This is not why I wanted to come home.
I rode slowly down the familiar road through Elwynn Forest, my horse’s hooves making soft clops in the packed dirt. My older brother Cynwulf drove the wagon beside me, his normal good humor subdued, as the mule-drawn wagon made its slow way down the dappled forest lane. Though he’s ridden this route as many times as I have, this is the first time he’s had to make the trip to Northshire to tell the parents of a fallen soldier that their child is dead.
Not me; I have done this before. I did it for him, when he fell fighting the Scourge. I have done it for many others, but none hurt so much as his. Or like this.
That Cynwulf was returned to me and my family was a mixed miracle; twisted, broken by his tormenters, a pale, dark shadow of the hero of the Alliance he was before. Yet he came back. My brother came back to us, changed and hurt, this Death Knight of Arthas. But he came back.
There shall be no such return for my sister Cyneburgh.
“Lieutenant Oakwalker!” I yelled, running as best I could behind our hastily erected barricades. Arrows continued to whistle overhead, slithering through the air to thud into the wooden boards and debris. “We’ve got to move those wounded now!”
The tall kaldorei woman I was addressing looked up at my approach and grimly nodded. She turned to issue a short command to her Sentinels in their melodic Darnassian, and then turned back to face me as her troops prepared to move their wounded.
“How goes it on the other side, Colonel?” she asked.
“Not well. The Horde mages are concentrating their fire over there and we’re taking a beating. Whizzlespark’s almost done. We’re just buying time now,” I replied.
“Good,” the night elf said, suddenly breaking into a suddenly vicious grin. “I admit, the inventions of the gnomes are strange to me, but in this case? I am looking forward to seeing them in action against our enemies.”
“If it works,” I replied, looking out across the arid, broken terrain of the northern Barrens. The rain of arrows was slowing, our attackers still firing from behind broken rocks. There was movement; they were getting ready to shift their assault. ”Move as soon as you can, Lieutenant. I’ll meet you back at the rendezvous point.”
She saluted, placing her fist over her heart. I returned it with a quick Stormwind-style salute to the brow. ”Dismissed,” I said, and she moved to her task, back straight and movements fluid. I tried not to think of how tired I must look in front of the troops as I started back down the line.
“Cyn, wake up, lass. Time to move again,” whispered the gruff dwarf, shaking my right shoulder gently. Right meant it was safe. Okay. Time to move again. The cold of Icecrown seeped into your bones as you slept, but I needed the brief rest. We all did, but only a few of us could rest at a time as we dodged patrols and moved our way through the heart of Arthas’ citadel, the center of his power in Northrend.
“Thanks, Dolar,” I whispered back, as I took his outstretched hand and let him help me to my feet. The chill was pervasive; every joint ached, every muscle was stiff. I summoned Chojub back from his native plane; the imp appeared in moments, cackling and laughing.
Of course he was laughing. He was still warm.
I straightened up, slipped my hood back over my head, and took up my position on the flank as the group of adventurers began moving out. I struggled to not notice the ragged formation, the non-military positioning; I couldn’t help it.
Here, rank didn’t matter, though. These people would never march in a parade ground, would never need the kind of precision movements those drills taught. No, this was a unit of individuals, of people with different abilities, skills, and motivations. I was but one of many, all with different stories of what brought them here to this place, this time, this frozen hell. Revenge, justice, defending the innocent, or just for the glory of it all – we walked through the bone-chilling cold with one common purpose, one single goal.
We were there to kill Arthas.
Cynwulf and I continued our quiet ride through the beautiful autumn leaves of Elywnn. Small farms nestled in clearings amidst the great, flaming oaks and maples, the simple, pastoral lifestyle that both my brother and I were raised in.
It seemed strange to me that, in a world filled with demons, and undead, and entire races dedicated to wiping out my own, that such a place could not just exist, but thrive. That there could be peace anywhere in this world made me wonder if there was hope after all.
I sighed. Cynwulf, coming out of his own thoughts, looked over at me.
“You can never really come back again, can you?” he said, looking intently at me with his strange, glowing eyes.
“No,” I said, sharply. “The things we see change us too much.”
“Is it the things we see, or the things we do, ‘wise?” he asked quietly.
I pretended not to hear him.
I moved as quickly as I could behind our lines, ducking arrows, dodging the occasional frostbolt that sizzled against my shields, moving back to the makeshift command post near the center of the line. The sound of rifles filled the air. “Sergeant Ironshot!” I yelled to a grizzled dwarf firing a rifle around a large rock. “Sergeant Ironshot!” I yelled again.
“What is it, lassie?!” he yelled back, reloading his carbine, not bothering to look at me. “Imma little busy right now!”
“Barley, it’s almost time, be ready,” I yelled over the sound of his carabiners’ fire, hurrying past.
“Ready? Ready??” the old dwarf yelled. “Ironforge dwarves were born ready, lassie! You hear that, men? Time to stop running!” There were a few ragged cheers from the dwarven line, but most were busy with the task at hand. Fire, reload. Fire, reload.
It had been a long two days for all of us. What had been a brilliant strike into the heart of Horde territory had turned into a rout; while we had destroyed the infrastructure of the Warsong Lumber Mill, it had come at the cost of substantially weakening Ashenvale’s defenses. Two thirds of my battalion was gone, and an entire company of the Sentinels had been wiped out.
This was not going to look good on my report.
I checked in with the healers next; Anchorite Taluuna was nominally in charge of that group, though she had no military command experience, the draenei kept a cool head in a crisis that inspired confidence in her fellow healers. They had already begun getting the wounded ready to move out, while taking their positions for our desperate run for it. Nearby was Whizzlespark talking to her few remaining engineers, discussing their work.
“Chief,” I said as I approached, “you ready?”
“Yes, Colonel,” the gnome said in her high-pitched voice. Her green hair was dirty and streaked with grease, but that was actually pretty normal for her. “Torque and I were having a discussion on the finer matters of the use of seaforium in non-shaped charges, but yes, we’re ready.” She cast a meaningful glance over at the white-haired Torque, daring him to say anything.
“Indeed,” he said, “I concur with Ms. Whizzlespark’s observation. While we may not have reached the optimum concentration of the primer to allow for…”
“We’re ready, sir!” said Whizzlespark loudly, glaring at her compatriot. The third member of this odd little group, a junior engineer named Henry Sprocketfuzz, just smiled broadly, gave me two thumbs up, and said, “yep yep, good to go!”
“Okay,” I said. ”I’ll go tell Frederick and Cyneburgh that they’re up.” I looked at the diminutive trio one last time before hurrying away; so much counted on them doing their jobs right. Not only the lives of the hundred or so people still under my command, but the future of the Alliance in the region was now resting on these gnomes’ abilities to work under pressure.
I squared my shoulders and headed off to see my sister and her lover.
“No no no noNONONO!” I screamed, sprinting towards the healer core. The pack of giests had moved around our warriors and paladins and were headed straight for the most vulnerable members of our group. The strange, leaping gait of the geists quickened as they closed in on their targets. Syrissa, one of our Draenei priestesses, looked up at my yell. Her eyes grew wide as she saw the incoming danger.
“Shit, I’m not going to make it,” I said, realizing that if the healers went down, it didn’t matter if I lived or died.
I didn’t care if I lived or died, not anymore. But we were going to finish the job first. Dolar and Catarith heard my yell and had started moving, but they weren’t going to make it in time.
“Right, then,” I said, and ignited my Goblin-engineered nitro boosts. They roared to life and sent me speeding right at the pack of leaping, slavering giests. As I closed in on them, I cast Shadowflame, breathing a cone of fel flame into their midst. I slammed into the pack, bouncing, twisting through the mass of undead bodies, trying to keep myself aimed away from the healers. The geist’s claws clutched at me, grasping, hungering.
I crashed through the pack, a trail of burning goblin rocket fuel and fel fire in my wake, twisting, turning, almost free -
One of the geists grabbed my ankle, just as I was about through. The burning boots continued their inexorable thrust forward, freeing me from the monster’s grasp, but my balance was gone. I tumbled to the ground, skittering across the cold stone floor. The fire in my boots went out as I slid to a stop.
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the giest pack turned as one to get me. The fel fire wreathed their bodies, slowing their movements – but they were moving away from the healers. People were moving now. I just had to hold the pack’s attention.
“Come and get me, you undead fuckers,” I snarled, rising to my feet as they charged. Fire danced around my hands as I tried not to think of what my fate would be if I fell to their gaping maws.
And then Cat and Dolar were there, sword and mace chopping through the undead, forcing the pack to address the threat in their midst. Others of our band joined in, charging the pack’s flank.
Good, I thought to myself. Now it’s time to make the undead burn.
Chojub, back at my side again, cackled. He knew what that look in my eyes meant.
“Do you remember that time Cyneburgh got stuck up on the roof of the Blacksmith?” Cynwulf asked, laughing. “Funniest sight I ever saw, all those boys trying to get her down.”
I smiled a little, in spite of myself. It was a funny memory. ‘Bur had a way of attracting attention wherever she went. Not only was she smart and adventurous, she was pretty and attractive, she knew it, and she used her beauty to her advantage.
It was the one thing I hated most about my younger sister.
We were at the outskirts of Goldshire, but we were not going to stop. The mules were in good shape, having been fed and watered a short while ago. Our horses were similarly fine, unconcerned with the easy pace and nice weather.
I looked over at my brother again. Cynwulf had changed for the better since I’d thrown him in the Dalaran fountain and packed him off to Waylan. He had cut his hair, his beard was neatly trimmed, he’d bathed recently – not something I think I’d ever seen him do, even before Arthas turned him. His armor was polished, his surcoat looked brand new.
I mean, I hate to say it, but I was just hoping Waylan could keep him from being a public nuisance and drunkard. To have this easy-going, urbane gentleman, instead of a fierce, drunk fighter for a brother… It was going to take some adjustment.
“I hope Mom is okay,” he said, suddenly worried. “Dad said she’d been ill this autumn.”
“She’ll be as okay as she can be,” I replied. “There’s no easy way to do this.”
“You seem to be pretty calm,” ‘wulf said.
“I’ve done this before, brother,” I said. “It doesn’t get any easier, but at least you know what to expect.” I kept my face impassive as he looked at me.
“All right,” he said, giving the reins a flick as we turned onto the road to Northshire. ”Let’s get a move on, then.”
I found Lieutenant Cyneburgh of the Silver Hand and Commander Frederick of the Ebon Blade readying their troops for the upcoming battle. Saddles were being checked, girths were being tightened, and nervous horses calmed in preparation for the upcoming fight. The assorted knights, paladins, and death knights watched my approach with interest.
“Commander,” I said, saluting again. “Lieutenant.” Both of them stood at attention and returned my salute as I continued. “It’s time to move out. The Chief’s got everything ready; now it’s up to you.”
Frederick smiled, his glowing blue eyes staring directly at me. “Excellent, Colonel. We will not let you down.”
“Good. Don’t forget, let the Lieutenant and her paladins charge the first wave, then come in from the flanks to hit the healers. Buy us time, but don’t get caught too far out from us. Short, small charges will serve us better in this terrain than driving all the way into Orgrimmar.” Cyneburgh raised her eyebrow at me, a familiar response, but she said nothing.
“Understood, Colonel,” said the tall Death Knight. “You can rely on our… discretion.” His hollow voice had the echoes of a laugh. I smiled in spite of myself.
“Lieutenant, any questions?” I asked.
“No, sir,” my sister replied professionally. Her eyes danced mischievously, though her facial expression was all business.
“Good. Let’s get to work,” I said, pitching my voice a bit louder for the troops. “Let’s give these bastards the fight they were looking for. Onward to the Ramparts!”
There were some ragged cheers from the troops, but like the dwarves, they were muted. They were tired, and this push would not be easy. I saluted my officers, turned, and moved back towards the center of the line. Behind me, I heard my sister’s clear voice rising above the fray, exhorting her troops.
And they responded, enthusiastically.
My sister, the paladin. She always was the popular one.
The leader of the Argent Crusade, Tirion Fordring, stood frozen in a block of ice. The Lich King, Arthas Menethil himself, looked over our assembled group. Here he was, our quarry. But he was hardly trapped.
“You shall be the greatest champions the Scourge has ever known,” he intoned in his hollow voice. A chill ran down my spine as it sank in: this was a trap, just like the Mor’shan Ramparts were. We were to be turned, like poor Fordragon hanging, still burning, above the Frozen Throne.
“Not if we have anything to say about it!” yelled Dolar, which was our signal to move. I moved to my normal position on the right flank, with a moonkin, death knight, mage and shaman beside me. The five of us went to work, trusting that the group on the other side was doing the same. I felt the familiar surge of power as fire erupted from my hands, speeding towards the horrors the Lich King was summoning.
Down they went. Arthas summoned more as he continued his own attacks on our knights. We shifted fire from him, to the horrors, to the shades of darkness, and back again. Tree-druids waved their branches, priests and shamans shot beams of pure energy, and paladins invoked the power of all that was good and holy in this world to heal us of the crushing, bruising blows raining down on us.
And then Arthas looked up, pointed the sword Frostmourne at me, and said, “come to me, Cynwise.”
There was a blinding flash of light, searing pain wracked my entire being; and then my soul obeyed, rushing joyously from my body to the runeblade.
Cynwulf turned off the main Northshire road that led to the Abbey and drove the mules up a tidy lane, up to the farmstead he and I knew so well. My horse walked at an easy pace beside him. Each sign, each fencepost had become increasingly familiar as we approached our family’s little piece of land, nestled in the hills that surrounded Northshire proper. This land was quiet, and peaceful, and beautiful.
We made the final turn, and there was the familiar gardens, and house, and barn. I looked over at ‘wulf, but his strange glowing eyes gave away nothing.
Cyneburgh was home.
Our youngest sister, Cynwyn, was waiting to meet us outside. Studious, serious, and smart, ‘wyn had just been accepted into the Mage Academy. I was sure that she would find the lessons more to her liking than I did.
But for now, her eyes were red, having obviously been crying. Cynwulf stopped the cart and smiled a sad smile at her.
“I’ll go get our parents,” she said, not bothering to say hello. “They got your letter this morning.” She looked up at the cart, shuddered slightly, then turned and jogged off towards the farmhouse. ‘Wulf clucked at the mules and shook the reins, getting them moving again, heading into the dooryard.
Cynwyn disappeared into the house. I could hear some words being exchanged when suddenly the door banged open as my father came charging out of the house.
“You!” he yelled, pointing at me. “YOU! Get out of my sight, you filthy traitor! I don’t even want to look at you!” My eyes went wide with surprise at this as he closed the distance with surprising speed. My father Cynferth was a strong warrior in his day, and he was furious.
“Father,” I began, then realized that was the wrong tactic. “Don’t you call me that!” he yelled. My mother had appeared in the doorway, too, and she was calling for her husband to calm down. My father was yelling at me, cursing at me, and coming far to close for my comfort.
“Master Sergeant Cynferth!” I barked out, in my best parade ground voice. “I am here to fulfill my duty to the King of Stormwind. Whatever charges you wish to bring against me can wait until I have completed my task.” He stopped, a few feet from my horse.
“No,” he said, intense and quiet. “‘Wulf can do it. Your rank means nothing here. You need to leave, now.”
“No, I replied, firmly. “He cannot. I have a commission from the King to…”
“Section 16 point 25 of the Stormwind Officer’s Code states that the next-of-kin of a deceased officer may choose who attends and does not attend the funeral rites of an officer. An officer,” he added, looking pointedly at me, “which your sister most certainly was, unlike you, you … mercenary.”
“As her next-of-kin, I am asking you to leave.”
“Sir,” I said, trying to get some kind of handle on this conversation that was spinning out of control. “This is…”
“I don’t want to hear it!” my father yelled again, taking the last few steps to stand at my horse’s side. “YOU are the one who was in charge of that mission, your sister’s life was YOUR responsibility! I don’t care if you tell me that the battle was classified or not,” he thundered, “because I know what happened.” I reined my horse in tight. “I don’t care what you have to say. I want you to leave.”
He stopped, looked over at the wagon, and saw the plain pine box for seemingly the first time. “No matter what,” he said, quiet again, “family comes first.”
My father Cynferth turned back to face me. He looked old, tired, devastated. “Not the job, ‘wise. Family. There’s more to life than doing the job. And I’ve failed as your parent if you can’t see that.”
Now the anger began boiling up in me. “The job, as you so cavalierly dismiss it, was to defend you and your kind against the Horde. ‘Bur knew the risks, and took them willingly.”
He looked up at me, tears starting to well in his eyes. “I’m not debating this with you, Colonel. Please leave. You have discharged your duty. Now leave,” he said, turning his back to me. “This is not your family anymore. I have but one daughter left.”
I looked up at my mother Eadwyn, shock in my eyes. She made a placating gesture, trying to tell me that father would get over it. Cynwulf looked at me too, but said nothing.
No, I shook my head. No. If that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s the way it is.
I wheeled my horse around and spurred her flanks savagely. I galloped away from the farmstead as fast as I could, not looking back.
That place was no longer my home.
The Mor’shan Ramparts had fallen to Alliance assault four days ago, when we marched through with a much larger force. Now, the survivors of my battalion fought towards it, trying to escape the pincer of two Horde forces which threatened to envelop us. We needed to get to the safety of the Ashenvale woods before we were all dead. The final stretch of hills of the Barrens surrounded us, limiting our view.
“Is it still empty?” I asked.
“Yes, Colonel,” said Lt. Oakwalker. “The fortifications appear to be undisturbed. Even the corpses are still there.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s gather up for one final push then.” I strode over the supply wagons.
“Chief!” I yelled, “those wagons have got to go! They’re slowing us down too much!”
“But sir,” Whizzlespark began, “the devices…”
“They’re slowing us down, you can always make more! Let’s go, soldier!” The Chief glared at me, then climbed down from the wagon and started unhitching the horses.
“Commander!” I barked out, turning towards my mounted troops. “Time for another charge! Give the healers time to evacuate the wounded and get back here, understood?”
“Yes, sir!” Frederick called out. The Knights of the Ebon Blade worked surprisingly well with the paladins of the Silver Hand, keeping the Horde unfocused and scattered while we pulled back in stages. “Knights!” he commanded, wheeling his horse around and drawing his greatsword. ”Glory to the Alliance!”
“Glory to the Alliance!” rang out the cry.
“Move out!” I ordered, and my troops began moving towards the ramparts, leaving the supply wagons behind.
My sister took the lead as the paladins formed up. “C’mon, lads!” she cried out, laughing. “Let’s show ‘em how it’s done!” She spurred her horse forward, and the knights moved forward as one towards the Horde forces, several hundred yards distant. The Horde responded with a roar, rushing forward to meet them. The armored Alliance horses thundered on a collision course with the Horde.
“Now, Chief. Phase one,” I said to the small gnome by my side. She took out a horn with whirring gizmos, gears, and dials and pressed a small red button. A loud klaxon sounded, hugely loud, making everyone around the Chief jump, myself included.
The horses changed direction, turning away from the Horde infantry.
I was okay with the howls of frustration that little maneuver elicited. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Our cavalry thundered back to us, outdistancing the Horde forces. The Knights of the Ebon Blade were first through, passing the supply wagons to meet up with the main force. Cyneburgh held her paladins back, however, taunting the Horde to come closer, closer…
They were nearly to the supply wagons when disaster struck.
From the left came a large group of Darkspear berserkers, mounted on their raptors. From the right came a smaller group of Tauren, the huge Kodo beasts moving quicker than I ever expected they could.
The Horde cavalry crashed into the Knights of the Silver Hand. Many of the horses went down quickly, throwing the lucky riders and trapping the unlucky. Cyneburgh stayed on her horse through the initial attack, but a large Tauren shaman smashed her out of her saddle, causing her to tumble limply to the ground.
Commander Frederick wheeled his horse around. I heard Ironshot yelling something to his men, and Oakwalker cursing in her musical language.
“Oakwalker!” I ordered. “Half of your forces with Taluuna and the wounded, get them to Ashenvale on the double!” She nodded and hurried off to split her troops. “Frederick, Ironshot, set up a defensive line here. We’re far enough away from the wagons that it should still work. Chief, stand by.” Troops sprung into action as the battle raged on around the paladins.
“Colonel,” said Commander Frederick. “Shouldn’t we reinforce Cyneburgh?”
“She’s on the wrong side of the wagons,” I said, taking out my spyglass. I needed to see what was going on out there, the fighting was starting to raise too much dust from the arid Barrens soil. I couldn’t see much out there, but ultimately it didn’t matter. The fight was short, brutal, and ended quickly in favor of the Horde. The attackers had a brief conference, then mounted up and moved back a ways, waiting for their forces to join them.
I looked at the Tauren who knocked my sister off her horse. He looked familiar, but perhaps it was just that I’d seen him before in the infantry?
Lt. Oakwalker ran up to our impromptu command center. “The wounded are safely en route to Ashenvale,” she reported. “Along with a dozen archers and another six Sentinels… sadly, all we could spare.” I nodded in response.
“Colonel,” the Chief said, “you better come over here.” She motioned over to where she and Torque were gathered around Henry, who had produced a contraption that fit on his ears. It fanned out, giving him huge bat-like ears. “This Gyro-assisted Audio Booster is picking up human voices out there. There are survivors.”
“We must go rescue them!” insisted Commander Frederick.
“Not yet,” I said, holding up my hand. “We can’t get caught on the wrong side of the wagons. If we do, there’s nothing but some squirrels standing between this Horde army and Astranaar.”
“Aye, but lassie, we cannae just leave them there!” said Ironshot.
“No, we can’t,” I said.
“Something’s happening,” Henry said. We turned as one to look as several grey shapes moved around our fallen comrades. I raised my spyglass again.
“Forsaken Rogues,” I said.
“Oh no,” said Whizzlespark. ”Oh, no.”
A scream echoed across the battlefield, a scream that was cut short with a gurgle. “They’re killing our men,” said Frederick. ”We must go rescue them!”
“No,” I said. ”Not without a plan!”
“Plan!” he shouted incredulously. “We charge over there, me and my men grab them, and we get out! That’s the damn plan!”
“Commander!” I shouted in return. “That is…”
Another scream, filled with terrible pain, filled the air again. I knew that scream. That was my sister. The screams continued, horrible, agony-filled screams.
Henry snatched the contraption from his ears, his face pale. Sgt. Ironshot looked through his own spyglass, then turned green. “Oh no,” he said. ”Oh no, lassie.”
“The Forsaken are eating her. Alive.”
The light and pain subsided enough so I could see again. I was in a strange space, filled with diffuse white light, empty save for myself and a young man with blonde hair, about my own age. My armor was gone, replaced with a simple linen robe. The man wore a similar garment.
“Cynwise,” he said. “I’m so glad you came.”
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You are inside my sword.” The young man smiled. “I wanted to discuss things with you without the others… interfering.” I thought I could hear faint sounds of a battle, but there was no location, nothing to pinpoint.
“You… what?” I said. ”You want to talk to me?”
“Yes. Come over to my side. You’ve tasted power, but nothing like what I can give you. It would be a shame to waste your potential.”
“Why should I trust someone who murders his own father?” I said, my anger starting to rise.
“Because you killed your sister for the same reason I slew my father,” said Arthas. “To protect my people. We are not that different, you and I.”
“That’s it, I’m going,” said Frederick.
“You are NOT!” I said, “and that’s an order, Commander!”
“Tell it to the Alliance, I work for the Ebon Blade,” he snarled, turning toward his deathcharger.
“I said stand down!” I yelled as he started to mount. My sister screamed again, a long, ragged scream. We could all now hear the guttural laughter of the undead, taking delight in the living’s agony.
The Death Knight swung into his saddle. Other men shifted to follow.
That’s it. I snapped my fingers once and Helola, my succubus, emerged from her invisible state next to Frederick, and began beguiling him with her demonic charms. Her hips swayed, her breasts heaved, she blew him a kiss, and Frederick could not move. He was held fast in the demon’s spell.
“I will court-martial you and execute you for treason if you do not stand down, mister,” I said in a flat, menacing voice. “You will not get us all killed by rushing off to save someone who is already dead. Am I clear?”
Cyneburgh screamed again, this time weaker. I couldn’t bear to turn around and see what was happening. Frederick was motionless on his horse.
A bow twanged behind me, and my sister’s scream was cut mercifully short. There was a sharp exclamation from the Forsaken. I turned to see Lt. Oakwalker, bow in hand.
“We do not abandon our friends to the rogues,” she said.
“Cyn, WAKE UP!” yelled Fynralyl, slapping at my face. “Whatever he did to you, shake it off! We need you NOW!” I blinked at her, then heard the roaring of the vengeful spirits. Right. Arthas. Time to do the job. I struggled to my feet. Fyn ran back into the fight, axes swinging.
Tirion remained encased in his block of ice. Dolar stood in front of the Lich King, his holy shield absorbing the titanic blows as our motley assembly hammered away at him and his minions.
Now, Cynwise. The power will be all yours, the Lich King’s voice whispered in my head.
I looked back at where our healers stood, branches waving, totems present. It would be so easy to interrupt them, to send them reeling, to disrupt the battle.
No, I thought back at the presence in my head. You killed my brother, did you think I had forgotten? I whispered the words aloud as I began summoning fire and chaos to hurl at the Lich King.
His mocking laughter echoed in my skull as I flung fire at him. He was an excellent servant, but you would be mightier, exalted above all others. For you are not like him. You are a kinslayer, too.
I gritted my teeth and cast another spell, sending a bolt of chaotic energy at him.
Join me, kinslayer, he whispered again.
Beside me, Chojub cackled with delight and malice.
The tauren shaman who had knocked my sister off her horse looked sadly at the grisly scene. He sighed, then gestured forward, and the Horde troops surged forward again.
“Form up!” I yelled to my shocked troops. “Here they come!” I released Frederick from Helola’s spell. “Commander, I need your troops ready to cover our retreat, go!” He looked at me furiously, but nodded and rode back to his troops.
The rifles of the dwarves cracked as the Horde infantry closed the gap. The assembled orcs, trolls, and tauren were more than enough to overwhelm us.
The first ranks passed the supply wagons.
“Now, Chief,” I ordered. Whizzlespark pressed a button on a device she’d been holding. Torque and Henry looked on, eyes bright to see if their invention worked.
Small panels flew open on the tops of the wagons, and nozzles emerged from the top, spraying gusts of a sparkling cloud of metallic confetti. Each wagon started rumbling and shaking as the silver dust floated over the Horde troops. The charge faltered as the soldiers tried to determine if this was a new attack, but the metallic flakes that made up this attack seemed to pose no threat.
One of the orcs laughed.
Whizzlespark pressed a second button.
The electrostatic dynamos roared to life inside the wagons, sending sparks flying out the backs of the wagons. The hum increased quickly, and then bolts of lighting shot out between the two wagons, arcing and connecting between the newly conductive bodies between.
The carnage was horrific. Troops were incinerated by the charges as the air became electrified with each gust of metal dust. The bolts of lighting leaped from soldier to soldier, cooking them in their armor, leaping from one metal-coated body to another.
Torque clapped his hands together and yelled, “it worked! It actually worked!” Henry Sprocketfuzz looked over at me, a big grin on his face, and said, “leet, totally leet.” The Chief continued to watch the electrified wagons with a worried look on her face. She checked a gauge on her device, then looked at me.
“They’re going to blow, Colonel,” she said.
“Okay,” I replied. “Time to move out,” I yelled to the troops. “Go! NOW!”
And then we all ran like hell for the safety of Ashenvale as the wagons sparked, smoked, and finally exploded behind us.
“Burn him like you’ve never burned him before!” yelled Dolar, swinging his hammer at Arthas again. Several of our team lay broken and twisted on the floor. We were weakening, but so was the Lich King.
I dismissed Chojub and summoned the biggest demon I could control, a Felguard named Skezelras. I then summoned another, even larger demon, a doomguard I nicknamed Ike. The fel energies coursed through me as fire and shadow magic flowed from me.
Arthas laughed in my head again as I cast the most powerful, dangerous spells I had ever learned.
You will serve me in the end, he whispered.
And with that, my control snapped. The fel energies I commanded recoiled on me, burning my flesh. I could feel the demonic nether filling my body as it began changing, growing, twisting into something non-human. Wings sprouted from my back as I metamorphosed into a snarling demon.
I had heard of warlocks who could do this on command, but I had never tried before. No sane warlock would willingly embrace demons like this, I had said, but it looks like I was a hypocrite in the end. Fire burst forth from me as I charged the Lich King.
Blow after blow rained down on Arthas. Finally, it was just him and us, and we were winning. We could see it.
You lose, I thought at him.
No, he thought back. You will serve me, willingly or not.
The Lich King raised his sword above his head, and a massive wave of cold spread out from him, knocking us backwards and to the ground. Another wave crashed on us, and then another.
You should have taken my offer, kinslayer.
I was so tired of fighting. The cold pounded into my very bones. I was numb to the pain, I could feel nothing but the intense cold of the Lich King’s hate.
I no longer cared if I lived or died. Too much had been lost. Too much had been taken from me.
I accept, Sire, I thought.
And then the darkness took me.
Sunlight streamed in the windows of Field Marshal Afrasiabi’s office, high in the Stormwind Command Center. The faint sounds of Old Town filtered in through the open windows, the cool breezes of autumn bringing the smells of the Harbor to my nose.
“I hope you can see my position,” Afrasiabi said, looking at me from behind his large oak desk. “The forces of Stormwind and the Alliance are in your debt, and we are grateful for the services you have provided.”
“I understand, sir,” I said, standing at attention.
“However, given the events at Mor’shan, it would be best for the troops if you were relieved of command and released from your contract, Colonel.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, knowing that my time as a soldier of the Alliance had come to an end.
His eyes narrowed. “You shouldn’t have used a demon on your own men,” he said. “No matter what else, there are some things you shouldn’t do. It was bad enough what happened to Lieutenant Cyneburgh, but…” his voice trailed off.
“The troops have no confidence in me,” I finished for him.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “They are afraid of you, and I don’t blame them. You’ll do what it takes to get the job done, Colonel. I appreciate that. But there are some lines you don’t cross.”
I stood there, still at attention. Afrasiabi shuffled some papers on his desk. “The King has asked that the Lieutenant be given full honors and be escorted home to her family,” he said. “Your brother, who was honorably discharged, can be reactivated to accompany you.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, keeping my features impassive.
He put down the papers he’d been looking at, then looked directly at me. “I’ll be honest with you, Cynwise. I’ve known you a long time, and you’re great at what you do. But you’ve lost your perspective, and you’re on the grip of losing your humanity. You are no good to the Alliance in your current shape. Leaders lead by example, not just through intelligence and power.”
“Go home,” he said, finally letting some warmth in his voice. “Go home and remember what we’re fighting for.”
“If you insist, sir,” I said. Afrasiabi sighed, signed the paper he’d been holding, and stood up.
“Here are your discharge papers, Ambassador,” he said, handing me the signed document. “Your commission will be complete once you have taken your sister home. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, saluting. He returned the salute solemnly. I turned to leave.
“Oh Cyn,” he said, as I opened the door. “If you’re looking for work, I hear there’s a crazy dwarf down at the Pig and Whistle looking for adventurers. Something about killing the Lich King?”
“I’m not that crazy, sir,” I replied, and closed the door behind me.
I do not know how long I floated in that darkness.
No pain, no loss, no attachment. No striving for power, no lust for money, no bitterness towards those whom I should love.
I found peace in death.
And then… and then.
“Arise, my champions!”
The voice rang out, clear as a bell, shattering the stillness. Light and sound came pouring in to fill the darkness. Cold, bitter cold, assailed my body.
I drew in a gasping, desperate breath.
I was back.
We were all back.
Our work was not yet done. We had been called back to finish the job.
The Lich King stood locked in combat with Highlord Fordring, but Frostmourne lay shattered on the icy floor. People were rising around me, hands picking up weapons and casting spells as we returned to the living.
You betray me so quickly, little one? asked the voice in my head.
I got a better offer, I whispered back, grinning viciously as I summoned Chojub back to my side.
The King was dead, and more than dead, and we stood, stunned, and watched Bolvar take the burden onto himself.
“Here ye go, lass,” said Dolar, handing me a pouch full of gold. ”Pleasure having you on the team.”
“Thanks, Dolar,” I said, taking the money out of habit. A job is a job, even if it involves coming back from death.
“So what now for the great mercenary captain?” asked Fynralyl teasingly, as our mages began conjuring ports to various locations around Azeroth.
“I don’t know, Fyn,” I replied. “I think my time as a mercenary is done. My factor’s gotten me a place in the Park District of Stormwind, maybe I’ll go crash there for a while and take it easy. See what turns up. You?”
“Back to the Exodar for me. There is so much rebuilding to do!” She waved goodbye and stepped through the portal.
“Yes, yes, there is is,” I said to myself. “For all of us.”
I stepped through the portal to Stormwind, leaving Icecrown behind for good.