Disclaimer: Any specific character who can't be found at Wowpedia or Wowhead was my idea. But I don't own any of this.
The battle was lost. All around Light's Hope chapel, the creations of the Scourge fell to the defenders. Worse yet, none of that mattered any longer: The death knight had seen her overlord flee…and had heard his betrayal.
She had fancied herself a sword; now, she knew she had been mistaken. She had been an arrow. A well-made one, to be certain, meant to strike down many foes before it broke—but still ultimately expendable.
But that was the past. She still lived, after a fashion. If any sort of future still existed for such as her, it was time to seek it out.
They'd been cut off, now, for two days longer than they'd intended to be.
The human member of the party huddled in a corner, his head pillowed on bent knees. No great physical specimen at the best of times, he was utterly exhausted from the past few days' exertion. But with danger lurking just outside their dubious shelter, anything more than a fitful doze evaded him.
A three-legged table, turned on its side, braced the rickety door. In front of it sat a bear with a moss-green pelt and unusually large ears. At a nod from another member of the party—a rangy, indigo-skinned draenei armed with a two-handed axe—the beast reared up onto his hind feet, his form shifting and blurring as he did so. A leather-clad kaldorei, his hair matching the bear's coat, relinquished the post; the axe-wielder took his place.
A second draenei—slightly taller than the axe-wielder, with a big, rawboned frame—paced the room. There was no weapon in her hands, although a heavy maul leaned against the wall nearby; her armor, although in no worse condition, was less ornate. Some detail of manner, bearing, or expression suggested that she was also by far the younger of the two.
Being trapped was wearing even on these three. Although Ariaadne's restlessness was the most obvious sign, Tanavar's grim silence gave further proof. As for Zeruuah—Vindicator Zeruuah, the Keen Edge of the Light—seeing her looking dirty, shaky, and worried would in itself be a shock to many.
The abandoned farmhouse was clear, and safe for now. But for now was the operating phrase: Ghouls swarmed in from all sides, accompanied by a smattering of gargoyles and bonecasters. And now their gnomish covert-operations specialist, returning from a brief and furtive scouting mission, reported that at least two flesh golems advanced on their position.
Miriee sighed wearily, brushing pale blue hair back from her face with a tiny hand.
"This mess is makin' me lose my edge," the gnome stated bluntly. "I had to pull a fast one over those ghouls to keep from gettin' eaten; next time, I might not be that lucky. But here's good news: I lifted this off a bonecaster out there."
The little rogue pulled something out of her pocket and held it up. It appeared to be a tiny, fragile ceramic tile with a rune carved into it.
"If it's what I think it is, Tharne might be able to get us outta here."
Ariaadne approached the mage, leaned down, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Tharne, wake. Miriee has found a rune. Is it the proper sort?"
Tharne's head snapped up abruptly. "What? Give it here!"
Miriee grumbled something about rude humans, but scurried over. Tharne took the rune and examined it.
"It's the right kind. But if I'm going to cast a portal, I'm going to need as little distraction as possible."
As if in response, the adventurers suddenly heard a horrible scratching and clawing against the outside of the building. The door, even with the table still propped against it, began to rattle on its hinges. Zeruuah, closest to the door, put her back against it; Tanavar hurried to assist her.
Tharne pulled himself to his feet. Channeling arcane energies, he chanted the first few words of a spell. The rune floated up off of the palm of his hand; around it, a glowing, misty portal began to form.
A rotting, ragged-nailed hand broke through a weak point in the door, clawing at Tanavar's chest. The druid gasped in shock, transforming back into a bear to swipe at the thing. Although the ghoul withdrew, Zeruuah was left bracing the door on her own as its fellows tried to batter their way in.
Miriee, keeping watch through the one intact window, gave a squeak of fear. "I see those golems!"
Zeruuah whispered a prayer. Pale light radiated from the floor around her hooves. The encroaching undead outside the doorway snarled in pain and fell back. But the damage had already been done: The arcane portal—beyond which the granite buildings of Stormwind City had begun to coalesce—faded from existence. Tharne barely managed to catch the rune before it fell to the floor.
"Don't worry," he told them, sounding somewhat less than sure of himself. "I've still got the rune. Ariaadne, can you help them at the door?"
A hint of fear flickered across Ariaadne's lilac-blue face, quickly replaced by grim resolution as she hefted her maul and reached for the door. "All right, you dead things," she growled in Draenic. "Pay attention to the large, shiny vindicator."
"As opposed to the impetuous pup," Zeruuah murmured in the same language, unbuckling one of her gauntlets.
Shocked and affronted, Ariaadne wheeled to gawk at her mentor…only to crash into the older draenei's bare fist. The young paladin crumpled, unconscious.
Tanavar's surprised growl, even through ursine jaws, could be understood as "What…?"
"She would have thrown herself to them. It is not right that she should die here."
The door, momentarily unguarded, creaked open a few inches. Tanavar slammed into it, forcing it shut again. The severed arm of a reaching ghoul fell to the floor, twitching.
A calculating expression crossed Zeruuah's face. "Tharne, could you cast the portal if the Scourge were led off?"
Tharne suddenly realized what the paladin was about to do. "Zeruuah, don't…" he began.
Zeruuah cut him off. "Ariaadne has seen less than a century." The veteran vindicator's face, normally ageless and serene, looked ancient and immeasurably sad. "My time has been borrowed since Argus." She looked at Tanavar. "Close the door behind me. I may yet return."
As she stepped through, she called down the wrath of the Holy Light, setting the ghouls reeling. Even as they recovered and came gibbering after her, she was upon one of the flesh golems. The slow-moving thing lashed at the paladin with its chain flail, but was quickly reduced to a hacked pile of carrion.
Even with the ghouls closing in on her, Zeruuah—who had faced demons before, and fel orcs—was oddly calm. She had always supposed that she would meet her end in battle, although she'd never imagined facing it alone. But even if she were to die here, hers would not be the only death.
Back in the building, Tharne's portal fully stabilized. Tanavar, still in bear form, nudged Ariaadne's limp form through. Miriee, with a last furtive glance towards the door, stepped after.
Tharne looked at Tanavar. "You're going to wait for her, aren't you?"
The druid nodded. Although a bear's face is not as expressive as an elf's, his sorrow was obvious.
"I suppose I can't stop you, and the portal will hold for a while. But if she doesn't come back…" Tharne shook his head and followed the others.
The sounds of combat from outside were growing distant. Zeruuah—who had no way of knowing that the portal was open—was leading the undead rabble as far away as she could.
Tanavar waited for as long as he dared, until the portal began to flicker and fade. Gazing wistfully over his shoulder, he finally stepped through after his companions.
Behind him, the portal vanished. The rune lingered for a moment—still floating in midair—and then crumbled into fine dust.
Plenty of raw material, the necromancer mused. Several of these bodies were even intact enough for the Lich King's current project.
This one, for example—in life, it had been one of those blue-skinned eredar-things, the newcomers. The males of this species were bludgeons; the females, blades. And this particular blade was finely crafted: It had taken down many of the rank-and-file—even damaging a flesh golem beyond repair—before sheer numbers and the bonecasters' spells had finally overwhelmed it.
The necromancer beckoned to a colleague, and the ritual was performed. The creature shuddered; its eyes, lit by a cold, eldritch inner light, snapped open. It dragged itself shakily to its cloven hooves…but rather than panicking, as so many initiates had, it bowed its curl-horned head in deference.
Good. Feeding such potential to the ghouls would have been rather a waste.
She had been something else before, but that didn't seem to matter now. She remembered a name—Zeruuah—and it was as good as any. Perhaps titles had accompanied it once; but such embellishments, even had she remembered them clearly, would be of no consequence now.
What did matter was that the Scarlet Crusade's forces in the valley below had to die. And die they did. Some of them fell to the weapon she'd been given—a great, heavy claymore, engraved with necromantic runes. Others were stricken with unnatural maladies, or clawed to bits when she set their fallen allies against them. They might fight, or flee, or simply cringe in fear; it made no difference to her.
She and the other death knights were the Lich King's swords, she thought in a brief moment of contemplation. As the runeblade was to her, so she was to her lord—a deadly and efficient weapon.
Now, she had been sent to a holding cell behind a ruined chapel: Greater threats existed than the Scarlet Crusade, and one of those was the Argent Dawn.
The Scarlets had somehow managed to capture a small Argent Dawn advance guard. Examples needed to be made among the survivors.
"There's a draenei in there who tried to put up a fight," the commander had informed her. "I think you should be the one to deal with him."
A draenei, the death knight recalled, was what she had been in life. It meant that the prisoner she was to execute would have hooves and a tail, and most likely be blue. Some vague memory hinted that the word itself meant exiled ones, but that was meaningless. Exiled from what? It eluded her.
She saw him the moment she entered the cell—leaning against the wall, as if determined to remain standing. Tall and broad, he might have looked powerful and imposing once. But his sky-blue skin was mottled with dark bruises, and indigo blood stained his torn tunic. One arm hung limp at his side. He breathed raggedly, shallowly.
Although his face was pale and haggard from shock, something about it was oddly familiar. Dismissing the thought as irrelevant, the death knight drew her runeblade.
"Here to finish the job, then? Look me in the eyes, Light damn you!"
It was no more than a rasping whisper, spoken in a language that she'd half forgotten. But it startled her into brief compliance. Her eyes met silvery ones that glowed softly blue. Had her own been like that once?
Those eyes widened in horrified surprise. "Vindicator Zeruuah?"
The title. It had meant something to her once. But what?
"What's taking so long?" shouted the commander, outside of the cell. "Don't tell me that one unarmed, half-dead Argent is a challenge for you."
"This is it, then." Some final bravado lent strength to the prisoner's voice. "If there's anything left of the Keen Edge of the Light, you'll make it quick."
He staggered, planted his big hooves, and managed to stand upright.
The death knight's runeblade was built more for slicing than for stabbing. Still, it served the latter purpose well enough. Blue blood fountained as she pulled it free.
The Argent Dawn man slumped against her; she braced her hooves and managed to lower him to the floor. He caught her hand and gripped it.
"Remember…Argus…Zeruuah." He gasped, exhaled, and did not breathe in again. The glow faded from his eyes.
For a long moment, the death knight knelt by the body. Then she reached towards his face and gently pressed his eyelids shut.
"Go with the Light, old friend," Zeruuah murmured, wishing that she could remember his name.
Since that day, the dying man's words had haunted Zeruuah. Grim determination alone had kept her fighting. It all seemed futile now.
For as long as they could, the Scarlet Crusade's forces had fought relentlessly. But when a detachment of death knights—Zeruuah among them—took to the sky on skeletal dragons to strike from above, they finally retreated once and for all.
The Argent Dawn was next on the agenda: Although more powerful than the Crusade, they had kept their distance for the most part. Even so, their ridiculous little chapel still stood defiantly in the Plaguelands, taunting the Scourge with its very presence.
This latest offensive had been meant to end that defiance, once and for all. A great army of ghouls and other lesser undead was summoned. Flesh golems of a new sort were built—huge striding siege engines, sewn from the remains of the storm giants of the north. And the death knights—several of them, each a force to be reckoned with in their own right—formed a central core.
Crushing this tiny mote of rebellion should have been simplicity itself.
But then, in the middle of the fray, something catastrophic and incomprehensible had happened: Zeruuah remembered it later as a sudden despair, as palpable as a slap. Nearby, she saw the death knights' commander collapse to his knees, crying out as if in agony. One of his three lieutenants simply broke and ran.
When their lord materialized, hope briefly flared. But he had made no move to assist them. Instead, he had mocked their sudden misfortune.
They were betrayed, and the battle was lost. Zeruuah could only watch as a human—still strong, if gray and worn with years and hardship—set the Lich King to rout. When the old paladin proposed new allegiances, she listened intently: Even through her misery and confusion, a cold fury was rising within her. Its primary focus was her former master.
Even a discarded arrow, if properly aimed, could still kill. It was with that thought in mind that she pledged herself to the newly formed Order of the Ebon Blade.
Whatever else could be said of the Scourge, they were efficient: It was not only bodies that were scavenged from battlefields. When the renegade death knights seized the necropolis the following day, they had their choice of fine weapons from its armory.
Although Zeruuah had been adroit enough with the claymore, she found that hafted weapons felt right in her hands in a way that no sword could match. In the end, it was a two-handed axe that she chose.
The adventurers had long since gone their separate ways. Although they were not to blame for Vindicator Zeruuah's death, none of them could help but feel complicit.
Tharne, Tanavar recalled, was somewhere in the Blade's Edge Mountains. Ariaadne had slunk back to the Exodar in self-imposed disgrace. As for Miriee…searching for a rogue who did not want to be found would be a fool's errand.
Tanavar had returned to the Plaguelands once. If he could find Zeruuah's remains, he meant to pay his last respects—by force, if it was necessary.
What he had found were divots torn from the sickly grass, spatters of blood and necrotic ichor, and a single tiny truesilver ring. Even if he hadn't recognized it as a draenic tendril-ornament, its scent would have told him that it was hers.
And so it was—wearing the ornament on a thong around his neck—that he made his way to Silithus. He was among his brethren in the Cenarion Circle again, but that was only one of his motivations for coming here. Not only was this wind-blown, insect-ridden desert far enough away from the Plaguelands; it was also harsh and dangerous enough to deter him from drinking himself foolish. Elune only knew, he'd come close enough.
There was currently a bounty on the huge worms that burrowed in the sands. Incidentally, their tough, bitter flesh became surprisingly palatable when properly seasoned. So Tanavar, on the paws of a great cat, set out to hunt them.
It occurred to him that the Twilight's Hammer cult—who also, unfortunately, made their home here—had not sent anyone to try to kill him in the past day.
They're about due to, he thought cynically. But as he crept up on a dozing worm, he gave it no further thought.
What luck, Zeruuah thought. Not only was there an ore vein in a nearby cliff, she'd wandered right into sand worm territory. And the worms, according to the druids at Cenarion Hold, were in need of culling.
A few yards away, sand shifted. She glanced almost casually in the direction of the sound…and narrowed her eyes. Two figures in cowled violet robes, and three more with matching surcoats over red-enameled armor, were cresting a low rise.
As she watched, one of them pointed in her direction.
Well, then. Truesilver and sand worms alike forgotten, she drew her axe and shifted into a combat stance.
That was when she saw that she was not their intended target, after all: A leonine shape with a crescent-moon mark on its shoulder crept through the sand.
That's not a wild animal, that's a druid. And they're going to kill him.
Or, more accurately, they thought that they were.
"Look out!" A female voice, hollow and rough.
Tanavar whipped his head around. Five Twilight's Hammer cultists—two geomancers and three enforcers—were closing in on him from one side. From the other, a single tall figure in ominous-looking armor charged towards them.
One of the geomancers swore and conjured a fist-sized rock. The missile flew through the air to glance off the armored woman's shoulder, briefly knocking her off-balance. As she regained her footing, Tanavar noted the structure of her legs. A draenei?
"You—come here," the armored woman growled. Spectral, shadowy claws seized the geomancer, dragging him towards her.
As Tanavar—cat claws unsheathed—leapt at the other geomancer's throat, it occurred to him that he was fighting alongside a death knight. One could not, he supposed, always pick one's allies.
The skirmish that followed was brutal but brief; the cultists had anticipated Tanavar alone. As the last assailant fell, a panting, bloodied cat became a panting, bloodied kaldorei.
"I can heal you…" he began.
The draenei death knight shook her head. "I do not need it now." Tearing a strip from the robe of one of the dead cultists, she began to clean the blade of her axe. There was something familiar about her quick, efficient motions.
On a sudden impulse, Tanavar ventured a glance at the death knight's axe. The runes engraved on the sides of its head were new. The weapon itself was not…and he had seen it before.
"Where did you get that axe?" His tone was faintly accusatory.
"From the armory at Acherus," she replied. Then, defensive: "I do not know why it was there."
"I know where it came from." Tanavar sighed, and gazed off into the distance. "It belonged to a friend of mine. But she's dead."
"Appropriate." The draenei unbuckled her helm, and lifted it free. "I am as well."
Her face was gaunt and ashen gray, her eyes pale and eerie. That, he had almost expected. But it was not a stranger's face; and one of her tendrils was still missing its truesilver ring.
"We can return to the town." Zeruuah gestured in the direction of Cenarion Hold. "Then, will you tell me about your friend?"
"Yes," Tanavar answered, a sad smile working its way across his face. "I believe I will."
He untied the thong from around his neck, and held the tendril-ornament out to her. "To begin with, this was also hers," he explained. "I think she'd want you to have it."