Lord Leonid Bartholomew, called the Revered by some, trudged up the path to Capitol City—the Undercity now, he reminded himself. In truth, it had not been Capitol City for many years, but this had once been Leonid’s home, and old habits died hard.
Many of the city’s spires were now broken, and the once clear skies were choked with greenish miasma. What little sun filtered through brought no warmth to the desiccated skin stretched over Leonid’s bones. Proud soldiers in the livery of the Alliance did not guard the gates, as Leonid liked to remember. Deathguards with shields decorated by the Icon of Torment stood to either side, awaiting his arrival.
Though he came on the official business of the Argent Crusade, he walked alone. No matter what rifts had appeared between him and them, these were his people.
He was Forsaken.
The deathguards greeted him respectfully, if not warmly—not that he had expected any more. They escorted him through the gates to what had once been the city’s main square, and there she waited for him.
She had been beautiful once, but no longer. Her golden hair had turned to a dull gray. Her once pink skin had taken on the ashen tone of death. Her eyes were the color of curdled cream, and her lips were the pure black of a moonless night.
He bowed to her as gracefully as his rotted joints would allow. “Hail, Dark Lady,” he croaked in a voice rendered harsh by years of undeath.
“Welcome home, Lord Bartholomew,” Sylvanas Windrunner said.
Leonid managed a to stretch a smile across his emaciated face. “No need for the formalities, my lady. Leonid will do, or even Leo.”
Sylvanas smiled as warmly as a corpse could. “Come then, Leo. Let me show you around your old home. Things have changed since you were here last.”
Leonid’s expression darkened briefly, thinking back to his last few visits to the Undercity. He had not agreed with the direction taken by his fellow Forsaken. Things had grown heated, to the point where he had spent the last several years with the Argent Crusade and avoided virtually all contact with his own kind. Despite the politeness demanded by diplomacy, his disapproval with the ways of the other Forsaken had not lessened since then. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Even so, he allowed her to lead him out of the square. The deathguards trailed at a discreet distance, but Leonid was acutely aware of their presence.
To his surprise, Sylvanas did not lead him below ground, to the Undercity. Instead, she took him to the ruins of the city in which the people of Lordaeron had dwelled before Arthas’ betrayal.
He soon saw why. Whereas the ruins had been abandoned during his previous visits, now they were almost abuzz with activity. Forsaken moved about, repairing or outright rebuilding the ravaged structures, hanging flags adorned with the Icon of Torment, or even walking among the dead gardens and talking as they had in life. He even spotted a few living members of other races, Orc soldiers and Sin’dorei magisters.
Leonid wondered how much of this was for his benefit, though part of him thought he was being too cynical.
“Gone are the days of cowering in the ruins,” Sylvanas said, her voice radiant with pride. “This is the new era of the Forsaken. Arthas is dead, our enemies flee before us, and the rebirth of Lordaeron is at hand.”
Leonid looked around, and although he still suspected there was an element of showmanship at play, he did notice something different about the undead around him. There was spirit in them that he had not seen from the Forsaken before. They seemed almost… hopeful. And when their eyes came across Sylvanas, they beamed with adoration.
After a moment, he caught himself staring. He tightened his jaw, noticing a smirk from the Dark Lady.
He cleared his throat, dust escaping from between his lips, and decided to get to the point. “You must know why I’ve come,” he rasped.
Sylvanas’s smile slackened. “The Argent Crusade does not approve of my actions in recent times.” It was not a question.
As if on cue, a trio of glimmering forms soared overhead, flying on ghostly wings.
Leonid felt a chill beyond the coldness of death that normally filled him.
They were val’kyr, Vrykul women who had sacrificed themselves to the Lich King for the promise of power and eternal life. They were the embodiment of all Leonid’s Argent brethren had fought and died to destroy, and now they served the Dark Lady.
“No,” he said, stopping and hardening his gaze. “We do not.”
As if sensing the tension, the nearby Forsaken shuffled away, giving their lady privacy.
“You know the horrors of undeath as well as anyone can, Sylvanas,” Leonid said. “You led your people to freedom from the tyranny of the monster who violated us in this way, and your soldiers were crucial in ending Arthas’ reign of terror. And now you seek to perpetrate this same atrocity? Undeath is a disease, and you would infect more?” Leonid’s voice quivered with a level of emotion rarely found among his kind.
Once, for a brief time, he had admired Sylvanas. She had freed him from the Lich King, and for that he would always feel indebted to her. Long had he disagreed with her methods in the war with the Lich King, but never had he thought she would stoop to this level and begin raising her own victims into the nightmare of undeath.
She nodded sympathetically. “I understand your anger, Leo. Not so long ago, I might have shared it. But my goals are not what they once were. Arthas is dead, and now I must think of the future.”
Her gaze grew distant. “For a time after the Lich King’s death, I despaired. The entire existence of the Forsaken had been devoted to his end. Without him, we were but monsters in a world that had no further use for us.”
Leonid nodded. He tried to hold onto his anger, but in truth, he had felt much the same for many months after the Battle of Icecrown Citadel, and it was hard not to feel sympathy for what she described.
“I thought long and hard about my people, about who they are,” the Banshee Queen continued. “But outside of our hatred for Arthas, I found no answers. So then I asked myself who they had been, and that was simple: they were the people of Lordaeron.” Her milky eyes took in the semi-ruined city around them. “And then, the answer seemed apparent.
“Lordaeron had always been one of the most admirable human nations. It would have been a great tragedy to see it fade away into nothing. And so my path became clear: I would rebuild Lordaeron, and allow the Forsaken to reclaim the greatness they held in life.”
Leonid’s mind flashed back to the dim memories of his life as a knight in the service of King Terenas. He remembered looking with pride upon the banners of his nation as they flew from the towers, and he remembered the happy chaos of market day in Capitol City. And though he knew all of that was gone forever, the thought that even a tiny ghost of that might be reclaimed made him ache with longing—an unusually warm and fierce emotion for one of his affliction.
But it was not that simple.
“There is a long leap between that and commandeering Arthas’ own monstrosities to make others suffer in undeath as we have,” he said.
Her expression was that of a patient schoolteacher working with a slow student. “Our numbers are not limitless, Leo. The armies of the Alliance, and now the forces of Deathwing, press upon us relentlessly. Many of our original number were lost in the war with the Lich King. Some have even had their bodies decompose to the point where their spirits can no longer stay anchored to them. If we are to reclaim Lordaeron and achieve even the shadow of its former greatness, we must procreate. The val’kyr’s magic offers us our only hope.”
Sylvanas gestured, and a Forsaken emerged from the shadows behind her. If he’d still had eyebrows, Leonid would have raised them, and the orchestration of the scene was again not lost on him
“This is Valdred Moray,” she said. “Go on, Valdred. Tell him about your new life among the Forsaken.”
Valdred was unusually bulky for an undead, and he looked as if he’d been a large man in life. He was less decomposed than Leonid and most of the other original Forsaken, so he must have been recently raised. His hands seemed slightly too small compared to the rest of his body.
“In life, I was a refugee fleeing the Scourge,” Valdred said in a deep voice. “I lived hand-to-mouth for many hard years, until I was murdered by an Orc. Sometime after, the val’kyr found me and brought me back. I was shocked, at first. I was horrified by what I’d become, and the undead around me. But I realized that I had not been truly living long before my death. I was homeless and without hope.” He glanced to Sylvanas and smiled in admiration, a gesture she returned. “But now, I’ve got a purpose. I have a home, and a people again. I’m part of something bigger.”
The Dark Lady nodded to him. “Thank you, Valdred. You may go.”
Valdred bowed to her and departed.
“Not all we raise choose to join us,” Sylvanas continued. “Those who do not are left to make their own way however they choose. But those who pledge themselves to the Forsaken are welcomed into our new society, and become a part of the reborn Lordaeron.”
Leonid chewed one of his leathery lips. He still didn’t like her methods, but he granted there was a certain logic to them, and he still couldn’t ignore the allure of a reborn Lordaeron.
One thing continued to nag at him.
“But… the plague…”
The slightest hint of a frown creased the Banshee Queen’s face. “Used only sparingly and when in dire need.” A hint of the fierceness he normally associated with her worked its way into her voice. “When I formed the Forsaken, I made a promise to my people, that I would slaughter any who stand in our way, and I shall. We have suffered too much; all who seek to harm us must be crushed!”
He remembered how no representatives of the Argent Crusade had been allowed into Gilneas, Hillsbrad, or any other place the plague was rumored to have been recently and had thus been unable to confirm her story.
Her expression softened again. “But that does not make me a monster out to destroy the world. I am not Arthas. I seek to build a home for my people. When we are attacked, we will strike back, but we are not the Scourge.”
Leonid sighed, thinking. “I want to believe you, Sylvanas,” he said, and he meant it. He would dearly like to reunite with his people, to see Lordaeron rebuilt. “But it is difficult.”
“I understand how it seems,” she said. “I might feel the same in your place. But do not let yourself be blinded by prejudice. Think of what we have the potential to create here. And think also of the fact that we Forsaken do not stand alone. To oppose us is to oppose the Horde.”
He didn’t miss the note of warning in the last statement, and it was something he and many others of the Crusade had considered. Though the Crusade considered itself neutral to the conflicts of the Horde and the Alliance, many of its members were originally members of the Horde, and if it came to war, it could tear the Crusade apart.
He nodded. “I will take your words back to Tirion and the others. I know not what decision they will make, but I promise you will be given a fair hearing.” He meant that, too.
She inclined her head graciously. “Thank you, Leo. The deathguards will see you out.”
Leonid bowed and allowed the guards to escort him out. Though he tried to remain unbiased, the memories of what Lordaeron had once been filled his mind, and somehow the thought of the val’kyr didn’t chill him as much as it once had.
* * *
Sylvanas watched Lord Bartholomew leave, smirking. He’d swallowed every word she’d said—and to be fair, some of it had even been true. She felt confident that the Argent Crusade would decide not to move against her—at least not until it was too late to stop her.
Something tickled at the edge of her senses, something that had been nagging at her throughout the meeting, and she gritted her teeth in irritation.
“We both know you’re there, so let’s just stop the charade!” she snapped. She reached out a hand and ripped the shadows away from the alley between two nearby structures, revealing a figure in dark plate armor.
An unnaturally resonant voice chuckled grimly. “You are as perceptive as ever, Sylvanas,” Highlord Darion Mograine said. He strode into the street, the baleful glow of his eyes leaking out from beneath his helm.
“What are you doing in my city, Mograine?”
“I came for the same reason Bartholomew came. I am not well pleased with your actions of late.” His azure gaze tilted upward as the val’kyr made another pass over the city.
He fixed his eyes back onto her, and she could feel their intensity, blazing with a cold fury the living would never comprehend. “You put on quite a show for old Leonid. The poor fool is so desperate to get his old life back that he’ll believe anything.”
She tensed, her hands moving towards the swords at her sides. “Watch your tongue. Do you think I fear you? We are surrounded by my loyal followers here.”
“I did not come to fight you,” Darion said. “I came to deliver a message from the Knights of the Ebon Blade, and that is this: we are not fooled.”
She did not draw her blades, but she kept her hands ready to draw. “Fooled?”
“Enough games!” Darion barked. “You may be able to convince Bartholomew of your innocence, but I do not believe you. I do not believe that the val’kyr are part of some grand scheme for a reborn Lordaeron. My people have been to Gilneas and Hillsbrad, and I do not believe your use of the plague could ever be called ‘sparing.’ I have not believed anything you have said for a very long time. I did not believe you after the Wrath Gate when you decried the actions taken by Putress’s apothecaries; your only objection to them was that they acted too soon, and that they chose Varimathras instead of you.”
He stepped forward deliberately, like an animal stalking its prey. “And I don’t believe you now when your people tell me that Koltira is too busy to respond to my summons.”
For the first time in the encounter, Sylvanas felt a real chill of concern, and her mind flashed to the image of a battered Elven form chained to a table in the deepest recesses of the Apothecarium.
But it was just a brief shock, and she regained her confidence almost immediately, smiling arrogantly at the death knight. “What does it matter? Your knights don’t have the power to stop me. I said it to Bartholomew, and I’ll say it to you: we stand with the Horde. Whatever distaste Garrosh may have for me, he will not see the Horde affronted. If you attack us, you will be crushed like a bug.”
Darion’s helm revealed just enough of his face for her to catch the predator’s grin that spread across it. “You fail to realize the key difference between the Ebon Blade and Argents.”
“And what is that?” she said, annoyed at his games.
“They have something to live for,” Darion said, his voice as cold and desolate as the wastes of Northrend. “We do not. We will gladly sacrifice ourselves to see you fall. And even if it is true that you are too strong for us to defeat, we will make you suffer. We will ravage your lands until you can no longer resist the Alliance’s advance, and until Garrosh begins to wonder if you are even worth defending.”
She took an involuntary step back, and now her hands did grasp her blades. “If all that is true, then why have you not already struck?”
Darion’s shoulders slumped, and his expression softened, just a little. “Because you and I, and your people and mine, share something that the Argents cannot understand—perhaps not even Bartholomew, for he has been among the living too long. We all gave our lives to protect those we love from the Scourge. We understand suffering, and sacrifice, more so than anyone else in this world. We were comrades, you and I, in the service of the Scourge and then in our war against it. That bond is what has stayed our hand.”
He took another step towards her, and his gauntleted hands clenched. “But our patience is not limitless, and it is rapidly running out. You seem to have forgotten what you died for, but we have not, and if you continue to repeat Arthas’ sins, we will have no choice but to act.”
He said nothing more, and she glared at him for a tense minute. Then, she allowed herself to relax, taking her hands off her blades. “You’ve said your piece, death knight. Now get out of my city; scurry back to Acherus.”
He stood, motionless, for a long moment, as if waiting for her to say more, then he turned and retreated to the alley. She thought she saw him shake his head a little. The shadows had crept back into the alleyway, and when he waved his hands, some of them coalesced into a portal through which she could dimly glimpse the outline of Acherus, the necropolis of the Ebon Blade.
Darion stepped through the portal, and it vanished.
She stayed in the empty street for a time, clenching and unclenched her withered hands. Something about Darion’s words had unsettled her beyond the obvious threat to Undercity. It reminded her of something… but she wasn’t sure what. She fingered the necklace she wore around her throat, and then shook her head to clear it.
The deathguards were returning from seeing Bartholomew out, and they noticed her state of agitation. “What is it, my lady?” one of them rasped.
“Increase the guard around the city, and have the liches recheck their sensing spells. And find whoever is in charge of maintaining the quarantines around Hillsbrad and Gilneas and bring them to me!”
The deathguards scurried off to do her bidding, and she stomped towards the passages that would take her into the welcome dark of the Undercity. If Darion wanted to waste his troops in an assault upon her, she would be ready. The future of Lordaeron would be shaped as she willed it; what the Ebon Blade said or did was irrelevant.
* * *
Darion’s footsteps echoed through the depths of Acherus as he marched along the outer ring of the Hall of Command. As he approached his destination, another sound joined the hollow clumping of his boots: the ring of steel on steel.
He paused at the doorway to the room that was his goal, one of the training chambers. Two figures sparred there, making no sound but for those created by their weapons. As both were long dead, they did not gasp for breath or grunt with exertion.
The first was a Knight of the Ebon Blade, a former High Elf who moved with lightning grace and precision. The other had been a human woman in life.
Death had been kinder to her than most. Her hair was still streaked with some of its original gold, and her skin still showed the slightest traces of pink. The armor she currently wore concealed the jagged wound Frostmourne had left in her chest. Her face was not too withered, and if one didn’t look too close, one might not realize she was dead at all.
Darion permitted himself a small, proud smile as he watched her hold her own against the death knight. When he had first found her several months ago, she hadn’t had a clue how to wield a blade. It was not a skill she had needed to know in life. But death changed many things, and after a few months training with the Ebon Blade, she was as skilled as many of his soldiers.
He cleared his throat to alert them to his presence, and the sparring match ended immediately, the Elf’s hungry gaze the only indication of the bloodlust Arthas had cursed them all with.
“Dismissed,” Darion told him, and the Elf left the room immediately.
The woman turned and met his gaze. “You spoke with her?”
“She took it as well as we expected,” he grumbled. “There is still some trace of decency left in her, but it is dying. I suspect we will have to act before too long.”
“And what of the Argent Crusade?” she asked.
He scowled. “They are blinded by hope, as ever. The time may come when they finally choose to move against Sylvanas, but by then it will be too late.”
“What did you see of the capitol? How strong are her forces?”
“Strong,” he admitted, crossing his arms. “At least the equal of ours, and probably greater.” His rotten teeth grated against each other as a wolfish grin split his face. “But she has made a critical error. She has focused her entire nation on the idea of rebuilding Lordaeron to some semblance of its former glory. I believe it’s just propaganda on her part, but the Forsaken have taken it to heart. Soon, they will believe in the future of Lordaeron as much as they believe in her, and in that, she plays into our hands. It will be her undoing.”
He knelt. “I promise you, my lady, Lordaeron will have its queen restored to it.”
Calia Menethil smiled.