of their own will, their bodies cold and stiff. Others hovered near death, starved forms drawing rattling last breaths. Weeping echoed in the sanctuary. A woman who’d traveled with me cried over a man’s body.
“Why has he not been embraced?” she sobbed. No one answered.
Only a few possessed strength, and those few stepped forward towards the new arrivals. Cries of “brother,” and “sister, and others wordless, interrupted the lamentations. I saw Lennister embracing a woman, both of them shaking with relief.
“Aletta. I thank the Master that he preserved you. The child—”
“Still lives, still lives,” she wept. “The others who died here gave me food, so that our child might live. There’s so little left.”
Lennister stepped back and put a palsied hand onto his wife’s swollen abdomen. Fresh tears dripped down his face and he knelt before her, his gratitude without end. He hugged her, pressing his ear to Aletta’s belly, an exhausted smile daring to show on his face.
“I can hear a heartbeat.”
“Yes,” whispered Aletta. “I feel it too.”
Though given better treatment than the other fleeing cultists, Aletta looked nearly as worn as her husband, her face lined and skin coarsened. She wore at least two robes, the outer too big for her. Perhaps it had been a gift from a dying cultist. Those in the Cult of the Damned care for each other, taking a simple pleasure in their shared love even as they irrevocably rob others of the capacity to do the same.
“Why haven’t they been embraced?” asked Lennister, referring to the bodies.
“I do not know. The Chosen haven’t said anything since I arrived a few days ago. I am afraid, Lennister. But at least you’re here.”
“The Master will prevail. Our child will be born into a paradise,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “There is hope. Some still heed our call. This is Brother Destron, a new arrival from Valiance Keep.”
“Your husband is a kind man,” I said, and hated it for being true. Kindness does not preclude evil, I reminded myself.
“I do as the Master wills, nothing more,” said Lennister. “You are safe now. The Chosen reside here.”
“Who are the Chosen?”
“Those faithful who continue individual service after being embraced. Theirs is a sacred duty, heavy with responsibility. Liches are drawn from their ranks. Many here were among the first to heed the words of the Wise One, Kel’thuzad.”
“We will wait here to strike back?”
“I am sure.”
“The Master will move soon,” said Aletta, her words heavy with weariness. “He must. He won't let us starve.”
“Can’t the mages—”
“Only one came here with me, Sister Varinda, and she died. No one in the sanctuary can conjure food. Unless you brought someone with you.”
“I can,” I said.
Lennister’s eyes widened.
“You’re a mage? Why are you only an acolyte?”
“I knew little of the Art before I listened to the Master. I am not important enough to be anything else,” I said, hoping to persuade him. The voice filled my ears, reminding me that it would soon not matter if I convinced Lennister or not, that the Lich King would win either way.
“Even so—forgive me. I do not mean to doubt.”
“You understand that there are limits to what I can conjure? It’s a simple spell, but a draining one. I cannot feed everyone here.” I looked around, hoping no one had heard. The cultists seemed absorbed in their own dramas.
“They will understand. Our child needs it. Please, hurry.”
Was a mage out of place among the acolytes? The others might not be so easily fooled. I called to the magic, bloodless fingers weaving within the voluminous sleeve. Conjuration is among the first spells a mage learns, and its familiarity reassured me. Moving so much mana at once is an easy matter; to move the finer amounts needed for more advanced spells demands far more care. Arcane energies took shape into a ragged chunk of bread. Tasteless and hard, it at least nourished.
I handed the bread to Aletta, and she accepted it with grateful hands. As far as the other cultists believed, I’d simply been carrying the bread since the Fleshwerks. Lennister watched his wife eat, love winning out over hunger in his fearful eyes.
With full knowledge, I had given aid to the enemy of life itself. What evils might Aletta or her unborn child inflict upon the world? Azeroth’s war against the Scourge is one of survival. Better to let mother and child starve, if it kept them from serving him. War is cruel by definition.
I wish I could write that mercy had been my only motivation. I suspect fear played a greater role. This cult kept me from their master, their words a distraction from his. I helped those who postponed my return to damnation, though doing so might condemn others to my fate. I could have even let Aletta starve; there were other cultists besides her and her husband, and who knew how long they might linger? But the fact that I knew Lennister better than the rest was a form of strength. Like a child clinging to a favored toy, I could not give it up, no matter how little difference it made.
Nothing but shame awaits the Forsaken in Icecrown. All illusions crumble before the Lich King. We see in ourselves the evil that others recognize with ease. Why fight damnation, in light of such knowledge?
My heart sinking, I watched as Aletta finished the paltry meal, her face still stamped with need. She leaned against the wall, wan and aged. Lennister took her shoulders.
“Are you all right?”
“Better. Thank you, Brother Destron. We both thank you, and I am sure the Master does as well.”
“I do as I must,” I whispered.
I drew close to the dying couple. Removing my robe, I draping it around Aletta’s shoulders. Nodding in grave acceptance, she drew it around herself.
“We will not forget this,” she said. “I wish I could do more...”
I shook my head. She doubtless thought me near death. If damnation was inevitable, a last act of kindness would not matter. Before he regained control, I wanted only to listen to the thoughts and desires of others, no matter how misguided. Something final to take with me into the endless cold.
I am gone. One last desire guides the hand that writes. Nothing to feel. Nothing to hear save the endless current of dead words. I wish I could weep. Never again will this tongue speak or pray. It belongs to him. His memories settle on the soul. Another body moved by his will. Nothing here.
Living bodies recede from sight. There is only darkness. His voice speaks in the void, and the corpse moves. Small movements at the extremities as he reasserts control. I am gone, but I remain conscious. The hand is halting. There is no sensation there. Letters are scrawled, uneven. No control.
Last words here. Hearing his voice. Memories extant but vague. I miss Orgrimmar. Goodbye, Daj’yah. Regret coming here. Undeath is evil. They were right. Lich King is absolute. He is God over my kind and I am afraid. Do not want to say goodbye. No help for this body. I wish I could weep.
Thunder crashed outside the cathedral, and his voice fell silent. The world flooded back to my senses, the sound of breathing, the sights of muted colors. Again I heard the rumbling detonation, a dull echo in the sanctuary.
He was silent. The voice had not become quieter, but had actually stopped. I stood up on trembling legs, not daring to believe it. Around me, the living cultists looked to each other in dread. A robed man near the door ventured outside as more rumbling explosions shook the cathedral.
“What is it?” I asked. The Chosen continued praying in silence.
Edging inside with backward steps, the cultist turned and wailed:
“The blasphemers are attacking Icecrown Citadel! Their airships—look!”
He pointed a quivering finger outside, his mouth open in terror. A sigh of dismay ran through the crowd, the air torn with the sound of fresh weeping.
“How dare they! We must go—”
“Our Master needs us—”
“Have faith, brothers and—”
Tongues froze mid-sentence, all eyes on the speaker. His eyes glowed in the manner of the Chosen, and the horned skull resting on his head marked him as one who stood above the others. He walked forward from the red light bathing the altar, his steps measured and without concern.
“The Master will prevail. Do not doubt in his power. Let him use you as he sees fit. Victory is assured. Stand up, all of you. Be glad in your hearts, for today you will be embraced.”
At the last word, the rest of the Chosen stood up from the tables, mindless eyes shining bright as they drew black daggers from their belts. They turned to face the edges of the sanctuary, where the dying cultists huddled.
“Your responsibilities are lifted, whatever they may be. Accept the embrace, and enter into paradise. Together, your souls will form a new weapon that will turn back the blasphemers.”
Aletta’s hand went to her mouth, and she looked to Lennister. Her husband made a confused motion with his hands, his eyes not believing.
“What of the child?” he whispered.
“I am sure the Master will embrace our little one as well,” she stammered. “The little one never had the chance to serve... high invoker!” she called out, the volume of her voice somehow shocking. “What of me? I am with child.”
“All will be embraced, Sister Aletta,” answered the skull-topped priest.
“But I do not want to deprive the Master of a worshipper,” she protested, her voice pleading.
“Do not concern yourself with it.”
She shrank back, Lennister shaking his head.
“What he said... must we?” he wondered. “It is for the best I am sure. We will be embraced, the three of us. Free from cruelty and fear. It is the best for the child.”
The first of the cultists walked to the Chosen, praising the Lich King with gleeful voices made thin from hunger. Their faces impassive, the Chosen struck at their exposed necks, and the hymns turned to choking gasps. Blood sprayed from ragged wounds as they fell. Outside, the bombardment continued.
“We delayed the embrace of your fallen brethren so that we might cull many souls at once, strengthening what we create. Your bodies shall form new wonders, and your souls something greater still,” promised the invoker.
Shivering, Aletta clutched her distended belly, searching her surroundings with frantic intensity. Chosen filtered into the recesses, taking the bodies of the already dead and bringing them to the center. With voices pure and hollow they recited the words that nurtured unlife.
“We will go together,” said Lennister.
“Wait!” I interjected.
Sooner or later, they would call me to sacrifice. Beyond the doors, the Argent Crusade laid siege to Icecrown Citadel itself. A Chosen stood at each side of the gate, eyes locked in mindless observation.
I might be able to run past, though other Scourge minions surely roamed the wastes beyond. My connection to the arcane had not replenished since the conjuration, hindered by his presence. I’d be easy prey for them on my own. To stay invited certain damnation.
Of all those lost souls, I knew those few who might be convinced to join me. I told myself that mercy had moved me to save the wretched couple, but I could not believe the lie. I sought to use them. Escape was its own reward, and I hated that truth.
“The Master has lied to you; to be embraced is to enter hell,” I hissed.
“What? Have you gone mad? Don’t lose your nerve—”
“I am not what you think!” I whispered. My hand darted to my right socket and pulled out the glass eye, and the left soon followed. The voluminous hood prevented anyone other than Lennister and Aletta from seeing my ruined face.
“I was once embraced. Raised by a necromancer like you. All of us can escape to the Argent Crusade. They will not mistreat you.” I spoke in a rapid whisper, praying that no one else would overhear.
“Can you not see? I am undead. Do not let this happen to you, certainly not to your child! We can run, the Argents are not far from here. Look: as each of those poor fools die, the soul goes into the Lich King’s grip. You two will not be reunited in death; you will never see or hear from each other again.
“Undeath is eternal loneliness, being lashed to a master that cares nothing for you. I escaped, but you may not be so fortunate. You know I have experienced this.”
“We know of the Forsaken. You rejected the embrace,” countered Aletta, her voice trembling as more of her brethren fell bloody to the floor.
“And why would we reject it, if it is indeed so glorious? Tell me that! We can run outside. I have enough energy to at least get the Crusade’s attention with a spell. I am sure that you have techniques of your own.”
That time neither of them retorted, visible doubt gnawing at their faith. My words had tapped into the fears they already felt. Driven by instinct to protect their child, I am sure even the weakest argument would have compelled them. I had acted as a manipulator, nothing more.
“We cannot deny our child the embrace,” mumbled Lennister, his chilled hands twisting a length of his robe as his faith crumbled around him.
“Are you willing to gamble your child’s soul? We are running out of time—”
Aletta pulled away from Lennister’s grip. Walking past the mobs of cultists rushing into the slaughter, I saw the shadows coalesce around her hands. She raised both arms at the Chosen standing on the right side of the door, and pitch flooded from outstretched palms.
The Chosen’s robe frayed where the spell hit, his alabaster skin turning dark and spotted. I ran towards the stunned Chosen, shoving cultists to the side. The Chosen’s floodlight eyes turned to me as he tried to right himself. Grabbing him by the front of his robe I threw him to the floor and jammed my knee into his back. The cold body twisted beneath my weight, and I saw the dagger’s hilt on his belt.
Grabbing the weapon by the handle I pulled it free and set to work, stabbing at the back of the Chosen’s head. His skull deflected the first blow and the knife ripped away a section of hood and scalp, the flesh beneath black and lifeless.
I stabbed at the side of his head, hoping to put out those glaring eyes. Moved by fear and fury I struck again and again. Screams of outrage echoed through the sanctuary, and I looked away from my work long enough to see a pair of living cultists running towards me.
At that moment, one of my attackers went sprawling, his teeth cracking on the saronite floor so that bloody white fragments spun across the polished surface. The other was shoved to the side as Lennister came into view, tears streaming down his face.
“Aletta!” he cried.
I sprang up from the Chosen, whose hands scuttled, spider-like, as he tried to lift himself from the floor. Aletta was halfway out the door, the other Chosen recovering from the same spell she’d used against the first. Holding the dagger tight, I ran to her side, Lennister close behind.
I gasped when I saw Icecrown Citadel, the menacing structure veiled in smoke. Concussive blasts rumbled across the desolate valley. Flying machines and zeppelins, little more than dots in the distance, hovered through the haze as they continued the assault.
“Hurry!” I ordered.
We ran across the freezing metal platform. I risked a backwards glance to see the two Chosen sprinting from the gaping entry. The eyes of the one I’d assaulted still glowed through the rents in his face. No other cultists joined the pursuit; perhaps their masters thought their deaths to be too vital. More explosions shook the firmament.
And then the voice returned.
Steady through the blasts it spoke, the words constant and without inflection, dead thoughts expressed out loud. I cursed, a frenetic desperation taking the place of resignation.
Aletta halted at the top of the grand stairway, the steps so sharp and steep that it resembled a cliff. Behind us, the Chosen gained ground. Lennister’s brow furrowed in concentration, a fog of darkness bleeding out from his hands. He turned and flung the shadows at the Chosen. That time, they were prepared. Cold white hands outstretched, the Chosen absorbed the opaque cloud.
“Destron! She needs help!” he shouted. He grabbed Aletta’s arm and slung it over his shoulders, casting me a despairing glance. They’d never be able to make it down before the Chosen caught up to them.
Hatred, not bravery, moved me to action. In that instant, all the suffering, all the shame that I’d endured in Icecrown turned into rage. Dagger in hand I charged the unwounded Chosen, wanting to make him suffer, to make his master feel fear.
Icy metal pierced my belly but I felt no pain as it tore through my side. Yelling, I stabbed downwards as I drove my knee into his gut. He buckled under the attack, losing his balance and falling backwards onto the ground. I gave him no respite and jumped to deliver the final strike. Though prone, his knife ripped into me again, cool ichor sputtering from the wound as my own weapon assailed his face, the blade’s weight doing as much damage as its edge.
The other Chosen grabbed my coat to pull me off his companion. I twisted, my body wrenching free as I kept my weight on the first target even as he continued cutting my body to ribbons. Out of his grasp, I resumed the attack, the light in the Chosen’s eyes still shining in mockery, though his jaw hung in rags and splinters, his brow deformed by repeated impacts. Luck guided my dagger into the Chosen’s glowing socket, the blade’s tip piercing the corrupted brain.
The light died, and still I felt no satisfaction, hitting the corpse again and again as the remaining Chosen bludgeoned me with kicks. A boot slammed into my back, pushing me down into the corpse. Weakness suddenly washed over me. My dagger fell from limp fingers, his voice ringing clear through the bombardment.
All at once, the weight on my back vanished. A shriveled body fell alongside my own, and I looked into sockets dark and empty. My vision wavered as I tried to stand back up, cold fluids leaking from my torso. His voice called to me as I explored the landscape of wounds. My innards quivered like soup as I forced myself upright, the fall and the fight taking their toll.
Lennister and Aletta huddled close at the top of the stairs. The second Chosen had fallen under their shadowy attacks. Nodding, I walked towards them as fast as I could, the world lurching with each step. There was no longer any doubt that I owed my freedom to those two.
No one ran after us as we inched our way down to the desert. The numbing dust came as a relief after spending so long surrounded by saronite. The explosions in the distance grew fewer; the crusaders had finished their attack. Airship silhouettes grew larger in the sky as they flew away from Icecrown Citadel.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice a whispery whine. “I am sorry that it hurt so much for you.”
“You promise that the Argent Crusade will not harm us?” demanded Lennister.
“I promise. They are good people. The even accept those like myself.”
I knew I had but one chance. Mana rushed to the fingertips in my one hand, nurturing a spark that grew into a flame. The servants of the Scourge almost never use fire spells. My arm quaked as I raised it to the sky, unleashing a lone fireball into the gloom. I could only pray that they would see it and rescue us.
The couple shivered as they waited, eyes roving about, holding tightly to one another. The spell soared into the clouds, a burning light in the darkness. Two of the fliers slowed down, beginning a gradual descent.
“Here! Help us!” we called out.
Propellers churning, one of the fliers lowered the craft to the ground while the other circled us on high. I saw the pilot, a dwarf wrapped in furs.
“Who are you?” he shouted, his voice hard to hear over the engine’s noise.
“I am Destron Allicant; I’ve helped the Argents in the past. I’m with two defectors from the Cult of the Damned. Can you get us to safety?”
He appraised me for a moment, eyes hidden behind the thick lens of his flight goggles.
“We’ll call down an airship. Stay put,” he ordered.
Lifting back into the air, he flew towards one of the zeppelins, pulling up alongside it. Minutes crawled by, Aletta and Lennister sobbing in hope, fear, and confusion. I’d taken them from the only sanctuary they’d known for years to deliver them unto what they believed to be an ultimate evil. I could not fault them for being afraid.
The zeppelin began to make its landing. A smaller model, it could still carry us all to safety. When at last it settled on the rocky surface, I said a prayer of thanks as I limped towards it, the former cultists right behind me.
“How did you get out here?” demanded the goblin pilot as I stepped on board. His bombardier, a grease-stained goblin woman, looked at us with doubting eyes.
“That is quite a story,” I wheezed, lying down on the wooden floor. I still heard the voice, but it was distant, fading like a bad dream. “The cult is—” I paused, finding it difficult to sleep. More fluid dripped from my wounds and onto the cabin floor, viscous and dark.
“Hey, this guy’s bleeding. Gozzy, patch him up as best you can.”
“I don’t know how to fix Forsaken—”
“It can’t hurt to stop the bleeding!”
I tried to take off my coat, only to collapse from the effort. Gozzy, the bombardier, told me to lie down. Opening the front of my coat, she cut open my sodden shirt with a pair of scissors, biting her lip when she saw the damage. I felt the cabin lift off the ground as Gozzy began to apply the bandages.
“They are making some kind of a weapon in the cathedral,” I said, taking long pauses between words. “You might be able to stop them.”
“We dropped everything we had on Icecrown Citadel. It’ll have to wait.”
“Did we win?”
“This battle? Sure. The death knights gutted the Scourge’s air power, and we blasted the citadel’s ground defenses to rubble. I don’t think the Lich King is going to be here for much longer.”
Satisfied with his answer, I rested my head on the floor. I realized then, that in the end, the Lich King is but a single entity. His minions can only offer material support. None can give reassurance or hope. Each of the Lich King’s efforts is conducted in total solitude, though thousands of bodies do his bidding. He seeks to perpetuate himself so that none might stand against him, but this is an impossible task. Even if he succeeds and rules a world of death, there is no reward, no succor, for him. He is doomed in such a total way that one can only feel pity.
For us, there is light. Whatever our causes, whatever our dreams, we work with and against our fellows, and it is in this interaction, this conflict, that the experience of life is forged. Perhaps these deeds amount to little in the long run, but they offer rich meaning to those who take part. Perhaps that is enough.