Holding Circles
Pre-LK, post-Classic, references some of the events from the Ashbringer comic.

The Thane was screaming during fortnight supper. He had begun with stuttering, choked-off gasps -- the traditional heralds of a loss of willpower -- before promptly moving on to rusty howls that held nothing back, gluttonous for pain. His throat had gone raw hours ago, so that his breath rasped coming in and going out. In remarkably short order, Korth'azz's voice had run the full gamut of agony, as if all too aware that the entirety of Naxxramas would be in audience. With typical dwarven stubbornness, he refused to yield to shame. He defied his situation with the only means left: he reveled in it.

Screams were not uncommon from any part of Naxxramas. In every Quarter, the living wept and suffered. The dead had a tendency to moan.

Thane Korth'azz was usually not among them.

This particular fortnight supper was a rare synchronization of many appetites. The Outer Ring was studded with troughs, overflowing with viscera and blood. All around the perimeter, ghouls were being fed messily, mingling with zombies and spiders. Not every creature in Naxxramas needed to consume meat once every seven days; many needed sustenance more frequently. Others needed it less. Some needed nothing at all. Naxxramas fed a variety of hungers and not every meal was cut from flesh. It was a testament to the citadel's cold walls that no creature paused in its feasting to heed the Thane's screams; every entity was so accustomed to such noises that none of them bothered to take note.

The echoes of the Thane's agony rippled up to a pair of onlookers lurking in the Plague Quarter. They had found a way onto the maze of ceiling pipes, separated from the feasting ghouls, and were taking refuge on a lintel of two pipes propped apart by a giant stone ribcage. The wood was rotting -- testament to the corrosive fumes of nearby experiments -- and had been reinforced erratically by metal struts. The watchers were paired light and dark, both swathed in armor that wrapped long cloaks around their bodies and hung scarves from their shoulders. The one in blue spoke first.

"I wish he'd stop that," she said succinctly.

Zeliek, who sat closest to the edge, was trying not to lean away from the fall each time the Thane howled. One of his feet was cramped along the inside of the overlook; the lintel was sloped haphazardly, and it had required a balancing act to get comfortable in the first place. He shifted his weight, feeling the muscles of his legs clench once in a lingering spasm. They went tight in rigor before he managed to get them to relax. His own check-up with the necromancers was being delayed; he was in no rush to have it. "I think he would if he were able, Blaumeux."

The woman beside him snorted. "Korth'azz should know better than to let himself become an example. Master Kel'Thuzad will keep him like this until he quiets." Made reckless by irritability, Blaumeux forced a heel against the lintel's frame until both wood and metal creaked. "In the meantime, his chores are piling up. I don't want to have to clean out his wing as well as mine."

Zeliek said nothing. The fight that had torn apart the Horsemen had done so literally in the Thane's case; the dwarf had held his share of the battle until being ripped in half, right along the weak joints in his armor where breastplate met belly. In any other army, that would have been the end of his enlistment. The Scourge had other ideas.

As Grand Necromancer to the Lich King, Gothik had been assigned two tasks specific to the Horsemen. The first was to revive Korth'azz. The second, to patch the dwarf back together. Gothik had chosen that particular order to do it in.

Now the surviving Horsemen had to listen as Korth'azz experienced stitch after painful stitch drawn through his flesh, his spirit trapped in place by Gothik's magic, unable to escape the physical shell it had been recalled to. Gothik had never been cruel to them before; there wasn't any point to it. To act in such a manner now was atypical.

Something in the Citadel must have changed.

Light preserve us, Zeliek thought. The prayer was as second-nature to him now as breathing once had been. Any begging he might offer in the Light's direction could only be added to the mental barricades he had fortified against Kel'Thuzad. It seemed that the lich was feeling merciful; Zeliek did not hear an answering chuckle purring along the inside of his thoughts, gloating at how no amount of Light could save them now.

Blaumeux's shoulders twitched as the Thane's voice screeched up a fresh register. "If Mograine were here," she grumbled, "he would tell us not to waste our time with lessons like these."

"We do have a Mograine," he reminded her. "The younger."

Brutal mirth should have framed her response. Blaumeux rarely spared anyone the scathing frisson of her wit. But instead of a mocking jest, Blaumeux only tilted her head, the corners of her mouth gone flat. "I miss the old one. The Highlord would have let me keep a sense of humor about this. And he would have strapped Korth'azz to his horse and told him to get back to work with or without his legs. I miss him," she repeated, tossing her head like a fly-bit mare. Her hair parted in waves around her face: glossy black strands against white skin, two extremes of purity like a winter's night across the snow. She had her scarf low; her helm rested beside her like a mocking skull, an exoskeleton waiting for her to fill it.

As she leaned back, scowling at the ceiling, Zeliek noticed a delicate line of stitches marring her skin. The hatchwork of silken thread had originally been silver, and was already browning at the seams from seepage. Lined vertically along her forehead and cheek, it was a mark that should have been a greater memento of the injury that had taken her out of the same fight that had crippled the Thane.

"That doesn't look like a gaping wound from an axe to me," he remarked.

Blaumeux lifted her fingers, tracing over the small lumps of stitching with care. "Master Noth does good work, when he has a mind for it," she admitted.

"You must be his favorite."

"Not likely," Blaumeux countered sourly. Her hand dropped back into her lap. "He said that out of all the Horsemen who might suffer from brain damage, he was worried about me the least."

Zeliek stifled a smile behind his scarf. While he couldn't say he was amused -- he never could, not while trapped and enslaved by the Scourge -- he nevertheless found himself relaxing against the misshapen lintel. If it wasn't for the nature of their surroundings, he could almost pretend that he and Blaumeux were bickering in a different world entirely. It was a strange, temporary peace in the midst of so much ruin. He didn't question it. "That certainly sounds like him."

"Yes and no." Again came a flicker of hesitation -- unusual behavior for a woman who had always shown nothing but impeccable confidence in the past. "Business has been different since we acquired the new Mograine. Master Kel'Thuzad hasn't had the time to spend on anything else." Pouching her fingers against her chin, Blaumeux almost managed to hide the downturn of her lips. "It's strange to be so... neglected."

Cloth slid; Zeliek shrugged. "He may remain weakened from his revival. I suppose it's too much to hope that Master Kel'Thuzad decides we're failures, and that he should get new Horsemen -- is it?"

Blaumeux snorted derisively. "Don't be foolish. Apart from the last few assaults, we've had an excellent service record. At least," she amended, "I do. You're the entertainment."

Down the Halls, the Thane fell silent suddenly. Zeliek found himself holding his breath, stilling lungs that operated only out of habit. He had the luxury of wondering if it was all over; then Korth'azz must have found the strength to endure longer, because a fresh round of roaring tore through the citadel.

He inhaled to speak, found his lungs already full, and exhaled it all in a sigh that tasted sweet with rot. "You act as if you're in a hurry, Blaumeux," he observed, deceptively mild. "And yet, you're still waiting here with me. Do you like my company that much?"

"Who wouldn't be impatient to get out?" she offered back rhetorically. "With the portal closed, it's boring here with no adventurers to kill. I really shouldn't complain. Master Noth needs to finish his reviews of the Plaguewood cauldrons before the Citadel departs, and Master Kel'Thuzad asked me to ride escort. The younger Mograine is taking up all his attention, and he'd rather not take the risk of Master Noth being waylaid while he's distracted. Baron Rivendare will be coming along to manage us in the meantime -- according to what I've been told." Sighing, the woman finally revealed the cause of her reluctance to leave. "The Baron is insisting on bringing fresh supplies from his slaughterhouse. I think he just wants some familiar corpses around. Either way, I probably won't be able to handle the Arachnid and Plague Quarters for a while. Will you keep an eye on Naxxramas while I'm gone?"


Her lips parted in a grin, showing teeth stained the yellow of heartwood. "You're such a joker today, Zeliek. If I didn't know any better, I'd almost think you were serious."

Zeliek's answering chuckle was dry enough to be a series of barking coughs, matching her back in the absurdity of it all. Below them, the ghouls paused in their feeding, lifting their shaggy heads warily at the unfamiliar noise. He felt strange -- lighter, emptier, as if he was waking up after a long, summer-induced drowse. He and Blaumeux were not friends; they could never be friends, but she was one of the Horsemen, and by Kel'Thuzad's will they were all bound together. "If you prefer, I could go assist Master Noth and the Baron in your stead."

"Don't be droll, Zeliek. We all know you'd purposefully get yourself killed by the first party of adventurers you could find. No. You'll stay up here and take care of the Citadel, and listen to our Thane as he suffers. Enjoy the show."

He sputtered protest as Blaumeux scooped up her helm, lodging it back on her head. She laughed and laughed, and then swung down from the lintel and was away.

- - - - -

Blaumeux's request was not without precedent. After any prolonged skirmish within the Citadel, the Horsemen were routinely tasked to make sure order was restored. In times past -- when they numbered four, not two and a half -- each of the Horsemen would have taken a wing, supporting the inhabitants that dwelt there. Not all of Naxxramas's tenants appreciated the help. Anub'rekhan always hissed about unwanted interference, Faerlina took haughty offense, and the necromancers mostly shooed the Horsemen aside while continuing about their chores. Even among the Scourge, there was a hierarchy, a formality and ritual for complex interactions. They were dead; they still had pride. They served the Lich King -- but not necessarily each other.

The Thane usually took care of the Construct Quarter. Blaumeux had been spirited enough to be accepted in the Arachnid Quarter; Zeliek was not. After one failed attempt to orchestrate the insects, he had been shunted to the Plague wing. Mograine had traditionally overseen the Military Quarter -- but would wordlessly trade the duty with Zeliek whenever the former paladin dared request it. Whenever possible, Zeliek preferred to keep to the relative order of the Military Quarter, as if by shutting his eyes to the horrors of disease and abominations, he could pretend he was elsewhere.

With Korth'azz out of action, Blaumeux and Zeliek should have split the Citadel down the middle. Now he was left alone to handle it all. The one saving grace about having to search through all four of the wings was that not much should have waited for him to check on. The last few adventurers that had braved Naxxramas for glory and treasure had been chased out; those that remained were trapped completely inside the necropolis. With the teleportation circle defunct, they were easy prey for the recovering undead host. Most of them had thrown themselves into futile assaults. Whether they tried to raid the roosts of skeletal gryphons, or attack the portal guards, the results were the same: the living lost.

Even weakened, the Scourge still ruled in Naxxramas.

It was not the Citadel's most glorious victory. Everything was in need of repairs, from the largest behemoths to the common skeletons. The revival squad was escorted by Mirkblood, who had come down from Northrend himself with a host of skilled necromancers. The undead that had been shipped with him were all of a caliber that Zeliek had never seen before, their bodies twisted and enhanced far past the strength of Naxxramas's guards. To see the rest of the Scourge's army was humbling. Once, the Citadel had been the flagship of the Lich King's forces, with the most dangerous monsters cradled inside its guts. Now -- to judge from the casual power of Mirkblood's convoy -- it seemed that being on the front lines had blunted Naxxramas's edge, leaving it bereft of the research that had been performed in the north.

With brutal efficiency, Mirkblood's necromancers had chosen to handle the task of reconstructing Naxxramas's army by fusing their undead constructs directly to those left within the Citadel. The Halls of Reanimation were filled with unfamiliar shapes; abominations and flesh giants quivered in their racks, geists romped past skeletons, and the ghouls were sleek with fresh tissue. Zeliek would have preferred to avoid them. But with the Thane down, the former paladin did not have a choice. As he rode through the Construct Quarter, he tried his hardest to keep his eyes directly forward, focusing only on the interlocking stones that lined his path.

On the far side of the platform between the Construct and Military Quarters, a lone figure stood waiting.

It was not, as Zeliek first thought, a stray ghoul -- or even a necromancer. Human by the proportions, it was a single man whose cloak had been shredded into patchy tatters. A buckler was strapped to one arm, curved like a metal crab. His shoulders were made bulky by the ornate ridges of finely-crafted plate armor.

As Zeliek pulled his horse to a stop, the man turned his head and looked directly at him.

"Hold the circle," he whispered.

The cryptic phrase echoed across the chamber, coupled with a puff of mist that trickled from the man's lips. Living lungs had spoken the words. The man was not undead.

Zeliek's mace was ready before he knew it. The skeletal head swept downwards, its neck parallel to the flanks of his horse as the death knight spurred his mount forward into a gallop. The weight of the weapon dragged on him like an anvil tied to his arm. He veered the horse; the mace swung in a lethal arc, aided by momentum, tracing the path of a moon's sickle curve before crashing down --

And glancing off the brilliant sheen of a divine shield.

Light coiled and glistened in a barrier between Zeliek and his target. The paladin had lifted his arm instinctively despite his own holy protection; the buckler strapped to his forearm had lost the gleam of fresh polish, streaked green with ichor and the tattle-signs of combat. His demihelm framed his face in stiff lines, giving away few details beneath the winged cheekguards and the flecked nosepiece. What Zeliek could glimpse involved oak-brown hair, and a pair of eyes as grey and calm as the ocean waiting for the storm.

Zeliek's horse wheeled on, fighting its own speed as it tried to turn. Its weight slid; splaying its rear hooves, it managed to keep from stumbling, a shriek of frustration rising from its reedy throat. Zeliek, jostled, watched the paladin dash for the nearest hallway. He lifted his hand too late. Blinded by the stone corner, he could not keep sight of the intruder, and the spell died before he could properly direct it.

Allowing his horse to steady itself, Zeliek squinted at the corridor that the paladin had chosen. There were only so many places in Naxxramas to safely flee while the exits were being guarded -- and if he knew the layout well, then the paladin had just ventured down a service passage that was still in need of repairs. Though the man was alive, he would not remain so for long.

Zeliek's guess was correct. The path twisted sharply before leading to a corridor that ended in an exposed tangle of gears -- Heigan's work, with the necromancer's incomprehensible love of engineering tricks. It trapped the paladin as neatly as a mouse in the bottom of a grandfather clock. As Zeliek rounded the corner, the man whirled, caught trying to find a way through without being crushed.

"You are brave to be here, but I'm afraid your time is up. I will give you a chance to run," Zeliek announced wearily, feeling the crawl of a lie in the back of his throat. Run, perhaps, but not to survive; run, to heighten the chase before the Scourge used Zeliek to claim yet another life. Sometimes Kel'Thuzad liked to play with both sides in that way, toying with victim and murderer, satiating the need for cruelty twofold. Though Zeliek could not actively feel the lich's presence, he assumed from experience that it would only be a matter of time before Kel'Thuzad intruded into his thoughts. Already, he felt ill at the prospect.

The paladin panted, but rallied. Strangely enough, he did not appear terrified of either the death knight or their surroundings. The smile that spread across his features seemed relieved. "You must be Sir Zeliek," he breathed. "I've heard about you. The death knight still devout to the Light -- thank goodness I found you."

Zeliek blinked, completely taken aback. "What?"

"Wait, and listen to me. Please." Raising an empty hand in supplication, his mace still laying docile at his waist, the paladin spoke quickly. "There's something very important I have left to accomplish here. When the Scourge recovered Kel'Thuzad's phylactery, it wasn't a surprise to everyone. Members of the Brotherhood of Light had already suspected that treason might be afoot. Before the phylactery ever reached Light's Hope, plans had been set into place in the event of the lich's revival. There's just one last step that has to be followed through. If you kill me, you'll never find out what it is."

"That's where you're wrong," Zeliek countered. "We'll find out from your corpse."

"And what if it might be the key to your liberation?"

Zeliek's hands jerked the reins back. His horse, confused by the sudden signal, reared up; razor-edged hooves trammeled the air, slamming down on the walkway stones with a sound like a broken guillotine. Zeliek barely heard it. His mind was humming treacherously, fighting to suppress the leap of hope that would doubtlessly attract Kel'Thuzad's attention.

"You lie," he voiced aloud, huskily.

Seeing that he held the death knight's attention, the paladin lifted his chin. A knowing grin spread across his face. "They'd never share it with you, you know. If you call for guards to help catch me, it'll be all over -- for you as well as for me."

Zeliek hesitated. It was not token loyalty to the lich that stopped him, but wariness -- by repeating the words aloud, the breach might be discovered by unwanted ears, projected by his voice past metal and stone directly into Kel'Thuzad's awareness. He asked instead, feeling his voice struggle not to shake, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I need you to spare me for just a little while longer. Can you do this? Can you try?"

Restless at the presence of living flesh, Zeliek's horse snorted. Disconcerted, Zeliek fought for an answer and came up with a compromise. "I'm afraid you should leave while you can, stranger. As brave as you are, mission or no, you will find only your death here."

Uncowed, the paladin reached up with one gauntlet, flipping up the nasal ridge of his demihelm. Revealed, his face was young, unlined by age or tragedy. He waved his hand in a gallant motion better suited for a ballroom floor than a slaughterhouse. "Stop calling me that. My name is Simon. Go on, try saying it."

"No," Zeliek replied automatically, shaking his head. A name would make it harder to forget the paladin. It would make it more painful to kill him. But the sound was coming out of his mouth anyway -- as out of his control as any action bidden of him by Kel'Thuzad, wrestled out by the mere proximity of the other man. It had been too long since Zeliek had exchanged conversation with someone not of the Scourge, let alone another paladin. The craving for company was almost as strong as the artificial thirst for blood that had been grafted into him. "Simon. Run."

"See? Now we're not strangers anymore." Ignoring the danger, the paladin grinned again before reality intruded, turning him crestfallen. "Anyway, the portal out is guarded. I'd be slaughtered if I tried."

"There are windows."

"Jump?" Simon laughed; the sound was merry. "And how could I survive?"

"The Light would safeguard you," Zeliek replied confidently. "Assuming you did not get the timing wrong."

The paladin's finger jabbed forward triumphantly. "My point exactly. Why would I still be here, if I could leave safely? I can't risk telling you more -- the Lich King would stop me, there are too many ears around. But if your allies find me, then I'll really be in trouble. So you need to let me go before they catch up."

The story bordered on fantastical, too weak in its logic to be true -- and yet, and yet, Zeliek's mind whispered, and yet. He clenched his teeth, breaking his gaze away from the paladin so that the temptation would not overcome him. Each passing moment made it harder to resist the need to kill, to snuff out the flame of life that presented itself before him; it seemed that every inch of the unholy commands Kel'Thuzad had imbued into his body were fighting to make him obey. "They won't need to catch you," he promised aloud. "I can deal with you myself."

As if the words were a keyed release, the pressure in his mind broke suddenly. Impulse melted into action. He turned forward again, head lifting, holy energy gathering in his hand -- but the paladin had already fled, daring to risk himself among the clockwork. Simon had escaped.

- - - - -

The Construct Quarter had, unfortunately enough, taken more damage to its population than its neighbors. Despite that, it was also one of the fastest to recover. The necromancers were already familiar with patching up the various abominations and other piecemeal entities, and they accepted the heavier workload with little protest. Patchwerk needed more stitching, and Thaddius would be out of commission for at least a month while they dug replacement body parts from children still in storage, but most of the work was manageable without Zeliek's assistance. Gothik and Heigan were in regular attendance in the Hall of Reanimation; the Thane's screams played a jangled aria in the background.

As he marked off repairs from the list, Zeliek paused along the Outer Ring to examine the integrity of the canal piping. Where one walkway terminated, there was a square of shattered grating that looked as if it had been broken by a great weight. It split open over an outflow of two pipes, leading down into the depths of Naxxramas's sewage. Where the metal had been bent apart, the marks were irregular, as if it had been struck numerous times by a determined hand wielding some kind of hard object. It was difficult to get a good look without wading directly into the noxious flow. Though Zeliek did not have to worry about being poisoned to death, he still found himself reluctant to immerse himself in the foul ooze.

An abomination? he wondered, but the pipes looked as if they narrowed further on. Too small for a bloated construct to fit through, and the abominations rarely acted on their own without being told. An individual ghoul would have been too weak to bend the bars. Nor would it have worked strategically with other undead, unless someone had instructed it to.

Simon? he thought briefly, but dismissed it. No matter how suicidal, a single paladin could not have accomplished that level of damage, not without taking so long that he surely would have been caught.

He was still staring mournfully down at the grating when the question came floating down from above.

"What's it like, being dead?"

Trying not to let his surprise betray him, Zeliek remained staring at the pipes. "Depressing."

Simon's response was unbearably cheerful. "I assumed that much. I mean, what's it like being controlled by the Scourge? You're still able to talk to me. The Lich King isn't possessing your mouth."

The paladin's voice reverberated with a metallic echo that sounded like resonance from the upper pipes. So it was him interfering with the drainage after all, Zeliek thought. Aloud, he warned, "It's not wise to assume that I can act freely. The Lich King and Kel'thuzad can control me on a moment's notice. At any hour, they might seize influence over me and force me to do whatever they desire."

"Can they really?" Simon sounded more curious than concerned. "Tell me -- does the Lich King scratch your nose for you? Halfway across the world, does he say to himself, 'I think Zeliek has an itch -- I should do something about that'?"

The question was so abrupt, so absurd, that Zeliek forgot himself long enough to laugh. He recovered swiftly, but the brief humor mellowed him as he pondered his answer. In the end, he was only able to shake his head in rue. "Have you ever been so tired and in such pain that you forgot yourself? So exhausted that you end up forgetting why you refrain from violence, or from heresy -- from betraying everything that defines who you are? When your instincts are so maddened that you'd do anything to get rid of what's hurting you, and everything seems like a threat? Master Kel'Thuzad keeps my body on the edge of that sensation at all times. Because of that, the presence of any living being triggers the urge for violence. Even without conscious attention from him, he still can influence my actions in this way."

There was a moment of silence. "I'm sorry," Simon offered at last.

"So am I."

Zeliek's horse was picking up its hooves, finicky, leaving droplets of eldritch fire dancing on the air. It was obedient enough not to shriek, but it could hear the paladin's voice; it could sense the living, and hungered for Simon's death. Zeliek reached out to still it automatically with a touch to the reins, refusing to let it dance. The last thing he needed was a curious ghoul drawn to the steed's distress.

There was a rasping sound from the pipes, like a saw being dragged across stone. When Simon spoke again, he sounded closer. "I've been wondering something. Who did take down Kel'Thuzad? There was an entire betting circuit over which guild would do it first."

Relieved at the change in topic, Zeliek eased the reins. "I don't know. I remember fighting too many of your kind. It seemed as if you would never stop." He paused, sorting through stray flecks of memory. The Highlord had lain inert while Blaumeux had recovered and Korth'azz had been put on the slab. Kel'Thuzad had spoken about needing to find the Ashbringer again. There had been other assaults, too quickly for them to go on the offense. Then the attack on Light's Hope Chapel had taken higher priority than recovering the Highlord's missing sword; Kel'Thuzad had told them all that the Ashbringer would be reclaimed in due time, and everything else had fallen to the wayside until Naxxramas's forces had set out for the Chapel and had returned with Darion Mograine. "There was... a dwarf."

"A dwarf."

"Sorry." Zeliek shook his head. "There were a lot of you."

A mutter drifted down; then, as the noise grew louder, Zeliek realized it was the paladin chuckling. The brief humor died quickly, punctuated by a sigh. "I hate to pause here, but there's a door between the inner and outer rings that was left open when I passed it earlier. If I don't get to it soon, I'll get caught by your patrols."

Caught. Whether or not Simon was telling the truth, Zeliek realized he only had seconds to try and pinpoint the paladin's location. Thinking fast, he oriented himself to the pipes that hung far above him. "I don't believe your tale," he declared aloud, just in case anything in the Citadel was listening. "Whatever your plans are, they can't succeed. Simply by telling me about your agenda, you may have jeopardized the entire effort. Who would take that risk?"

"But you haven't killed me yet, have you? That means there's still hope." Simon's voice began to fade; Zeliek tracked its progress. "Let's see how long that lasts."

The last syllable ebbed even as Zeliek whipped his head around. Clockwise, he guessed. That meant that Simon was headed for the Arachnid Quarter. It made logical sense. There were several smaller access doors that connected to the tunnels that housed Faerlina's acolytes; one of them was usually left unlocked by necromancers seeking to slip through between lessons, coming late to their classes or escaping early. Simon must have noticed the lapse.

The errant door wasn't hard to find. A small handful of ghouls were patrolling towards it; Zeliek redirected them neatly towards the Military Quarter, where they wouldn't be liable to interfere. Once they had shambled away, he steered his horse down the slopes, lurking near the rim of the sludge trenches where he might gain an element of surprise. There he waited, honing his senses. The burble of the toxic rivers ran in an eternal current beside him, making it difficult to pick up on any subtle noises, but he kept on the alert.

He waited there for hours, with the patience that only the dead possessed, but Simon never showed.

- - - - -

True to Blaumeux's claim, the Baron brought a wide assortment of corpses as his entourage. The Military Quarter was full of reanimated recruits. The Icebellow anvils were constantly ringing, churning out fresh weapons and armor for the trainees, and shoes for the horses. Razuvious had recovered from his wounds with a renewed vow to work his students even harder, and the entire Military Quarter suffered beneath the man's zeal.

From a seat on the upper balcony, Zeliek watched the newly-shod horses being tethered in their pens. His leg was cramping up again, the muscles attempting to contort as they slid closer to decay; observing the Military Quarter helped him block out the pain. Patrols of death-touched recruits were marching in ragged lockstep. Several of them looked barely deceased.

As Zeliek occupied himself in estimating the percentage that wouldn't make it, Blaumeux sat down beside him, announcing herself with the heavy clunk of a goblet against the balcony rail. It only took one glance for Zeliek to determine the contents: the goblet was filled to the brim with a viciously red substance. Brewed from blood and chemicals, the necromatic potion was designed to help preserve Zeliek's physical form, and to renew the spells that kept his spirit from degrading into mindlessness.

"You weren't at the Assembly," she chided, and shoved the goblet insistently towards him. "I had to carry this all the way over from Master Gothik."

At first, Zeliek refused to drink -- on principle, as much as he could pretend to follow it. Then, as he felt the muscles of his leg begin to contort again, he forced down a swallow. Chunks of tissue slid down his throat, as soft as peeled grapes. He allowed himself to consume only a third of the goblet's contents, restraining the hunger of an aching body that demanded him to gorge.

He grimaced as he lowered the goblet, trying not to savor the empowering rush that flooded his senses and relieved the stabbing pains in his leg. "How has the transfer been going?" he asked, wiping his mouth with his fingers.

Blaumeux had been watching his reluctance, her thoughts shuttered behind her eyes. Her helm was off again, shed along with her scarf, but her mouth gave away little expression. "As well as you can imagine. Master Heigan has been complaining that his students have gone through too many of the edible supplies to support the Baron's necromancers as well. Our food stores are far lower than they should be. I think we should just accelerate their training and kill them -- they'd eat less that way -- but Master Heigan says their initiations aren't complete yet. Of course, the Baron's answer is that they can be more efficient in learning while they're dead." She heaved a sigh, her voice scaling melodramatically up to dulcet anguish before she dropped it back into her normal range. "Finish your drink, Zeliek. Your color's more green than white these days. We can't have you looking like Korth'azz as well -- they'll start mistaking you for a dwarf."

Zeliek eyed the draught with distaste. Blaumeux -- as much as he hated to admit it -- was right. He could feel the yearning of his stomach for the goblet's contents, dessicated tissues thirsting for the magics imbued into the potion. The muscles of his leg were already threatening to try and lock back up into a knot.

He took another swallow.

Blaumeux waited for him to lower the cup before presenting her next question. "Can you handle Sapphiron for me too, Zeliek? I'm being sent back to Stratholme after I'm done with you here."

The request, coming more politely than he expected, caused Zeliek to arch a surprised eyebrow. "This is a new leaf for you. Normally, you would just tell me to do it -- or have the Highlord order me."

Caught by the accuracy of his perception, Blaumeux glanced aside. Her fingertips met and curled beneath her palms; her hands bunched themselves on the railing. "The Baron isn't Mograine. And the new Mograine -- he isn't the Highlord. With all the restructuring of Acherus, I've barely seen this Darion. Things have changed. I'm not -- I'm not really looking forward to returning to Northrend," she confessed suddenly, and coughed.

The admission was startling. Forgetting the goblet, Zeliek stared at her. "Why? We've been up there before. And it's hardly the cold that could bother you now."

"It won't be as much fun as it was down here. I know the Baron has work in Stratholme, but I don't know if Kel'Thuzad means to bring Naxxramas back. And if Naxxramas doesn't return, we don't return." She fell silent, mulling over her own words before offering more. "I was born near Hearthglen. Northrend... is a long way from home."

Zeliek continued to stare. In all the time he had known Blaumeux, he had never heard her speak of her past. To have her admit to something akin to uncertainty -- or regret -- was unthinkable. Ever since the Horsemen had first been assembled, even before Mograine had joined them, Blaumeux had been the sultry, bloodthirsty one of them all. She had lusted after death as fervently as Zeliek had refused it. She had never hesitated to obey.

On impulse, he lifted a hand, reaching out tentatively until it barely rested on her shoulder -- comforting her, he thought, the idea so astounding that the only logical reaction was disbelief. Comforting Blaumeux.

She held still for only a moment, and then shook him away, pushing herself to her feet. "How stupid of me. I'm given more respect while undead than I ever had while alive -- so why shouldn't I enjoy myself? Better say farewell to your Light before we go," she suggested tartly, scooping up the goblet. "I doubt it'll reach us up there."

- - - - -

When the Thane began to pause for longer intervals in his screaming, Zeliek quickly found out why. Heigan had insisted on personally visiting the cauldrons in the Plaguewood. Word had circulated quickly to Noth, who had then made his opinion extremely well known among the Plague Wing. Faced with another squabble between the two necromancers, Gothik had put the Thane's repairs momentarily on hold, sparing the dwarf the tender mercies of needle and knife.

All this meant that Zeliek had slightly fewer distractions in the Arachnid Quarter. As he expected, his presence was not entirely welcome. Faerlina was nursing her shoulder -- a lingering wound from one particularly robust adventuring party -- and snapped at Zeliek whenever the death knight stopped by. Maexxna was in a foul temper, and had bit off the heads of three necromancers unlucky enough to brave her lair. The cultists left their work orders in a pile for Zeliek to collect, often forgetting any form of organization whatsoever.

Thwarted by their lack of an indexing system, he finally dedicated an entire day towards sorting the scrolls into logical order. By the time the afternoon rolled around, all he had accomplished had been to determine that half the members of the Damned needed to improve their penmanship.

When he heard his name being called by a familiar voice, he almost welcomed it with relief.

"Where are you, Simon?" he asked blithely, not expecting a real answer.

"Up on the pipes again." Footsteps rang like hammers, punching at the rusting metal. "It's amazing how many ghouls you can dodge this way."

Zeliek craned his head around, briefly tracking the paladin's movements before the inattention caused the scrolls to tumble. "There is such a thing as being too clever," he warned.

Simon's laughter did not sound worried. "Hold the circle," he repeated. "You do what you can."

Mystified by the phrase, Zeliek paused in folding up Faerlina's chickenscratch lettering. "What do you mean by that?"

"You never got taught that prayer? It was part of my consecration practice." The footsteps stopped; for a moment, everything was silent. Then the paladin spoke again, this time with reverence. "'This is ground made sacred by your will. By the grace of the Light, your enemies shall not cross it unscathed. By the grace of the Light, your allies shall know where they are kept safe.' My instructors used to say, a paladin chooses their territory and meets the enemy there, drawing them to him. Even if he can't win the war, he can do his best to hold that circle. Two paladins can widen that territory together, standing side by side. Three, four -- more, and you have a river of gold running through the battlefield, holy ground illuminated by the Light."

Zeliek frowned. He started to shake his head in refusal -- and then found the motion slowing, his chin jerking, eyes sliding shut as memory rose. Half-forgotten years unearthed themselves in his mind, like blades rising in a field being plowed. "Yes," he admitted suddenly, surprising himself. "I remember. I remember... tracing circles in the dirt. I remember --"

He broke off suddenly, but his mind reeled on. I used to draw circles, it whispered. Circles in the dirt, measuring it out. I used to think about how many people I could fit within that space. I remember praying to the Light to widen that circle of protection, to guard more than just myself and what I could hold in my hand.

"But I haven't had anything to defend for a long time now," he said abruptly, truncating his thoughts by force, shaping the words aloud to keep them from continuing further. "I haven't... held that circle."

If Simon heard any undertones of self-condemnation, he had the grace not to comment. "You know," the paladin remarked instead, as lightly as ever, "it's not as cold in here as I expected. Still chilly, but not a frozen icebox everywhere I go."

Relieved to have a change of topic, Zeliek steered his thoughts onto the new subject. "You have the living acolytes to thank for that, along with the spiders. Most of Maenexxa's brood is hardy, adapted for the northlands, but a few of the spinners are more sensitive. On top of that, rot generates heat through decomposition and some diseases need heat to fester. Not all. Others suffer, and become dormant. That's why there's such a range of temperatures in here. Sapphiron's lair is the coldest, of course. Sometimes," he continued, rolling up one work order and tying it shut with a cord, "we store some of the corpses in there when we can't figure out where else to preserve them. It's not very dignified, but better than using Master Kel'Thuzad's room."

"I see -- Naxxramas does have its share of contradictions." Another clatter of footsteps, echoing at a confusing angle from the paladin's voice. "Speaking of which, isn't it funny how I can use the Light to heal myself, and you can use it to try and kill me?"

The reminder stung; Zeliek had almost been able to forget the enmity between himself and the living paladin. "I've given up on trying to reconcile that," he admitted, inhaling slowly against the vise of guilt in his chest. "The Light holds to its own rules of behavior. To wonder -- to question -- would break me as surely as the Lich King himself."

"I can't figure out how it works at all." The frankness of Simon's voice lacked any shame for the questions it was presenting. "How did that happen? To leave you like this, undead but able to use the Light? I mean, the Light destroys the Scourge. Shouldn't you -- I don't know -- explode?"

Zeliek was silent at first, turning the scrolls with his hands, lining them up like irregular soldiers packed together in a mass grave. "I thought the Light would save my soul when I died. I always thought the Light would save me. I still do. Maybe it's because I'm not allowed to die yet that it can't help me, but it lets me know it still listens by allowing me to channel it. Its presence keeps me from losing hope." He leaned forward over the work orders; his scarf spilled over the papers, burying them under folds of white fabric like the collapse of an arctic mountain. "I used to fight Master Kel'Thuzad constantly, with every inch of sanity that I could spare. At first, I was able to resist. When I withstood him, he turned to other methods. He said that each time I refused to kill when told, he would use me to strangle a dozen children, and then a dozen more. I didn't believe him. I was proven wrong."

Simon was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his usual joviality was tempered by respect. "I didn't think that there'd be that many children left after an attack by the Scourge."

"There weren't." Zeliek's voice was flat. "Kel'Thuzad saved them up for me."

In the trenches, ooze bubbled and belched, sending up fresh coils of pungent odor. Zeliek stared blindly at the undulations, trying not to see history in the colors. There had been too many camps that had been rounded up. There had been too many collections from each village, too many children panicking and wailing in cages woven from the fresh bones of their own parents. He had tried hard not to count.

"Please don't make the mistake of thinking I don't loathe the thing I have become," he continued, wanting to salvage what little respect he could in the paladin's eyes. "I fight every moment of my existence. Praying to the Light seems to make Master Kel'Thuzad bored with my mind, and so he eavesdrops rarely these days. Like a horse," he added ruefully, rubbing his forehead. "One that has been broken in thoroughly, so that its owner has no fear of it fighting the reins -- despite knowing how it much it detests him."

Silence settled into the chamber after that. Simon did not speak to break it. Zeliek waited, uneasy and expectant, before finally realizing that the paladin was gone.

- - - - - - -

The matter of the paladin lingered in Zeliek's mind during his next rest cycle, despite how much he tried to banish it.

One of the hardest things for Zeliek to get used to was his inability to close his eyes and sleep. In the halls of the dead, there was no need for slumber, nor time put aside for it; there were shifts for daylight, for dawns and dusks, and then at night for the creatures that preferred darkness. The unholy energies that kept them animate were renewed by magic, not bedding. Even so, staying alert constantly could take its toll; without time to relax and let the unconscious mind come to terms with its own dreams, a person's sanity could pay the price.

He normally meditated in the Horseman's Assembly, but the chamber felt strange without the Highlord's belongings. The corral for Mograine's steed had been cleaned out in preparation of Rivendare's charger; the tack and gear that the Highlord had left on his corner of the walls had been stripped. For hours, Zeliek tried to rest in the Assembly. It was a fruitless effort. Over and over, he found himself staring at the patch of empty wall, until finally he gave up and took to his horse.

The fact that Simon was continuing to breathe was proof of Kel'Thuzad's preoccupation with Darion Mograine -- or the Lich King's, perhaps, or both of them together were simply so accustomed to owning Zeliek that they spent their attention elsewhere, secure in the belief that the death knight was too tightly bound to the Scourge's service to outright rebel. The small niche of Zeliek's mind that had been fortified against the Scourge seemed stronger of late. He could not tell if it was simply his imagination.

Simon had not yet been hunted down. There was still time.

Zeliek didn't let the glimmer of hope dominate his thoughts. Instead, he let it flitter away from him like an insect, a single firefly blinking erratically in the gloom. It seemed easier to let his horse wander, to allow the hypnosis of motion to overtake him; the rhythmic clop of his horse's plodding lulled his mind like a chorus of metronomes. He had traveled the corridors a thousand times before. He did not need to choose a course.

As his horse's gait swayed the saddle back and forth, carrying Zeliek between rows of spectral weapons, the death knight let his awareness decay. They made their way through the armory at a leisurely pace. As if from a distance, he heard his horse whicker, picking up in speed as its interest was caught. He barely paid it any attention, lost in the tentative half-trance he had managed to finally cultivate.

They rounded a corner, entering the padded circle of a practice ring. A flash of metal startled him from the corner of his eye; automatically, he threw up a hand. The Light responded as naturally as breathing once had been. He caught a glimpse of armored fighters turning startled faces towards him, swords upraised, daggers poised. Stuffed dummies littered the floor, their wooden arms plaintively outstretched.

Then the summoned Light expanded in a wave, swelling around him to touch upon every corner of the training hall. Its Condemnation radiated in a soundless detonation. Zeliek dug his heels into his horse's flanks; chaos exploded, along with the holy energies. His horse reared, screaming. Trainees fell back, flattening themselves against the walls in hopes of getting away.

The only one not cringing was Razuvious, who weathered the pain as a bear might shrug off the ice in a newly-melting stream.

"Sir Zeliek," he said, courtesy present in his gruff voice -- along with a mild rebuke. "If you wanted to join us, you could have showed up at the start of practice instead of the middle."

Reeling his wits back in place, Zeliek lowered his hand. The Light ebbed, and then disappeared. "Instructor. My apologies."

Razuvious scrutinized him thoughtfully before jerking his head to the side. "Come over. Talk with me while these laggards finish their exercises."

Grateful for the excuse to escape the practice floor, Zeliek nudged his steed forward to follow the instructor up the ramp. He passed the reins over to a waiting stablehand, trying not to feel guilty at the man's flinch. As Zeliek joined the instructor beside the rail, Razuvious hooked a hand into the nearest barrel and retrieved the browned skin of an apple far past ripening.

"It's a good thing I'm dead," the man commented thoughtfully, studying the oozing fruit perched in his fingers. "Because it doesn't matter if this tastes good, or if it's rotten. Want one?"

When Zeliek shook his head in refusal, the instructor slapped a broad palm on the railing and broke into a wide grin. "You're still only having that drink that Master Gothik makes, eh? Don't want to liven it up?"

"Food is a practice I grew out of, I'm afraid."

Razuvious crooked his eyebrows in resignation. "Well, we all have to have our habits, I suppose. Makes it easier to keep a routine, and routine's an important thing. Necessary, I always say -- keeps the body going, even if the brain is slow behind." The hand with the fruit gestured sharply towards the students that had dutifully resumed sparring. "Some of these recruits the Baron wants me to train -- useless! They're given the gift of unlife, chosen to be knights, and then think that frothing at the mouth is all they need to do to be effective. Or that it does me any good to have them swan around and mope. Excepting present company, of course." With that, the man shoved the apple into his mouth and bit down hard. Brown sludge dripped along the fruit's rotting skin, spilling out across his thumb.

Transfixed by the grotesque sight, Zeliek responded without thinking. "You could ask the Baron to bring you other recruits."

"What, and deny these fools a glorious, expendable death on the front line?" Razuvious's mouth cracked open in a laugh. "Besides, my senior students need some spare targets to whet their appetites on -- and I could use a break in beating on them. Used to be, I'd let them try a round on the Highlord when he'd come to visit. He and I would split an apple afterwards -- a fresh one, too, not like this garbage."

"The Highlord?" Surprised at first, Zeliek found his own memories chiding him. He let me make my own requests for the Military Quarter. Why should I have been the only exception? Awkwardly, he elaborated on the outburst. "I'm sorry. He didn't seem the type for sentiment."

Razuvious snorted. "We spoke of strategy, not of wenching." His thick wrist turned, neatly sliding the puncture of his bitemark back to his mouth. "But Alexandros always made sure to bring an apple by. Shame to have lost him like this. Won't be getting decent fruit for a while, that's for sure."

"Why do you eat them at all?"

Thankfully, Razuvious did not laugh off Zeliek's curiosity. "I was a mason by trade." Shifting to lean his weight against the rail, the instructor studied his meal before lifting it up in presentation. "In the summer evenings -- before all this -- I would always have an apple fresh from the orchard that my wife and I kept. It was my routine, to finish off a long day of honest work spent cutting stones for my neighbors to build their houses with. Now I cut men and women for the Lich King to build his army. I find that it's much the same thing." He took another bite, the deteriorating flesh of the fruit spreading mush over his lip. "What about you? Any habits -- other than all the praying, I mean."

It was odd to hear the question asked; in all his time spent working with the man, never had Zeliek spoken with Razuvious like this. "No," he offered gingerly, uncertain on how best to respond. "No, I've... been different."

"Mm. True enough -- he's still at it?" Razuvious grunted. He turned his head halfway, focusing on the corridor leading back to the Outer Ring; Zeliek realized that he was commenting on the distant sounds of Korth'azz screaming. "Will the Thane be returning to us yet?"

Zeliek paused. In much the same way that the banshees were no longer grating, he realized he'd become accustomed to Korth'azz's suffering as mere background noise. He couldn't remember the last time he'd stopped to listen. "I don't know. Soon. It should be soon."

"Good." Razuvious finished another bite and flung the rest of the apple aside. Ghouls rushed forward to pounce on it before they realized it wasn't meat; they slouched away, shaking their heads in disgusted finickiness. Watching them, Razuvious scoffed. "The faster we're back on schedule, the better. Naxxramas has to get itself in shape. Remember that, Sir Zeliek. Some things don't change. Some things shouldn't."

- - - - - - -

After days of absence, it was a surprise when Zeliek finally caught Simon again.

Apart from the one time he had met the paladin directly, he had not confronted Simon in person. He had almost become accustomed to Simon's presence as a disembodied voice, separated by enough distance that Zeliek could pretend that Simon was a spirit, a fellow undead -- not a living being that could incite the death knight to murder. It had been a comfortable rut that Zeliek had settled into, grateful not to be the direct agent of the paladin's demise. He had grown accustomed to their stand-off. He had almost forgotten the truth.

This time, Simon was standing out in the open, exposed between two doorways leading to the Military Quarter. He did not seem prepared for the death knight's arrival, casting Zeliek a panicked glance before bolting for the nearest hall. He didn't linger -- his expression was furtive, panicked as he dodged around corners, leading Zeliek in a chase that barely missed oncoming patrols. Zeliek followed at a cautious pace, on alert from the strange behavior. It made no sense. As a paladin, Simon should have been able to sense the death knight's approach. Anything less implied a fatal lack of attention.

And Simon was making mistakes in his haste, Zeliek realized. The hallways in that section routed towards the outskirts of the citadel, away from the safety that the Inner and Outer Rings might provide. The walls here were empty; there were no service tunnels and passageways to shelter fugitives. Even the ooze canals were missing, allowing no trickery with the sewage pipes.

As he rounded one last archway, he found that he had trapped the paladin in an observation chamber -- a dead end that consisted of a single circular room, surrounded by tall windows that reached from floor to ceiling. Jutting out over the Plaguewood, it allowed necromancers to spy across the landscape to their hearts' content. The bowed glass lenses watched Zeliek like a dozen accusing eyes. There were no other doors, no broken grates or exposed machinery that might allow Simon to escape. The only way out was through Zeliek.

Zeliek waited for the paladin to come to the same conclusion, lingering at the entrance as the man scrambled frantically along the windows before coming to a slow halt. "It's over," he announced heavily. "Tell me what you intend with Kel'Thuzad, and I will do my best to make it swift."

Simon swung around, looking directly at Zeliek from across the room.

"Hold the circle," he quoted back.

At the words, a dim glow began to simmer up through the floor. Like golden lava rippling up through the stones, the consecrated ground spread in a radius around the paladin, widening slowly until it encompassed the man's reach and more.

But before Zeliek could dismiss the display of power, Simon continued to speak. "You remember the principle as well as I do, Sir Zeliek. When everything's uncertain, find your place. Protect your allies. Define your chosen ground, and from there, meet the enemy. Make your stand."

"But you have no one here to protect, Simon." Zeliek slid off his horse, leaving it to guard the door. "You have no one to save but yourself. Unless," he added, struggling to suppress the sudden, treacherous leap of hope in his chest, wanting desperately to hear the empty promise again, "you really are able to free me?"

No reassurance came. Simon was silent. The glow hummed underneath the paladin's feet, and Zeliek realized that Simon was waiting.

"Run," the death knight whispered urgently. In his blood, unholy impulses were beginning to awaken, struggling against his control. His hand was already fumbling for his mace, twisting open the leather frog that kept it laced to the saddle. "Simon -- run now."

Simon met his gaze without flinching. "I can't," he replied simply. "Not yet."

The mace was heavy against Zeliek's palm. Advancing swiftly, he braved the consecrated ground, ignoring the lances of fire that burned into him with each step. He twisted the weapon around in a slap up towards the paladin's skull; the mace glanced away from its target, deflected by thin air. The spell was fast enough that Zeliek instantly recognized it as a blessing of protection. Familiar with its limitations, he switched tactics, feeling holy energies gather in his fist before they lashed out towards Simon in a punishing blast.

Simon took the strike directly, gritting his teeth in a grimace of agony. His feet shifted back defensively; he stuttered through the syllables of a healing spell, his voice made unsteady with pain even as he swung his own mace around. The spark of a judgement cracked near Zeliek's ears as he pressed forward, sending a brief pain down his left side. He shook it off in time to parry Simon's blow, momentarily brought to a standstill.

But he was wearing the paladin down, and they both knew it. Simon's counterattacks became less and less frequent as more of the paladin's energy was turned towards his own defense. When Zeliek's mace finally batted aside the man's weapon, Simon twisted, but could not dodge completely. The curved horns of the mace's head snagged the paladin's demihelm. Simon was thrown from the circle with a cry, ripping off his helm in order to free himself; his own weapon went flying, skittering to a far corner of the room.

The consecration pulsed once more, and then went out.

With the paladin's face fully exposed, Zeliek could see the toll that Naxxramas had taken upon the man. His hair was limp with filth. His cheeks were hollow with hunger. Dark rings stained the skin beneath Simon's eyes, proof of exhaustion from having to hide within the citadel's walls. Blood trickled down the side of his face where the mace's horn had clipped him. The degree of damage astonished Zeliek. All these weaknesses, Simon had kept hidden during their conversations, never once revealing signs of strain.

He brought his mace around again -- but instead of scrambling for the fallen helm, Simon whirled with a joyful shout. The paladin slammed his shield against the wall as he gazed out the nearest window, ignoring the threat of Zeliek at his throat. Startled, Zeliek checked his swing, only succeeding at the last second. The horned mace drove into the wall, striking chips out of mortar as it split a wide crack into the stone.

Simon's face broke into a relief that left him laughing. "There. That's it!" He plastered his hand against the glass, smearing blood in a wide, drying streak. "They're finally out!"

Struggling to keep his wits straight, Zeliek cast a frantic look towards the window. In the distance far below, a smoke trail rose from the plagued woods. Unlike a normal campfire, the color was a vivid green, mushrooming up in clumps. A flare, Zeliek realized. It's a signal. "Who?"

Simon pressed his hand against the window, as if he could reach through it and grasp the smoke like a cord. "The rest of my guild. We were trapped here when the portal closed. Our mages were all gone." His smile was merely sad now; all humor had vanished from his voice, leaving it empty and weary, as if carrying on the effort of camaraderie for so long had been a weight that he was glad to put aside. "Back in the Plague Quarter, our rogue overheard you and Blaumeux talking. If Kel'Thuzad really was distracted, we thought there'd be a chance to flee. I volunteered to be the bait. I was supposed to draw your attention away while they found another route out. All this time, I've been tricking you -- there is no escape from this, not for you and not for me. There's only so much I could protect, Sir Zeliek. I couldn't include you in it."

"No," Zeliek blurted. The days of listening to Simon -- of tolerating promises too tempting to ignore, of trust and hope and faith, of fighting against his own bloodlust -- all collided together, leaving a wide path for despair to invade. His self-control slipped; he attempted to grab at Simon's shoulder, only to find himself seizing the paladin's throat. "I can't believe that. I won't believe that. Tell me," he whispered urgently. "Please. Before you are taken by the Scourge. There must be something you know. Was it really a lie? Is there no salvation left for me?"

Simon's mouth struggled to shape air; Zeliek leaned closer, catching the single word. "Sorry."

Pain ripped into the death knight's chest with the force of a hundred branding irons; he dropped his mace, startled by the holy spark of the exorcism that had exploded from Simon's touch. Reflexively, he shoved the paladin away as hard as he could. Flung like a child's doll, Simon crashed against the window. The glass cobwebbed at the impact, fractures spreading like the outlines of frozen, twisted wings.

Zeliek's hands did not allow for mercy. They were quick to grab Simon, slamming him against the ribbing of the windowframe. A strangled scream burst from the paladin's throat. Leather snapped; the buckler went flying. "It can't be true," the death knight begged, feeling the crack of a bone beneath his grip as he seized Simon's arm and twisted. The desires of the Scourge mingled with his own until he was drowning in them. Desperation threw open the careful barriers he had built up around his soul, leaving him raw and exposed, bereft of any hope; it turned him childish with pleas. "It can't be. The uncertainty we've all been experiencing, the hesitation -- "

By the time he released Simon, blood was leaking out of the paladin's mouth. It spattered when he coughed. His voice was a bubbling hush. "Zeliek," he whispered. "It doesn't take magic... for people to change after they lose something important. Have you been dead so long... you've forgotten that?"

Horrified, Zeliek choked down an inarticulate cry. The Light responded to his summons as swiftly as it had to Simon's; it simmered down his fingers like sunlight through water, only to meet the gleam of a divine shield. Holy power called itself in a simultaneous defense and attack, wielded by both combatants. Zeliek's holy wrath met and wrapped around an equally holy protection, seeking to kill and save the same target.

Through the glare, he saw Simon mustering one last smile.

Then the paladin turned, and plunged headlong for the window.

As Simon hit the cracked glass with his full weight, the glass shredded into razor-fine shards. The light gleamed golden off each point. Zeliek dove forward, his fingers outstretched -- only to watch the paladin slip away into nothingness, inches too late.

It was a long way down from the Citadel. The divine shield -- though powerful -- could not possibly last long enough to protect Simon.

Transfixed by the fall, Zeliek watched, wondering if the Light would make an exception to all known rules and save the paladin from certain death. But the shield faded, flickering and disappearing while Simon was still in midair. The battered body dwindled to a speck, vanishing into the ragged treeline.

No Light showed itself. No radiance rose to save the paladin.

Zeliek gripped the windowsill, leaning preciously towards the open gap. The wind snatched at his scarf. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he, too, was falling -- that he was joining the ranks of the truly dead at last. But jumping would not end his torture. The Scourge would simply find Zeliek's corpse and revive him again, as many times as it took. Death would not save him from unlife.

Death would not save Simon either.

The paladin had not yet escaped. The dead were known for their patience; the Scourge was known for its cruelty. All it would take would be a word from Zeliek, and the undead would prowl the wood for Simon's body until they brought the corpse back for the necromancers to perform their rites.

Punish him, roared the part of Zeliek that had been infected by unholy instincts, embedded in him like a disease by the Scourge. Send ghouls to find Simon and bring him back for revival. Bring him back for Kel'Thuzad!

The black tide overwhelmed Zeliek's thoughts, creeping into his vision, enveloping him in shadow as another man might drown in rage. He couldn't tell if it was the Lich King's influence returning -- if the lapse of Zeliek's loyalty had been discovered, and the Lich King sought to correct the wayward death knight. In the darkness wrapped around Zeliek's soul, it was impossible for him to see how much was himself, and how much was the Scourge.

The core of him tried to hold strong. He could not give in to the temptation of allowing another paladin to be added to the Scourge's ranks. Bound in eternal servitude, forced to commit monstrosities, betraying the Light with each fresh slaughter -- another paladin would keep Zeliek company, but at a hideous cost. Such an existence could easily drive a person mad with grief and revulsion at their own imprisonment.

Zeliek knew that fact well.

But at least then -- at least with someone else to remember what they both had once been -- he would not be so alone.

- - - - - - -

When Blaumeux found him, he was still standing at the window.

"I thought I'd come give you the news myself," she announced from the doorway, her voice as smug as a satisfied cat. "Korth'azz is finally off the slab. The Baron is done with his preparations. He wants to address us together in the Assembly before the Citadel departs." Attracted by the signs of combat, she gravitated towards him, tiptoeing around the shattered stones. "So what happened here? Did you find someone interesting enough to throw out?"

When Zeliek turned his head to look at her, the first thing he noticed was the change in her demeanor. Blaumeux's uncertainty in her was gone. Even though she frowned at the mystery the window presented, she stood with arrogance in the cant of her shoulders, confidence in her stance that invited challengers to pit themselves against her. Her helm was back on; the faceplate obscured her mouth. Her scarf wrapped around her shoulders like a fresh burial shroud.

I'm not looking forward to Northrend, he remembered her saying, only days ago.

He could not imagine her saying that now.

Some things don't change. Some things shouldn't.

Northrend is a long way from home.

The haze of the Scourge's influence was getting heavier, settling back into place upon him like a swollen maggot draping itself back over its favorite bones. The weight compressed Zeliek's chest. A headache forced its way back into his skull; he hadn't realized how painful it was until he'd been able to breathe without it for a short while. It would be easier to endure Naxxramas with another paladin among the Scourge's ranks. The burden -- the fight against insanity -- could be shared.

The only price would be the damnation of that fellow paladin forever.

"Zeliek?" Blaumeux asked, breaking through his inner turmoil. He glanced over. Though her face remained masked, there was something else lingering in Blaumeux's voice: something more than malice, a fleeting hint of the woman he had come to know during their brief snatches of freedom from their servitude. "Are you sure you don't want me to find that body for you? I could have the ghouls pick it up in no time. A little sport might lift your spirits."

There's only so much I could protect, Sir Zeliek. I couldn't include you.

No, Zeliek thought. But I can include you.

"Hold the circle," he whispered aloud. He pushed himself resolutely away from the shattered window, gathering up his mace where it had fallen. "No. Leave the body there. You and I have other business to attend to. Let's not keep the Baron waiting."