They board her onto the boat, hands and feet bound close with chain links, and ease her none too gently at the front by the prow so that she would get a look at the island when they arrived. They had insisted the chains weren't necessary, that they would have preferred to have her hands bound and her staff confiscated; someone had even suggested to throw on a blindfold and leave her to stumble around by her lonesome until the tides and the madness of the dark overwhelmed her. It would make for a fitting end for a daughter of the sea.
Instead, Ashvane scoffed, had actually reined in her usual galvanic temper. Where was the girl going to go? If anything, she could conjure herself food and drink until she lost the will to live, and what was there to fight? Crabs and seagulls? For Kul Tiras, she had already stained her hands red enough to make the Horde's colors look like watercolor.
(Jaina wanted to tell her that nothing could ever top the Horde nuking Theramore into arcane dust and burning Teldrassil to charcoal and cinders. Then she bit her tongue and remembered that everyone she and Tyrande and Malfurion were all considered potential targets even if they weren't fighting in the military. For what separated the common man from his fellow brother than a fancy uniform and the steel in his hand?
(What separated Jaina Proudmoore, former ruler of Theramore and Archmage of the Council of Six, from the likes of Garrosh Hellscream and Sylvanas Windrunner? Or even Arthas Menethil?)
She had gone without complaint and allowed the Irontide to clap the irons on her and lead her out of the Keep. From there, it was a long trek north up the coast of Tiragarde into Stormsong Valley. There, under the cover of night, they bargained with the tidesages and, either by the promise of a reward they could not refuse or by threat of brute force, compelled them to help steer their way west in relative safety.
The sky was clear tonight, the stars cold like the wind on their faces. One pirate sat in front of her, leaning left and right around the tidesage in what she guessed was an attempt to see if they were going in the right direction. Another was behind her, a big, musclebound man who would fit right in with the bars in the Upton Borough than the wild, rugged joints in Freehold. Yet he was far from dapper and dressed as anything but. He'd been at her side since the start of the journey, mere days after being left to stew in Tol Dagor as far away as possible from the influence of the Alliance emissary, and the one constant variable that reminds her of him was the shiv he always carried in the scabbard cinched at his chest. Given how high the belt was, all it would take for him was to pull it from the bottom where the handle touched his rib cage and do whatever he felt was best. Cut someone's hand open, take off a finger, slice across the eyes—Jaina can only imagine how many times he's surprised the poor bastard that tried to steer him wrong and bloodied it. When everyone had made themselves comfortable on the boat he made sure to undo the clasps on the blade and keep it in his hands. He would tap it softly against the meat of his left and level her a curious, arching brow whenever she felt like looking back.
She wondered if he was bored, what he could be doing right now instead of keeping a close eye and a steady hand that could tear a throat out in a heartbeat on the disgraced daughter of the Proudmoore dynasty. But money is money; even if one wasn't strapped for it, who in their right minds would turn down all that gold and protection?
After a while she gave up. She didn't want to give him any ideas. What more could she supply him, anyone, with than the plea for a quick death?
For Kul Tiras, a quick death is not a guarantee.
For every husband, brother, and son that fell at Theramore, a quick death would not equal to all the pain they suffered before the final blow.
Finally, the island loomed into view, a jagged, black outline in the fog that doesn't so much as brighten the closer they get as it seemingly crawled through the mists and flaunted its prominence. Farther out the waters become choppy and foamy, powerful enough to toss their little dinghy over were it not for the tidesage's careful ministrations, and so the waves part aside for them to go through.
Jaina swallowed. She had not had anything to drink or eat since early yesterday afternoon, but she could not kid herself: Fate's End was indeed real and not the make believe land of nightmares the other kids' parents used to tell around the hearth as a means of scaring them into behaving like good little boys and girls.
It was empty. There were broken masts in the deeps and rotting flotsam languishing in the shallows. The hills were round and loomed ominously above them from the silver-white glare of the moon. There was a pair of crabs picking at a shark's carcass and the gulls were making a racket, wheeling to and from the coastline as they searched for better prospects out in the open.
There was wood in the shape of what might have been a campfire...or perhaps an algorithm of pure coincidence. Jaina didn't know.
They shored the boat a few feet away from the skeleton laying on its belly, arm reaching toward the tide.
"Ride's over, princess," the man behind her said, and she heard him tap the shiv a couple times. "It was fun while it lasted."
Indeed, Jaina thinks now, scraping sand and pebbles away with the sluggish drag of her foot. These past thirty-six years of her life have been one helluva ride, full of ups and downs: daughter of Daelin and Katherine Proudmoore, apprentice to Archmage Antonidas, friend and lover of Arthas Menethil, ruler of Theramore and the voice of reason in the Alliance of Lordaeron.
And here I stand, Queen to a kingdom of dust and ashes. Look upon my works and be amazed. A corner of her lip quirks up in a crooked smile. Her chest hitches in silent laughter. She puts her left foot forward and pushes aside more detritus. Grit and pieces of broken oyster shells scatter.
I listened, Father. I listened and obeyed. Finally, after all these years.
And yet, here she is, at the end of the line. The last stop for criminals, scumbags, and traitorous women with bleeding hearts. The worst of the worst.
Too late, she thought, I was too late, wasn't I, Father? Maybe if I had come back home sooner…
Jaina shakes her head.
It's not enough.
It's never going to be enough.
No one is going to come for her; she has lost track of the days and nights that have passed. She does not bother to, not anymore. There is a war being fought in her absence and azerite to be gathered. No one can ignore that, and, as much as he would have liked to negotiate with the Lord Admiral, Anduin cannot afford to look away. The Horde – Sylvanas – must be stopped, no matter the cost.
She curls a hand into a loose, weak fist. Once, she would have railed at the thought of being denied the opportunity to join the Alliance in their crusade and dispense justice to every able-bodied Horde soldier that failed to uphold Varian's ultimatum. Once, she would have acted on the split decision to defy the King's decree and make it her sole mission to do what Thrall, Vol'jin, and Baine could not do. How much good she would have wrought for the world, how much she could have shown Anduin, if she had been set loose upon the Horde and truly dismantled them!
Jaina sighs and lets go. She brings herself to a stop, straightens her back, and slowly sweeps her gaze from left to right. The surf is quiet, nary a breeze in the air. The gulls and crabs are nowhere to be found, whether out of the fear she would hunt them or off doing their own thing she did not care. It's full dark and there are barely any stars to light her way tonight.
She sags, suddenly tired and feeling the tug in her mind she has come to associate as a cue to get some semblance of sleep. The cave is on the other side of the island, and it is there she tucks herself in the very back of the darkest corner to lay down and close her eyes.
Her face tightens. Her breath catches. Her vision swims.
We could have had peace at last! Varian cries off to her left. We could have finally stopped fighting!
You could have done so much more! Rhonin growls at her right. All this bloodshed could've been avoided if it wasn't for you!
You should've done something, Kinndy now, behind her. A leader is supposed to be look out for her people and sacrifice herself should the need arise. So why, Jaina? Why couldn't you have saved me?
Uther: Why did you leave us behind? Why could you not have stayed with me and fought to the bitter end?
Arthas: Where were you when I needed you the most? Where, Jaina? Why didn't you listen?
Why didn't I?
Because you are a fool, Daelin whispers in her ear. You listened to your heart when you should have listened to your mind. To your betters. Now...what is there left for you now? A kingdom broken, a family fallen, and a world in which the monsters multiply—uncontested and unhindered. They have become more powerful than you could have possibly imagined.
It's all your fault, my dear. You...and you alone.
Her teeth clench.
Daelin smiles, soft and sweet and dreamy, and asks: What a wonderful world you've helped shaped, eh, Jaina?
"They're so troublesome, aren't they?"
Jaina gasps and whips her head up. No longer is she on the shore outside but in the mouth of the cavern, secreted away from the starlight. There is very little here in the way for comfort; the wood she had dragged inside and padded with offal and sea stalks is gone, disposed of once they began to decay and smell. Now there are only the broken, rune-carved pillars and large, flat rocks that dot the area.
A man sits upon a boulder in the center of the cave, doubled over with his chin resting on his knuckles. He is tall as a vrykul, perhaps even larger, with a crown of thorns upon his brow. Carved wood and bramble cover his strong frame.
From the folds of his white beard he smiles, accentuating the deep-set wrinkles in his face. His eyes shine like diamonds buried in mounds of coal and dirt.
It takes a moment to find her voice and ask, rather hoarse and shakily, "Who are you?"
He tips a shoulder up in a lazy shrug. "Does it matter who I am, dear?"
"I'm the only person on this island. No one else can get here without a tidesage."
"I have ways of getting around the most complicated obstacle. A little water won't hurt me."
"Then you must be more than just a tidesage. Who...what are you, exactly?"
The man straightens up, appearing as a lord before a humble servant. "I am the one who can take your pain away, Jaina Proudmoore. I am the one who can ease your suffering and absolve you of your sins. I am the one whom everyone must look upon when their judgment has come to pass.
"But most of all, I am he whom will grant you freedom from this selfish, wretched world." He holds out a hand to her, gnarled palm upturned. Wisps of black-blue magic emanate from his fingers in smoky streamers. "I am everywhere, Jaina. I am the first heartbeat in a newborn's breast when she is delivered from her mother's womb and the first breath she takes in her tiny little lungs. I am the first face she sees and the last she will see when the colors grow dim and time slows down to those final, ticking seconds of a life well-earned and a life well spent. I am the shadow at your back when the sun rides high in the sky, and just when you think I am finally gone away when it sets below the horizon there I shall be, rising with the moons as quick as the stars come out from beyond the veil. I am-"
"The Grim Reaper," Jaina finishes, and the man doesn't react nor shows offense at the interruption.
He simply nods. "Aye. Of a sort. When your time comes, it comes. No matter what deity or patron guardian you may follow and what they may do to your spirit afterwards, it does not change the fact that your mortal coil has been shed and returned to the dust of the earth. Nothing is certain...except for death."
"And so...you've come for me. My time's up, isn't it?"
He doesn't say a word.
Jaina sighs. "I...I see." She sniffs and wipes the wetness from her face with the backs of her knuckles. Breathes in, and breathes out unsteadily, the very motion making her body tremble. "I should've known better than to...to…."
"To…?" the reaper ventures.
"To hold out hope. That I could be forgiven for all my transgressions. I was...I am a fool, for thinking I had any chance at redemption."
"To err is to human. Who would fault you for the decisions you have made? Right and wrong are subjective. There is no line too great nor too wide that can be crossed."
"Except I've crossed many lines over the years knowing full well what the consequences were going to be. I stood next to people who should have been my enemy but I had also called friend, only for them to a coven of traitors, war criminals, and hypocrites. I have also stood by men and women, some of them my own countrymen, and extolled peace and harmony between the divide that has only gotten wider since that first day the Dark Portal opened, only for them to turn around tell me I was wrong. I should not have to stoop so low as to meet the Horde at their level because I am supposed to be the better person. I am supposed to be this paragon of virtue who should not have to change even after everything they had done to me, my family, and my home. I was supposed to play the fool and hope for the best when the best is just an unobtainable ideal only fit for children to dream!" Her voice grows heated, stronger, more vicious, and she emphasizes those final words with a low, throaty snarl that's punctuated by the creak of her gloves balling up.
All the while, the Grim Reaper nods, hanging onto every word, even when Jaina lets both fists go and slouches forward. Who would fall, if she so wanted to and not get up.
She doesn't. Her bottom lip trembles, but she sucks it back in. Stands up a little straighter yet doesn't bother to adjust her posture. She doesn't look at him, contents herself to staring at the floor between his feet. "This is my punishment. I asked for justice...and I got it. I deserve everything that happens to me. And if that makes everyone back home happy, if that's what it takes, then I'll gladly accept whatever fate you have in store for me."
The man hums thoughtfully. "You are not afraid? Of what will await you on the other side?"
"Even if I weren't, that wouldn't stop you from doing what you have to do." She raises her head and looks him in the eye, sullen and full of a tired acceptance. "You are judge, jury, and executioner. You could always find me if I wanted to run."
"And if you caught, you would increase my judgment...justice...punishment...tenfold until I stopped."
"Aye, I would."
"So...why bother? Even if death was a faraway notion, going to sleep at night would only keep the problems away until the next morning when you wake up. Sooner or later, you have to stop running and face them head-on."
"Do you see it as a problem?"
For a moment, Jaina is quiet. Then, softly: "No. Just the end of a cycle."
"Very well," says the Grim Reaper, and pushes himself onto his feet. Walks up and stops in front of her, towering over her as an old pine tree that has weathered storms and cataclysms in ages past. "Then...let us be on our way. Know that though the world will move on without you there are still people with enough heart that have cared for you and will mourn your passing."
Jaina swallows around a throat squeezed too thick and small for her neck. His words call to mind all the people in her life she has known and loved, some she had called friend and some she had called lover, all the people that exist as memories and will stay as such like broken mirrors in a tarnished frame until time itself will consume their diamond luster and the slivers from which they are made.
They loom behind her, an impenetrable wall of light in the darkness, far away but close enough for her to feel their stares on the back of her neck and cause her hackles to tingle.
There's a sound, very faint, that whispers in one ear and goes out the other. A needle-thin scratch against the brain.
Will be better off without you-
Jaina slams her eyes shut.
When she opens them, they're quiet.
The man is waiting, hand outstretched.
"Come, Jaina Proudmoore. Let us away from here."
For a long, long minute, Jaina doesn't move.
Then, slowly, she smiles, takes one step forward, and puts her hand in his.
He closes his fingers around hers, gently as a father to his newborn, and grins.