Whatever crack in the Horde’s armor Saurfang had tried to widen snapped shut along with his eyes when he hit the ground. When Sylvanas’ arrow struck through him. Cold. Clean. A proper ranger’s shot. She’d danced around him enough to show the Horde and the Alliance, assembled before Orgrimmar, that she was not to be trifled with. That she would not back down.
She glowered at her own soldiers. What had the traitors among them been thinking? That the Alliance wouldn’t march here as soon as they had the Azerite weaponry to do so? So many of them had been there as they’d fought their way up Darkshore and blockaded Teldrassil, cutting off Azerite shipments from Kalimdor. They’d seen the kaldorei turn to increasingly desperate magics to throw off the blockade, they’d fought house to house and bough to bough trying to take the city intact. Had they forgotten Malfurion chaining himself to Teldrassil’s soul, the magical storm that crackled up and down the tree from roots to crown, the thorns that rose from Teldrassil's nearly infinite roots and impaled their comrades in place?
They called it the War of the Thorns for a reason. She’d seen those killing thorns sprouting on the Darkshore herself as the world-tree’s soul raged under the archdruid’s guidance. She’d known those thorns would soon skewer every Horde soldier standing on land north of the Barrens. She’d made a terrible mistake, not accounting for Malfurion’s willingness to bend Teldrassil’s own soul to violence. She'd overestimated his pacifism. So what choices had remained but to burn the tree before its might could destroy the Horde?
Did Saurfang’s rebels believe the siege of Lordaeron was some spontaneous burst of revenge, and not a long-drawn plot steered by Genn Greymane and fuelled by noble and merchant refugees from Lordaeron, eager to steal land back from their very own undead families?
And yet Saurfang had spoken of the persecution the Horde would face for this act, and Baine Bloodhoof had called the death of Teldrassil a crime beyond the pale, and between them they’d apparently swayed enough. Enough that this challenge had caused Horde ranks to freeze before the gates of Orgrimmar, when they needed to be crushing the Alliance flat.
Sylvanas had made mistakes in her opening salvo. She was paying for it in lost time and in blood, and the cost of it spilled endlessly from within her, like she was being drained and was flailing to stop it. The real threat was right there! Right beside their own ranks, shielded by lies of mercy, waiting for an excuse to slaughter them all. They had to face it.
“It is done. ” Her eyes swept the forces arrayed before her. Go’el, the young fool, stared at his fallen champion and his axe scattered on the ground. “Soldiers of the Horde! I stand victorious. I will always stand victorious. Unchallenged. Raise your arms with me, now, and let us repel -”
A voice reached out from the crowd, one she couldn’t place. Sylvanas spun, looking for the source, but the commotion among the Horde soldiers was subdued. Who dared -
“Me!” The voice was coming from the wrong side. “Me! ” Sylvanas turned. To the Alliance side.
A woman broke from the ranks, robes beating away the harsh Durotar sun with the white of glaciers and the roiling blues of the deep sea. And a faint glimmer of mana. It took a moment for Sylvanas to even place her.
“I challenge you, you bloody-minded tyrant!”
Jaina Proudmoore. The Lord Admiral of Kul Tiras. The Alliance’s tame, leashed little superweapon. The only person who could smash Sylvanas’ defenses, as she’d so aptly demonstrated at Lordaeron.
Fury and panic spiked through her chest. Was this an assassination? She couldn’t face Jaina Proudmoore in single combat - only an idiot would even attempt it. “You are not Horde!” She smirked, letting her banshee’s voice carry across the field like a stormy wind, determined not to be the idiot. This was a woman who had, again and again, been wronged by those close to her - and yet, again and again, she’d stayed her hand. Been leashed by the pleading words of men whimpering for peace. She was always on a knife’s edge, so close to joining Sylvanas in the ranks of Azeroth’s mass-murderers; her ferocious assault on Dazar'alor was a testament to how ruthless she could be, and the Purge of Dalaran earned her even the ire of some of the Alliance. But she'd never quite slipped the way Sylvanas had - and for today, Sylvanas had to keep it that way. “You have no right to mak’gora.”
“I’m not invoking the right to mak’gora!”
The blue gemstone at the head of Jaina’s staff began to glow with iridescent flame, and Sylvanas tensed. Would the Alliance really risk a bold-faced assassination in plain view of her troops? A summary execution by a foreign state? Her hands flexed on her bow. “Then by what right do you challenge me?”
Jaina’s braid of silver hair with its brilliant streak of gold whipped behind her like a lion’s mane, though she wore the glory of a mane better than any male lion ever could. There was a memory of a smile in her tight grimace. “By no rights, Sylvanas Windrunner! I’m sick of this. End this madness immediately, or stop me if you can.”
That, Sylvanas wanted to point out, would not hold up in a court of law.
But where were the courts when a blizzard to rival Northrend’s worst descended upon the fields before Orgrimmar? Where was the ritual courtesy of duels as Sylvanas melted into banshee smoke, buffeted by arctic winds, and dove for the mage with all her will? The archmage Lord Admiral did not abide by laws when she brought the fight to Sylvanas. She was a law unto her own. Sylvanas could not break her, so she had to try to make her bend.
Arrows of shadow from a dozen bows in a dozen smoky arms crisscrossed the white of a storm and failed to find a mark. Air froze to ice in the middle of her incorporeal form, flashes of dry frozen agony, and Sylvanas dropped to the ground as one, her corpse remembering the chill of winters long gone as she spun around looking for her opponent. A flash of gold teased memories of instinct from her flesh, which locked into a parry with Jaina’s staff before Sylvanas could calculate or plot or do more than react.
She was a Queen, a Dark Ranger-General, a Warchief.
But Jaina Proudmoore could move oceans.
“I thought you were better than Garrosh!” As Jaina shouted at her, a burst of force threw Sylvanas away and she tumbled and melted into shadow again, slipping from ice back onto the dry sands of Durotar beyond the veil of fog.
Sylvanas snarled; the comparison was foolish and myopic and rankled her. “I tried to stop that reckless welp.”
Jaina emerged from the storm with ice in her eyes. “Yet now you drag the Horde to its doom just the same!”
The ice shattered into the ground where Sylvanas had been before it could melt in the heat. She bolted sideways, dark arrows scattering to the wind like crows only to sharpen mid-flight and find their way back down. The Alliance was constantly hounding the Horde to the edge of death - and Sylvanas alone knew exactly what was waiting for them, who was waiting for her and the Forsaken, beyond that deathly edge. How dare Jaina blame Sylvanas for fighting back? “If you care about death and doom, withdraw your troops, Proudmoore! It is they who will bring bloodshed!”
“I am sick -” Fire danced around the archmage, “Of every other Warchief becoming another petty tyrant! Your Horde devours itself and all the world around it! It must burn! ” The flames devoured Sylvanas’ arrows with screeches of ash and hissing smoke and turned on Sylvanas like a predator in a thousand parts.
A rough voice rumbled across the air. “Jaina!” Sylvanas glanced to the side and spotted Go’el, still the fool, approaching. “Jaina wait, we need to be careful, she won by -”
“Don’t talk to me about honor, Thrall! ” She spat his slave name with a vehemence that impressed even Sylvanas, then undercut that impression by lunging straight at the Warchief with about as much grace as a battleship.
That gave Sylvanas only just enough time to hook her bow and reach for her blades. She smiled when she realized Jaina’s enraged miscalculation - hand-to-hand-combat was not a mage’s specialty. With her left blade she locked the staff at an angle, and jammed forward with the right - only for it to bounce off Proudmoore’s robe with a flash of light. Of course she had defenses. But she'd opened herself up with words, and those, Sylvanas could use. She roared back so the assembled soldiers could hear clearly. “Burn the Horde? And they call me an arsonist!”
“The Horde is an idea, Sylvanas, and a bad one.” A blink, and Jaina was no longer there, speaking from behind her instead. “Teldrassil - Theramore - were people.”
“I advised against bombing Theramore!” She had. She had, and Jaina had no reason to know it, but it was true and Sylvanas would not have false crimes pinned on her like this. “And the Forsaken are people.” She spun away, dodging a blast of flame and unhooking her bow. “The Horde defends us, while you see us as a plague!”
“You made yourself a plague, Sylvanas! Why?” A creaking somewhere above was all the warning Sylvanas had before ice shards struck her on the head, knocking her flat. Her fist was still closed around her bow, so she loosed the arrow she had in her other hand, but Jaina simply glowered at it and it exploded into flame. “We fought in the Halls of Reflection. Together. ” Arcane light seared at Sylvanas like fire, and she dodged behind a slab of ice. “We both tried to unseat Garrosh!” Sylvanas fired again, ghost arrows that were dark rage and spirit and nothing else, but they vaporized when they got near the raw, boiling mana that surrounded Jaina like a solar flare. “We fought together on the Broken Shore, Sylvanas! At first! Even if your half-rotted brain made you run away like a coward! Stop this insanity now! ”
Sylvanas' rage billowed out in smoke and shadow, and she rose across the icy ground towards the archmage. “Ran away? I looked to my people! You abandoned our entire world during the Legion’s invasion! You raged against us and then you fled! Who was the coward, while I have guarded the Forsaken against the slavery of death, while I fought to salvage a future for my people! You -”
Flames caught her and buffeted her to the side, and she struck the ground with the nearest she could feel to pain smarting in her all-too-physical shoulders. She turned to Jaina and shouted, even as she mentally started readying herself to call her Val’kyr if necessary.
“And all this power, you could have used to defend us! To balance the scales against war! Instead you wait to turn it against me!”
“Because you are making war, Sylvanas!” Jaina’s face was a ruin of red and rage. “Where's the Ranger-General? Where is the woman who understood service? Who understood honor?”
How dare she? Sylvanas shrieked with all a banshee’s fury, and the ground trembled and the soldiers in the front ranks stumbled and cried in pain. Proudmoore wanted to pick at that wound, did she? “You killed her, Proudmoore, when your pathetic weakness for Arthas let him loose on my home! ”
Jaina held fast, glowing with chromatic fires of raw mana, and winter had no words for the cold that came calling. “Yes, I was weak! I watched Stratholme burn, Sylvanas! I watched him do it and I've lived with that for years, so I will not let you become another him! ”
She loosed an arrow straight for Jaina’s heart, and another, and they struck with staggering force yet pierced nothing at all. “I am nothing like Arthas! ”
“Your crimes would make him proud.”
The nerve of it dug into Sylvanas and shredded any sense of restraint she’d been able to exercise. Nobody deserved to speak to her like this. Sylvanas tackled Proudmoore before the archmage could possibly have realized what hit her, bared her fangs, lunged for the soft, pale skin of her throat -
And was suddenly, incredibly, cold.
Jaina was furious. Once again the Horde was descending into chaos, under the strain of another delusional leader, and Baine and Andiun had the nerve to be talking down to her?
“It was an honorable thing, what Saurfang did. Sylvanas was gloating and toying with him disrespectfully; she used her magic to kill him; she ignored all our concerns, again and again. Saurfang's honor could have tipped the scales.” Baine looked at her closely, his bovine eyes unblinking. “But my warriors now speak of assassination by the Alliance. They speak of coming under the heel of a foreign boot. Not all of them know friendship of your kind the way I do.”
“Don’t you talk to me like that, Baine.” Jaina raised a finger directly at his face. “I’ve given the Horde enough chances. You are incapable of producing a stable government. All you do is raise armies that get plopped into the lap of whatever random warlord happens to be near the last one who died.”
His nostrils flared. “Jaina, I understand your anger, but you dishonor Vol’jin’s memory -”
“Baine, please.” Anduin sighed heavily, resting a small human hand on his tauren friend’s arm. The weight of rule was quickly making itself visible under his eyes and in the sag of his shoulders. Not on the battlefield, no; but certainly here, on an orcish farmstead not so close to Orgrimmar that its leaderless and confused guards would panic at letting the Alliance inside, not so far that they would panic at their incapacitated Warchief being too far away. “Jaina - I know what you did comes from a good place.” He reached for her shoulder. “An unjustly hurt place. But to assassinate someone like Sylvanas in public, as a foreign warleader, would only make her a martyr -”
“I never meant to kill her.” She crossed her arms and shrugged his hand off. That was true, insofar as she hadn’t really thought at all about whether or not to kill Sylvanas. “I meant to remove her from power.” She rounded on Baine. “Is that not exactly what you’d hoped for? You, Saurfang, Go’el -”
“My hopes were to rouse the Horde against her. To unite our people .” He huffed a hot, humid breath in her direction. “Instead, a foreign adversary has decapitated us.”
“I’ve fought for the Horde too, you’ll recall!” She turned to Go’el, who was sitting, staring at his useless axe Dra’gora, on the side of the crowded room. The rest of those present, Alliance and Horde, watched the exchange in varying qualities of silence. “Or did Go’el and your father neglect to pass down that part of history? And the manner in which I was repaid?”
Go’el said nothing. Good . He had nothing to say.
“Well said, Lord Admiral.” It was Greymane, standing from his seat, as stiff and proper as his worgen form could manage. “This is a perfect opportunity to dissolve the Horde. Too long have they sheltered abominations not meant for this world.”
“Who are you to declare who belongs to this world?” The mag’har warlord Geya’rah strode forward, unafraid of the worgen, literally pointing her axe at him. “Will you also tell my people where we should settle, aliens that we are? Will you reclaim Silverpine for yourselves, without the Horde to protect the homes of the Forsaken?”
“The Forsaken are dead!” He advanced on the mag’har, flinging spittle. “They have no homes, only tombs! Those who cooperate and yield, who choose peace, can be spared -”
“Cease your bickering!” That elven lilt came from Lor'themar, and he pointed angrily at both of them. “We have yet to speak of the Warchief, for all the useless words that have already been spilled. Lord Admiral Proudmoore, I am grateful for this momentary ceasefire, but you cannot keep our Warchief suspended in ice forever or we will need to consider her a hostage.”
Jaina rounded on the old elf. “I most certainly can! Don’t you think your loyalties to her are at an end, Lor'themar? Don’t you think it’s time you did something good for your people for once?”
The implication did not pass him by, but he only narrowed his eyes. “For all her flaws, I know this Warchief. She fights for her people, even if she is clouded by rage. Even if her strategies leave much to be desired. You must remember, Proudmoore, that the common people also know much of rage and little of strategy. You must release her, or there will be baying for more blood.”
“I will do no such thing until we have established terms to prevent another outbreak of war.”
“Terms?” Nathanos Blightcaller strode towards her, as though to intimidate her. “This is a hostage situation, it seems. Guards -”
Why anyone had allowed Nathanos Blightcaller into the room was beyond her. Jaina gritted her teeth and, with a burst of magical force, flung him bodily from the building. The satisfying thunk of an undead corpse in the dust and rubble outside was followed by a few loud curses, and she turned to face Lilian Voss, the only remaining Forsaken in the farmstead. “Yes, your queen is a hostage. I’ll gladly release her once we’ve negotiated a truce and the dissolution of this wretched project you call a Horde.”
Voss was less a fool than Blightcaller, and simply raised a barren brow. “There is no chain of command among the Forsaken. Sylvanas had no heir, you’ll be surprised to hear.”
“I don’t care. This is -”
“Jaina!” Anduin’s forcefulness surprised her as he stepped in front of her. “I understand where you are coming from -” He did not . “But this is not the time to attempt to dissolve a foreign nation. There’s an Old God seeping into the mortal realm. We cannot afford to continue a war against the Horde if there’s even a chance at peace; and we cannot afford war without the Horde.”
“Especially not without the Forsaken.”
Jaina turned to the new voice, familiarly silky and elven in its tones. Alleria Windrunner strode forwards, to the great block of ice that held her sister frozen in a moment of outrage. Alleria's mossy green eyes seemed carefully restrained as she gazed, and her voice was flat. Jaina wondered if she was feeling soft for her sister, and trying to hide it; she had expressed doubts about this course of action as recently as last night, on the eve of battle. “The Void despises them. The Void wants nothing more than for me to tear my sister’s head from her shoulders, to wipe the Forsaken off the face of Azeroth. Her people are a threat to the Old Gods.”
“And why is that?” Rokhan, of the Darkspear, had his arms crossed in evident distrust of a quel’dorei, and in particular this elf who had made a name for herself killing trolls long ago. “What secrets does the Void tell ye?”
“Creatures of the Void have no Light within them. And it is only Light that provides any protection against Death.” Alleria’s green eyes narrowed, and Jaina wondered if the Void told her that, or if she’d figured it out herself. “Tell me, are your loa not versed in the ways of the world? Must you learn this from an elf?”
Greymane advanced on the eldest Windrunner, who stood her ground. “Alleria, we cannot simply let Sylvanas run loose across the face of Azeroth and hope she smites our common enemy.”
“We cannot let her run loose at all!” Shandris Feathermoon slammed the base of her war glaive on the earthen floor. “The Horde has received enough mercy, enough chances to sort this out themselves. Our home tree burned . It is time for -”
Alleria’s void form suddenly grasped the glaive. “Stay your hand, noble General.”
Even Jaina was surprised to hear Go’el shout so forcefully, interrupting the chaotic swirl of voices that was threatening to make her explode with frustration. The room paused, and turned to him. He stood, his head hanging, his axe leaning against the wall.
“Jaina is right. The Horde - as it was - has failed too much. Garrosh was a failure.” He met Jaina’s eyes with sadness and regret, and for all that pained her, it would never be enough. “Sylvanas was a failure. And we have had many smaller failures besides.” He stepped forward, towards the center of the room. “I brought my people to Kalimdor not to recreate the Horde as it once was, but to give them a home. Our world was destroyed. In the east we were persecuted. Here…” He laid a hand on Baine’s arm. “We found a new home. One we have defended, poorly or bravely, with the help of many new friends. That is something that I will not see sacrificed on the altar of any Warchief.”
“So you will return yourself, to repeat the same mistakes you’ve made before?” Shandris’ voice dripped with anger, and Go’el shook his head.
“No. Here is my proposal.” He took a deep breath, his great orcish chest rising in trepidation. “No more Warchiefs of the Horde. No High King. No one leader.” He gestured to Jaina. “A Council, instead, as rules the city of Dalaran. Let all the peoples of the Horde be united on equal footing. With voices to speak for each, and no one tyrant to lead us. We may make new mistakes, but we cannot afford to keep repeating the mistakes of the past. We cannot place our power in the hands of one ruler any longer.”
Jaina had not expected this from him, and the anger in her glanced off this idea somewhat. The Horde enabled petty despots, but... what if there were was no more despot to enable? She glanced around the room, to the faces of the Horde especially. The Horde was young, its races diverse, its peoples scattered. Was a Warchief a unifying force who kept them in check, or a coercive tyrant who drove them to war? She had opinions.
“I bid the members of the Alliance to stay silent, if you respect our sovereignty.” Go'el sighed deeply, looking around the room. “Friends of the Horde. Comrades in arms. What say you?”
Jaina’s heart swelled with stupid, stupid hope, and she tried to tamp it down. It was Go’el’s idea, so there was a good chance it would fail in ways specifically designed to stab that very heart. But it was… different. It was a breaking of the rules. Of old ways which had proven themselves time and again to be failures. And people didn’t seem inclined to listen to her directly, right now, so this might be the best she could get.
“I will support Go’el’s proposal.” Baine was first. “We will form a Council. And we will pledge our people to tracking down the entrance to the Old God’s realm and defeating him.” He tapped his staff against the ground, once, and retired from the center.
And the others followed. Geya’rah, willing to pledge her people to a fellow orc’s vision. Rokhan, Go’el’s old friend. Lor'themar’s look was calculated, and he glanced, long and slow, at Sylvanas’s frozen figure before making his subtle nod. “I believe the First Arcanist would agree as well.”
Lilian Voss hissed. “The Dark Lady was Warchief, but she is also Queen of the Forsaken, unless you pried that signet ring off her. She fought for us, even within the Horde.” She pointed a finger at Jaina. “I hate to say it, but my people will not be cooperative if you kill their Queen, archmage.”
“I’m not going to kill her.”
“What, then?” Voss crossed her arms. “If it needs to be said - I think a Council is an improvement, and since you kicked Nathanos out I’ll accept whatever responsibility my voice carries. But what do we do with her?”
Jaina looked at Sylvanas. What to do with her, indeed? The painful, wounded rage was clear on the banshee’s face in the magical ice, frozen in a moment of being placed on a level with Arthas Menethil, her personal monster. Their personal monster. Jaina sighed; it was a sad disgrace that Sylvanas had fallen so far. Was it Frostmourne that had forever twisted her? Or was this something else? “She can’t be allowed to roam free, or undermine the Council.”
“She can be contained.” Alleria’s look was calculating, but from where she stood Jaina was perhaps the only one in the room who could see the sadness touch her brow. “She has already been defeated.”
“Kill her! ” Shandris was striding forth again; it didn’t escape Jaina that she was here in the stead of the kaldorei’s highest leaders, who had retreated to lick their wounds after reclaiming Darkshore. Shandris radiated discomfort at being here alone. “She killed Teldrassil, and nearly slew Malfurion! Must it even be asked? In her monstrous deeds she remains Arthas’ lapdog, despite any claim to the contrary.”
Jaina almost swung her staff at the elf. Shandris might be old as dead rocks, but she did not know Arthas. She did not know the horrors he had inflicted on their homes, their hearts. And she did not know how important it had been during the Third War and the aftermath, that the Forsaken had rebelled against the Lich King. “Do not grant that broken little man any more credit than he -”
Alleria cut her off, snapping her head towards the kaldorei. “This monster, general, is not all Sylvanas can be. She was a ranger for centuries before she fell; she is a tactician, a strategist, and has always fought for whoever she sees as her people. She has been blinded and driven mad by pain, but -”
“The monster is all that remains of your sister! Nothing more! If the Ranger-General ever had an ounce of honor, there’s no proof left of it now. She’s too powerful to accept justice and too evil to deserve it. The Ranger-General is dead.”
You killed her, Proudmoore.
Jaina’s grip on her staff tightened as the arguments grew louder. For years she’d fought to protect Azeroth from her foundational, original sin. For years she’d tried to hold together a world that was thrashing and cutting itself on the shattered splinters Frostmourne had left in history. And for years she’d failed, again and again.
Failed as a stateswoman. Failed as an archmage of Dalaran. Failed, even, as a lone warmage tearing her way across Azeroth as the planet oozed demons. For all the demon blood she had spilled, had she really made anything better? Had she really saved anyone? Or had she simply visited the violent quiet of destruction onto a world that screamed for help but that she was unable to heal?
And here she was, again, being accused of trying to assassinate a head of state and usurp a foreign government. She wanted to end a war. Why did nothing she did ever have the desired effect?
Jaina was not without power. She had plenty of all that. But every time she tried to apply it to anything more - to build anything new - everything collapsed. Even now, nominally Lord Admiral of Kul Tiras, where was she? Running off to do battle, to duel foreign heads of state. She was not rebuilding her nation.
Perhaps that was all she would ever be. A force of violence. A weapon. Perhaps she needed to shed the idea that she could build a future, and instead accept that she would spend the rest of her life atoning for her past. Her mistakes had numerous consequences, and Sylvanas Windrunner was one of the most dire.
“I can contain her.”
The voices were still bickering. Alleria glanced at her; she’d heard. But the rest of them were not listening. She slammed her staff against the ground and shouted.
“I can contain her! ”
That worked. An awkward silence fell on the conclave, and she turned to face them.
“I defeated her easily. There are known rituals for binding the undead. I have done far more than contain a simple banshee, in my time.” Jaina straightened her shoulders, adjusting the shoulder piece of her battle robes. “I can establish a prison, a base, whatever you want to call it, and contain her. She can remain the Queen of the Forsaken, at least in name, to appease her people. She can wander around the confines of wherever we keep her. If this… Horde Council wills it, she may even meet with advisors. But Sylvanas will be chained, and watched, and she does not have the power to escape me. ”
Rokhan regarded her curiously, stroking his chin. “Bindings fail after time. Especially around a creature with such power. Ye cannot simply drop her in a cell and leave.”
“And she will plot her escape.” Genn’s teeth looked sharp, and too dry for their own liking. “Jaina, you must put aside your soft heart -”
Her anger flared again. “This isn’t softness , Genn, this is pragmatism. They’re right. We can’t just execute heads of state whenever we feel like it.” More to the point - she was tired of being told her judgement was impaired, when it seemed clearer than anyone else’s here. Jaina looked down at her staff, wondering if she could go through with this. But how many other things had she gone through with, only to see them end in failure? This, in comparison, was… simple. This was a patter of pure might. She knew she could do this. “I will act as her jailor. I will maintain the wards. I will observe her with all the magical tools at my disposal to ensure she does not find a way to slip out. I can carry out my duties as Lord Admiral from afar, using portals when I must, but I will keep vigil.”
“We should kill her. It must be done, if we are to know peace. Stand aside, and let me do this.”
She looked directly at Shandris. She knew the kaldorei were deeply wounded by the loss of their home, but the words echoed oddly in her mind, from this moment back in time to many others, and they grated. “Everybody is always killing each other in the name of peace, Shandris. If the Horde will give us peace for her life, maybe we should try this instead. Unless you don’t trust my vigil.”
Genn Greymane grumbled at her. “Vigils can always be broken, Jaina.”
“I doubt anyone will be breaking her out any time soon, Genn.”
Shandris scowled, and thought for a moment. When she spoke, it was with a tired exhaling of breath. “Compared to Sylvanas, Illidan is a kind and gentle soul, not to mention a stronger one. Nobody could love a beast like Sylvanas enough to want to free her, except her misbegotten servants who have no power of their own, and she serves no one's purpose."
“We should remind Malfurion of that when he wakes.” Alleria’s venom practicalled hissed in the air, and it surprised Jaina. It was true; the eldest Windrunner had only reluctantly agreed to advance on Orgrimmar, and now it seemed she was ready to press in this new direction as eagerly as anyone. But she veered on too eager; Jaina could tell Shandris was close to snapping.
But after a tense moment, Shandris exhaled. "Your disrespect is unbecoming, ren'dorei. But I do not doubt the Lord Admiral Proudmoore's magical prowess. If Sylvanas is permanently - permanently - imprisoned, I supposed it will have to suffice for now. I still have people with a future to look to, and we still face many foes."
Jaina thunked her staff against the ground to cover her sigh of relief. “Good. So this is my proposal. We can negotiate the details. I assume the Forsaken will want assurances of her safety.” She inclined her head towards Lilian. “I will need to prepare restraints, and we’ll need to settle on a safehouse to keep her in. But it can be done, and if this is the quickest way to turn our the damned Horde's attention to the real threat then it must be done.”
There were murmurs, as Horde and Alliance both coalesced into their own sides of the room. Anduin found her quickly, a look of sadness written upon his young face. “Jaina - you’re talking about a… an indefinite commitment.”
Was she? She looked at Sylvanas again, frozen in the ice, her pallid hair caught in a vicious rangle around her face. Her eyes still glowed with the red of flames caught in crystal. Cut off from her power and her allies and her freedom, how long would Sylvanas continue to be a serious thread? How intransigent would she be? Would she even be needed alive for so long?
And if she was… worse fates had been visited upon Azeroth’s fallen in the past. Worse sentences had been carried out. If Jaina was destined to lose everything she ever built, then damn the fates, she would stop building, and hold the levees against the floodwaters she’d unleashed so long ago. She was not alone; Illidan had been held for thousands of years, after all. Other women had walked this path before.
Nothing was permanent. But some things did last a lifetime.
“This too will pass, Anduin.” Jaina crossed her arms, trying to contain her own unease within herself. “One way or another. I know what I am proposing.”
“Unless something changes, it could be your life.” He sighed, staring at the frozen Banshee. “You deserve a life, Jaina. Just think about this for -”
“I could have stopped him.” She bunched her shoulders, glowering at him. “Since then, everything that's sprung from my life has turned to ash, again and again. This is the life I’ve made for myself, Anduin. This is my responsibility.” She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “I’ve run from it long enough. I’m facing it. I know what’s in my own soul.”
He looked like he was going to protest, but that assertion was one he would not contest. In the end, he turned away. How could he protest? This was what he’d wanted. This was what they’d all wanted. Alleria got her sister; the Warchief was gone; the Horde races rose in their own power; the war ended; the Forsaken would fight for Azeroth.
She turned to face Sylvanas again, wondering if the banshee could hear. If she could see Jaina’s eyes, looking into the fiery embers of her own, her gaze tracing the lines of hatred around Sylvanas' cheeks and jaws. Wondering if she could see the guilt and shame and frustration Jaina felt, and the sadness of knowing that, once upon a time, that snarling face had been beautiful and rosy and full of life and honor. The despair at knowing why that had all come to an end.
This is what everyone wanted, except for Sylvanas Windrunner and Jaina Proudmoore.
It was a cold so deep it seemed to freeze time itself.
So it was a shock when, all of a sudden, Sylvanas existed again.
She writhed, disoriented, looking for her opponent -
And something tugged at her wrists. Shackles? Did they think to shackle -
She attempted to turn to her banshee form once again, vanishing into the mist to gain her bearings, but she could not. It was like her soul, her rage, was being pressed in on all sides by something mighty and terrible. Like she was drowning in an emptiness of power.
She went still. Focused. Assessed her situation.
She was not in front of Orgrimmar anymore; she had been moved. The light in the sky out the window was not the same; time had passed. She was in what looked like a filthy, overcrowded orcish farmstead. There were boots on the ground in front of her - so many people. As her senses returned to her, she began to match names to faces, and her sense of shock would have drawn breath from her corpse if it were capable of it.
Beside her sister stood Jaina Proudmoore. Very well; clearly the Alliance had captured her.
But no - because behind them stood Lilian Voss, Geya’rah - her allies . Complicit in whatever was happening. Lor'themar, Baine Bloodhoof, Go’el… What was going on here? Where was Nathanos? Sylvanas strained against her shackles, physically this time, her muscles bulging; but they had bound her wrists and ankles neatly, forcing her to her knees.
She had won the mak’gora.
Yet still she had been defeated. Still she had underestimated the scale of the power the Alliance would apply to thwart her. Just like at Teldrassil. Every time she struck out to end a threat, even worse things fell upon her.
“What is the meaning of this?” Her eyes went to Alleria; with her Horde companions clearly colluding with the Alliance, she fell back on the only bonds left, her frayed bonds of sisterhood. Nobody else would have tolerated the continued existence of the Banshee Queen. She was shocked she was even awake. “Sister?”
For all that she felt the magical restraints against her, for all that she did not sense any poisons or lethal wards, she knew the executioner’s axe was only a hair’s width away. Why in shadow and sunlight had they let her live so long? Whatever live meant, for her.
“Things have changed, Sylvanas.” Alleria looked at her with a sadness that, Sylvanas thought, she masked well from her peers. But a sister knew. “You are no longer Warchief.”
“There is no more Warchief.” Greymane . Far too enthused by whatever drivel he was talking about.
“I have not resigned my post. Are you training the dog in politics, Anduin?”
She grinned at the Gilnean king as wickedly as she could manage. “Woof.”
Anduin groaned. “Sylvanas, for just a moment, please -”
Alleria raised a sharp hand. “Let me speak to my sister.” She took a step closer, and Sylvanas reflected on how long it seemed since she’d last met those eyes, in the tattered ruins of Windrunner Spire. “You went too far, sister. You’ve been stopped. The Horde is no longer your plaything.”
Plaything? Did she think this war was an indulgence? Did she not trust that Sylvanas had good reason, well-founded fears? She searched her sister’s eyes, and she saw it clear as day. Not only sadness, but disappointment. She knew the look of disappointment in her elder sister’s face, and it shocked her. She knew that look, but it was not Alleria's - it was their mother Lireesa's sad, bitter disappointment, echoed in Alleria's face. Sylvanas had never seen that look in Alleria's eyes before; indeed, Alleria had in the distant past conforted her after such a look had fallen on her. To see that now, from Alleria's own eyes... Sylvanas couldn't help but feel that she had done something horribly wrong. Alleria had always been there for her, before. Had always made sure that even the bad things were... better.
Carefully trying to calm her voice, she spoke quietly. “Will it be you, then?” Why would the Alliance wake Sylvanas up, if not to delight in the look on her face while she was executed? She did not expect mercy. Her voice faltered, despite herself. “Will it be you, sister?”
She hoped it would be. She shuddered to think of it, shuddered to think of the darkness and the dread powers that awaited her on the other side of death. Struggled not to remember the words that had found her, the demands she'd fled from. But if she had to choose... Yes. She would choose Alleria.
She saw the flicker of grief in her sister’s eyes as Alleria knelt before her, and that familiarity banished the thought of their mother. “I would not see you die a second time, Sylvanas. And you still command the loyalty of the Forsaken, among others. You will… live.” She left a breath of silence, and Sylvanas knew there was more. “As a prisoner. Of sorts.”
“A prisoner.” She glanced at the other members of the Alliance scattered around her. Were they so foolish? “The Warchief cannot -”
“It is as Greymane said, Dark Lady.” Voss spoke up. “We drafted the papers this morning. The office of Warchief has been abolished. The Horde’s leaders have agreed to form a Council instead. Nominally , you may sit on it as Queen of the Forsaken. You may keep your signet ring and your advisors. But you shall be one voice among many. Nothing more.”
A Council. Fools. The Horde would descend into impotent bickering by year’s end. But she could solve that, still, if she only managed to escape her shackles. “Where is my prison, then? Am I to rot out my days in the bowels of Stormwind?”
Two heavy brown boots stepped forward, amidst a swish of ice and sea. “I am your prison, Sylvanas.”
Her eyes crawled up the height of the woman who would hold her. Jaina Proudmoore.
Again, Sylvanas turned her attention to the archmage, trying to bore into her soul. The Alliance’s most dangerous weapon, used to lock up the Horde’s most dangerous criminal. What did she know about Proudmoore? Not enough. She was wounded, by some of the same men who’d wounded Sylvanas. She was absurdly powerful. She had defeated Sylvanas twice before at least.
Why was she doing this? She was guilty, Sylvanas decided - she had done this to Sylvanas, after all. Of course she was guilty. But… did she see that? Did she admit it? She searched Jaina’s eyes, and found their glacial depths too unfamiliar to read.
Some small part of Sylvanas, foolish and ignorant, had thought she could write Proudmoore off as an independent agent, given up on the seemingly endless war between the Horde and the Alliance after her rejection from Dalaran. But here she was, her boot firmly stepping on Sylvanas’ neck. Sylvanas growled. “You are a weapon, Proudmoore, not a dungeon. I expect you will bundle me away to Boralus and incinerate me in a furnace, like a witch from a Kul Tiran fairytales?”
“We will spare your life, fool.” Jaina crossed her arms, and for all that she was a smaller woman than Sylvanas, she made an imposing figure.
Sylvanas’ lip curled, and for a moment she locked eyes with Jaina. But what was there to say to that? After the moment passed, the Lord Admiral amended her declaration, with a modicum of modesty.
“Whatever is left of it. If you want to avoid an execution, you’ll play along.”
Sylvanas shook the chains. “And cripple me with runes of power -”
“No.” Proudmoore met her eyes. “Those, at least, will be removed, though you’ll be stuck in a rather small space for the foreseeable future.”
They had thought of something even worse. “And depose me -”
Jaina groaned. “Did you not hear Voss? The Forsaken, enough of them, worship you as their Queen. We can’t afford to send them into disarray. You bloody fool .”
Sylvanas felt coils of death constricting around her neck. She always felt them. She was no stranger to this. Her banshee form was constricted - she knew that already. Her powers? Inaccessible, or at least out of reach. “End it, then. Cease this torment. I know the Alliance is full of liars and I know you, Jaina, are a destroyer.”
“She’s hopeless.” Anduin regarded her with… pity? No, that was contempt. He glanced between Alleria and Jaina. “Lord Admiral Proudmoore - Lady Windrunner -”
“No.” Proudmoore averted her eyes, and Sylvanas thought she saw within the archmage a monstrous sort of pain. “Lilian and Alleria are right.”
Sylvanas searched the room, still coming into her full faculties again, wondering how Lilian and Alleria could agree on anything. “Voss - you would take orders from Alliance -”
“My Lady. ” Never, Sylvanas was certain, had the words been uttered with less respect, and ragged loll of a torn part of her lip only made it worse. “I know what the Forsaken are to you . But I also know what you are to them.” The undead woman’s bleached-out hair clung awkwardly to her unrotten skin. “For all that I may wish they would follow another, you have fought for us since your rebirth. Enough of us believe that you fight for some form of… respect. Or dignity. That matters.”
Sylvanas growled. “So I am to rot away in some damp pit in Boralus, with the Lord Admiral holding the keys.”
Jaina coughed. “Actually, we decided on Orgrimmar.”
Sylvanas stopped. Interesting. Very interesting. That could be to her advantage - but she could not pause to let that realization show. “We? Decided when? ”
“We -” Jaina gestured at the room. “Were up all night. It’s been a day, Sylvanas.”
Sylvanas looked at her more closely, and saw the redness and exhaustion in her mortal eyes. That, perhaps, she could believe. “An entire day? Frozen like a puppet. And now you would -”
“- and we have come to terms.” Alleria was firm, her voice commanding and familiar, reaching deep into memories Sylvanas still held close, memories of girlhood. Those memories, those instincts, silenced her and rooted her to the spot. “N’zoth is loose, in case you don’t remember the debacle at Nazjatar. We cannot afford any more wasted time on petty conflicts. We need your Forsaken, sister. We need an army immune to the maddening whispers, an army whose death magic is inimical to the Lightless creatures of the Old Gods. That means we need you.” She shook her head. “In name, at the very least.”
“In name -?”
“You have a chance. A choice. Don’t waste it, Sylvanas.”
Again, Proudmoore. Sylvanas eyed the archmage closely. What was she doing here, even? Shouldn’t she be sitting in Kul Tiras, managing her country? Proudmoore had never quite managed to rule, but she had held office. And now she was planning on managing a prison in Orgrimmar. It made no sense - which meant it would be a weakness she could exploit. She should not call attention to it yet. “And what might that generous, luxurious choice be?” She sharpened her tongue against her fangs. “Lord Admiral?”
“Your cooperation would greatly encourage the Forsaken.” Proudmoore stared at her evenly, her eyes unyielding as glaciers. “In the war effort. If you were to cooperate -”
“With the Alliance?”
“With the Horde Council.” Jaina’s look hardened. “Politically. And with me… logistically.”
Sylvanas had lost so much. Chained up, her powers blotted by magic, her loyalties… compromised by the weight of political expectations. Things had been decided, on her behalf, and she was not enjoying it. “May I choose the color of my chains then? If someone does not speak plainly soon -”
It was Geya’rah. The orc, the brute, the ever most direct. “You can live under house arrest. Proudmoore will keep vigil over you. If you refuse arrest, they will kill you here. Alliance and the Horde traitors both.”
“A hostage.” Sylvanas knew how most hostages ended their lives. She was no fool, and did not plan to join those ranks. “In Orgrimmar.”
“We of the Horde,” Geya’rah tried to puff herself up, and given her size, it worked rather well. “Will not stand for one of ours to be taken and imprisoned by the Alliance on whatever terms they demand. We will not yield our sovereignty so easily.”
“Proudmoore - what are you even doing here?” She sneered. The woman had abandoned her precious Alliance, her Kirin Tor, everything. That she had taken on the mantle of Lord Admiral had been a surprise to everyone. Maybe she should poke at this problem, if only to negotiate something better than house arrest from them. “Why do you speak for the Alliance, in the place of its Whelp-Elect -”
“I speak for me. ” Jaina glared at her intently. “Because it’s my life on the line. You are my mistake, as you so succinctly put it during our conversation earlier. I will contain you, Sylvanas Windrunner. You have proven yourself a liability to the Horde and - and to Azeroth. But we need you, even if only as a figurehead. Tides, I’ve had enough of fighting lost causes. But you, I can bring to heel.”
“You?” She realized, with a sense of the blindingly obvious, that these bindings must be the archmage’s doing. Thus far none on Azeroth had found the ways, the circuits of power, to truly contain her. Arthas’ wounds had left her with hard, gnarled scars, but they had also left her soul with more shadow and rage than any other undead. But Proudmoore had spent time recently, well, not on Azeroth . In these shackles she almost felt mortal once more. Was that, perhaps, the sharp signature of Proudmoore’s mind? “Try as you may to bind me into a jar or a ring or a lantern -”
“We will do this civilly.” Jaina’s words countenanced no objection, no retort. Sylvanas wanted to scream, for want of a gap in the words to express herself. “For the sake of the… Forsaken.” She snapped her finger up. “That was not a joke.”
She sneered. “Don’t worry, Proudmoore. You’re not funny.”
Jaina’s pink cheek twitched, and the archmage clenched her fists. “I’m not here to make you smile, Sylvanas. We -”
“That will never happen -”
“- will be spending a great deal of time -”
“Have you not already?”
“ Together. ”
“A great deal -” Sylvanas was out of her element, here. With dozens of Azeroth’s leaders clustered around her, as she awoke from some period of unconsciousness after the mak’gora, she had clearly missed… something. “She said I would be under house arrest. I presume you will somehow magically encase my house and leave me alone inside, without allies.”
“Sylvanas Windrunner.” Jaina stared at her with all the fury of the coldest blizzards of Northrend. “You will live, insofar as you can, to coordinate the Forsaken in our efforts against N’Zoth. But you won't be alone. I will watch you, day and night, to ensure you do not plot an escape. I will manage your appointments with your advisors and agents. I will check the warding of the safehouse daily. I will control the layout of your prison, the rhythms of your day. I will watch you more closely than you have ever been watched, and I will not let you forget that I am there.” She approached, bringing her face far closer to Sylvanas’ than any mortal should dare. “I will hold you in the palm of my hand like a frozen little rose, Sylvanas. If I tighten my grip, you will only feel it for a moment before you become nothing. I am not afraid of you. One way or another, you will learn just how true that is.”
Sylvanas stared at the woman. Tired, angry, the sliver of golden blonde hair curling from her head, frazzled and loosening from her braid. Lines under her eyes, and a tension of the jaw that would have made a more compassionate soul worry for the integrity of her teeth. Icy blue fury and golden fire. Her steady voice fell on Sylvanas’ ears and crawled down her flesh like ropes tightening against her skin. She would not allow herself to be put down like this. “My dear, it almost sounds like you’re proposing.”
Jaina’s face flared bright red; there, finally, a gratifying show of weakness. “Do not mock me, Sylvanas. You will have a great deal of time to regret it.”
If this was the face of her warden, Sylvanas vowed to drive it as red with madness as possible. “Will you mock yourself, then? One of us will need to entertain me.”
“You can entertain yourself. ”
She clenched her teeth. She was trapped; literally, magically. They would kill her if she refused. But this would not be forever - nothing was. Something would happen, some opportunity would present itself, some flaw would become apparent. At the very worst, humans died rather quickly. She still had allies; Nathanos was likely somewhere, too slippery to kill. Geya’rah and Gallywix could perhaps be won back. Voss’ hold on the Forsaken was tenuous. Alleria…
She still had a sister. At least one that had not yet betrayed her.
But she could contemplate plans later. “This is no choice. You insult me by calling it that.”
Jaina knelt down in front of her, meeting her at eye level. The closer she was, the more exhausted Jaina looked. Sylvanas could feel the tired heat radiating from her, could smell the peculiar sweat of someone running on adrenaline, could see uneven patches of dry skin, could see a slight tremble in her left shoulder. Tired? Injured? Strained? Who knew what weaknesses Jaina tried to hide. “You’ve left me no choice, Sylvanas. It never had to be this way.”
She growled. “Indeed. You could have stopped Arthas.”
“And you could have stopped Garrosh!” The Lord Admiral’s eyes were frigid and her boot stamped angrily on the dirt as she took a single step forward. “I guess we’ll both have to live with that.”
Sylvanas moved, slightly, but the pressure of her shackles reminded her to stay still.
She bared her teeth. Proudmoore understood nothing. She didn’t know what Sylvanas had done, and didn’t care. All she saw was a wild beast to be brought to heel; Sylvanas knew that, because it was all that anyone who was not Forsaken saw. Proudmoore cared nothing for the Forsaken, for the injustices they had faced - injustices that were ripples of that old mistake at Stratholme. Jaina could have saved the world by boiling off Arthas’ face, and yet here they all were. And something far worse awaited the Forsaken if they were slain, and Sylvanas was both blessed and cursed to be the only one to have seen the proof of it. She held the archmage’s gaze for another breath or two, just to see. Just to test.
“Very well. I will be your hostage.” She narrowed her eyes, hoping their red glower made the mortal at least a little uncomfortable. “Your frozen rose. Beware of frostbite.”
Jaina let out a long breath. “I’ll be fine. Try not to - melt.”
The flicker of awkwardness, of hesitation, flashed on Jaina's face like prey darting through the underbrush. Sylvanas saw it and smiled her most wicked grin - if only to stop herself from screaming.