I saw you arrive, you know. Bowing and scraping to those smug, self-righteous traitors. Shattered Sun, indeed—they'll learn soon enough who shatters, and who does not.
And you—let me guess. You agreed to do whatever they asked you to do? without noticing that they gave you the menial, dangerous work? sent you to gather resources for their defenses while they stayed safe in their round little boxes?
And now they've sent you up here to kill me. Please don't tell me that all it took to acquire your obedience, to convince you to risk your life, was a little flash of gold? A few glittering gems? Disappointing, but hardly surprising: as well I know, greed and envy and ignorance and selfishness drive most of the world. I don't expect you to understand that, of course, not with your nearly-empty head echoing with dull watery dregs, and so I'll make it simple. It's not altruism if you seek applause. It's not idealism if you've been told what to think. It's not loyalty if your services have been bought.
Yes, I knew you wouldn't like hearing these things: children never enjoy being chided. Still, I am certain that deep down you must know that it doesn't take courage to break into my sanctuary and attack those whose only crime is that they have been faithful to me.
Learn something from them, if you can, from my beautiful, strong people, as you see how fiercely they protect me. My Dawnblades, like my Sunfuries, are the face of true idealism, true loyalty. I've never bought their love. They give it—and their lives—freely.
So swagger all you want as you tread on their corpses, and know this: even if you are able to vanquish me, here, today, you can never destroy my legacy. In a thousand years the poets and historians will write, not of Kael'thas the Tyrant, or Kael'thas the Traitor, but of Kael'thas the Beloved, the Savior of his people.
Anu belore dela'na.
~ :|1|: ~
"Don't look so smug…"
Five of you ambushing and slaughtering my Sunblades—and then shamelessly applauding yourselves. Applauding a "victory" that came about because the odds were in your favor from the start.
And now… I know what you've glimpsed just inside my sanctuary. I know you—like all the others that have come here before you—will claim you're doing them a kindness by ending their misery, but I hear and see you as you lure those wretched elves out to their deaths. Contempt and mockery and disgust. You think yourselves superior, even heroic, and that they—that I—are aberrations, monsters that deserve to be put down?
Your tiny souls and parochial minds can never grasp that true heroism is continuing to fight on, even when you're outnumbered, even after you've been weakened by betrayal, even when everything and everyone seeks to destroy you. You look at them and choose to forget that the quel'dorei weren't always thus, that even the most wretched were once proud, noble, beautiful children of the sun…
As had been the tradition for thousands of years, the Ancestor's Day celebration concluded with a grand feast in the open air, and so the throngs of high elves gathered on Sunstrider Isle had spread brocade coverlets on the lawns and seated themselves on embroidered pillows. As always, the blessed light of Quel'Thalas transformed everyone and everything it touched, making colors more vibrant, conversation and laughter more musical, and the perfume of flowers sweeter. Above all, the gilded towers of the royal palace glowed, resplendent.
Some distance from the festivities, two princes stood in the quiet of Dath'Remar's Grove. Self-confident, high-minded, with a unshakeable resolve to serve their kingdom, they embodied the virtues of the Sunstrider line.
"So you've said your goodbyes?" Eldin asked, glancing toward the spire.
Kael'thas nodded. "Those that could be said."
"Did you —"
"No, I was told he's locked himself in his chambers and has told the guards not to admit anyone." Kael'thas kept his eyes fixed on the epitaph of the monument.
Here stands the shrine of Dath'Remar, a fitting tribute to a noble elf. Let all who gaze on this monument remember his sacrifices for our people and his dedication to the cause of our continued survival. All who prosper in Quel'Thalas do so thanks to him.
"How strange," Eldin said. "He hasn't done that since—"
Once again Kael cut off his brother's words. "It's likely that he's caught up in some far more pressing matter," he said firmly, "and it would be disrespectful of me to interrupt him. Besides, it's not as if I'm going to Kalimdor." He glanced at Eldin, who was frowning. "Really, it's fine. My absence will hardly be noticed."
"It'll be noticed by me!" Eldin said, suddenly smiling as he clapped his hand on Kael's shoulder. "With you in Dalaran I'm going to have to find someone else to represent House Sunstrider at Convocation meetings!"
Kael forced himself to smile. "There are quite a few Sunstrider victims left for you to choose from."
"But none so gullible as you," Eldin laughed, then shook Kael's shoulder gently. "What is this false cheer? You are about to embark on a grand adventure!"
"Adventure? Hardly," Kael demurred. "Translations and research." Still, he was pleased. Most of his people considered elven magic and culture so superior to all else that they assumed he was leaving Quel'Thalas for Dalaran to apprentice with Magistrix Telestra—which was certainly part of it, she had been Nall's teacher and Aertin's peer and was considered one of the best living wielders of the arcane—but Eldin was one of the very few who knew the real reason Kael was leaving was to apply to the Kirin Tor, an organization that studied human magic. Eldin truly understood and supported his excitement about the opportunity to study non-elven cultures and non-arcane magic.
It was an excitement Kael was generally careful to conceal. Despite hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary, most of the court still saw humans in general—and the Kirin Tor in particular—as little more than children, aping their betters and recklessly manipulating forces beyond their comprehension. It was an attitude he couldn't abide, but he had, after all, learned diplomacy from an early age, and so he pretended not to be offended by those that treated his move to Dalaran as if it was nothing more than an amusing diversion, the whim of a bored scholar. That view, at least, was preferable to those who accused him of exposing the Sunstrider name to ridicule and humiliation by shunning his homeland, or those who viewed his choice to live in a human city as an implied criticism of his father Anasterian's centuries-old reluctance to actively participate in the Alliance. Malicious gossip that saw intent where there was none. He'd once overheard someone accusing him of "attacking a throne he knows he'll never achieve!" How could they misjudge him so? He had no desire to rule.
"Translations and research?" Eldin laughed. "For me such a life would be torture." A breeze stirred the grove, shaking thousands of leaves as if in applause. "Learn quickly, little brother, for when I'm crowned I will require you by my side to advise me. And I will have you by my side, even if I have to invade Dalaran and bind you in chains to drag you away from your books."
Kael smiled faintly. "The Kirin Tor won't look very kindly on that."
"They'll have to learn to survive without you."
"I appreciate the sentiment," Kael said. "but I'm a much better scholar than a warrior—and magical knowledge won't help you rule the kingdom."
"I disagree," Eldin replied. "By the time I'm king you'll have twenty times the understanding of our human neighbors than anyone else in Silvermoon. And as for magic—well, considering that magic protects and defends the kingdom, you will be more than essential, I assure you." Eldin's face became uncharacteristically somber. "By the way, I heard some disturbing —"
"There you are!" A flurry of admirers surrounded them. "You're missing the festivities, Eldin!"
"Gently, gently," he said, "There's enough of me for everyone." He lifted a eyebrow at Kael. "Coming?"
"In a moment." Kael had never cared for crowds or socializing, an aversion that had intensified since his mother's death. He hadn't been able to admit even to Eldin that some of the appeal of Dalaran was that his work for the Kirin Tor was likely to require long hours alone in the libraries and arcane storehouses. He was looking forward to the luxury of silence.
He was startled out of his thoughts by a touch on his arm. Thalorien and Lana'thel.
"We grieve for your losses," Thalorien said quietly.
Kael nodded. "Thank you."
As they turned to go Kael found himself following. They walked to where a huge tapestry of red and gold had been spread on the lawn. Eldin sat at one corner, already surrounded by those who were investing in their futures by befriending a potential king. Kael supposed that he ought not to think that way. His brother was happiest in the center of a group: what did it matter if most of the group were sycophants?
"It's true!" Telonicus was saying, apparently half-affronted. "You'll see! One day machines will accomplish everything that magic can, and more easily."
"Good news, brother!" Eldin said with a laugh. "You can throw away your spell-books! Telonicus is going to build machines to do everything!"
Kael forced himself to smile. Eldin loved the spotlight so much it never occurred to him that others might not be as fond. "There would be great benefit in allowing such inventions to take over menial tasks," he said. "It would allow us to reserve arcane energy for higher pursuits."
"Forget higher pursuits," said an elder who was frowning at a blushing, dark-haired child awkwardly refilling the wine goblets. "If machines merely replaced the incompetent I'd consider it a great service."
The child, stricken, almost tripped as he hurried away.
"I heard his mother petitioned to allow him to squire for Vranesh the Elder!" the elder said. "Can you imagine? Someone like that attempting to associate with a noble-born?"
"It's not unheard of," Kael began. "Dath'Remar himself had—"
"Oh, kill me now! Not another Dath'Remar story!" said a narrow-faced magister, pretending to faint. He was caught by the Farstrider sitting next to him—who had, with a typical Rangers' ostentatious disdain for the luxuries of court, seated himself on the grass rather than the tapestry.
Kael tamped down his irritation. "Well, of course it's hardly my intention to bore anyone, but it is, after all, Ancestors' Day. When better to remember such stories?"
"You have to realize, Dar," Eldin added, "a house as old as ours has accumulated quite a few stories over the millennia. Unless we take them out and shake the dust out and polish them up now and again they'll tarnish and decay."
It was apparent from the magister's expression that he was taking Eldin's comment as a subtle jab at House Drathir—which had been ennobled for less than a century—but he spread his hands and said with false graciousness, "But of course. Please continue."
Kael decided to forgo the Dath'Remar story, however, and the silence began to drag on until Kaendris asked, "Have you heard Voren'thal's latest?"
"Voren'thal? The poet?" Eldin leaned to take an apple from the tray, but Seyla, laughing, darted her hand in under his, snatched the apple, and said, "Allow me." She pulled a tiny ornamental dagger from the bosom of her gown.
Eldin winked at Kael. "How could I not adore such a dangerous creature?"
Kaendris, apparently miffed that flirting had interrupted his story, said, "Some say he's gifted."
"Not much of a gift," someone scoffed. "if nothing he's ever predicted has come true."
"He says the same thing every year," someone laughed. "Obviously he's hoping someday events will occur that make his ramblings true."
"What does he say?" Kael asked, curious. He'd not heard about the prophesying: he'd read some of Voren'thal's poetry years before, and hadn't been impressed.
"Something about 'a pall, red and white and black, settling over the gold and green of Quel'Thalas' forests,' " Theron said.
Drathir scoffed. "So ridiculously vague it could apply to a hundred different things."
Seyla, who had used her dagger to score Eldin's apple, pulled the halves apart—and then dropped them with a cry.
A red and white striped mass uncoiled from the hollow center of the apple, oozing black from where the blade had cut it.
"Ugh, is that a worm?" Jurion asked, making a face.
"No," Theron said, picking it up. "It's a snake." He held the dying creature over the grass and crushed its head between his thumb and forefinger, then stood and carried it toward the forest.
"Must you always be so barbaric?" Drathir called after him. "One of us could have burned it to ash."
"No need," Theron said without turning around. He squatted next to a tree and appeared to be burying the snake in its roots.
"Well, there you go!" Drathir said to Eldin. "We just saw the prophecy fulfilled: the apple's skin was green, and the snake was red and white."
"With black entrails!" Telonicus added.
A few people laughed uneasily.
"I'm so sorry!" Seyla was almost crying.
"Not your fault, my love," Eldin said lightly, leaning forward to kiss her forehead, and then standing. "Please excuse us—my brother and I must make the rounds. We can't appear to choose favorites."
"But we are your favorites!" Thalorien said.
Eldin smiled, then turned to Kael. "Shall we?"
At every pavilion, at every grouping, the people displayed such genuine admiration and affection for Eldin that Kael swelled with pride. What a superb king Eldin would make someday… whenever Anasterian saw fit to pass the crown to him.
"What do you make of that prophecy?" Eldin asked after they had left the Astromancer's Pavilion.
Kael shrugged. "It's as the others said. Such ambiguous words can be be wrapped around almost any event."
"You don't think it foreshadows some great calamity?"
"Calamity?" Kael started to laugh, but when he glanced at Eldin he realized that the question had been in earnest. "Why, what do you think it means?"
"A death," Eldin said, looking uncharacteristically serious.
"Oh, that's —"
"Promise me you'll keep yourself safe in Dalaran?"
"Eldin, there's no—"
"If something happens, I need your word that you'll come back to help lead our people."
Kael felt a wave of dread wash over him, but it was quickly gone. "You have my word."
As Kael entered the portal chamber the next morning—he was leaving for Dalaran at last, he was buoyant with excited happiness—a black-haired child was waiting.
"Your highness," he said as Kael approached. "I was asked to deliver this to you before you left." He held out a scroll, magically sealed with the Sunstrider insignia.
"Thank you." Kael remembered the boy: he was the one who had been humiliated while serving wine. "You're going to be a squire?"
"No, your highness," he mumbled, dipping his head.
"No?" Kael asked as he slipped the scroll into his pocket. "You don't want to be Vranesh's squire?"
"I mean, no, it's not going to happen."
"And why not?"
"My mother's first husband was Vranesh's uncle. My father was her second husband."
"I see." A friendlier Champion most likely would have been more accommodating of the request—coming as it did from his uncle's former widow—and more loosely interpreted the tradition that a squire be related to the Champion though active family ties, but the elder Vranesh was well-known for his inflexibility regarding the old ways.
The boy nodded.
"Well," Kael said, "would a word from me help your cause?"
"Oh yes!" The black-haired boy knelt and then bowed, his head almost touching the floor. "I could never dream of asking for such a boon!"
"You did not ask," Kael said, amused by the child's effusiveness. "I am offering. Your name?"
"Fireheart," the boy said as he stood. His face was red with embarrassment. "Selin Fireheart."
"Fireheart. A good name," Kael said, moving past the boy to the portal. "I will write to Vranesh. You must understand that I cannot command him to take you as his squire, but I will strongly suggest he re-consider his decision to refuse you."
Selin, his face radiant with happiness, said, "Thank you!"
"Is there anything else?"
Selin gestured at the scroll in Kael's pocket. "Please, your highness, I was asked to tell you to read that before you left. And to wait in case you had a reply."
"I see." Kael dispersed the sigil and opened the scroll.
Unsigned, the words appeared to be Anasterian's, although the handwriting was Eldin's. I trust you will comport yourself with dignity and academic distinction, the message began, as your brother Nallorath did before you, and relay to us any information about the long-term plans of our former allies you feel is relevant to the safety and prosperity of Quel'Thalas.
"You can go," Kael told Selin. "There is no reply."
Prologue posted 15 March 2012; Chapter 1 posted March 2014; rev 5 January 2017