Author's Note: This story was born from my dissatisfaction with how the character of Kael'thas was handled in The Burning Crusade. I thought that his sudden transformation from a elven gentleman into a cackling villain was poorly explained and a waste of a very sympathetic character. Therefore, I wrote this short story as a possible explanation for Kael's massive change of character, while at the same time staying within the bounds of Burning Crusade canon.
How is that possible, you ask? Well, you'll have to read the story to find out...
The Sunset no One Saw
The battle for the Frozen Throne had raged for many hours, and seen many of Kael's soldiers and their Naga allies fall before the the Scourge until mounting losses and dwindling morale had made victory all but impossible. Unwilling to accept defeat, and perhaps fearful of its consequences, Illidan had faced Arthas in a desperate attempt to stop him from reaching the Lich King, but he had failed in the end, defeated in single combat by the wielder of Frostmourne. However, the symphony of frost and flame was not over yet: The final movement had yet to be played – and it followed a capricious melody that Kael did not at all enjoy.
For whatever reason his twisted mind had concocted – and it was certainly not mercy – Arthas had spared Illidan's life. When Kael and a band of elven warriors had arrived minutes after the end of the fateful duel, the victorious death knight had already left the scene, and only his footsteps in the snow indicated that he was on his way into the throne chamber to meet his master. Kael would have loved nothing more than pursuing the hated enemy, but he had an obligation to see to Lord Illidan's welfare, and so he desisted.
"His wound is deep, but not fatal," one of the priests in Kael's company had informed his prince. "We can stop the bleeding with our healing arts, but it is imperative that we bring him back to Outland for further treatment. The cold and the wind will kill him more surely than any blade if he stays here much longer."
"Understood," Kael had replied, though not without a last wrathful glance at Icecrown Glacier. "Let Arthas have his spoils, and may he choke on them. We'll meet up with Vashj and her surviving Naga." The sting of defeat hurt greatly, but Kael knew his duties and would escort Illidan personally to safety against all resistance.
Resistance had appeared in the form of the giant, bug-like monstrosity that had fought on Arthas' side during the battle. Appearing before Kael and his men with a hundred crypt fiends at his back, he had barred the only route to Vashj's position – only to let them pass after all, just as they prepared themselves for their last stand.
"The Lich King has ordered me to give you a head start," the behemoth had said with open discontent. "You have ten minutes before the Scourge will descend upon you and consume you." Kael did not appreciate being toyed with, but survival came before pride, and so he had led his men through a swelling blizzard toward Vashj's last known position with Lord Illidan being carried on a makeshift litter.
This is not the end, Kael thought even as he heard the sounds of the crypt fiends and their monstrous leader embarking on their pursuit only five minutes later. We have not lived through all these calamities only to perish here. We will make it back to Outland, no matter what!
Duty, desperation, and an unconquerable will to survive drove them on, and twenty minutes later, when the undead had almost caught up to them, Kael and his men approached the sorry remainders of the Naga base camp, where Lady Vashj was already overseeing the retreat of her surviving forces to Outland. She was wounded and struggled visibly to maintain the dimensional portal, but she was as old as Illidan, and almost as powerful, and did not allow their last hope for escape to collapse.
"How is Lord Illidan?" the sea witch asked without turning toward the arrivals, her gaze focused on the swirling nexus of energies that made up the portal. "Will he live?" Although Kael knew her to be capable of cruelty and callousness, he could hear a tinge of concern in her raspy voice. He remembered the ancient history of his people, and recalled the ties of loyalty that still bound Illidan and the Highborne-turned-Naga together.
"He will," Kael shouted over the howling of the wind whose ravages he barely noticed anymore. "But we need to get him back to Outland at once!"
"The portal is stable," Vashj informed him, "and will remain so as long as I draw breath." Kael did not doubt her words. "Make way for Lord Illidan!" she commanded the Naga warriors guarding the approach to the portal, and they let the Blood Elves carrying their master pass. "You must go as well, Kael, and see to it that he lives. I will keep the portal open for a while longer, in case any stragglers arrive."
"Agreed," Kael said and motioned the litter bearers to carry Illidan through the portal. "But be warned! The Scourge is fast on our heels, and they will reach this place soon."
"We have been blasted to the bottom of the sea and cursed by Elune herself," the sea witch said pridefully, and her royal guards raised their massive tridents, ready to protect their mistress until the end. "Death does not strike fear into our hearts."
"Your courage is admirable and far outweighs my own," Kael said, feeling cowardly for escaping before his sister-in-arms. "But you must return alive! Until Lord Illidan recovers, he will rely on your support more than ever."
"Worry not about the Naga," Vashj said, her face strained by the enormous exertions of keeping the portal opened. "We know how to survive. Now hurry!"
Eager to leave behind this wretched land that had seen him and his comrades defeated so soundly, Kael approached the whirling portal, stepped through it –
– and found himself not under the red sky of Outland, but in a vast, dark space that seemed to stretch forever in all directions, strewn with strange colorful lights and nebulae and gleaming orbs that looked like stars burning in a vast distance. There was no visible ground beneath his feet, yet he was not floating or falling – he was simply there, thrown into in a strange dimension he had never seen before. His first reflex was to simply turn around and head back through the portal – even Northrend was more hospitable than this eerie place! – but the portal had vanished without a trace, leaving Kael stranded by himself.
Where am I? What is this place? And where is everybody else?
Neither Lord Illidan nor any Blood Elves or Naga were anywhere to be seen, and while Kael felt relief that he was the only one who had been cast away, he wondered what had gone wrong – had Vash accidentally led him astray? But if so, why only him?
Before Kael could come up with an answer to any of those questions, a loud rumbling noise sounded behind him, and he felt a terrifying presence where there had been none before – a presence that seemed familiar somehow. Fear gripped Kael's heart like a frozen fist, but he still summoned the courage to turn around and beheld the arrival.
He towered before the elven prince, several times his height, his red-skinned body surrounded by a blazing aura of fire. His eyes were burning yellow orbs that bespoke cunning and intellect – and boundless evil. Kael had seen these eyes before, and just as during that time, he could not suppress the tremor that went through his body when the fiery giant inspected him with bemused interest.
"Kil'Jaeden!" Kael exclaimed as he recognized the master of his master, and for a short instant, his fear gave way to surprise. "What's the meaning of this? How did you...?"
"Very amusing." The Lord of the Burning Legion regarded Kael as if he was a doll that had miraculously spoken, but only managed to babble nonsensically. "Those who would use the Twisting Nether as a convenient medium for travel always seem to forget that they are trespassing on my domain. Your life is now mine, elf, to spare or snuff out as I see fit." Kil'Jaeden chuckled; a hellish sound that carried no hint of good humor in it. "The one you failed to destroy, Ner'zhul, once made the same mistake... and I taught him the error of his ways. Like most important lessons, it was a painful one."
"What did you do to the others who passed through the portal?" Kael demanded. He knew that Kil'Jaeden could probably kill him easily if he wished to, so he wasted no time with false subservience. "Have you abducted them, too?" He recalled the Demon Lord's threat in case Illidan should fail his mission, and accused him: "Did you kill Lord Illidan?"
"I no longer care about Illidan," Kil'Jaeden said, his voice brimming with contempt. "I allowed him to reach his dubious sanctuary... but he will find little solace there."
"What do you mean?" Kael demanded, and although Kil'Jaeden was under no compulsion to answer him, he did so anyway.
"He was wounded by Frostmourne, the blade that consumes the souls of those it slays. But he was not slain, and so his soul has been fractured and only a part of it claimed. Without an intact soul, any creature will soon succumb to madness... particularly one already prone to it, like Illidan."
"Why should I believe you? How would you even know what Frostmourne does?"
"Because that blade was forged by a Nathrezim artificer under my personal supervision," Kil'Jaeden hissed. "Do not think too highly of yourself, little elf. I have no need to lie to creatures such as you – not in this place."
"I... I see," Kael stuttered, at a loss for words.
"I originally intended to rip Illidan apart for his failure," Kil'Jaeden mused. "But for a prideful creature such as him, losing himself to insanity will be a much more fitting end than dying by my hands."
"No! He doesn't deserve this!" Kael pleaded. Illidan was the only hope his people had for salvation! Without him, they–
"The damage to his soul has already been done, and no power in creation could undo it," Kil'Jaeden said. "More importantly, you would do well to worry about yourself, little elf, not about your master," he added. It was a threat, and Kael knew how to react to threats – even if they were made by the Lord of the Burning Legion.
"If you want to kill me, go ahead and try," he shouted, and with a wave of his hand, he summoned a mantle of flame to protect him. Even here in the Twisting Nether, he still had a portion of his power, and while his resistance might be futile, he would sell his life as dearly as he could. As one of the few surviving Blood Elves, he could do nothing less.
"What a boisterous fool you are," Kil'Jaeden laughed. "Had your death been my aim, your body would have been torn apart the instant you entered the portal."
"So you want me alive," Kael said, but did not lower his shield of flames. "Do you plan to give me a second chance, too?"
"Bah." Kil'Jaeden made a dismissive gesture. "You reek of failure, just like Illidan. I grow weary of granting second chances only to see them squandered."
"But we did exactly as you bade us!"
"I bade you destroy the Frozen Throne!" Kil'Jaeden's dreadful voice thundered throughout the Nether, and though there were no surfaces to reflect it, it resounded in an ear-rending echo. "And you failed!"
"We failed because–" Kael began, but Kil'Jaeden was not in the mood for excuses.
"Silence! I will tell you why you failed. You were defeated by the Scourge because you were not using fel magic! I have watched your battle closely. You merely drew on the residual magic left by the Well of Eternity, and so your spells were weak and ineffective. Not once did you call on the power I offered you!"
"And you know well the reason for that, Lord of the Legion," Kael said. Since he would not be given a second chance, he decided he might just as well speak his mind. "All power comes at a cost. If we had drained demons for their magic as you suggested, we surely would have become your slaves. And the Blood Elves are slaves to no one!"
"Is that so?" Kil'Jaeden asked dangerously. "I wonder... are you truly speaking for all of your people or merely for yourself?"
"What do you mean? All of my people share my conviction! We would rather die from withdrawal than call upon your tainted demonic magic!"
"How very noble." The mockery in Kil'Jaeden's voice was palpable. "But I think you're wrong." Before Kael could protest, the Demon Lord continued. "Let me tell you something, Kael'thas," he said. "Before Sargeras' disappearance, I was in charge of recruiting new races for the legion. Nowadays, I am forced to delegate such tasks, for my responsibilities have increased greatly. But I still retain my ability to judge the potential of prospective new members for the legion." He smiled maliciously. "And I see magnificent potential in the Blood Elves." He raised his right hand and clenched it to a fist. "I will have you! All of you! And it will be Kael'thas Sunstrider who shall deliver them to me."
"Never!" Kael glared at the gigantic demon before him, met his fiery, almost physically painful gaze and did not flinch. "No matter how much you torture me, I will never lead my people down the path of evil!"
"Torture?" Kil'Jaeden shook his head. "I intend nothing of the sort. The case of Ner'zhul has taught me that torture will only produce more determined enemies. No, it is not your obedience that I require, willingly or unwillingly given. I am merely interested in your likeness." He turned his head to the side and called out to someone or something invisible. "Chareax!"
In a sudden burst of green fire, a demon appeared between Kil'Jaeden and Kael, small compared to his master, but still taller than the elven prince. His appearance was vaguely humanoid, but he was thin almost beyond imagining and had a third eye on his forehead. "Your bidding, master?" he asked deferentially.
"I have a task for you that will make use of your talents, Chareax." Kil'Jaeden pointed at Kael, and for some reason, the prince shuddered in apprehension.. "This one is Kael'thas, Lord of the Blood Elves. Mark him well."
"Yes, master," the spindly demon said and turned toward Kael. His three eyes began to glow with a sickly-green light.
Kael felt as if the burning stare of the demon was peeling back his skin and stripping off his flesh, peering into his mind and soul without regard for his privacy. He felt exposed in a way that mere physical nakedness could not compare to.
"I have him, master," the demon Chareax said after a while, and his eyes stopped glowing. "His likeness and his memories. All of it."
"Show me," Kil'Jaeden demanded. Obediently, Chareax nodded, and his body began to fluctuate as if he was being melted down to a liquid and molded anew. Kael's apprehension turned into terror as the demon's shape shifted into something looking very much like an elf. A few moments later, the transformation was completed – and Kael looked into a mirror image of himself.
"Excellent," Kil'Jaeden said. "Prince Kael'thas, meet... Prince Kael'thas." His shapeshifting minion performed a mocking bow, his every feature identical to that of the prince, down to the fresh scars from the battle against the undead. At that moment, Kael saw the Demon Lord's plan for what it was, and a chill colder than any he had experienced on Icecrown shook his body and enfeebled his heart.
"No," he whispered, his voice suddenly faint and weak. "No. You mustn't..."
"Prince Kael'thas will soon return to Outland," Kil'Jaeden said, "his late arrival excused by the unpredictable currents of the Twisting Nether. Discarding his loyalty to the mad Illidan, he will forge a new path for his people – a path of power such as they never dreamed of! Under his guidance, the Blood Elves will engorge themselves on fel magic until they are corrupted beyond redemption and misshapen beyond recognition. Their beloved prince will bring them into the fold of the Burning Legion." Once more, Kil'Jaeden smiled – the smile of an evil god who took great delight in his depravity. "Now you may understand why they call me the Deceiver."
"My people won't fall for your cheap trick!" Kael cried desperately. "They know that I would never lead them down such a path! Your servant won't fool them for a second!"
"I think he will," Kil'Jaeden said with utmost confidence. "Chareax works slowly, but steadily. Nobody will notice any difference at first, because he will not let them notice... but in time, he will steer the personality he displays into a new direction. After a couple of years, your people will find that their beloved leader has become cruel and tyrannical... but the change will happen so slowly that they will think it completely natural."
"Even if your minion can convince my people that he is me, your plan will still not work," Kael insisted - for what else could he say? "The Blood Elves are not mindless sheep! Rather than following him to their doom, they will sooner rebel against him and strike him down!"
"You underestimate how easily lesser creatures can be led," Kil'Jaeden said. "How their trust makes them blind, and how their loyalty is turned into fanaticism. Chareax has done the same thing before, on a hundred different worlds, to a hundred different races. Your people are no different. I have seen it in their hearts! They are yearning to be enslaved, as long as the reward is great power."
"You're wrong!" Kael exclaimed, although – or because – he knew that there was a glimmer of truth to what Kil'Jaeden said. He knew his people as well as he loved them, and he could not deny that they had potential for selfishness and greed. If this imposter promised them magic and power beyond their wildest dreams, would many of them not follow him without hesitation, even if it meant turning into demons? Especially if the real Kael was not there to sway their minds?
"I beg of you, don't do this!" Kael pleaded, and although there seemed to be no solid ground beneath his feet, he fell to his knees. "Don't corrupt my people! I'd rather you kill every last one of them than turning them into demons!"
"Kill them?" Kil'Jaeden sounded genuinely confused. "But why? It is one of my principles not to waste resources."
"No! Please" Kael knew that his begging was as futile as it was demeaning, but what else could he do? "Please spare them!"
"Your are beginning to annoy me," Kil'Jaeden said. "I would prefer to kill you, but I cannot. You see, in order for Chareax' disguise to be permanent, he must establish a link of sorts with the one he impersonates. And that person must not die, or the disguise will dissipate. Therefore, you must stay alive... and in my custody." He raised one of his hands, and a red, rectangular object appeared underneath Kael. It looked like a coffin that had been drenched in blood.
"NO!" Kael yelled, but when Kil'Jaeden made another gesture, the prince felt himself seized by an invisible hand and dragged toward the coffin whose lid slid open by itself. All his magical shields were dispelled in an instant, and no amount of struggling could loosen the grip of the Demon Lord. In the end, he was placed in the crimson coffin, his limbs pressed against his body, staring in terror at his captor looming above.
"Now, Chareax, establish the link," Kil'Jaeden commanded, and the shapeshifting demon walked up to the coffin and lowered his right hand over Kael's face. With a gleeful expression that made Kael sick to the stomach, he touched the prince's eyes – and an instant later, Kael was staring at himself lying helplessly in the coffin.
"Do you understand what just happened, elf?" Kil'Jaeden asked, and Kael turned his head to look at him. No, not Kael – the demon Chareax. But Kael was looking through his eyes!
"From now on until the moment either you or Chareax die," Kil'Jaeden explained, "you will see everything he sees, hear everything he hears. Unable to avert your gaze or close your eyes, you will bear witness as your people are corrupted more thoroughly than even the Orcs before them."
"No, please!" Kael begged, and he cringed when Chareax' eyes showed him his own pitiful, pleading grimace. "This is more than I can stand! You said earlier that torture was pointless, so why do you do this to me?"
"I just told you that this link is a necessary part of Chareax' magic," Kil'Jaeden said indignantly. "It is not an attempt to torture you. Believe me, my torture feels different." He scowled deeply. "However, unlike the late Archimonde and Mannoroth, I do not take delight in the pain of puny creatures like you. My ambitions are far greater than that: To see the universe in flames and all of the Titans' flawed creation undone. Consider this as your mind is unraveled by watching the transformation of your people, and realize that your insignificant anguish is merely a byproduct of the Burning Crusade."
"No," Kael said again and again, appalled at his own begging but powerless to do anything else. "No, please don't..." But Kil'Jaeden paid him no more heed, and with a motion of his hand, he opened a portal in front of the imposter that looked exactly like the one Vashj had channeled. "Go forth, Chareax," he said loudly. "Or should I say, Kael'thas Sunstrider. Set foot on the remains of Draenor and twist the Blood Elves to do the Legion's bidding! See to it that they become slaves forevermore!"
"At your command, my lord," the demon replied and stepped toward the portal. He cast one last glance back at Kael's coffin, and through his eyes, the imprisoned prince could see that the lid was beginning to slide shut. "The master may not have the leisure to enjoy your anguish, but I do. In fact, your pain will nurture me." He threw back his head and laughed, and Kael was mortified to hear his own throat – or close enough – produce such a cruel and vicious sound. "I will make sure to personally oversee the corruption of your people, as well as the atrocities they shall commit in your name... so that you can see them all and despair."
"Enough talking," Kil'Jaeden growled. "Get to work!"
"Yes, my lord."
Trapped inside his coffin, Kael watched from the eyes of the demon as he stepped through the portal to Outland. He trembled with the knowledge that Chareax' passing heralded a reign of terror that would last until all Blood Elves were either dead or corrupted beyond redemption.
And he would be forced to witness every second of it.
How many years had passed, Kael could not say. How many of his people had been twisted into demonic abominations, he did not know. How many innocents had been slain in his name, he dared not guess. He had witnessed more evil than he would have thought possible for a man to witness and retain his sanity... and yet, every time another sin'dorei was turned in hatred against his own kind and all living beings, Kael suffered as much as the first time, when he himself had shown an eager young mage how to drain a demon of his magic.
No, that wasn't me! Kael told himself. It was him! Not me! HIM!
Intellectually, he knew that he was powerless, a prisoner of Kil'Jaeden trapped in the Twisting Nether. But as he watched the demon Chareax impersonate him, Kael had found it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between himself and his imposter. He saw his own hands do terrible evil and heard his own voice babble in insanity... how could he not believe that all of this was his own doing? How could he not believe that there was no 'real' Kael trapped in a coffin; that he was merely a convenient delusion conjured up by his guilty conscience as he became the power-crazed Sun King?
But it's wrong! Drawing on what was left of his sense of self, Kael reminded himself over and over again. It is no me who does these things! It is him! Chareax, minion of Kil'Jaeden! Not Kael'thas Sunstrider, son of Anasterian!
If his ordeal had gone on much longer, then Kael might have lost himself entirely in eyes of his imposter, delusions replacing reality and his own personality disappearing. Only madness would have come from that – but Kael did not go mad, because against all hope, salvation had come in the end. The foul demon impersonating him had been struck down not once, but twice, and the second time for good. Wordlessly, Kael had cheered his killers on as they fought him, first in the halls of a strange, beautiful keep, then on the hallowed ground of the isle of Quel'Danas. With the death of the demon, their link had been broken, and the cursed sight had faded from Kael's eyes. He had found himself staring into the darkness of his coffin, but even that darkness was much preferable to the things he had seen over the last few years.
Chareax is dead, Kael thought as he stirred in his prison, feeling his body again for the first time since the link with the demon had been forced upon him. But what about his designs? He planned to use the Sunwell to summon Kil'Jaeden into our world. Has that plan been thwarted as well? If only I still could see what was going on over there...
"Ha!" Kael erupted in laughter, and the sound of his broken, husky voice resounded within the confines of the crimson coffin. "No, I do not want to see. Not through anybody else's eyes. Not ever again. I would rather go blind on the spot and never see anything again. I would rather never learn whether Azeroth has been saved than go through another hell like this."
For a long while, Kael remained lying in his coffin, gathering strength and slowly regaining command over his body, for the link with Chareax had also kept him paralysed. After what felt like hours, he pressed his hands against the lid of his coffin and realized that it was neither nailed shut nor sealed with magic of its own, and so he pushed the lid open and slowly climbed out of the coffin.
He was still in the twisting Nether, standing in the midst of black emptiness broken only by strange colorful lights and patterns in the far distance. He knew that Azeroth and Outland were among these lights, for the Twisting Nether was the plane that connected all worlds of the universe with each other. However, Kael did not have the knowledge to open a portal to another world, and so he could only gaze into the void and wait.
Even if I could return home... wherever that is... would I go? Is there even anything waiting for me?
Kael doubted that he would ever be able to face the survivors of his people again. He had failed them – failed in his duty as a prince, to bring them prosperity and protect them from harm. Part of him insisted that there was nothing he could have done, but he did not accept that line of reasoning: He should have resisted, or freed himself, or communicated with his people, or... something. Anything.
Lord Illidan and Lady Vashj were also dead, he realized, along with virtually all of their followers. He remembered himself – no, Chareax! – laughing gleefully upon learning of their deaths. With the last of his comrades gone, where could he possibly turn to?
Before Kael could answer that question – if he could answer it at all – there was a flash of crimson light, and with a crack of thunder, Kil'Jaeden appeared behind him, just as he had done so long ago. Kael slowly turned around to face him, devoid of anything even remotely resembling fear, and beheld the Lord of the Burning Legion.
He looked different from the last time he had seen him: His black armor was damaged in many places, sundered by blade and seared by magic. He was bleeding out of countless small wounds, and his blood was a thick, yellow liquid that stank of sulfur and congealed into ugly, greenish clots. Even the aura of fire around his body seemed less radiant, and unless his long-unused eyes played tricks on Kael, his physical size had shrunk significantly.
Seeing Kil'Jaeden battered and bruised was like a cool ointment on Kael's tortured soul, for it told him that his plan had been foiled, and that Chareax' evil laboring had come to nothing. He did not know how they had done it, but the champions of Azeroth had driven the Demon Lord back, saving their world from the burning shadow of the legion once again. And while this knowledge did not erase the horrible memories of his imprisonment, it brought other, more recent memories to the forefront of Kael's mind – memories of brightly-armored hosts that had gathered to defend their world from a demonic invasion, and succeeded in the end.
"Greetings, Kil'Jaeden," Kael said. His voice was still very weak, but he made up for it by lacing it with mockery and contempt. "It seems that you are following in the footsteps of Sargeras – being pushed out of Azeroth by puny mortals. Tell me – does it sting your pride?"
"Pride is for lesser creatures," Kil'Jaeden growled. Seeing his prisoner free did not seem to surprise him – he must have learned of Chareax' death before trying to enter Azeroth. With a critical scowl, he ripped off parts of his ruined armor and inspected the wounds underneath even as he talked to Kael. "The legion has known defeat before."
"And who was it that defeated you?" Kael asked, gloating as he had never before in his life, grinning as if he had inflicted every single of the Demon Lord's injuries himself. "Was it, perhaps, the Blood Elves? The people who yearned to be enslaved, as you put it?" He was positively exhilarated, the horrors of his imprisonment forgotten or at least pushed away – why was that, he wondered?
It's because Kil'Jaeden looks so dejected, Kael realized. He likes to weave a web of plans and ploys and subterfuge... but today, his most important plan has come crashing down on him!
"You speak nonsense, little elf," Kil'Jaeden growled. "It was the meddling Naaru and their Draenei minions that barred my way. The elves did my bidding until the end."
"No, they did not!" Kael exclaimed. "Not all of them! Not even most of them!" He drew himself up to full height and somehow seemed to rise in elevation. "I have seen it myself!" he cried triumphantly. "Seen it with the sight that your minion gave me! Seen how my people rose against the evil and madness of their false king, and renounced all allegiance to him. I have seen the armies of the Shattered Sun Offensive gather on the fields of Quel'Danas when Chareax fearfully beheld them from the balconies of Magisters' Terrace – and half of them were sin'dorei!"
"Even if that is true," Kil'Jaeden said, his eyes closed and his voice tense, "my defeat was merely a setback."
"Indeed?" Kael laughed in utter elation. "That's exactly what Chareax said – before the blade of an elven warrior cut off his foul head!"
"You speak as if you were triumphant, elf," Kil'Jaeden growled, and when he opened his eyes, they were burning with renewed fury, his pain gone or at least suppressed. "But you do not realize that with Chareax' failure, you have finally outlived what little remained of your usefulness." He raised his scarred right hand over Kael's head, and now that the Demon Lord's strength had returned, he grew once again in size. And even though there was no visible light source in the Nether, his massive palm cast a dark shadow over Kael – but the prince could only laugh in the face of imminent destruction.
"Squash me like a bug if it makes you happy," he said and remembered the words of Lady Vashj. "Death does not strike fear into my heart. And compared to the crimes you committed against my people, murdering me counts for very little."
"So much the better," Kil'Jaeden said, and an orb of green fire appeared inside his palm. "Burn, then, until... no, wait." He furrowed his brow, which looked almost comical to Kael, who had already made his peace and openly laughed in the face of the Demon Lord.
"Actually... I may have a use for you still," he said after a moment's consideration. The fire that would have incinerated Kael vanished from his palm, and with a quick gesture, the Lord of the Legion opened a shimmering portal right next to Kael. "This portal will lead you back to Quel'Thalas," he told him, his tone strangely unaffected. "Use it to go home and tell everybody what happened to you. Restore your reputation and resume your place as the leader of your people." He nodded at Kael, prompting him to use this unexpected chance, but the son of King Anasterian saw through his scheme right away.
"How generous of you," he said contemptuously. "But I know what you're hoping for. My return to Quel'Thalas would only serve to destroy the unity that my people regained after this long and horrible struggle. Some would believe me, but many would not, and others still would feel prompted to use fel magic again. New conflicts would erupt, and my people would never enjoy their hard-earned prosperity."
"Consider the alternative, elf," Kil'Jaeden said, his voice low and threatening. "If you refuse, you will not only die at my hand, but live on forever in the memory of your world as the mad king who sold his people to the Burning Legion."
"Some king I would be, if I chose my reputation over the welfare of my people," Kael said. "I will not set foot on Azeroth again... nor Outland, for that matter, for there is nothing left for me there except the corpses of my former comrades." He let his gaze sweep across the vastness of the Twisting Nether and shook his head. "No, this will be the place where I die." With surprising ease, Kael conjured up a massive fireball between his palms and aimed it at one of the festering wounds on Kil'Jaeden's chest. "And perhaps you, too..." he added with a feral grin and launched his fiery missile. It raced through the emptiness of the Nether and hit its target dead on, and the Demon Lord howled in pain as he stumbled backwards, holding his injured chest. Encouraged by his success, Kael summoned another fireball – and felt an invisible hand seize his body and pull it close to Kil'Jaeden's contorted face.
"That was painful," the Demon Lord admitted before the now powerless elven prince. "But though I have been injured by your kind, I am in my own domain now, Blood Elf, and my powers are a thousandfold stronger than they were on Azeroth. I could stand here for hours and let you pelt me with fireballs, and the result would be nothing but fleeting pain." He smiled as Kael struggled in his invisible hold, trying to focus for another attack no matter what Kil'Jaeden said, but it was no use: The oppressive power of the mightiest of Eredar was too strong and prevented him from casting another spell.
"What is it with you mortals and your acts of defiance in the face of death?" Kil'Jaeden asked, amused by the struggle of the tiny creature suspended before his eyes. "Does it make it easier for you to face oblivion?"
"I could explain it to you, but I doubt you would understand," Kael spat. He remembered his ancestor Dath'Remar, who had been born an immortal Night Elf, and had refused to accept his mortality even on his death bed, denying his feebleness until he drew his last breath. "You'd have to be born a mortal to understand, for only those who fear death can spit it in the face."
"Lyrical waxing fit for an elf," Kil'Jaeden scoffed. "I am done talking to you." He raised his hand above his shoulder, and the invisible force that held Kael pushed him back into the coffin that had been his prison for so long. "But before I destroy you, mark my words," he began, and pierced Kael with a glare that might have killed a lesser man on the spot.
"I know not what strange fate guards your world, that it has been spared certain doom for the third time now," the Demon Lord said. "It may be a blessing cast by the Titans, or the protection of some sort of deity, or the tenacity of the very elements that make up your planet. But in my estimation, it is mere luck."
"Lighting doesn't strike thrice, demon," Kael said, his body trapped once more, but his spirit free to resist Kil'Jaeden until the end. "Accept the truth: The people of my world are stronger than even the most powerful of you demons."
"Perhaps so," Kil'Jaeden conceded. "But it is the fate of the strong to be overwhelmed by the many." He raised his arms and spread them wide open. "At this very moment, the Burning Legion is engaged on two hundred and forty-seven worlds, most of them past the point where they put up even a token resistance. Another one hundred and thirty worlds are being prepared for future invasion, their inhabitants to be either enslaved or wiped out, depending on their potential. Every instant the people of your world spend in blissful happiness that they have been spared from annihilation, we grow more numerous."
"After your first invasion, you had ten thousand years to grow more numerous, and still you failed again," Kael laughed. "Give it up, Kil'Jaeden. You may scorch every other planet in creation, wipe out the Naaru, and perhaps even the Titans... but not Azeroth. Even if Sargeras himself were to return from the abyss, even if every last demon under your banner were to attack at the same time... Azeroth will live on, protected by the light of the sun that will never be blotted out by your foul touch."
"Such bold and pompous words," Kil'Jaeden jeered, "wasted on a eulogy nobody will ever hear."
"Nobody needs to hear it," Kael smiled to himself. "There, I have said my piece. Destroy me if you wish."
"I will," Kil'Jaeden said, and once again, an orb of green fire appeared inside his palm. An instant later, however, he shook his head, and the flames dissipated again – only to be replaced by three large fel stalkers that appeared out of nowhere around the crimson coffin. "There is still some magic left in your body, elf – enough to serve as a feast for these hounds."
"I told you that I do not fear death," Kael shouted even as the demonic beasts approached the coffin, extending their mana-sucking tentacles toward their prey. "No matter how torturous you try to make it!"
"Torturous?" Kil'Jaeden chuckled to himself as he faded away from this plane, no doubt to oversee the invasion of another world. "I thought I told you once before: I do not waste resources. I'm simply feeding you to the dogs. That's all there is to it." With that, he vanished, and as if their master had given them a wordless command, the fel stalkers launched themselves toward their feast.
Father, mother... I will join you now.
The ravenous hounds first consumed his magic, leaving him a dried-up husk, and then devoured his flesh – but their teeth and tentacles could not touch the radiant soul of Kael'thas Sunstrider as it ascended to a plane that even the tainted grasp of Kil'Jaeden would never be able to reach.