Carrier
Spoilers for Arthas, undead and human campaigns. Set during the latter stages of the undead campaign. Written for the 'Something New 2004' experimental challenge. 'Carrier' in disease is someone who is infected, but might not be noticeably affected.

The sword hates to be parted from him. (It likes to touch him.)

Pommel up, high stance. Left hand low, shift and twist. Arthas knows the stances from novice to artisan; the angles are different for a blade than a mace, but there are principles he has been instructed in. Last-ditch tutelage. When the only thing that comes to hand is a cutting weapon, you can be forgiven its use because there is nothing else around.

(You can be forgiven.)

Frostmourne is different from all the weapons Arthas has used in the past. Paladin training taught him how to use a hammer because many of the fouler creatures which burrow through Azeroth don't care if you stab at their guts, but are greatly inconvenienced when their bones are turned to powder. Frostmourne is a deviation. Even though Arthas knows how to use a sword, has been instructed equally in this other wartime device, it was the hammer which was chosen to be his symbol as a paladin.

A blunt, simple mace.

Frostmourne is different. Hilt against his thigh, blade against his calf, voice in Arthas's mind. Hissing.

Whenever it speaks, Arthas thinks of cold mutton. Chunks of fat in his throat. The sword's presence makes it hard to swallow, but it's a partnership that seems to be working out just fine, because Arthas doesn't have much of an appetite these days anyway.

Consciousness involves military campaign after military campaign. Battles blur together. They always have, but now that the Scourge has embarked on full-out war with Tichondrius in charge, there isn't any reason to distinguish the spats. Clean off your boots. Tighten armor straps. Tally the (deaths) newest additions to the unholy ranks. Wonder what happens next.

It all runs together in a thin, oily pudding; Arthas feels it drip down the back of his mouth, a mucus born of mist-breathing during early morning campaigns.

Only the sword is real.

Arthas sleeps with it in his military cot, the length of naked steel beside him like a lover, rolling into him and murmuring while they both dream. Or he thinks he does. Sleep. Dream. He's not sure. The dead do not need to do either, and Arthas isn't sure what he is anymore, if not deceased. Awake, asleep. The words no longer hold any relevance. Arthas has left them behind.

He debates while sitting in the village of Greenden. Cadavers shamble around him, feasting on the ruins of what had previously been a healthy farming community. The greatest acts of excitement for them each year had centered around country festivals and maypoles. Thinking about this, Arthas wonders if it would be appropriate to set up a mast in the singed square, maybe hang some bodies from it so the undead could cavort.

He asks the man who is currently serving as his footrest. The body does not answer.

Necromancers chatter as they compare reagents. Creaking whines through the air as a bevy of meat-wagons rumbles in, laboring under its precious burden of corpses. Arthas's boot is propped up on three-quarters of what had once been a farmhand; he can't tell where the rest has gone, since its upper torso is missing and the head seems to have been claimed as a nearby wagon-stop, wedged underneath a wheel to keep the cart from rolling.

Some of the hungrier zombies beg. They are hungry; they want food, which will not fill their stomachs or warm their veins. Instincts rule them now. Lowest on the undead hierarchy, the zombies are largely ignored so long as they stay out of the way. Annoyances at best. Former humans; nothing now. Nothing.

Packs scamper to lick the gore from the sides of the meat-wagons. One creature yelps when a wheel rolls over it, smashing its body into decaying pulp. The forces of the Scourge don't stop to provide aid; eventually, annoyed by the yowling, one necromancer strides over to smash the undead's skull in with the butt of his staff, pounding again and again until the noise stops.

Arthas, absent-mindedly, summons the nearest zombie over with a click of his tongue. He reaches down to the deceased farmhand, twisting the cooling leg off with a crack when the knee joint splits. The flesh is spongy. He holds it out to the zombie just like he would offer a hock of lamb to a dog, if the village were his father's feast hall.

If this were home.

(It is.)

The killing field is a dinner party. The zombie's distorted throat purls sounds of pleasure as it digs into the meal. Arthas rubs it under its chin with his finger, scratching at the flaking skin which peels off under pressure, and it leans into his touch.

(He loves them) (he has to love them) he thinks if he didn't, he'd go insane.

- - - - -

(Fingers clutch up on the hilt, knuckles nuzzling the crossguard.)

While he is (not) sleeping, Arthas sometimes thinks he is in fever again. Thirteen years old, when (plague) an illness swept the kingdom, the young prince had been captivated by it. Two weeks he spent sweating in his bed linens as the kingdom's physicians threw up their hands. His temperatures had run so high that the healers resorted to water, buckets of it, cold run-off from the wells. They soaked Arthas for hours, baptizing him again and again while they hoped to bring the fever under control.

He feels like that again now. A little. The world has a blurriness all around him, a buzzing of edges that reminds Arthas of the way he hallucinated under the fever's influence. When he lies down in his tent, his balance shifts and sways; it is hard to get comfortable, and closing his eyes only leads to uncontrollable vertigo. Arthas usually ends up folded over on his side, cheek pressed against the rim of the cot, listening to the noises of the war camp trickle in from outside.

He thinks it would be easier if he were ill.

During the night, Arthas tosses like an autumn leaf. He cannot become comfortable, even stripped of his armor and with the sword nearby. Dragons must be attacking the camp; Arthas is swollen with heat, baking in invisible fire.

Relief comes when the cool, gnarled fingers of the Royal Physican touch his brow. Words congeal in the air, thick as freezing honey. Bee-dancing.

Arthas smiles blithely at the face that hovers over him. It's familiar. The wizened features are those of the castle medic, a man trained in herbalism and healing magics both. Times innumerable had the physician bailed Arthas out of trouble; a poultice here, a bandage there for all the instances Arthas had scraped himself during one accident or the other, too young to use holy energies to wipe up the injuries.

Too ill. The healer touches Arthas, and Arthas smiles.

The (death) knight lifts his hand. It floats effortlessly, bones floppy as Arthas attempts to reach up and grasp some part about the Royal Physician, to prove to himself that the man is real and no fever-dream.

His palm scales up the side of the healer's face. Skin crackles like blackened paper where his bare fingers stroke; flesh withers as Arthas's contact brushes it, shrinking an old apple in the sun. Pus cracks out of small tears, a thick, brown syrup that stinks of rot.

The Physican watches Arthas steadily, even as the paladin traces the arch of the man's nose. When the healer finally opens his mouth to speak, there is nothing inside; no tongue, no teeth, nothing save a glittering maw of roiling power.

"Lord Arthas."

Arthas fumbles. His thumb plunges into the man's eye-socket, tearing through the illusion of flesh and plunging into a hot fire of pinprick light, and Arthas screams.

- - - - -

Later when he has recovered, Arthas takes out Frostmourne and sets it over his knees. He runs an oilcloth over the blade, mechanically; the weapon has never needed to be cleaned, and Arthas doubts that it ever will.

He performs the habit anyway, and mentally reviews the camp's status while he does.

The magical plague to aid the Scourge is being brewed in greater quantities daily, poisons that will infect the living and twist them to undead servitude. Scouts have been sent to Weaver's Circle. Rivers have been tainted; wells flooded, so that even now the disease is beginning to incubate within the village. Soon Arthas's war-band will be able to move out in force, bringing their force down on the little hamlet even as the sickness finally bursts.

(Arthas remembers. Cleansing the towns on horseback. Killing the infected to save them. Seeing the plague-born madness beginning to overtake the citizens and lifting his hammer to smash their brainpans open first.)

(Not seeing signs of the disease and swinging anyway.)

Without his armor on, Arthas's vision becomes strange. Monsters pool out of everything, slick eyes flush with amused hunger. At Greenden, Arthas saw a discarded apple core and thought it was a human face, an eye peeking up out from a wood-chip grave. He can't shake the feeling of being watched.

The sword hates to be parted from him. It whines when he sets it aside along with the oilcloth, leaving it forgotten on the cot while he turns his head from side to side, ill at ease within his tent. Security's bubble pops, vanishes. Arthas is surprised to realize how out of place he feels within the death-camp, and how much he wishes to flee from it.

Everything is cold. Fresh.

Dangerous.

Compelled by the sensation of peril, Arthas starts to get to his feet. If he takes a mount now, he can be gone from the camp in a scant span of minutes; the guards will not notice, so long as he goes silently, without his distinctive armor.

And without his sword.

Just for a ride. Arthas will be gone and back again as soon as his head clears.

That thought firm in his mind, the man finds the sword brushing his leg when he stands. Frowning, he unstraps his belt and sheath, dropping it on the bed. He intends to push the sword underneath the blanket, but once his fingers touch it, Arthas discovers that he's gripping the weapon. Hard.

(He can't let go.)

Arthas's fingers slide up Frostmourne's length. They tighten, clench; the thirsty metal bites into the man's palm, sawing at the tendons as the fallen paladin gasps again and again into the hush of his tent. One more inch, that's all he needs in order to reach the crosspiece, and throw the sword away and

(He can't let go.)

blood is wicking the space between Arthas's hand and the sword, sealing the bond between them in a film of clotting lubricant.

He's down on his knees. Half-on the bed, bent over; Arthas's face is buried in his rough-wool pillow. The blood that darkens his palm is thick as jam. Congealed. It leaves a black smear behind on the sword, which gleams in wicked, sentient amusement as Arthas tries to regain control of himself. He fights against the searing pain which leaves him shuddering impotently against the blade, low moans wrenching themselves in rhythm from his mouth.

Then he's free.

Severed from the weapon's mastery in a rush, the fallen paladin finds himself whimpering against the ground. He tries to crawl. Like the time he'd been thrown from his horse in the middle of an orc swarm and his entire leg had gone numb--he'd crawled then, pulling himself along by his arms through the decaying leaves and chaos, staining his armor and soaking cold mud into his leathers. Up to the nearest tree he could find, and then Arthas had called upon the Light then to heal him while shoving himself up, inch by inch (by inch, he's crawling off the bed, inch by inch) until

Arthas gets halfway to the exit before a shadow sucks away the light.

He forces his head up. The figure that hovers just inside the tent's door-flap does so without care for gravity; it is beyond that now, just as it has trespassed through the boundaries of death. Kel'Thuzad.

Twin moon eye-sockets crackle as the undead sorcerer regards him. No emotion in his withered features; the ivory skull shines through Kel'Thuzad's passionless vigil.

"The sword," the lich reminds Arthas tonelessly. "Pick it up--"

- - - - -

Arthas is surrounded by the undead and stands immune from their hunger. Catapulted to the top (he is a prince anew), he relishes being able to wade through hoards of zombies and receive reverence. His flesh no longer attracts their teeth. Even the communication between the dead is different than mortal couriers; Arthas can feel each tiny speck that he commands, linked together like a great ocean of plague. Swimming. Swelling. It makes him smile, more than he should, at thin air and enemy alike.

The necromancers are uneasy, in the way of the living and their distrust, but they take Arthas's behavior as a proof of the power yet to come. He is, after all, god-touched.

Or as close as they get, demons over one shoulder, undead at the other.

(Infernals raining from the sky from portals so fiery that they had to be opened in mid-air, lest they blacken the earth for miles around their locus hearts.)

The thrill of this immunity from monsters that had once leapt for his face--Arthas laps it up, drop by rancid drop. Now the creatures who bother him the most are dwarves, fellow humans. The orcs have always been a problem. He'll get to them all, given time. Death (rebirth) is one of two eventualities, both of which are controlled by Ner'zhul.

Everything. Controlled by Ner'zhul.

The campaigns blur together. Tichondrius's assumption over the Scourge has left Arthas and Kel'Thuzad regulated to second rank. Archimonde's presence in the world has pushed them down further, until they spend their days coordinating the smaller attacks, the steady crush of villages. Spreading the plague. (Spreading Ner'zhul.)

The world's attention is on Archimonde. Soon, it will be time for Kel'Thuzad and Arthas to act.

Realizing this, Arthas shakes himself out of his reverie just in time to watch another train of meat-wagons go by, trailed by mismatched Abominations. His horse shifts, impatient. Beside him, Kel'Thuzad hovers and waits. Eternal company. Attached to Arthas at the hip ever since the paladin helped wrestle the man's spirit back from the very grave he helped put him in.

The irony strikes him as inexplicably hilarious, but Arthas isn't sure why. "I killed you," he observes instead, to the lich.

"Yes, Lord Arthas," Kel'Thuzad replies evenly. "You did."

"I killed you," Arthas repeats, reaching out to lightly shove Kel'Thuzad's bony shoulder, and then for some reason he starts laughing. The memory of charging after the living necromancer is hysterical. Arthas can remember the conviction burning inside him at the time, a murderer's thirst bent to the shackles of cheap holy doctrine. (Kill the necromancer, it demanded. Kill them all.)

Hilarious. Inexplicably.

Maybe he's drunk.

With that thought comes a sudden nausea; Arthas twists off his horse, stumbling as his foot catches in the saddle. The sword slaps against his hip. He crashes to his knees, bent over on all fours, armor clashing in protest. Pressed against the damp woodchips of the footpaths, cedar shards that have been scattered by the townsfolk to help absorb moisture from the rain.

There's mud underneath; Arthas can smell it.

Desperate to ease his illness, Arthas shoves his face against the ground, neck bent back like a crane while he props the weight of his armor on his hands. A shudder takes him. He lifts his head barely in time to retch, nostrils filling with bile. Mouth gaping open, eyes shut; he is a metal bull bellowing in silence, panting an empty plea.

The zombies cluster around him, curious at this sign of potential weakness. Arthas is dimly cognizant of Kel'Thuzad holding them back with a thought. The lich's star-eyes whirl as they focus on the death knight. (Paladin.) Dead knight.

The true irony is that, even while vomiting, mouth thick with reflexive saliva, tears welling in the corners of his lids--Arthas hasn't felt so alive in years. (Never so free, never so) the sword reminds him of this. It tells him how lucky he is. It hisses and mews into his thoughts, until Arthas grows weary of contradicting it, and realizes that it's speaking the truth.

Bony talon-hands clench on his shoulders.

"You're very sick, Lord Arthas." Kel'Thuzad's voice. "But it will pass. Soon," the lich assures, "very soon. Bring him Frostmourne!"

At that, Arthas stirs, lifting his head groggily from the ground. "No--"

- - - - -

He wakes up and he's sitting bareback.

(The dead do not need to sleep.)

(He wakes up and) he opens his eyes from the practical half-trance that he'd adapted to when he no longer needed to rest by conventional means. The weather is cold; sky grey, armor heavy and sullen on Arthas's shoulders.

The necromancers stare back at his sudden gasp, and Arthas reorients himself with an effort. He puzzles over the sword's whisper.

"What's wrong with me?" cracks out of him, a gawkish blurt that is married to his dreams. In them, he was riding once more--but no, that was reality, that was Weaver's Creek and he'd killed more than half that last village all on his own. (He should be proud.)

(Yes.)

Lulled back into security, Arthas's eyes droop in sated satisfaction. He has no more reason to fear. These interruptions in his service are death spasms, little more, jolts of writhing lung-rattles as the idealist paladin withers away.

That provides no explanation for his stomach, however. The ache chases him all the way back to Lordaeron. It slaps him against the steps of his (father's) his throne, panting in absent fascination of his own bodily processes.

Once back (home) in Arthas's new kingdom, Kel'Thuzad watches the death knight collapse to his knees on the marbled floor of the receiving hall. Ghosts billow in a displaced puff; they streak around Arthas in bitter futility, pawing at the man with spectral fingers that drip in candle-wax puddles. He ignores them.

His armor is too heavy. He needs to get it off.

Arthas's fingers jar over the lacings, unbuckling what they can in a rush and tugging hard on the metal shell. Ghosts soar up from the haunted stones with a renewed vengeance. Arthas's own father rises in a green wisp of mourning, mouth distended in an endless what are you doing howl. What are you doing. (What are you doing, my son?)

Rage lends the (death) knight the strength to pitch a bracer straight at his father's haunt. The metal hits, clatters (like a crown) (like a crown falling) (like a crown falling from his father's head when Frostmourne's blade slid into his

Arthas drops his other bracer on the floor.

It rattles. At the noise, a spasm runs through Arthas's body; the strangled noise that twists his throat closed is the protest of a child against a sudden, stiff wind. He feels naked without his full plate, a pink fetal thing curling up in the aborted muck of his battle campaigns.

Kel'Thuzad does not stop him. The lich drifts to the center of the hall and watches Arthas continue to disrobe. He finally speaks once the (paladin) man reaches the layers of chainmail, peeling links away and spilling them musically on the floor.

Metal jingles. "The Burning Legion grows impatient, Lord Arthas. If we do not move to Kalimdor soon, we may miss the opportunity to arm their enemies against them."

Another buckle, and the chain-link leggings drop away. Arthas kicks them aside.

"I can't possibly be sick," he announces. "Paladins don't get sick. Did I tell you that, Kel?" Arthas asks, turning his head to grip one of his gloves in his teeth, pulling it off like an animal tearing at a carcass flank. His mouth tastes of soured leather when he spits the glove out. "We're immune to disease. We're not affected by it."

"Lord Arthas." Kel'Thuzad's reprimand is patient. "Your armor protects you, my lord. Put it back on."

Another shudder. Arthas notices he's shivering in the newly discovered cold. (He's writhing.) (Back twisting against the cot, spasming; bones shoved into his mouth keep him from biting off his tongue.) It must be just a chill.

"Your armor protects you, my lord. Put it back on."

Arthas's hand trembles as he spreads his fingers in the air. Fascinated, the paladin watches as a tremulous weakness overtakes his body, possesses it until his arm is a foreign thing. Twitching. Hurting.

Kel'Thuzad is saying something else (get me cold water) in front of Arthas's confused, frowning face (cold water now or we'll lose him).

The floor of the throne room feels like the homespun blankets of his tent-cot. When Arthas touches the marbled blocks of the throne steps, they feel like the splintering wood of the cot frame.

He wonders if he's dreaming. If he's even in Lordaeron at all.

(The dead do not need to sleep.)

- - - - -

The truth is that Arthas can guess that (Arthas) the truth is (Arthas) he wants--

(Listen to me, Arthas.)

He doesn't remember.

There are military mock-ups with figurines laid out across the floor of his father's (his) throne room now; the chamber has been turned into a staging field. Arthas stares at them. He's not interested. The necromancers who report to him for orders receive words that Arthas is vaguely aware he dictates, as if battle-plans are pouring through him, and he is only a conduit. The genius of tactics is born in his brain. Few of them belong to him; most come from the sword, from--

(Ner'zhul.)

His armor is a shell around him and Arthas removes it less and less now, noticing that the reek of bodily sweat is absent. Thinking about this, he reaches up to touch his eyes. Then his tongue. If he does not drink water, then he cannot exude it; if he does not digest food, then why is his mouth still damp?

Arthas's armor is a shell. It feels like he dies a little more whenever he takes it off, so he leaves it on when he can. He's learned to sit still for hours inside it, leaning his flesh-weak body against the bulky joints. It holds him upright.

He is trapped within a steel cradle, feeling the incongruity of hot breath exhaled against cold metal, wondering why he never feels the weather except in vague whispers.

Arthas is always on the cool side these days, trapped in an eternity of winter mornings with his toes beginning to freeze and his fingers stiff.

The armor is heavy. (Six of them are pressing him down now, two to a leg and two more for his arms. Flames jiggle in the tent as Arthas's foot kicks out wildly and nearly overturns the lantern. Kel'Thuzad, cursing soft and fierce in his hollow throat, calls out for more herbs.) He doesn't like to take it off.

Not anymore.

On the road between Weaver's Creek and Rivertail Mill, it's beginning to rain.

Arthas pulls his horse to a halt, and watches this. Weather, like the Scourge, is an inescapable fact. Like the Scourge, it is a distant sensation for the fallen paladin; Arthas knows it exists, understands how it plays a role in his life, but can't seem to care about its relevance on the rest of the world.

They both destroy things, the weather and the undead. That seems fitting.

Water puddles in his hand. The patter of raindrops on his upraised glove is a pressure like (Jaina) a lover's (god Jaina) touch. Arthas studies the way the storm pools on his armored fingers and for one instant he thinks--

- - - - -

(More bruisewood I don't care if it's not local to this region get me more ship some in can you necromancers do nothing right? If I was as incompetent as you were when I was alive then Lord Ner'zhul would have left me to rot in my grave and I would have deserved it. Bruisewood kingsroyal and ghoul rib powder. Bring it now. Restrain the man--lash him down if you must but don't harm him or it will be your eternal souls on the line I promise you that

- - - - -

"You'll fail."

Jaina's testiness is a mark of her training. She's spent so long in ravenous study of mage-lore that a low-level contempt has germinated underneath, directed at those who donate only half the effort to their own training. It suits her name. Proudmoore.

Arthas thinks it makes her look old before her time. Grumpy.

He laughs. The sound is a warm summer in his mouth, and when he stretches back, he tries to catch at Jaina's sleeve. "I've studied up on all the tomes," he reassures her. "You wouldn't believe what my father wants me to learn in order to get tested. Just because I'm the prince," he adds, the silk of Jaina's robes sliding over his knuckles, "it doesn't mean that I have to learn twice as much as all the other paladins."

"That's not what I'm talking about, Arthas." Jaina's lips press together, performing a stern look of disapproval in his direction. It melts when Arthas sticks a lock of her hair in his mouth and looks up at her through it, puppyish.

She rolls over. She rolls into him, her legs fitting against his own, her hips nudging into his stomach. Her belly is warm from the sun. Jaina's skin smells like strawberry cream, and tastes like honey and salt.

It feels like it's been so long since Arthas was able to touch her like this. Not since the unwanted attention from both their kingdoms caused them to part (not since the Scourge

Jaina slides her arms around his neck.

"Pick me back up," she whispers against his ear, silk-breathed, "Lord Arthas."

- - - - -

Twenty villages down.

Two continents left to go.

They reach the outskirts of Rivertail Mill without interruption. The Scourge's war machines grumble. Stores of infected grain have been parceled out, just waiting for trusting peasants to ingest it. The necromancers had been delighted to inform Arthas earlier that the efficiency of the transformation was up by thirty percent.

Officers of the Scourge talk to him while they wait, from formality's sake only. Archimonde is off exploding mage-towers; Tichondrius is governing troops. Kel'Thuzad and Arthas are assumed to be minor players at this stage. They are, temporarily, unwatched.

Plans are already in action. Half the time, Arthas does not even need to attend the front lines.

When he isn't on his horse, Arthas waits in his tent. Sometimes he can hear screaming in the distance while he's polishing his greaves and rubbing his fingers across the charmingly skeletal decorations. Pockets of human resistance remain in the kingdom of Lordaeron, foolish peasants and errant knights expecting to turn the tide and reclaim their land. Ridiculous; the land belongs to Arthas, by right of power and of blood-descent. He is their king now.

Screaming. (Sometimes it sounds familiar) Arthas ignores it.

Sobbing.

(Sometimes it sounds like him.)

The sword demands to be near him. It hisses when he sets it down, prefers to remain unsheathed with all the world visible to its length. Whenever he puts it away, Frostmourne wheedles and spits until he gives it attention again, so Arthas has thought about surrendering and holding it all the time now.

His gloved hand hovers over the weapon's crossguard, absently tracing it before he pulls away, and picks up the reins again.

Rivertail Mill. It's raining.

The water comes down in a drizzle that leaves humidity-fumes breeding in the air. Frostmourne (the weather's cold today) begs for attention, but Arthas ignores it. He can't feel the rain at all anymore, not on his glove, and not in his mind, where everything has gone silent and hungry. (Cold. I'm cold, father.)

Arthas turns his steed away from the village with a nudge of his knee. The horse whickers in living annoyance, and then vanishes from between his legs.

Arthas falls into a river of blood.

Pressure batters the paladin's ears, filling the whorls like bread-dough swelling into his body's canals. He's moving, and not moving, and wet worms press themselves into his nose even as Arthas realizes

(They're putting him in liquid.)

that he's being pulled through the abyss, raised up out of the depths by a glowing pair of eyes that cuts through the curtain of moist bangs matting his face. Called back by speech from fever-spawned heights.

"Take up the sword, Lord Arthas."

Called back by speech. (Stabilize his temperature slaughter the farmers and drain them if you must I don't care how many bodies it takes we can't lose his)

Arthas's vision, thinning clear, sees crimson spots flecking the world in a diseased pox. The liquid that coats Arthas's cheek is sticky. When he opens his mouth--to speak, to question, he doesn't know--a drop slides in, smoothly infiltrating his tongue. It tastes sour and sweet all at once. Arthas tries to swallow, hoping to erase the flavor underneath a coat of spit, but his mouth is paper-dry.

Am I dead? he tries to ask, but then something cold is being forced into his palm, his fingers folded mechanically over the hilt, and Arthas (the sword) remembers that it doesn't make a difference anymore.