Chapter 22 – Ever Your Ally
Kel'Thuzad extended the sword toward Jaina's throat and held it there, unwavering. Jaina was momentarily preoccupied by his weapon of choice; he did not typically favour swords.
"Your reign is over," he said. Between his bony fingers, the sword's grip was rimed with frost: big, rough crystals that hissed and purred as they grew along his metacarpals and slowly climbed his wrist. The crimson light in his eye-sockets flared for a moment and he inclined his head, expressionless skull seeming to grin down at her in triumph.
"This is mine now." He twisted the sword, calling her attention back to the flawless saronite blade hovering a whisper's breadth from her neck. "And this too." With his other hand, he raised the Helm of Domination, black and loathsome, dripping from the inside.
Jaina paused a moment before answering. She analyzed her surroundings, keeping eye contact. There was no wind; the air was cool against her cheek. Her clothes felt grimy, like she had been wearing them for days, and her boots were sodden inside. But she wasn't cold. She was rather warm, in fact, comfortable and quite calm, as though this betrayal and the savage battle she would now need to engage were-
Jaina was dreaming. She supposed she must dream every night, but it had been a long time she had found herself lucid inside her own cluttered unconscious.
"Frostmorne was shattered," she told the figure of Kel'Thuzad. "And the Helm is mine."
He melted into mist before her.
Jaina's hand became heavy then, filled with an unfamiliar weight. She found herself dressed in armour, plate armour that no mage would ever wear, and a helm- no, it was the Helm, for she remembered how it narrowed her vision when she wore it. She began to walk and then she could see herself from outside.
She held Frostmourne now. She wielded the blade as easily as a wand and she watched as her own arm raised it to cleave the chest of a knight in Stormwind regalia. From beneath the Helm, her white hair streamed, ragged and overlong, and no breath issued from the metal slit over her lips.
This, too, dissolved.
Now she was leaning her elbows on the top rail of a paddock fence. Inside the paddock were a boy and a horse. The horse was in high spirits, tail flagging as it trotted obediently around the boy in a circle, tossing it's head when he called praise or correction to it. Jaina relaxed against the rough wood. She slitted her eyes against the high summer sun and took a deep breath, smelling hay and grass and the distant tang of salt-water. This was some aggregation of memories, of things that still brought her contentment, things that she acknowledged she had lost forever or exchanged for new happiness.
She lingered in the scene, watching young Arthas and his beloved steed. He was oblivious to her presence and after a while, she let her subconscious roam away, though the sense of contentment remained.
She found herself curled up on a couch before a steady fire, a book in her lap and the plague hound Dreilide asleep at her feet. Snow careened past the window, streaks of white against a dark background, and Jaina settled into the familiar surroundings.
Jaina woke to muffled conversation and the soft creak of wood. Her nose was cold. She snuggled down further under her blankets for a moment, perusing the content of her dreams.
She did not really fear betrayal by her best lieutenant. Kel'Thuzad was amaranthine and contrary, but he forced her to defend and examine her ideas, and that made her stronger. Jaina cast aside the vision of herself walking undead through an abattoir of her own making; old fears, recycled and blunted. She smiled at the memory of Arthas as she had loved him. There was sadness there, but no anger or confusion. She had loved him, and it was over.
She would rather dream of ice, these days.
Jaina sat up and fumbled for stockings. She pulled them under the blankets for a few minutes before putting them on, then lunged out of bed and hastily donned the rest of her attire with practised speed. She contemplated putting on gloves before she left her cabin, but decided they were superfluous.
She was on a ship, slipping silently through a subtle fog controlled and directed by Taunka shaman. From above, the fog was probably quite obvious and suspicious, and trouble these days tended to come from above, but it hid the number of her company and what equipment her ships were carrying.
"Coffee, your Majesty?" The ship's Captain, a living, Taunka man with tawny fur, approached her.
"Yes," she replied and accepted the mug. It was still dark; pre-dawn, she guessed. They moved without lights aboard. Somewhere beyond the fog, there would still be stars visible. "Have there been sightings?"
"One, Majesty. Two shapes, both large, both heading south-east two hours and ten minutes ago. They didn't slow or change course when they neared our position; I'm not sure they spotted us."
"Intent on their target, perhaps. Our progress?"
"On schedule, Lady King, although the wind is changing. We may need to break out the oars."
"Whatever you deem necessary, Captain."
"As you will." He bowed and strode away across the deck, hooves making muffled thumps in the dense, unnatural fog.
Jaina cupped her hands around the aluminium mug and let the steam warm her face.
Roxie Rocketsocks was long past the point of exhaustion. She had been keeping track of the hours she did not sleep as she dragged herself, step by stubborn step, towards the northern shore of the broken Wetlands. Now, she thought she might have the numbers backwards, but really how much of a difference did it make when the number of sleepless hours was either 45 or 54? Well, 54 was probably worse. It was also probably the correct number.
But she had been told she would find the Marshal and his army- or what was left of it- on an island beyond the bay and she had an important message to deliver with all haste. When didn't Roxie have an important message to deliver?
In the nine months since Deathwing had razed Stormwind and taken off on a world-wide tour of destruction, Roxie had run important messages from one end of Azeroth to the other. In fact, she had managed to log more kilometres than any other postal goblin so far that year, a feat which she made sure had resulted in prodigious pay raises.
Not that gold mattered a jot when her woolen socks were soaked through with putrid marsh water. Roxie would put up with a lot of discomfort in the name of mail circulation, but wet feet was the very last straw. She was miserable and that made her irritable. Which, in turn, made her nearly unstoppable in the face of potential obstacles, but she didn't want to waste time maiming Gnoll sentinels, she just wanted to reach a damn boat to go to the damn island so she could deliver her message, take a nap, catch a meal, and head off to her next (hopefully less damp) assignment.
And now, having knocked out the guards and slunk through yet more smelly black water, she had arrived at the small ferry that would convey her to Tol Barad.
"Ye'll have ta help us row," said the scrawny dwarf in charge of the ferry. "Wind's're strange t'night." Gritting her teeth, Roxie set to. One every stroke, she was aware of the missive in its waterproof pouch, strapped to her waist beneath her filthy uniform, bending and wrinkling, as she pulled the oars.
As they drew out beyond the reaching peninsula that was Gilneas to the north, the wind returned somewhat and the ferry captain raised a small, square sail. Roxie sat back, massaging her aching biceps with one hand. The dwarves watched her mutely.
She smelled woodsmoke first, and then a bouquet of other burning materials. The nearer they drew to the island- a humped, charcoal smudge on the bleakly grey horizon- the more acrid and stifling the smoke became. Roxie wrapped a wet cloth over her mouth and nose.
"This's as far as we go," said the captain, crouching between the gunwales, eyes darting fitfully toward the looming landmass. "Ye'll have to swim."
"Or I'll knock you all overboard and take your boat and you'll have to swim," she said through bared teeth. The dwarvish crew- there were only three of them- shifted nervously.
"Tis death to go any closer, lass," said the captain. "Horde an' Alliance be clashin' day an' night. There's mines in the water an' stray mortars in t'air."
"Do you hear mortar fire?" hissed Roxie. "Do you hear anything? No one is fighting."
"P'raps it's a ruse?"
"They're hiding," she said. "Because they know there's something worse than each other out there and they don't want to attract its attention. Now the faster you get me to land, the faster you can turn around and go home."
Dwarves were, Roxie noted, known for their sense of honour, and none of the three ragged ferry crew were any less than typical dwarves, apparently. To flee and abandon her here, in the water, would be a shameful course of action and postal workers did tend to get around and take tales of shifty boatmen with them. They debated briefly among themselves, but decided to comply, and presently Roxie was creeping across blackened sand into the smoky battleground of Tol Barad.
Had she been better rested or less distracted by her wet socks, Roxie might have seen the first mine. As it was, she heard the metallic click as she set her weight on the trigger and froze.
She leaned over and gingerly swept the sand away from the object with her fingertips. It was Gnomish in design, which Roxie found heartening: it meant she had landed near the Alliance encampment, which was where she needed to be. The ferry had come up from the south-east and deposited Roxie on the shattered strand outside Baradin Base Camp.
From then on, it was a simple task to disarm the mine and move vigilantly across the beach to the hazy shapes of the base camp, visible through the omnipresent smoke.
Or rather, what remained of the camp. Roxie met several rats and a skinny dog, but no living Alliance citizens. The camp was little more than a swath of charred sand and the skeletal frames of burnt-out building. Thick timbers, still aglow, indicated former fortifications. Bones, bits of metal, spikes and axles from destroyed siege machines, canons, and one bedraggle blue pennant littered the site.
"Dragons," she muttered. Was she too late?
Roxie picked her way across scorched earth to Hellscream's Grasp and found the Horde headquarters in a similar state.
For a moment she stood still. She listened to the quiet sounds on the wind, and took deep breaths of the acrid air. There were no voices, no click or clatter of armoured bodies, but neither was there the tell-tale cry of gulls or crows. There were no corpses left unattended for the birds to feed on, and a lack of corpses on a battlefield meant that both sides still numbered enough to retrieve their dead and wounded.
"Baradin Hold," she murmured to herself, and set out for the Blackstone Span.
She managed to cross it and enter the broken gates before she was halted.
"Where'd you come from? How'd you get here?" A bearded human man thrust a spear toward her.
Roxie frowned. "Get that thing outta my face and back off. I'm with the Azeroth Postal Service and I have a letter for the Marshal."
"Marshal's dead," hissed a sallow-faced Blood Elf woman. She was pointing a crossbow at Roxie's feet with what appeared to be the last of her strength.
Roxie looked from one to the other. "What the hell happened? I thought you guys were fighting each other."
The human and the Blood Elf exchanged a weary glance. "Temporary cease-fire," said the bearded man.
"We've got...bigger problems," said the Blood Elf.
"The fire-breathing kind with scales, I assume," said Roxie. "Anyway, if the marshal's dead, I need to speak to the commander."
"The major, then."
"Well, who's alive? Who's in command? One of the Horde?"
The Blood Elf pursed her lips in annoyance. "They're dead."
"Everyone important," said the human man.
"Well, shit," said Roxie. "Who's in charge? Somebody must've made the ceasefire stick or y'all'd be out there having a ridiculous melee."
The two shared another glance. Roxie cocked a hip impatiently; her socks squelched.
"You're with the postal service?" Roxie nodded. "Prove it," said the human, so Roxie knocked them both out, tied their ankles together, and dragged them into Baradin Hold until she met more guards who could give her better answers.
These guards- a Worgen and a Troll- brought her into Baradin Hold proper, down to a cellar crammed with miserable, tired warriors. At the back of the room, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, leaning over a writhing Orc, was a hollow-eyed youth flanked by two Draenei priests.
"Y'all had me worried," said Roxie. "That's the guy I wanted to see."
"Anders? He's some kid," said the Worgen, confused.
"Anders? That's Anduin Wrynn, you dunce. King Anduin Wrynn. Like, the leader of the kingdom of Stormwind?" Roxie didn't waste time enjoying their expressions. She hurried over to the young priest. "Pardon me Your Majesty. I have a message from your Aunt."
Anduin nodded but didn't look up. Sweat beaded his brow under a shock of dirty, blond hair. The Orc woman on the table relaxed as the pale light between his hands swelled over her wounds and a moment later, he straightened up and she relaxed into unconsciousness.
"I don't have an Aunt," he said to the postal goblin. To either side, his Draenei guardians tensed.
"It's from King Jaina," said the goblin. She dug under her tattered vest and produced a latter. It was crumpled but the wax seal was still intact, Anduin noted with surprise. He took it from her with a nod of respect, and scanned the letter. Excitement flooded him with renewed energy.
Then, from somewhere above them there was a bestial scream, followed by an earth-shaking impact.
"They're back!" someone yelled, and every conscious occupant of the room fumbled stubbornly for their weapons. Anduin stuffed the letter into his pocket with a shaking hand.
"Have hope!" he shouted over the rising chaos of desperate warriors. "Reinforcements are all but upon us!"
"Praise the Light!" cheered the Draenei priest at his side.
"Well, not exactly," murmured Anduin.
The postal goblin put a hand on the Draenei's sleeve.
"Hey, do you guys got an extra cot I could sack out on for a couple minutes before this place is on fire?"
Anduin shook his head at her nonchalance and forced himself into a trot as he climbed the stairs.
"The cannons are all smashed," said the priestess. "Arrows are useless. Our magic is weakened by fatigue. How will we repel them until reinforcements arrive?"
"We don't have to repel them for long," said Anduin, squinting into the smoke as they left the cellar stairs. The sun was up, an angry red masked by shifting smoke. Anduin calculated it was around ten o'clock. Jaina was punctual to a fault; the dragons would be in for a surprise. "We just need to distract them for a few more minutes."
"Anders!" A man in tattered Gilneas colours slid to a halt. "There are ships out there, to the north! Ships with black sails!" His voice cracked and he swallowed, too frightened and tired for embarrassment.
"Black dragonflight!" gasped the priestess.
"They're too far away, I can't make out their heraldry for certain but-"
"It's the Lich King," said Anduin and for the first time in weeks, he felt a frisson of mad glee. "She's coming to our aid." Mutters spread through the gathered fighters. Anduin saw uncertainty on their faces.
The two Draenei shared a dubious glance. "You cannot be sure, Anduin. Black sails..."
"It's Jaina," he said with certainty. "Where are the dragons?"
"Circling, your Majesty. We must stay under cover."
"If she's coming by sea, she will need a place to land her troops."
Tol Barad Island was roughly square, surrounded by rocky cliffs on three sides and a treacherously narrow straight spanned by the Blackstone on the fourth. There was nowhere to land on the island itself; Jaina would have to disembark on the peninsula, where the ruins of both factions' base camps would provide little in the way of cover. Jaina had chosen the only available location to put ashore.
"Wellson Shipyard," said Anduin. "Or, you know, what's left of it. She's coming in to the Shipyard. We have to distract them long enough for her to unload-"
"Here they come!"
The dragons were adults, big glistening black beasts with thick spiralled horns and sickle claws, wingspans wider than Anduin's field of vision as they swooped out of the smoke.
"Drakes!" Someone screamed behind them and Anduin whirled to see a mass of lithe shapes galloping out of the pall from the other direction.
"Make for the span!" he bellowed, momentarily shaken by how much he sounded like his father. "To the shipyard!"
To call it a running battle would be too charitable. It was a frenzied, barely shielded rout. They made it to the shipyard, fleeing to every nook and crevice where the dragonfire could not reach them, and then suddenly, the dragons turned away. The drakes retreated into the drifting smoke. No one dared to move.
"What's going on?" whispered a Worgen crouched inside the door of a warehouse where Anduin had taken shelter.
"They're trying to draw us out," murmured the goblin postal worker who had brought Jaina's message to Anduin. She had a dagger in one fist and what appeared to be a cup of coffee in the other. The Worgen dared to peer out of one smashed window.
"There's a ship in the harbour," she whispered. "Black sails."
Anduin crept over beside her.
The sails were doused, the ship swaying at anchor. It appeared deserted. There was a thick fog creeping in around it, tendrils reaching through the rigging toward the wharf. Through the fog came the silhouette of another ship, and behind it, another. All three made anchor within metres of each other. The muffled sound of a ratcheting chain reached their ears from the last ship, but other than that, there was no evidence that any of them were crewed.
The dragons evidently weren't taking chances. Both of them dived at the first ship, flames leading the way, but the befogged rigging did not take light easily. They came around for a second pass.
From beneath a netted mass of supplies on deck, an enormous form erupted. At first Anduin could not name what it was, for it reared up so quickly, baying with a furious, alien voice. One of the dragons turned, great wings scooping the air as it steadied itself.
Anduin registered the insectoid shape, a sapphire carapace, and the briefest glimpse of overlapping blue-and-gold regalia on the creature's shoulders as it lunged. The dragon twisted in mid-air but the Nerubian Spiderlord snatched it down in a crushing, serrated embrace. The dragon's momentum carried them both over the side of the ship, a mass of thrashing claws and frantically beating wings.
The ships exploded with action then, swarms of figures purged from every hatch. They flung themselves overboard without care and Anduin realized that they had no reason to mind the cold, suffocating water: the Scourge had arrived.
"Wait," he hissed, when someone gave a thready cheer. "Wait."
The second dragon returned, braying indignantly, circling and breathing fire, diving and snapping at the streams of undead soldiers still exiting the ships. They began to emerge on the shore, wet and uncaring, clambering over rocks and onto piers, brandishing swords and axes and crossbows, and the drakes reappeared, called out of the smoke by their older sibling. The battle was joined.
"Okay, now we can cheer," said the postal goblin. The Worgen beside Anduin gave an uncertain growl.
"To arms!" Anduin bellowed. The goblin and the Worgen both vaulted the low wall and charged into the fray.
At the shoreline, the water began to churn, foam tinged pink. The brilliant blue carapace of the Nerubian warrior burst upwards, then sank back.
"Can it swim?" asked the Draenei priest, on his feet.
"I... I don't know," said Anduin. He knew that the living Nerubians were allied with Jaina, so he assumed the creature was not undead and that it would need to breathe. "Let us render aid."
The second dragon had a different idea. It too had noticed the splashing and zeroed in on the Spiderlord's location, banking with murderous intent. Anduin began to raise a golden shield of light between the two but he was not fast enough.
Before the dragon struck, something huge and pale dropped out of the fog and slammed into it, bludgeoning it sideways with a screech. Anduin caught a flash of tattered wings and the round hollow of an eye-socket.
"Ice wyrm!" the Draenei priestess screamed. She cowered and Anduin reached over to pat her arm.
"It's here to help," Anduin assured her. "Come on. The ice wyrm fights for Lady Jaina and for us, now."
The Nerubian dragged itself ashore and waded through the drakes toward Anduin's position.
"Hail Anduin Wrynn, Human King of Stormwind!" The creature swatted a drake aside. "I am Anu'Shukhet, General of the Northern Front. We bring reinforcements and transportation!"
Anduin stepped forward and held up a hand in greeting. "Hail, Anu'Shukhet! You are a most welcome sight on these shores."
The Spiderlord trampled another drake- more by accident than design, Anduin thought- and halted several metres from him, eyeing his out-stretched hand. The pair of Draenei priests crowded close behind Anduin, both bristling with uncertainty. "Well met, Anduin Wrynn," said Anu'Shukhet, and gave him a nod of respect, "Our Lady King speaks well of you. How fares your corner of the war?"
Anduin glanced about the shipyard, at his bedraggled, mixed-species company slowly emerging from the ruins. "I won't lie, sir. It has been dire, until your timely arrival."
"Ma'am," said Anu'Shukhet.
"You've mistaken my gender."
"My apologies," said Anduin quickly, "I've only ever met one other of your kind."
"Yes. He was my mate. Imuruk," she said, the deep resonance of her voice purring with fondness. "He is well remembered." She turned, fluttering her hind wings, and surveyed the ships at anchor. "The Captain tells me the tide will turn soon; let's get your people on board and to safety."
It took the better part of high tide to get Anduin's motley company situated on the Scourge ships and still Anduin had not seen a glimpse of Jaina.
"I would very much like to speak with your Lady King," he told Anu'Shukhet. The Spiderlord was nestled into her own special seat, a reinforced hold sunk into the deck which put her at roughly eye level with Anduin.
"The Lady King is not aboard this ship," said Anu'Shukhet. "She stayed at sea with the Admiral to watch for more dragon filth. We will rejoin the fleet tonight. You may speak with her then."
"Fleet?" said Anduin.
Anu'Shukhet nodded. "Deathwing avoids Northrend," she said. "Lichlord Kel'Thuzad guesses it has something to do with the presence of Dalaran. Apparently the mages there brought him down once before, though they failed to finish the job. Lady Jaina believes it is the cold weather acting on Deathwing's iron skin. I tend to believe the bastard just wants to keep his one remaining eye safe from Jaina's wrath." She chuckled darkly. "You were there."
Anu'Shukhet ground her mandibles together in a gesture Anduin chose to interpret as approval rather than hunger. "Whatever the truth is, since Deathwing will not come to us, the Lady King elected we bring the war to him. The little tusked sea people on the southern shores built ships to her specifications; the Taunka shamans and druids protect them; Lady Jaina grew up at a sea admiral's knee, and she commands us."
"And you?" said Anduin, finding himself fascinated by the Spiderlord.
Anu'Shukhet turned one green eye on him, appearing thoughtful. "I hate boats and I hate water, but I hate the dragons more."
They moved out to sea with the tide. After an hour, the fog began to unwrap itself from the trio of ships, and Anduin stood on the deck beside the two Draenei, gripping the Spiderlord's armoured shoulder to steady himself against the motion of the ship. Behind them, a Kaluak navigator called out occasionally to the Night Elf Death Knight at the helm. Their common language appeared to be Orcish. Anduin shook his head in wonder.
Anduin sensed the rest of the fleet before he saw them. They too had done away with the cloak of fog but to a priest of the Light, attuned to holy magic and protection, the Scourge ships stood out regardless of visual deception.
There was a tingle of cold that never completely faded when Anduin was around Jaina or the Scourge. He felt that first. Then, as they came closer, he felt an ominous well of power, of restrained intent, and the crawling black tendrils of necromancy that couldn't quite keep itself from creeping toward the living. Anduin's holy senses automatically focused on this locus of ill-will and he had to calm himself in order to see the greater magic that lurked, quiet and awesome, beyond it like a wall.
That, he recognized, was Kel'Thuzad and Jaina.
"I think I remember you telling me that the last time you were at sea, you were an infant and lost adrift." The Lich King's voice sifted through the thick air between the ships. Anduin tried not to smile. "I can't put much stock in your nautical advice, Kel'Thuzad."
The lichlord responded with a hiss. "I think we are matched when it comes to naval experience, your pedigree notwithstanding."
They were close enough for Anduin to see them now, in the yellow light of lanterns along the railings, Jaina's petite, purple-clad figure dwarfed by her skeletal lieutenant. Jaina glanced toward the approaching ship and raised one hand in greeting, then turned back to Kel'Thuzad. "We will leave the matter to Admiral Whitehoof, then. Agreed?"
"How does a Tauren from land-locked Mulgore become a naval Admiral, anyway?"
"Skill and experience," replied Jaina, "Come, let the man do his job."
She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, then blinked across the space between the two ships.
"Lady Proudmoore," said Anduin and his practised expression split into a grin. He embraced her, surprised to discover that he was almost a head taller than her now.
"King Anduin," she said fondly and held him at arm's length, just long enough to make him feel like the Crown Prince again, and he blushed.
"Well met," he replied with a courtly bow. "May I present High Priest Lallor and Priestess Amyuet of the Exodar. They have been valuable advisors and companions during the siege." The two Draenei behind him bowed also, rather stiffly, luminous eyes round with distrust. "Esteemed companions, this is my friend Lady Jaina Proudmoore, the Lich King of Northrend."
"A pleasure," said Jaina, and offered her hand. Lallor took it warily, then Amyuet. They nodded and stepped back, sharing a glance. "Welcome to the Scourge Armada. I realize you have weary and injured soldiers with you. We will put into port at Menethil Harbour so that they may disembark."
"Ah, some of the soldiers are Horde," said Anduin.
"Then they are welcome to stay aboard until we reach a neutral port. Shall we discuss the details in the Captain's cabin?"
Anduin agreed and followed after her, stealing a sideways glance at the two Draenei priests. They were very nearly holding hands and he felt some contrition leaving them alone aboard the Scourge vessel.
"They are safe," said Jaina gently. She closed the door behind Anduin and ushered him to the table that dominated the cabin space. "I am gladdened to find you well, Anduin. When you told me you were going to travel to Tol Barad on a mission of diplomacy, I was elated. And then I heard news of the siege." She shook her head. "The Black Dragonflight is hunting you, Anduin."
"Thus the alias," he said. "Though by now I'm sure Deathwing's spies have learned who and where I am."
"Which makes it all the more important to move you swiftly to Menethil Harbour, and on to Ironforge. You are planning to return to Stormwind, are you not?"
Anduin nodded. "I've been absent for almost two months. As important as it is to tour the outlying regions of the kingdom, the capital does look to their King for protection and assurance." He grimaced. "Were it so that I could offer the people of Stormwind more of either."
Jaina smiled. "I think you're doing a satisfactory job of it."
"Only satisfactory?" said Anduin. He cleared his throat, embarrassed by the question.
"It is impossible to be a perfect ruler, Anduin," said Jaina. "Satisfactory is as good as it gets."
"Well, not for you. The Scourge doesn't vote or stage protests or write nasty opinion pieces in the Stormwind Times."
"No, they don't. There's the Argent Dawn and Dalaran and the Exodar and Darnassus for that."
"Menethil Harbour is the only Alliance city that will allow you into their port? Still?"
Jaina nodded, brows furrowing. "You can't please everyone, Anduin, especially paladins."
"I don't know, paladins like me," said Anduin slyly.
"You're a holy priest of the Light. I'm a..." Jaina raised both hands in exasperation. "...abomination of one kind or another. The specific classification depends on who you ask."
"To the Scourge you're a holy priest though. I mean, you can heal them and whatnot."
"Some of the Death Knights are still disgusted that I breathe and eat and sweat."
Anduin laughed. "You can't please everyone, Aunt Jaina."
"The boy makes us a giant, sailing target," grumbled Kel'Thuzad. He drew up beside Jaina at the starboard rail, leaning down to rest his elbows on the polished wood. His kilt swayed with the subtle rhythm of the ship's motion. "You could have rescued him, given him a ship, and left him."
"None of those people know how to sail," said Jaina. She was making notes in a small ledger; a leather strap attached to the spine of the book was looped around her wrist. "That wouldn't be much of a rescue."
The lich eyed her thoughtfully for a moment. "You're trying to goad Deathwing into attacking Icecrown. That's why you, me, and Anu'Shukhet are all sailing to Menethil Harbour. You're leaving the Citadel intentionally vulnerable."
Jaina glanced up. "I certainly hope Deathwing agrees with you."
"We're... trying to goad Deathwing into attacking Menethil Harbour by sailing to Menethil Harbour?"
"We're trying to get Deathwing to focus on us and expend his intelligence figuring out what we're doing, so that Thrall can get a supply convoy to the Isle of Kezan."
"When did you decide this? You didn't tell me."
"I told you I needed your expertise aboard the Armada."
Kel'Thuzad straightened, bristling. "We're on a 'need to know basis' now, are we?"
Jaina put down the pencil. It too dangled from the book on a piece of twine. "Remember when I needed to know about those- those 'Black Card Cultists' or whatever they're calling themselves? The ones who go into battle carrying black bits of paper that mean they want to be resurrected into the Scourge so they can keep on fighting the Black Dragonflight? Remember that?"
Kel'Thuzad had the decency to look chagrined. "Oh, so this is some petty vengeance? I honestly didn't think there would be so many of them. And I only raised..." He counted on his fingers. "Twelve of them, anyway."
"It's not that, Kel'Thuzad. It's not petty revenge. Although, that's twelve people with families and friends who blamed me for turning them into mindless walking corpses."
"It was their choice to become part of the Scourge. I merely affected their final wish."
"It's more complex than that and you know it."
"It isn't more complex than that, Jaina. If they die fighting Deathwing, they don't want to stay dead but they also don't want to be autonomous. They'd rather let your will drive them on to vengeance." He clicked his teeth. "Rather lazy of them, really. If they were so keen on personal revenge, you'd think they'd go to Sylvanas."
"You went ahead and resurrected them. I didn't find out for a week."
Now the lich had a stubborn cant to his skull. "It was their wish."
"We should have discussed it first and made the discussion public. Now the whole legitimacy of their argument is caught up in your personal history and my political position." Jaina sighed.
"Tirion's on your back again, eh?"
"Oh, the debate is just crawling with paladins now!" She frowned, staring out across the water. The wind ruffled her pale hair and threw a lock of it across the bridge of her nose.
Kel'Thuzad pushed the stray hair aside with the tip of one talon. "All right. So why do we care about Kezan?"
"I care about Thrall and the success of his mission to Kezan."
"You're using an entire armada of ships as a distraction." Kel'Thuzad steepled his bony fingers. "I like this. You may turn evil yet."
Jaina made a face. "Deathwing responds to displays of power."
"And he loathes you."
"Which means he can't help but monitor us and attempt to thwart whatever we're doing."
"Which brings me back to the boy."
"This fleet is much too tempting for Deathwing with the boy aboard. You and the King of Stormwind, travelling together? The woman who took his eye, and the boy who survived to rally his people into..." Kel'Thuzad made a vague gesture, "...you know, some nationalistic fervour. The kingdom of Stormwind might have collapsed into disarray after the King's death without the boy, which I'm sure was Deathwing's hope."
"What would you have me do, Kel'Thuzad? Set Anduin adrift? He stays with us until Menethil Harbour."
"Be careful, Jaina." He rested his elbows on the rail again, shoulders hunched forward, gaze fixed somewhere far out at sea.
She watched him for a moment, cataloguing all the tiny scraps of body language he betrayed as he met her gaze.
"My compassion will be my undoing?" she ventured.
"As always. And it will be mine as well," he grumbled. "So, in the event that Deathwing takes the bait, we make a portal back to Northrend and fight him all alone? I don't like this plan."
"We're not alone, Kel'Thuzad. Deathwing has won himself a planet full of enemies."
"Who are not exactly our allies."
"But not exactly enemies," she said. Kel'Thuzad made a guttural noise and Jaina glanced up in time to see him roll his eyes. "I don't believe he'll go to Northrend. He's spent nine months attacking Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms; it makes no sense for him to suddenly turn on Northrend in the middle of winter."
Kel'Thuzad contemplated the water. "You asked me to join you for my expertise. Would you like some antagonistic insight?"
"Deathwing's coming here. He probably planned to intercept us as soon as he learned we were heading for the open ocean, but especially now that the boy is aboard. If I were in his position, I would be incensed by your foolishness- and it is foolishness to be out here. Offended by it, even." He straightened, watching the horizon. "I doubt Deathwing views you as an intellectual equal, but he does have a massive ego. Learning that the woman who maimed him is brazenly sailing around is going to draw him out. We're not going to make it to Menethil Harbour, Jaina."
She said nothing for a moment. "I couldn't leave him there, Kel'Thuzad."
"I know you couldn't."
"Are you ready?"
The lich cocked his head and the lanterns made long sinister shadows from his horns and tusks. "Let him come."
They nearly made it.
Menethil Harbour was a dark smudge on the horizon, picked out with flickering yellow lights and the perpetual sweep of a lighthouse beam. It was not quite midnight; the sky was still indigo, tinged green near the horizon.
Anduin had been standing with the Night Elf Death Knight at the helm, peppering him with questions about navigation and ship work. The man answered, stiffly at first, and Anduin imagined him wading through the double-packed aloofness both Night Elves and Death Knights were known for to arrive at awkward civility. He came around after half an hour of polite curiosity and when the warning came, he was pointing out and naming the function of each piece of rigging with enthusiasm.
"Sound the alarm! Make for the harbour!"
The ships surged forward, carried by the magic will of the shamans and Druids aboard. Anduin whirled, feeling a prickle of fear and saw a spreading patch of black in the sky, growing, bearing down on them, blocking out the stars.
"Deathwing!" he yelled, and it shook him again how much he sounded like Varian Wrynn. He clenched his fists, fury and fear flooding through him. "Deathwing!" he roared. Holy fire erased the fear and pure golden light flared around his fists.
"Quiet, boy!" Anduin turned, startled, just as Kel'Thuzad grabbed his shoulder and roughly dragged him backwards. There was a moment of vertigo for both of them as their active magic clashed, opposing disciplines flaring automatically. Then the lich was tugging him toward the rail.
"He killed my father," Anduin spluttered as he realized Kel'Thuzad was shoving him toward a life boat. "He killed my fath-"
"Yes! How tragic! Go, now!"
Anduin paused, resisting. "I can help-"
"You can help by leaving," said Kel'Thuzad and pushed him over the side of the ship. Anduin landed with a disgruntled yelp in the lifeboat.
"Hey! Ow! You can't do that!"
The lich laughed down at him. "Phaugh. That's never stopped me before." He gestured to the Scourge gripping the oars. "Go."
"No!" Anduin yelled, staggering to his feet as the undead began to row. "I can help! No! Jaina-!"
Jaina appeared at the railing beside Kel'Thuzad. Fire blossomed behind her and the heat blew her hair forward. "Run," she said, "Get the living away from here. Anduin, you have to run. Stormwind needs you."
"No! Jaina- you can't-"
"Go," she said and Anduin sat down hard as the Scourge heard her command. As the boat pulled away from the side of the ship, Anduin saw Deathwing, up to his shoulders in the sea, one of the Scourge ships ablaze behind him. He reared up and spread his wings, smashing the rigging on the ship to his right, and poured flames across Jaina's position.
The flames dissipated. Steam choked the burning deck, billowing off the icy shield between Deathwing and the two figures that faced him. Both mages had their hands up, magic popping and arcing furiously between them. Anduin heard Kel'Thuzad's mad cackle from across the water and a cheer went up from the Northrend crew, living and undead alike. Anduin wanted to order the ghouls at the oars of his boat back to the ship, to stand with their King, but they had Jaina's orders, and so did he.
The ships that had not run afoul of Deathwing plunged on toward Menethil Harbour. Anduin glimpsed the ice wyrm lift off from the deck of one, howling as it climbed into the sky, but his attention was fixed on Jaina.
Perhaps she had not planned for this to happen. Perhaps Jaina had made a mistake. It is impossible to be a perfect ruler, she had told him. Anduin had listened to his father in countless strategy meetings and debriefings, struggling to understand troop positions, use of terrain and weather, fortifications, and intelligence reports. He had listened as Varian Wrynn dissected the military decisions of others and he had watched his father shake his head over reports of Jaina's one messy sortie with the Vrykul.
"No one is good at everything," he told Anduin when the Crown Prince argued that his father was being unfairly harsh on Jaina's decisions. "Jaina is a brilliant mage, but she's no strategist. She has little experience at it. And why should she? Her position on the field is the same as a piece of heavy artillery."
Anduin swallowed, tears spilling over his lashes. Heavy artillery didn't command an army. Heavy artillery needed commanders and infantry support and-
Deathwing lunged, plowing his armoured face into the deck, jaws snapping shut with a hollow clang. Anduin saw two little bursts of light as Jaina and Kel'Thuzad blinked into retreat. For a moment, the dragon was absorbed in tearing the ship to splinters.
Then Anduin coughed, the air suddenly sticking in his throat, sharp and heavy. The Scourge rowed on, unperturbed, but Anduin tucked his hands into his armpits, shivering. The very air crystallized. Every whitecap sloughed down in a shower of snow.
Deathwing bellowed and huffed flame that hissed against the ice fog. He turned his attention eastward. Anduin squinted through sudden flurries of snow towards the bluffs on the edge of the harbour. He couldn't make out details at this distance. Instead, he reached out cautiously with his holy senses until he found the awesome wall of power that was Jaina's strange, mixed magic. There was a thread of darkness there now too, plaited in seamlessly, and Anduin understood that she was casting in tandem with Kel'Thuzad.
Together, they brought remorseless winter to Menethil Harbour. The sea froze. Windows shattered as their metal frames contracted. Deathwing's smoldering armour gathered bundles of hoar frost, and it squeaked and whined as he raged toward them, buckling, squeezing, warping in the ferocious cold, hindering his progress.
Jaina's breath glowed in the frigid air, illuminated by the pale radiance of her eyes. She called up her power with deliberate care. It rose and rose in steady, disciplined stages, controlled and channeled through her mortal form, fitting readily alongside Kel'Thuzad's magic. The undead Scourge swarmed across the frozen ocean toward Deathwing with single-minded ferocity and Jaina let out a long breath.
This was not like the other times that Jaina and Kel'Thuzad had fought together. The first time, when Kel'Thuzad still wore the guise of Kazimir Frostblood, Jaina had been at odds with him, with the Lich King's power, and with herself. The next time, under siege by the Vrykul, he had been exhausted and she had been dying. When Jaina stood against Ner'zhul, she was physically alone, the lich murdered and incorporeal, though she heeded his whispered guidance.
This would not be like any of their previous battles. Here, now, they were hale and ready, their wills entwined, supporting and balancing each other. Separately, each was formidable. Together, they were enough to hold Deathwing's full attention.
"Come on, then," whispered Jaina, and the dragon heard her. "We've been waiting for you."
At her side, Kel'Thuzad gave a rough laugh. "Time for a re-match!"
Deathwing threw himself up the side of the bluff, bellowing with threat, and poured his scalding breath over the pair. Again, they stood their ground and the dragon's roar turned shrill with incandescent rage.
"You should have fled while you had the chance," Deathwing rumbled. He swiped molten talons at them and they blinked away. Kel'Thuzad reappeared several metres distant, crouched and focused, reaching, reaching toward the sodden, frozen, boiling earth. Jaina popped up on the dragon's back.
"There is one good thing about making our stand out here," said the lich, casually.
Jaina hovered over Deathwing's spine and dropped the temperature until his armoured skin began to turn white beneath the iron plates. He whirled, snapping at her, forcing her to teleport again. She regrouped alongside Kel'Thuzad.
"What's that, my friend?" she panted, though the conversation was for Deathwing's benefit. She already understood his intent.
"This land is the site of many ancient battles." Kel'Thuzad yanked his hands skyward, channeling Jaina's power and his own. The air itself vibrated around him. He began to growl, not words, just will, and as Jaina pressed forward once more, dominating Deathwing's attention, too fearsome to ignore, the lich's voice rose and shattered on a single command.
This was the last that Anduin knew of his aunt and her lieutenant.
He and the Alliance soldiers from Baradin Hold escaped across the Wetlands while the Scourge held Deathwing at bay, heading south until they reached Ironforge, running in a state of stunned exhaustion.
Days passed and although news that Menethil Harbour still stood reached Ironforge, no one could tell Anduin what had become of Jaina. Most of the Scourge ships escaped and had been spotted passing west of Silverpine on their way north. They appeared to be under the command of their Tauren admiral and the Nerubian Spiderlord, Anu'Shukhet.
Deathwing had been spotted near Blackrock Mountain in the Burning Steppes. Some reports claimed that he was entirely blind now, while others were less prosaic, mentioning only that his armour appeared to be in disrepair and the dragon more ill-tempered than usual.
Anduin returned to Stormwind and forced himself to concentrate on his duties as King.
A week later, as the sun was setting, there was a knock on his office door.
"Enter," he bid the guards. Between them walked a vaguely familiar goblin woman in the tabard of the Azeroth Postal Service. She bowed to him.
"A letter for you, your Majesty," she said and Anduin recognized her with a rush of hope.
"You were at Baradin Hold!" he said. "You sailed with us to Menethil Harbour."
"That I did, Majesty," she said. Then she held out a crumpled letter. "Afraid it's seen some misadventure, sire. There were some dragons, y'see, and some undead. And then some undead dragons."
Anduin took the letter from her cautiously.
Dear Anduin, it began, in Jaina's small, careful writing, I am alive.
Anduin's grin must have been enormously un-Kinglike, but he couldn't contain his relief. The postal goblin smiled back and then looked away to let Anduin have a moment of privacy.
I would say that we are both alive, but Kel'Thuzad has not been such for many years, and we have argued for ten minutes about accuracy of communication versus simplicity of reassurance now. Let that be assurance enough that Deathwing failed to end either of us in the Wetlands.
There is no doubt that the tale of our battle and escape will be recounted in all manner of popular and wildly incorrect tellings, but at the moment I think the details are less important to you than knowing we are safe. It is a sobering thing, Anduin, to find the limit of your own power. And terrifying too, to find that limit exceeded by your enemy. Despite this truth, however, I am oddly cheered by the encounter. Deathwing too has a limit. I felt it.
But I must apologize for the messy rescue- I hope that your people, and the people of the Horde to whom you extended truce and shelter, arrived safely at their destinations. The bearer of this letter told us of your flight from Menethil Harbour. I gave her a prodigious tip for her troubles.
Let me end this missive with an aspiration: that we will stand together again and see Deathwing off with the might of Azeroth at our side.
Until that day, have hope and reach out.
Ever your ally,
Lady Jaina Proudmoore,
Lich King of Northrend
Author's final note: Thank you, everyone, for reading, commenting, badgering me to update, giving criticism, shipping Jaina and KT (what?!), offering your opinions on the nature of undeath, pointing out mistakes and/or inconsistencies, and sticking with me while I struggled to find time/energy/motivation to finish this in a satisfying manner.
Thank you to my betas: Carson, DUSTY, and Angela. Without your help, this would have a lot more long, convoluted sentences, paragraphs of me slobbering over Northrend's snowy beauty, and embarrassing spelling errors.
I will miss you, Icecrown. :)