The wind was blowing in from the south, bringing with it the stinging smoke of the fires the retreating army had started, in a futile attempt to slow the Alliance advance. It did serve to mask the smells of a city in turmoil, of blood and ozone and worse things.
Aethas bravely accepted the smoke with stinging eyes, instead of smelling what lay before him.
It was not supposed to have been like this.
Alleria had assured him that the Ren'dorei would hold back, that they would stay away from the Sunwell, lest it corrupt the very thing they were dependent on themselves. At least they had held that second promise. The Sunwell's light was still glimmering faintly on the horizon, uncaring of her people's plight once more.
Vereesa told him that there would not be much fighting once they reached the city, for the citizens themselves would be glad to be reunited with their lost kin, would see them as an opportunity to cast away the past and march with them into the future. They would lay down their weapons and let them in with little fuss.
Aethas walked past another void portal, one of the ways the advancing army had managed to penetrate so far, so fast into Silvermoon City, when those gates had remained closed. It tugged at his mind, an echo of what the elf who had cast this portal must be experiencing.
He was torn out of his reverie by the screaming of a blood elf woman, clawing at the fallen body of a man, laying bloodied on the ground as Alliance soldiers pulled her with them. She spat at them and they had to handle her roughly to make her come.
If they were supposed to be welcomed with open arms, then why were the streets littered with corpses again? Why were there living survivors led away struggling and cursing?
Aethas was glad for the hood, shielding his face from scrutiny, by blood elves and Alliance alike. The Kirin Tor tabard he still wore left him in peace for its neutrality, but right now it seemed to itch and burn on his chest.
It was not supposed to be like this.
He found himself stopping by the fountain in the Court of the Sun, numbly watching the blood of a fallen guard slowly color the water crimson. If he looked closely, he could see the faint cracks where the bench had struck it, those few years ago.
The reminder of the man made Aethas’ gaze travel upwards towards the Spire and his chest began to constrict as he saw the fallen guards lining the stairs. Slowly he began to ascend, his ears picking up voices, some faint hope stirring in his chest. This had been where they all had headed, to end it all, while Aethas had stood back and watched.
The scene when he reached the entrance killed that hope before it could blossom. There were bodies here too, guards fallen where they had died protecting their leaders until the very end.
It was not supposed to be like this!
Aethas gaze roved the room, saw the gathered elves and men wearing tabards of Alliance blue, talking, cursing, standing around...
His breath stopped in his chest as his eyes took in the familiar features, now laid out on the ground. Red robes, black hair, red armor, pale hair. But the one his eyes sought out was the shape clad in blue, though even that had been stained with red, left outside the circle of onlookers, looking much like a Pandarian quillrat.
Fearfully he kneeled down, gently pushing away strands of golden hair to feel for a pulse. One eye opened at his touch and Aethas feared his heart would stop in his chest, but then he found himself, tearing away his glove to feel that weak pulse under his fingers.
He heard himself cry out, "He's still alive!", even as Halduron's eye fell shut again and blood began to bubble at his lips.
He would not be alive for much longer.
"Someone help him!" he cried now, finding in himself a strength he did not know he possessed as he began to lift the prone ranger off the floor, sending looks of desperation at those assembled around the other two bodies.
He recognized them all, they of the empty promises. Vereesa, Alleria, with Umbric by her side. The Kaldorei woman in her Sentinel general’s armor was familiar yet he could not find her name in his frazzled mind, but the look she shot him told him she would not be lifting any fingers for his sake.
They only stared at him and he felt anger lace into his panic, some part of him yelling at him to force them to help. A fireball could be an excellent motivator at times.
What made them speak was the new arrival by the door, standing beside the hulking form of Genn Greymane in his worgen form.
"Your highness," Alleria said, bowing towards the Alliance King.
Aethas grabbed for the last straw now presented to him.
"He is worth more to you alive than dead!" he called, aiming his pleading towards the young man who had not so long ago been a staunch supporter of peace.
Watching Aethas standing there, holding up the prone and bleeding form in his arms did cause the stern mask to fall off of Anduin Wrynn's face and the human began to walk towards him, his hands already glowing softly with light.
"No," it was Genn's hand, as much as his gruff voice which held the king back.
"But he is right," Anduin said, angrily. "It was not supposed to be like this."
Some part of Aethas stirred at the sentiment expressed by another person.
"They fought, they knew what was coming," Genn said.
Anduin's face twisted with conflicting emotions, until he finally spoke again.
"And there is something to be said about mercy," he finally said. "If you will not let me help him, then find a priest who will."
Genn let out a snort, a parent humoring an errant child, then he turned and walked outside, barking orders.
Soon a female worgen stalked inside, clearly displeased with the task she'd been given. She gave Halduron a look that could only be contempt, but then her light infused hands were placed on his chest.
Not a second too soon. Aethas had counted the beats of his heart until this moment, feeling them slow down to a trickle, but now, he could hear the change in the rhythm, growing slowly stronger.
And not just that, but the sucking wet sounds of Halduron's breathing were becoming deeper, less strained. Aethas found that his arms were shaking now, from more than just the strain of carrying the other elf.
"There," the worgen woman said, after she had let her light smooth across Halduron’s shoulders where she had roughly pulled out the arrows that sprouted from it. "He is no longer dying."
Aethas finally gave into the demands of his body and slid to the floor, carefully, lest he open some closed wound on Halduron's still ravaged body. At least Halduron would not die today. Tomorrow was no guarantee.
The weight inside his chest lessened, but only by a fraction. A little less blood on his hands. A little less blame to heap upon his shoulders.
When a few human guardsmen came to take Halduron away, the woman among them assuring him that he would be taken care of, there was no strength left in him to protest. He only followed a few steps behind, at least until he was back in the Court of the Sun, watching Genn whip the throngs of Alliance troops back into a semblance of order.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a troop of battle magi, a few of them bearing the same tabard as he. The sight made him feel nothing but shame.
It was not supposed to be like this.
Halduron had enough experience with mind altering substances to know when he was doped out of his mind. Right now, he was addled enough that the world appeared fuzzy around the edges when he opened his eyes. It could be nothing else save for some insidious substance in his veins.
Whatever herbal concoction they’d forced down his throat helped push away the encroaching panic and disorientation at the unfamiliar surroundings, casting them in fluffy, pink hues. It dulled the pain of healing injuries to a far away thing, nothing of concern at the moment.
The first thing that began to wear away at that comfortable fuzziness that was his world at the moment was when he tried to move his arms and found them restrained, ropes around each wrist, anchoring them securely to his ankles and the bed posts. No matter, he could hardly lift his head off the pillows right now anyway.
The next was the shape over by the door, a grey fuzzy cloud slowly materializing in front of his addled eyes into a guard, proudly displaying the lion of Stormwind on his tabard. The man shot him a look from across the room and Halduron tried to remember why there was an Alliance guard in here. Where was here anyway?
Why wasn't he in the Spire?
Where were the others?
Slowly the fog began to recede, though he tried to will it to stay, to keep him safe inside his cloud of ignorance. But it was too late.
Shards of memories pierced through his cocoon then; of that desperate ride through the Ghostlands, the Alliance vanguard at his back while he unloaded a full quiver at them.
Of burning trees, though it hurt him to do so, anything to slow them down, as he helped those fleeing north to the city.
Of making that final stand at the footsteps of the Spire, Lor'themar urging him to leave:
“They won’t touch Quel’Danas," as once friends and allies rained death on him.
He sucked in a breath, forcing the memories back behind closed lids and when he opened his eyes again he became aware of another person in the room.
The red haired mage was still wearing his Kirin Tor garb, clutching his hood in his hands, his freckles clearly visible in his pale face. When he caught Halduron’s eye, his eyes brightened and some color returned to his cheeks.
“Halduron!” he exclaimed, relief painting a smile on his face, though it did not reach his eyes. The mage made a fumbled attempt at reaching for Halduron’s bound hands, but he held himself back, sinking back in his seat, a cloud drifting across his features.
The memories pushed down on Halduron again and against his own better judgement he forced words from his parched throat.
“You have some nerve showing your face here,” Halduron snarled groggily. “Are you guarding me on behalf of the Kirin Tor?”
It hurt to speak, but he didn't mind the pain. It numbed him to other things he did not wish to dwell on.
Aethas looked stricken, the color draining from his face.
“N-No!” he gasped. “I found you…You were dying!”
The mage began to fumble with his hood again and one of his hands dug into the Kirin Tor tabard he wore, gathering it up in a balled fist.
“I didn't want this,” Aethas whispered, almost too low for Halduron to hear.
“Then maybe you should have stopped your Alliance friends before they breached the gates of Silvermoon!” Halduron snapped, pulling with some hitherto unknown source of strength at his bonds, feeling something sharp and jagged grind against his left shoulder.
“They wouldn't have listened!” Aethas cried loud enough that the guard in the corner shot him a look. Now that Halduron's mind had cleared he saw that the guard was a Kaldorei. Just lovely.
“They said it would not come to such violence…” Aethas mumbled as he stared down at his tabard, spattered with blood, Halduron saw that now.
The ropes dug painfully into Halduron's wrists, a good pain. Still, the pain was not enough to stay the next words out of his mouth.
“What about Rommath…and Lor'themar?” he said, forcing himself to look Aethas straight in the eye. “Are they rotting away in an Alliance prison?”
He saw the answer to his question plain in the expression on Aethas face, in how his ears drooped and his eyes filled with tears, though he still struggled to contain his emotions. Aethas had always been easy to read, his emotions always so close to the surface with nothing to mask how he wore his heart on his sleeve.
It was probably why he wore that hood, Halduron mused.
So, he had failed then. He hadn’t even succeeded in dying to save his oldest friend. Suddenly Halduron had a brief moment of sympathy for Sylvanas, as twisted as she had become in her undeath, for was this not very familiar to her own fall?
“At least you are alive,” a voice whispered inside him, though it did little to bring him comfort.
He wanted to scream, to rage, anything but let himself sink into the dark abyss that had wrenched open inside him. There were two targets inside the room at present. If Halduron fired at one of them he might offer him the oblivion that Aethas rescue had denied him, but instead he chose the other.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Halduron growled at Aethas, tugging again at the ropes that kept him bound. “Get the fuck out of my sight!”
Aethas face crumpled around the corners, his ears drooping forlornly, devastation clear in his gleaming emerald eyes. The arrow had hit its mark, yet there was little satisfaction in that, he found.
Halduron tugged harder at the ropes, nearing the limits of his strength and he could already feel the consequences in the growing throbbing from wounds torn open and bones not yet sound. Yet he still aimed one last barb at the mage.
“Leave, you damned traitor!”
The stunned Aethas finally stumbled to his feet, mumbling apologies as he went.
After the door had closed behind him, Halduron saw the mage had left his hood behind on the chair.
The Kaldorei guard was smirking at him. Halduron briefly contemplated antagonizing him too, but his strength had fled him, leaving only that gaping hole inside him. He somehow managed to wrench his left arm enough to send waves of pain through his body. The final one brought him back down into blissful unconsciousness.
Aethas teleported himself straight to his rooms in Dalaran as soon as he had left the healer, now filled to the brim with wounded Horde elves and Alliance troops alike. He staggered over to his desk, staring at the piles of manuscripts, reading his own annotations as if they had been written by another man.
It had only been a few days since he had thought this would be a diplomatic excursion, finally bringing his people back into a peaceful existence where they might be free from bloodshed and turmoil. How had he become so blind?
"Have you learned nothing from what Jaina did to you? From what they keep doing to us? You are a bigger fool than I first thought if you still think you can trust them."
Rommath's comments, full of venom, hurled at him after he'd come across him in the confused, but celebratory aftermath of the Siege of Suramar.
Aethas picked up the last thing he'd written, before he'd been called away.
"Inquire about the return of Felo'melorn, once everything has been settled in Quel'Thalas."
He almost felt sick reading it. Who was left now to accept it? Halduron?
Or would it be Alleria, standing proud inside the throne room? In front of the throne which Lor'themar had always refused to accept?
Aethas crumpled the document in his hand, feeling the tears he'd managed to hold back in front of Halduron return in force. Perhaps Rommath had been right about him all along.
"Oh, you've returned."
The voice made him turn around, wiping furiously at his face. Arcanist Ryanna smiled at him, yet there was something pensive in her glowing eyes.
"Is it true?" she asked. "Has Quel'Thalas fallen?"
Hearing it spoken by another soul made the truth of the matter settle much heavier on his shoulders. And he'd had a hand in it, even if he himself had not hurled a single fireball, or dispelled a single spell.
He found his words choking him, so he settled for nodding at his apprentice, who nodded gravely at him.
"I see," she said. "It pains me to say this, but I must ask of you to relieve me as your apprentice."
Aethas found that he was not yet numbed to any new pain.
"Why?" he heard himself ask, hating how his voice was close to breaking. "I thought you were content with seeking new knowledge here?"
"Oh, I have been quite happy here, reading through your libraries," Ryanna said. "It's just that...I can no longer profess to being truly neutral to recent actions. I have been compromised."
Aethas blinked at her in surprise, squeezing the wadded up paper in his fist into a tighter ball.
"I have become friends with quite a few of your Sin’dorei people," Ryanna continued. "And I find myself...angry with what has happened. And I have heard--"
She stopped herself, her elegant eyebrows coming together in a frown.
"But perhaps I should not speak too much here, not when I have heard magi with the Kirin Tor regalia on their breast express joy and delight at what happened."
Aethas felt something inside him constrict, the words Halduron had hurled at him coming back to haunt him. He could wallow in his own misery...or perhaps he could do something.
He took a step closer to Ryanna, placing a ward around them, shielding them briefly from prying ears.
"You can tell me," he whispered. "There is someone I wish to help...someone back in Quel'Thalas."
Ryanna's face brightened and despite the wards, she leaned in close, her warm voice tickling Aethas ear.
"I have heard it said, that there is an as of yet undiscovered network of portals that connects Suramar to Quel'Thalas. If it could be made to work anew, it could be utilized for covert transport, for those who wish to travel in...or out."
Aethas ears perked up, something almost like hope starting up in his chest. Was there yet time for him to do something to make up for past mistakes?
"I wish to speak of this matter with Oculeth myself," he told Ryanna. "If that is at all possible."
"I will mention it to him, as soon as I return to Suramar City," Ryanna said. "Expect a letter with his response within the next couple of days."
She raised her hand and with an elegant twist, she dispelled the ward and took a step back.
"As I said," she told him carefully, his gaze held firm in hers. "I hold no ill feelings towards you, but I feel the need to return home to Suramar. Perhaps we can still be friends."
Then she summoned a portal and left him to stew in the coiling thoughts inside his head. He knew the next couple of days of waiting would be a torment.