World of Warcraft (c) Blizzard Entertainment

A Path Not Taken

"Without its master's command, the restless Scourge will become an even greater threat to this world." The Ghost of King Terenas had said. "Control must be maintained. There must always be a Lich King."

The last booming words rung through Tirion Fordring's skull like a chiming bell as he stood atop the summit of Icecrown Citadel.

The heroes of Azeroth, - Champions of the Horde and Alliance both, had rallied under one purpose; to vanquish the Lich King Arthas Menethil. The monumental task was set before them, the heroes had magnificently risen to the challenge, despite Garrosh Hellscream and Varian Wrynn seemingly doing everything they could to stoke the embers of a potentially disastrous war. The heroes, injured and exhausted, had left once they'd witnessed Arthas' final breath. No doubt word would have spread by now through the Ashen Verdict of the Lich King's demise.

But Tirion could not bring himself to leave the summit, not just yet. Something had compelled him to remain long after Arthas had fallen, and after the spirit of Lordaeron's former King appeared, Tirion had wished he hadn't. An even more perilously task lay before him now, as an ugly and unwelcome fact made itself known. Tirion had suspicions, of course, but hearing the truth of the matter turned a glorious victory to ash in his mouth.

Without a master - without direction – the mindless minions of the scourge would turn feral, inevitably devouring every speck of life on Azeroth before turning upon themselves. The Lich King was not just the figurehead atop the great monolith that was the Scourge. The Lich King was the overriding will that bound the Scourge to its purpose. Like a hive is composed of worker bees and a hive queen. Without that purpose, the scourge would be aimless and lost. Much more than control was required to handle the ungainly beast, they needed a will to contain it.

Tirion's face was grim as he moved to where Arthas Menethil lay dead, scooping up the Helm of Domination beside him. His thumb ran across the bone-like ridges of its saronite faceplate. A bone chilling cold radiated from it, effortlessly cutting through the winter leather of his gloves like a blade. The gem adorning the brow was dulled and pale blue, not at all the glittering jewel it had once been when resting upon the crown of its master. Though one would have to be a great fool to deny the power permeating from the ancient relic.

His eyes locked on the gem where he could see his reflection, crystal clear as any polished mirror. The words passed through his lips, spoken to no one in particular. "The weight of such a burden. It must be mine, for these is no other-"

The words were cut short by a swift action. A crimson saronite-clad gauntlet clutched tightly around his wrist and Tirion was shaken from his momentary trance when he glimpsed the owner. He was astonished to realise the dead could move so quickly.

"This is a grim destiny, old man. Its not yours to bare." The voice was cold, rasping and coloured by the same unnatural magics that animated its owner's flesh.

For a moment, Tirion had to comb through his memory to pinpoint exactly when Highlord Mograine had joined him on Icecrown summit and discovered to his mild distress that he couldn't. He'd been too entranced by the helm. The unholy thing held an unnatural temptation that would have nearly consumed him had no one been present to stop him.

Darion looked at him, the burning lich fire eyes somewhat duller than he'd remembered seeing them before - even with the darkening influence of the crimson and green helm he wore.

Seconds later, he'd come to the realisation that Darion was not looking at him, but at the crown in his hands. It didn't take long to comprehend exactly what Darion was suggesting – what the boy was volunteering to do. Anger burned furiously through the Ashbringer.

"No!" Tirion declared fiercely and the Ebon Blade's Highlord seemed taken aback for a moment by the sheer strength in his denial. "You have sacrificed enough, boy! It is because of me that you became what you are, I will not cast you to the wolves a second time."

Darion was silent. His face unreadable behind that cursed metal helm, spattered with ichor and blood from the various horrors they had fought through to reach the Frozen Throne. His free hand, the one not clasping the accursed axe Shadowmourne, reached for his helm and pried it from his head. The face underneath cut Tirion's heart deeper than any blade ever could. Blonde hair turned pale from death, skin the colour of ice and lich fire burned through eyes that were once a deep natural blue in life.

Tirion couldn't help but be reminded of how painfully young Darion had been when he'd first sacrificed his life. A boy on the cusp of manhood, no older than eighteen or nineteen summers. He'd kept his face shrouded by hood or helm for a reason, and a damned good one.

"You are of the living, Tirion. Do not resign yourself to the hell of undeath when there is another choice available." Darion urged, his hand now outstretched. "More to the point, I am the only one, living or dead, with the experience necessary to guide and command such a host as the Scourge. Unless Kel'Thuzard wishes to materialise from the shadowlands – so far, he seems content to stay put. I suggest we settle this little succession crisis quickly before he sees fit to change that state of affairs."

The flippant attitude grated on Tirion's nerves with every passing second. "And what becomes of you if you were to take on this burden? Have you any notion or idea as to the consequences of such a thing?"

"Just about as unpleasant than my current existence, I expect."

A flash of white hot anger burned through him and Tirion grit his teeth. "Light damn you, boy! Did you not hear me? I will not allow you to cast yourself headfirst into damnation again! Not while I breathe!"

Darion let his hand drop and peered out across the horizon, appearing as if he could see something Tirion could not. "You are a hero to these people, Tirion. You all have your own destinies to fulfil, and as insufferable as your prattling can be, you are a beacon of hope to the heroes of Azeroth."

Despite himself, Tirion allowed a faint, grim smile of amusement. Leave it to the youngest Mograine to wield even the sincerest of flattery like a cutting blade. "The Ebon Blade owe you a great debt. I owe you a great debt. Perhaps its more than any of us could ever hope to repay in this world or the next. I would save you from this grim fate and consider it paid."

"Regardless of whatever you think you owe me, Darion, I cannot simply allow you to –" The Argent Highlord was cut off by a raised hand, Darion scowled at him.

"Allow me to be direct, Tirion: I would stay in Icecrown regardless of whether or not you gave me that cursed relic. I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself simply because of your misguided belief that its your responsibility to protect me." Darion declared firmly, then pushed a line that struck a nerve. "Do you honestly believe Taelan would have wanted this for you?"

Tirion recoiled as if struck, then came the anger. He wanted to lash out and curse the boy as the same whelp who came stumbling upon his old shack by the river, but the old Paladin knew the words were true. He took a slow breath, feeling the chilly air of Icecrown curl in his lungs. He had already lost one son thanks to the machinations of vile traitors and heretics, and now he was about to lose another all over again.

"Do you wish to become the very thing your father wanted to destroy?" Tirion countered in a civil tone.

"I am already that very thing by virtue of what I am." Darion pointed out evenly. Once more his hand stretched out and remained patiently. "Through me, the Scourge will find atonement – just as the Knight of the Ebon Blade have and will continue to do so. From this time to the end of time, I will be the Jailer of the Damned."

"And then, what? What will happen to the Knights of the Ebon Blade?" Tirion asked.

"They will be free to choose their own path, as they have been from the start." Darion replied, he spared Tirion a glance. "Ideally, I would prefer if they continued to follow my commands. Even after I don this crown, I am still their Highlord."

"If they don't?"

Darion shrugged vaguely, the motion scrapped saronite against saronite. "Then they, like every intelligent undead in my service, will be free to leave and do as they wish."

The Argent Highlord considered it, feeling icy cold curl in his chest from more than just the artic winds. "You know the leaders won't be happy about this: Varian and Jaina, Thrall and Hellscream. They will see this as a power grab. Perhaps even suggest this was your plan all along. To see Arthas overthrown so you can take the mantle yourself." Tirion cautioned.

"I think they will complain far less once the lingering undead are pulled from their lands."

Tirion held the Helm of Domination and then to the outstretched palm. Darion's hand had remained patiently waiting through the entire exchange. The old Highlord closed his eyes, cursed himself, then placed the crown in his hand. His heart ached to do so.

Surprise played across Darion's expression for the briefest fraction of a second. "Thank you, Tirion."

Tirion took a step back, feeling a heavy weight press upon his shoulders as he watched the Death Knight consider the Helm of Domination. The Ashbringer wanted to look away as Darion slid on the helm, but to do so felt like it would be a great dishonour to the lad who already sacrificed his life, and now his unlife, for a greater good. Tremors rumbled all around them and Tirion braced himself as best he could against their growing intensity. The shadow and ice magics swirled around them until the very air itself felt thick with it, surging from what felt like the very foundations of the Citadel.

The paladin watched as the dulled gem atop the helm turned a colourless glow, Darion's closed eyes had opened and burned with a Lich fire so pale, it was almost white.

Just like that, the New Lich King had assumed his role. The form that was Darion Mograine moved slowly towards the dais leading to the Frozen Throne and studied it for a moment, completely ignoring Tirion's existence. After a moment, the Lich King apparently decided to disregard the icy chair entirely and peer out across the plains of Icecrown Citadel itself. There, it stood ridge as a statue.

"Dari-" Tirion hesitated.

"Go." The Lich King's voice thundered with the sound of a thousand voices and one. "Leave this place and never return."

Author's notes: So, I had this idea since I saw the Timeless Isles quest all the way back in MoP. Just something I finally threw together after a nice long chinwag with Nighthaunting from the Tumblr and Ao3 fame. ;)

I welcome critic and commentary.