Two months after the disastrous assault on the Broken Shore, Deathlord Larkspur Plagueheart watched a swarm of geists mount one of Acherus' crenellations like a line of creeping ants, carrying with them pieces of saronite plating to be welded into place over scars left by the latest felbat assault. Supervising the creatures wasn't--strictly--the kind of task his knights were comfortable with leaving to their supreme commander, but Lark maintained he was a disciple of the Unholy before anything else and had a rapport with the geists besides. They were more attentive when he was there to direct them, he averred, even if he never seemed to exert much direct control over what they were doing. Rather, just the fact they were being watched kept the skittish undead on their task, even when there was much to distract them in the citadel's upper reaches--or so Lark would explain to anyone who mustered up the courage to pry.
No one had.
In reality, he needed an escape from the crushing demands of his job, and this was one of the few the Lich King afforded him. His fictional pretext for watching the geists was an all-too-real reason to be visible in Acherus, attending even to mundanities of the Ebon Blade's day-to-day functioning--reminding those under his command that he had their once-king's imprimatur to lead, and that same worthy's keen awareness of their doings besides. Nothing escaped the Deathlord's unblinking gaze, and unlike mortals, the Knights of the Ebon Blade seemed to take grim comfort in that fact. The scaffolding the Scourge had left in all their souls expected to be watched and measured, making clear where each of them stood in the inevitable hierarchy of their order. And if Lark could sometimes fulfill that expectation by as mindless a pursuit as watching the geists patch holes in the walls, he'd take it as the small mercy it was.
So when the Lich King's will settled on his mind like a frigid hand, winding icy tendrils around his ragged soul, Lark's dead heart clenched at the unwelcome interruption and he set his jaw, expecting the worst. Yes, my king? he asked of the Presence, unfailingly polite (knowing that even if he wasn't, he'd be made to be--as he'd be made to do whatever else was asked of him, whether he willed it or no).
<<We have left a matter unfinished on the Broken Shore, my Deathlord.>> As ever, some sick, traitor part of Lark thrilled to be addressed that way. He belonged. He mattered. <<Gather your knights and descend upon the gates of the Black City as the instrument of my wrath. You will receive further instructions when you have slaughtered the demons there. Do not fail me in this.>>
Much to his surprise, the Presence withdrew, leaving the words ringing between his ears--and with them, explicit instructions on which of his knights he was to take. None of his own choosing, of course, as he was rarely allowed that much latitude--and all of them individuals he dimly recognized as former soldiers of the Alliance. Humans, dwarves, gnomes, a Gilnean or two (not an elf among them, which was a mercy in its own way as his kaldorei knights to a man couldn't entirely choke down their distaste for him), graven indelibly into his inconstant memory as names and faces and half-digested mindprints from the Scourge. Whether or not he'd known them at all before he knew them now, all their dead hopes and living fears, and loved them with his unforgivably soft heart--and hated that he'd likely lose them all on what amounted to a suicide mission.
The Lich King knew he wouldn't fail, but had no qualms about engineering his success with the broken bodies of his knights. No one had returned to the Broken Shore since Gul'dan's forces had beheaded the Alliance and the Horde in the same deathstroke; no one had dared, holding the lives of their soldiers too precious to feed into that meat grinder.
But the dead would do what the living could not, even if it cost them as much or more to do it. And if Lark would not march with them willingly, he'd do it unwillingly, and with no hope of changing the inevitable grisly outcome. Better not to protest, so he had the chance of picking a smaller, more winnable battle later, budging his king's obdurate will just enough to save something worthwhile.
Rational or not, the thought still left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Well, he thought to himself, no time like the present. Turning his back on the industrious geists, he went to collect his knights.
They descended through purple twilight and light fog, their whole company of fifty knights and a hundred assorted undead with necromancers attending split across two of the great frostwyrms. A flight of gargoyles flew a wide perimeter, emerald eyes flashing through the gloom as they kept watch for circling felbats. There was obvious danger in putting so many of their eggs into so few baskets; but there was no other practical way to transport so many geists and ghouls, and the fewer bodies they had airborne, the less likely their insertion was to be noticed.
As it happened, they landed entirely without incident. The cliff above the Black Gates was only lightly patrolled, and the first of the frostwyrms to land crushed the life out of the felguard that spotted it before he could shout for reinforcements. Its riders debarked with all the mechanical efficiency of the undead and it launched itself skyward again in short order, clearing space for its sister wyrm to land and disgorge its own cargo. Everything went as perfectly as if they had drilled it. Even the ghouls were quiet, refraining from their usual jostling and bickering as the necromancers herded them away from the landing site.
Perfection made Lark uneasy; things were only perfect on their face when something deeper and more critical had gone wrong. They'd likely already committed themselves to the fatal ambush, or why else would the demons have left this place so lightly guarded? "Clear a perimeter and secure our flanks," he began, tone level with a calm he didn't of himself feel. Yet the Lich King's Presence was there with him, a beacon of inhuman godlike assurance that everything would turn out as planned, and he could not help but lean on it.
What next? he asked silently, scanning their surroundings for signs of inevitable attack. This was where the Horde's advance force had been shattered, their Warchief struck down and soldiers slaughtered. Spirit fragments shaped as orcs and trolls and his own sin'dorei kinsmen wandered the clifftop in a daze or acted out their last moments on endless repeat; beyond that sea of silent ghostly agony, felguards and blightstalkers roamed in erratic patrols. None of them had yet noticed the Ebon Blade incursion.
<<Descend to the plain below. Find the site of Varian Wrynn's last stand, and see what remains of his body and spirit. Destroy any that stand in your way.>>
The words chilled Lark as much for what wasn't said: There was only one reason the Lich King would order them to look for a body. Is Wrynn the next Horseman, then? he asked, not really expecting an answer. It would make a certain gruesome parity with the late General Nazgrim: a beloved hero of the Horde, a respected king of the Alliance. To raise that honored personage in the presence of death knights who'd once owed him fealty was of a piece with the Lich King's sadism besides, driving home that inevitable idea that the dead would--must--do anything to accomplish their goals.
And the tone of that denial near to cracked Lark's chilled heart in two, because it wasn't the Lich King speaking, and suddenly their errand took on a much different and more personal tenor.
Bolvar had sent him to find the body of his own dead king, and to do what with it-- He shied away from the thought and what it implied; this wasn't his grief to interrogate or mourn, only to carry out the duty he'd sworn in that black and lightless place that Bolvar Fordragon now resided. Whatever you need of me, I'll do, he'd pledged, and whether or not he'd taken that oath under extreme duress with a questionably clear mind, he'd meant it.
The whole exchange and realization took mere seconds, an ignorable hesitation before Lark continued with his orders: "Haiya, Gundermann, Ironfist, take a swarm of geists and find a way down these cliffs. Crush any resistance you encounter. Bloodcog and Lightsbane, with me; we'll do the same to the south. Thassarian, you're in command here; we'll be descending to the plain as soon as we have a usable path."
But for Thassarian--his strangely loyal backer since Lark had assumed the mantle of Deathlord--he'd scarcely worked with these knights in the past, hardly even known them as people mere hours before, and suspected most of them knew as little about each other. Yet they obeyed him without question or pause, their cooperation seamless and immediate as they split off to their tasks. The gnome and human women he'd commandeered as his own escort waited patiently for further orders, not at all curious why he hesitated for a long moment to watch his commands carried out.
At one time he'd prided himself on being the grit in that smooth-working machine, dragging on it with his own stubborn inertia until somebody beat him back into line. More recently he'd been a contented part of it, never really thinking just how different the Blade was from the Sunfury forces or questioning his place in it. And now that he had time to think and to question he had no volition to do anything about that awful efficiency, and it made him proud and sick at once to see it.
At last he shook his head and drew Apocalypse from off his back, wincing internally as the sword's warped perception of the webs of trust and loyalty around him settled over his own. They wouldn't need their own swarm of geists; here was power enough to summon all the restless dead around him to his service, if he chose. "Well, ladies," he quipped without feeling, "we're certainly the prettier search team; let's be the faster one as well."
Lightsbane smiled--maybe, fractionally--as she called her own ghoul to her side and followed after him, and Lark locked that glimpse of emotion in his heart as a fragment of hope against the dark.
As Lark had expected, there was an ambush waiting for them: the felbats descended in swarms as his death knights picked their way in pairs down a switchbacking path across the cliff face. The first of them plucked Lightsbane from her deathcharger like a hawk hitting a rabbit; she shouted defiance and stabbed the thing through the head, sending them both tumbling down the cliff to their mutual doom. She wasn't the only such casualty of that first attack, but one of only a very few once the strike force was alerted to their danger. Gargoyles boiled up out of the mist at Lark's furious silent command; laggard as they'd been in their overwatch they were quick enough into the fray once they could smell living demon meat, and felblood and ichor alike soon rained down on the assembled company.
"Move!" Lark bellowed at them, spurring his own borrowed beast to an unsafe gallop. There wasn't room for any of them to fight on the path without crushing each other or risking a fall; their air support would have to carry the day until they made it to the plain. The ghouls and geists suffered the worst for the disorderly charge, muscled off the path by the heavier deathchargers or trampled beneath the pitiless hooves.
Still and all, theirs was a small expected loss, one that barely registered as the knights achieved the plain and dismounted to pull the remaining felbats from the sky. Killing the winged demons won them only a little space before a massive wave of blightstalkers burst upon them, seeking to crush them against the cliff face. With eerie wordless efficiency they formed into a wedge to meet it, disciples of Blood to the front to distract and detain the howling hounds while their Frost and Unholy brethren cut the beasts down.
After the blightstalkers, felguards in their ranks. They needed their lost ghouls keenly now, to slow up their much larger opponents and make the contest more even. "Rise!" Lark roared, calling the Alliance dead crushed into the soil up from their graves. Once more his knights fought among an army of their peers, ghouls and geists and skeletons garbed as Stormwinders or sons of Ironforge and Gnomeregan, that fought as the extension of one will. Bolstered by that risen army, they pressed forward through the demons' ranks, barely requiring their Deathlord's urging to head for the flat land that yawned before the Black Gates, where the Alliance had so lately met bitter defeat.
And then--suddenly--silence, as the last of the felguards toppled backward without a head and the last felhound collapsed in a wheezing spray of blood. They had fought their way to the center of the plain and found no more demons there, the Legion's forces set back on their heels by the murderous fury of the Blade. In that moment they were more alive than any other, faces shining with victory and smeared with blood, badged with rictus grins of triumph. Even Lark felt it--that bloodthirsty delight, the temporary satiety of the Hunger, made all the more seductive and perilous by his king's grim satisfaction at the havoc they'd wrought on the enemies of the Scourge. It insulated him as he looked over the remains of his command, counting out all they'd lost in the running battle and sealing up their names for entry into the Blade's book of the dead.
It dulled the pain, made it distant, manageable, let him focus on the rest of their mission. "Fan out," he rasped. "King Wrynn fell here. If the Legion's left anything of his body or spirit, we're to find it. Any evidence--anything. Bring it to me."
Dull shock rippled through the massed knights at that; they exchanged unhappy lichfire glances, the first evidence he'd seen all that day of disobedience. A part of him--tiny, stupid, hopeful part--was glad to see it, glad to see them questioning an order for once. Or...not questioning, as the case might be, for not a one of them said a word, only settled their looks on Thassarian--the most senior left among them, who had the Deathlord's ear--after several long moments of unease. Left to ask the question on every mind, the human knight cut straight to the point: "Is he the next of the Horsemen, sir?"
"No. Oh, Light, no." What was a prayer in any other company was blasphemy in this one, and their discomfort only deepened at this reminder of just how strange a choice Lark was for Deathlord. He knew better now than to act abashed for what he'd said, simply swallowed his discomfort and bore on: "He isn't to be one of the Horseman. We will not disturb his rest, should he be resting here. Simply verify he's not in the Legion's grasp."
That seemed to smooth over their unease, stupid worthless Deathlord or not, and they turned away in pairs and trios to carry out their grim search. Thassarian remained, studying Lark intently, something almost like concern on his tattooed face. He wasn't the most perceptive of fellows by a long shot, was Thassarian, but he'd been friends--lovers--something with Deathweaver for ages, and Lark supposed he'd learned at least a little about reading an elf's ears in that time. If anyone in this whole company would know what it meant that Lark had his backed and pinned, it was Thassarian.
And Lark didn't want to talk about it; it edged too close to those things he couldn't put a voice to, lest he lose what tiny illusion of freedom remained to him--and all his hope for the Blade with it. "Quit gawping," he snapped, "and help me."
"With what, Deathlord?"
He gestured grandly at the massed demon corpses around them. "These. Take their heads. Pile them up. We're making a cairn."
"No sign to the west, Deathlord." "No body, no spirit to the east, Deathlord." "We didn't find anything, Deathlord."
In trios and pairs his knights returned, bringing only empty-handed disappointment. They made their reports standing by the cairn he and Thassarian had fashioned, sparing it only the occasional incurious glance before moving off to congregate in a weary disheartened huddle. Lark hadn't really expected the demons to have left much behind of any of their conquests, but he'd hoped beyond hope there would be something to--bury, to burn, he wasn't sure what. He hadn't thought so far ahead as to think of what he was supposed to do. Maybe it would be enough to simply confirm Wrynn dead and not taken, and leave a bloody memorial to the Blade's audacity here before the demon city. At least this way he didn't have to come up with anything to say, to try and offer some kind of funerary rite for a human he'd scarcely known.
He counted heads, ticked off names, ready to call the frostwyrms--one frostwyrm, he amended, they were few enough one would do--back to return them to Acherus. Coming up two short, he breathed out through his teeth in a hissing sigh. Ironfist and Haiya. What did he want to bet they'd stopped on their way back to take a hit off Ironfist's ubiquitous flask, as stupid an exercise as that was in the middle of enemy territory? Well, they had five more minutes to finish up their revelry before they were getting left behind to find their own way home--though he'd send a gargoyle to inform them as much, since it wasn't in him to simply leave his men behind--
"Oi! Deathlord! Sair! We found summat of the king!" Even if Lark hadn't been an elf, he would've heard Ironfist's yelling a mile off--as, he was sure, did every demon in the vicinity. Nothing to be done for it except hope the bastards had been sufficiently cowed by Ebon Blade brutality that they wouldn't regroup for another attack. He stepped away from the cairn, lifting a hand and clearing his throat to call the dwarf's attention as he barreled through the crowd.
"Thank you, Ironfist, I hear you and so does every demon listening. What did you find?" The king's spirit, maybe, was the best they could hope for. It presented Lark with an awful problem of how to lay such a fiercely angry individual to rest, but would confirm that the eternal part of Varian Wrynn was at least free of the Legion's torture.
The dwarf came to a halt, hauling up with a sharp salute with his free hand. The other hand... "Aye, pardon, sir. His swords, sir; I've got the one and Haiya t'other." ...held a sword, a curious thing of kaldorei make that Lark recognized without ever having seen it before in his undeath. Shalla'tor or Ellemayne, he didn't know which was which, but he'd heard their story. Shadow Render and Reaver, blades with a lineage extending back to the War of the Ancients.
And here they'd done their final wielder no good, for all they'd been mighty against the demons in times past. He held out his hand to take the blade from Ironfist as his knight proffered it hilt-first, hefting it and testing its balance on numb reflex. Too small for him, but beautiful to hold all the same. "Thank you," he repeated, and, "you're dismissed." Without really thinking, he bent and laid the sword at the foot of the cairn.
Straightened, to find Haiya standing silently before him with the other blade held out. He nodded once to the mute knight, accepting the second blade and finding it as lovely as the other. If he'd at all been inclined to fighting with paired blades, he'd be tempted to keep them, he knew.
But that was a level of disrespect even he couldn't sink to, not any longer, no matter what might be demanded of him. He reached out to that ever-present Presence in the back of his mind.
Now what? He's dead and there's nothing else left of him. Are you satisfied?
<<Not until you have laid this last vestige of him to rest.>>
Horror flooded Lark. I can't! This isn't mine! I barely knew him! he cried out within himself, looking down at the sword in his hands, knowing it to have died with its wielder. Shalla'tor and Ellemayne had been living weapons as all elven blades were; there was no magic in this blade or its twin now. His death knights, sensing distress like sharks do blood, looked up from their desultory conversations and toward their Deathlord, drawing in close.
<<If you would have leave to do honor to your dead, Deathlord, you will honor mine as well.>>
So. And so. This loss wasn't his, but Lark had promised--had begged, pleaded at the foot of the shapeless looming thing in its blackened hall, that the Ebon Blade could be more than an instrument of slaughter. The dead need us, he had said, and, Who better to ease their suffering than we who share it? Who better to do them proper honor, to intercede for them with the living?
He raised his eyes then to his remaining knights where they stood around him, faces turned toward their Deathlord--expectant, hollow, waiting for some pronouncement from him. He knew in that moment who these were, and why Fordragon had singled them out for this mission--not because they could be spared for a suicide mission, for none of the Blade truly could be, no matter they could replace their numbers without end and pretended that was enough. Not for their skill or experience that would give them a better chance of survival, nor that they held any special claim for revenge against the demons, any more than anyone else did.
It was these knights who had still done their high king honor in their hearts even as they served an order that made itself blind to the division between Alliance and Horde. These were they who'd gone back to Stormwind when given the chance, back to the man who'd extended his trust to them that they could be more than monsters, whatever the Scourge had made of them.
It was these knights who still loved Varian Wrynn in that crippled way that was all that was left to the undead.
As had Bolvar.
As had Arthas.
He wished he'd thought to tell them--all of them he'd amassed for this mission--what they had come here to accomplish, so those who had died could have gone into the darkness knowing for whom they perished. He wished he'd known the whole of it himself.
Then if you would have me honor him, you cannot hold this grief to yourself, my king, he replied, soft and chiding. I would know the man you mourn, though we would have been enemies in life.
It wasn't something he asked for lightly, knowing how cruel and thorough the Lich King's gifts of knowledge could be. This one was no less than usual, for all it was one given out of something like love, hard and sharp and bright. In an instant he knew Varian Wrynn, flawed and fallible man that he was, given to great sorrow and great rage alike. He knew the human king in his brooding youth and furious manhood, halved by dragon magic and made whole again by forces inexplicable.
He knew how Wrynn had mourned Bolvar Fordragon's death at Angrathar, something Fordragon had not learned of until years after.
He knew this was Fordragon's way of returning that brotherly service, tasking his death knights to mourn instead where the Lich King could not weep openly.
Lark closed his eyes for a moment, fingers tightening on the hilt of the sword in his hand as he ran through the words in his head, picking carefully what he would say. The Presence, always a subtle pressure, didn't interfere, blessedly--frustratingly--leaving it all on him to prove the worth of his oath. At last, he opened his eyes, fixing them on the gruesome memorial they'd raised to the Alliance's dead king.
"Knights of the Ebon Blade," he began, then: "Soldiers of the Alliance. We do honor here to High King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind, who fell in this place defying the Legion to his last breath. Called the Wolf by friend and enemy alike, he was not a man untroubled, known for his wrath as well as his generosity. Yet he strove always to be deserving of the crown he bore, and proved his unflagging courage to the very end.
"We do honor here to Varian Wrynn, who died as he lived, defending the people he loved. May his spirit rest in the Shadowlands, knowing he is remembered by those he brought forth from the shadows, when all others would have rightfully spurned you.
"May you strive every day of your undeath to be worthy of this man's trust and esteem, and go to your second death with valor to rival the Wolf's."
Silence followed his words. He looked up from the cairn, searching the faces of his men, too weary to fear what he'd find there--that he'd so completely misjudged them and the moment, that all of this was lost on them, that he'd spent lives for nothing. For worse than nothing, for the grim knowledge that they really were nothing more than hollowed-out monsters, incapable--or undesiring--of the least mortal sentiment.
He'd never been so glad in his undeath to find himself wrong than he was in that moment.
The dead did not weep, but had ways of showing sorrow all the same. Delvar Ironfist was the first to step up to the cairn, lower lip trembling as he drew a battered Stormwind valor medal from his belt pouch and laid it beside the sword on the ground. "For t'King," he pronounced. "The Light may've had done with us, aye, but let it keep him." One by one the rest of the knights followed, each of them producing some token of significance--for many, no more than a lock of hair--to add to the burgeoning makeshift shrine. It wasn't Lark's place to join them, but when they had done, he stepped forward to drive the remaining sword into the top of the cairn, burying it in demon skulls to its hilt.
"He will be avenged," he pronounced, voice quiet but carrying still.
"He will be avenged," his knights replied. And: "The dead do what the living cannot."
And for once, the words raised no echo of dread in Lark's breast.
Not all of the Lich King's requests were so onerous to be borne, but they were heavy all the same.
[v2, 3/5/2017: editing pass.]