Chapter 1: Actual or Threatened Violence
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.”
Chapter 2: Disassociation
The troll gave a long, dark chuckle as he completed casting the death gate.
“You said this was a rescue. Sounds more like a kidnapping to me.” He made a slight, mocking bow, gesturing toward the gate “You should have said so in the first place, mon. More fun that way.”
Thassarian did not hesitate and the hollow, echoing laughter of the troll he had called “Death Lord” followed them through the gate.
The doubt that Koltira felt blossomed into a burning panic as the necromantic magic of the portal surrounded them both, tearing through time and space, bearing like a boat to the edge of some great precipice. It felt right, it felt so right and familiar.
As the portal faded to reveal the walls of Acherus, he realized that it even smelled right, from the moldering, mildewed smell of the stone walls, to the sharp sting of the ointments and potions the necrosurgeons and alchemists mixed in cauldrons over ever-burning fires, to the very smell of death itself. All of it washed over him like a wave of homesickness when you stand on your own doorstep after a long journey.
He pulled away from the other’s grasp, sliding down to the floor as his knees buckled. Overcome, he pressed his forehead against the massive flagstones that made up the floor. The ever-present cold rose up to meet him. On his lips, he tasted dirt and stone and winter.
It felt right, but so had a dozen other visions and fantasies during his time in the cage. For all he knew, he was trapped there still, caught in some spell woven by his tormentors. He had learned slowly and painfully that if he wanted something to be real, it usually wasn’t.
“Thassarian,” he said, speaking that name for the first time so softly that he could hardly hear himself speak, “Byfrost. I need---I need you to place my hands around it. I lack the strength on my own.”
With a mighty effort, he pulled himself up and back onto his heels. He watched with greedy eyes as the human unbuckled the sheath from his belt that housed the runeblade. Thassarian knelt and extended the hilt towards him, pulling the sheath away with one hand to free the rune-etched blade. His eyes held questions but he said nothing.
He laid the sword in the elf’s lap and took both of Koltira’s hands and wrapped them around the leather-wrapped handle, his own hands laid gently over the elf’s in a gesture so gentle, it could have almost been a caress.
“Koltira,” he said, his deep voice rumbling in his chest as he spoke the name.
“I’m sorry,” the elf said simply, “I need to be sure.”
He thrust forward with Byfrost and the tip of the blade sank a few inches into the unprotected gap just under the human’s breastplate. The sword scraped bone, parted flesh and drank the blood, and it sang the truth to him. The blade recognized Thassarian as Scourge and the warm, delicious energy flowed through the blade and into Koltira’s withered veins. Nothing else felt like this, no trick of disguise or magic, no potion or dream could ever feel so sweet...and so obscene. When he had begun to kill as Death Knight, he had been surprised at how very pleasurable the sensation was---the aesthetic of the knights suggested rigor and discipline and pain, but never this.
His hands shook as the runes on the blade came to light. First from his wrists, then up his arms and wrapping around his body, the runes carved into his flesh came to life with blazing light. Starved from all energy, the runes had faded from his skin years ago. Even now, some the runes distorted and flickered around new and old scars from the hospitality of Undercity.
Thassarian grunted, half in surprise and half in pain, his hands falling away from the elf’s. The whole of Archeus seemed to pause and shrink around them. The human bent for a moment underneath the pain before he looked up, his ice blue eyes burning as they locked onto Koltira’s face without wavering.
“It...is…me,” he said haltingly, voice thick from the pain, “I failed…did not come soon enough for you…my friend.”
With that, he wrapped his hands around the elf’s once more and pulled himself onto the blade completely, stopping only when the hilt met armor, their faces only inches apart. He did not speak now, but let the life-force that poured from his body and into Byfrost’s hungering blade speak the truth that Koltira dared not believe.
I am here. This is real. The blood that I taste on my blade is Thassarian’s. I know this.
The blood-lust that had tormented him for so long roared back to life inside Koltira’s chest. His vision blurred and he didn’t see Archeus anymore. Instead, he remembered the soft, murky twilight of the Eversong Woods, the dull sound of horse hooves muffled by grass and molding leaves. He had been following the human death knight for hours, waiting for the welcoming shadows of night to better disguise his movements.
No human had senses keen enough to detect an elf who didn’t want to be seen and Thassarian had not a moment to react when Koltira swung from the branch above to place the honed edge of his sword under the human’s throat. It would have taken just the quickest movement, to have taken the death knight’s head from his shoulders.
Hanging there from the branch by only his knees, Koltira had stared into those unblinking blue eyes and searched for the man that had spared his little brother. He had seen something underneath that frozen mask when Faltora lay there on the ground, defenseless and frozen in fear. A kind of broken shudder had shaken the human like a leaf in the wind and a low moan fell from his bruised purple lips. They had made their escape while the death knight stood there, his dual blades readied but unmoving.
Now, wrapped in this fever-dream of a vision, Koltira pressed the blade home and watched that pale, dead throat open like a second mouth, spilling dark blood across his blade. Perhaps that is where it should have ended, with Thassarian sliding from the back of his undead steed to lay on the forest floor, sightless eyes staring up at the elf who had ended his second life. Eversong would have made a beautiful grave.
“Not that I mean to be interrupting ya,” said a mocking, accented voice, “But it looks like your friend is trying to kill you, Thassarian.”
The troll Thassarian called Death-Lord stood there watching them both, casually leaning with one hand on his upended axe. Behind and around him, death knights and minions gathered at a distance to watch how this curious little tableau on the balcony would play out. He spoke the truth. What little color remained in Thassarian’s pale face had drained away, leaving behind hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. A wheezing gasp fell from the human’s lips as he leant forward, clearly trying to form words but failing. Death knights didn’t need to breath to live, but everyone needed air to speak. And just as Thassarian grew weaker, Koltira felt himself grow stronger by the moment.
“You,” Koltira said, “I don’t want him dead, but my runeblade does, and I have not slaked its hunger for some time. You’re going to need to stop me, because I can’t stop myself, understand?”
The troll needed no second invitation to whirl into action, moving with surprisingly speed for one wearing such heavy armor. He lifted his axe up and into both hands in a single gesture as he strode forward. He did not use the axe but instead kicked Koltira away from the gasping human, who remained on his knees with Koltira’s blade still sunken into his chest.
The elf snarled despite himself, his hands clawing uselessly in the air as the troll’s heavy plate boot ground into his chest and pinned him to the floor. Byfrost had strengthened him, but Koltira was still but a shadow of his former self, outmatched by a stronger, better-armed opponent while he himself lay there, not only disarmed, but almost naked.
“Ya stay where you are,” the troll said, the flickering blood-lust in his eyes belying his friendly tone as he held the blade of his rune-axe mere inches from the elf’s throat, “Our friend Thassarian makes a bad pin cushion and a good fighter, and I need good fighters. Thass, go get that blade out of your chest and get stitched up, I don’t want to see you bleeding on my floors. Now.”
Thassarian stand with a clank of armor and reply in strained but dutiful tones, “My lord” before his steps faded away into the echoing halls of Archeus.
Koltira imagined the human trying to bow with his runeblade buried inside him and he laughed hoarsely, uncaring of the blade so near his throat. Hysteria stained the edges of the laughter and he choked it down as best he could. The troll’s gaze had followed the departing human and snapped back to Koltira now, as if he had judged that a safe distance now separated the elf knight and his runeblade. He pulled the axeblade back a few inches, assessing the elf he still held pressed to the ground.
“I let you up, you going to put more holes in my best death knight?”
Koltira held up his hands in mock surrender.
“He’s still got my runeblade in his chest, I can feel it,” he said dryly, “I’m short on weapons, armor, or clothes. I won’t be fighting anyone like this.”
The Death Lord nodded and lifted his boot from the elf’s chest as he took the axe away as well. He offered a thin, sinewy hand to Koltira, an archer’s hand in life, perhaps.
“Tis alright,” he said almost cheerfully, “If you try anything, my axe’ll stop you before you get too far, and that’s the truth.”
Koltira felt a heady rush as he stood next to the troll, on his feet and unchained for the first time in too long. The onlookers who had gathered melted away now, perhaps to avoid the elf’s gaze but, he judged, more likely to avoid attracting the attention of the death lord. Over the stone ramparts of the balcony, a breeze from the face of the ocean blew and lifted the flags that bore the Ebon Blade emblem high.
“Do you think your axe could help me get some new clothes?” he asked, as the breeze reminded him rather acutely of his pathetic dress.
The troll raised a long red brow at him.
“Ya have terrible manners.” He said, almost approvingly “You show up, stab my best man and tell me to find you some clothes. No wonder Thassarian likes you, you’re as alike as dandelion thistle and a mountain.”
He turned and barked orders at those who still lingered nearby before Koltira could even pretend to protest or disagree. What he spoke was the truth. He and Thassarian had never been alike, never would be, and six years in an underground cage had sapped his ability to care about pretense or civility anymore.
Two undead he recognized vaguely as former cultists scurried forward, gesturing nervously for him to follow them as they hurried to obey the death lord. He did, along familiar low wide steps and along a hall deeper into the heart of the castle. One undead darted forward to open a door to a small room, the open door revealing part of a bed and a wardrobe. He took a step forward and then stopped as if he had been struck, one hand rising to his chest as he reached out for the wall to keep himself from falling.
Byfrost. They must have pulled the sword from Thassarian’s chest just then. The lingering remnants of energy that had sustained him evaporated in an instant and his legs buckled dangerously as he fought to stay upright. His escorts made a flurry of noise like frightened chickens as they fluttered around him, clearly distressed but also reluctant to touch the bloody, filthy elf.
The weakness flooding Koltira’s head made him notice only slowly that the two undead had fallen suddenly silent, and he felt a hand fall on his shoulder and turn him around, pinning him against the wall.
Chapter 3: Clinically Significant Distress
The weakness flooding Koltira’s head made him notice only slowly that the two undead had fallen suddenly silent, and he felt a big, heavy hand fall on his shoulder and turn him around, holding him up against the wall.
The orc death knight surveyed him skeptically, his deep-set almost white-colored eyes slowly examining the elf from head to toe. Koltira remembered him living, a quiet orc who had shadowed the much more colorful Garrosh Hellscream on the disastrous diplomatic encounter between the orc envoy and the Banshee Queen. After the “bitch” incident, the elf was almost certain that the painfully diplomatic letter that had arrived afterwards came from Nazgrim’s pen and not the bellicose Hellscream who had uttered the word.
One of the servants darted forward, wringing his skeletal hands as he spoke in trembling tones “My-my lord Nazgrim, we are to see this…this one to quarters, and to see that he is cared for, on orders of the death lord himself…”
“And you will do it,” Nazgrim said, clearly irritated, “After I’m done.”
He looked away from Koltira to the distressed undead, his gaze lingering until the man bowed slightly and backed away further down the hall with his companion.
“Coming to drag me back to the Horde?” Koltira managed to grit out, gripped by another betraying wave of dizziness, “Last time I saw you, you were following Garrosh around like a well-armored puppy. ”
The orc grunted, his brows furrowing a little.
“I heard when you disappeared. Told Garrosh you could probably tell us some interesting stories about Sylvanas if we could get you out of Undercity.”
“And how,” Koltira said, increasingly irritated, “Did he take that suggestion?”
A twisted smile lifted one corner of the orc’s mouth.
“You might be surprised, but he approved the mission. Wasn’t him who nixed the idea, it was your own kind. Lor’themar. He didn’t want to risk breaking down relations with the undead faction, said it was the only force keeping the Scourge from ravaging what was left of Silvermoon.”
Koltira laughed, the dry, hollow noise edged dangerously with hysteria.
“Fucking Lor’themar Theron. Of course he said that, he was right.”
After all those years of imagining a rescue, the idea of Garrosh Hellscream having given orders to save him had never crossed his mind. The idea that Lor’themar had prevented his rescue…or at least, failed to facilitate it, had occurred to him more than once. He knew for a fact that, just a few floors away, blood elf ‘observers’ occupied the throne room, ostensibly to keep the undead queen in check. Yet somehow, his disappearance had never warranted an investigation. It wasn't as if he had returned to Silvermoon after the defeat of the Lich King; he'd never sworn an oath of loyalty to the remaining elves who now called themselves "blood" elves. The fact that they had prevented his earlier rescue merely strengthened his conviction that he was right never to return. That city...what remained of it...held nothing for him anymore, not even a grave to visit.
The orc death knight glanced sideways at the servants hovering at the end of the hall and back to the elf he held pinned against the wall.
“They’ll never get you to that room,” the orc said dismissively, “Puny little runts, both of em, and you’re not walking there. Come on.”
He unceremoniously lifted the elf with one hand and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Before Koltira could snap out of shock to protest, he felt himself being dumped onto the straw-stuffed mattress of the bed. He sat there, trying to process exactly what had just happened while the orc wrenched open the chest of drawers, scattering clothes across the floor with a grunt of annoyance. He fumbled before finally grabbing a handful of clothes that he threw in the elf’s direction.
“We should talk” he growled from the doorway, his back to the elf, “When you're not half-naked."
With that, Nazgrim disappeared into the hall, stomping without grace or care. Koltira slowly picked up one of the items, an oversized shirt, holding it like it might explode. It was clearly too big, sewn from loosely-woven linen. He slid it over his head and began to tie the lacing with the concentration of a drunk man trying to appear sober, exhaustion threatening to overtake him. He could feel it, the straw crunching in the mattress underneath him, the rough weave of the fabric prickling against his skin, he could even hear the low, frightened conversations of the servants returning to tend to him. This was real. He had finally escaped. And that knowledge left him hollow, and uncertain of what would follow.
The room, he saw now, was bigger than he'd realized from the outside. It also clearly belonged to someone else. The top drawer of the chest, still hanging open, revealed more neatly folded clothing. A lantern burning with enchanted flame sat on the desk that occupied the opposite corner from the bed. Papers lay scattered over the desk, an inkwell placed to hold open the curling edge of what looked like a map. As he lay back against the pillow, he saw a weapon rack bolted to the wall above the headboard. It was clearly designed to hold two swords. Even as his exhaustion threatened to push him into an unwanted sleep, he chided himself for not realizing instantly where he was. It had to be Thassarian's room. The whole room reeked of the human's style: plain, old Lordaeron style furniture arranged in spartan neatness, with just a few touches here or there to suggest that anyone lived there. The messiness of the desk piqued his interest but when he tried to sit up, darkness swam at the edge of his vision and he heard the chatter of the undead servants as they came into the room.
"You should rest," the braver one said; she nervously gestured to the bed and went to the lantern on the desk, "Here, let me just turn this down so you can---"
The elf knight and both undead started somewhat at the command as they turned to face the door. Thassarian stood in the doorway; he still wore his legplates but no other armor. His shirt was blooded and stained around the wound at his ribs. Through the tear, the elf saw bandages swathing the man's waist and, at least to the elf's keen gaze, he could see an extra stiffness in the death knight's movements. He dismissed the servants with a curt order and crossed the room to the desk, straightening the papers and scrolls as if clearly, this was the most pressing matter at hand.
"I apologize for taking so long," he said, with his back still turned, "Apparently it takes more than a few stitches to repair a rune-blade wound. Byfrost is being examined for disrepair at the forges, though I could have told them it felt just as sharp as it ever did." He turned and faced the elf, leaning just slightly against the desk for support as if to hide his own weariness. "You should rest, I'll be here if you need anything."
Koltira fought the overwhelming urge to obey; he could already feel the welcoming oblivion of sleep without dreams tugging at all his senses. He edged over in the bed towards the wall, as if to make room and pulled back the covers.
"It's your bed, Thassarian," he said dryly, "Are you going to rest or just sit in that chair and bleed all night? I assume you had them put me in here so you could play nurse-maid but you don't have to take it so seriously."
Inwardly, he winced at the seeming harshness of his words. It had been a long time since he had cared to moderate how he spoke to anyone. Thassarian picked up the chair at the desk with one hand and placed it next to the bed, using his free hand to shut the opened chest of drawers as he took a seat. Closer now, even the half-conscious Koltira could trace the deepened shadows around the man's eyes and trace the sharpness in the hollows of his cheeks. He reached out and took the human's hand in his and drew it to him, as if to pull him onto the bed beside him. Thassarian, very gently, resisted and remained in the chair but left his hand where Koltira held it against his chest.
"I need to stay awake, Deathweaver," he said quietly. "I'm not going to sleep until I know you're safe."
Koltira frowned and closed his eyes; some things hadn't changed in six years. Even now, the human sent a veritable treasure trove of mixed signals, from the gentle pressure of his hand around the elf's to the stern and unyielding refusal to join him in the bed despite clear signs of exhaustion. It had always been that way with Thassarian and half of him was convinced it was some kind of human cultural baggage and the other half said it was just the natural behavior of any death knight who had long ago lost the softer side of their personality.
"Safe from what," he muttered "I'm here now, aren't I?"
Whatever reply that human made was lost to the ether as sleep finally claimed him. The fluttering light of the lantern and the death knight watching over him kept the tormenting spirits at bay and for the first time in too long, Koltira felt nothing but the warm, comforting embrace of oblivion as he slept.
Chapter 4: Risky or Destructive Behavior
Thalassian is basically a dialect or a language that was derived from Darnassian, and they share the same alphabet. The difference is mainly in how the languages are spoken, so even blood elves use Darnassian script when they write.
In a bed, small room, dimly lit. The blanket and sheets are clean.
No weapon under the pillow, but the headboard of the bed has decorative wooden spindles that could be wrenched off and used to stab.
Only one other person in the room, so move fast, strike hard, no alarm should be raised.
Undead guard, clearly, no sound of breathing, no heartbeat, no warmth, but too quiet to be awake.
Koltira raised his head and risked a glance around the room. His gaze stopped on the human, sleeping upright in the chair next to the bed, before memories from the previous day flooded back. His body, tensed as a drawn bowstring, relaxed and he pressed his face against the pillow and closed his eyes, taking a moment to steady his racing mind.
30 seconds. That was the time he had mentally calculated to rip free his improvised weapon from the headboard before stabbing it repeatedly into the throat of whoever was in the room next to him. That was how close Thassarian had just come to an extremely unpleasant awakening.
He sat up, noting with displeasure the grime he left behind on the pillow and sheets. Being filthy and unwashed didn’t stand out as much in a filthy and unkept cage, but here, he must have looked like a crazed doomsayer who’d sworn a vow of poverty. And dirt.
Thassarian sat in the chair, his head and shoulders bowed slightly forward as he slept. His right hand hung loosely at his side, as if he fallen asleep while holding the elf’s hand; the left rested on one of his runeblades that he’d placed across his knees. The bloody stain on his shirt had not grown during the night, so the necrosurgeons must have done a halfway decent job when they’d tended the wound. He did not stir when Koltira quietly stepped from the bed, his bare feet making no sound on the stone floor. At least the elf could still get the drop on the other death knight, even if it had been six years.
He assessed the room again, his mind clearer now after some rest. From the door to the right, the desk, chest of drawers, bed, weapon rack above the bed, tall wardrobe at the end of the bed against the wall (large enough to hold a set of plate armor), small table with a vase of dead flowers on it. The elf frowned and went to the table. Lost in thought, he took one of the fallen, dusky brown petals in his hand and rubbed it between his fingers. Leryssa. Who else would have sent Thassarian flowers? The idea that the man asleep in the chair had gotten the flowers for himself was so preposterous he dismissed it out of hand.
Satisfied by his own mental answer to that question, Koltira went to the desk, which seemed more promising. He ignored the papers left out on the desk and hastily tidied the night before. Anything interesting Thassarian would have concealed. He set aside the blotter, the seal (bearing the official insignia of the Ebon Blade, he noted), the half-used stick of black sealing wax, and the unused sheets of parchment. No letter opener. Probably just used a dagger. Or his runeblades.
A half-smile crossed the elf’s face as he glanced back at the human---still safely and soundly asleep---before he started trying drawers. He could almost hear Thassarian speak. A letter opener, he would have insisted, was a redundant and unnecessary possession when he always carried knives anyways. Koltira continued, only glancing briefly at the contents of the drawers until he found what he wanted: resistance from a locked drawer.
He took up the metal quill from the desktop and stripped off the feathers before reaching into his hair and pulling out a thin, rusting piece of metal. He’d never gotten a clear shot at picking the lock on his cage with it. But he’d fantasized before about driving it straight into one of Nathanos Blightcallers’ mocking eyeballs and straight into his molding brain. In that sense, the decrepit lockpick had been a kind of comfort. He knelt and eased the quill and pick into the lock on the drawer and listened. It took him longer without proper tools but the lock finally clicked and he slid open the drawer to discover what Thassarian had deemed worth concealing.
Letters bearing a Dalaran stamp: Leryssa’s name in the corner. She must have continued working at that tailoring shop then, as some of the letters looked recent. Koltira shuffled those to the side. Gridded layouts of battlefields, a small notebook and grease pencil with names and notations that looked like an assessment of a combat unit, a schematic for a saronite bomb.
He persisted, searching deeper. It became more interesting towards the bottom. A set of scrolls tied together with a string revealed itself, each bearing various faction symbols and seals, both Alliance, Horde and neutral. A sentence in bold, flowing script peeked from the top of one of the scrolls.
“While we greatly value the assistance of the Ebon Blade that has proven, time and again, to have helped turn the tides of battle in our favor, we regret to say that we are unable to act in the matter of Koltira Deathweaver. There is insufficient evidence to suggest that…”
He frowned and pushed the scrolls aside while burying a sudden sense of guilt. It wasn’t as if Thassarian had ever been able to keep a secret from him long anyways. This was just speeding up the process. His search came to a sudden halt as he pulled out a blue, leather-bound book, the pages falling open as he did so.
It wasn’t possible. Shouldn’t be possible.
The open pages revealed not writing, but a smudged charcoal sketch, so hastily drawn it hardly formed a coherent shape. The stark black lines tore through the paper in some places, as it to attest to the force of the artist. Koltira suppressed the urge to shudder as a wave of claustrophobic memories rose from the picture like a foul miasma. He turned the page; on the next, frantic elvish writing rose up and down unevenly across the page, phrases scribbled sideways in the margins and in some cases, written on top of what was already there.
The elf shut the drawer but did not bother locking it. He took the book, crossed the room, sat on the bed, and waited.
Thassarian did not wake up to the unpleasant sensation of splintered bedpost being driven into his throat. Instead, when the human opened his eyes, he saw a calm, composed and icy Koltira sitting on the very edge of the bed and holding the blue book. Only the bright white of the knuckles in the elf’s hands betrayed a hint of underlying emotion.
“How in the fuck,” Koltira said, “Did you find this?”
“Good morning to you as well, Deathweaver,” he replied, “I see you’ve been awake for some time. The key to my desk is underneath the vase, there’s also a secret compartment in my chest of drawers beneath my underwear. Or did you already find that, too?”
The elf stuttered for a moment, the edges of his icy façade already beginning to tatter around the edges.
“This—bloody fel, Thassarian, how did you get your hands on this?” His eyes glittered, the pupils black and dilated against the white.
The human sighed and it sounded strange, because he didn’t need to breath but did, just to let it out in a long, slow exhalation as he rose to his feet. Carefully, he placed first one, and then the other runeblade onto the rack above the bed before he sat down next to Koltira, the mattress sagging under his weight. He ran one hand over his face, stopping and pulling at his short, grey-shot beard as if it could give him the right words to speak.
“I found it where you left it,” he said slowly, “Your room at Angmar’s Hammer. It was half-buried underneath all the fallen wax from the candles you had everywhere, but no one had touched anything since you left. According to the guard I spoke with, no one wanted to risk your wrath if they touched your belongings, especially to live in a room they believed to be haunted.”
Koltira’s hand seized the other’s arm in a steel grip at those last words.
“They saw this?” He brandished the book like an accusation, his words bordering on shrill for a death knight.
The answer came immediately and without hesitation and Koltira relaxed, releasing his grip on the human’s arm. Thassarian continued steadfastly, seeming not to notice the action at all.
“They believed the room to be haunted because of the noises they heard coming from it when you were living there. Singing, almost, but not quite, they said, sometimes more like wailing or crying. Like a banshee’s voice on the Northern wind.”
He shook his head.
“You should have told me what was going on then, Koltira. I would have come to you. I had no idea that spirits tormented you so.”
The elf had relaxed too soon and the tension flooded back into his face as he leapt to his feet. He began to pace the room like a wild animal as he spoke.
“You said no one else had seen this,” he said, his words trembling with violent emotion, “How do you know what it says, then? How do you know that it was spirits that plagued me? I write in Thalassian, not Common, so who translated this for you?”
He came to a halt in front of the human: accusing, furious, feeling himself ready to explode at the answer. What came next, instead, dismantled him.
“I did,” Thassarian said in halting, accented elvish, “I told you, no one else has seen your journal.”
He smiled wanly and tapped a finger on his own chest.
“I was never the best student in school. I’m still not. But I can learn, you know.”
Koltira dropped the journal, unable to comprehend what he had just heard for a moment. Even though he had tried to keep track of the passing months and years in prison, the sensation of lost time opened under his feet like a chasm. He could see the course of years like the course of a river swollen by rain.
Spring: Thassarian, pouring over a child’s primer of the Darnassian alphabet.
Summer: A frowning but patient elven teacher correcting his pronunciation of simple phrases.
Fall: The first conversation when he found someone patient enough not to simply resort to Common when he used his fledgling skills.
Winter: Translating the scribbled words of the journal one by one.
“I’m sorry,” the human said, hastily switching back to Common, his brow creasing in concern at the other’s prolonged silence, “I’ve been told my accent is atrocious, I hope you can understand---“
He stopped mid-sentence, his words muffled as Koltira laid his hands on either side of Thassarian’s face and kissed him.
It was light, a gentle brush before the elf pulled back from the gesture, just enough to say in slow but far more musical elvish “I understand you, Thassarian. You don’t need to explain.”
Thassarian’s hands rose and gripped the elf’s wrists on either side of his face.
“Koltira,” he said, the Common he spoke sounding suddenly harsh and brusque and too loud for the small room, “You---this is unwise. You haven’t been here an entire day yet, and the necrosurgeon hasn’t even had a chance to see what kind of injuries you have, let alone treat them.”
He looked to the side and his voice dropped into an embarrassed mutter.
“I might also point out that you still aren’t wearing pants.”
The elf stepped back and raised his hands in mock surrender.
“Fine,” he said in resignation, “I can see you haven’t entirely changed your ways, Thass. I understand. Next time I kiss you, I’ll wear pants.”
Koltira ignored the stricken look on the human’s face in response to his jibe. Instead, he looked pointedly at the door and raised one long, somewhat overgrown white eyebrow, “Are you going to stay and watch me put them on, or do you think I can manage on my own?”
The human took this chance at escape without a moment’s hesitation, only pausing to say “There’s a belt in there too, if you need it” before slamming the door shut behind him.
Koltira shook his head and stooped to retrieve the journal from the floor, carefully smoothing out a page before closing it and setting it back on the desk. He supposed that he shouldn’t feel surprised at the reaction. In some ways, Thassarian reminded him of an overgrown adolescent, awkward and shy to a fault, as if he’d never been kissed by anyone before.
He began to dress, sorting through the clearly too big clothing to find something that might fit him, turning the thought over in his mind. Thassarian had been grown, an adult by human standards, before he had been killed and raised as a death knight. Surely, he must have had some experience, even if it was just some farmer’s daughter he’d manage to coax into a darkened corner at a country dance. The elf knew that Lordaeron humans weren’t exactly known for their broadminded society, but could Thassarian truly feel so utterly against the idea of a man kissing another man?
He pulled the offered belt as tightly as he could around his emaciated hips, bunching the extra loose fabric up as best he could. Perhaps, and this felt more likely, he simply did not feel the same way Koltira did, even now. He had always couched the terms of their relationship in carefully neutral terms. Brothers in death. I will always value our friendship. You have proven your worth on the field as a fellow combatant.
A knock at the door startled him from his final consideration: death knights simply were incapable of feeling an emotion that could be labeled as love. He wasn’t entirely certain that he could say that he did himself.
Chapter 5: Exaggerated Blame of Self
This is an interlude, a very explicit interlude that I had in mind before, but I was inspired to add due to feedback from a fan of this particular pairing. We'll return to your regularly scheduled updates on the death knights in a day or two.
The problem Nathanos believed, was that Sylvanas was too patient.
He wasn’t a glutton for punishment by any means. If Sylvanas had wanted a masochistic, groveling toady for a commander, she could have picked from any number of mindless undead who attached themselves to her as a kind of identity they felt lacking in themselves, having broken free from the Lich King’s control. That’s where most of the idiotic names came from: Banshee Queen, Ruler of the Damned, Hand of Darkness, the Dark Ranger who has eyes in the darkest corners of the night. Personally, he found the groveling a bit distasteful, but like every other flaw, Sylvanas bore it with a serene grace he could never hope to match.
Even now, having brought nothing but bad news, Nathanos felt displeased that she didn’t simply snap and unleash upon him with fury. Beware the anger of a patient man, they said. A patient woman, he mused, was worse.
Sylvanas seemed distracted even as he delivered the bad tidings. She stood by a window, bent over with her hands resting on the broad windowsill of the tower. The Forsaken had made excellent use of the abandoned towers and structures left unoccupied by the war-obsessed humans of Stormheim. In some ways, Nathanos found this corner of the Broken Isles comfortingly familiar. A crumbling kingdom, ripped apart by warring factions and marked by signs of former glory? It was liking coming home to another Lordaeron.
This tower stood on a hill overlooking one of the few bays deep enough to hold larger warships even during low tide. The wild waves of the ocean broke themselves on a jutting spit of land that circled the bay like a protective arm, making it an ideal location for resupply and fresh troops to land. Already, Forsaken worked on the beach to build the necessary docks and boathouses to entrench their position in Stormheim.
“My lady,” he said with bland disaffection, “It will be difficult to throw myself from the window to punish myself for my error if you’re blocking my only route.”
She shook her head and stood back from the window without turning to look at him. The muscles of her back rolled underneath her tailored shirt like a rippling wave. He stood by the wide, low table that filled most of the small circular room. Carved into the weather-worn wood was a map of the Stormheim shoreline, although it lacked recent alterations caused by demonic incursions and occasional explosions. This, too, had been a gift from the previous inhabitants who had abandoned it, along with the tower.
“Nathanos,” she said, “My champion. If I requested that you kill yourself for every single error you ever made, you would have met your true death a long time ago.”
Poisoned mercy. Classic Sylvanas. Nathanos almost relaxed at this familiar combination of pain and sweetness. Almost, but never quite. The only time he ever felt completely at ease existed at the heart of battle itself; the thin and ever wavering line between life and death, the sensation that he could somehow bleed enough to push through to the other side and snatch victory from the jaws of death. He would never admit it, but he envied those who could lose themselves in slavering submission, without thought or restraint. There had to be a kind of freedom in total and unquestioning obedience.
“Your grace is undoubted,” he drawled, almost but not quite sarcastically, “If you did not possess the foresight and longsuffering of the Quel’dorei, you would have ended the life of the Deathweaver himself long ago and his escape would have never been in question.”
Sylvanas did finally turned at that. The high mountain winds of the province tore through the open window behind the elf queen, her hair lifting like a flossy silver halo around her severe, classically defined features.
“Are you trying to bait me, Nathanos?” she said in acid tones.
Gods, he wanted to say yes so badly.
“No, of course not,” he said, assuming the rigid and unmoving pose of someone awaiting dire punishment, “I only seek to explain---“
Sylvanas shook her head and she crossed the room in a few swift strides, on Nathanos in an instant. She took his chin into her thin, cold hand and looked up at him. He could have sworn that she smirked for an instant before the look vanished. She had never been able to reconcile herself to their height difference; she was tall for a woman and enjoyed when she would wield those few extra inches of height against a man, especially human men.
“I do not seek absolution, my queen,” he said gravely, controlling his urge to goad her a little more, “I am responsible for the incursion of the Ebon Blade and the escape of the prisoner. You left Undercity in my charge and I failed you.”
Her grip tightened for a moment.
“No,” she said in soft, smoldering tones, “You failed Koltira. He is beyond our reach now. Another kinsman lost to this new and…benevolent…Lich King. Though I hardly doubt it matters on whose head the cursed helm sits now. The real control lies in that…Thassarian.”
She spoke the name in a venomous hiss as her eyes unfocused for a moment. Nathanos knew the look well and instantly regretted his part in the conversation. He knew that people mocked him behind his back for acting protectively towards the Banshee Queen. After all, she clearly exceeded his skills in combat, both before and after death. But they never saw her in moments like these---and if the Blightcaller had anything to say about it, they never would.
The undead man reached up slowly and put his hand over hers and pulled it down and away from his face. Even as he made the old and instinctive gesture to fold her hand against where his heart once beat, he felt foolish for forgetting.
“My queen,” he breathed, “I’m here for you. That time has long passed…for both of us.”
He never knew if he would say the right words to bring her to the present. The Quel’dorei felt the passage of time differently and sometimes, Sylvanas seemed to feel the events of decades past as keenly as if they had just occurred.
She knotted her fist around a handful of his shirt and he knew she had returned to him.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice raised the hair on the back of his neck, like an autumn wind across dry leaves, “But I am loath to give up on my kinsman, yes, even now, Nathanos. He was turned that day, the only elf that I know who was raised during the fall of Silvermoon and the corruption of the Sunwell. I believe his…weakness…is explained by the hold that the human still holds over his mind. I cannot help but believe that he could be redeemed yet.”
She loosened her grip and patted smooth the wrinkles she had left behind.
“Killing Thassarian, I think, is the only way it will happen,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
“Now that,” he said, “Sounds like a task for a queen’s champion.”
Even as he spoke, she shook her head and he felt a growl of frustration rising in his chest at the objection he knew was coming.
“Not now, not yet,” Sylvanas said, “We are fighting a war on two fronts already. As much as I detest this newly revived Ebon Blade, I am not going to risk our greater goals by opening fresh hostilities with Archeus. Nathanos.” Her tone hardened on his name, cutting short any response he was about to make. “Do not test me. If I hear you are pursuing this, I will be most displeased…and you have already stretched my forgiveness enough.”
Even as she spoke with such imperious arrogance and veiled threats, her hand still rested on his chest, her fingertips just barely stroking the silk fabric in the lightest of caresses. Nathanos felt his head swim, as he usually did when struggling to reconcile the two halves of her personality; the warning anger in her voice, the undeniable gentleness in her touch. Even if his heart did not beat, he felt as if a fire grew under her hand, lighting his chest from the inside with an impossible heat.
“I…of course, my lady,” he said as he stumbled over his words like some green boy. “Your wish is my command.”
He felt the fire inside him roar to life as she smiled.
“Nathanos,” she said quietly, “You are blushing.”
Damn her smile. Damn him for wanting it always, like the first warm sun in spring. He only knew that, of all the dulled sensations and lost pleasures from life, he found no difference in how she made him feel.
“A side effect, undoubtedly,” he said, “Of my recent…rejuvenation. It is the most reasonable explanation.”
He had reached the end of his sentence at a reasonable pace, having regain some semblance of control over himself when Sylvanas pressed her body close against him and took him in hand through his clothes. A soft, involuntary noise came from his throat and she pressed him back against the table.
“And is that,” she asked innocently, “Also a result of our little experiment, Nathanos?”
He took her shoulders in his hands, as much to steady himself on his feet as anything. Even in a room shaped like a damn circle, Sylvanas could make a man feel cornered and it pleased him as much as it confounded him.
“No,” he growled, “You know that. You’ve always known how I feel.”
As difficult as it was to maintain even the semblance of dignity in the moment, he strove to do so anyways, knowing that it pleased her more to know that her actions could undo him, despite his best efforts. She stroked the length of his cock through his pants and he threw his head back and fought the urge to moan. Sylvanas laughed and pushed him back, his knees buckling as he half-fell, half-sat onto the low tabletop, his legs thrown apart and his erection evident.
“Shhh,” she cautioned, and laid a finger on his lips, “I am not nearly finished with you yet.”
She bent half over him and took his mouth in a swift, consuming kiss, one hand moving to his belt and working the buckle. Any sense of control he had retained now fled. He slipped his hands around her waist and ran them up and along her sides, moving to her back where he felt those muscles he had admired earlier move under his hands as she pulled the belt free.
“My lady,” he said, breaking away from the kiss because he knew once she had him truly, he would be unable to object, “This is…an unexpected pleasure. Undeserved. Why now?”
Why now, he meant and Sylvanas understood, after he had come to report failure and error? She made an impatient sound and tugged his pants open.
“Are you questioning me, Nathanos?” she demanded.
Even as she spoke, her hand slipped inside and wrapped around his aching cock and he was lost, his hips bucking forward as he pressed against her grasp.
“Never,” he said, voice shaking but defiant, never taking his gaze from her face.
She pushed back, taking his length in long, hard strokes of her hand as she returned to kissing him, moving from his mouth to nip alongside the side of his throat, alternating every kiss with a tiny, bruising bite.
“Good,” she purred, “I am pleased to hear that.”
His cock twitched in response and he felt the betraying blush from earlier deepen in response to her words, but he didn’t care if she saw it anymore. If anything, he wanted her to see it, to feel it, to know how every inch of him wanted nothing more than to please her from now until the end of his days.
She didn’t move to straddle him or disrobe herself and he accepted it without objection, knowing that what she wanted, she would take from him as she desired. When she pulled away from kissing him, this time she bent, taking him wholly into her mouth. Nathanos gripped the edge of the table and closed his eyes, knowing he wouldn’t last much longer if he did not. The sight of her dark, swollen lips stretched around him, her eyes fixed on his reactions echoed behind his eyelids and he felt his fingernails digging into the wood of the table as he struggled not to come too soon.
Sylvanas slowly released him from her mouth, briefly pausing at the tip before she let his cock slip free. She pressed a tender kiss against the slick, swollen head and hummed in pleasure at the moan this earned in response.
“Nathanos,” she said with soft, yet definite authority, “Stroke yourself off, and do not be quiet about it. I want to hear you.”
She knew him too well. Even as he obeyed, he recognized her artfulness, her design. Nothing felt more intoxicating to him than this dizzying mixture of pleasure and task, the freedom he found in following orders to lose the normally iron-clad control he maintained over his senses and actions.
Sylvanas sat next to him on the table and bent down to kiss him, to swallow the noises he made as he brought himself closer and closer to orgasm. He lost himself into her kiss, feeling himself coming undone at last in his hand. As he came, he tried to speak her name, even half-smothered by her hard, insistent mouth on his.
Fuck. His legs had gone numb from his awkward position, bent backwards over the table. He lay still for a moment, unable to decide what to do about the mess he had just made and the fact that if he tried to stand right now, he was fairly certain he would hit the floor.
He took it gratefully but noted even in this haze that almost immediate change in tone and choice of words. Sylvanas was back on her own feet, her clothes already orderly and in place. She reached to smooth the fly-away hair at her temples and turned back to the window as he sat upright and began to refasten his belt and buckle.
“Do you require anything else of me, my lady?” he asked gravely, knowing that she had signaled the end of…whatever this had been…and would be displeased if he tried to prolong the pleasure now.
“No, my champion.” She took a seat on the windowsill now, one leg propped up against the inside of the window, the other extended out to rest on the floor. It was a familiar posture to Nathanos and one he had seen her assume many times when she expected a long wait.
He bowed slightly, even if she no longer looked at him, her eyes roaming now over the scurrying figures on the beach.
Her voice stopped him at the door leading to the staircase spiraling downwards.
“Nathanos,” she said, without reproach or anger, “You know that I am merciful. But no more mistakes, you understand? The Horde cannot afford it.”
He stopped just a few stairs down to gather his senses before anyone else saw him. What had he heard in her voice, seen flash across her face during their conversation, before she had distracted him utterly from rational thought? If she had been living, and he a fool, it almost looked like….guilt.
He made an audible “Pah” at the idea, scoffing at himself for even letting the thought arise. It made no sense for Sylvanas to feel guilty when he had failed. The idea that she felt guilty over somehow failing that traitorous fool Koltira? He frowned as he continued his descent from the tower. Clearly, he would not be able to exact his own personal revenge on the elf, but even if she had warned him off from Thassarian now…well, the future always held promise for new opportunities.
Chapter 6: Overly Negative Thoughts
The door opened a moment after the knock revealing a tall undead man in black and silver trimmed robes. He carried an overloaded tray in his arms, glass vials and metal instruments clinking together.
“Absalom,” Koltira said, “It’s customary to wait for an invitation after you knock.”
Head necrosurgeon Absalom Stonewaith had tended to the wounds and rare ailments of the death knights at Archerus since before and after the awakening at Light’s Hope Chapel. The only real difference now lay in the wooden holy symbol he wore on a fine silver chain around his neck. It signified the holy priesthood he had assumed---or resumed, according to him----once his mind broke free from the Lich King’s control.
“Deathweaver,” he said warmly, “What a pleasure to see you again. I wasn’t certain you were mobile yet, but I see you’re on your feet already. Please, if you could accompany me to my surgery, it will be far easier to examine you there.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time being ‘treated’ by apothecaries lately,” he said, “It makes no difference to me.”
Absalom backed out through the doorway careful not to spill or drop any of his precious supplies.
“I’m sure you have, my dear,” he said, “Come, follow me. Afterwards, you may wish to avail yourself of the bathing facilities, which are just across the hall. But not until I get a closer look at your injuries, of course.”
He led the way, continuing to talk the entire time as he sidestepped passing death knights and servants. Koltira followed him, barefoot and feeling the comforting and familiar cold of the floors underneath him. No one took any notice of the necrosurgeon or the blood elf, because this was Archerus. A knight could come in, carrying their own arm to be reattached and the only person who would make a remark would be Janitor Edwards grumbling about the blood on his floors.
“Last time you were here, I believe you had suffered a partial disembowelment, had to sew your…kidney, was it?...back into place. Interesting challenge, that was.” The undead stopped abruptly and a few glass bottles tipped over as his brow furrowed. “No, no, that’s wrong, I took it out. I think I have it in a jar somewhere.”
He fumbled inside a pocket for a moment before producing a rusty skeleton key and handed it to Koltira.
“If you don’t mind,” he said apologetically and nodded towards a door, “The damp tends to make it stick.”
The blood elf took the key and, after a screech of complaint from the rusted lock, he put his shoulder against one side of the double doors and shoved. They opened abruptly and he stumbled before recovering his balance, shooting a sideways glance at Absalom. The necrosurgeon swept by without a remark, depositing the clinking tray on a nearby table. An spool of catgut spilled from his pocket, unrolling behind him as he walked. Koltira retrieved it, the sinewy thread catching at the callouses on his hands as he rewound it while the undead man scurried around the room. Candles burned and dripped from sconces placed every few feet along the wall, and an oversized mana crystal dangled from a wire fixed to the ceiling above an examination table. The bluish light from the crystal provided a pool of illumination around the wooden table, which had manacles dangling from each corner.
“This place hasn’t changed.”
Absalom squinted at the faded label of a bottle he held before uncorking it.
“Do you think so?” he said, sounding pleased, “I try to keep everything the same, familiar, you know. Death knights don’t adjust easily to change, I’ve found. Killing, bloodshed, torture, deprivation of all kinds, but start using a shiny new bone-saw and they ask what happened to the old one.”
He handed the bottle to Koltira. A murky substance swirled behind the yellowed glass of the bottle.
“Drink all of that, please.”
The elf decided against smelling whatever the bottle contained and tossed it back. The snot-like potion slid down his throat like a gelatinous ooze.
“Tastes like glue,” he muttered.
Even as he spoke, he was surprised to find he could speak more easily and with less pain. Absalom beamed at him. He held aloft a large syringe attached to a length of rubber tubing that ran to a leather bulb that seemed to be leaking around the stitching. Koltira began to roll up the arm of his right sleeve and took a seat on the table.
“It does, doesn’t it? And you know, it really rather is, but for your organs, rather than a postage stamp. From what I can inspect visually, you have sustained more than one internal injury, not to say bruising, and my little concoction will help to jump-start your natural healing process.”
The healer expertly placed the needle into a blackened vein on the inside of Koltira’s arm as he chattered.
“Oh, yes, I remember now, you are lefthanded, aren’t you? So am I, in fact, but that’s rarer for humans, more common in elves of all sorts, gnomes and…ah, yes, trolls. Like our own Death Lord, for example.”
Absalom squeezed the bulb firmly a few times before attaching it to a metal stand that looked like a repurposed candelabra. A cool, stinging sensation spread from around the needle through the elf’s arm.
“If I may ask,” Koltira asked sarcastically, “What exactly is being injected into me? More glue, perhaps?”
“Nonsense,” Absalom said briskly, “It’s saline. You’re clearly dehydrated, which partially explains the nausea and vomiting, which in turn, causes further dehydration. Vicious little cycle that. I simply wanted to get that started before I began my examination.”
Thassarian had noticed the vomit in Undercity, then. And, predictably, he’d found the time to relay this information to the necrosurgeon. Was he this mechanically efficient in life too, or had death made him so infuriatingly thorough?
“Speaking of our vaunted Death Lord,” Koltira said, “I’ve had his axe-blade against my throat and I still haven’t learned his actual name. He does have one, yes?”
The necrosurgeon chuckled.
“He does, but you’d be interested to know that, technically, no one knows his given name. He goes by the name Rahjin, but he lost all memory of his former life when he was made a death knight. Unusual but not rare among the undead of all kinds.”
Absalom moved around the table, talking in a constant chatty stream as he pushed back Koltira’s sleeves and lifted the hem of his shirt, leaving the needle in place but allowing him to examine the injuries beneath. The elf would have died before admitting it, but he was glad he had not been asked to strip for the examination. The sensation of being a recalcitrant head of livestock being prodded and pulled at still hovered close to the surface of his thoughts, especially here, where it could have been a duplicate of any number of rooms in Undercity.
“Do you have any immediate wounds I should know about? I really should have seen you the moment you arrived, but---oh dear, do you feel this?”
Koltira concentrated then shook his head.
“Welll,” Absalom said confidingly, “I’ve got about three of my fingers knuckle-deep in a pressure sore just here, under your right shoulder blade. The infection must go deeper still, or you would be able to feel it. It looks like you have more than one. Now, I can scrape out the wounds and pack them with dressings, and I’d need to see you back every day for at least a week. Or, I could take about a minute and take care of it all at once but it would be extremely painful. Have you experienced the application of Light-based healing during your time as a death knight?”
The elf’s skin crawled a little; he didn’t dislike the necrosurgeon, but having the undead human looming over his shoulder and the gust of his speech prickling Koltira’s ears made him want to run.
“Yes,” he answered brusquely, “I can withstand it.”
“Good man,” Absalom said, “I would, however, request that you allow me to restrain you during the procedure. I’ve had more than one death knight who reacted more…strongly than they anticipated.”
Koltira eyed the manacles attached to the corners of the tables and the necrosurgeon fell silent, awaiting his reply. He loathed his own indecision, brief though it was, because it showed weakness. Death knights were known to turn on allies and comrades, it was not an unreasonable request, and he knew that the only real danger from Stonewaith lay in his inability to shut up for a full minute at a time.
“Hands only,” he said, “I’m hardly liable to kick you to death.”
He suppressed the urge to shudder as he laid down on his stomach across the table and Abasalom snapped the manacles in place. The necrosurgeon paused for a moment and patted Koltira on the hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I know this can’t be exactly easy for you. But, if it’s any consolation, it’ll be over quickly.”
“Just do it,” the elf snarled, curling his hands into fists and away from the undead man’s touch, however well-meant it was.
He set his jaw and stared at the door; if he was going to be chained down like a dog, he at least wanted to be able to watch his surroundings. Absalom began to murmur prayers and as the Light answered, Koltira became suddenly aware of each and every wound and patch of rot across his body.
“Concentrate. The Light doesn’t kill you, what kills you is the hammer that crushes your skull while you’re incapacitated.”
He pressed his forehead against the damp wood of the table and forced his mind away from the present and back into memory.
“If the Light cannot kill you, then it does not matter. Only the will of the Lich King matters. Endure this passing pain and perform his will. That is all you need ever know or do.”
The memory brought back another and he smiled, even while he felt his entire body begin to tremble underneath the agony spreading from Absalom’s hands.
“He should be breaking by now, damn it. Have you gone soft on these undead abominations or simply forgotten how to interrogate a prisoner?”
“I don’t understand it, High Inquisitor, he seems immune to my efforts. Perhaps your stronger connection to the Light will allow you to break down the elf’s defenses.”
From a distance, he heard the necrosurgeon say “There we go, all finished.”
Koltira felt the past recede and reality rushed back to replace it. He felt utterly drained and when he tried to raise himself up, he could not move. A moment of pure icy panic ran through him before he remembered the restraints on his wrists. Absalom unfastened the manacles. The undead man looked positively enchanted, his yellow eyes glowing with enthusiasm.
“Very well taken, I must say, very well taken indeed, Deathweaver. I’ve rarely seen a death knight endure my ministrations quite so---so bravely. You should teach others whatever technique it is that you have developed.” In response to a long look from Koltira, he added hastily, “Or perhaps not, the individual variations between all the races of death knights may mean it works just for you.”
Koltira felt clammy from a cold sweat that stuck his clothes against his skin. The small amount of energy he had gathered from Byfrost the day before had evaporated and he swore he could almost hear the blade whispering to him now, telling him to feed.
“Since you reacted so well to the healing,” Absalom said, from a corner of the room, “I think you should be able to handle a restorative as well. A tincture of my own devising and, I assure you, quite potent.”
He turned and Koltira saw the reason for the whispers he thought he had heard from his runeblade. Absalom held a stone pitcher in one hand and Byfrost in the other, the undead just barely having the strength to keep the blade from scraping the stone floor. Before he could react or speak, Absalom tilted the pitcher and a syrupy substance poured onto the blade in great ropey strands tinged black and red.
The elf froze as Byfrost drank in the liquid, leaving no trace behind on the shimmering saronite blade. Blood. A warm, drunken flush began to spread through his veins and he stepped down from the table and spread his hands before him, watching the runes on his arms throb with pulsing blue light. It felt like the glow he felt after a battle, but magnified a thousand times. On his tongue, he could taste the deaths of a thousand Scourge. All over his body, the lesser wounds, bruises and scars that Absalom had left untended began to knit and heal together, restoring him to a strength he had not felt in years.
Empowered by this strength, he crossed the room in a few steps, seizing the blade from Absalom. Without conscious thought preceding his actions, Koltira threw the undead man against the nearest wall and pinned him there, the edge of Byfrost hovering just underneath the necrosurgeon’s chin. The pitcher lay shattered on the floor nearby.
“What,” he gritted out in guttural, almost inhuman tones, “did you just do to me?”
Chapter 7: Alienation from Others
He felt Byfrost calling to him in pleased, almost sweet tones, telling him to add the undead man’s blood to the power now surging through him. Absalom clawed at the hand clamped around his throat, his feet kicking uselessly a few inches above the ground. His lungs did not scream for air, Koltira knew, but the soft tracheal cord underneath his hand, that could easily be crushed and make it utterly impossible for the necrosurgeon to ever speak again…or pray.
“Your blade,” Absalom gasped out, “Scourge. Feeds on it. Fastest way. To recover. Common. Now. Been used. Several years.”
Fighting against his own impulses, Koltira eased his grip slightly, allowing the man to slide down far enough for his feet to touch the ground.
“You’ll have to enlighten me,” he hissed, frost gathering around his clenched fingers, “I’ve been gone…a few years.”
“Rune…weapons,” Absalom said, panting a little for the air needed to speak, “All have…their own favored enemy. Humans. Dwarves. Some, beasts. Living, usually, sometimes favoring arcane-infused magic users, or wielders of the Light. Hard to say what causes it, I haven’t been able to track a pattern. You.”
He looked down at the blade still clamped underneath his chin.
“Your blade favors Scourge targets. That’s rare, very rare. For a former Scourge, raised by Scourge? It makes little senses, if the drive to kill is or was motivated solely to kill Arthas’ enemies.”
Absalom gave a lopsided smile, even as tendrils of creeping ice spread from Koltira’s hand and wrapped around his pale, grey throat. The smile mixed with some subtler, harder to name emotion: not regret, not sadness. It was almost…wistful, as if he spoke to the ghost of someone he had once loved, and not a blood-hungering death knight.
“It’s not just rare, my boy. As far as I know, you’re the only death knight with such a drive.”
The elf squeezed his hand around the hilt of Byfrost to hide the trembling it caused him to withdraw the sword from the necrosurgeon’s throat. A soft, metallic whine seemed to sigh from Byfrost, like a small child denied a treat. Koltira stepped back, moving to sheath the weapon before remembering he still wore only the most basic attire and no armor or weapon sheaths.
“If what you say is true,” he said grudgingly, “Then someone collected that…essence for you. Thassarian, yes? Was he the one who approved this idea?”
Absalom began to examine himself for damage, gently palpating the front and sides of his throat. He coughed once or twice and seemed satisfied at the result. Incredibly, he seemed unmoved by the attack on his person, as he moved to a nearby shelf and plucked a quill from a cobweb-covered inkstand.
“In part, yes.” He answered, as he began to scribble notes into a small notebook that fit into the palm of his bony hand. “More than one death knight contributed to the effort. Distilling such a potion requires gallons of the appropriate blood and…other parts. I scarcely seek out Commander Thassarian’s approval for my medical treatments, however, he is a fighter, not a doctor. As I said, this kind of treatment has become commonplace and well-accepted by the other knights. Like the rare qualities of your blade, you also reacted much differently than I expected. You hardly made a sound when I used the Light on you, but you can scarcely keep from killing me when I feed the essence of your most hated enemy to your runeblade.”
Koltira paused, a thought striking him.
“The Light,” he said quietly, “You must also feel…discomfort when you wield it, do you not?”
Absalom looked up briefly from his scribbling and the same shadowy smile from before flitted across his thin, worn face.
“Of course, my dear,” he said, “The Light burns me, as it does you. But I, too, can endure it.” He made a shoving motion towards the door, as if urging Koltira out of the room, “You are whole enough if you wish to bathe, although I’d go easy on the scrubbing. I don’t want to be sewing parts of you back on.”
The elf left and shoved the door closed behind him, a faint “Thank you” echoing after him. He lifted Byfrost a moment and stared at the blade, as if it could truly speak to him and not in mere hate-filled whispers demanding blood. It was true that most death knights favored living foes. At Andorhal, the unceasing waves of Scourge enemies had fueled him, given him the edge on the field over Thassarian and far beyond any other ally.
He dropped the blade to his side as two death knights emerged from the door across the hall, a blast of steam-filled air following them from the room. One was a pink-haired gnome with a scowl on her face, the other a jet-black tauren with a line of visible stitches that wrapped around his furred throat. The gnome frowned more deeply and yanked at icicles forming in the spikes of her wet hair.
“Hello, Koltira, suffer well,” she said, breaking off a chunk of ice from her head while the tauren nodded at the elf, seemingly unbothered by the faint dusting of snow across his dark shoulders and mane.
“Gwinnith, Nemo, suffer well,” he responded automatically, as the pair continued past him and down the hall.
Ah yes. A bath.
Acherus had never been built as a functional home for the living---or for inhabitants who cared about personal hygiene or comfort. Therefore, the bathing facilities had been cobbled together from some ancient copper vats used in dubious experiments and were supplied with water from a few resident undead mages who also functioned as portal generators. They complained about serving as ad-hoc plumbing for the necropolis, but it wasn’t like they could hire living servants to perform such tasks. It would only take one wounded and bloodthirsty death knight---or an unattended ghoul----for a living servant to become an unfortunate diplomatic incident.
Like most features of Acherus, the bathing room reflected the habits and concerns of the dead, not the living. It was utilitarian, with all the tubs in one room and no privacy, but plenty of towels and soap. When Koltira stepped inside the small antechamber where knights left their clothes, he started to strip immediately. He noticed yellowish-red streaks across the back of his shirt and frowned. It looked and smelled like pus. He wadded it up into a ball and tossed it onto a chair, along with the rest of his borrowed clothing. As filthy as the clothing was, he might just burn it before returning any of it to Thassarian. Or he could just toss it off the side of Acherus.
A doddering and ancient undead mage tottered into the room as he finished undressing. She whistled as she gave Koltira a long, unabashed once-over with her gleaming yellow eyes. Under one withered arm, she carried a brown paper package that crinkled and crackled as she proffered it to him.
“Worked you over, but good, didn’t they, eh?” she commented and shoved the package towards him when he did not immediately take it, “This was left for you, told ‘im I’m not a package delivery service, but noooo, had to do it. Got your name on it.”
Koltira accepted the package and stared at the undead mage, who was clearly waiting to see what was inside. He tossed it onto the chair unopened and returned her stare.
“You’re extremely observant,” he said dryly, “I’m trying to make it less apparent that they 'worked me over, but good', so if you could kindly do your job.”
It took more than one drain and refill of the copper tub (much to the annoyance of the disappointed mage) before Koltira decided that he’d gotten off all the dirt and what remained were bruises and other markings that water wasn’t going to remove. Despite the ice-spikes in the gnome’s hair, the conjured water was always hot almost to the point of boiling, just to balance the natural cold emitted by a death knight’s body. The faint sensation of warmth lasted for only a minute or so, but the elf enjoyed what it while he could.
After swathing himself in multiple towels (again to complaints from the mage that he was wasting them) he returned to the antechamber and stared at the pile of dirty clothing he’d left behind. Now that he felt clean, the prospect of putting them back on seemed even less appealing than before. Instead, Koltira picked up the package and began to undo the knotted string holding it closed. As he pulled back the paper wrapping, a small note slid free and he grabbed it before it fell. In spare, spidery writing, outside of the note read For Thassarian’s friend Koltira. He opened it, read the contents and a half-smile raised the corners of his mouth as he folded it and set it aside. His return to Acherus was more interesting than he expected.
He pushed the dirty clothing from the chair onto the floor and sat, pulling out each new item from the package and examining it before putting it on. The shirt, woven from dark brown thread and trimmed in gold around the cuffs and collars, fitted much more closely than the one he had borrowed. The shirt’s red lacing against the gold and brown echoed Silvermoon’s crest but subtly---fashionably so. The pants still sagged around his waist, but he wasn’t about to complain. She had included underclothes, socks, and even a pair of simple leather shoes. By the time he had finished dressing, he felt less like an animated corpse and more like a halfway respectable citizen of Acherus.
So, when he sauntered out to the balcony, no one commented or made much notice of his departure.
The only person who noticed, in fact, was Thassarian.
First, the human death knight checked with the necrosurgeon. Absalom started to wax lyrical about elven endurance and the efficacy of proper healing technique, but he couldn’t hide the hand-shaped bruise clearly imprinted around his neck. He dismissed the mark impatiently; it was far more interesting, he said ponderously, *what* had caused Koltira’s violent reaction.
“I assume he tired of sitting still long enough for you to treat him,” Thassarian said brusquely, “That, or the talking. He is not a patient person. It doesn’t matter, I just need to know where he went after you finished.”
Absalom sighed at this interruption on a topic that clearly fascinated him.
“I assume,” he said with exaggerated slowness, “that he made use of the baths across the hall, he was absolutely filthy. I would probably burn those clothes, by the way, they’d give a living being more than a few diseases by my mark.”
He was only partly through the sentence when Thassarian left. No, the mage attendant snapped, the rude elf had left hours ago, leaving behind a pile of filthy clothing, ripped up brown paper and a mountain of wet towels. The human death knight listened long enough to get the details and left for the armory. The enormous skeleton who provided Acherus with their heavy plate armor had been told to expect Koltira; perhaps the elf had gone there. Master Corvus pondered the question for such a long time Thassarian was about to repeat it before the skeleton slowly shook his head.
“No elf come for armor today,” he intoned, “I got some, maybe needs cleaned up, that would fit an elf. Hammer out the dents, good as new, Commander Thassarian, you’ll see.”
The human death knight repressed the beginnings of a murderous urge beginning to nag at the corner of his brain. He shook his head.
“I told you, Corvus,” he said, with patience that he did not feel, “No cast-offs for this one. I want your best work for this armor, all new. Maybe just use the old armor for sizing. He won’t want to wear another knight’s old gear.”
The skeleton nodded and turned back to his forge.
Thassarian rubbed his hand across his face and tried to think. Where in seven hell’s would Koltira have gone? The flight patrol master Commander Thalanor looked offended at the idea that someone had taken one of the flying mounts without his express command, and most of the knights he questioned expressed surprise that Deathweaver was still alive.
“He looked like a fucking ghoul, he can’t be hard to find,” was Nazgrim’s response and it almost pushed Thassarian over the brink and into some actual violent action until he remembered what day it was and what time.
Shit. Shit, he was going to be late, and he still had to stop in the market.
He took the portal to Dalaran, with one final glance around Acherus before the crackling blue magic surrounded him before melting away to reveal the bustling streets of the floating city. It was early evening and he had to rush to make his purchases before the shops closed. The flower vendor smiled when he arrived.
“It’s not like you to miss,” Aerith Primrose commented as she handed him the bouquet, “I saved a nice bunch just for you, it would’ve been a pity to see them wilt.”
Armed with the flowers and a loaf of bread, Thassarian tried to calm himself down on the short walk to the Magus Commerce Exchange. He didn’t like to worry his sister and he knew logically that Koltira, wherever the elf had gone, would be fine. He had almost convinced himself that was the truth when he knocked on the side door of the tailoring shop. When no answer came, fresh panic surged up and he fumbled for a few moments before retrieving the key from his pocket. Normally Leryssa had the door open and bundled him inside before he even had a chance to knock. He couldn’t remember the last time he had actually needed to use his key.
“Leryssa,” he called out, as he ascended the narrow stairs to lead to her rooms above the shop, “Is everything alright? I’m sorry I’m late, I was…”
The death knight trailed off as he reached the landing at the top of the stairs and saw the scene before him. Leryssa was at the small stove in the kitchen, as usual, her dark hair pulled away from her face but free from the dozens of hairpins she used to keep it up and off her neck while she worked in the shop during the day. At the table, Koltira sat in a chair, his forehead creased in concentration as he adjusted the tuning pegs on a fiddle set on the crisp white tablecloth. He glanced up briefly as Thassarian arrived before turning his attention back to the instrument. A few shining metal strings lay next to it. Leryssa smiled at her brother’s arrival, her face flushed with excitement and affection.
“Thassarian,” she said, “I was beginning to think you had forgotten what day it was. Can you set an extra place at the table for our guest, please? I was so busy talking with Koltira I forgot to do it myself.”
“Of course,” he answered automatically, “I’ll put the bread and flowers on the sideboard.”
He was so flummoxed, he hardly knew what to say. The juxtaposition of his sister and Koltira (now carefully replacing a broken string on the fiddle) was a sudden collision of two worlds he had, if not intentionally, kept separate for so long that it seemed impossible that it should have ever happened. Leryssa sidled next him as he started to retrieve more place settings for the dinner table.
“Koltira was just telling me,” she said confidentially, “That you have names for your two swords. You never told me that, Thassarian. It makes you sound almost romantic, and I never knew it.”
“Mhhm,” Thassarian said, a little more testily than he intended, “What else have you been finding out about me?”
She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “I guess you’ll just have to find out, I asked him to stay for the night, since you’re here as well. I never get to meet your friends.”
She shared a conspiratorial look aimed at Koltira, who gave a cocky grin as he lifted the fiddle to his chin.
“That’s right, Thassarian,” the elf added in accusing tones, “You never did introduce me to your lovely sister here.”
He raised the bow in one thin hand and played a few experimental notes before frowning and adjusting the pegs again as he listened to the notes. The elven death knight looked much improved from the gaunt and ragged man that Thassarian had seen earlier that morning. His cheeks were less hollow and the clothes he wore seemed to fit him better. Something about the colors of the garments reminded Thassarian briefly, if painfully, of the first time they had met.
“You never told me you played an instrument,” Thassarian countered as he set the table in front of the elf with a plate, cup and silverware, “How exactly did you find your way here?”
Leryssa prodded him in the ribs as she passed by.
“Thassarian,” she said, “You don’t need to sound so displeased. I invited him.”
She motioned for him to take a seat as she brought food to the table. He obeyed, still eyeing Koltira with a mixed sense of relief and irritation as he took the chair across the table from the elf. As Leryssa joined them, Koltira set aside the fiddle and the bow and folded his hands underneath his chin, as if trying to keep his hands busy.
“In answer to your question,” the elf said, in polite but frosty tones, “You never asked me if I played any musical instruments before this. It hardly seemed relevant, until I met your sister today.”
He smiled, touch of genuine warmth in this gesture, at Leryssa, who took a seat next to him. She took this as a cue to finish the story as she passed the dishes around the table.
“So, a rather wretched looking Nightfallen fellow came into my shop, and he was trying to trade that little instrument for some clothing. I felt badly for him, of course, but what can I do with a broken fiddle? I was about to send him away when Koltira walks through the door and tells me that he can fix it easily enough with a little time and some new strings. Of course, I recognized the clothes I had sent with you, Thassarian, so I knew it had to be your friend. So I told him he had to stay for dinner, since tonight is your usual day to visit. If we’re lucky and you behave, maybe I can persuade him to play for us too.”
Koltira choked on the piece of bread he had just swallowed and Thassarian smothered the urge to laugh. He doubted that his sister had proposed this idea until just now and by the consternation on the elf knight’s face, Koltira would rather be back in Archeus at the moment.
“I apologize,” Thassarian said with malicious politeness, “If I gave any offense, Deathweaver. I was merely surprised to see you here. Please, I am certain that your musical talents are only outmatched by your skill on the battlefield. Perhaps you can demonstrate them after dinner.”
As if sensing her guest’s discomfort, Leryssa interjected, “Of course, you are our guest Koltira, so you must excuse my eagerness. You must make yourself at home here.”
Koltira agreed meekly enough and the odd dinner party continued, with Leryssa smoothly mediating the conversation like a conductor of an orchestra. Despite himself, the human found himself relaxing, as he usually did when he visited his sister’s little home above the tailoring shop. The décor and food reminded him of a home he had left a long time ago, but pleasantly so. With time, that ache had dulled, even if remained.
It was fascinating to watch the elven death knight in this context, particularly because Koltira seemed to be making the effort to play the charming party guest. When the meal ended and they moved to the sitting room, he even agreed, while protesting that he was out of practice, to play a few songs on the newly tuned fiddle.
“What should I play?” the elf asked, the question directed at Leryssa but his gaze fixed on Thassarian.
His tone was light but the look was piercing, amusement mixed with daring, as if he already anticipated a long lecture from Thassarian the moment they were alone. Go on, the look said, tell me I’m not supposed to be here. Tell me that I’ve trespassed.
Thassarian felt the look like a touch, and the same damned confusion that ached under his breastbone whenever Koltira looked at him that way. Like he wanted to punch him and kiss him at the same time. And somehow, Thassarian never knew how the other decided between the two.
“Thassarian, what do you think?” Leryssa interrupted his thoughts and he coughed for time to cover his slow reaction.
“Ah, I suppose something elven,” he said lamely, “I’m not familiar with the names of the songs, but I’ve heard a few.”
“Right then,” he said, “Something traditional.”
He began to play and as he did, the tune picked up in speed as he seemed to gain confidence. To Thassarian’s surprise and his sister’s delight, traditional did not mean the slow (if beautiful) dirges most people associated with elven musicians. The song was clearly a dancing reel, maybe even a jig, and it filled Leryssa’s small home with a light, infectious sound that evoked a party or even a wedding. Koltira himself seemed to come alive, winking at Leryssa as he launched into a particularly fast little passage that jumped from note to note like a salmon leaping in a stream.
“If I was a better singer,” he said, “Then I could really play for you, but alas, I never was. Perhaps I can teach your brother the words some day, he’s picked up some passable Thalassian.”
He spoke teasingly, but there was no bite in his voice, and his expression softened a little as he glanced again towards the human. Thassarian felt the tension in his chest ease somewhat. So. Koltira’s sudden departure had not been motivated by anger at him, at least. So when he ended the song and Leryssa applauded, he joined in as the elf made an exaggerated bow, the fiddle held out in one hand, the bow in the other. A metallic twang of a breaking string interrupted the moment and Koltira laughed and sat back down, passing the instrument to the woman.
“I’m afraid my cold hands are no good for your new instrument,” he said in apology, “I’ll keep breaking the strings.”
“Then,” Leryssa said firmly, “You can bring new strings with you, the next time you come for dinner. Right, Thassarian?”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, and both men knew it. Thassarian found his sister’s stubborn persistence, after all this time, more comforting than anything else. After all, that same stubbornness was the only reason they had found each other again.
“I’m sure,” he agreed, “Although it might be some time before I can return here myself Leryssa, so you might have another chance to interrogate Deathweaver here about all of my secrets I’m apparently keeping.”
He knew he’d spoiled the mood the moment the words left his mouth and he could’ve kicked himself for it. Leryssa’s smile vanished for a moment before she could hide her disappointment. Koltira’s expression remained unchanged but the warmth behind his face fled and left behind the cool and composed exterior. It was a familiar mask he wore often enough and Thassarian recognized it as the prelude to a storm.
“You’re leaving the Broken Isles again brother? So soon?”
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why didn’t he just wait to give the news?
“Yes,” he said uncomfortably, “Well, yes and no. The details aren’t finalized yet, but it’s likely I’ll be accompanying the Death Lord on another mission soon. I’ll let you know what I can, when I can.”
He sounded formal and harsh even to himself. Leryssa was understanding, if upset, and Koltira polite and dashing as he rose and made some excuse about why he could not stay longer. The elf even managed to coax a laugh from her when he kissed her hand in farewell in another deep bow.
Thassarian felt the throbbing in his head return with a vengeance.
Damnation, he thought grimly, I’ve always been better at killing people than dealing with them.
Chapter 8: Physical Reactivity
As the door closed after Koltira, the human felt his hands clench into fists by his side. Even now, so many years after the defeat at the Frozen Throne, he sometimes had the sensation that he was not fully in control of his body. But those years had also enabled him to control his instinct to lash out when Leryssa stepped next to him and looped her arm through his. She leaned against his arm for a moment and sighed, her warm breath forming a cloud as it hit the ever-present cold emanating from her brother.
“He’s much as you described him,” she said quietly.
She pulled away and stepped into the sitting room before reemerging with a bouquet of dead flowers tied together with a ribbon and wrapped in paper.
“I’ll put the fresh ones in water, but here are yours,” she said, “I know you say you can smell them better when they’re dead, but those last ones I sent must be a month old at least, so take these now.”
Thassarian took them but frowned.
“I thought---don’t you want me to stay, Leryssa? I could take these in the morning.”
His sister’s eyes crinkled at the corners and she looked down, as if to better control her expression before she looked back up, one eyebrow still raised skeptically.
“Are you trying to tell me you aren’t going to go follow that poor elf? Honestly, brother. All I hear for six bloody years is the injustice of Koltira Deathweaver’s imprisonment, he barely gets out and you’ve told him you’re leaving again for Light knows how long.” Her expression softened and she added, “I’m always going to be here when you return, no matter how long that is. But I think your friend needs you now.”
She put her small hand on his chest and gave a push, without any visible physical effect on the stolid Thassarian. He bent and kissed her on the cheek, the paper-wrapped flowers crinkling between them.
“You’re too patient with me,” he said.
Leryssa smiled and reached up, gently pinching the end of his nose.
“Yes,” she said, “I am. Now, shoo.”
Dalaran never went to sleep fully, not anymore since the move above the Broken Isles. The arcane-powered lighting, glowing spires and restless mage students had always made it busy during the evening hours but now it felt little different than the day. Any remaining signs of the blood elf purge had finally vanished, the races and factions mingling as freely as they did during the battle against Arthas. While this was a sign of the combined effort to defeat the Legion, it made it slightly more difficult for Thassarian to track down Koltira. The fresh influx of Sindorei who had taken the power of the fel alongside Illidian Stormrage added to the difficulty of locating one particular elf who usually didn’t go out of his way to attract attention.
Thassarian finally found him when he took a moment to think. Where, he considered, would he go if he was angry, didn’t particularly feel like keeping other death knights company, and where he could find a quiet corner without being disturbed?
The Filthy Animal bustled at all hours and now was no different. He shouldered past a few departing patrons, a blast of warmth and the smell of cheap flavored booze following them. The Horde favored this tavern, it was true, but no savvy bartender was going to turn down coin from anyone willing to spend it. Once his eyes adjusted from the relatively bright outdoors to the smoky-filled darkness of the bar, he saw the elven death knight near the back of the long room, well away from any of the roaring fireplaces and other people.
“Hey, sweetheart, you bring me flowers from dat Rahjin?”
The troll barmaid shouted her question over the noise of the drumming music and talking, a heavy tray balanced effortlessly on both hands. She swayed easily from side to side, her muscular stomach left bare, a graceful beaded skirt hanging low on her hips. She stepped closer to the death knight, the strands of her skirt whispering around her legs as she walked.
“I told him if he don’t come see me soon, Mimbihi find her another man, one that knows how to treat his woman right,” she said.
She sidestepped a passing goblin’s attempt to grab her ass. He howled in pain as she brought her foot down hard on his instep while never disturbing any of the mugs on her trays. Thassarian coughed awkwardly and once again felt thankful that he had lost his ability to blush a long time ago.
“I can see you got no idea what I be meanin’, so never you mind,” the troll maid said, with a slight sigh before brightening again, “What’s your poison?”
Thassarian shook his head, “I’m just here with a friend, ma’am,” he said politely, “I’ll send your message along to the Death Lord.”
She laughed, flashing a mouthful of teeth and her set of curving tusks.
“Ain’t no ma’ams in dis bar,” she said, “You just call me Mimi honey, I’ll come find ya once I get dese drinks served.”
The scent of her perfume remained behind as she walked away. Thassarian made his way through the bar and found himself thankful that even now, undeath granted him a certain amount of elbow room when it came to crowds. Nobody wanted the trouble of angering a death knight, even by accident. He set the flowers on the table and took a seat across from the elf.
“I assume those aren’t for me?”
Koltira drained the stemmed glass he held in his hand and flipped it upside down, setting it next to two other empty glasses. Three more full glasses waited, a warm golden liquid glowing in the low light from the fireplaces. The elf lounged on the bench with one leg propped up on it, a dull red flush from the alcohol in his hollow cheeks. With his careless posture and half-hooded blue eyes, a passerby might have taken him for being almost relaxed.
“Flowers make poor apologies,” Thassarian said brusquely, “Besides, your side of the table looks somewhat…occupied.”
The elf leaned forward, proffering a glass in one hand.
“If you’re here to apologize,” he said, “This wine might make it easier for you to choke one out. If you’re lucky, it might be powerful enough for me to accept one.”
When the human didn’t accept the glass, Koltira shrugged and tossed it back. Whatever the drink was, Thassarian could smell the raw power of the alcoholic content of it from across the table. He looked at the dead flowers and thought about what his sister had said.
“Must be worth trying then,” he said as Mimbihi appeared next to their table as if by magic, “Mimi, a bottle of whatever my friend here is having, please, and…whatever it is you use to get the dwarves drunk.”
He leaned across the table and took up one of the full glasses as the troll woman smiled.
“I got what ya need,” she said and winked.
Thassarian felt the liquor go down smoothly but with a subtle heat trailing after it as he mimicked the elf and finished the glass in a single, long swallow. When he set the glass down, he felt the warmth expand like a pulsing light in his chest as Koltira smiled lazily at him.
“Well,” Koltira drawled, “I see you haven’t entirely forgotten how to have a good time. So how about I forget that you’re an idiot, and you tell me what I’ve missed while I’ve been gone.”
His smile twisted a little as he raised another glass in a mock toast as he added, “Besides you, of course.”
The alcohol made it easier for Thassarian to ignore the guilt the last remark provoked. Mimbihi reappeared soon enough, returning as if summoned every time they began to run low on their drinks. The elf tried the whiskey, declared it was shit, and finished the decanter. The human retorted it was no more shit than elven mead, and dodged the glass that flew past his head. No one took mind of the breaking glass or the progressively louder and drunker recounting Thassarian made of the past six years.
After he left to take a prolonged piss, he returned to find his chair had disappeared and Koltira dragged him onto the bench beside him, blaming the nearby group of tauren playing cards for taking it. The alcohol made it easy to accept the lie and fall in next to the elf, comfortably pressed shoulder to shoulder. The increasingly loud music and liquor helped to drown out the tiny tendrils of panic that normally started to choke Thassarian every time he was this close to Koltira. Alcohol had made it easier after Andorhal too, made those first months after a drunken blur, the same blur that now made his vision swim and his grasp clumsy when he reached for his mug.
A slender, tattooed hand helped right the sloshing mug before it tipped; Thassarian saw flashing gold and green as a night elf demon hunter slipped onto his lap, straddling his legs with her own. She pressed him up against the wall in his seat, her sharp-clawed hands resting lightly on his chest. Her eyes and the curling tattoos glowed green, the gold from threads embroidered onto her brief clothing.
“Easy there,” she said, her low voice rich and teasing, “My name is Nyalas, and I’ve got a bet I think you can help me with.”
She glanced sideways at Koltira and then back to Thassarian, a wicked grin curling the corners of her full mouth. The night elf leaned forward, speaking in soft, confidential tones by the drunken human’s ear. Thassarian felt her, warm and soft and pressed quite firmly against him and he could feel Koltira watching them both, but in no hurry to extricate him from the situation.
“My friend over there, cheating at cards, he says the ears are the most sensitive part of a blood elf. I say it’s the eyebrows.” Nyalas smiled, one hand gently curled around the back of the human’s neck in a half-caress, “Now, I’m certain you know which one of us is right.”
Drunk or not, Thassarian felt a surge of panic or possible vomit start to rise in his throat.
“I’m afraid you’re both wrong,” the other death knight cut in, much to his relief.
The night elf turned, her attention piqued. Koltira smiled slowly, looking like a big, sun-warmed cat as he stretched and bent to retrieve something, disappearing underneath the table briefly. He reappeared with a sheathed Byfrost, which he dropped onto the table with a loud clatter, his gaze never leaving the demon hunter.
“I think you’ll find the most sensitive part of any death knight,” he said, “is his runeblade, Nyalas. And my friend here happened to forget his tonight, so…either way, you’ve lost your bet.”
She half-turned and looked over at one of the tauren as she shrugged. The tauren laughed and collected some coins from the table. Thassarian felt his panic recede as she slipped from his lap. The edge in Koltira’s voice cut through his alcoholic haze, sending more heat through him than the dwarven whiskey. If he wasn’t so drunk, he would have forced down the sensation of pleasure it brought him to hear the elf sound so…jealous.
“My apologies,” he said, in Thalassian, to the surprise of the demon hunter, “Perhaps you’ll have better luck another night.”
He spoke to her but he watched the other death knight. Just as when he spoken elvish before, it clearly affected Koltira. The flush in his cheeks deepened a shade and he pushed aside a half-full glass and grabbed Byfrost as he stood, swaying a little.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, also in Thalassian, “That drumming is starting to get annoying.”
Thassarian had only managed a few stumbling steps outside the tavern into the cool night air of the city before he found himself, quite unceremoniously, tossed up against the stone side of the building. Koltira’s liquor-tinted mouth pressed on his in a hard and prolonged kiss.
“Your elvish is better when you’re drunk,” the elf growled as he pulled back a fraction of an inch before returning to the kiss, his arms circling the human’s waist and pinning him in the embrace.
Thassarian felt the elf’s cock grind against him, hard and unmistakable as the kiss. He wanted to melt into the sensations raising heat along every inch of his frozen skin as Koltira broke away to move down to press kisses along his throat. He felt his own cock harden in response to the other’s body pressed against him, to the warm mouth tracing kisses from under his chin to just under his ear. It felt like a dream and a nightmare all at once.
He knew what he wanted, as he looked up at the night sky, baring his throat to those kisses, and he also knew it didn’t matter. Because now, as always, his past sins would return to haunt him.
Did you know what he was when you raised him, Falric?
Choking. Drowning. Not drowning. Submerged and fighting for a surface that didn’t exist.
No, your grace. I knew him only as Killoren’s son.
He wrenched away and took a few staggering steps into the street, half-bent over with his hands on his knees, trembling like a leaf. Cobblestones, moonlight, the reek of alcohol from his own instinctive and gasping breath. He felt the elf’s light touch on his arm like a blow and he reeled away from it.
“Don’t,” he slurred, “Don’t…don’t fucking touch me.”
He saw the alarm on the other knight’s face and he wanted to erase it, to change it to anything else.
“Thassarian,” Koltira said sharply, “What is wrong? You look…” He stepped towards him, reaching out again as if to touch him, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
There it was again. Concern. Thassarian stepped back from the elf, his own hands raising protectively in front of him. Even then, Koltira seemed undeterred in his effort to help and Thassarian felt a rush of self-loathing pour through him as he said the words he knew would push the other away, the words that would make that pity disappear. He didn’t deserve it, he told himself, and Koltira would feel the same too, if he knew.
“I don’t see ghosts, elf,” he said, “That’s just you. I told you, before. This…” he waved a hand wide, aware the alcohol was making him look a fool, “itsa bad idea. Told you.”
As intended, the words erased the expression on Koltira’s face. The concern, maybe even affection that had softened the sharp angles of the elf’s face vanished, and he looked instead simply tired and defeated. He took a few steps back from the human and raised his hands in the air, as if to surrender. The blue light of the street lamps cast shadows across the street, leaving the elf half-shrouded in darkness.
“I’m not touching you,” he said flatly, “All right? You can stop glaring at me like a wild animal. It was foolish of me to assume that you rescued me for any other reason than because the Ebon Blade required another errand boy for the Death Lord.”
He shifted forward slightly, breaking free from the shadow and Thassarian could see the pain etched into the elf’s face and he wished it was anger, or anything but an expression of utter and total exhaustion. Koltira’s shoulders sagged as he leaned against the street lamp, one hand rising to shield his eyes from the light.
“Thassarian,” he said, his voice somewhat muffled, “Just…fuck off, all right? Just…leave.”
Thassarian left him there, because he did not know what else to do, and because now pleasure had been replaced by pain, and that was terrible and familiar and it was right. It had been a long time since he’d tried opening a Death Gate while drunk and he only managed to earn a few annoyed looks from passersbys rather than successfully opening a portal.
Finally, cursing under his breath, he gave up, and stumbled his way to the commerce quarters. When he’d tried the keys once, twice, he fell inside when Leryssa opened the door. She didn’t say anything at all but set the candle she held on the steps and disappeared upstairs. She came back down with a folded blanket that she wedged underneath his pounding head. He felt her small hand stroke his hair and he thought of their mother.
“I’m sorry, Lyssa,” he mumbled.
She blew out the guttering candle with a sigh, her hand still gentle against his throbbing temple.
“I know,” she said, her voice soft with sorrow, “I know. I told you. I’ll always be here, Thass. Whenever you return to me."
Chapter 9: Intrusive Thoughts
Koltira had never felt a hangover begin while he was still drunk, but undeath gave one plenty of time for new experiences. It started when he took the death gate he cast to Acherus and the rippling energy of the journey left him queasy on the other side. He staggered to the nearby balcony and vomited over the side, watching with detached interest as his dinner fell to the ocean below. It vanished into dark, glittering waves that rolled slowly onto the jagged shores of the land below. Here and there, he could pick out the fires of camps along the pale beaches bordering the edges of the land he learned was called Azsuna.
He stepped back and almost tripped as he did so, barely managing to avoid a fall as he grabbed for the railing. The misshapen, hunched body of Janitor Edwards shrunk away from him. The wight clutched a broom across his body like he feared a blow might be coming. Koltira, instead, leaned over the edge of Archeus again and vomited once more, a sour, frozen slurry of alcohol and food arcing out to an admirable distance.
When, finally, he finished, Edwards had climbed up beside him. The servant offered him a towel more grey than white and Koltira took it without looking too closely.
“Bad lunch,” the wight said mournfully, “I see it, master. Never eat the food on Tuesdays. It’s always leftovers Tuesdays.”
He held out his hand and took back the soiled towel, which he tucked into his belt without taking notice of the mess. Koltira was reminded, rather forcefully, why he always came back to Archeus. No one cared and it felt comforting.
“Thanks for the tip,” he said, “Aren’t you usually supposed to be trailing after Siouxsie, though?”
Edwards ducked his head and began to sweep vigorously (if ineffectively) at the stone floor. His misshapen hands clutched the broom handle tightly, as if it could hide how they trembled.
“No, no, no, master,” he stuttered, “I’m to s-sweep the floors, and tidy, and M-master Darion said to me, he said Edwards you’re a g-good man and a real, real servant of the Ebon Blade, so if-if someone bothers you, just c-come to me.”
He looked up while uttering this last statement, clearly attempting to be brave even though he still shook like a green recruit before their first battle. Koltira admired the gesture for the effort he knew it must have taken for Edwards to offer defiance, however tame, to a death knight.
“The High Lord has excellent judgement,” he said soberly, “I do not doubt you are most accomplished at your tasks. I do have something you may be able to help me with, Edwards, though it has nothing to do with sweeping.”
The wight tried ineffectively to straighten his posture to stand to attention, a posture that his body…or parts of his body…must have recalled from an old life.
“Yes, master,” he said without stuttering this time, “Happy to serve.”
“I’ve been away for some time, and I was wondering if you knew of any rooms where I could stay for the night. I’m sure you know about all the empty nooks and corners of this place.”
Koltira slathered on the compliments, since it seemed to make the wight talk a little faster. Edwards smiled---or at least, it seemed to be a smile---and he squinted up at the elf as if seeing him for the first time.
“Ohhhh,” he said, “I know, yes, I know. Follow me, I can show you.”
He limped forward eagerly, the broom dragging the floor behind him as he walked. Koltira followed him at the maddeningly slow pace that the wight could manage on his bowed legs.
“Master Thassarian told me,” he said proudly, “‘An elf with a big green sword’, he told me. He knows I’m dependable, knew I’d remember, and I told him of course sir, anything for you sir, what with his kind manners. And he would never leave a mess like some of the masters, oh no, but with a pardon me, Edwards, or would you kindly, as nice as you like.”
He stopped and laughed, cupping a hand shyly over his mouth as if to hide embarrassment, “Even calls me sir, like I was some great knight like him. I fair fell on my face laughing, ‘cept it wouldn’t be nice.”
Koltira folded his arms over his chest and tapped his foot, unamused by the wight’s story.
“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, “You’re very good and dependable, I’m sure, now can we please keep moving?”
The janitor shrank back a little and resumed his hobbling walk.
“Of course, master,” he muttered, adding in low, grumbling tones, “Always keep moving, course I do, never stop moving, never stop cleaning...”
His grumbling complaints continued the entire time they walked along one of the wider hallways that spanned most of Archeus in a long arc. The wight ducked abruptly into a smaller hall that jutted off a few feet and ended in a door. Edwards fumbled for what seemed an eternity inside a pouch that hung from his belt before triumphantly producing a very rusted key. He rattled it inside the lock and Koltira heard the metal give a little whine before it snapped and the wight withdrew the jagged stump of the broken key.
“Oh dear,” Edwards said and began to stutter again, “I’m s-sorry master, this is an old room, a small room, not used m-much, I c-couldn’t open it myself before. It’s a bad room, fair a closet I swear, l-let me find you a better one.”
He dove aside and wrapped his arms around his head as the elf strode forward with his runeblade brandished high. Koltira poured every ounce of drunken frustration and anger into every stroke as he smashed at the door with Byfrost like he was wielding a hammer and not a sword. When the warped wood gave way in great splintering chunks, he reached inside and unlocked the door from the other side and kicked it open.
Edwards hadn’t lied. It was a small room, with scarce enough room for a bed and a chest. But as Koltira stepped inside, he heard passing knights and the metallic sound of metal on metal and he realized he must be close to the runeforges. This room would never be completely silent, even if he had the door pieced together again from the shards now scattered all over the carpet. A room that would have been an insult to offer to most death knights was the perfect (if small) place for him in Archeus.
The spirits would not find him here. There would never be any silence for them to emerge.
He felt his anger drain away as he heard muffled sobbing from behind him. Edwards cowered underneath a particularly large piece of door paneling, retreating into the corner when he saw the death knight turn. The wight looked at once ridiculous and pathetic.
“P-please,” the wight wept, “I’m sorry, master, I’m s-s-s-sorry, I swear, please, please, please..”
He dissolved into incoherent begging, clearly out of his mind with fear. Koltira knelt and set aside his sword. Byfrost chuckled wickedly, whispering for blood in tones only the elf could hear. Edwards froze as Koltira lifted the jagged edge of the door piece that the wight clung to like a life preserver.
“Edwards,” Koltira said in calm, unhurried tones, “Come out from under there. The key was old, you can get me another one.”
He saw passing knights turn to stare and he returned their gaze with hateful intensity, daring them to say one goddamn word about his awkward position crouched on the floor trying to coax a terrified wight out from under a destroyed door. The janitor stopped shaking somewhat and cautiously looked from under his improvised shield like a turtle from its shell.
“T-truly, master,” he whispered tearfully, “I did not mean t-to break your door. P-please, don’t hurt me. I’ll clean. I’ll fix.”
Koltira held out his hand.
“I know,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt anything, Edwards. Now come out from under there, before someone thinks I’ve been beating you.”
The wight looked disbelievingly at the elf’s outstretched hand. Tears and snot trailed down his pale mottled face in wide sticky streaks. He did not take the elf’s hand, but opted instead to scuttle to the side, away from the death knight and towards the hall beyond, dragging the piece of door with him.
“Yes, yes,” he babbled, “You are t-too kind, master, I see it, too kind to beat a poor old servant like me. I’ll fix it, you’ll see. High Lord Darion says I’m good at it, you know, an old hand at it, patching things, cleaning, tending, a real asset to the castle, he says, and if anyone bothers you, Edwards, you just come to me, he says, I’ll set it right…”
His voice trailed away after him as he retreated down the hall, never turning his back on Koltira. The elf picked up Byfrost and kicked aside some debris as he stepped through the now permanently opened door into the room. His room, apparently. He investigated the bed and found, without much trouble, that he could sleep there. The alcohol he’d managed to keep down kept him from lingering too much over the idea that Thassarian had gone out of his way to find somewhere that he could call his own without being tormented by spirits.
The thought would only make him angry again. He was tired of tearing himself in two trying to figure out why Thassarian acted first one way, and then another. It reminded him of the first few days after Light’s Hope Chapel. He had felt nothing except numb confusion and purposelessness when he watched the death knight set off for Stormwind alone and bearing a letter with Tirion Fordring’s seal on it. The same throbbing ache, just under his breastbone, returned now as he kicked off his shoes and lay back on top of the covers on the bed.
Koltira stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep to come. Instead, morning came first. He listened to the hammering from the nearby forges grow in intensity until he finally gave up and left the room. He almost closed the door behind him, then just left it there, half-open. The shattered pieces of the door still lay on the floor outside his room, along with a broom that Edwards must have left when he ran.
He stepped over the mess and made his way towards the noise of hammering and alternating waves of cold and heat that emanated from the fires and frost that powered the runeforges of Archeus. Saronite might have unique qualities but the greenish-grey ore needed to be refined like anything other metal and every blade began as an unshaped rod that required heat to be tempered and shaped. Byfrost itself had always been Koltira’s blade even before his first death, but even she had required the addition of runes from the forges to truly empower the elf who wielded her.
The Vrykrul undead, including some knights, did most of the metalwork in Acherus. Siegemaster Corvus towered over even these tall people; according to rumor, he’d been raised from the skeleton of a giant. The skeleton brought raw strength and surprisingly delicate workmanship to the runeforges; every knight’s first blade came from Corvus’ hammer and anvil. Elements save anyone foolish enough to ask for a replacement. He turned now and fixed his unsettling gaze on Koltira, although the elf made no sound on his approach.
“You come for your new armor, Deathweaver,” he said, rather than asked, “Been a long time since I fitted an elf for new armor. Been a long time since I made something for you.”
Koltira gritted his teeth at this fresh sign of Thassarian’s handiwork but nodded at Corvus. The skeleton moved with slow, ponderous strides to a nearby armor rack adorned with black armor beaten silver around the edges and flushed with the color blue underneath the ebony surface. The elf felt the heat from the blacksmithing chimneys like a suffocating wave around him and he tugged at his shirt lacings to loosen them. Archeus was beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic for his taste.
“Hmph. Looks like there was an elf underneath that dirt after all.”
The orc death knight carried an oversized axe in one knotted, muscular hand and a half-shattered breastplate in the other. He tossed the breastplate over a nearby weapon rack with a clatter. Around the crack in the armor, Koltira could see claw-marks gouged into the metal.
“I like that one, can it be fixed?” he demanded, unperturbed by the lack of response from the elf.
The armorer, if he could have rolled his eyes (which were two burning points of blue flame inside his open skull) would have.
“Told you before, it’s never strong as before,” Corvus boomed, “Break a bone, it come back stronger. Break metal, best to just start over.”
“Always the same story with you,” Nazgrim shot back, “It’s just easier for you to dig out some old bone-cage from that heap you call an armory and tell an old orc it’s new. Can you fix it or not?”
The skeleton shrugged and gestured to his crowded work-bench, covered in pieces of armor and blades in various stages of progress. “Busy time right now, too. Give me two, three days, maybe I have something for you then.”
The orc growled.
“Can’t wait that long. Too many demons that need killing.”
Corvus slammed his hand onto the glowing anvil next to him, heedless of the heat rising from the surface. Koltira watched with interest as smoke began to rise from between the joints of the skeletal hand.
“I told you,” he shouted, “Two, three days. Maybe a week! Third time this month you bring back my good armor in pieces!”
“If it’s so good, then why does it keep breaking?”
“You know,” Koltira interjected, “You really don’t need armor at all. If you’re skilled enough in battle, that is.”
Nazgrim and Corvus rounded him at the same time. The skeleton glowered at the suggestion, while the orc looked mildly surprised to have their shouting match interrupted.
“All a death knight requires,” the elf said, “Is a blade.”
He drew Byfrost from its sheath and held it outstretched in his left hand, the blade laid lightly over the back of his right.
“Any untrained idiot can be raised---and I’ve seen it done---stuffed into a suit of armor, handed a runeblade and still manage to slaughter half a dozen well-trained opponents. If blood loss isn’t a lethal threat, you’ve got to dismember your opponent to stop them, which is more difficult if they’re in plate.”
The orc listened but he looked skeptical.
“Did you interrupt a perfectly good argument to lecture myself and a blacksmith about armor, Deathweaver?” he said.
Koltira flashed a quick smile and shifted forward, bringing Byfrost up in a smooth, underhanded arc that ended just short of the orc’s breastbone.
“When I was referring to untrained idiots, that did not include you, General,” he said, watching a fire ignite in the orc’s eyes as he realized he’d been caught by surprise, “I merely meant to offer you a chance to engage in some friendly combat, without armor. Come to the pit, and I’ll show you what a death knight can do with only a weapon.”
He watched the muscles tighten in the orc’s arms and shoulders as Nazgrim stepped back and lifted his rune-axe in both hands in a defensive posture.
“You,” the orc said frankly, “I like you. But you’ve been here two days. Three, maybe since you couldn’t make it down a hallway on your own. No shame in it, you’ve been ill-treated. But there’s no honor in fighting a weaker opponent.”
Koltira felt his blood rise at the jab and he tried his best to conceal it. Emotion was weakness, even anger was a weakness in battle. He had tried to tell Thassarian that before. The savagery the man showed in battle proved useful in intimidating enemies, but it also left the human wide open to threat if he got carried away by bloodlust. He kept his face blank of expression; no frown, no smile, no betraying sign of anger in furrowed brows or narrowed eyes.
“I know,” he said smoothly, “That’s why I’m asking you now. It really wouldn’t be fair otherwise, once I’ve regained my strength, you might never get a decent chance to challenge me in combat. At least today you might pose a threat.”
The first Horseman of the Ebon Blade, former general to Warchief Garrosh Hellscream, laughed.
“Ah, boy,” he said, “You remind me of every elf I’ve ever fought before. Arrogant, love to talk, and so eager to find your own death. But, you got the drop on me and that’s not easy, so I suppose you’ve earned the right to lose to me in combat.” He grinned, a ghostly white snarl in his grey face. “The Pit it is.”
Chapter 10: Threatened Death
This is a long one, I'm trying to get more plot involved and there's a lot of moving pieces. I promise it's not all anger and fighting all the time just...a lot of time. They're death knights, goddamn it! But don't worry. The next chapter should have some...heated exchanges that I can't wait to do. Don't think this particular pairing has happened before.
By the time the elf and the orc had reached the Pit, the news of the bout had traveled around Acherus at least twice over. Death knights sparred all the time; injury was passé and death not unheard of when someone lost control. But a fight without armor, and between such seemingly ill-matched opponents? That was news. Death knights, their minions, servants and even a few of the curious undead mages who worked there gathered around the circular pit set into the bottom floor of Acherus. Here, new and old death knights had tested their mettle against abominations and monstrosities; proved their loyalty and obedience to Arthas by slaughtering prisoners. Skeletons in manacles still lined the wall of the Pit, some half-crumbled, others intact and partially mummified in their chains where they had starved or slowly bled to death.
Nazgrim shucked off the rest of his armor and tossed it over the edge in a pile. He even, with exaggerated care, removed the leather jerkin he wore as if to emphasize his dedication to the rules of the bout. The elf took the opportunity to assess his opponent; the orc’s hair might be white, but he moved with an old warrior’s confidence and grace, in no hurry to rush into combat, even though his muscles attested to long hours of training. Whatever Nazgrim might have been before undeath, it had not been soft. He joined Koltira in the center of the Pit, both knights already wary, their weapons readied.
Koltira laughed now too, a cold and mirthless sound.
“Rules, really? Who has been training you orc, a wet nurse?”
He feinted left, leaving his flank open before dropping underneath Nazgrim’s swing. Most death knights abandoned any attempts at subtlety or movement in combat; it simply wasn’t necessary with their other powers. That made this kind of dance more satisfying to Koltira, as he tucked his blade close to himself and rolled to the right, coming up on his feet behind the orc.
“If you insist,” he said, tapping the flat of his blade on the orc’s ribs, “Whoever can land the first three blows. By my count, you’re already behind by one.”
Nazgrim turned with surprisingly speed, his rune-axe gripped in one hand, the other extending towards the elf to send a death grip snaking around the elf’s throat. The green mist tightened around Koltira’s neck like a constrictor around its prey, but the knight merely grinned and sent out a returning death coil that snaked around the orc’s feet and sent the orc sprawling on the stone floor. He managed to move with the momentum, coming up on one knee but fury lit the orc’s eyes and he snarled, baring tusks and teeth at the other, his blood lust clearly alive.
“You’ve been fighting too many demons,” Koltira said lightly, “Save the choking for living opponents. Unless of course, you’re just tired of my voice.”
He deliberately turned his back on his opponent and bowed deeply to the quickly-swelling crowd gathered around to watch the fight. Good. He didn’t see Thassarian there. The scuffle of footsteps moving towards his unprotected back alerted him in term for him to drop to his knees, bending backwards under the swinging arc of Nazgrim’s axe. Byfrost scarcely had to stir in his hand, as the orc’s own movement carried Nazgrim along the vicious edge of the runeblade, opening a long shallow wound along the orc’s ribs. Wielding a weapon lefthanded came with certain advantages against righthanded opponents. The blood that now stained Byfrost sent a heady rush of fresh energy through the runes on the blade and the elf’s body, illuminating them with an eerie blue light that made it look like the elf was underwater.
“Two,” Koltira managed to say before Nazgrim whirled to the right and further onto the blade of Byfrost.
The action forced the blade deeper into the orc’s flesh and sent yet more blood rushing from the wound. It afforded him a moment of surprise and Nazgrim smashed the flat of his axe across Koltira’s chest. It knocked the breath from the elf’s lungs and he staggered backwards, unprepared for the force of the blow. The orc pressed his advantage and shifted forward. He moved with the practiced, smooth grace of an experienced fighter and when he drew blood, it was just a delicate line that traced from Koltira’s neck to collarbone.
“One,” he said.
The deep, growling statement sent unexpected tension rippling along the elf’s spine and raised the small fine hairs on the back of his neck. The combination of tasting Nazgrim’s blood and having his own blood taken set his blood-lust burning in his veins. The two knights circled each other, both wary now, having tested the other’s mettle. Koltira balanced Byfrost in one hand and raised the free hand towards the orc. The sluggish blood in Nazgrim’s vein stirred to unlife underneath the orc’s skin. It began to bubble and simmer with unnatural heat.
“Blood boil. Lethal in most living creatures, save elementals. Now, you may ask— “the elf continued to move as he relished the waves of pain that rolled from the orc to feed his hunger, “Why would I use such magic on you, since I believe we established that such magic is less effective against undead opponents?”
His senses, heightened by feeding on blood and pain, caught the signs of Nazgrim’s charge before it happened.
“It’s a lesson in basics, really. Maintaining your movement while casting magic attack. Move, cast, but never stop.”
Koltira grounded himself against the attack and used his shoulder and Byfrost’s hilt to crack into the orc’s shoulder. The blow had to hurt, Koltira knew it hurt, he could feel it. But Nazgrim grinned, leaned in close and spoke in a frosty breath that gusted the elf’s ear.
“Two, elf. You’re falling behind.”
They broke apart and blood gushed from the wound underneath Koltira’s sword-arm, just above his ribs and under his armpit. He gritted his teeth and pushed back the nagging sensation that Nazgrim was toying with him. When the rune-axe had bit into his flesh, the orc had drawn on necromantic energy from the wound to empower the blade. Nevertheless, engaging in non-lethal combat pushed the limits for every death knight. Bloodshed and pain helped to drive a knight, but only death itself could renew and satisfy the gnawing hunger inside them.
“I see you favor unholy powers,” he spat, “This should make my next experiment even more educational.”
He smiled with bloodstained teeth and beckoned to the desiccated corpses and skeletons that lined the Pit. A low murmur ran through the watching crowd as the bodies twitched and jerked to unlife and left behind arms and limbs behind in manacles or cuffs as they crawled or walked towards the center of the arena.
The orc death knight widened his stance and took a defensive position. The outline of an anti-magic circle shimmered into place over him in a pale blue dome. A relatively weak minion such as an animated skeleton or zombie would disintegrate instantly if they attempted to breach such a barrier. The staggering, lurching, moaning circle of minions tightened around the two knights and Nazgrim hefted his axe in both hands, clearly prepared for attack. Instead, Koltira beckoned to his new army. Too late realization dawned in the orc’s eyes as the minions bypassed him entirely and surrounded the mad, smiling elf.
Byfrost sang as Koltira whirled in place, the blade extended at arm’s length. One by one, the minions crumbled as the runeblade bisected them. A burst of delicious energy flashed along the sword and empowered the elf.
I have bestowed on you a singular gift, Koltira.
He shook away the sudden thought like a gnat. Not here, he thought. He couldn’t start hearing voices around other people. Why, though, did it feel like remembering?
He strode forward, his jaw set and both hands on Byfrost’s hilt as the shattered bones rose in a bonestorm that swirled and clattered around him. The shield moved as he did. Empowered by Scourge death, Koltira shattered the magical barrier with a single blow and attacked. Nazgrim parried the blow handily and the elf released his grip on the runeblade and let it go flying. Byfrost screeched in metallic protest as the blade skidded across the floor. The unexpected lack of resistance sent Nazgrim off-balance, following the swing of his own forceful blow.
And Koltira was on him like a tiger. He seized the orc and used Nazgrim’s own momentum against him. He took the orc to the floor with a ringing crack as the other knight’s head hit the floor. The orc general still held his weapon but the daze from the blow left him vulnerable and Koltira pinned his arms as he straddled the orc’s chest. In a flash, he bent down to the orc’s exposed throat. With exaggerated care, he wrapped his teeth around the orc’s jugular, mouthing at that cold throat as if in a lover’s caress. He pulled back a fraction of an inch and felt the rush of victory as he chuckled hoarsely.
“I lied,” he whispered, “A death knight needs nothing, not even a runeblade. Death is all that is required.” He sat back and rose from his opponent. “And that makes three.”
The cold silence of Acherus trembled for a moment as the crowd waited, without drawing breath or speaking, to see the reaction of the defeated orc. Koltira did not know what to expect either and paused for a fraction for a second before he offered his hand to the general.
“Good fight,” Nazgrim said and something warm and dark ran underneath his voice as he added quietly, “Almost had you, though.”
He took the offered hand and pulled himself onto his feet. His hand remained wrapped around Koltira’s and he raised it in the air in a sign of victory.
“Acherus,” Nazgrim roared, “I give you, Koltira Deathweaver. Returning son of the Ebon Blade!”
The silence shattered into deafening applause and death knights flooded into the pit around them both. Some offered sage advice about future techniques to use in combat, while others offered jeering advice to the First Horseman, who grinned and offered to let them practice on him, if they felt like it. A few pressed forwards to seek out Koltira and offered their own welcome.
“It’s good to have you back, Deathweaver.”
“Banshee bitch couldn’t keep you down, eh? About bloody time we took back our own.”
He almost stepped back when he felt a hand on his arm but repressed the impulse as a familiar voice exclaimed, “Koltira, at last, I’ve been meaning to find you when I heard of your successful rescue. The Ebon Blade was lesser without you.”
The elf’s eyebrows shot upwards as he felt himself pulled into a hug by none other than former Highlord Darion Mograine. The man’s eyes were bloodshot and bleary and he looked far thinner than Koltira recalled. He felt even less substantial, as the elf hesistantly returned the gesture and felt the outlines of the death knight’s spine and shoulder blades under his hands. Mograine leaned into the embrace like he needed the support. Dark grey streaked the man’s hair and it looked unwashed and uncombed. He stood back and clapped Koltira on the arm.
“I see you’ve made yourself right at home,” he said, with a smile that looked thin and brittle around the edges.
“I have, my lord,” Koltira said and bowed his head, “It is an honor to once again serve the Ebon Blade.”
By the Fel, he thought, did he smell liquor on Darion’s breath?
He glanced around him and felt his blood rise when, as if drawn by fate, he found Thassarian steadily moving forward through the crowd. He watched the elf with the measured patience of a wolf on the hunt; his pale blue eyes burned against the dark, shadowy purple of the tattoos that outlined them like a mask. As always, he maintained the rigidly correct posture of a soldier in his full set of saronite armor, a runeblade sheathed at each hip. He looked prepared for a journey. Death Lord Rahjin accompanied him side by side. The troll watched with a much more relaxed, almost jovial expression, but he too looked prepared for battle.
They flanked Mograine and the gesture looked strangely protective to the elf. Next to the formidable pair, Darion looked diminished and haggard with his red-rimmed eyes and clothes that looked slept in. Koltira felt uncomfortable and chased away the returning thought that the man was drunk, now, at 9 am in the morning. Mograine had never been known for indulging himself in anything. He had led them all when they were leaderless. He had earned the benefit of the doubt.
“Death Lord,” Koltira said, “I hope you enjoyed the fight.”
Rahjin smiled crookedly at the elf and Nazgrim who broke away from several admiring knights to rejoin them.
“You two looked you both did, maybe too much. Those fancy new clothes be covered in blood.”
“A baptism for them, then,” he suggested, “I should start wearing more red.”
“You should start wearing more armor,” Thassarian interjected in unamused tones.
Koltira felt a flicker of sadistic amusement as he seized on the statement.
“I agree, I was meaning to speak with the Death Lord about that. Since there is a beautifully untarnished set of plate waiting for me with Corvus, I wanted a chance to test it, perhaps against some of the Legion’s forces. I’m more than ready for it.”
He nodded at Nazgrim, “I think you’ll find he agrees.”
The orc snorted as he wiped away some of the blood trickling along his side and studied the dark blood on his hand.
“At the point of a bloody runeblade, I do,” he grumbled, “Made me look like a green recruit in front of half of Acherus. Best goddamn fight I’ve had since I came back.”
Koltira felt the silent frustration rolling off Thassarian and he relished it. The human was unhappy about the fight, he could tell, and even unhappier about this new turn of conversation, but as usual, he remained silent until he felt he had the best opportunity to object. The small group took the conversation to the upper floor and to the mission table in the center. Siouxsie made a dry comment about death knights and chatty sewing circles as she circled the table, covered by a map she had pinned down with a couple of wicked little daggers. Like most night elves, she carried the advantage of height over everyone around her except for the Death Lord. His long red hair, fixed in dozens of small tight braids, fell forward around his shoulders as everyone in the group leaned in around a map of the Hinterlands. Underneath the sardonic and unflappable exterior, Koltira could see a hard, cold intelligence lurking behind his deep-set, dark blue eyes, so dark they came close to black. He could not have more perfectly fit the description of the terrifying stories about trolls that elves told their children to make them behave.
“There,” Siouxsie said, flattening a hand on the map and laying a smooth nail on it, “That’s the target or, rather, the body inside it. Thoras Trollbane. Former ruler of the human kingdom of Stromgarde, long-deceased, and survived in death by his son Galen, who is seeking to rebuild his father’s legacy from the ashes.”
She looked up from underneath her dark lashes to Rahjin as she continued, “Unfortunately, they have a bit of a troll problem. Witherbark tribe members have entrenched themselves in and around the former keep. Without the ability to assert control over his own castle, Galen can hardly launch a campaign against the numerous camps across the surrounding lands.”
Darion coughed and spoke up.
“So, in exchange for the Ebon Blade’s…assistance in the matter, Galen has agreed to allow us to call upon his father to see if he wishes to further serve Azeroth in death. He would be an eminently suitable second Horseman; he died an untimely death---some would say an unnatural death.”
He faltered for a moment on those last words and his head bowed between two tensed shoulders. His hands, folded into tight fists and leaned onto the table, gleamed bone-white over the knuckles from tension. Koltira caught a small look that passed between Rahjin and Thassarian across the table and he felt his gut twist in jealousy. The look evoked concern but it was the causal intimacy in it that rankled. It spoke of familiarity and comradery. To speak without the need of words meant more than any sentence could.
Six years. Six years. Six years and he’d rotted in a cage.
Darion lifted his head and continued, as if nothing had happened.
“This often results in a soul that is willing to return to their body for a chance to do some good, accomplish deeds they left unfinished in life. He was noted as fearless and ruthless on the battlefield, and he commonly won on fields where the enemy’s numbers far outweighed his using superior strategy. We could use that.”
The orc horseman remained uncharacteristically quiet for once, as if he judged it wiser to listen now than to speak. Rahjin shifted back and stood back from the table as he considered the proposal. The troll leaned on the handle of his rune-axe, his body seemingly relaxed but his eyes narrowed.
“Can ya say trolls and not enemies, Mograine,” he said absently, “The man wasn’t called Trollbane for nothing. You and Siouxsie both, actin’ like I never killed my own kind before. Matter of fact, hunting troll is the best fun of all.”
His voice dropped into a silky purr as his accent noticeably thickened.
“Ain’t dat right, Deathweaver? You from Silvermoon, I bet you hunted more den a few Amani in your time.”
The words contained a challenge, a barb, a little hidden sting. In a way, he reminded Koltira of a magister who taught a class in logical argumentation. The man remained unfailingly patient, never rising to a bait, but somehow tricking his students into tying themselves into knots with their own reasoning. To become emotional was to miss the point.
“Some,” Koltira said, with a half-shrug, “To be honest, I never made it too far outside the city. I could tell you I rained fury on them, but I never got assigned to a Farstrider unit. Apparently, it was against protocol for someone my age, especially since I was my brother’s only surviving family. Parents died when we were young, you see. Troll attack.”
He did his best to sound bored by the entire conversation and watched the flicker of surprise on Thassarian’s face. It had been months---no, years, before the human had ever pried any personal information from him. That story he remembered telling during one of those rare evenings in Andorhal, when they’d taken a break from planning another joint attack on the Scourge forces. It was easy to pretend they weren’t enemies when they spoke like that, so easily and comfortably, as if they didn’t wear the colors of opposing forces.
“You…grew up without your parents?”
“I was twelve, I was lucky. It was Faltora who missed the most. He was so young.”
“And there was no one else, no relatives to take you in?”
“No one, at least, not family. When my brother died, our family name died with him, the last honorable member of an old and honorable elven house. I’m not fit to bear it anymore.”
Thassarian cleared his throat.
“If Thoras Trollbane is indeed our goal, Death Lord,” he said ponderously, “I see only one obstacle. Transportation. I assume that our access to Undercity’s portals has been, at least for now, cut off. That would make the closest portal in Silvermoon City. Is our…friend still willing to use her contacts there to make the arrangements?”
That sly, manipulative bastard. Koltira felt the rage he thought he’d spent in the Pit flood back and he struggled not to show it on his face. He knew, he knew, that miserable son of a bitch knew that the elf had avoided ever returning to the elven city. And now he used it against Koltira in an entirely reasonable and logical proposal to ensure he would get his way and keep the elf out of active combat.
Rahjin made an impatient, dismissive gesture with one hand.
“Yes, the archmage is still wit us, Thassarian.” He winked at Siouxsie. “You think death knights gossip, mages are worse. Anyone with half a brain knows the mages and knights are working together against the Legion. If anyone wanted to make trouble about Karina and the Ebon Blade, they can take it up with me or her, and I don’t think anyone got the stomach for either.”
“Or the balls,” Siouxsie added dryly. “If we are doing this, Commander Thassarian is right, the most direct route to Stromgarde…outside of the Undercity portals we likely won’t be able to use for another age, at least…. lies in the portal in Silvermoon City. From there, a few flights and a good horse-ride will get us there within a day, two days at most.”
Her pale features gathered into a scowl as she added, in an angry mutter, “Or rather, you, I should say. I doubt even the archmage herself could get a night elf past those guards on the city portal.”
Ahh, there it was. Thassarian had talked himself into his own trap and he knew it. He opened his mouth, about to speak before Koltira preempted him.
“You are quite right,” the high elf said, “The portal to the city has been heavily guarded ever since it was required to send away the children before Arthas attacked. Once the last ships left, it was the only way to ensure the young ones could escape. I could use it without much notice if, as you say, we have a willing mage with pull in the city. General Nazgrim and our Death Lord here could also make their way through the city streets with a little discretion.”
He looked directly at the human across him and let some of the anger that churned in his chest poison his words, “But humans, night elves? Even if the guards ignored the trespass, the commoners wouldn’t, especially if they recognized who it was. It wouldn’t do to have a riot on our hands because someone realized that the Lich King’s old lieutenant, especially one who played a key role in destroying the runestone defenses. I’m afraid Mograine and Thassarian will miss this particular…resurrection.”
At the same time that he felt pleasure in his deliberately chosen words meant to hurt the man, he felt the pain echo in himself as well. Damn Thassarian. He was done playing the human’s game. The game seemed to have no logical rules, but it made Thassarian by turns gentle and cruel; his only friend and constant rejecter at the same time. The elf couldn’t make sense of the affection he thought he’d seen underneath the mask and the drunk who had shoved him away last night in Dalaran. It felt like some monstrously cruel joke that after all of the Blightcaller’s efforts to break him, Koltira had escaped and finally would lose his mind in the freedom of Archeus.
“Regardless of my presence in this mission,” Thassarian said tightly, “It would be ill-advised for Deathweaver to accompany you. The Eastern Kingdoms are hardly a safe place for him right now, particularly so close to Sylvanas’s lands. Undead outposts line the outer wall of the Hinterlands; I’m sure they would be all too happy to attempt your retrieval in the name of the Banshee Queen. Galen himself might cut a deal with her for assistance in exchange for his return.”
Rahjin slammed his hand onto the mission table.
“Enough,” he said, “It is going to take a week for this mission if we keep fightin’ over the details. Nazgrim, Koltira, you’re with me. Wit armor this time. Any undead come for one of my knights, then dey in for a nasty surprise.”
He barked orders in a tone that brooked no argument, “The archmage will be here soon, so get ready for a journey. Thassarian, you be in charge when I am gone, work with Lady Siouxsie here to ensure new Legion threats are handled.”
Just like that, the disagreements melted away. Koltira had won, for the second time in a day. But while one victory had tasted so sweet, the other tasted as foul and unearned. He was going to Silvermoon. He was going…home to Quel’thalas. His victory took him back, with vicious pleasure, to the place he’d sworn he’d never return. And it was his own fucking fault.
Chapter 11: Conflict Resolution
“So. Ordered back to your room like a badly-behaved puppy, eh Thassarian?”
Siouxsie picked up the map from the command table and began to roll it up meticulously into a tight roll. She sounded faintly sarcastic but the human death knight had long ago learned that this was just her default tone of voice. The night elf slid the map into its leather casing and continued cleaning off all evidence of the plans made there just minutes ago. Even in Acherus, plans that involved raising new death knights could be sensitive materials and Siouxsie was nothing if not careful. Her meticulousness appealed to Thassarian’s own orderly nature. She had also provided more than a little assistance in planning the invasion into Undercity to retrieve Koltira. Even when the first plan consisted of her convincing a drunk Thassarian that “going through the front fucking door and getting him back” was a terrible idea.
“His reasoning was sound. My presence in Silvermoon could incite a riot if it became known,” Thassarian said, a touch of bitterness in his words. “I am to assume temporary command while the Death-Lord is away, and you are my second, Siouxsie. You have a good eye for potential threats and recommending knights for the job.”
The night elf took up her armful of map and scroll cases and made a slight bow.
“Commander Thassarian,” she said, “Truly, I’m honored. You really chose me, above everyone else, as your new distraction from the fact that Koltira Deathweaver, just now returned to our halls, is going on a secret mission into lands heavily patrolled by the same undead forces that held him captive for six years. I had no idea I could captivate your attention so much.”
She didn’t wait for an answer as she walked away with her armload of secrets. As usual, her dry and unvarnished wit went straight to the heart of the matter. The small strike force of Deathlord Rahjin, (former) General Nazgrim and Koltira would not take long in their preparations to leave. Once the new Archmage of the Tirisgarde arrived to provide transportation, they would be gone, for however long it would take to raise Thoras Trollbane.
Thassarian wanted to argue but the words died before they reached his lips. He knew she was right. He had let Koltira go---no, he had left Koltira behind too many times already, with too much unsaid and undone because he was a coward. Perhaps he could not accompany him to Silvermoon, but he could at least apologize. Try to make matters right between them before the elf left.
He found him in the armory, half-dressed in the new armor Covus had forged for the elf. The traditional black of the saronite gleamed here and there with deep navy blue and paler silver. Donning full plate was a difficult task to accomplish alone, if not impossible to do properly. Koltira barely gave him a glance as he slid his arms through the chestpiece that fit over his front and back, over the chain-shirt underneath.
The elf watched him with narrowed and distrustful eyes as Thassarian pulled tight the leather straps that allowed the chestplate to be adjusted to the size of the wearer. Even at the tightest clasp, it still hung too loosely on Koltira’s thin shoulders and chest.
“How did you do it?”
Thassarian raised his brow in question. The elf made a small noise of irritation and handed him a bracer. He held up his arm as the human slid the plate and leather guard in place around his wrist.
“The sizing, damn it, for the armor. I’m an inch taller than you, human armor is notoriously ill-fitted for most elves, so how did Corvus make this?
He flexed his hand experimentally as if to test whether the bracer was fitted too tightly or not.
“See, there. It’s perfect. Well, almost. Another 30, 40 pounds and this whole set will fit me like a glove.”
Koltira avoided the tension in the air like a practiced dancer. Anger radiated from underneath the elf’s tensed muscles but he restrained it, tamed it, kept it hidden like an animal does a wound so a predator does not spot its weakness. In a way, the human longed for him to snap and unleash that anger, if only to assuage the guilt he felt over his drunken misbehavior the night before. At times such as these, Koltira’s calm and unflappable restraint reminded the human forcibly that, despite their outer appearances, the elf was near 30 years his senior.
“Corvus took the measurements he had for Commander Thalanor and made some adjustments based on work he’d done for you before.”
He finished fastening the second bracer into place but did not let go. Instead, he grabbed Koltira’s hand in his and held it like an anchor as he plunged desperately ahead into his apology.
“Koltira. Damn it, let me at least start this before you interrupt. Before you leave, again, after I was a jackass last night. Alcohol doesn’t excuse what I did. Your…you offered me something good, something better than I deserve and I reacted without thought. I am sorry, and I would be sorrier than I can say if I let you leave without saying so.”
The elf’s eyes blazed with sudden revealed anger and he yanked Thassarian a step closer by their joined hands.
“And what? You’re sorry because you shoved me, Commander? I used more force to toss you up against that tavern wall and you don’t hear me apologizing for that, and you won’t. We’ve traded far worse blows in friendly combat, for Fel’s sake, so why, precisely, do you feel the need to unburden yourself to me? Nothing you did was new or unexpected to me.”
Thin and wasted as he was, his grip was iron-tight around the human’s hand. Thassarian felt his blood stir at those low, hate-filled words as the memory of being pinned and kissed flooded his mind again. He felt in this moment that if Koltira closed the gap between them now, he wouldn’t have the will to fight anymore.
“I---Koltira, I’m not your commander. I’m your friend and I am…afraid. Afraid that you’ll get hurt, afraid that you’re rushing to your destruction again because I’m too broken to accept what you keep offering to me.” Thassarian fought back the absurd idea that he might cry, because he hadn’t in years and wasn’t entirely certain he even could anymore. “I don’t want to push you away, my friend, but I’m not fit to be…I can’t be what you want.”
He realized his hand tightened overbearingly tight as he spoke and the words rushed out like steam from a broken pipe. Koltira leaned forward as if to repeat the kiss from the night before but brushed past his cheek to whisper low in his ear.
“Oh, Thassarian,” he said softly, “You’ve never pushed me away. You just leave me.”
He lingered there for a moment as they stood cheek to cheek, so close physically and yet so apart in thought. It was as if he dared Thassarian to contradict what he said. Any words the human might have said withered on his lips and he watched the elf leave. Visibly angry and once again in his full-plate armor, Koltira looked more elven, haughtier and more himself than he had since the rescue from Undercity. Even as Thassarian felt misery ache like a hollow drum under his breastbone, he felt a sense of pride too. After everything he had endured, Koltira Deathweaver would brook no argument that he was anything less than a harbinger of death and a true force on the battlefield.
Perhaps the anger Thassarian had inspired in him would keep the elf alive, for a little longer. Perhaps it would bring him back safe.
Chapter 12: Reinforcement Schedule
I apologize for the delay in updates; I wanted to make this chapter much longer but I realized a shorter (but sooner) update would likely be preferable.
Koltira decided anger could be useful after all.
The rage that coursed through his body muted the surrounding world; he hardly heard a word as the new archmage of the Tirisgarde arrived at Acherus. As she spoke with DeathLord Rah’jin, she traced a complex sigil onto the stone balcony to create the portal to Silvermoon City. Everything sounded like it came from a great distance and he focused on the cold rain that fell from the sky and beaded on his armor. Across from Koltira and on the other side of the circle that glowed on the ground, Nazgrim stood. The orc was now armored himself, although it did look as if Corvus had knocked a few dents out of an old set and handed it to him. His pale eyes met the elf’s briefly before his gaze lifted and turned to the two faction leaders who spoke in low tones.
The lanky troll deathlord bent down deeply to speak more easily with the blood-elf mage. Archmage Karina was short for a blood elf and Rah’jin was tall even by troll standards. The contrast might have interested Koltira more if he hadn’t been so consumed by his own thoughts.
Fuck Thassarian. Fuck him.
Every time Koltira thought he had resigned himself to the status quo of their unusual relationship, the human had to go and do something stupid. Words that the elf would have killed to hear him speak before now just stirred bitterness in his chest. Thassarian wouldn’t let him go, but he would never claim him. He couched his apology with disclaimers and once again, rejected the idea that anything more than friendship could exist between them. By now, Koltira decided that it didn’t matter if the man hesitated because of antiquated human bigotry or any other reason. He was tired of feeling unwanted.
When the watery and shifting outlines of Silvermoon City sprang to life as arcane power flooded the sigil, he didn’t hesitate to take the portal. Anywhere that took him away from the other death knight was good enough. Only when the picture solidified into reality did he realize that he might have miscalculated. None of the other death knights or the archmage stood in the small and, as he noted swiftly, heavily guarded room that held the only portal that led directly into the blood elf capital.
The guards that guarded the door from the inside came alive as they each drew their weapons. Koltira felt blood-lust flash hotter inside him at the aggressive action and their hard, fel-green eyes that scrutinized him like an unwanted menagerie attraction. He found the shimmering and near-translucent green color, a testament to their fel connection unsettled him and he felt his fingers twitch with longing to move to Byfrost’s hilt.
“Move and I’ll cut you down, death knight,” one guard said in pleasant, almost bored tones that reeked of arrogance, experience or both, “We were not told to expect you, so who conjured the portal?”
Out of the portal stepped the Archmage—or rather, half fell in her haste. Reflexively, Koltira took her elbow to help steady her on her feet as she drew herself up to her inconsiderable height. She raised her hand in a dismissive gesture as the guards tightened their circle around the portal and the death knight dropped his hand from her arm.
“He’s with me, “she said, “As are the rest of my guests who are to be arriving.”
The head guard—captain probably---maintained a readied, if deferential stance.
“My lady,” he said in low tones, “Is your father aware of this…incursion?”
Archmage Karina tilted her head to the side slightly.
“As I’m sure you know,” she said dryly, “There is very little that occurs in Silvermoon City that my father does not know about, this visit included. He’d be a poor advisor to Regent Theron if he didn’t.”
That explained the reaction of the guards. Karina was not only head of this new order of mages, she apparently had connections to the Sindorei upper-class. No wonder Deathlord Rah’jin had courted her assistance. Little else could have managed their discreet journey through the city, along back alleys and streets that seemed suspiciously empty for the time of day. Clearly, arrangements had been made to ensure that as few people as possible observed as the troll, orc, and elf death knight (cloaked and hooded) followed the brisk pace of the archmage to the flight master outside the city gates.
Koltira, for his part, kept his gaze fixed on the ground. It seemed to help fight back the sensation of unreality that crawled under his skin as he walked through a city that he’d been taken from so many years ago, over a decade now, since he had died on one of those streets before he’d stood again, as a death knight. He narrowly avoided crashing into Rah’jin as the Deathlord halted abruptly and the high elf realized they had arrived at the flightmaster. Several dragonhawks waited, already saddled and prepared for a flight. The trained mounts eyed the undead riders uneasily but did not refuse them as one blood elf attendant went to each one, soothing and stroking their beaks and handing the reins one by one to the designated rider. Sunlight filtered through the gold leaves of the forest and played along the shimmering green and pink feathers that lined the graceful but powerful flanks of the beasts. He noticed the Archmage also mounted a dragonhawk. Interesting. She must intend to accompany them.
“We’ve lost them.”
The young ranger wore the tabard and insignia that denoted her membership in the dragonhawk regiment of Silvermoon’s Army. It was bright, colorful and unstained by the battle that tossed against the walls of the city like an angry ocean.
“What do you mean, we’ve lost them? How many?”
“A-all of them, sir, none returned. Beasts, like beetles or spiders, they took down the riders with webbing and…and…”
The young ranger collapsed to her knees, her arms wrapped around her stomach as she bent double under the weight of her own words.
“They’re gone,” she said, almost keening, “I was meant to go and Commander Thalanor told me to s-stay with the city guard, said I wasn’t ready.”
Already numb himself, Koltira watched from the corner of the room as he cleaned and sharpened Byfrost. The ranger corps, the dragonhawk riders, one by one the city defenses were falling around them. It was only a matter of time, really. He had been among the first to report the Scourge incursion and, as it turned out, among the last to make it inside the safety of the gates before they had to be closed against the invading undead.
“Deathweaver. Ya alright?” Deathlord Rah’jin asked the question casually. Too casually.
Koltira stared straight ahead and didn’t turn at the question; he settled further into the lightweight leather saddles that made riding a dragonhawk possible. It pitched the rider forward and low across the dragonhawk’s back, between the powerful and bony shoulders.
“When the killing starts,” he said without emotion, “I’ll be right by your side.”
Ultimately, that seemed to quash any lingering doubts his companions as and the dragonhawks took flight. Perhaps Koltira had been used as a pawn for so long, it no longer occurred to him why he had fought so hard to be included in this mission; a mission to raise a long-dead human king of a crumbled kingdom that meant nothing to him, because a crazed troll seemed convinced it would prevent the end of the world. Or perhaps to cause it. When Thassarian got drunk at the tavern, his ability to explain the reasoning behind new knights for the Lich King had gotten a little fuzzy, especially because he had been trying to be discreet at the same time.
He brushed aside thoughts of Thassarian and it became easier as he realized the urge to kill rose inside him as the journey continued. At some Farstrider outpost at the farthest edge of Quel’thelas, they switched to fresh mounts before continuing onwards to the Hinterlands. The wind and wingbeats made conversation between the riders difficult, if not entirely impossible and Koltira concentrated on the thought that he would soon be able to quench the blood-lust he felt building in his chest; a lust slaked but not satisfied by Apothecary’s Absalom’s little tincture.
It grew colder and more comfortable for the death knights as they approached the Hinterlands. The strength of the wind also swelled and it took several attempts before the entire party could successfully land their respective mounts in a half-crumbled stone courtyard that lay outside the main walls of Stromgarde Keep. Undead attendants met them. They wore faded tabards that must have been as old as the fallen kingdom; one in grey-blue robes greeted the Death-Lord personally, his hoary beard and the rings on his hands denoting someone of rank, perhaps an advisor of some kind to Galen Trollbane.
Koltira channeled any nerves he felt about the undead around him (six years, six damn years) into the desire to kill that throbbed in his chest like a humorless imitation of a heartbeat long banished. He knew that sweetness that he would taste if he sank Byfrost into the rotten chest cavities of their undead hosts. He restrained himself, leashed his desires to the thought that if he did so, he would die as well, on some forsaken piece of land and he’d probably be brought back as a drooling geist or ghoul anyways.
He fell in behind the Death-Lord and brought up the rear of the group, suspicious and ready to spot any ambush that might occur. The undead guards seemed glad enough to hurry back into the safety of the keep’s walls, rather than keeping their guests firmly encircled in their ranks.
The elf swore he could hear Thassarian speak the word in his mind, with all the cursory disdain that the human showed for anyone who failed to meet his standards. He was glad enough when Nazgrim slowed his pace enough to come beside him and interrupted his sour train of thoughts.
“You like this plan?” the orc asked in a low growl.
“I doubt my opinion matters,” he replied, “I’m not frequently called upon for my ability to strategize. You are, after all, the general.”
They came to a halt before a sturdy but aging wooden gate reinforced by new additions of metal. Koltira found his demeanor strange and unsettling for a death knight; Nazgrim was both fierce, near animalistic during combat but outside it, he seemed far less scarred and stricken by regret or anger than most undead. He turned to Koltira as the gates slowly creaked open and shook his head with a smile.
“You remind me of an old friend,” he said with a note of amusement that warmed his words, “You never really stop fighting, do you?”
The words disarmed the elf because the truth was that he’d used the honorific as a barb, a nasty little quip aimed at putting distance between himself and the other man. Nazgrim brushed aside the insult without a thought and remained (without ire) to keep pace with him as they entered the crumbling keep. The silent companionship felt familiar and strange at the same time, if only because it had been a long time since Koltira had gone into battle with anyone at his side, let alone someone that seemed determined to…to offer friendship? He turned the odd idea over in his mind like a suspicious shopkeeper did an unfamiliar coin.
Inside the crumbling walls, Stromgarde looked even worse than it did from the outside. He noticed that the undead (armored, armed) within its walls traveled in pairs, no one left alone even just to patrol a weed-filled courtyard. The small, cloaked figure of the Archmage (as she took 3 hurried steps for every leisurely one of the lanky troll death-lord) radiated the only warmth the place possessed; Koltira judged she might be the only living person in the entire place. A gust of wind blew back her dark blue hood from her head and something nagged at Koltira in the corner of his mind; something was odd about the woman, but he couldn’t place it. He brushed aside the thought for now, afraid that pondering the question might pull him back into the haze that had overtaken his senses in Silvermoon City.
Truth enough, entering the ruined human keep and surrounded by undead, Koltira felt the skin-crawling sensation that he was back in Undercity. He dug his fingernails into his palms and felt some relief as the cold sensation of seeping blood tied him firmly to reality. They took the stairs one at a time and he lingered so he would bring up the rear and no one would notice the dark stains that now covered his hands. Most death knights would hardly take the time to comment on such a minor injury, but he had a suspicion that Nazgrim might make something of it, if he saw.
The original throne room of Stromgarde must have been collapsed, as Galen Trollbane received them in a room that must have been at the very top floor of the keep. Worn but beautifully woven tapestries decorated the stone walls of the room that held half-a-dozen well armored and stoic looking guards, along with the undead prince…now king…himself. Fire flickered in two tarnished braziers on either side of the room and the ever-present sound of the highland winds died down.
Trollbane himself was tall; lanky and well-built. The decay of death had marred his looks but he couldn’t have been very old when the plague took him, perhaps in his early thirties. Like his guards, the undead man was armed, even here in his own keep. His bright yellow eyes flickered across his visitors and he nodded to the Death-Lord before making a courtly (if stiff) bow to the Archmage.
“Welcome to Stromgarde,” he said, “Gentleman, my lady. I apologize if my men failed to accommodate you. I did not expect a…female guest.”
Karina inclined her head to him.
“Your grace,” she said, “Forgive my intrusion. Archmage Karina, head of the Tirisgarde. Death-Lord Rah’jin and I have worked together before. Your men were most gracious.”
There, just there, as she bowed her head, the pale, plaited hair fell from where it was pinned around her head like a crown. Koltira finally realized what was strange about her. It was her ears. She was a blood elf with the soft, rounded curved ears of a human. She put up a hand and fixed the braid back in place, but he finally understood now. The archmage was no pure blood elf, but a half-breed.
“She is modest,” Death-Lord Rah’jin said, his deep voice filling the room although it was clear he did not intend to overpower the other speakers, “Karina came to assist in the, how would you put it, your troll removal problem?”
He grinned with a lot of teeth, as if to point up the exaggerated formality of his own words. Galen chuckled harshly.
“That’s one way to describe it,” he rasped, “I see you are much as your letters indicated, Death-Lord. To the point. So, I will return the favor.”
The discussions about tactics and numbers (“We’ve had some success in driving out the weaker branches of the tribe”) became a meaningless drone to Koltira’s ears as he studied the archmage further. He could see the human heritage in her face now, in the soft curve of her chin and the rounded shape of her cheekbones. She caught his gaze and returned it for a moment and he saw a tiny, hard spark flicker there before she turned deliberately away from him to face the others. Her expression didn’t change but color washed over her cheeks in a crimson flood before she could hide it from the elven death knight. Karina might be used to staring but she must have been young to show her embarrassment so easily.
So. Half-elf. Young. Someone related to an advisor in Silvermoon City. Koltira found the puzzle intriguing but he suppressed his curiosity, especially as he saw the blush creep past the mage’s collar and up the back of her neck. Clearly, she had hoped to avoid the issue of her parents’ heritage and only an elf would have eyes keen enough to spot the differences.
“As it stands, then,” Rah’jin said, “You have the matter of a troll encampment within dese walls, in an entrenched position, using your own defenses against you. In exchange for eradicating this encampment, you agree to allow the Ebon Blade to call on your father, to ask him to add his strength to ours in the fight against the Legion as a death knight. The choice to answer the call is up to him; his refusal will be respected. Are we agreed?”
Galen’s eyes narrowed and he held out his hand. The troll took it, their hands clasped around each other’s upper arm, just above the elbow, in an older Arathorian human style of handshake, used to seal a bargain.
Chapter 13: Extinction Burst
For the unfamiliar: William Allerton was a family friend, depicted both in the Death Knight manga and associated with an in-game quest chain. I wrote this chapter as a bit of self-indulgent messing about with that, but also as a way to let readers have an 'in' on the other side again, as progress to the climatic story reveal has been slower than I wanted to, simply because I'm overly ambitious. Enjoy.
“It’s because you’re blonde,” Thassarian muttered resentfully.
William Allerton rolled his eyes. He perched on the edge of the teacher’s long desk as he watched Thassarian painstakingly outline curling lines of script assigned as their punishment for “impudence” and “backtalk”.
“Because I’m blonde, I get you in trouble?”
Thassarian gave him a long look and briefly considered firing a piece of chalk at his impish face.
“No,” he said sourly, “Because you’re blonde and pretty, everyone assumes that I’m the one dragging you into trouble when it’s always the other way around.”
Thassarian knelt in front of the dresser as he shook away the remnants of the memory. Fragments like that came to him sometimes like an uninvited guest. He took out a stack of folded clothing and set it aside on the floor next to him. With pressure applied at the right spot, the lid of the hidden compartment slid back noiselessly to reveal the cavity beneath. When he told Koltira there was a secret drawer in the dresser, he wasn’t being sarcastic. He was being transparent.The knight took out a small stack of papers before he closed the compartment, replaced the clothing and shut the drawer. He took the papers to his desk and took a seat, his pale gaze flicking to the closed door for a moment as if to reassure himself that he would not be interrupted.
Maybe he should’ve gotten whiskey for this.
The bottom of the stack curled and crackled in his grasp, the older letters yellowed and worn by time. The most recent that topped the stack dated just a few weeks ago. His eyes passed over the words, only pausing at a few places.
My hopes of your return have grown foolishly high once more…It has never seemed more possible that I might see you once again. For the first time, Sylvanas is no longer in direct control of Undercity and her banshees travel with her, according to all the intelligence I have gathered.
He pulled out a box of matches from the drawer and lit the corner of the letter. The parchment retreated from the flame as it blackened and smoked. Thassarian watched as it shriveled into the barest shred he held between his forefinger and thumb. The heat didn’t appear to cause him pain, at least none reflected in his dispassionate expression. He took up the next letter and the next, all meeting the same fiery fate.
Some letters contained his first attempts at written Elvish. He hesitated a fraction at some of those.
It feels easier to write to you this way, my friend As if no one else could understand my words…this is probably true, my Darnassian is even worse than my accent, if my tutor is correct. I understand it better than I can speak or write it, but not when spoken so quickly for my slow ears. I remember a few words you said from before. Just as I guessed at the time, they were all obscenities. You should have seen Inshala’s face when I tried repeating some to her; you would have laughed.
Thassarian laughed now but it sounded more like a low, dry sob as he put that letter to the flame as well. He knocked the box of matches onto the floor and they scattered as he cursed and turned without thinking. The letters wafted around the desk onto the floor like faded flower petals: yellowed and fragile.
He knelt on the bare floor; matches everywhere, ashes too. Some letters gusted to opposite corners of the room as the knight tried to sweep everything up and away, like an armload of damning evidence. From every page, his own words rose in a swirl around him.
You have been much in my thoughts of late
You have not been forgotten, my brother.
It is not easy to see Acherus change without you here. To me, you became a part of this place. A part of myself.
Thassarian stopped with a handful of crumpled letters in one hand as he saw a letter by the bed. It was old, creased heavily but clearly kept with care. His eyes widened a fraction as he dropped what he held and picked it up gently. He laid it against the floor and smoothed out the fresh wrinkles with a touch as light and tender as any death knight could. This should not have been with his own missives. This, he would never destroy.
The handwriting was spare, almost spidery, and slanted slightly to avoid blotches caused by the lefthanded writer.
I have found a new place to live in Borean Tundra. Agmar’s Hammer. You will no doubt be amazed to learn that the orc who runs this Horde outpost is named Agmar and that the decoration consists of spikes and fur. They did not kill me on sight and I’m not certain why.
You must be alive still. As much as that word applies.That much, I know. Not because of any news. I know it, like the taste of blood. I wonder if you found your way to Stormwind City. You left suddenly. I suppose all of us had our own desires and plans before we had the strength to act on them. In that way, I understand that what you did, you must have done for good reason.
For myself, I have joined the Warsong Offensive, a Horde military campaign aimed at ending Arthas’ reign. I doubt a living army has a chance at it, but they’ve given me a room, food, and I’m killing Scourge every day. I lack a righteous cause such as your own, except to kill every last one of the Lich King’s forces. I believe we still share that common goal,
Yours ever in death,
He picked up the letter in hands that trembled slightly. The tendons in his neck stood out and his jaw worked as the knight clearly tried to compose himself. His fingertips brushed over the name and he dropped his head forward and let out a low, wounded sound like an animal.
“Koltira,” he whispered brokenly.
He lifted the letter to his lips and kissed the words as reverently as if it were holy script and the name was a chant that could invoke the elf’s presence there. Not until morning did he burn the rest of his own papers. Not until morning could he bring himself to lay aside Koltira’s letter. When he did fold it and return it to the dresser, the ink was blurred and ran on the page.
Chapter 14: N > 30
Amateurs tracked their numbers. Notches on their belt. Crude markings on their shield. Bragging around the campfire.
Death knights killed until the fighting stopped.
So, when Galen Trollbane painted a target on the Witherbark trolls encamped inside his walls, Deathlord Rah’jin did not ask him for the number of heads he wanted returned to him. No one allied themselves with the Ebon Blade because they wanted assistance in diplomatic negotiations, no matter how polite or blue-blooded Darion Mograine was.
This made the existence of troll children in the camp problematic.
“I could try teleporting them out?”
Rahjin frowned deeply; it was almost a snarl the way his lips curled around his tusks. He squatted down on the wall that overlooked the part of the keep currently occupied by the Witherbark trolls. It didn’t afford the best view of the camp, but it was the only place that couldn’t be reached by poison darts, arrows or other missiles, according to the Stromgarde undead. Nazgrim currently monopolized a spyglass loaned to them by one of the guards; age tinted the glass lens a milky green color. The half-elf mage was unconsciously moving her hands as if already casting the portals needed to remove the children from the bloody battle soon to break out.
Koltira rested his hands on the hilt of his runeblade and waited. He’d killed children before. He knew Rah’jin must have as well. But Nazgrim…the girl? He doubted it. Maybe Nazgrim. It was hard to say; the orc had to be in his sixties, seventies maybe although he didn’t look it even with white hair. The cast of undeath made it difficult for him to judge the general’s age. Spend too long at war, even the most honorable got dirty hands.
“Too many, scattered,” the troll rumbled, “Besides, you start takin’ the children, you watch. Amani trolls cut their own babies’ throats to keep them out of stranger’s hands. I would.”
The statement was not causal but matter of fact. His hooded eyes looked up at the others around him, as if to test the reaction of his companions to his last statement. The orc grunted as he finished surveying the troll encampment with a final sweep of the spyglass.
“You’ve had children, Death-Lord?” He lowered the telescope and blinked, his moon-pale eyes framed by furrowed white brows. “Never had any myself. But I count at least half a dozen young ones in that compound and I’m damned if I’m going to get them killed.”
Archmage Karina nodded as she sorted through a pouch of arcane components. Dried flowers and tiny glass vials filled with colorful liquids tumbled through her fingers as she looked for some ingredient for a spell.
“I find myself in agreement with our friend Nazgrim,” she said firmly, “If, as you say, these trolls will slaughter their own children at our appearance, we need to find another way in.”
She sounded skeptical. Rah’jin was tense and coiled where he stood with one knee against the wall and the other cocked up, one fist pressed against the ground, like a runner waiting to explode into action for a race. Crouched there on the wall, isolated from the others, the troll looked like the perfect picture of terror lifted from a storybook: plate armor, the rune-axe, the blood-red hair and ivory tusks. Unbidden, old memories stirred in Koltira’s head at this picture.
He put his arms around Faltora and pushed his younger brother’s face against his chest. His heart hammered as Faltora squirmed in protest.
“Be good,” he whispered breathlessly, “Please, please be good and very quiet.”
Despite his pleas, Faltora tried to wiggle away, and his arms flailed wide. The branches of the bush that concealed their two small forms rustled and snapped. The air stilled and thickened, like a soupy grey sky just before a storm broke. The two elf children stopped their struggle and listened; a footstep? Then another, soft and sure, headed towards their hiding spot.
Koltira gave a little sob and pushed his brother behind him. Faltora, suddenly frightened into obedience, wrapped his arms around his brother’s waist from behind, his curly blonde head tilted to peek at the horror soon to confront them.
“I’ve seen it done.”
Koltira broke the silence. He folded his arms across his chest and stared into the middle distance to avoid catching any one person’s gaze.
“Families would kill their own children when we attacked, sometimes before. Whole villages and the bodies would be laid out before we ever lifted our blades.” He turned on Nazgrim and Karina now, fierce and defiant; he dared them to speak before he continued. “It was poison usually, a draft of a healing potion too strong for such small bodies. Sometimes, the mother or father, they decorated the corpse with, ah, holy symbols. That, I remember. The trinkets in their hands.”
Koltira cleared his throat, surprised at the way he stumbled over his own words as he spoke. He picked up Byfrost and slung it across his back in the scabbard there. Impractical for drawing during battle but more convenient for carrying. The troll’s dark eyes flickered with recognition and something that might have been gratitude before it disappeared.
“You got a plan?” he asked.
The elf bit the inside of his lip. It was a stupid plan. It was inefficient. It also involved him going behind enemy lines, something at which he was practiced but which occasionally ended in him being strapped down to a table while a wild-eyed Crusader screamed “Give in to the Light!” while prodding him with sharp objects.
That had been painful. The repeated and earnest lectures from Thassarian afterwards? Unbearable.
“Nazgrim,” he said slowly, “Let’s put that spyglass to use. We’re taking the Witherbark camp today…and I’m damned if one of those ugly troll whelps is going to die when we do.”
Koltira coughed as the Archmage swirled the burning feather around his body in intricate patterns before she blew it out. Using some combination of a blink spell, teleportation and old-fashioned stealth, they now stood on the top of the wall that enclosed the back of the troll camp; instead of facing the prepared trolls who awaited invaders at the front of the camp, they would be descending directly into the camp center where, coincidentally, the chieftan and other leaders felt themselves safely away from harm.
“You sure that worked?” he asked, “It’s quite a fall otherwise.”
The archmage raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m following you, so yes, I’m certain that it worked,” she said dryly, as she fastened her satchel closed again. “I’ll be temporarily invisible for the first part of this plan while I get into position, but I’ll be close. Once you see a couple sheep wandering around, I won’t be invisible much longer, so try to keep them off my back.”
The death knight nodded and shut his eyes before stepping off the edge of the wall. He opened them when he felt no sensation of falling but a pleasant, airy warmth that wrapped around him like a cloud. His stomach lurched as he realized he was very much airborne but he fell steadily and forwards, towards the somewhat isolated corner of the troll camp where vines had overtaken the foundation of a long-crumbled building. At the front of the camp, shouts and alarms rang out as the second half of the plan went into place. Rah’jin and Nazgrim must have begun their attack as soon as they spotted Koltira’s descent and the distraction worked. The unusual sight of an undead elf in full plate floating through the air went unnoticed by the Witherbark trolls who focused their attention on the death knight attack at the fore.
Koltira tried to land on his feet but miscalculated the distance and tumbled into an overgrown bush. He cursed under his breath and listened for any signals that his undignified landing had attracted any attention. Nothing so far. He extricated himself from the foliage and edged around the partial wall that still framed the cracked and rainswept stone foundation of an old barracks. He heard the dry sound of bone on bone and caught a glimpse of a troll woman, old and dressed in colorful garments that flowed with her movements as she herded a group of children into a nearby tent. The sound came from a necklace looped around her neck, and he could tell the bones that decorated the leather string were not all animal in origin; she must be a healer or witch doctor for the Witherbark. She cast a suspicious glance around her as she pushed the last protesting child through the tent flap and her sharp green eyes seemed to focus in on the elf’s hiding spot.
Koltira pulled back and sank down, his body pressed against the cover of the wall. He felt his whole body protest the furtive movement, as it urged him to strike out now, to begin slaking his need for bloodshed. No, the sibilant whispers came from Byfrost, he told himself, the blade and I are separate. I can deny her. I can wait.
There was no reason that he thought of his blade as female. Nevertheless, Byfrost was a she and always had been. He held the blade now, across his body as he waited for the possible alarm to be raised. When no sound came, he leaned forward and saw an elderly sheep where the witch doctor had stood mere moments ago.
Karina must have started. Now, he thought, now we can play.
He thought he would enjoy it; the chance to kill. Instead, he hardly felt or thought at all. Once his blade sank in the back of an unsuspecting troll guard, his conscious thoughts faded away under a sound like the ocean that swelled inside his skull. It sounded not the roar of an ocean storm but the ever-present sound of the sea on the shore, a sound he only recognized existed when he left Quel’thelas. Like the wash of waves on sand that filled his every childhood memory, this felt familiar and right, as if with every blow, he made himself whole again. He was returning to who he was.
Purposefully, he struck low in the torso, well away from the lungs of the troll, who instinctively breathed deep at the pain and then shouted for help. Koltira didn’t speak troll but everyone learned a few words their enemy spoke if you fought them: yes, no, please, help, forward, back, stop. The troll managed a second cry before the knight yanked his blade back, a quick twist as the runeblade exited the wound. The rank smell of blood and shit filled the air as Byfrost ripped through the troll’s lower intestines, slimy pink flesh protruding from the slit. Koltira kicked the troll forward and onto the ground as he lifted Byfrost aloft
The only break in the slaughter came when he hurled himself toward the next enemy and a flash of heat streaked past him. The troll crumpled into a charred heap as a fireball first illuminated and then destroyed the vulnerable flesh. He snarled in frustration and turned, ready to strike at whoever denied him his kill; fortunately, the Archmage stood quite a distance away from where her spell had landed. After he took a few steps towards her, he made a painful effort and forced his attention elsewhere. Not her. She was not the enemy. Not now. This interruption cost him, as several trolls now flanked his position and began to close in.
Fuck. He’d been so pulled into the bloodlust that he had allowed his back to be turned to the stone tower that dominated the troll camp, the so-called tower of Arathor which housed the chief. Koltira heard a whistle in the air and instinctively stepped left as a massive hammer clipped the side of his head. He saw white and felt wetness flood his scalp and hair as he pivoted on his heel to avoid the follow-up blow, blinded but following the warmth of the bodies that surrounded him to guide his movements.
“The blood you will shed, that you have shed, you will repay, you have repaid. But from your perspective, now is the moment when you choose to shed that blood, Koltira Dawnblade. You must bear the weight of your choice.”
Caught off guard by the soft, luminous words in his head, the elf took another heavy blow to his side and he heard a crunch as his ribs cracked. He blinked through the blood that blurred his vision and began to pull on the nearest source of life he could find, oddly akin to how he might have drawn on the Sunwell when he was alive. This was a vile perversion of that and as his strength renewed, the wound on his head knitted together and he could see the hideous visage of the troll chief that loomed above him. Hideous, because now his skin bubbled and oozed with boils and sores raised by Koltira’s blood magic.
The other trolls recoiled visibly at the sight; the reaction just enough space for Koltira to get back on his feet and on the attack.
“I have given you a singular gift.”
“No,” Koltira growled, unaware at first that he spoke aloud in response to the voice instead his head, “Not fucking now, not again.”
He punctuated his words with action. He fell back into the unconscious flow of the fight again to escape the insistent whispers that gnawed at the edges of his brain. It had never been like this before; when had the spirit’s voices begun to torment him so openly? The tinge of fear flayed at his already raw nerves; he would never allow Thassarian’s dour predictions to become fact.
When he finally came back to himself, the troll chieftan lay dead and broken on the steps that led up to Arathor’s Tower, as if he’d tried to flee. Every time Koltira thrust Byfrost into the twitching corpse, the blade hit the stone beneath with shuddering force that must have hurt but he didn’t feel it.
“He been dead five minutes now, elf,” came a deep, lazy voice from behind him, “And you know the Seigemaster will have your hide if you dent that blade.”
Koltira looked over his shoulder at Deathlord Rah’jin. The troll deathlord seemed remarkably untouched by blood or marks of combat, but the terrified Witherbark trolls on their knees around him seemed to testify to his battle prowess. Naz’grim stood guard over the prisoners, his axe readied but still in his hands.
“Corvus didn’t make this blade,” he rasped, “It’s a family heirloom.”
Rah’jin lifted his hands and shrugged.
“Your blade,” he said agreeably, “But like I said, he’s just a sack of bones now and Karina be tryin’ to coax the children out of that tent, so maybe let it alone?”
He held out his hand to the elf and Koltira accepted, his bloodsoaked palm clasped by the troll’s much bigger one.
Rah’jin pulled the elf onto his feet and close to the troll’s shoulder as he leaned down and murmured, “You been hearing things. Seeing them, since we got to Silvermoon. Be careful. Don’t need to lose ya again.”
The troll dropped his grip almost instantly as he spoke, the movements covering his quiet words. Koltira frowned and sheathed Byfrost. Whatever was whispering inside his head...others were starting to notice.
Chapter 15: Aversive Stimulus
Anya is a dark ranger briefly mentioned in an official Warcraft short story called "The Dark Mirror". I can't recommend it enough, it's available as a free pdf.
Galen Trollbane was not best pleased at their return.
“You kept them alive?” The undead man gestured around the room with a wasted hand. “You brought them here, inside my keep. Why, exactly?”
Deathlord Rah’jin raised his hands.
“They were already in your keep,” he said reasonably, “You asked me to get the Witherbark out of it. Never agreed to kill little ones…or any of them, actually.”
He nodded decisively at the half-dozen troll children that clustered around him, herded by a few adult trolls (unarmed) who looked uneasy at their new surroundings. One young woman held a small bundled baby in her arms and stood just at the undead troll’s elbow, her fierce, determined expression never wavering even in the face of the hostile undead guards surrounding them. She had been following Rah’jin every step of the way through the fort and Koltira sincerely doubted the death knight would be able to go anywhere without her now.
“Dey with me now,” he said curtly, “And, apparently, I have a wife now too. Belonged to the old chief, I killed him, new wife and free baby. My girl in Dalaran gonna be pissed, but what can I do? I take them away, I meet my end of the bargain. Now, you need to hold up yours…Prince Galen.”
Koltira saw the flash in the man’s yellow eyes and he tensed. Children or not, he recognized the malice lurking underneath the mask. It reminded him unpleasantly of Nathanos. When Galen insisted that only Rah’jin accompany him to Thoras Trollbane’s tomb, the elf kept quiet and waited. He had ignored his instincts before and paid for it.
The Archmage and General Nazgrim took the children outside to the few other tribe members who had surrendered. Koltira followed just long enough to lose the attention of the distracted undead guards who seemed at a loss as how to treat their new “guests”. He slipped away, an easy enough task among the maze of stone walls. The vines made excellent handholds and he picked his way along the wall top with only a few close calls when a brick or stone crumbled or shifted underneath his weight. The few guards stationed between him and where the keep crypt remained blissfully unaware as he passed them.
One unexpected bonus of wearing full plate armor was the added weight. When Koltira dropped from the wall-top onto top of one of two guards outside the crypt entrance, the woman crumpled to the ground without a sound as the impact knocked the wind from her lungs. She staggered and Koltira grabbed her by one shoulder and spun her around, off-balance. A good shove sent the guard down the crypt stairs with a thunderous clatter and a soft, meaty thud when she hit the wall with her head. The ragdoll collapse of her body meant she was either dead or not getting up anytime soon.
The other guard, so intent on watching for intruders in front of him, gaped for a moment in shock. The man was not untrained, however, and he parried the first blow Koltira aimed at his chest.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the guard growled, “This is a private affair between my lord and yours. Throw down that blade and maybe Prince Galen won’t have me cut your throat.”
His human senses had not picked up on the sounds that Koltira already heard (muffled) from inside the thick walls of the Trollbane family crypt: the sound of metal on metal and raised voices. Koltira laughed as their blades met and he pressed the man back, against a grey weathered trellis covered in sickly sweet white flowers. The rickety structure collapsed and the man fell back in a tangle of overgrown vines and splintering wood.
“How kind,” Koltira rasped, “I assumed Galen instructed you to kill us all once he finished trying to kill the Deathlord down in the crypt.”
The guard’s eyes widened minutely; so he hadn’t known. Now the noise of battle from inside the tomb grew loud enough for even his dull human ears to catch. Koltira planted Byfrost through the man’s midriff and into the soft earth underneath. The elf felt his body come alive with pleasure as the runeblade drank in the essence of undeath from the guard’s body.
“It won’t kill you,” he said politely, “At least, it won’t if you keep still. And maybe my lord won’t have me cut your throat.”
The guard swore at him.
Below (after stepping over the moaning and half-conscious guard on the steps) Koltira found a strange sight indeed: Deathlord Rah’jin and two Galen Trollbanes. As his eyes adjusted to the flickering torchlight, he looked between the undead human men and realized his mistake. Galen Trollbane was panting, bloodied and defiant across from the man that must have been his father. Rah’jin stood readied but appeared to be abstaining from the battle and its outcome.
Thoras Trollbane looked very much like his son; tall for a human man, with a muscular but lean build. The ragged clothing the king wore was coated in a fine grey dust and his eyes burnt a bright ocean blue in a gaunt face. He carried an axe in both hands; the edge was pitted with age but slick with blood; it must have been buried with him.
“The kingdom of Stromgarde is mine,” Galen ground out between his teeth; he turned and spat out a mouthful of blood without taking his wary gaze from his father, “Was mine, is mine, will be mine. You destroyed the kingdom before you ever died because of your stubbornness. I wasn’t willing to see it ruined further.”
He shot a hate-filled glance at Koltira’s entrance and his pale lips curled away from his teeth in a snarl.
“Without me, Stromgarde would belong to the likes of that one and his mistress, a banshee maniac without reason or restraint. You kept the throne from me long enough, father.”
Above and outside the tiny crypt, a shadow peeled itself away from the wall. The dark cloak concealed any sign of footsteps, so it appeared as if the entity glided towards the undead guard pinned to the ground. The man panted aloud as his fingers curled into the dirt beneath him to keep from moving and further injuring himself on the runeblade planted through his stomach.
“Sybil,” he called out to the other guard who lay down the steps a few feet away “Come, get this damn thing out of me. I’ve seen you take harder hits. Wake up!”
He struggled harder and the whites of his eyes began to flare as he sucked in one breath and then another. The shadow paused, curled around a nearby trellis and waited, intrigued by this development. The undead froze and his yellow eyes dilated hugely as his upper body arched up and off the ground in a convulsive heave, pushing his torso up the blade and then back again as he slammed down with a choked little scream.
“My chest,” he sobbed, “I…I can feel it moving, ahh, my heart. The sound, in my ears, I feel it, I feel it. Sybil!”
Indeed, his chest throbbed with an energy not typically found in undead and the shadow approached.
Deathstalker Anya knelt by the panicking guard and placed a gloved hand over his mouth. With her other hand, she lifted a finger to her lips and signaled him to remain silent. Her cloak concealed most of her body and her hair and a dark mask concealed her face from the eyes down. The glow of the eyes alone betrayed her; the characteristic red of a banshee.
“Hush,” she murmured, “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The whisper combined both tone and a hint of banshee magic that calmed the man; he stopped struggling, though he still trembled with each breath. The former ranger put a hand to her boot and reconsidered, left the knife there and simply pulled at the fabric of the man’s shirt. It tore around Byfrost’s blade and revealed a sight beneath that, for a moment, caught even her by surprise.
Flesh. Living, pink-tinged flesh that radiated from the runeblade in a circle that radiated out further with each moment that passed. At the ragged perimeter between living and dead flesh, tiny tendrils of greenish poison curled and flowed towards and up the sword, leaving behind clear, soft skin untainted by death.
She stripped a glove from one hand and laid it against skin that radiated warmth from blood pumped, yes, pumped from a living heart. Anya could hear it from where she knelt by the impaled guard. The soft thump and knock of valves opening, shutting, blood gushing through long-dried arteries.
“It hurts,” he gritted out and tears forced their way from underneath his scrunched eyelids, “Everything hurts…so much. Please, help me. Please.”
The deathstalker considered her options. Cutting his throat, although merciful, would leave behind a trace of her presence. Leaving him alive might end with the same result. She reached one hand and stroked the man’s hair away from his sweaty brow, her eyes furrowed in thought.
“I will,” she said, “You’re safe.”
He relaxed under her touch but the breath still rattled in his chest.
“My mother,” he said almost inaudibly, “She told me that…when I was afraid of storms. Said…said…”
As he struggled to give voice to the memory she had evoked, Anya grasped the handle of the runeblade and pushed. At the right angle, the blade scraped just underneath the protective rib cage and pierced the long-dead heart that now beat like a hummingbird’s.
The guard gasped and his body arced up from the ground in a final death spasm. Anya recoiled as one of his hands coiled around her wrist. As warm blood soaked the earth beneath him, he smiled, sweetly, like a child just woken from a pleasant dream.
“She said I’d always be safe.”
When his body sank back to the earth, he was gone, eyes fixed on the sky above with no life or unlife animating them. The deathstalker watched with fascination as the warm skin went cold and returned to the cold, grey-green tint of death it possessed before. She tilted the blade back to its original position and stood up. A few scuffmarks kicked in the earth and it appeared as if the man had simply panicked, struggled, inadvertently killed himself.
After that, she became part of the shadows again and waited. A faint smile curved the corners of her mouth underneath her mask as she thought about Koltira’s amateur stealth techniques he’d used to follow the Deathlord and Galen. It stemmed from the same affectionate amusement felt by a parent or fond relative when their child tries to imitate their elders. For a death knight, he moved with unusual grace and lightness, even in plate armor. For an elf, he was average, perhaps a touch above if he’d shed the armor. Compared to Anya, compared to any of the dark ranger corp…. he might as well have sounded a trumpet and sang aloud as he moved.
She did not wait long. The troll deathlord emerged first, his fiery hair mane of hair coated in cobwebs and grave dust. Behind him followed a tall, spare human man in tattered clothing, his face carved with old and new grief. Much slower followed Koltira. He half-carried, half-supported the undead female guard he’d kicked down the stairs before. She looked barely conscious now but she would live.
Sybil. Sybil would live.
Anya departed swiftly, but the screams still reached her. The guards must have been friends. They might have been lovers. The only real pity was that the woman would never know he died well. Died peacefully. It was the only rule the elf ever followed anymore, because her banshee powers allowed it. Fuck, she might as well use them.
Between strategic use of a hearthstone (carefully keyed to a neutral location in case it was ever stolen) and her own swift pace, she found her way back to Undercity in a week. It might have taken even less time, but Anya took circuitous, difficult routes to shake off potential pursuers. Old habits die hard, even when she knew no one tracked her.
From Undercity, she could move without fear. Living in the old Lordaeron capital had stemmed from necessity at first but now she rather liked its decrepit charm. It was certainly the only place she could be a beauty anymore, as the preservative power used to form banshees also protected them from some of the worse ravages of decay and undeath. At least she maintained an intact jaw and all her fingers and toes.
“Nathanos wants to see you.”
Anya kept her pace up on the stone path that followed the sewer canal. She had long legs and she wasn’t going to make it easy for her pursuer to keep up. The undead rogue hastened his footsteps, his jaundiced face twisted in annoyance.
“I don’t report to Nathanos. You know that.” She stopped and turned on him, exasperated. “He knows that. So why are you dogging me, Miles?”
They had come to a halt underneath one of the archways that bridged the oozing sludge Undercity called a river. Miles fumbled inside his shirt and pulled out a battered cigarette.
“If we’re not running anymore,” he grumbled, “I’m smoking. Light?”
He frowned when the deathstalker reached into her boot top and pulled out a book of matches.
“Ugh,” he said, “Is there a reason you keep everything in there Anya? It’s called a bag. Satchel. Holster. Backpack. Belt-pouch.”
“If you suggest I carry a purse,” Anya said dryly, “I’m going to light more than your cigarette.”
He shut up finally, his eyes screwed shut as he inhaled deeply before releasing an acrid cloud of smoke from between pursed lips. Miles leaned back against the damp stone wall behind him; he barely stood over five-foot-tall and weighed about as much as a sack of flour. It made him a good rogue and an excellent chimney sweep when he’d been a boy. Anya sincerely doubted whether the man had ever really been a child. He didn’t seem the type.
“Ahh, fuck. Needed that.”
Anya leaned next to him.
“Nathanos doesn’t like it when you smoke?”
“Nathanos doesn’t like anything. Except Her.”
He flicked the ash of the end of his cigarette and watched with a morose expression as the ember sputtered out on the mold-covered floor.
“And yes, if you must know, he’s a hardass about smoking too. Claims the smell is going to give me away some day.”
The elf laughed quietly.
“That’s what is going to give you away? The smell of your…cigarettes?”
The undead scowled and tossed the remnants of the butt onto the floor and ground it out under his heel.
“Haha, very funny Anya. Make jokes about smelling bad to an undead. You’re a real bitch sometimes, you know that?”
She stopped smiling and crossed her arms across her chest, her head tilted to one side.
“Mhm. Even bitchier when I’m made to wait. So. Why did Nathanos send you?”
Miles ran a hand over his hair and sighed. His slight body sagged with preemptive defeat as he spoke.
“You know he’s in charge of Undercity while the Warchief is in the Broken Isles. You’re back from a mission, he needs to know what’s going on. What you found out. He has the confidence and ear of the Queen, anything you tell her, he’s going to find out anyways.”
The deathstalker smiled slightly and kept her thoughts to herself. Let Nathanos think whatever he wanted. Warchief Sylvanas was going to be very interested once she realized what Anya had discovered. After all those years of experiments and interrogations, a couple days in the fresh air had revealed exactly what made Koltira Deathweaver so very special
Chapter 16: Motivational State
I had fun writing this one. I like to make life complicated, especially when it comes to love and romance.
What began as a simple extraction now looked like it would last for several weeks, possibly months. Thoras Trollbane walked the entirety of the keep and amassed every single last undead that had served his son in the courtyard as dusk fell.
“If this is what remains,” he said bluntly, “Stromgarde is indeed no more. Many of you knew me in life, and I, you. If we wish to rebuild, we must also reform, with new allies.”
And that is how former King Thoras Trollbane struck a deal with the Deathlord Rah’jin to combine their forces in the Hinterlands. Witherbark and other Amani tribes in the region could join them under a single banner or be driven out. It wasn’t Horde or Alliance, but something new and untested.
The new death knight refused to be called by his former titles and appointed a former advisor to guide the efforts to rebuild. For his part, the Deathlord chose a respected elder of the tribe to serve as part of a joint undead-troll rule. The Ebon Blade would stay, for a time, to secure the surrounding lands around the keep. Other branches of the Witherbark tribe would fight, and even now, Legion ships would launch offensives without warning on anything living nearby.
Koltira kept his own counsel; he had played his hand at politics while serving Sylvanas and he was done with it. If the Ebon Blade thought this strange conjugation of peoples would better combat the Legion, he was more than ready to fight. He had been betrayed more than once, but never by his brothers in death. More than that, he didn’t want to return to Acherus just yet and this was as good a place as any to hide.
The speeches were over, the deals had been struck. It had taken some time to broker the agreement, and early winter was coming to Stromgarde. Most took to the warmth and comfort inside the Keep or their tents to shelter against the wind. Undead (uneasily) made room for some of the mothers and younger trolls who ventured into the stone rooms of Stromgarde to escape the bitter cold of the highlands night. The mood was tense but cautiously optimistic; the undead buoyed by the return of their former leader.
Koltira found himself in the company of the orc general once again as he chose to remain outside as the sun set over the horizon. He still found himself uneasy in close quarters with so many undead humans around. It felt too much like Undercity, a memory too fresh for him to ignore. So, he found a quiet corner to clean Byfrost and was promptly interrupted by Nazgrim, who took a seat next to him on the low stone wall without a word. The silence felt oddly comfortable, as the orc lit a cigar and smoked, without speaking, as Koltira used an oiled cloth to clean his gear.
After a time, the orc did finally break the silence.
“Want to hear a joke?”
Koltira continued to scrape troll guts off his sword and shrugged.
“Why not. Looks like we'll be here awhile.”
Nazgrim settled back into his perch on the stone wall and continued to smoke his blackened cigar. The cold highland air caught the smoke and carried it away, dissipating into thin wisps as it traveled. From the chimneys of Stromgarde Keep and the fires of the troll camps, more blue-grey smoke curled and disappeared into the deepening dusk that fell over the highlands.
“So, there's a human. Young man, takes himself a beautiful young wife and they settle down on his family farmstead on the outskirts of Coldridge Valley.”
The orc paused and squinted at the elf as if to make certain he was paying attention before he continued.
“He’s a good man, hard worker, and she's a good wife, smart, strong. Only problem is, he can't stand dwarves. Hates 'em like poison. So mostly they keep to themselves until one day, his beautiful young wife falls ill.”
Koltira took out a rag and started to clean the blood from Byfrost. Unlike undead essence, the blade did not always completely absorb all the blood of other opponents… Especially since the multiple kills had finally left the runeblade sated for a time. The undead guard had been an unintended victim. The incident still nagged at him. The wound shouldn’t have been lethal and yet, when they emerged from the crypt, he was ice-cold to the touch. He frowned and let the thought pass; circumstances considered, the mission was a success.
“Anyways, so he takes his wife to the nearest human doctor, who is miles away, and says ‘Please, do whatever it takes to cure my wife, cost is no object’. The healer does all she can. But still, his wife is sick and dying. The healer says “Well, young man, you should take your wife to Ironforge, the dwarves there can surely heal your woman.” Of course, you can guess what he says to that.”
Nazgrim chuckled and nodded.
“Yep. Problem is, the nearest human healer is miles away and between them is a raging, flooded river. No matter, the man says, I'll carry my wife on my back. And what do you know, he does, and brings her safe and dry to the doctor. Doctor does all he can, but again, the poor woman is still sick. Doctor says, “You're a good husband but take my horse outside and take your wife to the dwarven city, they have wonderful medicines and tonics to revive her.”
He tapped the ember off the end of his cigar and continued.
“Naturally, he says no. No way will I take my wife to those nasty hairy vermin, there must be another doctor we can see. “Well, yes sir, there is,” says the doctor, “But there's a raging forest fire between us and that priest, you'll never make it.” This isn't a problem for our brave farmer. He wraps his wife in a wet blanket and somehow manages to make his way to the priest. The priest calls on all his powers of the Light and works through the night but, sadly, it's just not enough and the young woman dies.”
Koltira squinted down the blade and, satisfied it was spotless, slid the sword back into the sheath he'd laid on the wall beside him. He knew the orc was working angle but he found it difficult to read the other knight’s facial expressions. In both life and death, he'd rarely had much experience with orcs. His time at Angmar’s Hammer had added orcish curse words to his arsenal, but his focus had been somewhat...scattered during his stay.
“So that's it, she dies, the end?”
“Wouldn't be a joke if that was it,” Nazgrim scoffed, “No, no, the next bit is the funeral and the poor husband, he's crying and wailing and everyone feels bad for him, says what a shame it is he lost his wife so young. Problem is, no matter what anyone says, he just cries louder and says it's all my fault, it's all my fault. Finally, an elder gets tired of the noise and says “Now see here lad, you carried your wife for miles on your back. You waded through floods and you ran through fire. No one could ask you to do more than that. You did enough.”
Nazgrim paused for just a beat before proceeding to the punchline and his eyes twinkled with amusement at his own joke. “Yes,” the young man says sadly, “But I should've Dun Morogh.”
He put out the smoldering butt of his cigar against the cold damp stone of the wall. Tiny sparks flared up and shot into the air, winking out of existence almost as soon as they appeared. Koltira put his head into his hands and groaned.
“You should've just stopped when the wife died,” he said, “That was funnier.”
The orc shrugged.
“Heard it from an alliance rogue I caught. She could manage a fair bit of orcish and I practiced my Common, before we traded her in a prisoner swap. I thought it was pretty funny, myself.”
His pale grey eyes narrowed a fraction and his voice deepened as he continued to speak, but it didn't seem intentional.
“So. You want to fuck?”
Koltira sat bolt upright and turned to face the orc.
“I'm not certain what orcs count as foreplay,” he said imperiously, “but I doubt that counts as it.”
Nazgrim leaned closer.
““I might have known you weren't a pun man,” he said, “I thought I should try some niceties before going straight for that cock you had pressed up against me during our duel. I bet you thought that little bite on my neck was amusing.”
He slid a rough hand alongside the elf's face and under the fall of pale gold hair. “I could undo you boy.”
Koltira shivered when the orc’s calloused fingertips brushed the nape of his neck. Starved of touch for so long, electric energy seemed to follow wherever the orc touched; he wondered if it would feel the same if he returned it. The elf braced his hands against Nazgrim’s broad chest and felt the firm muscles move underneath his hands as the orc ran his hand up the back of his neck to tangle his fingers into Koltira’s hair, close to the scalp. It was possessive but patient; there was no pressure or move to pull the elf any closer than he was.
“Are you proposing to do this here, on the wall?” Koltira asked, “Because while I duel in public, I fuck in private.”
“Ahhh, there it is,” he rumbled, “That fire in your eyes.”
He slid his free arm around Koltira’s waist and pulled him close. The elf felt the fingers tangled in his hair move, just barely, in the slightest of caresses, his senses swimming a little with the cascade of sensations he had been gone so long without. It felt like a warm bath after a long, cold day and he didn’t want it to stop. He tilted his face up and studied the orc for a moment before he closed the gap with a kiss.
Nazgrim tasted like woodsmoke and pepper, his scarred mouth unexpectedly soft against his own. The tusks set on either side of his face presented an interesting new dimension to a kiss the elf hadn’t considered before now. He slipped his hand between the orc’s legs and felt how hard the man was; he thought back to straddling Nazgrim during their duel and imagined what it might feel like to stuff his own cock down the orc’s throat.
“You said you could undo me, general,” he panted, as he broke from the kiss, “I’d like to see you try.”
The orc pushed into his hand and buried his face into the elf’s neck with a growl.
“That’s a challenge I’ll take.”
Technically, the nearby stables weren’t public or currently occupied. Koltira felt like an awkward young elf again, all elbows and clashing teeth as Nazgrim led the way into the decrepit wooden building, his arm still wrapped around him. If he went by race, he thought absently, he supposed this could count as his first time. He pulled away and planted his feet more firmly in the soft dirt floor before he pushed Nazgrim up against a cobwebbed wall.
“Another point in favor of no armor,” Koltira murmured as he ran one hand along the inside of the orc’s waistband in a swift, teasing gesture, “If you weren’t so trussed up, I might have that cock out of your pants already.”
Nazgrim bent forward and half-kissed, half-bit the side of the elf’s neck, his hands reaching to undo the buckles and fasteners on the other’s armor.
“Such a brat,” he said, “How about I’ll do you, if you do me, hmm?”
His words hummed along Koltira’s neck and the elf pressed into it.
“I thought that’s what we were doing,” he tossed back and then grinned at the orc’s growl of frustration.
He took pity on him and moved, with much nimbler fingers, to remove what armor Nazgrim still wore to get the clothes off underneath. It felt good, to watch the smoldering fire in those pale grey eyes leap to flames. The heat that had lain beneath the surface during their duel came to life as Koltira stripped him to the waist. This close, he could see the trace of white scars, some raised like ridges that crisscrossed the muscles of the orc’s chest, some quite old he judged. He traced his tongue along the tangled path of one scar that wound around a nipple, wickedly pleased at the deep, husky moan he pulled from the orc.
“Imagining my tongue other places?” he murmured, “That’s not very fair now is it, I’m doing all the work---”
He didn’t finish his sentence with words but a gasp he didn’t intend to let slip out as the orc loosened his waistband and closed his broad hand around Koltira’s cock. The touch was rough, greedy and the elf thrust into it like an unpracticed virgin, surprised at how badly he needed this, exactly this right now and nothing else: he wrapped his legs around the orc’s waist when Nazgrim lifted him in his arms and carried him to a nearby table covered in dust-covered saddles and harnesses. The orc swept them away with one hand and dropped him, somewhat unceremoniously, onto the table. He dropped down to his knees before the elf, whose pants were halfway down to his knees, and paused, with a half-smile, before he pulled them all the way off.
“I think it’s been too long,” he murmured, and lifted just one finger to trace the sensitive head of the elf’s cock as Koltira trembled with the effort of restraint it took to remain still, with the orc knelt before him, “I should’ve sucked you when I had you up against the wall that first night in Acherus.”
Koltira laughed, the sound soft and shaky.
“Now seems a good time,” he said, “To make it up to me, general.”
Nazgrim teased, at first; he slid his tongue up and down the elf’s shaft slowly, one free hand palming the elf’s sack while he touched himself with the other. Koltira stopped caring about restraint as he watched the orc wet his lips with that tongue; he needed more than teasing. What he needed and what he took, was Nazgrim’s mouth, his cock stretching the orc’s lips as he thrust into the tight wetness that wrapped around him like a glove. The orc’s own cock grew harder as he sucked, Koltira pausing for a moment to enjoy the sight and sensation of the man between his legs.
“Ahh,” he said, one hand caressing the side of the orc’s face, where he could feel the bulge of his own cock pressed against the inside of his cheek, “Is this why Garrosh kept you around, to use this clever mouth?”
Those were the last coherent words or thoughts he had for some time as his quip ignited something in Nazgrim and the orc worked Koltira’s cock like he’d been born just to suck it. Something crumbled in Koltira and whatever he managed to speak now came out in elvish, an old habit he’d never managed to break even with non-elvish partners. He begged, he pleaded and finally demanded, as he fucked into the orc’s eager mouth with abandon, his vision blurred with stars as the head of his cock slid along the ridged roof of the mouth and hit the soft back of his throat. The more he took, the more Nazgrim responded, his eyes tightly closed as he convulsed, coming hard into his own hand as he sucked.
The sight of it, the orc undone and leaking into his own hand, the feel of the orgasm trembling around his cock, sent Koltira frantic, thrusting against that clever, seeking tongue in hard, spastic jerks. The shudder that enveloped Nazgrim’s body as he finished cumming vibrated through the elf and he came, still wrapped in the orc’s mouth as he spilled. His legs trembled from the force of it; as he pulled away now acutely sensitive and overstimulated, he felt he had not come this hard since he’d first learned how to touch himself, so many years and worlds ago.
Nazgrim wiped a hand across his mouth and pressed his forehead against one of Koltira’s bared thighs, as he seemed to steady himself.
“I was right,” the orc said, and the elf felt the orc’s mouth curve into a smile against his skin, “You really are a brat.”
Koltira felt the ghost of remembered blushes as he offered a hand to help the orc up.
“Apologies,” he said, “I, ah, didn’t mean---”
He scowled as the orc started to laugh.
“I’m being an ass,” Nazgrim said, stifling his chuckles at the look on the elf’s face, “You don’t need to apologize.”
They dressed side by side, but Koltira didn’t put his armor back on. He decided he didn’t care if someone saw him emerge from the stables in disheveled clothes, side by side with an equally disarrayed Nazgrim. Maybe, he thought, maybe he hoped someone would notice. Maybe someone would find out, if gossip could span the breach between Stromgarde and Acherus, like a wisp on the wind.
It didn’t matter anyways.
They never slept side by side, never talked about their trysts outside the moment. Sometimes, in the weeks that followed, Koltira found Nazgrim and sometimes, the orc sought him out and it was easy and understood what it was they both wanted. Positions changed, they found new and interesting corners of the Keep to fuck in, and once or twice they came dangerously close to being interrupted by a nosy servant, but the silent agreement never wavered. Need had driven them together and as long as the need remained, they would find each other.
It felt almost comfortable, even if sometimes Koltira felt a pain catch in his chest at unexpected moments, when he saw a flash of armor and dark hair or overheard a particularly cranky tirade from Thoras regarding armaments and forgot for a moment that he was miles away from his own pedantic and lecture-prone Thassarian.
Not his. He punished himself viciously at the foolish thought. Thassarian was emphatically not his, that was the point.
In fact, he had almost managed to convince himself about that point, right up until a messenger from Dalaran arrived through an unexpected portal that appeared one afternoon in the outer courtyard of the Keep. Koltira, Karina and multiple guards encircled it, uncertain who or what to expect. The messenger took the form of Aethas Sunreaver, and the elven mage looked harried and irritated as he emerged rather explosively from the shimmering portal. His expression softened only as he saw Archmage Karina and her cheeks colored as she took an involuntary step toward him.
“Aethas,” she said, “We didn’t expect you.”
The tall elf flashed her a brief smile and bowed his head slightly.
“Archmage,” he said politely, “I’m afraid I’m here on urgent business.”
The soft look vanished as he locked his eyes on a surprised Koltira.
“Deathweaver,” he said, curtly, “I’m here on orders to bring you back to Dalaran, immediately.”
The elf felt his throat tighten but he refused to react further.
“Whose orders?” he asked.
The Kirin Tor mage took a step closer and his voice dropped, more softly.
“I could say it was the Warchief, but I doubt that means much to you,” he said quietly, “Your colleague Thassarian is demanding to speak with you, and only with you…and if you don’t show up, he’s threatened to start personally carving off pieces of the Blightcaller.”
Colleague. Colleague. What a blandly impersonal term to use in a sentence that, all at once, set Koltira cold with fear.
What the fuck had Thassarian gotten himself into now?
Chapter 17: Unconditioned Response
Sylvanas rarely saw Nathanos on the day of Remembrance. The sombre holiday set aside to remember the day Arthas turned Lordaeron was busy for them both. She spent much of her day listening to stories and recountings from survivors. Listening seemed enough, it seemed to be what her people needed.
Nathanos usually disappeared on some excuse or errand he assigned to himself. If he returned, it was late and he was drunk. That hadn't been a problem, until tonight, when a city guard arrived to tell her that, after a brawl in the streets outside the Legerdemain Lounge, the death knight Thassarian had the Queen's champion locked up in the bar's wine cellar with him and was threatening to kill him.
Sylvanas tracked Nathanos down like an animal she knew well.
Undeath stripped many former humans of their distinguishing characteristics. In addition, looking for a specific undead man in a land swarmed by Scourge made her task more difficult. It didn’t deter her. Once or twice, Anya or another of her rangers pointed out a possible candidate; dark hair, tall, possibly the right build for the archer Marris had been in life. Sylvanas never mistook any wandering undead for her former ranger lord. She knew him, every inch of him, knew his habits and his haunts.
That intimate knowledge finally led her to him and it almost ruined her before she even saw his face.
Around the old Marris farmstead, a trail of dead, trodden grass traveled around its outskirts. Through the blighted trees and skirting the edges of untended fields, Sylvanas and her companions followed the path of hardened earth that peeked through the dry and broken vegetation.
“What is it----who did this?”
Anya traced a gloved finger along a crack in the parched earth from where she knelt. With her free hand, she plucked a scrap of faded blue cloth off a dead rosebush almost as an afterthought. Even dead, the elf retained much of her keen senses and mind.
“It should be Nathanos,” Sylvanas said shortly as she took the cloth and clenched her hand around it.
Anya rose from the ground and raised one eyebrow underneath her dark hood.
“Of course,” she murmured.
Sylvanas sidestepped the implied question from her ranger. Undead chased down food or the scent of corpses. They didn’t follow patterns unless given orders from the Lich King. And yet, she recognized the path, or at least it’s purpose. It skirted the perimeter of the old farmstead, a path Nathanos must have walked in life, restless as he was, to ensure everything was calm before he turned in for the night.
“Remember, nothing lethal. Once I speak with him, he should…calm.”
It took longer than she expected to track him down. A murky sunset curled across the horizon by the time they found fresh tracks; smaller and light. A woman’s or a child’s. The elves picked up speed but even though they heard the screams, the girl was dead by the time they found him hunched over the ravaged corpse.
Sylvanas felt her chest tighten with a breath she held without intention. Nathanos dug ragged fingernails into a wound at the corpses’ neck and brought it to his mouth. His keen grey eyes now shone with a dull red light that brightened as he gnawed as the stringy flesh. He wore his Lordaeron colors, now stained and ragged on his wasted form. He looked as if he had starved to death, not fallen to plague. In life, the man had maintained himself fastidiously, the only time she’d managed to catch him off-guard was here, at his own homestead when he didn’t expect her.
Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, dark beard a touch longer than usual, and sweat staining his linen shirt. He curled his hands loosely at his sides, as if to hide the dirt underneath his blunt fingernails. She couldn’t deny the pleasure she felt at this subtle sign of his regard. Nathanos hated politics, hated niceties, could hardly be convinced to dress up for the ceremony when she named him ranger lord. But, when he thought she wouldn’t see, he ran a hand over his hair to tidy some loose and wild strands away from his face. She wanted to tell him not to bother. Her plans for the evening were anything but tidy.
The corpse twitched and a long moan rattled in the dead woman’s chest. She heaved herself up with a snarl towards Nathanos; once a clear shot presented itself, arrows imbued with dark energy bristled in her skull. A moment later, the energy unleashed and a fine mist of blood and bits of shattered bone sprayed from the ruined stump of her neck.
Not now, not when she was this close.
It took longer than she expected to calm him down. Her rangers used blunted arrows to pin him into place while he snarled and struggled towards them, his attention now fixed on them rather than the half-eaten corpse nearby. Once he spoke her name, in a rough, feral growl that barely sounded human, she knew the man she sought was there, underneath the wild, unkept beast he looked now.
When she held out her hand to him, he hesitated, his gaze dropping to his gore-covered hands and then back to hers. She kept her hand wrapped around his tightly, as if she could disguise his clumsy gait as she led him step by step. Even so, she had to slow her pace as he stumbled more than once in his effort to keep up.
Nathanos didn’t know where he was going but he knew he wanted to follow Sylvanas. Old habits had kept him around his former home but farmland and tending animals no longer mattered to him. When he spoke, he hardly recognized the difference between what he thought and what others could hear, alone with scraps of thought and memory for so long.
He listened to the orders she gave in elvish, but his brain was too sluggish to translate them now, though he’d spoken it well enough before. That had pleased Sylvanas inordinately when more than a few oblivious Quel’dorei had made untoward remarks about the unpopular human Ranger Lord. More than one face had turned red with embarrassment at the ceremony where she named him as her second in elvish and he responded in kind.
Now he followed her, hand in hand like a child after its mother. He didn’t feel the same fog over his mind as before and it hurt, like an open wound in his chest as pieces of the past months came back to him like remembrances of a dream. Shallow, unnecessary breath whistled in and out of his broken nose; when had he broken it? Or had someone else? The taste of copper rimmed his mouth.
“We’ll camp here for the night. Establish a perimeter, clear out any wandering Scourge, I don’t want any surprises.”
She pulled him after her, down to the banks of a sluggish stream bordered by dead rushes and dry grass. Nathanos recoiled when her hands slid under the edge of his soiled tabard as if to lift it over his head. He stepped back a few steps and crossed his arms over his chest, his head bowed toward the earth.
“You…don’t want to see me…like that,” he ground out between clenched teeth.
He only looked up when Sylvanas laughed, quietly, but sure enough it was a laugh. He held still as she slipped a hand alongside his face, her thumb gently stroking over a scar on his cheek.
“Marris,” she murmured, “I also don’t want to see you like you are now, you’re filthy. I only want to get some of that dirt off my second in command, it undermines your authority to look like you rolled out of a gutter.”
She nodded towards the stream and, as if to encourage him to imitate her, started to strip off her leathers and outer clothing, discarding them in a trail as she walked towards the water. Pulled after her irresistibly, he followed with clumsy steps but could only manage to pull off the shreds of the tattered tabard away from his shoulders when he tried to take it off. He growled in frustration and tossed away the handfuls of threadbare cloth as he splashed into the shallows.
“Clothes need cleaned anyways,” he said stubbornly as Sylvanas raised one pale eyebrow at him.
She stood midstream, stripped down to the skin, the warm, sluggish water pooled around her hips to leave the rest bare. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders and where once it glowed with the golden warmth of the Sunwell itself, it glittered a cold winter white. Nathanos remembered when those hard, red eyes shone an impossibly deep blue, blue as an October sky. Her shifting reflection on the water showed the truth of the changes that had overtaken Sylvanas Windrunner and he splashed through that cruel mirror to her, as if he could somehow protect her from the thoughts he knew must echo in her mind.
Soft river silt stirred by his steps rose up along his path and clouded the water behind him. He could not sense if the water was cold or warm, just wet and past his knees by the time he reached where the elf stood. Shoeless or not, he still stood taller than her as he splashed to a halt, thrown by the shifting sand under his feet. One of her hands shot out and took him by the arm; instinctively he reached back and took her by both arms, his hands curled just above her elbows.
“Careful now. One of my rangers might mistake you for an attacker,” Sylvanas said lightly.
He watched red-tinged droplets of water roll down from where he touched her arms, scarlet red against her pale skin. The sun had baked him brown and death coated his hands, his arms, his face…Nathanos felt his mind spin as he tried to remember anything from the previous months. He remembered a crushing weight and a desperate desire to fill the hollow space he felt inside him like a gnawing void. He remembered Him. He remembered beating against the inside of a steel drum and screaming to be released, only to hear his own cries echo back.
“I can’t,” someone said, strangled and low.
Nathanos trembled as he distantly recognized the voice as his own; he could feel her arms around him, holding him as he buried his face against her damp shoulder. Inside him, he felt the weight and a whisper that told him to bite, to claw, to attack the easy target quite literally in his grasp. He also felt stained, too filthy to even touch the woman who’d come back for him, yet he could not imagine loosening his arms around her back, one hand fisted around a handful of her pale hair.
“Nathanos,” she whispered fiercely, “I’m here. Do you understand? I’m here.”
He tried to reply and a dry sob lurched from his chest instead, followed by another as he felt himself crumble against her. He slid to his knees, his face pressed against her stomach, impossible to tell the difference between the river water dappled across her skin and the tears wrenched from his eyes. As he knelt, the river rose around him like an embrace, a cloud of dirt floating downstream as the current loosened the filth on his clothes, his skin. Nathanos felt her thin fingers lace through his hair and close against the scalp to hold him against her.
“I…I do not know myself,” he gasped, “How long…he whispered, in my mind. Tried to go to Quel’thalas, tried to warn you. He thought that…was…funny.”
Funny was the short term for it. Funny was when the Lich King would, for a few moments, release his hold on Nathanos’s mind and body and he would run, run as fast as he could to try and outpace the undead army marching towards the elven capital. He would get a few paces, sometimes even a few hundred feet and then collapse like he ran into a wall as Arthas resumed control again. He’d make Nathanos stay there on the ground, or crawl back on all fours, as the prince leisurely caught up on his horse.
Then the same game would repeat, over and over and over, because every time he could think of his own accord, he thought about her, his woman, so fierce and proud and he knew she would throw herself against Arthas until she dashed herself to pieces. So instead, he broke himself. He crawled, he ran and he groveled, begged like a dog just to spare her, that one calm spot in his screaming brain.
Finally, when Arthas tired of the game, he just left him, rooted to one spot where he could watch every single zombie, death knight, abominations, Nerubian, skeleton, every twisted undead creature in his vast army march past. That was the last little touch, to let him see exactly what came for Silvermoon that day.
Past and present muddled together in his mind, so newly freed from Arthas’ control he could hardly trust himself. He rose to his feet as Sylvanas pulled him up, one hand still twined in his hair, the other on his arm.
“You. Are. Mine.”
She bit off each word like an order. He held himself still as her hands danced up the front of his shirt to unfasten the lacings. Once loosened, he lifted it over his head and felt her hands skim across his bare chest and stomach while he shrugged it off. Her hands came to rest on his hips, the touch questioning and insistent all at once. Nathanos returned her gaze, suddenly aware of his near nakedness and her nudity. For all death had taken, he could feel the nearness of her presence and the sluggish blood in his veins quickened.
“Sylvanas,” he growled, “I am…I am not the person you knew. I am not the man who once served you.”
Her eyes flared a deeper crimson and she pulled him against her sharply, hips pressed to hips.
“Yes,” she said sternly, “But you will be. Because I require it.”
Her words went straight to his cock; he hadn’t even known if it would still work but her sharp, insistent tones woke in him every memory and sensation he thought lost. He stepped out of his trousers after she loosened them around his waist. Light, he could see the hollows of his hips and could count his own ribs, something he hadn’t been able to do since he was a young man, barely able to eat enough to keep up with his own growth spurts.
“Don’t get distracted now,” she said and pressed against him tightly, his erection trapped behind their bodies as she dragged her fingernails up and down his back.
He arched into her touch, shivering a little as memories resurfaced. Once she found that little weakness of his, she loved to use it, said he looked like a cat pleased to be petted. Nathanos put his lips into the hollow at the base of her throat and pressed half a dozen kisses there, knowing the scratch of his mustache and beard (now so wild and unkempt) pleased her.
“My apologies,” he rasped, “I forgot to shave.”
He laughed when she cuffed him about the ear, the gesture more caress than anything else.
“I wish to see you better,” she whispered.
Still deep in the slow current of the river, he bent and wrapped one arm around her legs, the other around her waist as he lifted her clear from the water to hold her in his arms. Sunset had fallen into night already and the pale moonlight illuminated her wet, tensed body as she put her arms around his shoulders to hold on as he splashed his way to the riverbank. He kept up a relentless barrage of kisses as he walked, her throat, her lips, against her soft eyelids and brow, feeling under his mouth every shiver it wrung from her.
When he reached the sloped riverbank, and moved to lay her there, against the cushion of the grasses, he found himself instead pushed down onto his back. She straddled him, her mouth curved into a half-smile at his surprise. Always she used her speed and agility to confound him and leave him just a moment behind and out of breath.
Her eyes trailed down his body; she had one knee on either side of his waist and she reached behind her to brush his cock with one lazy hand. Nathanos lay still, knowing this pleased her best, to have him at her mercy and awaiting her instruction, even while he burned to take her.
“Better if you stop talking,” she said severely, but he knew it to be a sham, a little distraction as she shifted back and then onto him.
His conscious thought disappeared entirely as he felt her wrap around his cock, inch by inch as she settled down with a sway of her hips.
No one. No one else and no thing in the universe could exist here. Just him, inside her, his hips lifting off the ground as he tried to match her rhythm. His hands on her breasts, his thumbs ghosting over her nipples that tightened at as he stroked. He brought himself up on one arm to put his mouth there instead and she grabbed him at the nape of his neck and pushed him against her as he traced his tongue over it and sucked. Every inch of her that came within reach, he tried to taste, and he felt himself enveloped by her, his mouth full of her soft, full breast, his cock impossibly tight inside her as she ground against him with quickening intensity. With one hand, he found the curve of one of her ears and stroked it gently; she whimpered and dragged his mouth up to hers, the kiss hard and bruising.
Sylvanas came first; her hips rocked forward feverishly until her whole body clenched; he felt her tighten around him as she shook. She bit her lip hard as if to silence the small noises that escaped her as she came hard. When she collapsed forward onto his chest, still quivering, he wrapped his arms around her slender back and lost the thought of anything, except the sensation of her, on him, wet and tight and trembling still from her orgasm. He fucked into her like a wild animal as he held her firm, his face buried in her shoulder as he finally came.
He was still inside her, as she threaded her hand through his hair and kissed him, just under his ear.
“There you are,” she murmured, “I’ve found you. My ranger lord.”
Nathanos felt himself, at that moment, taken all over again, just as he had the first time they met. It was not the weight of the Lich King’s crushing oppression. It was the realization, clear and inexorable, that he belonged to this woman, had belonged to her before either of them were born and he would belong to her in death, after death, and if they were reborn in a different time and place, as different people, he would find her just to fall again.
She slid off him and nestled against his side, her head propped on one of his outstretched arms to watch him.
“I always wondered,” he said, so quietly he wondered if he’d blurred the line between thought and speech again, “What our children would look like.”
She stayed silent so long, her eyes quiet and unblinking, that he was startled when she spoke.
“I always wanted freckles,” she said, her words soft and brittle, “I hoped…for so much, Nathanos.”
He curled around her, as if his body could somehow shield her from her own thoughts. They had never spoken about children before and never did again after that night, when neither slept but both stayed together like two halves of a soul pressed into one shape on the riverbank.
It was not a beast that Sylvanas hunted.
It was not Nathanos.
It was herself.
Chapter 18: Trigger Warning
Koltira did not waste time.
“Can you arrange for our portal to Dalaran to arrive somewhere other than the usual location?”
Aethas and Archmage Karina exchanged a look. They stood side by side, an interesting study in contrasts in the grey rain that drizzled over the highlands. Aethas stood a head and a half taller than the archmage, his broad shoulders and lean build more like an archer than a typical mage. He glowed, from his bright gold hair to the intricate embroidery that decorated his clothing---a dashing red, of course. Next to him, Karina looked a little dull, her freckled skin and grave expression more subdued and controlled than the visibly impatient Sunreaver. Where the rain touched the staff she held in her small hands, steam arose and created a cloud around her small, tensed figure.
“Technically,” Aethas said stiffly, “Teleportation in and out of the city is safest when one sticks to the rune-inscribed arrival area, it allows for a dampening of the---”
“I understand. Are the risks similar to teleporting to, say, Stromgarde without a corresponding runic circle? Archmage?”
Koltira saw the small, darting motion as Karina put a hand on the other mage’s arm, a gentle, brief touch at his elbow before she pulled back, her arms once more enveloped in her dark blue robes. It was quick, almost birdlike and it told him more than he expected about the two other elves.
“Deathweaver. Arrangements can be made, within reason, to alter your arrival in Dalaran. It is not usual, but clearly, these are not usual circumstances. If you provide the approximate area you wish to arrive in, I can assist Aethas in the calculations necessary for safe passage. May I first ask why you think this necessary?”
She began to sweep the end of her staff across the ground as she spoke and arcane energy curled in blue lines over the damp stones of cobbled courtyard. Koltira clenched and unclenched his fists, once again aware of how much he had to rein in his temper now, when he needed to be the levelheaded one for Thassarian. Every instinct screamed at him to run, to push, to fight but his runeblade wasn’t going to win this fight, he already knew.
“My lady, naturally, the usual portal location will be watched for our arrival, since Aethas departed to fetch me. I have a few arrangements to make before we address the situation at the tavern and I need to make them without prying eyes on me. Believe me, I would not ask unless I believed it essential to the peaceful resolution of the situation.” He forced a strained smile. “As we decided when we arrived here, unnecessary deaths should be avoided when possible.”
“And your proposed arrival location?” Karina asked.
“As close to the Filthy Animal as you can manage.”
He ran a mental checklist in his mind. Unobserved arrival. Whiskey, 2 bottles. A lie. Several lies. A web of lies. He could make this work. He had to make it work. If he didn’t, he estimated Thassarian’s chance at survival at slightly less than zero percent. Warchief Sylvanas would ensure it. You didn’t cross her and come away unscarred.
Triggered by threat, Koltira’s anger (always so present for any death knight) burned inside his chest like a bomb ready to go off. He had always prided himself on being the coolheaded half of the pair he and Thassarian made in battle. Now he struggled to appear calm as the two mages murmured together in low voices and cast the necessary spells. Across his back, Byfrost chuckled and sang in wordless rhymes that pricked at his ears and demanded bloodshed, revenge, battle. They completed the portal in companionable silence, each seeming to anticipate the other’s actions as they wove the intricacies of the spell. At any other time, he would have found it far more intriguing that Magistar Rommath’s daughter appeared to be on friendly, if not intimate terms with one of the Kirin Tor leaders, especially after the purge. Now, he tucked it away as a fact that could be useful, because he knew that he might have to call in every favor and bit of influence he had to get Thassarian out of this mess.
Karina stepped back from the runes inscribed on the ground and the watery circle that shimmered above it, a faint picture of Dalaran glowing in the air like a beacon.
“That should be stable enough, I’d say you’ll arrive within roughly ten feet of your destination, I can’t be more exact, but I haven’t teleported anyone through a wall yet.”
Her mouth twitched into a smile that broadened as Aethas blushed.
“We’ve been over this, if he hadn’t lied about his weight, the spell would have worked perfectly,” he muttered, the color traveling to the tips of his ears, “As it is, he was hardly damaged by such a little fall.”
Koltira coughed and both elf and half-elf took the hint.
Aethas stepped onto the runes and held out one gloved hand to Koltira. In answer to the death knight’s questioning look, he rolled his eyes and said slowly, as if explaining to a child, “If our location isn’t precisely calibrated, I might have to make some adjustments on the fly. Unless we’re physically linked, I can’t move you with me through the aether. So, hold on tight and try not to puke on my shoes when we arrive. This might be a rough trip.”
He didn’t appreciate the condescension but he also didn’t have time to be annoyed at it. So Koltira took the proffered hand and the teleportation began immediately with stomach-turning speed. Unlike the familiar portal he himself created to travel to Acherus, the arcane signature of a mage’s spell felt uncontrolled and wild. When it stopped, he found himself taking deep, shaky breaths from pure instinct. Aethas detached his hand from the death knight’s grip with a pained expression and flexed his fingers.
“Remind me never trust a death knight’s grip. I had to speed up the portal just to avoid a broken hand, Deathweaver.” He waved his ‘broken’ hand towards the wooden sign that hung over the inn door. “And still, a successful arrival. I’m so good, I surprise myself. Behold, the Filthy Animal.”
“Wait here.” Koltira said.
Aethas stopped. His arrogant, almost too handsome face was suddenly serious, his jaw set and eyes intent on the death knight’s face. His hands curled around the staff he carried with white-knuckle strength. Gravity suited him, gave character to the softness of his cheeks.
“Listen to me, Koltira Deathweaver, and listen well. Whatever you intend to do, it better end up with Dalaran intact. I’ve worked too hard to keep this place together for you to fuck it up now.”
The death knight gave a quick, predatory smile.
“You mean, you’ve been busy trying to change Magistar Rommath’s mind about the Kirin Tor…before you tell him you’re courting his daughter?” He plunged on, despite the sudden disappearance of all color from the mage’s face. “Your warning is appreciated, but unneeded. There’s nothing I can do that would get you into more trouble than what you’re doing yourself.”
He left Aethas quiet and pale as he disappeared into the tavern. Let the mage sweat a little. It could be advantageous to have blackmail material on one of the Kirin Tor leaders, if this went badly. After the blood elf purge in Dalaran, Koltira gathered that Magistar Rommath hadn’t been seen there since, disavowing any connection to the society originally founded to help exchange arcane knowledge between the Quel’dorei and human cultures. There was no way he would be happy about the relationship that Koltira had only guessed at; the Sunreaver’s reactions had confirmed it.
When he reemerged from the Filthy Animal, Aethas looked composed, if still a shade paler than before. From a few streets down, the buzz and murmur of commotion filtered through the dusky night air. It took the sun a long time to leave the city, given its lofty position in the air, and it felt more like summer here in the Broken Isles than the wintery weather he’d left behind in Stromgarde.
A growing crowd filled the streets around the Legerdemain Lounge. Kirin Tor guards held back the bulk of their onlookers with staffs or arcane shields they generated from bracers on their wrists. Amisi Azuregaze, the bar’s innkeeper, stood out in her bright pink robes, as most of the undead and humans gawking there wore black or blue. She appeared to be arguing with a guard captain, though not one that Koltira recognized. He stepped back into the shadows of the alley and turned to Aethas.
“What’s with the black? And the blue flower armbands?”
Aethas vibrated impatience.
“Dalaran commemorates---as do most of the Eastern Kingdoms, incidentally---Lordaeron’s fall to Arthas. Means that we have an unusually high number of drunk humans and undead, probably all ready to explode into street fighting if we don’t resolve this little situation quickly.”
The death knight nodded towards the blood elf guard captain speaking with the innkeeper Amisi. Behind her, Arille Azuregaze hovered like an anxious hen, clearly upset at the chaos originating from what he liked to call “Dalaran’s premier social club”. Normally the striking couple spent their time schmoozing anyone who walked through their front door. Now, they looked distinctly displeased at the chaos that surrounded their tavern.
“That isn’t the usual commander of the City Watch, is it?” he asked, still unwilling to wade into a situation blindly.
The mage ran one hand over his face as if to smother his annoyance. He inhaled and exhaled slowly before he spoke again.
“Correct. Captain Raethan’s turf is in the Underbelly. I assume he is here either to serve as backup to the street guards, or because a wine cellar is underground and thus technically under his jurisdiction, making it relevant when an insane death knight drags the current Warchief’s champion into it, with a runeblade at his throat. Do I need to remind you that time is of the essence? Oh—for Light’s sake, wait up.”
The chatter and murmur died away as Koltira walked through the crowd; people stepped to either side to clear a path, as if to touch him was to be infected. Glances from under hooded eyelids and whispers behind cupped hands flittered through the ranks of the onlookers, who melted away to reveal the imposing figure of Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner. At least a dozen Dark Rangers flanked and backed up, along with several Dread Guards. In the shadowed edges and corners, Koltira caught the subtle flickers of movement and he knew rogues and cutthroats lined every route in and out of the square. Even if someone didn’t owe the Banshee Queen their allegiance, they could count on a decent reward purse if they played a part in rescuing her champion. Or cut the throat of her enemies.
Koltira stopped a few feet away as her guards raised weapons.
He hadn’t talked to her face to face in a long time. After a fraction of a second, he remembered to make a cursory bow. No need to further inflame the situation.
“Deathweaver. We meet under less than ideal circumstances. Again.”
Fine lines crinkled around her dark eyes and the corners of her mouth. He hadn’t noticed them before.
“Can we skip the pleasantries?” Koltira surprised himself by how calm he sounded, despite the nausea that gripped his stomach when he looked at the woman who had held him captive for so long. “We both have someone we want out of that wine cellar, alive. My proposal to you is as follows: I get your champion back to you. Commander Thassarian is unharmed. Your rangers, your guards, your flunkies, they’re gone. The only faces I want to see when I drag Nathanos up those steps are the friendly neighborhood city guards, or I’ll toss him right back down there and tell Thassarian to have fun. Understand?”
Sylvanas let out a low whistle.
“My, my,” she said softly, “Someone has gotten very bossy. It looks better on you than excuses. Or chains.”
His skin crawled and he clenched his hands at his side; there’d been a time he had looked up to this woman. Ranger General of Silvermoon? Anyone who joined the Farstriders didn’t just admire Sylvanas, they wanted to be her, Koltira included. Now he just saw the cold look of a predator staring from her dark red eyes and he knew he fell into the category of prey. He waited and she turned, murmured inaudible instructions to one of her rangers before turning back to him, her hands held out and palm up.
“I have instructed them, but you’ll need to keep up your half of the bargain, Deathweaver. And I’ll need your runeblade, for safekeeping, of course. Adding more weapons to this unfortunate mess could only end badly, I’m sure you understand.”
Was it surprise or disappointment that flitted across her face when he unfastened his weapon scabbard and dropped Byfrost into her hands without argument---he couldn’t tell. Perhaps disappointment, since cooperation on his part would make it more difficult for her to kill him or Thassarian with a solid excuse. Either way, if she had Byfrost, she had Koltira on a short leash.
Somehow, the noise and clamor around him barely registered. He felt like a ghost moving among the living, so focused on the task at hand that even his weapon being taken hostage felt more like a minor inconvenience than anything else. He felt the eyes of the crowd on his back as he walked to the cellar door set alongside the side of the tavern. Frost and ice crept from around the edges of the door and tiny drifts of snow swirled and eddied around his boots as he knelt and knocked on it like an awkward dinner guest. A metallic clank accompanied the hollow sound and he guessed that the door had been barred, along with being frozen.
“Thassarian. It’s me. Please open the door.”
He heard heavy footsteps and indecipherable speech below. Someone was alive down there, at least. The footsteps came closer then stopped.
“Are you alone?”
Relief, like warm bathwater at the end of a long, hard day washed over him at the sound of Thassarian’s voice. Deep, savage and suspicious as it was, he recognized the man who spoke as the warrior he’d fought by so many times. Fuck, why had he been so damn stupid? That was supposed to be the elf’s job.
“It’s just me. No knives at my throat or back. Yet. Will you let me in?”
“I swear, if I see anyone other than Koltira Deathweaver, I’ll open up the Blightcaller’s throat all over the floor, understand? Fuck Valkyr, he’ll be past resurrection when I get done with him.”
He spoke loudly enough that the remaining onlookers could hear it. City guards pressed them back at the sound of the threat. Below Koltira, a metallic screech pierced his ears as the door was unbarred.
“Can I come in now, or should I fear for the safety of my ankles?”
Silence, then gruffly-
“If it’s you then…yes, it’s safe. Pull it shut after you.”
The heavy wooden door opened to reveal steep stone steps that led to dim light below. Cool air rushed up to meet him as he descended and turned his back to pull the door shut again. He saw the Warchief in the forefront of the crowd. She met his eyes with her own and at her side, she held Byfrost in its scabbard, her pale hand wrapped around it with white-knuckle strength. It felt more than slightly satisfying to shut the door against her gaze.
His eyes adjusted slowly to the dim light as he turned and took the next few steps to the cellar floor. Laid out before him was a curious little tableau. Dusty wooden shelves lined with casks and racks filled with dark wine bottles filled the room. Clean straw covered the damp stone floor. At the back of the room, Nathanos Blightcaller was on his knees, his arms pulled up and behind him, lashed at the wrist to a length of rope that had been tethered to one of the shelves filled with squat barrels, presumably filled with ale or whiskey. The undead’s face was fixed in a concentrated snarl, muscles knotted and tensed with effort along his outstretched arms and shoulders. The rope had just enough slack that Nathanos had to actively work to avoid being impaled by the very sharp tip of the runeblade positioned just under his chin, the hilt wedged between two flagstones in the floor. His eyes burned with bright red fury, silent only because of the bloodied handkerchief stuffed into his mouth.
Thassarian stood nearby, armed with his second runeblade. He looked dressed for an evening out in a fine white shirt partly opened at the throat where a few buttons appeared to be missing. A dark coat, decorated with an armband of blue flowers, lay discarded on the floor. He had blood on his knuckles and split lip, but looked remarkably untouched, considering the circumstances.
“I have to admit,” Koltira said slowly, “That’s the prettiest I’ve ever seen Marris look. The gag just really improves his overall look.”
The undead’s muffled response stopped as Koltira kicked the sword from under his chin. it clattered to the floor and Nathanos collapsed forward. His whole body trembled spastically as he leaned against the ropes, his head tilted down and dark hair falling around his face. From the corner of his eye, he could see Thassarian frown. He picked up the runeblade and handed it back to him.
“If I’m going to get you out of here alive, he needs to be alive too. And relatively unharmed.”
Closer now to his friend, Koltira could see the barely controlled rage in his eyes and how his hands shook slightly as he took the sword. Thassarian sheathed one sword and stalked over to Nathanos. He seized the man by the neck like a mere pup and dragged his head up and back to face him.
“Koltira. I’m glad to see you,” he said, “You know I am a patient man. Possibly too patient. But…this man…does not deserve to live, does not deserve to be unharmed.”
He released his hold on Nathanos who fell forward again; the undead coughed and spat the balled-up handkerchief from his mouth with a sputter.
“Fuck you,” he spat.
His head reeled back as Thassarian backhanded him. Blood streamed from a split on his cheekbone and into his dark beard.
“Watch your mouth,” the death knight rumbled, “I’d cut your tongue from your head if you didn’t need it to confess your crimes.”
Koltira stepped between them and put a hand on the other’s chest and forced him back. “Stop it, you fucking moron!”
He didn’t mean to shout t but he did. The plan he’d thrown together on his journey was going to fall apart and it would be Thassarian’s stupid, stubborn, chivalrous fault. He reached inside his own cloak, pulled out a flask and pressed it into the human’s hand.
“Listen to me. First, you’re going to drink every drop of that whiskey. Second, no one is going to put Nathanos in jail, for anything. I collaborated with the enemy. Marris was doing his job, no one is going to see it differently.”
Thassarian’s jaw set and he shook his head.
“Koltira,” he said softly, “I know…I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but what he did goes beyond the pale. Execution is an act of state. Raping a prisoner is not.”
His voice shook as he spoke. A blast of winter air swirled around him like a storm in miniature and frost crept over the stone floor in intricate snowflake patterns. Koltira saw the regret, the pity in those pale blue eyes and the pieces finally fell into place. Behind him, Nathanos laughed hoarsely.
“I told you, Commander, it isn’t rape if he’s begging for it.”
Koltira stopped the human in his tracks with a hasty death coil to pin his arms to his side.
“Nathanos, shut up, or I’ll let him loose on you. Thassarian. Thassarian, look at me. Right now.”
He couldn’t be sure, hand to hand, if he could restrain the other man if Thassarian really fought him, so he used other tactics. He grabbed the other by his arms and pressed his forehead against his to force the human’s attention on him and away from the Blightcaller. They were so close, just inches apart, close enough that Koltira could see how badly frayed the other’s control over his murderous impulses was. Close enough to want to shut him up with a kiss, smart enough to know that was a bad idea.
“I’m listening,” Thassarian growled.
He closed his eyes and let out a long breath before he spoke in calm, measured tones.
“Thassarian. Whatever he told you was a provocation. Nathanos didn’t rape me, he wanted you to think that he did, so he had an excuse to fight you. It’s what he’s doing now. He doesn’t care if he dies, the Warchief will bring him back…after making sure you’re permanently dead and probably me with you.”
Every time anyone spoke the word rape, he could see the tremulous control slipping on Thassarian’s face. Underneath the rage, he could see something more vulnerable, as fragile as ice melting in the spring, and he realized he’d seen it before without recognition. It was like a raw wound and Thassarian a wild animal, reacting without thought or conscience every time it was touched. Damn it. Why hadn't he realized before...
The human huffed, the cold air clouding in the air between him.
“I’ll do as you ask, Koltira. Only because it’s you. Now, why the whiskey?”
Clearly, he didn’t believe what the elf said, but was playing along, and that’s all Koltira needed now. He pulled out a second flask and went to where Nathanos still knelt on the floor.
“I need you drunk, as drunk as possible. The only way this works is if we have a good story to tell.” He unscrewed the cap of the flask and poured a little of the whiskey into his hand. “I’m telling the story, because you’re a bad liar.”
“You’re not better. And I’m not drinking anything from your hand, sword at my throat or not.”
He sputtered as Koltira flicked the whiskey into his face and onto the front of his shirt. The elf crouched down and wet the corner of his sleeve with more alcohol.
“This might sting,” he said patronizingly and carefully cleaned the dried blood from Nathanos’s face.
He took a sadistic satisfaction in being gentle and light-handed as he tended the other’s scrapes and cuts. Physical pain, the undead might welcome or endure as a trial of courage. This? This was mundane and humiliating as a mother wiping dirt from her child’s face. Once Nathanos looked mostly respectable, he added a touch more spilled whiskey to his clothes. Now the undead appeared unharmed and reeked of alcohol on his clothes, while his breath smelled like stale beer.
“This is your plan?” the undead gritted out, “You’re going to tell them, what? I’m sober, he’s drunk, spilled his drink on me, and I violently assaulted him without due provocation? Yet somehow, I ended up being the one tied up, by the same drunk too intoxicated to hold a drink upright? There are witnesses, you know, people who saw us both at Legerdemain Lounge and can contradict you.”
Koltira glanced over at Thassarian, who was obediently drinking from the first flask. He couldn’t resist and patted Nathanos on the cheek.
“You’re so close,” he crooned, “I’m telling a story. The truth doesn’t matter, what matters is: what version will the Council want to hear? The one where members of warring factions began a violent fight over politics in their neutral city, potentially endangering their stability and peace? Or the story where two drunk men took a disagreement a step too far and need a night to sleep it off, maybe a few days in jail, paying a hefty fine?”
He smiled because he saw the understanding dawn in the other’s eyes and it felt delicious.
“She’ll never believe you.”
“I don’t need her to---this is Dalaran. Not Undercity. And she already agreed to let Thassarian go unharmed if I got you out of this alive. Face it, Marris. We’re all walking away from this, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.”
He hoped he was right. If not, the city streets were going to turn bloody, very quickly.
Chapter 19: Habituation
Upfront: while it doesn't get explicit in this chapter, it will, although I avoid sexualizing the types of situations that I am writing about.
Koltira orchestrated their exit from the cellar like a dance.
In front, Nathanos, with his hands bound in front of him and his disheveled shirtfront stained with whiskey, but otherwise unharmed. Following behind him, Koltira, who steered him like a human shield. Finally (and swaying like a sapling in the storm) came Thassarian with a split lip, a black eye and blood down half his eye from a cut over one eyebrow.
He added a few of those marks himself. After all, blood helped sell a story.
“We’re coming peacefully. All unharmed, as you can see---well, mostly.”
Guards swarmed them and Koltira relaxed, because even Sylvanas wouldn’t risk shooting into a crowd of Kirin Tor peacekeepers. Captain Raethen came to the fore, armed with nothing more than a pair of handcuffs and a sour expression. He looked annoyed more than anything else to be dealing with the situation, as if the potential for violence from a couple of death knights was just an interruption to his Tuesday night. Instinctively, Koltira put an arm around his friend to steady him, unable to quell the fear that something was about to go wrong.
“Step away from Commander Thassarian. We’ll take it from here,” he ordered.
Thassarian leaned into his embrace with drunken gracelessness; the whiskey really had kicked in. He frowned and looked at the elf as if for instruction. Koltira felt every protective instinct rise in him, especially since the human was practically hanging onto him like a handsy teenager, too unsteady to stay upright on his own. He cleared his throat. Be polite. Be reasonable.
“The commander is unarmed, he’s turning himself in. Let me accompany you to the prison at least, he’s not walking there on his own power anyways.”
The captain’s expression did not waver.
“Your part here is done. Now step away from the commander and let me do my job. Understand?”
Koltira felt electricity course through his body as lips brushed against his ear; Thassarian stage-whispering “He seems upset, Koltira, maybe you should do what he says. I don’t want you to get hurt” before tightening his grip on the elf’s shirt.
“You know what?” Koltira said belligerently, “Fuck you, Raethan, I just did your job for you. Now either you let me come with him, or I’ll do something you’ll have to charge me for. Get it?”
To their credit, the guards weren’t rougher on them than anyone else that pissed them off. Raethen himself put the cuffs on Koltira.
“Obstruction is a charge, Deathweaver, so yes, now you’ll be accompanying us to jail for the night.” He snapped the cuffs closed and two guards hauled Koltira onto his feet, the blood elf captain looking at once exasperated and bemused. “I hope it’s worth it for you.”
Dalaran had two primary forms of imprisonment: The Violet Hold and the considerably less attractive dungeons in the Underbelly. Captain Raethan ran the affairs of the dark underside of the city, so Koltira wasn’t surprised that is where they ended up, surrounded by a dozen or more guards and led by the irritable Raethan. He tossed the keys to their cuffs onto the desk of the sergeant on duty.
“Paperwork on this pair is going to be a bitch, Sal. Put them somewhere they won’t cause trouble while I get that started. Higher ups want a report yesterday on this incident.
The sergeant gave them both an appraising look and tapped a stubby pencil against her lips.
“Can’t put em with the prisoners in general holding. Too dangerous. 3b is open, that’ll hold them until the morning.”
The primary décor for cell 3b consisted of a single metal bench bolted to the back wall. Green slime puddled around a clogged drain on the floor and a sodden wooden bucket lay on its side in one corner. The sergeant shut and locked the iron-barred door before she gestured them forward to remove the handcuffs.
“You must’ve pissed off the captain,” she commented, “Bad idea. Try and behave, maybe he’ll cool off by morning. Maybe not.”
Koltira rubbed at his wrists with one, then the other hand as she disappeared back down the corridor with the other guards. The only light guttered from a greasy candle in a sconce outside the cell. Thassarian had gone quiet on their journey to the prison; he took a slumped seat on the bench, his pale blue eyes a spark of light in the shadows.
“She’s right,” he murmured, “You don’t need to be here.”
The elf death knight ran a hand over his face and rubbed briefly at his temples with his fingertips. Where to even start…
He took a seat next to the human and leaned forward, his arms rested on his legs and gaze fixed resolutely forward.
“We need to talk. About what happened back there.”
“We don’t. Not ever, if you don’t want to, Koltira.”
The stubborn, panicked note in Thassarian’s voice might have irritated him before. Now he just felt ashamed and tired, and so much older than the grey-haired man next to him. He turned his hand palm-up on his thigh and felt a bit of relief when the other hesitantly accepted the gesture, his rough hand curled inside the elf’s.
“Where to start.”
Koltira hardly knew and his words came edged, hesitant.
“Let’s start with the source of this stupid fight. What Nathanos told you? A lie. A goddamn lie. Not a half-truth, just no truth at all. I wasn’t raped in Undercity, he never touched me like that.” He tightened his hand around the others’ like a vise, afraid to speak but more afraid not to. “The way you reacted, the way you’ve acted in the past, I must ask, Thassarian…were you raped?”
The silence stretched unbearably, heavy, oppressive, illuminated by flashes of the dying candle outside. Koltira could feel the battle warring inside the man next to him and felt helpless to alter the outcome. He had tried to couch his words carefully but it didn’t work. A low sound broke the weighted silence. It was laughter, hollow and desperate, belied by the brilliant glint of the human’s eyes as he shook his head. It sounded wrong and unnatural and the small hairs on the back of Koltira’s neck prickled unpleasantly.
“Ahhh, Koltira,” he said, “I didn’t want it to come to this…not ever, especially not in a place like this, where you’re stuck with me, at least until morning.”
He looked down where their hands joined. When Thassarian spoke again, the hysteric laughter was gone, replaced by his familiar quiet tone, gruff and cold.
“You’re correct, in assuming that I have personal experience with rape. However, I was not the victim.” He cleared his throat and pronounced the words like a sentence on himself. “I raped someone else. When I thought someone had done to you…that no matter what I did, I’d managed to drag you into that same hell…”
He stopped, choked up as his composure unraveled with his words. Thassarian leaned back against the wall and his shoulders sagged. He looked defeated and drained. The purple tattoos traced around his eyes cast them into deeper shadow. Koltira felt memories flood into his mind in a paralyzing food.
Thassarian’s patient refusal to join him in bed.
The fumbling panic when the elf kissed him in the morning.
The drunken belligerence when he tried again that night outside the Filthy Animal.
He got to his feet and paced the length of the cell, twice, then punched one fist into the stone wall because the pain that exploded in his hand felt better than the overwhelming guilt in his chest.
“Don’t hurt yourself on my account.”
Koltira knew he needed to stay composed because Thassarian was falling apart, but it took more strength than he knew he had to stay composed at the soft, defeated reproof from the man. He flexed his battered hand before he moved back to the narrow bench, careful to keep a space between them both as he sat.
“You’re not a rapist,” he said quietly, insistently, “I know you too well, Thassarian, to believe that of you. If either of us have behaved badly, it’s me. I saw you were uncomfortable, more than once, and I thought I could somehow force you past it. So, if you’re done, I won’t say a word. But please, if you can, talk to me. Tell me what happened. We’re here till morning regardless.”
This time, he was certain the silence would remain unbroken it lasted so long. Such a small space between them; he could smell the whiskey, sweat and fear on Thassarian.
“It happened on the ship, when we left Northrend.”
Chapter 20: Aversion Therapy
Not a lot of plot advancement in here, but it's not the end. Far from it.
Choking. Drowning. Not drowning. Submerged and fighting for a surface that didn’t exist. Buried alive but not alive. Struggle uselessly against the current. Struggle because you’re a soldier, you’re a soldier, you’re a soldier.
Thassarian came to himself on hands and knees on the cabin floor. He shook inside his plate armor like a sick dog, still dazed from the invasion into his thoughts. The Lich King might command the largest ship in the fleet headed for Lordaeron, but the surly grey sea buffeted the ship back and forth like so much flotsam. Even in the royal cabin, the drops and swells of the storm could be felt as the wood beams creaked and groaned under the assault.
Arthas propped his chin on one hand. He commanded a position at the desk that dominated the room. There was no bed. The prince didn’t sleep anymore and neither did anyone else. Under his elbow lay maps and battle plans for the invasion. He wore his pale gold hair tied back from his wan face, and he drummed the fingers of his other hand on the desk in a relentless tattoo. He looked bored.
“You know, at first I find your resistance amusing,” he drawled, “Now it’s just tiresome. You’ve proven yourself capable in battle, but still…there’s a weakness in you. Captain Falric, remind me again why you raised this man?”
Captain Falric accompanied the prince everywhere, both before and after death. He had to be about ten years older than him, though death had aged him more in appearance. Before the invasion on Northrend had gone so terribly, horribly wrong, Thassarian respected the man. He was competent in battle, held the trust of the royal family, and he was good to the soldiers he commanded. He stood at attention at the prince’s right hand, armed to teeth, as if the Lich King had anything to fear from his mindless pawns.
“He was the son of a respected hero, your grace, the man called Killoren. He aided in the rescue of refugees trapped by orc forces on Southshore, after the sack of Stormwind.”
Arthas silenced him with an impatient wave of his hand.
“I know all that, Falric, I didn’t ask for a history lesson. I asked why you raised him, specifically. Or are you just that bloodthirsty and mindless, that you raised the first man brave enough to come find us?”
Thassarian didn’t move from where he was on the floor, because he had not been commanded to do so. He felt relief just to be ignored for the moment. Every time the Lich King personally riffled through his mind, it brought back so many weak emotions, memories and passions that he no longer felt anymore. It was an exercise in humiliation, because it exposed weakness, and a death knight could not be weak. The captain’s mouth twitched at the corner, a rare sign of underlying emotion.
“He fought well on the beachhead, he—” Falric grimaced, faltered before he continued on, “His whole unit was near wiped out, commanders too, and he managed to organize them into defensive formation, held out until help arrived. It was promising to see in a soldier so young.”
A fine sheen of melted frost beaded on his forehead, his pale eyebrows knitted together in seeming concentration. Thassarian recognized the look and hot, vicious pleasure pooled in his gut. Arthas had the man’s mind pinned in his grip like an insect squirming in a set of tweezers.
Fuck Falric. He’d taken everything from him; turned him from an honest soldier into a monster.
The first thought that flashed through Thassarian’s mind when he rose was a question: why isn’t it cold anymore? Before he set out to find the prince, he’d scavenged an extra coat and a blanket, just to wrap up against the bone-numbing wind.
“Be careful, sir. You’re as liable to get lost and freeze to death, as find help.”
One of the men had given him a woolen scarf accompanied by the warning, spoken in his broad Hillsbrad accent. To refuse the gift was impossible, even if he wanted to protest that he wasn’t a sir. The protest died in his mouth, because there was no one else to lead the ragged remnants of their unit, not after the attack from Malganis. Thassarian had been promoted by death more than once. He wrapped the scarf around his face and shook the man’s hand.
“Thank you. I’ll return it when I come back, Steven. When.”
Thassarian felt his stomach roil and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the cabin floor. Without a warning, Arthas had seized on him, twisted him back into bitter memories before he even realized what was happening. Yellow bile, thick and viscous drooled from his mouth and his nose as another forcible wave of nausea swept over him. He had eaten nothing for months, but it seemed an age before the vomiting ended.
“See, that’s what worries me.”
Arthas sounded paternal, conversational as he leaned forward, his hands clasped together on the desk as he spoke to Falric. The contrast between the remaining dregs of his humanity and the inhuman glow in his eyes made Thassarian’s gut twist again in protest. It was wrong, terribly wrong.
“Your man here. He starts with rage at you, and ends up morose over some tatty wool scarf he got as a gift. It’s disappointing, really, although it ended a bit less pathetically. Do you remember that part, Thassarian?”
The death knight spat to clear his mouth and lifted his head to glare at the prince with cold, undisguised loathing. Even on his knees, Thassarian looked defiant. Foam flecked with blood stained his white-streaked beard, a testament to the effort it took to fight even the slightest against the Lich King’s control.
“I killed him, and every one of my men,” he said in low, burning tones, “Burned the bodies of the weak, raised the rest as ghouls to slaughter the living who remained. Fuck you. Fuck you, you know what happened.”
The prince laughed and clapped in mocking admiration.
“See, there it is, Falric,” he said approvingly, “You see that fire in his eyes? He hasn’t given up yet, for all his agreeable obedience in our campaign against the vrykrul.”
Thassarian trembled from head to toe, his teeth bared in a feral snarl, but his body remained rooted to the deck, as heavy and unmoving as the ship’s anchor. The weeks at sea had taken their toll on every death knight, the inability to quench their bloodlust stoking the already vicious desires that lived inside them. Even the Lich King needed to satisfy his need for cruelty; the death knight recognized that he and Falric were just actors in a sick little play. A tableau directed and enacted to please Arthas.
As if on cue, Falric drew his runeblade and inclined his head towards the prince.
“Do you wish me to execute him, your grace?” he asked, his sonorous pronouncement marred by the eagerness he couldn’t quite mask.
Arthas’ amusement vanished, his pale eyebrows drawn together over his eyes, the color of quick-frozen ice, almost colorless.
“Hold your tongue,” he growled, “You’re trying my patience, Captain.”
He beckoned with one hand and Thassarian rose to his feet, drawn towards the desk in a graceless march. The pine boards did little to muffle the tread of a death knight’s footsteps, especially in full armor.
Falric fell silent at the command from the prince but his hands twitched nervously at his sides. Though corrupted, the scent of the stale blood that stained Thassarian’s mouth and beard seemed to have ignited the captain’s need to kill and even he struggled to obey. Arthas ignored him and leaned forward over the desk, his chin propped on one elegant hand. A few strands of his pale gold hair pulled free of their leather tie and framed his cold, questioning face. His gaze skewered the death knight who stood before him, pulled him apart like a toy, and finally put the pieces back together before he spoke.
“I have traced the source of your recalcitrance, farm boy,” he said, “The reason why you’re cursing and spitting and fighting me like a barn cat instead of a loyal soldier. A soldier such as our dear captain Falric here, for instance.”
A brief, self-satisfied smile lit the prince’s face and momentarily erased the lines of cruelty and hatred etched there.
“You, Thassarian, have a clear conscience. You’re not a murderous creature of nightmares, you’re a righteous soul…no, righteous soldier, who did what he was told. Your father did say something about that, did he not? You have so few memories of him, but that one stood out.”
He rose to his feet and laid a hand on the captain’s shoulder who stood next to him.
“Falric, on the other hand, now, he feels quite differently. He bears the weight of his sins quite heavily. And he obeys.”
A flash of some memory crossed the prince’s face and it softened his angular, aristocratic features. He looked like he was sleepwalking almost, his pale blue eyes at once languid and vulnerable. Falric’s expression darkened and his hand raised to touch the prince on the arm in a steadying gesture.
“Arthas,” he said quietly, “You know I regret what happened. You’re---”
Arthas shook away the dream and the captain’s touch at the sound of his name without title. Whatever had happened, whatever oblique memory lay buried between them, it was clear he had no intention of it being raised further. He rounded on Thassarian.
“Do you understand me? Do you understand why you’re a troublesome rebel and my dear friend here is so obedient?”
When Thassarian replied, it was without the realization that his thoughts and words flowed together; he’d been briefly freed from the control over his actions.
“I understand that you like to hear yourself talk,” he said dryly.
As the temperature in the cabin dropped, so did his stomach, right into his boots. Whatever amusement Arthas had derived from his rebellion evaporated and left behind the cold, emotionless mask of the lich. He moved without hurry; he closed a hand around Thassarian’s throat and lifted him singlehanded off the floor, bringing the stocky and shorter man eye to eye.
“Your defiance is no longer entertaining,” he said, “You will learn your place, and here, now, in time to become a truly obedient soldier in time for our arrival in Lordaeron city. Since the source of your self-righteousness seems untarnished by murder, I think I’ve found another solution. Captain Falric, among the living prisoners in the brig, find someone pretty and blonde for our friend here. According to his memories, he has a weakness for them. Blue eyes, too.”
“Your grace, there are no women among the prisoners. Ah.” Falric coughed. “I see.”
Thassarian didn’t need to breath but he started to shake as he half-grasped the monstrous intention in the prince’s malice-laced words. He stumbled when Arthas dropped him to round on Falric, his hand rising to his throat from old instinct. Shame curdled in his chest as he imagined what the prince must have seen in his memories to speak so. The prince, on the other hand, seemed to have forgotten him entirely, once again focused on the captain.
“Again, Falric, this again?” he demanded, “He’s homosexual, not some rare and exotic species from Stranglethorn. Yet every time you’re told that sex isn’t some sacred ritual of man and wife, you react with disbelief. Is it so hard to believe that sometimes, sex is just sex---dirty, clean, nice, ugly. Mostly ugly.”
Falric sounded genuinely anguished. “Arthas-“
He staggered backwards from the prince’s backhanded blow.
“Don’t use my name, Falric, it’s coarse.”
Arthas wiped the back of his hand on the edge of his cloak to remove dark blood from the rings he wore. His hawk-like gaze flicked between Thassarian and his captain and his mouth lifted into a faint smile.
“You know Falric,” he said quietly, “Forget the prisoner. Both of you are going to learn something today.”
It was snowing in the Underbelly.
A sheet of ice coated the uneven stone floor and claustrophobic walls of the cell. Frost and gusts of snow crept a little past the narrow iron bars of the door. A fine layer of snowflakes cloaked the two death knights inside. Koltira’s eyebrows looked like upended icicles, his body no warmer than the snow that frosted his hair and shoulders. One ear twitched and a handful of more snow drifted lazily downwards. He brushed a hand across Thassarian’s cheek where the snow had landed. The human sat on the bench next him with his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes distant and barely focused. He didn’t seem to register the touch or the unusual climate. Though the man had always excelled in using frost in combat, Koltira doubted he was doing this consciously.
“Thassarian?” he said quietly.
The human blinked frosted lashes.
“Not asleep,” he murmured, “Just drunk. Is why you’re hearing this, probably.”
Koltira brushed some more snow from the man’s hair and let his hand rest there, afraid to provoke any worse memories.
“Thassarian,” he said, “Are you saying that I’m the first person that you’ve told of this? You never sought help? Never even told your sister?”
The human shuddered.
“Tell her…what, Koltira? That I’m not just a murderer, a monster, I’m also a rapist?”
His voice caught and tore on the last admission, the sound dissolving into a ragged and weary sob. He buried his face against Koltira’s shoulder and curled against him like a child with their mother. The elf held him there and fought the rare and unwelcome urge to weep himself.
“Thass,” he said with gentle determination, “You need to stop calling yourself that. The only person who raped anyone was Arthas. He pitted you against Falric, in a twisted game, where you were both losers.”
Thassarian pulled back enough to whisper, in tremulous tones, “Maybe but I was the only one who came. Light, I’m going to be sick.”
He half-fell off the bench and ended up on his knees, retching onto the floor between huge strangled gasps. In the candlelight and between the gentle fall of snow, his eyes shone dark and terrified. Koltira glanced at the bucket frozen into an inch of ice across the floor and decided not to bother. Instead, he sat on the floor next to the human until he stopped vomiting, the gasps turned into low breathless sobs instead.
“He was afraid,” he whispered, “He was married, you know. The first time I was with a man, and he touched me because he had a penknife at his throat to keep him from biting.”
The elf felt like he might be sick as well. With every tremulous confession, Thassarian shrank back from him, clearly ready for the rejection and loathing he felt for himself. Koltira blew a loose strand of snowy hair out of his face. He sat cross-legged across from the human and laid his hands on either knee, an old habit when he learned mediation and controlled breathing in the Farstriders. Stupid, really, considering his current physiology. What a beautiful picture they must make, he thought ruefully: the still-drunk human sitting on a floor coated with frozen vomit and an undead elf who hadn’t taken a bath in a few weeks right next to him. Not that he hadn’t been in worse condition. Then a memory leapt to the forefront of his mind. Koltira inched to sit a little closer to him.
“Your desk,” he said, “When I went through it. I noticed you didn’t have a letter opener. Is that why?”
Thassarian nodded minutely and then buried his face in his hands. Shining silver and brown strands of hair poured between his clenched fingers.
“Little reminders. Made it hard not to think about. I never had anything else to compare it to. No good memories to outweigh the bad.”
You offered me something good, something better than I deserve.
I can’t be what you want.
Don’t…don’t fucking touch me.
Koltira exhaled and the cold air from his lungs made no cloud in the frozen air around them. He thought longingly of the whiskey from before and regretted that he hadn’t drunk any himself. His thoughts were interrupted when a strong hand with scraped knuckles grabbed one of his and held it tight.
“But I want to.”
Thassarian spoke fast and low, his eyes like twin coals of fire in his haggard face.
“I want to make good memories, with you, Koltira. I wanted you since before Andorhal, before the battle at Light’s Hope. Damn it, I’ve wanted you since you held a sword to my throat and you walked away from a chance to kill me, because you’re bright and you’re beautiful and you saw something in me I thought was dead. Maybe it is. But not in you.”
The word died on his lips, firmly closed by a kiss. Thassarian’s chapped lips were rough against his, his broad, strong arms wrapped around the elf’s shoulders in a bone-crushing embrace. Koltira knew the man was drunk and knew the risk and he melted into the touch like wax to the flame. Every dormant nerve in his body sprung to life; the soft wiry scrape of the man’s beard against his cheek, the strong hand cupped at the small of his back to hold him in place for every soft, desperate caress. Every lonely, aching moment somehow vanished, because he was held and holding, because he was kissed and kissing. Because he was loved and loving.
The snow stopped falling when they finally broke apart. The human’s wild burst of courage gave way to a hesitant question in his eyes, and Koltira laid a finger against his lips before he could speak.
“There,” he said softly, “That’s one. One good memory to replace the bad.”
Chapter 21: Oedipus Complex
“You took your time. Warchief.”
Nathanos pulled his stained shirt over his head and tossed it onto the floor. The warm rays of the mid-morning sun poured through the windows of the Windrunner Sanctuary tower and illuminated the undead man from behind as he undressed. Aside from a nasty split across one hawkish cheekbone and bruised wrists, he had escaped unscathed. When he caught Sylvanas watching him, he returned her stare with an impudent glare of his own, his deep-set red eyes alight with umbrage underneath furrowed brows. She stretched like a cat and rose slowly from her chair, still dressed in her clothes from the night before.
“I thought it prudent to let Captain Raethan flex a little muscle,” she said calmly, “The fight was far too public to ignore completely, and a night in jail didn’t seem to have done you any permanent damage. Champion.”
He unlaced his boots and tugged them off one by one as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“When should I expect a lecture about what happened?”
She sat on the bed next to him and leaned her head against his bare arm. Her nose wrinkled.
“When you’ve bathed,” she said, “You smell like cheap beer and gutter-trash.”
Marris shuddered fastidiously.
“There isn’t enough hot water in the city” he said.
However, he did not object when Sylvanas joined him in the shower. Even after his newfound strength granted by the Valkyr, he was older than he wanted to think about. Another pair of hands to help reach those tricky spots on his back allowed him to ignore the aches and twinges he refused to accept as permanent. He’d been in a fight. Nathanos had almost always just been in a fight. Residual pain was normal. Certainly not a sign of age.
For her part, the undead elf was unusually quiet and waited for him to start toweling his hair dry before she brought up the topic she’d clearly been stewing over since he arrived. A dark purple robe clung to her damp body and her pale hair curled in wet tendrils around her face.
“I have someone to show you,” she said.
Nathanos dried off his face before he replied. In the mirror over the sink, he could see a couple bruises purpled along his ribs and, in the bright light of day, the cut on his face looked even worse. At least pale skin covered his ribs now, along with dark hair that trailed from his chest down his abdomen in short dark curls.
He scowled at himself briefly; he’d been too slow when Thassarian attacked. Never should’ve let the man within arm’s distance. Death knights weren’t known for speed but Light help you once they got those armored hands on you.
“I am still naked,” he said dryly, “Am I permitted to put on pants first?”
He caught the bundle of clothing that Sylvanas tossed at him impatiently, her mouth briefly creased into an impish smile when she thought he wasn’t looking. If he didn’t know her better, he would say she was being playful, but he rarely saw that side of her these days. Once he had the pants on, she caught him by one hand as he shrugged on a shirt.
“You’re not naked, come on,” she said, “She’s unconscious and probably will be for a few more days, the apothecaries say.”
As she spoke, she opened the carved door of an adjoining room; an old bedroom that belonged to Alleria, he remembered, an age ago. She pulled him in after her, even when he paused in surprise at the sight on the elaborate canopy bed. Diaphanous silk material draped from the elven woodwork of the frame and curtained the bed below. Through narrow open windows, a warm breeze would gust and twitch at the fabric that hung like a shroud. A small, unmoving figure lay underneath a quilted blanket, her small hands folded over her chest like a posed corpse. But, as he drew near, he saw the delicate rise and fall of her chest, as sure and steady as the tick of a clock. Despite the pallor in her drawn cheeks and the dark shadows under her eyes, the woman on the bed was living, breathing. Alive. Warm brown hair fanned out on the pillow and Nathanos knew if she opened her eyes, they would hold the same gentle warmth in their golden-brown depths.
“My God,” he said, “This can’t be her.”
He remembered that same face, marred by deep ragged claw marks that furrowed the softly rounded cheeks and opened her mouth into a scream. Fel infection pooled in the wounds, though the worst was hidden under the rubble; her legs crushed by the collapsed building. Through the ruined ceiling, Nathanos could still see the looming form of the Legion assault ship; smaller pods peeled off and dropped like rotten fruit towards the ground. He felt the unnatural limpness of her body in his arms and laid her back where he found her. His hands moved to his weapons at the sound of demons outside.
“She’s gone, Mograine,” he shouted across the din “We need to go, NOW.”
The death knight had bloodied hands from where he’d torn them open tearing aside ragged chunks of stone and wood. The color matched the red of his hair that stood out in wild, dusty strands around his face. He dropped what he held and, ignoring the ranger’s snarled order, scrambled across the room to reach the limp, broken body.
The sounds Darion made.
The awful, ragged noises that came out of his mouth as he held the woman in his arms and rocked her.
Tears, blood, fel, everything blurred into the past for Nathanos but he still sometimes woke with those screams fresh in his ears.
His hand, unbidden, trailed over the soft, unmarred skin along the woman’s chin. One more remembrance came to him and he turned pale as he looked up at Sylvanas. Happiness glittered bright in her eyes where she sat on the bed, her legs tucked up underneath her as she hovered over the sleeping woman like a brooding hen. Nathanos had not seen her so plainly happy in years.
“My queen,” he said in low, urgent tones, “Is it just the girl or---”
“Yes,” she said with quiet triumph, “The apothecaries believe the child lives too, although they cannot be certain. She was only a few months along when she was killed.”
She brushed a few strands of hair from the woman’s forehead and the gesture was infinitely gentle. Nathanos stood rigid with shock and a skin-crawling sensation of unease.
The elf queen sat back and pulled the translucent drapes closed around the woman again. She smiled.
“We had him for six long years. I knew there was something special about Koltira, but what, we’ve only now discovered. Not the elf, not his blade, but both…both together Nathanos. He handed me the key to it all with his own hands last night and I don’t even think he has the faintest idea what he’s capable of.”
Nathanos rested his chin in one hand, concealing his mouth with his fingers as if to hide his discomfort with the situation. Maybe it had just been the woman, he wouldn’t have minded. But every man had limits and he felt a bit sick at the idea that a pale, Forsaken child curled up inside the woman’s womb. There was no sign of it; her stomach still flat and unremarkable underneath the blanket.
Sylvanas slipped off the bed and circled the bed to join in. She reached up and pulled his hand down, curled inside hers.
“Not a word has reached him. The body was retrieved without incident.”
Like before she leaned her head against him and she sighed softly, her damp hair brushing against his naked arm.
“Oh, Nathanos. She is just beautiful. Little Essyn here is the future of the Forsaken. The future of the Horde.”
Little Essyn. He swallowed his objections and took Sylvanas in his arms because he heard it in her voice. A mother’s pride.
“Yes,” he said, “I can see it.”
He did not lie.
This is far from the end folks, but I'm happy to have reached this point at last. Enjoy. Note: Captain Raethan is a very real NPC in Legion era Dalaran. You can find (and bribe him) in the Underbelly. Both halves of the Azuregaze couple can be found in the Legerdemain Lounge and Amisi is quite pretty. You’ve probably bought flowers from Aerith Primrose and never knew it. I like to mix in game characters.
Koltira didn’t count on fate to intervene on his behalf. Chance or bad luck could ruin any plan, but any decent strategist tried to anticipate such events. Only an idiot depended on good fortune. Fortune, however, did show up.
The setting was decidedly mundane. Captain Raethan’s office could barely accommodate the officer’s desk, piles of paper balanced on overturned crates and the two manacled death knights awaiting judgement. The blood elf ran a hand through his short, spiked hair, which failed to straighten or disorder it. The smell of mildew from books stacked double and triple deep on crooked shelves testified to the overall dampness of the underground location; most of them appeared to be ledgers or training manuals. Raethan looked harassed and uneasy, as if he didn’t spend much time in his own office. He drummed his fingers on a stack of papers and looked for all the world like a student trying to worm out of an unpleasant assignment.
“Right,” he said finally, “This isn’t a sentencing, I’m not a judge or a magistrate. This is to give Commander Thassarian a chance to give his side of the story and, after that, I’ll explain what charges I’m likely to recommend to whoever is assigned to oversee your case. Do you understand?”
After Thassarian’s yes, he held up one hand and forestalled further speech.
“I’ll get to Deathweaver, it’s a far more minor matter as it stands. First, let’s get down to your account of the fight. I would have taken it last night but as it happens, I was busy fending off outraged inquiries from multiple important people.” He frowned. “I don’t like having higher ups poking into my business, you understand, so don’t push my patience further.”
Koltira understood the veiled complaint. Raethan and his grubby little office, in his grubby little kingdom underneath Dalaran, preferred to fly under the radar. He’d been dragged into the affair or tasked to handle it, possibly because someone understood that it would be far easier to bribe the Underbelly captain than it would be if the regular Kirin Tor peacekeepers handle the matter. The death knight entertained the possibility that Nathanos had never even seen the inside of a cell last night and found it more than probable.
“Let’s start with your reason for being in the city. I know you have a sister who runs a tailoring shop, Sarah something?”
Thassarian had been quiet, subdued since the morning. He hadn’t said much between when he’d woken up from his drunken stupor and the sergeant came to fetch them. Koltira hadn’t slept at all; he had cradled the human’s head on his lap and kept him from sliding off the bench. Tempted by the opportunity, he used a single fingertip to trace the dark colored tattoos around Thassarian’s eyes and tried to distinguish between the ink scarred into the man’s skin and shadows of unrest. He couldn’t.
"Her name is Leryssa and she had nothing to do with this.”
Raethan tapped a pencil against his lips and leaned back in a dilapidated chair cushioned by tattered green felt.
“You do usually visit her every other Tuesday, do you not? And last night was, in fact, a Tuesday.”
He couldn’t hide his slight smile behind the tapping pencil. Koltira resisted the urge to look at his friend, even when he felt Thassarian tense beside him. Apparently Raethan kept eyes above as well as below ground, even during Legion invasions and assaults. Extremely observant eyes.
“As I said before, Leryssa has nothing to do with this, but you are correct. I did come to Dalaran intending to visit my sister, but I did not end up doing so.” Thassarian sounded purposefully matter of fact, bored, as if to lead the captain away from the topic.
“She told me that she had made plans with a friend for the evening.”
“She told you herself?”
“Through a mutual acquaintance. The flower seller Aerith Primrose. I usually stop there before I visit.”
Captain Raethan chuckled.
“How sweet. I assume Ms. Primrose will corroborate this?”
Thassarian’s reply came without a tinge of sarcasm. “I assume you have already done so and that she has. You might also speak to her bodyguard Koraud.”
Koltira suppressed the urge to smile. He rarely got to see the more rebellious side of his friend. No, he thought, that was wrong. Prior to recent events, he would have vigorously argued against the idea that Thassarian had a rebellious side at all. Every disagreement or irritation disappeared into the human’s calm demeanor only to reemerge during combat with vicious fury. If someone never saw him fight, they might mistake him for being a tame death knight. And it would indeed be a mistake. He snapped out of his reverie as Raethan turned over a page and pulled his chair closer to the desk, clearly ready to write.
“Correct, Commander, very correct. Given your perspicacity, I’ll not bore you by asking you where you went afterwards, know exactly where you went. Mr. and Mrs. Azuregaze were most forthcoming. They said you arrived in the early evening and joined the company of one Darion Mograine, who had already been there for some time. It was a busy night because of the commemoration, but both vouched that he drank very much and you, very little.”
He shot a glance at Koltira when the latter cleared his throat.
“You have something to add?”
“Only that undead alcohol consumption is difficult for the living to judge. Very much or little is not the same as it would be for most. I mention this only because, as you may know, I spent the last few years surrounded by undead humans in Undercity. Captain.”
“Noted.” Raethan conspicuously did not note any of this at all. “Now, here’s where events get muddy, as you might say. More and more customers arrived at the Legerdemain Lounge and at some point, you departed, in the company of Mograine, we believe. Is this correct?”
“And was there a specific event that caused your departure?”
A raised eyebrow.
“Nothing that necessitated an exit from the tavern?”
Terse, bitten off- “No.”
Koltira stole a look sideways. Thassarian was tense, his posture eminently correct and his hands clenched into fists where they were bound in front of him. There wasn’t a single twitch or blink to betray him, but he knew the human was lying and he suspected Raethan did as well. The captain made a far lengthier note than “No” and continued.
“So. You left with Mograine. By the time the first peacekeepers were summoned, he was gone. Where did he go?”
This was getting dangerous. The damp air felt thick and oppressive with tension and Koltira fidgeted inside his handcuffs. It all felt too familiar, too close to the surface for him. This isn’t Undercity. This isn’t a sentencing. This isn’t the cage. Even more, he could not help his instinct that Thassarian was protecting Mograine for some reason and it made him both jealous and curious at the same time.
“Acherus, using a portal. I assume you’re familiar with what a death gate is.”
Raethan leaned forward further and his green eyes narrowed.
“Was this before or after you met with Nathanos Blightcaller?”
Fortune made an appearance, then, after a brief sound of raised voices outside and a rush of cool air into the stifled atmosphere of the closed office. It took the form of disordered silver hair, crumpled dress robes that smelled like expensive cologne and a pair of guileless blue eyes. Archmage Khadgar tripped into the office and just managed to regain his footing without a tumble with judicious use of his staff Atiesh. Behind him trailed the weakly protesting dwarven desk sergeant.
“My apologies, Captain, Commander Thassarian, Koltira, my apologies for arriving so late; as I was just explaining to Sergeant Dervin here, I had every intention of clarifying this unfortunate incident last night but, as you know, we mages get called away on the slightest notice. Oh, dear, I hope I didn’t interrupt.”
As he spoke, Khadgar offered a handshake to Raethan who accepted it gracefully enough (having spent sufficient time around humans to at least conceal his typical elven distaste for the gesture) and to Thassarian and Koltira as well, apparently oblivious to the manacles both wore. Koltira had never met the archmage before and was surprised to find that he looked almost exactly as he was described, save for a few flower petals in his hair that fluttered to the floor as he moved. He moved with more energy than might be expected from his hair color and age, but he looked and sounded disappointingly ordinary for someone supposed to wield such control over arcane powers.
Raethan paused between perfunctory greetings to shoot an icy glare at the sergeant. It wouldn’t have looked bad on a death knight. The dwarf flinched and bundled the two prisoners outside the office, the door closing firmly behind them. As he led them to a narrow bench against the wall and fastened their manacles to a lead that fastened to the floor, he kept glancing over one broad shoulder fearfully, as if expecting another mage to pop out of nowhere. He marched back to the desk at the end of the hall and ensconced himself safely behind it.
“Don’t try anything funny,” he said sternly.
“I assure you, neither of us have anything close to a sense of humor,” Koltira answered and flashed the man a predatory smile.
He turned to Thassarian and spoked quietly.
“So. Why in the fel is Khadgar here? Did you make friends in high places while I was gone?”
The human shrugged.
“I’ve made a passing acquaintance with the archmage, but only on official business. I doubt he knew my name before this. And I didn’t know he was there last night.”
“Mhm. Did you notice anything once you started fighting Nathanos?” Koltira nudged the man in the ribs with his elbow. “I’ve seen you with your temper up, you don’t see anything. Just targets.”
Thassarian cleared his throat unnecessarily.
“You may be right,” he admitted, “Still. I’m not sure if this bodes well for us or not. I want you to know that I’ll do whatever I can to ensure you are kept clear of this. You shouldn’t spend more time in a cage for my sake.”
The elf clenched his fists and wished very much he could punch the man.
“You sound like the hero in a romance novel,” he said in exasperation, “Tries a man’s patience.”
To his surprise, Thassarian did not look away but instead, fixed his winter blue eyes on him and murmured, “You make me want to be one.”
No, it wasn’t just surprise. It was a rush of shock and warmth spreading in his chest like a shot of whiskey going down. Koltira stilled his restlessness and wished instead he could do something very much different than punch the man beside him.
The office door slammed open and derailed the conversation as Captain Raethan and Archmage Khadgar emerged from it. Raethan held the door open for the older man with a tight, forced smile. The mage was still talking and the blood elf looked positively harassed. In his free hand, the captain clutched a sheaf of papers still wet with fresh ink.
“As I was saying Captain, really, quite a simple matter to clear up. I only regret that we’ve fallen into fist fights with our allies while battling the Legion, it’s childish at best, I must say. I’m sure the Council will be pleased to hear about your expert handling of this delicate situation.”
Raethan’s shoulders sagged in defeat as the pair came to a halt in front of the sergeant’s desk.
“Please,” he protested weakly, “I’d really rather not be mentioned regarding this matter. It’s just my job. No news is good news, as they say.”
He almost winced when Khadgar clapped him on the back with a brisk “Nonsense. Your alacrity and sense of duty deserve to be commended. So, consider yourself, er, commended. By me. To the Council.”
Koltira stifled a laugh. Even after his curse, Khadgar was probably half the age of most elves, but his fatherly bearing made it impossible for the blood elf captain to do anything but dutifully agree with a hot pink flush creeping into his cheeks. Raethan laid down the papers onto the desk and slid them across to the dwarven sergeant.
“Sergeant Dervin, if you please, carry out this order for the immediate release of the two prisoners.”
At the dwarf’s brief look of confusion-
Khadgar smiled and inclined his head to the captain as a goodbye before the mage disappeared in a rustle of silk robes and the click of his staff along the stone floor. The words registered but it still came as a surprise when the manacles unclicked and both death knights rose to their feet, Koltira stretching luxuriously just because he could. After Undercity, he was more claustrophobic than he liked to admit. He caught Thassarian looking at the dull purple bruises around his wrists and the human frowned. Such a dour expression and yet it pleased him immeasurably to see it.
“Gentleman,” Raethan rubbed his hands together, his gaze anything about pleasant as he glared at them both, “You’re both free to go, your belongings, such as they are, will be returned to you. There’s a matter of some small fines to repair damages to the Legerdemain Lounge, but that’s a strictly civil matter; the sergeant here can issue you the citations. Disturbing the peace, property damage, oh and the Azuregazes have banned you from their property Commander Thassarian, so don’t make me arrest you for trespassing.”
He stepped closer and his jaw set, voice low and cool.
“Understand that whatever happened here today is pure fool’s luck on your part. I don’t know how you roped the Archmage into this, but stay clear of the Underbelly. I don’t want any part of what you’re mixed up in.”
He turned on his heel and slammed his office door closed behind him. Dervin the dwarf relaxed visibly at his disappearance and led them to another cramped room with shelves divided into small cubbies, weapon racks along the wall and tags on every single item there. He parceled out their belongings one by one, squinting at each item suspiciously before matching it to a grubby list he held in one hand. Koltira relaxed minutely when he heard the familiar if subdued whispers of Byfrost, though he sighed somewhat when he faced the prospect of either carrying or donning his armor again. As the sergeant squinted at a small envelope he held, the elf learned down and held out an impatient hand.
“That would be mine,” he said and felt relieved when the dwarf finally handed it over.
He felt the thin metal object inside the somewhat bloodstained parchment envelope; good. Didn’t look like it had been opened either. Thassarian shrugged on a bloodstained evening jacket over his equally stained shirt. He glanced at the envelope Koltira held and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Outside.” Koltira said simply.
Sunlight hurt after the soft dark of the Underbelly’s halls. It had to be close to midday now, the coolness of the morning dew evaporated by the waxing warmth of the sun. The exit put them amid busy traffic near Krasus’ Landing.
That made it harder to see Leryssa waiting outside to pounce on them. Her long brown hair was piled on top of her hair in an elaborate braided design that was slowly coming apart, loose curls falling out of their place and around her neck. She wore an iridescent evening gown that showed significantly more of her body than Koltira had seen before or—judging by his expression---her brother, either. Underneath the silk hem, beaded dancing slippers peeked out and the scent of perfume hung on her like a rich mist. She clutched a paper wrapped parcel in her small, clenched hands and her eyes were circled by red.
“Don’t,” she said to her brother. Her voice trembled as she spoke and her soft eyes were hard and brilliant with unshed tears. “You promised me. You promised not again.”
She pointedly turned away from him and offered the parcel to the elf.
“Koltira. I’m glad to see you well,” she said gently, “There’s clean clothes in there for you. Him, too.”
As he accepted the bundle, she put one hand on his and squeezed it.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, “You’re a better friend than…you’re a good friend. I owe you a debt. Consider the clothes poor payment towards settling it.”
Behind her, Koltira’s sharp gaze settled on a stillness in the busy throngs of people, someone waiting in the shade of the pillars by the landing’s steps. He tucked the bundle under his arm and shook his head.
“Think nothing of it.”
He felt uneasy, caught between her obvious anger towards Thassarian and her friendliness to him. She turned to leave and took a step before she stopped.
“Thassarian,” she said over one bared shoulder, “When you come to apologize…wait awhile. I’m too angry with you right now.”
She melted into the crowd and Thassarian released a long sigh.
“Damn,” he said.
He’d taken his sister’s tremulous words hard, though any causal passersby wouldn’t have been able to tell. Death knights weren’t known for their emotional expressiveness and it was rare for the living to notice any emotion they expressed save anger.
Koltira tracked her through the crowd with his eyes and was unsurprised when he saw the waiting shadow peel away from the darkness and fall in next to the woman. He saw Leryssa’s slight form melt against the crumpled dress robes of Archmage Khadgar for a moment as the mage put one protective arm around her shoulders.
Next to each other, their clothes had clearly been made to complement the other; the mage’s an indefinite grey-blue and hers closer to silver, shifting imperceptibly with the light. Her face pressed against his shoulder and over the top of her slowly unwinding hairdo, Khadgar found and returned the elf’s gaze. The look was stripped of the faux friendliness from before. It was cold, assessing and a warning all at once. It said: be careful.
“Don’t take it too hard,” the elf offered, “She brought clean clothes. And she’s the reason we’re both out of that mess. How long has Khadgar been seeing her?”
Thassarian looked shocked enough for even the living to tell and he almost dropped the breastplate he hefted under one arm.
“What are you talking about?” he sputtered in disbelief, “She’s not seeing anyone. He’s not seeing her.”
The elf put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in to speak more quietly underneath the noise of the crowd.
“Hate to break it to you, but she very much is. I’d say they were out dancing together last night. But this isn’t the place. Follow me. I don’t feel much like Acherus right now. I’ve got a more private place in mind.” He held up a small iron key from the envelope and added with a half-smile, “Janitor Edwards might not have put the door back on my room, so…”
Thassarian felt panic clutch at his chest. Fuck. Fuck, he wasn’t ready for this. He nodded but felt like he might be frozen where he stood, his feet lead and his tongue dry in his mouth. The elf’s smile vanished and he stepped closer.
“Thass,” he said, his voice oddly strained, “I meant only that I need some privacy. And you certainly can’t stay with your sister for the time being so if you like, you can come with me. I have a place here in the city.”
He hated himself for the relief that washed over him and loosened his tongue enough to reply.
“Of course. You’ll need your armor brought there.”
It only occurred to him as the elf led the way through the streets that it was odd that Koltira had a place in Dalaran. He must have taken it recently, but when? After a few turns and a few blocks, the elf halted and pulled out the remnants of an envelope from his pocket to glance at an address scribbled on it.
“Here we are,” he said, “Home sweet home. First time I’ve been here actually.”
“Here” was a small apartment tucked into a corner of Dalaran that Thassarian had somehow missed before now. A neglected staircase crawled up the side of a shopfront that looked abandoned, though the door opened noiselessly to the key. It revealed neat if somewhat plain rooms inside, no trace of dust on the furniture. Koltira hummed in appreciation as he saw a weapon rack by the door, perfect for his runeblade.
“Someone’s been keeping up the place,” Thassarian commented.
Something was off, but he couldn’t put a name to it. Nothing in the actual rooms, no, but the location, the faded letterboard over the shop downstairs, the weeds among the paving stones but no dust on the homely cloth furniture. Perhaps it was some arcane enchantment; sometimes he had trouble distinguishing between the magic that soaked Dalaran and a warning that something was wrong. The lights inside were certainly enchanted, no real flame left untended in the lamps.
Koltira laughed and let himself fall back into the embrace of a small burgundy couch that squatted underneath a curtained window.
“Certainly not by me,” he said and then frowned, “Come in, you’re not tracking mud, you look like a doorman waiting on a tip.”
Thassarian awkwardly set the armor he carried onto the floor just inside the door. From the sitting room, he caught glimpses of a small bedroom and even a compact kitchen tucked beyond a short hallway. It reminded him of Leryssa’s rooms above her shop, although in miniature.
“And you look tired,” he countered.
Koltira did look tired. His clothes stuck to him at odd places with dried blood and although he’d gained weight, his cheeks were still hollow and his eyes a brilliant, almost feverish green. Whatever he’d been doing in the Arathi Highlands, it hadn’t been restful. Even still, Thassarian felt like a schoolboy when the elf stretched and pulled his shirt off over his head. The runes that curled around his chest and arms ran low on his body, cresting the waistband of his pants that he (thankfully, regrettably?) kept on. Thassarian swallowed hard and tried not to stare.
“I feel like I’m more troll than elf now,” he complained, “There should be a bath in this apartment. If you don’t mind, I’m going to spend an hour or two with some hot water and soap. Stromgarde Keep is sadly lacking in amenities. If you want to wash up, I think I saw a sink in the kitchen.”
He disappeared into the bathroom and Thassarian relaxed. He unwrapped the clean clothing that Leryssa sent: two neat piles side by side on the couch. His and Koltira’s. His hand strayed to the white cotton shirt meant for the elf and he imagined touching it and feeling firm muscle underneath the cool fabric. The sound of running water pulled him from his daze. The tiny kitchen housed a stove, a sink, a small table, two chairs and little else. He found a hand towel in a drawer and sink by the faucet. Even though he could clearly hear the bathwater running in the bathroom and Koltira cursing at something in elvish, he felt his hands tremble as he took off his clothes to wash some of the dirt of the previous night from his skin. Being naked felt vulnerable and intimate at the same time, even if they were in different rooms.
Be sensible, he told himself. You smell like vomit and a jail cell. Focus on the task. He cupped his hands under the faucet and splashed cool water onto his face and beard. The water turned rusty brown where it found blood on his cheek and he wet the cloth to wash the rest of himself. The sound of running water ceased in the other room and he felt his cock twitch involuntarily when he pictured Koltira naked and stepping into the bathtub. Sprawled there, head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth yawning open with pleasure at the warmth.
Use your teeth, I’ll take an eye.
Thassarian’s mouth compressed into a frown and he scrubbed at his skin viciously, even when no dirt remained, like he could scrub away the memory that lingered just behind his eyelids. Sometimes he wondered if he could even be called a man anymore; after all, he could hardly keep the past and present separated when he got hard. Everything was tangled together in his mind and he’d rather feel nothing than remember Falric’s face.
Once satisfied that he’d cleaned as well as he could, he dressed. Leryssa had taken to the fashion of buttons on shirts now, rather than lacings. He couldn’t say that he liked it, but he could hardly complain. Even now, as angry as she was, she’d helped. If Koltira was right, her friendship with Khadgar had gotten them out of jail. Friendship. Lovers? He did remember her mentioning the archmage in her shop once, something about a favorite robe with stained cuffs she’d repaired. It seemed a leap from a stained robe to romance but it explained why the mage had come to their defense. It certainly wasn’t from personal friendship.
He finished with the final button at his shirt collar and paused. The running water had stopped earlier but now the entire apartment sounded eerily still. There was no splashing or movement he could hear, even as he waited a few minutes.
No response, so he rapped lightly on the bathroom door and said again, more loudly, “Are you alright? Do you want me to bring your clothes?”
The faintest of sounds, like a sigh, reached him through the door and he felt genuine panic replace his momentary concern. He tried the door and found it unlocked, his hand clumsy with shaking again as he opened it. A rush of cool air clouded his vision and he blinked as he stepped inside, his own nervousness surmounted by care for the other.
Koltira was asleep. His pale blond hair streamed around his face and hung over the lip of the clawfoot tub where he slept, oblivious to the world around him. A thin layer of ice coated the soapy bathwater that lapped gently at his stubbled chin. One rune-marked arm, hooked over the edge of the tub was all that kept him from sliding entirely into the water, not that it would hurt him. Thassarian saw the depth of the elf’s weariness then and wondered when the last time Koltira had slept, truly. From what he read in the journal, the spirits had grown worse over time, louder and more insistent. Perhaps Stromgarde had been a bad place for him to go.
He knelt next to the bathtub, uncaring of the cold water that soaked into his pant-legs as he put a hand on the elf’s arm.
“Koltira,” he said, “Koltira, it’s me. You picked an uncomfortable place to sleep when there’s a bed available.”
The elf’s eyes fluttered open slowly and he made a sound like a growl.
“Mmm, why’d you wake…oh.” He tried to sit up and thrashed a little when he felt the ice against his skin, his look bleary with sleep and confusion. Thassarian tightened his grip on his arm and he stilled.
“Let me take care of that. You might cut yourself.”
The cold inside Thassarian’s veins called out as he used some minor frost magic to melt the ice back to water, his free hand just trailing the top of the bathwater. Once satisfied with his results, he plunged his arm into the water and felt around for the stopper in the bottom and tugged it free. His clothed arm brushed against one of Koltira’s legs and the elf made a small noise and pulled back.
“Ah, ticklish.” Koltira looked embarrassed at his reaction. “I meant you startled me. I’m not ticklish anymore. I can manage from here if you like, just tired.”
The water drained around him, revealing more and more naked elf as it did and it would have been easy for Thassarian to agree to it, to back out of the bathroom and serve his instinct to flee, again. Instead, he looked around the small room and found the stack of towels, picking out the biggest one he could find.
“It’s fine,” he said firmly, “I can help. You’re clearly exhausted.”
This felt like familiar ground. Taking care of Koltira felt good and natural, not dirty and tainted. Not even though he was naked as the day he was born when he stepped out of the tub before Thassarian grabbed him to wrap the towel around his shoulders and body, to shield his modesty. The elf swayed where he stood and leaned back a little into the touch, his head dropping forward to rest on his chest. Thassarian was practically holding him upright, one arm folded around the elf’s waist and his lips brushing wet blonde hair.
“Mm, you’re right. Pretty tired, Thass. Just…get me to that bed and I’ll be no trouble for the next few days I think.”
It was easier just to carry him there, rather than trying to wrangle towels and elf and doorknobs at the same time. He kicked open the bedroom door with his foot and was glad to see the bed, like the rest of the house, was clean and made up with blankets and pillows.
“I should put you on the couch and take the bed myself,” he said, in an attempt at levity, “I don’t think you would know the difference.”
He set Koltira down on the bed, the towel still around his waist now but falling free of his chest to pool around his legs. The elf raised a hand and touched his wet hair and wrinkled his nose.
“Ugh,” he said discontentedly, “Can you bring me another towel? I can’t sleep with this frozen mess on my neck.”
Obediently, Thassarian brought another dry towel but instinct made him pause before he handed it the elf. It wasn’t a combat instinct but a protective one, arising like an old memory. He sat down on the bed instead and gestured for the elf to turn with his back to him.
“Let me.” At the elf’s look of surprise, he said gruffly, “I won’t tangle. I know how to do this.”
When Koltira turned, his back hunched as he pulled his bare knees up to his chest, Thassarian used the towel to gentle tousle his head and hair. As promised, he didn’t make any new tangles and used his fingers to comb the worst of those already there. The elf was still, so still he thought perhaps he’d fallen asleep again by the time he finished. He pulled the smooth length of blond, damp hair through one hand at the nape of the elf’s neck and wished he had a string or leather to tie it away from his face.
Koltira stirred at his words and nodded when Thassarian released his hold on his hair. He wasn’t still any more, but trembling slightly, pointless breaths coming shallowly from his mouth. His face was half-hidden where his arms wrapped around his knees and he made a noise like he was trying to speak, but instead just a low mangled noise came out, like half a dozen words tripped on each other. He inhaled slowly before he tried again.
“I’m…I’m much better. With you. I mean, I don’t want you to go, not tonight. Please stay. In the apartment, I mean, you don’t need to share my bed, but I can’t sleep anymore when I’m alone. I don’t. Haven’t. I’m sorry Thass---”
He was breathless at the end of his blurted plea when Thassarian took him in his arms, firmly, wrapping him up against his chest in a bear hug. The bones in the elf’s spine pressed up sharply through his skin against his chest; he still needed to gain more weight, the human thought indistinctly. He wondered why he could ever have been so afraid just because Koltira was naked; no memories rose in his mind now except the thought that the elf looked like a child afraid of being scolded but defiant all the same.
“I’ll stay,” he murmured, “Shh. I’m not leaving.”
The elf crumbled under his clumsy reassurances. Whatever veneer Koltira used to face the outside world was nowhere to be seen as he allowed the human to help him under the covers and tucked safely under the blanket. Thassarian pushed down his anxiety and laid down next to him, on top of the blanket but curled around the elf like a shield.
“I’m sorry.” Koltira was still trembling, his face half-buried in the pillow facing away from Thassarian. “After last night, I didn’t mean to ask you…for anything…. I’m sorry.”
Thassarian felt the answer rise as naturally to his lips as breath once had.
“I’m not,” he said and pressed a kiss to Koltira’s shoulder where it emerged bare above the sheets.
The trembling melted away, replaced by quiet tears that fell like a slow spring rain. Thassarian brushed the drops away and stayed there, watchful and strangely content even though his heart ached. Koltira finally slept and he buried his face in the elf’s hair and neck and breathed in the smell of soap and him. He knew. Koltira knew the rotten, awful secret at the core of him and still, he slept in Thassarian’s arms like he was made to be there.
No, Thassarian decided. He’d cut off his arm before he’d disturb the elf’s sleep. Instead, he settled for whispering “I love you” into that damp blonde hair over and over, like an incantation before he finally slept as well.