A/N: Eeeeeeeeeeeegads. I completely lost my inspiration for this story, due in part to having not played WoW for about 2 years. Then I looked at what I had written for the last 2 chapters and didn't like any of it. Anyway, got my mojo back. Let's do this thing! Warning: This chapter contains the death of a canon character.
Chapter 21 – Hallowed Be Thy Name
Imuruk had lived much of his life above the ground, but in the throes of fear he fell back on instinct and sought refuge beneath the earth. A cellar served; it was a shallow bowl of shelter compared to the magnificent tunnels his people made, but it served. He backed into a corner. The dirt floor and the building above did little to block the roars of the dragon that was not a dragon, or the heat of its breath.
Anduin was with him, cowering against the shaman's abdominal carapace, and Imuruk realized he was clutching the youth's shoulders protectively with his lower set of arms. He let go; he hardly knew the Prince, and besides, one shaman was hardly protection against a thing that frightened the element of earth itself.
Anduin looked up at him.
"We should..." he began, dazed, then stopped and licked his lips. There was a pause in the sound and fury outside. Imuruk heard glass breaking upstairs and the thin bleating of a goat from a nearby yard.
Then Deathwing roared again and for a moment he sounded like a real, living thing because his voice was twisted up with pain and surprise: surprise at being hurt, surprise that he could be hurt. That roar was followed by another of pure rage, and then there was heat and force and light all at once, and the building was blasted clear off its foundation.
Imuruk reacted in panic and threw them both to the floor. Debris pelted them. Smoke blanketed the basement. The shaman curled himself around Anduin as much as he could, prepared to let his exo-skeleton take the blows Anduin's soft body couldn't, but the Prince resisted, squirming for freedom.
"Don't worry," Anduin panted, pushing Imuruk back so he could sit up. His eyes were suddenly bright, his expression fierce. "I got this." Around his hands glowed a soft yellow halo, like candle light in a hurricane. The youth was casting spell after spell, healing spells, building a shell of protection around them both that rebuffed the charred debris and black smoke. Imuruk collected himself into a more dignified position and watched.
Above them, Deathwing's roars were punctuated with blossoms of flame, visible through the smoke in bursts of ominous red. He seemed to be stationary and Imuruk could only assume that he was fighting Jaina and King Wrynn. If he is still fighting, then one or both of them are still alive.
"We should- we should escape while it's preoccupied," Imuruk urged, tugging at Anduin's arm.
Anduin shook his head resolutely. "No," he said. His voice was steady now and he stood up slowly, letting the layers of shielding gutter out. He coughed as smoke wisped into the dome of clean air that the shields had covered. "This is my city. My dad's up there, and Aunt Jaina. I won't think less of you if you run, Ambassador, but it is my duty to stay and try to defend my people."
Imuruk thought about it, just for a moment. "I'm not a fighter," he said, "and I don't know how much use my magic is with that thing nearby, but I'm bigger than you, and faster than you, and that may be useful."
Anduin grinned up at him. "I knew you wouldn't run. Come on. Let's-"
There was a deafening BOOM, a white light, and another furious dragon roar. The concussive force of the magic blast blew the clouds of smoke flat for a moment. It blew Imuruk and Anduin flat too. They looked up, winded, eyes stinging, from the basement floor.
Jaina stood on a rickety spire of brick and timber, all that remained of the broad city wall for fifty meters to either side. She was crouched like a fighter, hands curled into defensive claws. Her palms smoldered with magic. Deathwing stalked toward her, crushing roofs and chimneys with each ponderous step, his gaze fixed on Jaina's pale figure. One of his eyes was punctured and useless; a spill of black gore dripped into the hollow beneath his lower eyelid.
Deathwing opened his mouth and Jaina raised her hands, light and cold sparkling around her fingers. Then something caused the dragon to flinch right and a steel ballista bolt sprouted from just behind his left elbow. The shaft had not sunk deep enough to reach his heart, hampered by the black iron armour fastened to the dragon's hide, but it had distracted him. Deathwing whipped toward the source of the shot, mouth agape, breath boiling the air before him, and Imuruk and Anduin followed his gaze.
The frame of the ballista rocked as Varian Wrynn stepped up on it. He gripped his great sword in both hands and bared his teeth in defiance at the dragon. His lips moved but the words did not reach the two watchers on the ground. Deathwing reacted with a flare of his nostrils. Then Varian took three great strides and launched himself at Deathwing's face.
"For the Alliance!" he bellowed.
Deathwing swatted the King of Stormwind aside with his barbed tail, and turned back to Jaina.
"Foolish mortal..." Although the dragon aspect's voice was little more than a hollow mutter, it managed to dwarf all other sound. Beneath Deathwing's rumble, Anduin's distant scream was a sigh to Jaina's ears, and the rush and clatter of the city guard galvanized into action all around her was an insignificant rustle. She purposely did not look in the direction that Varian had been thrown.
Deathwing fixed her with his remaining eye.
"There will be no rising from this grave," he murmured, and intentionally crushed a guardsman flat with one fore-paw. The cobblestones where his dewclaw came down bubbled and liquified to lava. "You are an aberration, life and undeath together, but I am death itself. You cannot stand against me."
"And yet I am," Jaina replied, certain she would be heard. Yes, she was standing, but it was mostly because she was paralysed by terror. There were tears on her cheeks that she didn't remember crying.
Deathwing bridled at the barb. "Insolent...!" he roared, the judgement carried on a gust of oily breath peppered with embers. Jaina blinked hard against the smoke. If she could get a rise out of him with words alone, then perhaps he was not so strange or superior to her. "Your death will bring me pleasure," he snarled and lunged, snapping at her, teeth like city gates slamming shut, close enough to catch the edge of her sleeve as she leapt. Jaina teleported mid-dive.
She landed on a tiled roof and caught her balance. Deathwing lurched about and found her quickly, jaws trailing a pennant of black smoke. The gulf between their abilities was still too vast to comprehend, much less bridge and with a quiet, chilled certainty, Jaina realized she was likely not going to survive this confrontation.
"I will purify this world of your unnatural existence," Deathwing continued, swatting a wall in apparent frustration. Jaina teleported again, landed on an eaves-trough, and pulled herself upright on a clothesline someone had strung from a chimney behind her to a window on the opposite building. His voice made her tremble with fear, but his words were... kind of silly.
"Are you listening to yourself?" she called suddenly. He turned and she lowered her voice to a comical growl. "'I will purify this world of your unnatural existence!'" She forced derisive laughter and Deathwing snarled and snapped, furious.
And just like that, the fear went out of Jaina. She felt giddy, taking in the sheer lunacy of her situation: here she was, clinging to a clothesline while Stormwind burned around her, teasing a thing as old as Azeroth itself.
"'Your death will bring me pleasure'," she continued. "Goodness, dragon, no one talks like that! You sound like a pulp novel villain!"
Deathwing brayed and head-butted the building. Jaina teleported again, laughing, and landed back on what remained of the city wall. Deathwing tracked her, snorting puffs of flame.
There was movement in the ruins below. Figures in Stormwind guard tabards clustered around something she couldn't resolve from her vantage; judging from the distance and angle, she assumed it was King Wrynn. Quickly, she turned her gaze elsewhere lest Deathwing catch on. At the edge of the devastation she made out Imuruk, with Anduin leading him at a lope. Again, she looked away.
"You can't run forever!" Deathwing roared at her. Jaina took a deep breath and teleported, appearing on Deathwing's back, right between his wings.
"So come kill me then," she taunted and froze the iron plate where she stood. The ice lasted just long enough to make Deathwing hiss in pain before it melted. "Ah, so you still abide by the basic laws of thermodynamics, then." She teleported away. Deathwing snorted.
"Mortal insect. You are not worth the time it will take to torment you to death. I will crush you swiftly."
"'I will crush you swiftly'," Jaina mocked.
"You are growing tiresome." Deathwing flicked his gaze away from her for a moment and Jaina felt a surge of panic. No! Keep looking at me, pay attention to me, follow me! She saw a flicker of light; Anduin, mostly hidden behind Imuruk's crouching form, with his hands pressed to something- no, not something: it was the King, his father. Anduin was healing him.
Jaina gritted her teeth. I have to keep his focus on me. But she was running out of insults. Even if Deathwing wasn't a gifted orator, his voice terrified her on a deep, primal level. She needed-
Kel'Thuzad! she called, help me insult this dragon!
My King, I'm- There was a mental grunt from the lich and through him, she glimpsed something that looked an awful lot like an entire mountain falling on Icecrown Citadel. I feel like you might be having more fun than I am right now.
On the contrary, she replied, blasting Deathwing in the face with a rain of frostbolts to keep him from turning his gaze, I think I'm about to die. But until then, I need his focus on me.
Jaina, leave them! Let the dragon have Stormwind- we need you here.
I can't leave them, she replied. Strong and proud though he was, Varian Wrynn was no match for Deathwing alone. Neither was Jaina, not really, but between the two of them, they'd managed to keep his attention contained to this single quarter of the city. Every second longer they harried him was another opportunity for the citizens to flee.
Are you their King or ours?
These people are my friends, Kel'Thuzad, and allies of Icecrown.
And you will die for them? He was angry, disgusted with Jaina, the choice she was making and the reasoning behind it.
Jaina ground her teeth in frustration- Icecrown didn't have a formal alliance with Stormwind and, had she asked for such even an hour before, she would likely have been turned down. But Varian and Anduin were her friends and she couldn't simply leave them.
Neither did she have to die protecting them. None of them could stand against Deathwing; they would have to run. They could run together and live to fight another day.
No, she conceded, I will not die for them. We've got to get out of here.
Imuruk couldn't depend on the elements to inform him or support him, not in the presence of this thing that looked like a dragon and felt like an Aspect and acted like the end of the world.
He could heal though, and so he shouldered Anduin out of the way when the youth's strength began to flag and took over for him. "You'll be able to move in a moment," he told the King of Stormwind.
Varian Wrynn had murder in his eyes. Imuruk was quietly impressed by the human's durability. Deathwing had slammed him through an ashlar wall, which resulted in broken limbs, crushed ribs, and a concussion, yet the King had never lost consciousness. Imuruk lowered his hands and Anduin helped his father to his feet.
"Let's give Lady Proudmoore a break from dragon-baiting," Varian growled to the gathered city guards. There was a flurry of brisk nods. "You and you- re-arm the ballista. You with the repeating cross-bow, get on top of the bakery. You, you and you, with me. Anduin, stay here and use your magic to protect us. Ambassador," he said to Imuruk, "don't let my son out of your sight."
Abruptly, Deathwing whirled to face them. Guardsmen dived for cover. Imuruk shoved himself in front of Anduin and drew all four totem-daggers. Varian Wrynn snarled, blood smearing his teeth, and heaved back his sword.
Deathwing lunged, fast as a snake, and pinned the King against the ground with one forepaw. Varian struggled to sit up, wielding his sword in defiance. The dragon's head shot forward, jaws snapping shut through Varian's waist, the King's entire torso inside his mouth, then drew back with one sharp yank.
Anduin staggered, unblinking, unable to breathe. Varian had not made a sound, had no time to scream or could not be heard from inside the dragon's cavernous mouth, and there had been only a muted series of pops, a sort of muffled, protracted crunch, as the King's vertebrae separated. If Anduin was ever asked, he would recall the event as a series of sounds and the most anti-climatic was that of Deathwing ripping his father in half. It should have been louder, shouldn't it? It should have been louder...
He felt Imuruk grab him as the guards screamed and surged around him, and Deathwing reared his dripping maw back, sucking in a deep breath, his nostrils aglow with the promise of incineration. Imuruk dragged Anduin right through the dragon's front legs to the opposite side of the destroyed square as Deathwing exhaled ruin on the place they had stood seconds earlier.
"Wait-" Anduin gasped. "-wait! No! No, let me go!" Anduin began to struggle. "Put me down! No! I can- he's not- I can help him! Pleeease! Ple-!"
Imuruk ignored the Prince, clapped a hand firmly over his mouth and sought shelter in the shadows. Behind them, all that remained of the guardsmen were greasy shadows on fallen walls.
"Your father told me to watch you," Imuruk whispered grimly. "I will do that."
Anduin wrestled the shaman's hand off his mouth. "We have to-!" Anduin screamed. "He- we- we have to-!"
"No," Imuruk soothed, "you can't go back." He looked the boy in the eyes. "You can't heal him. We have to go."
"We can't just leave him," Anduin begged in a whisper.
"We have to leave him. We can't fight that. We have to get you somewhere safe."
The ambient temperature plunged abruptly. Imuruk's breath became snowflakes and one of the aluminium buttons on Anduin's vest cracked spontaneously. They both turned to see Jaina advancing, levitating at Deathwing's eye level across the broken ground, her hands cast wide and pale light flaring in her open mouth with each word she spoke. They couldn't hear her over the fires and the pealing bells and the screams, but something she said had Deathwing's full attention and as the pair watched, teeth chattering, the dragon took a step back. He took another, and then another. Jaina floated mere meters from his jaws.
Then Deathwing shook his head and chuckled. "What good are your threats when you're already dead?"
He lunged, Jaina teleported, and for a full minute, he chased her as she appeared and vanished, all around the square. Her feet never touched the ground.
She popped up right in front of Anduin and Imuruk.
"Run, Anduin," she panted and disappeared.
Anduin ran. He managed to put the corner of a building between himself and Deathwing's line of sight as the dragon bore down on Jaina, and Imuruk beside her. Anduin hesitated a moment, caught Jaina's ferocious glowing gaze, and nodded. He put his hands over his ears and kept running.
Imuruk squeaked and fell over backwards. Jaina aimed a frostbolt up Deathwing's left nostril and stepped in front of the shaman.
"Get up, get up!" she gasped. "You've got to run, Imuruk! Grab my han-"
Deathwing snapped his jaws shut around Jaina.
Imuruk shrieked and bounded to his feet. His powers were not reliable but they were all he had. The shaman threw down his totems and lightning raked Deathwing's muzzle, snapping and sizzling across his armour.
Jaina reappeared beside Imuruk, looking frazzled but undamaged.
"Oh, my Lady, I thought-"
"I'm fine. Get out of here, Imuruk!"
"Too late," he gasped as Deathwing opened his mouth above them, this time not to bite but to engulf them in flames. Jaina raised her hands, crystals coalescing between them, but it was happening too slowly, the growing shield too fragile, Jaina's strength waning as Deathwing curled his cracked black lips in a triumphant sneer and exhaled.
Imuruk threw all of his will at the element of water. The shield popped and groaned, suddenly glacier-thick. Imuruk felt the element reel from his grasp but he had bought Jaina the time she needed and her spell multiplied exponentially, crystals forming and thickening and joining faster than Imuruk could see. The sound grated against his carapace. They were surrounded by a wall of ice.
Deathwing attacked the ice with his teeth when fire did no significant harm, gouging and splintering, the force of his bites sending shockwaves through the ice.
He broke the shield, too furious now to give so much as a growl of victory, intent upon Jaina. He batted Imuruk aside with a dismissive sweep of one paw and lunged for her. Imuruk expected to see her teleport but instead she stumbled aside, just barely dodging Deathwing's closing jaws, and Imuruk scrambled to his feet, shouting her name.
She dodged Deathwing's next strike too, but it knocked her on her back and before she could rise-
Imuruk threw himself across the distance between them, falling into a skid that shoved Jaina just out of Deathwing's reach. The dragon's teeth crunched through Imuruk's carapace and he was yanked off his feet.
The shock of pain, of being lifted, was eclipsed by the heat rolling up Deathwing's throat as the dragon tossed him once, caught Imuruk fully inside his mouth, and closed his jaws.
Jaina gaped, tears evaporating on her cheeks. Deathwing suddenly coughed, mouth half opening, and Jaina saw Imuruk, bleeding, crushed, fingers stabbed stubbornly into the dragon's gums, hissing a litany in his own language. Deathwing gagged. He yawned, trying to paw the shaman out of his mouth, and then Jaina felt the element of earth, the element that Deathwing was meant to embody, respond.
Ropes of molten iron spun out from the armour girding his muzzle, wrapping his upper jaw, cutting into him in bright, searing bands. Jaina raised trembling hands, meaning to add what energy she still possessed to the spell, and then Deathwing closed his mouth again. The glowing bonds shuddered and smoked.
Deathwing chewed once and swallowed.
Jaina shut her eyes and teleported. She heard Deathwing laughing now as he searched for her, but she continued to teleport away from him, stumbling, wide-eyed and silent. She nearly missed recognizing Anduin when she blinked into alley beside him. He grabbed her arm.
"An- Anduin..." she whispered. "You've got to get out of here. We must retreat."
Anduin burst into tears. "What's happening? Where's Imuruk? Are you- are you leaving?"
Jaina shook her head and crushed him against her chest in a terrified embrace. "I can't fight the dragon alone," she said, then pushed the Prince out to arm's length. "No one can fight that thing alone. We need... we need to re-group. We need an army, more than one army. You need to summon your allies. We have to leave."
Anduin grabbed her hands in his. "What do I do?" he choked out around the ash and the shock. "I don't know what to do! I'm not r-ready for this! I don't want to be King!"
Jaina's eyes widened. "Neither did I," she said gently. "But it is what it is. And we have to leave." She drew a portal with one shaking hand.
"You're coming with me, right?" he begged.
"Yes," she said and clenched his hand so hard in her grip that it hurt. "I'm here with you, Anduin. I'm here."
They plunged through the gate.
It let them out at the edge of Elwynn Forest, amidst the chaos of a spontaneous exodus.
"We always run to the woods," Anduin whispered, staring around himself with empty eyes, watching the people of Stormwind run. Some of them were carrying their children. Some of them weren't carrying anything.
Jaina knelt in front of him, drawing his attention. "Yes, we do. We know where to hide. We know how to survive."
"It's not safe here," Anduin protested, "he'll know. He'll find us and he'll burn the whole forest down."
A long way off, Deathwing roared. Both Jaina and Anduin flinched.
"Anduin," she said, "Look at me."
"What is the appropriate protocol for a full evacuation of Stormwind?"
"We... well, it depends," he began. "It depends on the threat and- and- the King."
"Classify the threat."
"Um, he's airborne."
"Are you sure?"
"No, I mean, he came out of the air so we know he can fly but- there's a house downhill there, an inn. Can you get us on top of it so I can see the city better?"
Jaina nodded and made another portal. They stood on the roof of the sturdy inn and shaded their eyes against the setting sun, peering at the smoking wreck of Stormwind.
"He's not flying," said Anduin eventually. "What's he doing? He's not chasing people. I can see his wings I think."
"He's not mobile for the time being. What do we do?"
Anduin looked around. "Get everyone into the woods. Hide them. If he wants to kill everyone, he has to find them first. There are places we can hide. If he can't see us, he won't know where to start."
"Good. Go. Do it."
Anduin hesitated. "What if I'm wrong? I don't know what he's going to do next and everyone is just-" he gestured, "-everywhere. What if I-"
"Anduin," Jaina interuppted, "you're not alone. You're their King. Get them to help you. Look, that woman- she's an officer of the guard. Hail her! Get her to help you organize. That man- see what he's carrying? He's a herbalist, a healer. You need him."
"Okay," said Anduin, gaze darting between the two. "We gotta get down." She portaled them to the ground. "Aunt Jaina, can you get her, I'll get him? Meet back here."
Jaina saluted and trotted off after the guard. She felt light-headed, emptied out, and dehydrated.
"Ma'am!" she called. The woman turned, did a double-take, and bowed hurriedly.
"Meet King Wrynn in the lee of the inn. He has use of you."
"King Wrynn is dead," she whispered, "everyone says-"
"Anduin Wrynn," said Jaina. "Go!"
It seemed that most of Stormwind knew exactly what to do in dire circumstances. Jaina wasn't surprised; the city-state had been at war or under threat of attack for decades. While it was usually safer for civilians to live within the walls of the city, Anduin was right: when the protection of those walls failed, people fled to the forest. They had hiding places, food stores, weapons caches, means of communication.
Jaina posted two sharp-eyed sentries at the edge of the woods, within sprinting distance of the inn, and bade them keep watch on Deathwing. Then she re-joined Anduin.
He stood at the centre of a group of adults, all of them arguing over his head.
"My King," said Jaina, just loud enough and with enough haunting Lich King lilt in her voice that the group took immediate notice of her. She sank to one knee. "We have long been friends, Anduin Wrynn. Under these least favourable circumstances, I would offer you allegiance as well."
There was momentary silence.
"Lady Proudmoore, Lich King of Icecrown, I accept your offer," said Anduin solemnly and when Jaina raised her head, she saw something of the man that Anduin would be one day in the set of his jaw. She smiled.
"What assistance can I render you?" she said.
"Lady King, I have need of Stormwind's allies, and swiftly. I require portals to several far distant locations."
"As you wish," she said and rose. Jaina opened a series of portals, under Anduin's direction, ignoring the twinge of anxiety that the one to Light's Hope brought with it. He dispatched hastily-briefed emissaries through each one and then they waited.
Anduin looked up at her.
"They're only listening to me because you're here," he said.
Jaina nodded. "Some of them. Some of them are listening because you are their King and they need you to be their King."
"I wish they would stop talking over me."
"Then make them stop," Jaina urged. "Plus, someday you'll actually be taller than pretty much everyone. That'll help."
Anduin cracked a small smile. "People still talk over you, just because you're short?"
"Oh, all the time. The Death Knights are all taller than me, all of my ambassadors, the Nerubians- and Kel'Thuzad, by the Light, don't get me started."
"What do you do?"
"Demand their attention. Tell them to be silent."
"Does that work?"
"It does." She paused. "You will have to keep reminding people that they should pay attention to you. Demand it, and once you have their attention, deserve it."
Anduin looked down at the ground. A fine layer of grey ash was beginning to settle. "What if I don't deserve it? What if my ideas aren't the right ones? What if I get somebody killed?" His voice wavered.
Jaina leaned back against the wall and sighed. "Anduin, I asked myself- no, I still ask- all of those questions and... you can't know. You can't know what will be right or what will be better. All you can do is the best that you can in any situation." She smiled at his stricken expression. "I'm not going to lie to make you feel better. This is hard work. But you're strong, Anduin, and you're smart, and you're compassionate. You don't want people to suffer or die and so you will figure out a way to help them."
He looked down at his hands. "What if I can't?"
Jaina was silent for a moment. "Sometimes people will die because you do nothing. Sometimes they will die doing things that you asked them to do."
"Yes," she said softly.
"My father- I know my father- I know he- I know that he was trying to protect me. Protect everyone, really."
The two sentries charged down the stairs, breathless. Neither of them bowed.
"King, Lady- the dragon is leaving! He flew west, out to sea!"
Anduin stood up. "May the Maelstrom's winds bring him down and drown him."
The first foreign emissary to Stormwind arrived moments later through the portal Jaina had formed. He was Draenei, and he stared at Jaina with open surprise. She ignored him. The others trickled in over a period of half an hour. There was no small talk. When a new dignitary arrived, one of the others would quietly recap all they knew and the conversation would continue.
Tirion Fordring was last to arrive. Jaina turned her gaze aside and listened to Anduin debate strategy. She added her voice to the discussion only when bid to do so. Tirion watched her but each time she looked up, he lowered his eyes.
Anduin looked at no one; he stared into the middle distance as he spoke. He was sweating with the almost-physical effort of articulating himself in proper language to the basement full of emissaries, but he was succeeding. They tried to interrupt him several times at the beginning of the meeting and Anduin simply kept on speaking, hands clasped behind his back, eyes focused on nothing.
He reminded Jaina of an astronomer. A friend of her father had taken an interest in the stars and he had described to Jaina the way he looked at nothing in order to make out the faint lights of distant stars. Anduin looked at none of them but heard them all. He was fourteen years old and he heard them all and they had no choice but to hear him because he was the King of his domain and they were his guests and allies.
A course of action was decided upon and Jaina set to opening portals again.
Tirion Fordring paused beside her. She glanced up at him and he met her eyes for a brief second. Then he looked away and stepped through the portal without a word, vanishing as it dissolved behind him.
Anduin put a hand on her arm. "Lady Proudmoore, you have done so much for me already this day." He looked around. The basement was now empty save for one of the sentries and the two of them. His shoulders sank and he let out a sigh. "I'm sure I should be worrying about something right now but I'm so tired I can't- I can't even think."
Jaina nodded and resisted the urge to tousle his hair. She remembered Varok Saurfang patting her on the head the morning after her ascension. She compromised and put a steadying hand on Anduin's shoulder.
"Eat something. Get some rest," she said.
Anduin hugged her abruptly. "Thank you," he whispered. "If I- if I need your counsel, I will contact you."
"I will do what I can," she said with a smile, then held the young King out at arm's length. "Anduin, I'm proud of you."
"Quit it. You're making me sniffle."
"Sorry." Jaina bowed. "Fare well, my King," she said.
"Fare well, Lady Proudmoore."
The portal opened in the great hall of Icecrown Citadel and Jaina stepped out, alone. She was aware that she reeked of smoke and magic. The hall was warm, filled with people and light; the Scourge and the Nerubians and the mish-mash of Starkweather's construction crew, all of whom looked as exhausted as she felt but markedly more positive. There was food and coffee and spirits on over-turned barrels and Starkweather was tuning his fiddle.
All of them fell silent at Jaina's appearance. She straightened her tattered dress.
"We are at war."
A hush fell over the room.
"I have sworn aid to the city of Stormwind, and to its ruler, my friend, King Anduin Wrynn."
Kel'Thuzad watched from the back of the hall as she continued to speak. The Scourge listened, rapt by default, but the Nerubians were attentive to her words as well. Anu'Shukhet came up beside him. Kel'Thuzad didn't acknowledge her until Jaina had finished speaking and began to make her way toward the stairs.
"I will not fight this war unless it comes to our shores," the Nerubian General murmured to Kel'Thuzad. "The terms of our alliance are for trade only, not battle."
"What do you call our contest against the volcano just now?" said Kel'Thuzad. "Real estate management?"
"An act of nature," said Anu'Shukhet.
"Provoked by the madness of the dragon that destroyed Stormwind. If it weren't for Deathwing's influence, the volcano would still be dormant."
"The terms of our treaty are not martial, lich."
"Hmph. I rather think you would have fun mauling elementals and drakes and whatever else he decides to send at the next city he targets."
Anu'Shukhet gave a hiss of amusement, then straightened as Jaina began to make her way through the crowd toward them.
"Lady King," Anu'Shukhet nodded.
"General," Jaina replied softly. For a long moment, she didn't speak. She stared at the floor and then took a deep breath. "Imuruk lost his life in the battle. He stood bravely against Deathwing." She swallowed, emotion overwhelming her brittle composure. "Anu'Shukhet, I... I am deeply sorry. Please, if there is anything..."
"There is not," Anu'Shukhet replied, her deep voice little more than a whisper. She looked down at Jaina, green eyes twitching with some unfathomable emotion, and then she turned and left the hall.
"But he's a shaman!" spat Kel'Thuzad. "Can't he reanimate himself? The spell is instant!"
"He didn't have ti-"
"Idiot!" snarled Kel'Thuzad and whirled away, shoulders hunched, long talons flexing. "Foolish!" The crowd scattered in his path and Jaina put a hand to her forehead, hiding her eyes for a brief moment before she made her way slowly toward her chamber.
It was raining when Jaina woke up. At first the sound of water pattering against her window was so alien that she couldn't place it. It had rained everyday in Theramore, she remembered. Every afternoon, predictable as clockwork. Jaina got up slowly, her muscles stiff and bruised. She stood at the window, watching until the rain stopped.
The world had gone crazier overnight. Deathwing had made landfall in Kalimdor, attacking Orgrimmar and then heading south. Jaina waited, holding her breath for news of Theramore, but Deathwing passed by her old home, pausing briefly to start an immense grass fire in the Barrens.
There were three nervous-looking envoys awaiting audience with Jaina, all of whom had arrived via portal on her doorstep after she had retired, much to the consternation of Starkweather. The Death Knight was keeping an unwelcoming eye on the trio.
Jaina met with each envoy separately, nodding her way through three similar, breathless descriptions of elemental attacks and dragon sightings.
The last envoy was from Dalaran. Jaina didn't hide her surprise. After the young man, just barely out of his apprenticeship, finished describing the attacks suffered by the mage's city, he drew a thin bound volume from his satchel.
"Lady Proudmoore, there is one last item I have been asked to address with you. Dalaran wishes to know the true identity of this author. Er, the author of this article. If you know their identity, that is." He flipped to a page and held it out to her. Kazimir Frostblood.
Jaina picked up the Dalaran Journal of Thaumatechnology and found herself looking at Kel'Thuzad's paper on the healing applications of necromancy. "Kel'Thuzad," she said.
The apprentice flinched. "Dalaran wishes to know if you were aware of this deception?"
"No," she lied, and turned the page. "Have you read it?"
"Yes." The envoy paused. "It makes sense," he fumed.
"No one ever accused Kel'Thuzad of being stupid. What would Dalaran have me do?"
The man chewed his lip. "They didn't say."
"Good. Kel'Thuzad is a citizen of my sovereign state and it is not Dalaran's place to decide what punishment my citizens should endure for literary dishonesty."
The apprentice nodded. "Yes, Lady Proudmoore. Thank you for your attention."
Jaina escorted him out and went to see Kel'Thuzad. The lich was in his laboratory, alone, contemplating a steaming flask of some violently green solution, arms folded over his chest. He looked up when she entered.
"I see you accommodated the peer reviewers' recommendations," she said and tossed the folded journal onto the table. He eyed it for a moment. Jaina read all kinds of amusement in his body language.
"They're lucky they were anonymous."
Jaina sat down on the bench furthest from the mysterious bubbling liquid. "At least you thanked them. You didn't even put me in the acknowledgements."
"You were the case study."
"Not for my part in the research, for the sixteen split infinitives that never made it to your peer reviewers."
Kel'Thuzad grunted. "At least I know how to use an apostrophe."
Jaina made an exaggerated sniff of offense and then was quiet for a minute. "I left Anduin in Elwynn Forest with a group of refugees. I didn't know what to tell him, Kel'Thuzad."
Kel'Thuzad didn't turn around. "You were in shock, too." He picked up a spark lighter and fiddled with the tool before replying. "Why should you have to tell him anything?" he asked.
"Because he's not ready to be King," she said. "He doesn't even know what he doesn't know yet. He's not like his father and all of the allies that his father collected are going to look at him and see a fourteen-year-old boy who practices holy magic rather than a gladiator and they'll doubt him. They'll disregard him and manoeuvre around him and trample his authority." She grimaced.
Kel'Thuzad squeezed the spark lighter, scraping the flint and steel over each other. "You empathize with the boy's position."
Jaina bit her lip. "At least I was accustomed to ruling a kingdom."
"Ah. Well, he'll learn," said the lich. "Or he'll die trying."
He turned around and folded his arms across his chest. "Jaina, he's been Crown Prince of Stormwind since he was born. He's studied to take over that kingdom his entire life. Varian Wrynn didn't exactly live quietly and the boy has probably imagined a scenario where his father died violently. Now he has to face it. I fail to share your anxiety and your desire to meddle in politics."
"It's not meddling-"
"It is meddling."
"It's not. Anduin is my friend-"
"For now. What if he's a rubbish politician? Or he makes decisions that you disagree with? What if he turns into a power-hungry tyrant? Odds are good he'll be too gentle and forgiving and get himself assassinated, but stranger things have happened."
"Kel'Thuzad!" she snapped. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether the lich was playing devil's advocate because he was genuinely trying to help or because the part just came naturally. "The point is that I don't know what sort of politician he will be and I would like to help him become the best King that he can be. He needs to know that he has support, guidance, and loyal allies."
Kel'Thuzad tapped his teeth. "You and the boy. Kingship thrust upon you, unwanted, allies and friends uncertain of your abilities and allegiances..." His voice trailed off and he cocked his head. "You want him to achieve easily what you struggled for. Interesting."
Jaina's pale brows knit. "Yes. I didn't enjoy the hardships this position brought me and I wouldn't wish Anduin to endure them either. I made my mistakes in Theramore, surrounded by friends and allies. It was a tolerant environment and we were not at war. If I can somehow make Anduin's reign easier, then I will."
They peered at each other across the room.
Kel'Thuzad looked down at the spark lighter still in his grip. "We're very different, aren't we?" he said at last.
Jaina pursed her lips. "Yes. But also no. You helped me."
"With your studies, because you are my King."
"At first. I would like to think, now, that we're more than just an unwilling teacher and student."
Kel'Thuzad faced her fully and something in his posture made him seem unbearably awkward for a moment. "Sometimes it's hard to separate you from Arthas, despite your many differences."
Jaina's eyes widened.
Kel'Thuzad placed the spark lighter back on the counter and looked down at it. "You are an easy King to follow and so was he. I loved him, I think. But... Arthas' malice was breath-taking. It was pure and irresistible. You felt it, didn't you? In the Halls of Reflection?"
Jaina's skin prickled with remembered cold and fear. "Yes."
"Your compassion is as powerful as his malice but I find it... harder to understand. Cruelty is simple, bloodthirst is simple, even the desire to dominate is simple despite the machinations necessary to achieve it." He paused. "Love, empathy, attachment is complex and..." He tapped his teeth. "Constantly evolving. It makes eternal loyalty more difficult."
"It makes leading difficult," said Jaina. "And maintaining alliances. I still have enormous respect for Highlord Fordring, despite what he may think of me." She joined Kel'Thuzad at his bench and surveyed the array of ingredients before him. "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Why didn't you try to kill me? You could have, in the beginning, I think. You could have helped the Death Knights assassinate me."
He nodded. "I thought about it. You were still new to the power. I could still work around your control a little bit. King or not, however, I don't know that I could best you in a serious fight." He hissed in amusement. "My ego would say yes, but cold practicality says probably not."
"So why didn't you try?"
"I was curious," he said with a shrug. "Logically, there were much worse possibilities. You had experience ruling a kingdom and commanding magic. You weren't Tirion Fordring or Darion Mograine. You were too strong for the power of the Helm to swallow your will." He paused and cocked an eye down at her. "And, your mark on that Advanced Conjuration final notwithstanding, I always liked you a little bit. So, tell me: why didn't you have me executed?"
Jaina's lips quirked into a smile. She reached for a beaker. "Because the only other way to have an intelligent conversation around here would be to talk to myself."
Kel'Thuzad chuckled. "And people wonder why I had a cat..."