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He Cannot Fight in Chains

Chapter Text

The rescue itself was underwhelming.

Escape, for a prisoner, looms large at first, like a mountain dominating the horizon. But after years of imprisonment, Koltira stopped dreaming about escape anymore. He thought, perhaps his captors knew this too. He could have sworn that once or twice, he’d been left in his cage unlocked. After a session with the Blightcaller, he usually found it difficult to move in his cramped prison, let alone escape.

For now, he clung to the bars of the cage and pressed his cheek against the cooling iron of their support as he sat there. If he did leave, staggered his way down the hall to the rooms beyond, what would he do? His runeblade would serve as little better than a crutch to support his weakened body. And even if Lordaeron housed many strange and unusual peoples, a near-naked blood elf death knight would stand out.

As the chill of the cage calmed his nausea, Koltira felt a bitter wave of regret clawing up from his gut. Familiar, but painful. If he had tried to escape at first, he could have torn apart even death-guards with the wane, wasted hands that now hardly had the strength to hold him upright. In a moment, he realized it was not only regret that he felt as he bent double, but the nausea returning with a vengeance. As he vomited a mixture of bile and saliva, he tried to vomit through the bars to the room outside, unwilling to disgrace himself any more than he already was, curled up like a sick dog in the curve of his circular prison. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and moved away from the curdling puddle. He’d succeeded mostly, and hells, he couldn’t even smell it anyways, couldn’t smell almost anything since he had been raised. It was old instinct from his living days and instinct drove him now to survive, a gross, blind desire like the useless writhing of a headless snake.

He recognized his own degradation sometimes, during his sessions with Nathanos. The undead man’s lip curled with disgust as he watched Koltira, clearly only touching the elf when it was required to cause pain. Even before his mysterious rejuvenation, he could tell that Nathanos had been a handsome man in life. Now, his tall, broad-shouldered form was fitted with a perfectly tailored silk shirt and black pants, his darkly-polished leathers both well-made and attractive. Unlike some undead, whose vanity died along with their body, the Blightcaller meticulously maintained and groomed himself, from his dark, silver-shot beard to his highly-polished boots. This fastidiousness extended to his prisoner; he worked with an admirable thoroughness, but Koltira could see it, in the corner of his eyes: disgust, revulsion. When frustrated at the lack of progress, he would step back and adjust his expensive leather gloves, pulling at the cuff so that every finger perfectly fit his hand. It was a habitual gesture that usually signaled that Nathanos was finished for the day. Usually.

The Blightcaller worked to persuade Koltira, but the undead man did this because it was his duty, given to him by his Queen. Sometimes, he could see the unspoken question and frustration in those red, malevolent eyes. “Why,” he could almost hear him think, “Why do I waste my time trying to persuade a traitor to fight for the queen? Why does she set me to this pointless task?”

He had tried, to his credit.

“The elements rise against us, Koltira, the earth-warder has been corrupted and will destroy us all. You must swear loyalty, and join us in this fight. Deathweaver, a new continent has emerged from the mists, beg forgiveness and join us in conquering it for the Horde. Gul’dan has returned and brings with him a new Iron Horde to destroy Azeroth, you should be fighting to save it."

“The Legion,” Nathanos rasped, “Is practically on our doorstep. The Queen---the Warchief---herself battles their forces across the Broken Isles. Even Stormrage himself has been allowed to join the ranks of those fighting the demonic threat. Surrender your will to hers, and you can fight to make sure Azeroth does not succumb like so many other planets."

Koltira turned his head to watch the undead man as best he could, strapped to the stone table as he was. Like most rangers, he moved with a practiced, feline grace that belied the normally staccato jerks and lurches of an undead’s decaying body. Now, the man radiated quiet, seething anger, his body present but his mind a thousand miles away.

“You think you should be with her,” Koltira said softly, “It’s driving you mad, isn’t it? This game.”

Nathanos glared at him, straightening from his slouched position across the room. As usual, they were alone in the room, accompanied only by the rusting apparatus and equipment of persuasion.

“This is not a game,” he said in acid tones, “Not to me, not to the Queen. It shouldn’t be to you.”

Koltira laughed dryly.

“Oh, but it is,“ he said, ever more quietly, “And while you are here, our beloved Queen fights continents away from you, her champion, while the Legion and the Alliance do their very best to kill her.” As he spoke, the Blightcaller came closer, straining to hear.
“Why, I suppose old Greymayne is closer to her right now than you are…It must be quite grating, for such a loyal dog as yourself.”

Nathanos loomed over him, his hands formed into leather fists on the table.

“Oh yes,” he snapped, “I ask myself quite often why you have earned such long-suffering patience from the Queen. From the very start, you took the trust she placed in you as commander and cast it back in her teeth. And for what?”

He leaned closer, the anger now undisguised and plain across his face. “Some pathetic friendship with a member of the Alliance? One who stabbed you in the back the moment you showed weakness? As much as you taunt me for wasting my time here, you must feel the same, chained like a dog here in Undercity. The Ebon Blade moved Acherus itself above the Broken Isles, to confront the Legion threat, did you know that? They’ve even been raising new knights to fill their dwindling ranks. And here you are. Useless to anyone, even yourself.”

Koltira smiled, cracked lips peeling away from bloodied teeth in a hideous imitation of the gesture.

“Not useless,” he whispered, “Not as long as I’m keeping you busy, Nathanos.”

He lunged upwards, his mouth opened in a snarl for the other man’s throat. His wrists and ankles wrenched against the rusted manacles, the tendons of his arms and legs straining for those precious few inches between himself and the undead. Nathanos stepped back in one fluid motion, easily avoiding the attack. He stood there out of reach for a moment as the elf raged, cursing and struggling against the table. Unexpectedly, a half-smile curled up one corner of the Blightcaller’s face as he smoothed his jerkin back into place.

“Damn, elf,” he said, “You almost make me unloose you, just to see what you could do. It would be more pleasant to beat you while you could at least put up a fight.”

Koltira seethed impotently, spittle flecking his mouth as he fought uselessly against his imprisonment.

“So,” he hissed “You admit that you enjoy this, you sadistic fuck. You know it’s a game and you have fun playing it.”

Nathanos watched him with quiet amusement. Almost unconsciously, he began his little ritual, methodically tugging on his gloves one by one over his hands.

“I always enjoy punishing those who would stand against my Queen,” he said calmly, “But you, Deathweaver? Yes, you do make it so much easier.”

Now, back in his cage, stinking of vomit and shaking with exhaustion, Koltira wondered if his little attempt had been worth it. Nathanos’ taunt about freeing him hadn’t even excited him. His lunge for the human’s throat had been driven by blind, starving blood-lust, not any expectation of escape. Once, during a siege, he had watched a starving geist begin to eat its own rotted arm, grunting and squealing with moronic satisfaction at his meal.

How many degrees separated him and that geist now, he thought. Surely not many. Nathanos must have seen that too. In the early days, he used to send in a servant with a bucket of acrid water to toss over the elf after he had finished one of their little sessions. Now, he didn’t even bother. Koltira festered in his own blood and filth. When the last of his pathetic underclothes rotted away, would they bother giving him new ones, or was that meant to be the last, final humiliation? Caged like an animal, mad like an animal and then, finally, naked as one too.

Nathanos had also been right, in a way. The thought of the Ebon Blade moving on without him like a forgotten handkerchief grated, but that was not the worst of it. Like the undead man, he pictured one person in particular, fighting without him in a strange land against overwhelming odds. And, just like Nathanos, it stung more because the Banshee Queen did not need his help, just as Thassarian had never needed the elf’s. Even when the human had raised Lurid, Koltira knew that he kept the skeleton around more for his dubious company than for combat protection.

He dropped his face into his hands and tried to force away the thought. Perhaps he had just been the same. A needy, blundering dog, panting after his master for scraps while getting underfoot. Joining the Horde had just been a pathetic attempt to prove his own independence by leaving one master and promptly swearing allegiance to another.

Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.

Not now, he thought, not again. If he didn’t look, perhaps the spirits would leave him alone for a time. If he didn’t look, perhaps he wouldn’t hear them either. They waited for times such as these, when he was alone and already in despair. He had never seen them while he served the Lich King, had not been tormented by their wails until he had been given his own room at Agmar’s Hammer. He had never been alone until then. Even if Thassarian was not there, there was always someone around, even an ass like Orbaz or a useless minion like Lurid.

But they came now, as they did, whether he looked or not.

"Koltira, Koltira Dawnbringer. Fair one fallen, you took our blood, you drank our souls. Your blade is so thirsty, will you heed its call and send yet more souls to join us? We are so very many, and you are only one."

The ethereal voices rose into an unbearably high crescendo and he kept his eyes shut, as if he didn't feel the soft, insistence fluttering of the shadows descending around him. They had found him at Angmar's Hammer, they had found him at Andorhal, and in every moment here alone in his cage, the spirits found him again.

"Koltira. Koltira. Koltira."

He opened his eyes as a strong hand grasped his arm and shook him from his stupor. Cold fingers took him by the chin and forced his gaze upwards.

“Koltira,” Thassarian said, “Do you hear me? We don’t have much time.”

The door to the cage hung open at a crazy angle, wrenched open through sheer bodily force. It must have made quite a noise. Thassarian knelt in the gap, his broad shoulders fitting awkwardly in the narrow space of the cage. He smelled like the last rain before winter, tracings of frost etching delicate patterns across his black armor and chilling the gauntleted hand he cupped under the elf’s chin.

Koltira felt the chill as it wrapped around him like an old embrace. He took the human’s hand in both of his and laid his cheek against the broad palm and closed his eyes. He'd been through this kind of scenario before, whether in the grips of a fevered dream or as part of some tortuous new idea they had to break him. Even if he knew it was only a delusion, it felt real, in that moment, and at least an imagined Thassarian would not be embarrassed at this unmanly display of emotion.

“How long this time?” he whispered.

He hated himself for even this weakness, but even as he did so, he could not deny himself the comfort he felt, pressed against that cold, familiar hand even through the plate armor glove.

“Thassarian,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind the kneeling death knight “Just bring the elf and you can talk all you want later.” The voice possessed the hollow, echoing command of a death knight, accented slightly.

“He is not well,” he heard Thassarian say, “A moment, Death Lord, just a moment to rouse him I beg you.”

Again, Koltira felt his chin forced gently up and he opened his eyes to that achingly familiar face so close to his.

“Koltira,” Thassarian said in low, insistent tones, “It is I. I—the Ebon Blade, we’ve come for you.” His pale blue eyes burned with earnestness as he spoke, as somber and awkward and formal as ever.

“And again, I ask you, how long are we playing through this farce again?” Koltira spat, an undiscovered well of anger unleashing inside him in an instant.

“Shall I pretend to rejoice for your pleasure? When will the play conclude? When I get through the gates of the city? Will you wait to unmask yourself until we reach the end of this hall, even?” He pulled back from the other man with a jerk. “If you insist on playacting this escape any further, you’ll have to carry me out. Your Blightcaller is not tender in his ministrations and I tire of these torments masked as escapes and rescues.”

Thassarian’s expression wavered for a moment before his usual stoic, soldier’s mask snapped into place as he stood and hauled the elf to his feet, one arm sliding around the elf’s chest. Koltira felt his stomach lurch as he hung from the death knight’s grasp like a rag doll, like a grotesque imitation of a suitor leading his partner into a dance.

“I await only you, Death Lord,” the human said crisply, “Koltira is seized by some kind of madness, but he will recover himself in Archerus. We should depart.”

The elf saw now who he addressed. A tall, male troll death knight stood in the hall, a long-handled rune-axe held easily in one blue-hued hand. For most, it would be a two-handed effort just to lift the monstrous weapon. A shock of red hair fell around the troll’s narrow shoulders and he easily stood head and shoulders taller than either of them. As Thassarian spoke, he slung the axe across his shoulders and began to move his hands in a familiar pattern. The shimmering outline of a death gate began to appear and for the first time, Koltira felt a tinge of doubt and in a moment, panic.

“Byfrost,” he said uncertainly, “I can’t leave---“

“I have it,” Thassarian interrupted, dragging him to the gate without ceremony, “We’re going home, Deathweaver, whether you want to or not.”