The siege of Orgrimmar was over.
Columns of smoke miles high rose from the red desert plain that girded the city, heavy with the ashes of the city's fallen defenders. The Earthen Ring, those who remained, had labored two full days and two full nights to give the dead the honor and peace they deserved, offering their flesh the gift of purifying flame on a dozen massive pyres and singing their souls home to their ancestors. The rhythmic chants still rose with the smoke, deep-voiced tauren and orc and troll joined with the Light-calling songs of the Sin'dorei priests.
Captain Krivulka Stonefist, wearier in body and soul than she had been in years, paused in her own work to listen for a moment, leaning heavily on the iron-tipped farming implement she was using to chop fire-blackened bone. The pit in which the clean-up crews were dismembering and immolating the abandoned remains of the invaders lay downwind of the higher plateau on which the pyres stood and the breeze called by the wind-talkers carried smoke and stray sparks and voices down to where they labored knee-deep in the no-longer-living dead. The death-song was not one she knew and over the long years of the wars she had learned many, from clans still living and clans long dust, but she strove to take comfort in its words nonetheless, its promise of cool wind and sweet water and a place by the ghost-fire of the ancestors for the souls of fallen heroes. Tried, and failed. Beneath the chants, the promises of peace and glory, she heard it too clearly: the wails of mate bereft of mate, of children shorn of parents, of battle-siblings and blood-kin torn and mourning without hope.
Oh, yes -- the siege was over, the battle hard-fought and bloody but, in the end, the Horde and the Argent Dawn had stood victorious...for all that victory was worth. The relentless undead tide of the Scourge had withdrawn. She could not say, even to herself, that they had been defeated for it seemed, even unto the last, that they were prepared to fight until every life in Orgrimmar had been extinguished, every drop of blood spilt, every soul enslaved, and they had seemed to possess the numbers needed to do it. She was not, standing ankle-deep in the ashes of unceremoniously burnt Scourge-corpses and flinders of their ground bones, even remotely certain that it was any act of the city's defenders that had finally driven them away.
Never, in all the long years of her life, had victory tasted more of ashes.
A low creaking rumble drowned out both chants and mourning-wails: tumbrels from the city bringing more Scourge corpses to be chopped and burnt, escorted by a detachment of the Warchief's Kor'kron. Krivulka found she lacked the physical and mental energy to offer more than an abbreviated form of the honors they deserved, though none seemed to take offense at the lack; they looked as weary as she, at the least, and a thousand times less accustomed to dealing with the unpleasantness of Scourge disposal. One of them, taller and more heavily built than the rest, split off and approached her, graying warrior-braids spilling from beneath his helm as he pulled it off.
"Hail, Krivulka Stonefist." The High Overlord of the Kor'kron greeted her with a smile and the gift of a mostly-full water skin.
"Hail, Varok Saurfang." She drank, the warm water doing much to wash the taste of Scourge-taint off her tongue, and handed the skin back to him.
He drank, as well. "You look to have seen better days, sister."
"We have all -- and it will be long before any of us see them again." She pushed herself to her full height despite the protests of aching muscles. "How many?"
"Too many." His smile, small to start, vanished entirely. "You?"
"More than 'too many.'" She closed her eyes, so she would not have to see his pity, the sympathy of one commander to another; she was not ready to accept such gifts. "But now you see. You know the truth with your own blade."
"I do -- but I also did not doubt to begin with. I remember what nipped at our heels the hour we took flight from Lordaeron."
Something in his carefully level tone sparked anger in her breast and she snarled, drawing every nearby eye. "Grom's pup."
"Yes." The look Saurfang gave her counseled silence, advice she chose to accept with so many young mag'har close to hand. "His attitude has been...adjusted. He now belabors the Warchief to send him to Northrend to avenge this unasked for assault."
"Good," Krivulka replied, baring her tusks in a gesture that held neither humor nor joy. "It would do him well to stand on a battlefield where the enemy does not know the name Hellscream -- nor would they fear it if they did."
Saurfang shook his head, and handed her back the water-skin; for a long moment they stood and simply drank it empty.
"Varok, I would ask a boon of you." Krivulka gazed out over the pit, and up at the pyres casting their smoke heavenward.
"You have more than earned one." Saurfang replied, heavily. "Ask it."
"We have lost...many. More than half of mine have mixed their smoke with yours." She caught his eye. "And not all of them warriors. I ask your leave to go among the folk of Orgrimmar and seek those who would take up the cause of the Dawn."
"I suspect that we are all about to take that cause." But he did not look away. "You have my leave -- and I will speak to the Warchief, as well."
"I thank you."
He reached out and took away her bone-splitter. "Thank me by sleeping before you fall where you stand."
"Softening in your age, Varok."
He grinned at her. "No softer than you, Krivulka. How fares your paladin?"
"He yet lives. For now."
Ashes. Even with the water, her mouth tasted of ashes.
Though the threat of the Scourge had abated, the city remained under martial law, the curfew dusk to dawn, the streets heavily patrolled at all hours of the day and night. Not that there were many who ventured out: much, though not all, of Orgrimmar's civilian population had evacuated when the Scourge necropoleis had first appeared in the skies over Kalimdor, fleeing to the relative safety of the Horde outposts scattered throughout Ashenvale and into the wilds of Azshara, where many still remained, huddling in refugee camps as the autumn came on. A few handfuls had trickled back in at the urging of the Warsong outriders, who wanted their fortress on the banks of the Southfury back from the grubby peons infesting it, and those who had were immediately set to work on clean-up details, burial details, repair details, returning to their temporary quarters in the fully secured areas of the city. The Kor'kron and the remaining regular elements of the city's defenders and the Argent knights she had brought with her were still conducting building-to-building sweeps of the Valley of Strength and the Valley of Wisdom. It was only in the last day that the sweeper teams had begun finding more corpses than lingering Scourgelings -- who, in the absence of a powerful will to command them, had defaulted to their basic function of hiding and then killing any living thing that came near. Or at least attempting to do those things; hiding in Orgrimmar, with its twisting switchback roads and dead-end terraces and heavily shadowed nooks was the simple part of the equation and, in truth, more than a handful of soldiers had gone to their ancestors after the battle for the city had ended simply because they had not appreciated the amount of damage a single kill-crazed ghoul could do in close quarters. They appreciated it now, and most of the sweeper teams had at least one Sin'dorei member, its paladin, their innate sensitivity to the unnatural presence of the undead and their Light-granted power over such creatures making them the finest Scourge hunting hounds to be had.
Krivulka passed three such teams on her way back to the Valley of Spirits: stopped by one at the gate and sniffed over by an officious young Sin'dorei woman who proclaimed her clean of Scourge-taint, one just beginning the last sweep the waning daylight allowed of the Valley of Strength, and one emerging from the Drag, three of its members injured, albeit not critically. She paused to administer what aid she could and assisted them along the path that led to the Valley of Spirits, where the city's field hospital lay. The guards lining the heights saw them coming and a medical team emerged from the barricade restricting access to the valley before they were half-way up the rise, a quartet of burly peons clad in medical personnel tabards with field stretchers slung over their shoulders, and two Kor'kron she knew for a fact were not yet supposed to be on the walking wounded lists flanking the black-and-silver clad healer. Krivulka could not imagine that Ophila Ravenstadt had ever been a tall woman and undeath had shrunken her still further; among her assistants and bodyguards, she looked no larger than a child, though she was unquestionably in command. "Lay the stretchers out there. Wounded off the path and sit. Kor'kron, on guard."
Wise, that. They were still inside the Valley of Strength, though above the abattoir the Scourge had made of its floor, and the sun was beginning to dip below the rim of the mountains. Krivulka unslung her axe and joined the Kor'kron on guard, a traditional triangular defense around the healer and the wounded, the shadows lengthening around them with every passing moment. Twilight, even more so than full dark, was a dangerous time when fighting the Scourge, as it was the time many of the lesser creatures first stirred from their boltholes, disoriented and hungry; the two young Kor'kron, she was pleased to note, remained intensely alert despite the absence of an immediately discernible threat and the no-doubt painful distraction of armor laying over half-healed injuries. But, then, if they lacked discipline Varok Saurfang would not have suffered them to wear the name of his own. That did not, of course, mean that they lacked the impetuosity of youth -- the female of the pair, Nezha, had distinguished herself by charging into a fight that had been described as 'impossible verging on suicidal' by those who had witnessed it and had emerged sorely wounded but with the civilians she had endeavored to rescue safe if not entirely sound. It was impressive, even with the assistance of an Argent paladin, for a warrior of her age to have accomplished such a feat and Krivulka marked her as one to approach when the time was right.
Krivulka glanced over her shoulder and found two of the litter bearers hoisting the most-wounded member of the patrol between them, the rest trickling up the trail to the Valley of Spirits in single-file. She and the Kor'kron fell back in formation, retreating behind the hastily erected but solid barricade that blocked the path that joined the Valley of Strength to the Valley of Spirits. Manned by the walking wounded who refused to keep to their hospital cots and what remained of her own forces, that barricade had held against both greater and lesser Scourge during the height of the siege, defending the escape route across the Southfury that the city's civilian residents had taken, and stood still, controlling access to the city's field hospital. The soldiers on duty snapped to attention as she crossed the threshold and she waved them down. "As you were. "
It took all her will not to look for faces among the defenders that she knew would not be there. The Argent Dawn had not sent babes in armor to defend the capitals of the Alliance and the Horde; the ones who had fallen were those she had served with for years, men and women whose skills and competence and presence would be missed dearly in the days and weeks and months to come. And they had but little time to grieve the loss.
"Captain." Krivulka looked around and down, finding Ophila Ravenstadt at her elbow, the Forsaken priestess a mistress of stealth in her field blacks and the gathering twilight. "A word, if I may."
"Of course. Walk with me."
Krivulka shortened her stride in deference to the priestess and set off for the hospital's mess, where she intended to take a cup of tea and something to eat, and to allow herself to be accosted by everyone who wanted something of her. It was her custom of many long years duration, as she kept no quarters separate from those she commanded, nor did she hold herself apart from their cares and woes, for she shared them.
"Mierin is...not doing well." Ophila murmured, casting quick, sharp-eyed looks into every hospital tent they passed. "After you left with the clean-up crew this morning, she tried to invite herself along on one of the patrols sweeping the Drag."
"I trust you intervened in this." Mierin Clearbrook and her brother, Bikona, were the only Kaldorei among the ranks of Light's Promise and now Mierin was alone -- her twin killed in the vicious fighting the Valley of Wisdom had seen.
"I did say 'tried,'" Ophila replied testily. "Fortunately, the patrol commander had the sense to send for me when she found herself confronted with a half-naked purple elf covered in war-paint and carrying a pointy stick to kill Scourge with. I made her come back inside to eat something and dosed her tea -- she'll wake up sometime tomorrow, no doubt cursing my name."
"Doubtless." Krivulka cast her chief of medical staff a dry look. "What do you suggest?"
"The woman needs time to bury her brother and work past the desire to join him." Ophila was, as always, blunt as a warhammer. "Give her leave to take him back to Astranaar and don't let her argue with you about it. Physician's orders."
"I will take that under advisement." Krivulka paused at the entrance to the mess tent. "What else?"
"I fear that Catlali has done something...rash."
Krivulka felt a pain beginning behind her left eye, and stepped into the mess tent, scooping up a battered tin tray as she went. "More rash than anything else he's done recently?"
"By several orders of magnitude, yes." Ophila, normally a stranger to the mess hall, followed and applied a steely no-eyed glare of Forsaken menace to the half-dozen others that immediately began making their way towards her. "He has been attending Keldris almost constantly -- "
Krivulka's heart contracted painfully, and for a moment it was all she could do to breathe around it. Her voice, when she spoke, was not as steady as she wished it to be. "How is he?"
"Still alive." Ophila's tone was grim. "Still unconscious. And there's the rub. Catlali does not believe his insensibility is organic in nature but a spiritual affliction -- and has taken action accordingly."
The pain behind Krivulka's left eye sharpened several degrees. "I will speak with him immediately."
Fortunately, the evening meal was easily portable -- a hearty soup of rice, fresh vegetables, and flakes of smoked whitefish in a broth golden and savory with spices and fresh-baked herb bread -- so she scooped up two bowls of it, and two orc-sized mugs of tea, and made her way across the Valley to the tent of her somewhat wayward shaman, Catlali Mooncaller. Tucked against the shore of the Valley's small, spring-fed pond, it was easily the tallest structure in the hospital beside the lodge in which the troll magi made their residence, taller even than the largest of the medical tents, a pavilion of carven ridge and support poles, its ropes woven together with charms of wood and bone and amber, its walls layers of heavy waxed canvas dyed in abstract, swirling shades of blue and green that called to mind the spirit-voices of water and forest. Or at least that is what they called to mind for her, a memory made of equal parts grief and longing that she doubted would ever truly fade no matter how many years passed. Those walls were lit fitfully from within as she approached, flickers of radiance illuminating a pale-blue spiral here, a leaf-vein pattern there, and as she drew closer the tell-tale, rhythmic sound of the spirit-drum reached her ears, an endlessly looping patter like rain falling on broad leaves.
"Catlali?" No answer, and no pause in the rhythm of the drumming.
Krivulka set the tray she carried down and opened the door-flap of the shaman's tent. A gust of cool, rain-scented air rushed out to meet her, strong enough to lift the heavy length of her braid and set it swirling behind her; from deeper inside, thunder growled counterpoint to the drum and threads of lightning arced between an outer, defensive layer of totem-wards. In their glare she caught a glimpse of the shaman's broad, bent back where he crouched over his work.
"Catlali, I have brought food, and I must speak with you." Krivulka picked up the tray and let the flap fall behind her before any curious passers-by could peer inside. "Open a way for me."
The drumming did not cease, but rather changed its rhythm slightly and Krivulka felt, rather than saw, a subtle change in air before her: a gap in the shaman's defenses through which she might walk. The lightning still reached out to caress her with sizzling fingers as she stepped through it, but the pain was transitory, a way of knowing her, not an assault on her person. Within the circle of the wards the air was even thicker with rain-scent, leaf-scent, the breath of life itself, the essence of healing. In an instant, the weariness of her body was washed away, the aches of her own half-healed wounds eased. Moving carefully in the half-dark, she approached the shaman and the object of his attention, laid out before him on a pallet of furs. Her paladin was, indeed, still alive -- his chest rose and fell with regular, deep breaths, the breathing of a sleeping man not a dying one. Catlali's breaths, on the other hand, were shallow and labored, as though he had run without rest for miles and had miles yet to go. Swearing softly, Krivulka put down the tray and reached up for the lantern that hung from the ridgepole, a sudden fear gripping her heart.
Catlali's eyes slitted open as the lamp's light fell across his face and he inclined his head slightly in wordless greeting. For an instant, all she could do was stare wordlessly back at him in response. The troll shaman's skin, normally the rich dark blue of the eastern sky at sunset, had taken on a sickly grayish undertone, slicked with fever-sweat despite the cool of the air in his tent, his wide silver eyes sunken deep into their sockets, bloodshot and lusterless. The ritual scars that covered him from neck to ankles glowed from within, a cold phosphorescence that had nothing of life to it, the skin around them drawn tight enough to pucker. Keldris Pellegrin, their paladin, lay before him, naked but for the fresh scars of the wounds he had suffered in the siege and the spirit-marks the shaman had painted on him in bone ash and ochre clay and blood. Catlali's drum sat in his lap, its painted head covered in smears of blood both fresh and dry; he had played his hands raw, despite the healing breath that swirled endlessly around him.
"Catlali..." Krivulka whispered, resisting with all her might the urge to take him by the shoulders and shake him until his brain rattled, "...spirits of my Ancestors, what have you done?"
He did not immediately respond, gazing steadily, almost emptily, at her for a handful of long breaths. When he finally did speak, his voice was soft and hoarse and full of pain. "What I must."
"That is not an answer." Krivulka wrestled her voice back under control, forced herself to be calm and to think. Her gaze fell on Keldris where he lay, auburn head pillowed on linen-wrapped fur. She did not read much of the Zandali ritual tongue, the language by which they communed with their gods and spirits in both words and pictures, but she had learned some -- once a spirit-speaker, always one. The sigils laying on his pale, human skin were a summons, a calling, a plea all in one, and not one made to those powers who governed health and healing but to him, his soul, his spirit.
Catlali saw the look on her face and nodded slowly, wearily. "I must drink."
Krivulka wordlessly handed him the mug she had prepared for him and, when he drained that, her own as well, not trusting herself to speak. He drank the broth from both the bowls of soup before he was done and she required him to consume the rice and fish and bread to restore his strength, the shaman actually looking as though he did not have one foot in the grave when he was finished. "Now...tell me. Everything."
He took a moment to situate the spirit drum in a position more to his liking before he spoke, the instrument's sound a low and constant counterpoint to his own deep voice. "He was dead when we found him -- he was still bleeding, the death knight's sword was still in his chest."
Krivulka closed her eyes and nodded, silently. In her own heart, she had known that must be true -- she had seen, with her own eyes, the armor the medical teams had pulled off him, the shattered breastplate, the dried blood that had clung to it and to his underchain. Even with the Light's grace, he could not have survived such blood loss, much less the injuries it had implied, and the scars not at all hidden by the shaman's paint showed their true, mortal extent with terrible clarity.
"The Scourge-thing was working its will on him, trying to raise him. We could feel it happening, Ophila and I, Keldris' soul and flesh being touched by His power." One of the shaman's hands strayed from the head of his drum to the paladin's hair, ghosting over the planes of his face. "He was struggling against it but..."
"You know him as well as I. His faith was not weak -- the Light lived in him as its vessel, he belonged to it and it to him." The shaman looked up at her, eyes dark with grief. "And yet the death knight held him from it. It should not have been able to accomplish such a thing."
Krivulka took Keldris' hand between her own, lending it her warmth. How many times had she seen those hands resting on another, illuminated from within, calling the Light to heal their flesh, cleanse their soul? "But it did. How?"
"A bond stronger than faith alone. Some tie between them." Catlali drew his hand back. "I sensed it -- Ophila did not. I think...she might not have wished to see. And we had little time...I cannot be...entirely certain what I saw." He shook his head, his crest of jet hair bobbing with the motion, the strands of fetish necklaces about his throat click-click-clicking. "It was all we could do to disrupt the death knight's magic, to wrench Keldris' soul out of the web of its spell before he succumbed to it. And it would have killed us in our turn had Overlord Saurfang not come when he did, with his Kor'kron."
He was not telling her everything he thought, everything he knew, but she was not inclined to press him on that -- yet. "And yet he lives."
"His flesh lives," Catlali corrected her. "We pulled him to safety. His body answered the call of Ophila's Light, and accepted the healing we gave to it. But he -- him, his soul..."
"He will not wake," Krivulka whispered, appalled, "because his body is empty."
"Yes." Catlali hung his head in equal parts weariness and shame. "We freed him from the death knight's necromancy -- that we know. He was not taken by the Scourge. But we were not strong enough to protect ourselves and call him to us -- "
"That is no fault of yours." Krivulka reached out and lifted his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes. "Had you all perished, many more would have died then and since. He would not have traded his life for the lives of others."
"I know." The shaman's eyes darkened still further, steel silver shading into iron gray as she watched. "And I know this: the Scourge did not take him, and neither did we. He wanders in the crossroads between true life and true death, lost. Nothing the Light teaches could prepare him for such a thing."
"What must we do to call him back to us?" Krivulka asked, and was rewarded with the shaman's smile.
"A beacon for his spirit to follow." He sobered, glanced down at the paladin's still, empty face. "Quickly. I can sustain the life of his body for only so long, Captain, before the death he cheated comes to take us both."
He loved Orgrimmar.
It was a strange thing for a human -- any human, but particularly a human reared and trained and knighted a paladin -- to admit, even to himself, but there it was. A part of him loved Orgrimmar, had since the first time he'd visited in Krivulka's company, disguised as a blood elf, and he thought he always would. Its white stone walls and rust-red roof-tiles of fired clay, its rough wooden support beams as thick as a tall man and its sunshade hangings of tanned kodo hide, its artfully sculpted roads and hanging aerial bridges, its blazing midday heat under a vividly blue sky and its startling evening cool beneath the bloody high desert sunset called to him in ways that no city of his own people did. Lordaeron, even before the coming of the Scourge, had been a place of cold gray walls and raucous iron bells, icy rains in winter and misty chills rolling off the lake, of autumns that came early and seemed to last longer than any other season. Stormwind, rebuilt upon the ashes and foundations of its former self, had felt an old place from the instant his people had begun setting stone on stone again, its beauty clean and well-ordered and somehow barren because of it. Orgrimmar, as a place, was younger than he and it felt like it, the streets vibrant with the life of its many peoples, the babble of a half-dozen tongues, a hundred and more scents, the warmth and light of the bonfires and the braziers, the click-click-click of wolf claws and raptor talons on the paving stones, music, laughter, motion. He could watch it all day and never grow weary of the sight, nor feel a twinge of guilt for not hating this place and its people. That was why, when they discovered the first hints of the Scourge plot, and how desperate the need for the help would surely become, he had volunteered for the mission to Kalimdor -- to come to this place and protect it and the people who dwelt within its high, strong walls. The Scourge would not have Orgrimmar, would not crush the heart of Durotar as they had torn away the heart of Lordaeron.
"Fall back! We can't hold them here!"
The floor of the Valley of Strength was an abattoir, white stone roads and russet sands washed crimson with the blood of the fallen, citizens and defenders alike. And it was no small number that had fallen; the Scourge assault, coming not from one direction but seemingly from everywhere, struck with such overwhelming force that even he, a veteran of Lordaeron's last, desperate battles, had been stunned by it, unprepared for the sheer numbers, the speed with which the attackers replenished their forces from the ranks of the fallen. Few struck down in the opening hours of the attack remained where they lay, their corpses twitching back to malignant life as the Scourge-blight coursed through their dead veins, heaving themselves back to their feet and joining the crushing undead wave that threatened to wash away the last of the resistance, to consume the whole of the city beyond. If, in fact, the rest of the city had not already been consumed. Everywhere he looked, the undead outnumbered the living, small knots of resistance growing ever smaller, and again he shouted, in Orcish, in Thalassian, in every language he could think of, hoping someone heard him over the din of agonized screams and gibbering ghouls and sizzling magic:
A hand clutched at his arm and only reflexes honed over nearly a decade of constant warfare allowed its owner to keep her head. Sometime during the frenzied hours since the main assault had begun, Ophila had lost her priestess' habit, and the sadly tattered remnants of her hair had come loose from the tight bun she wore it in; only the tabard of the Argent Dawn identified her as anything but another undead assailant. "Follow your own advice, you fool! If we stay here much longer we'll be overrun." Perhaps to underscore the point, she flung out a sharp-fingered hand of bone and leathery skin, the eye-searingly bright power crackling off her fingertips incinerating three of the ghouls charging their position in an explosion of foully burning gasses, the concussion knocking a half-dozen others sprawling. "Bikona and Thallon took a flock of civilians down into the Cleft -- resistance is massing at the mouth of the cavern there. We can still make it but we have to hurry!"
She was entirely correct -- there was almost nothing left to be done in the Valley of Strength but die pointlessly, even the orcish defenders finally falling back in the face of overwhelming force, dragging those they could still save with them, struggling to manage something closer to an organized retreat than a total rout. He could understand the desire and held his own ground, Ophila and her Light-born power at his back, until he had no choice but to give it up, catching a staggering orcish soldier around the waist and hauling her with. Even as they half-ran, half-stumbled up the blood-slick incline that led toward the Cleft of Shadow, it floated up to him: screams, too high and thin to belong to an adult, wails of unutterable fear and pain. The soldier leaning on his arm paled and spun free of his grip. "A child. There's a child down there!"
As one, they turned and ran.
Scourge shock-troops were never permitted anything resembling a sense of self-preservation, and only the most rudimentary intelligence, enough to allow them to receive and follow simple commands: go there, kill that, stay put. The wall of rot shambling steadily up the rise toward them did not, therefore, flinch, turn aside, or otherwise react to the sight of a howling orcish warrior and a not-so-much-howling-as-praying human paladin charging towards them with obviously violent intent, a handful of others following close on their heels, including Ophila, who was not praying but rather cursing them all for reckless fools. Not that her general opinion of their course of action inclined her to not support it, thankfully: he felt the Light she called close around him, a second shield, a third layer of armor, a fraction of a second before his sword made contact with the skull of the first ghoul, heard the orc-woman's startled exclamation as it wrapped around her, as well, and then her full-throated roar, mingled glee and blood-rage as the ghoul's talons found no purchase on either her body or her armor. He raised his own voice above the din, the Canticle of Radiant Fury falling off his lips, even as he spun to catch another ghoul's face with the boss of his shield. The ground beneath their feet sizzled for an instant, corrupted blood and ghoul ichor burning away, threads of gold reaching up from the blessed ground to sear the rotting flesh of their attackers. For a moment, the advancing line of the undead recoiled -- not reflexively, as a living enemy might when faced with an unexpected counterattack, but because a full three ranks of their line had been reduced to dust and writhing, broken wreckage that the rest would have to climb over to go any further. For a moment, he and the orc-woman stood back-to-back within the radiant sphere of Ophila's protection and very simply put down anything that came within reach, Scourge corpses piled hip-high, until their attackers reeled back, temporarily repulsed.
But only temporarily. More screams -- more heartbreakingly small-voiced screams -- were starting to rise from the bowl of the Valley.
"Up!" He shouted in his best orcish, gesturing to the red-tiled rooftops of the buildings overlooking the descent into the lower places of the Valley -- places currently obscured in a reorganizing mass of the undead, hidden behind other buildings, the area's own underlying geography. "We need to get as high as we can -- it'll help keep them off us!"
The orc-woman nodded once, briskly, and broke from her place at his back, her long-legged strides eating the distance toward the nearest building, and he sprinted after her. Several of the others who had joined them already had the same idea, squirreling up the sides of buildings on both sides of the incline, a trio of hunters and a scarlet-clad Sin'dorei mage enfilading the Scourge line of advance with explosive metallic projectiles and spellfire alike. One of them, a tauren woman, had taken possession of Ophila in the chaos, overcoming the priestess' objections by the simple expedient of tossing her over one broad shoulder and carrying her off, scaling the side of a building and stowing her safely behind a screen of defenders nearly twice her size. His own companion gained the safety of a lower rooftop before he did and offered him a hand up, which he accepted, and together they scrambled higher still, ghouls already beginning to swarm back up the rise. Together they crept as high as the could, keeping low to the roof as they went to avoid being seen by unfriendly eyes.
The sight that greeted him from the highest point of the rooftops was a gut-wrenching one. The whole of the Valley, excepting only their tiny piece of it, was entirely in the hands of the Scourge and the fire-blackened, blood-and-bile splashed main gate of the city was steadily disgorging reinforcements for the undead horde: ghouls, many of them the freshly plague-killed, in numbers greater than it was possible to count, flesh and blood golems as tall as their vantage point, dozens of lesser breeds of Scourgeling both embodied and not. Flickers of dark energy rose off the Valley floor where circles of death-cult necromancers went about their work, hurriedly interrogating the spirits of Orgrimmar's slain defenders and raising their flesh to add to the tide. He had, in his entire life, in the decade of his service to both the Silver Hand and, after, to the Argent Dawn, never seen so many gathered in one place before -- not in the last, desperate hours before the fall of Lordaeron's capital to the forces of its former prince, not in the eternally-burning streets of Stratholme.
We're all going to die here. The thought articulated itself with utter clarity and absolute calm. I'm sorry, Ophila. I should have told you to go while you had the chance.
He saw the bleak realization written in the orc-woman's dark eyes as she turned to look at him, and understanding passed between them without the need for words. Every moment they lasted here was another moment for the rest of the defenders to regroup, another moment for others to live and fight in. He laid his hand on hers and whispered the prayers that called the Light's blessings to his hands, laying all the protection on them both that he could offer, washing away fatigue and pain, replacing it with strength and calm and certainty.
"Lok'tar ogar, paladin." The warrior whispered to him when he was done. "It will be an honor to die at your side."
"Nowhere I'd rather be, daughter of the Horde."
"Nezha," He repeated it carefully. "My name is Keldris."
She smiled, and he found himself grinning back. They edged closer to the lip of the roof and for a moment they contemplated their options. At their backs, the fusillade raining down on the encroaching Scourge forces was beginning to slow as the riflemen ran low on ammunition, the casters maintaining a slower, steadier rate of fire -- literal fire from the stench blowing in their direction. Across the Valley of Strength and higher than their current position, the barricade blocking the entrance to the Valley of Spirits still held, the fighting savage in the crags above as defenders in possession of the high ground sensibly endeavored to keep it. Any lower than where they currently sat was nothing more or less than suicide. He supposed it might be possible to make it all the way across the Valley keeping to the rooftops and attacking targets of opportunity from there...
"Look. Down there." She pointed and his gaze followed the length of her arm to a circle of ghouls -- a literal circle of ghouls, standing utterly still, shoulder-to-shoulder facing outward, in perfect alignment. Inside the circle, a half-dozen children -- orcs, trolls, what had to be a tauren child not even old enough to walk -- huddled together, visibly terrified even at a distance, their sobs and wails clawing at his heart.
"What the fel are they doing?" The Scourge did not, in his experience, have much use for living prisoners in general, much less living children. Even as they watched, a ghoul brought another kicking, struggling child and dropped it among the others. "That's -- I've never seen the Scourge do something like this before."
They certainly succeeded in baiting us, He thought, but did not say. Bait implied a trap, but why waste time constructing traps when they already had the city's throat in their jaws?
And where was the Scourge commander? Their vantage point offered an excellent, unobstructed view of the entire Valley -- horrifically unobstructed, point in fact -- but he could see no trace of whatever the Scourge had sent to run the show. It was, he supposed, possible that the commander was issuing orders from the other side of the city gates, observing through the eyes of its subordinates, or from the necropolis still hovering overhead. But Scourge field officers usually commanded from, well, the field and were usually not mistakable for anything but what they were. Subtlety, as a concept, was fairly unknown among the undead to begin with and even moreso among the ones permitted enough personal intelligence and will to command others of their kind -- they were, as an entity, inclined in the direction of decking themselves in dark power and unholy glory, the better to strike fear into the minds and hearts of the living. Practical shock tactics, especially when aimed at those not numbed to the emotional impact of it.
"The bridges -- the ropes." Nezha murmured, and swiftly sketched her thought in the air. "Even cut and hanging, they should be strong enough to hold us -- they are made to bear tauren weight. We could use them to make our way lower, kill the ghouls, pull the children to a higher point..."
"Yes." The absence of a readily identifiable Scourge commander, or a motive for snatching the children in the first place, was ultimately immaterial -- letting them be taken without a fight was very simply out of the question. "If we can get them up to the ridge -- up to the barricade -- they'll at least be safer in the Valley of Spirits than they are down here."
Lesser Scourgelings never looked up, unless they were specifically ordered to do so, or had a pre-existing bead on something climbing directly under their noses. Without curiosity or self-awareness, they also lacked the ability to be fatally distracted -- a strength in swarms of shock troops assaulting a mass of defenders, a weakness when dealing with an enemy capable of evading them until they lost sight of a specific target and defaulted back to general mindless hostility. Nezha's leap for the nearest dangling suspension rope drew no attention, and neither did her climb up to the remains of the bridge. She kicked the rope back into his reach and he inched his way up, as well, belly-crawling together across the not as steady as they could be bridge slats, being careful not to dislodge any during their progress. Even the stupider breeds of Scourge didn't ignore being thwacked in the head with falling objects, and there were things capable of independent thought directly under their course: necrolytes, necromancers, the bone golems they favored as bodyguards. Nezha eased herself down over the edge, landing soft-footed on the roof of the building closest their objective -- and, as she did so, a thread of eye-searingly dark energy, rose off the valley floor and snaked around him, tore him off the bridge with stunning speed and force, before he could even think of reacting.
The valley floor rushed up at him with appalling speed. The impact with the gore-soaked sand and rock was even more appalling: every bit of air left his lungs in a single horrifically painful instant and a fireworks show as spectacular as anything Stormwind had ever seen exploded before his eyes, despite his armor, despite his helmet. For heartbeats, seconds, forever, he very simply could not breathe, every muscle in his chest clenched in shock and pain around cracked ribs, spasming lungs, even as every instinct in his body screamed at him to move. He forced himself to roll to his side -- the shield slung across his back came away in pieces, split up the middle by the force of impact, a miracle he hadn't broken his neck, his spine -- and from there to his knees, scrambled to the nearest boulder and pulled himself up, planted his back against it while the black spots of air-loss were still dancing in front of his eyes. It took him too terrifyingly long to get that breath back, his mind racing, gasping out a prayer for healing and protection as soon as he could form words again, clawing his sword out of its sheath and waiting for the charge.
The ghouls did not swarm. It took him a moment to process that, the level of disbelief was so great. The ghouls were not swarming -- ghouls always swarmed isolated victims, always, but these ghouls had simply turned, regarded him disinterestedly, and gone back to what they were doing. Which, he saw, was forming themselves into serried ranks around where he stood, hemming him in on all sides, but also preventing the ravening horde beyond them from coming any closer to him, rebuffing their attempts not just with a stubborn refusal to move but with snarls and bites and swipes with claws. The rotting tide eventually gave up and broke around them, swarming up the rise, where the concussion-echoes of magical resistance were beginning to fade.
As one, the heads of all the shield-wall ghouls tilted in the same direction, the same angle, looking incongruously like dogs responding to their master's whistle, and it was all he could do to hold back the slightly hysterical laugh welling up in his chest at the thought.
"You're about to die, you know."
The voice floated down from just above and behind, a human voice speaking perfect, unaccented Common, edged in equal parts amusement and malice. The laugh he'd been restraining emerged instead in a strangled sound of alarm and, reflexively, Keldris bounced away from the boulder. Every instinct in him howled at the idea of giving his back to a mass of Scourge -- but the ghouls, at least, were neither moving nor speaking much less uttering threats, which was more than could be said for the human boy sitting on the flattest part of the boulder's not-very-flat top, looking for all the world as though he belonged there. Or human-seeming, at least, sun-browned, long of limbs and lanky-muscular, an astonishingly vivid shock of blood-red hair limning his skull in spikes and whorls, entirely naked but for innumerable strands of fetish necklaces strung around his throat and the white-black-crimson paint that covered him from neck to toes. The boy's smile was almost too wide, his white teeth too bright and too sharp for the human face that expression occupied, his eyes pools of inky blackness that gave the definitive lie to his shape.
"What the fel are you?" Keldris asked, with something less than total politesse, bringing his sword to guard at shoulder height.
The boy's grin hitched an impossible degree wider. "Right here on this spot. You offered your life to the defense of Orgrimmar and the red sand of Durotar accepted that gift, spilled here by the blade of -- well. I don't suppose that matters now, does it? What matters, paladin, is that you are dead."
"What d'you mean, I'm -- " The words sputtered to a halt on his lips, and the weapon fell from his nerveless fingers.
Ten inches of curved, rune-marked sword jutted rather unignorably out of the center of his chest. The most astonishing thing about that fact, once the simple shock of the realization wore off, was how little it hurt. It wasn't painless, precisely, but neither was it as agonizing as it should have been, the dull, aching memory pain rather than its actuality. Hesitantly, he ran his fingers along the blade's flat and found the blood -- his own blood -- still liquid, still warm.
" -- I...see." Fortunately, there was a rock low enough and near enough sit on that, when his knees wobbled out from under him, he didn't just fall where he stood. "What..." He stopped, thought for a moment about whether or not he actually wanted the answer to that question, and began again. "Where am I? This isn't...it's not..."
"You are in the crossroads." The boy leapt down from his perch, landing without a sound in the coppery sand, and the world around them changed -- the Scourge washed away like smoke in the wind, the color bled from the sand, from the city, from the sky like a watercolor painting left out in the rain, until nothing was left but a pale and colorless ghost of the world and them.
Keldris tried with all his might to not picture a sleepy half-horse-or-small-pony town in the middle of Kalimdor's vast central plain of nothing much really and failed spectacularly, burying his face in his hands. "You say that like it should mean something to me but -- "
"Your enemy and your comrades both tried to draw you from your death." The boy, thing, whatever it was paced a circle around him, necklaces chiming against one another, the sound muted and distant. "Both failed, and so you are here -- the crossroads. No life here, paladin, but no death or worse than death, either. Spirits walk here."
"Spirits?" His own blood was still smeared across his hand. "Then why -- "
The boy-thing-whatever rested the tip of one finger on the sword's point and the pain that lanced through him was like none before it, no shadow-caster's mind-flaying magic, no ghoul's teeth or claws, no blade or burn or natural hurt, a wrenching agony left left him curled around the source of it, sobbing helplessly.
"A wound of the soul." The boy-thing-whatever replied and, blessedly, lifted his hand away, licking the blood off his fingers with an unnaturally long, red tongue. "Made by a weapon forged and tempered and rune-marked in the blood of the innocent. It bleeds still. It will always bleed." It bent low over him and murmured against his ear. "Your kind rarely pass through my domain, paladin. The Light wards its champions -- and the Throne is jealous of the souls it claims for its own. And yet here you lie, a death-marked servant of the Light." Up close, the thing's smile was most assuredly too full of too sharp, too long teeth. "Opportunities come when you least expect them, do you not think?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" Keldris asked, attempting to work up some sense of moral outrage from around the sick pain still echoing through him, chewing at his ability to think or feel anything beyond it. "Because that's not really the sort of thing I excel at not answering."
The thing laughed, a spine curling sound of equal parts genuine amusement and depthless menace, its dark eyes glittering. "Oh, paladin. I am going to enjoy you." Its hand closed around the blade, an intimate, excruciating caress that left him writhing. "Hear me. You are in the crossroads, where spirits walk, and through which all spirits pass, by my will and mine alone. You have fallen, torn from the hands of both life and death, and if you wish to leave my domain, you must face my trials -- you who serve the Light that transgresses against me, and who was chosen to serve the darkness that transgresses against me, as well. Do you understand?"
No. A thousand memories crawled across the insides of his skull, flickering bits and pieces too there and gone again to be glorified with the term thoughts, of Catlali and his quiet voice and his stories about the spirits, the tales his people told of gods and monsters and things that were a little bit of both and neither and more. Why that should come back to him now of all times he didn't quite know but one thing of it made sense: Many are jealous of their places and their privileges, the things they claim as theirs, the offerings they most hunger for, the respect and fear they desire. Like spoiled children, or easily affronted elders. If it costs you nothing, give it to them. If you are asking a boon of them...give them more.
He heard it as though the shaman's mouth were against his ear, urgently whispering advice. Spoiled children, easily affronted elders. He could see both in whatever this thing was in the petulant set of its mouth as it waited with mounting impatience for his answer, in the eyes too ancient for the guise of youth it wore, burning with both hunger and barely leashed fury.
I should have listened better to those stories of yours, Catlali. If I ever see you again...I think I will. It took an extraordinary amount of concentration to form the words he wanted to say, much less speak them aloud. "Yes, great Lord of the Crossroads, I understand and gratefully accept. I am not worthy of your mercy."
"In that we are agreed, paladin." The thing flashed its sharp-toothed grin again. "The trial begins now." And it wrenched the blade back and through in a single, brutally swift motion, its fingers digging into the wound left behind.
For an instant, all Keldris knew was pain, agony too harrowing to consciously endure for more than a breath or two, before darkness and nothing wrapped their merciful arms around him and pulled him down.