Welcome to another edition of Wrathgate Wednesday. We’re nearing the end of the collaborative writing project. For the past year, we’ve been posting the stories of the Wildfire Riders as they reach the Wrathgate Cinematic. Today, Davien, Annalea and Threnn learn what fear is.
Though the link to the other witches remained, though the ground beneath her feet still sang with power, Davien felt suddenly hollow. It had been years since she’d known any lover’s touch, but she remembered enough: letting go of the arcane felt like a separation — like that lonely moment after lovemaking when lovers disentangle and one body becomes two again.
She sighed with the loss, and heard Darrows’ and Crownsilver’s matching exhalations. Do we all feel the same thin’, or are we echoin’ each other?
Arced behind them, in charred and frozen and twisted heap, lay the bodies of the Scourge and the Cultists who’d marched with them. Davien couldn’t help the smile that tilted up the corners of her lips, grim satisfaction at a job well done. We could pull down his mountain, like this. We could march into his throneroom an’ tear the Bloody Prince asunder, him an’ all his legions. We could –
The moaning had begun as they made their way to where ap Danywrith’s lines had closed ranks. Now it became a keen, as dark shapes dragged themselves from the ground well outside the witches’ circle of destruction and chanted for their king.
She wasn’t afraid, as the gates opened, wasn’t afraid as Frostmourne’s cold blue light heralded his appearance. She didn’t tremble as the grey daylight lit upon his spiked helm.
I am Davien Stonemantle. I am a mage of some power, an’ when I was livin’ I saw y’ride through Lordaeron City t’take y’r holy vows. I’ve been free of ‘ee five years gone, an’ I’ll not quail before y’r show o’power. Not now, not ev–
“You speak of justice? Of cowardice?” Arthas’ voice rolled across the hills.
Her bravado crumbled, like a house of cards in the breeze. Words fled, thought fled. Her hands, so steady while she’d painted symbols and sigils on her skin hours before, shook like leaves in a gale. It was a wonder (because some part of her — the deep-down place where she collected her beloved tales — was even chronicling this moment, and had to carry the metaphor through) that her whole body didn’t bend with it, laying the mage near-flat to the ground with fear.
But maybe she was the other kind of tree — push too far and she’d break instead.
That voice. That voice. It had been in her head, once, telling her where to go, what to do… who to kill.
Not that those orders had been very particular: Kill everyone. Let no living thing remain.
How long? How long had she wandered the Plagues, shambling and mindless, driven onward only by His will?
She knew the answer to that, too. Down to the day.
The one thing for which she’d been thankful on rising was that her time with the Scourge was a blank spot in her memory. As long as she didn’t remember her sins, she could hold onto her humanity. Or so she’d told herself.
Then the shadows had come and stolen away that mercy. She remembered everything, now, every farmhand’s scream, every throat she’d torn out, the pleading of mothers and sons as she and her shambling, murderous kin ravaged whole towns. Two years, now, two years, she’d lived with the memories, and sworn Never again. Never again.
“Never again,” she muttered through bloodless lips, frozen by the Lich King’s voice. But if anyone heard, they didn’t acknowledge. She wasn’t even sure she’d spoken aloud.
All this time, she’d been so certain that whatever Sylvanas had done to free the Forsaken from his bonds, it was permanent. Even in her opposition to the Dark Lady’s plans, she’d been grateful for that. Now, though, with his voice echoing off the mountain passes, Davien wasn’t so confident.
And where were her shadows? Terror this complete should have rendered her blind from the first flutter of her heart. She would have welcomed them, now, to hide her from that terrible gaze.
Even the shadows know fear. I’m facin’ this alone.
I’m facin’ Him alone.
What if he could take hold again? Reach in and steal away her free will, make her like one of the mindless minions writhing in the snow? Would she turn, unwilling, and watch from deep within as her hands sent deadly volleys at the people she’d called allies?
And if the Riders didn’t cut her down, would he make her march to Moonglade, to the cottage where Jessen and Kyree slept? Would he make her –
Nearby, sobs cut through the bitter cold. It was instinct to reach out a comforting hand, but she couldn’t find the source. Then her own chest hitched, the freezing air stabbing its way into her lungs as another sob tore free. It had been so long since she’d felt the sting of tears that for a moment, she didn’t know what it was that was freezing to her cheeks.
Then dread and despair overrode shock once more, and, for the first time since her brother’s death, Davien Stonemantle wept.
The wind whipped around her, through her, making her teeth chatter like a Hallow’s End skeleton. Annalea pulled her cloak closer and craned her neck, trying to make sense out of the darkness within Angrathar’s maw. There was fear there, yes, the anticipation of a nightmare about to walk into the light of day. But how could any of them look away from it?
When there was a monster in the dark, you lit a candle and its power weakened, turned it back into to a pile of clothes on a chair. When something slithered and rustled out in the night, you gave it a silly name, and diminished the hold it would have over you.
That was what magic was — gaining dominion over a thing by naming the unnamed, by making the hidden visible. It was how you controlled magic, and how you controlled fear. The two things were, in that respect, one and the same.
So why, then, was the dread only growing? Why did she not want to see the Lich King step out from that darkness? Shouldn’t they be able to look upon him and say “he’s not so fearsome,” or, “he is that fearsome, but here’s what we’ll do?”
Shouldn’t the presence of their friends bolster their courage?
We’ll be all right. There’s no one I trust more than the Riders to make it through this.
(Trust is your weakness.)
Down below, the Lich King strode forth at last, Frostmourne at his side. She could feel its hunger even from here, far above the main force of the battle. Her knees went weak as his voice boomed out over the hills. It was only the knowledge of the distance separating this hill and Arthas’ sword that kept her bladder from letting go as well. A small dignity, but she’d take what she could get, right then.
Then, as though he’d sensed that bit of self-congratulation, his gaze swept up, up, up to where the Riders stood in their little knot of bravado. It was all Anna could do not to shrink behind Fingold, to hide herself in the folds of his cloak and peek out from behind him like a frightened child.
She forced her feet to hold their place, and looked down into the Lich King’s eyes.
Daylight didn’t diminish the monster. It only made him so much worse.
And who was going to make a grand plan now? The witches — whose destruction had cheered them all, whose names they’d been shouting in wild victory moments before — had withered under his gaze. One was on hands and knees in the snow, the other weeping. Some were muttering prayers into the frozen air, others stood with their fingers clasped loosely around sword hilts, but she didn’t think they had the strength of will to draw them. Brave words might rally some of them from their collective stupors, but even Tarquin — who had drawn lusty cries of Never again from every throat — was bent double, retching into the snow.
Movement below, as the orc general took advantage of Arthas’ averted gaze. With a cry that should have heartened them all, should have had every sword rattling upon its shield, he charged.
The Lich King turned and parried in the same smooth move, and shattered Saurfang’s great axe. Then Frostmourne dipped, and the armies below sighed, a soughing of despair expanding out like ripples on a pond, as they realized what had been done.
The runeblade had taken his soul into itself. It had fed on him, just as it would soon feed upon them all. Its hunger was palpable, endless.
It will come for us, too
(They are coming for you.)
Her already-aching fingers cramped with the cold; she realized she’d clamped them together sometime after Arthas had emerged and squeezed tight enough to turn her fingertips an angry shade of purple. She pushed them into the pockets of her cloak, searching for whatever warmth she could get.
Her fingers found the sprig of dreamfoil, dried and forgotten. Her eyes went wide as she looked from the greedy glow of Frostmourne to her family gathered on the hill.
“You need this. A lot of it. A whole field of it.”
She’d done her future self’s bidding, never knowing who all the dreamfoil was for. Because if she’d told me… If I’d told myself… I would have refused. All these people — the ones she cared about most in the world, the ones she loved, they’d all fall. They’d get up again in Arthas’ service, that was bad enough, but…
But how much worse will it be if they feed his blade? I could make them take the dreamfoil. I could hand out the vials and tell them it was for warmth, or strength, or any bloody fucking thing I wanted, and they’d drink it to a man. Then they’d sleep. Better than dying screaming, or feeling your soul pulled into a demon-sword, isn’t it?
She glanced at Fingold standing beside her, his eyes wide. His gauntleted hands flexed on the grip of his mace, his lips uttering a silent prayer. At the others: Jolstraer, staring grimly down at his former prince. At the Stormrunner sisters, their ever-ready giggles silenced. At Ulthanon, his cigarette smoldering forgotten on dry lips, gun lowered to his side.
At Bricu, staring across the hilltop at her sister with despair in his eyes.
She stood there, awkward in her altered plate, skin gone white not with cold but with fear. The tip of her sword trembled in her grasp, making jagged lines in the snow. Anna stared at the swell of her sister’s belly and felt a phantom pain in her own. That’s how they started with me, Fane and Hartwell. Feeding me dreamfoil.
I can’t do this. I can’t.
(You will be alone in the end.)
She’d live through this. She knew it; seeing some future version of herself was proof enough. And when she’d asked about Fin… Her future self had declined to answer.
Because I kill him. Because today, I kill them all.
Wouldn’t she? Hadn’t fate pretty much dictated that she would?
To hell with fate. With all of it. I won’t do it. The wind gusted, and she backed up a step. From there it was easy enough to back up another, and another, then easier still to turn away and run.
She didn’t know where she was going. All that mattered was away, as far as she could flee. Her terror carried her behind the Riders’ line, to the place where the hill fell away into nothingness. She knew the drop was coming, but suddenly, she didn’t care. It would, after all, solve the problem quite neatly.
(There is no escape… not in this life… not in the next…)
Twenty few more steps and she’d be out over the chasm, weightless for a moment before the fall. Ten I’m sorry, Threnny. I’m too afraid. She closed her eyes, stretched out her arms, waited for the ground to fall out from under her.
The moment never came. One moment she was running, fleet-footed towards the drop. The next, it felt like she’d been hit in the back with a siege engine. For the second time that day, she lost her breath and found herself tumbling arse over teakettle through the snow. When she finally stopped moving, the world took its sweet time righting itself. Now, the siege engine lay across her chest.
No, not a siege engine.
“Don’t, Anna. Please, don’t.” His breath came in harsh gasps as his panicked eyes met hers. How much it must have taken out of him, to catch up to her wearing all that plate.
She wriggled one of her arms free from where it was pinned between them, meaning to put it around him. It waved around in empty air and she drew it back, shocked. They were right on the edge. Fin followed her gaze, misinterpreting her expression. “No. I won’t let you.”
She realized that she didn’t want to, not anymore. The weight of what she’d been about to do struck with full force. Her face crumpled. “I can’t do it, Fin.” But whether she meant the dreamfoil or the drop, she couldn’t say. She buried her face in his neck and sobbed, the tears the first warm thing she could remember feeling in a long time.
Then she began to laugh, sobs becoming giggles, becoming an outright belly laugh. Fin pulled back, searching her face to see if she’d gone mad.
“It’s okay!” she said, when she could suck in a breath. “That’s not what it’s for. It can’t be!”
“I… don’t know what you’re saying, Anna.”
She reached up and touched his cheek, kissed him full on the mouth despite their close proximity to the precipice, and the Lich King down below. “You don’t have to understand it. Something I thought I had to do, but I don’t after all. Because I forgot something: Threnny lives. You see?”
“No, I –”
“No, of course you don’t. Stonemantle saw the baby, which means Threnny gets out of here, which means the dreamfoil’s not for you lot.” She was babbling, and she didn’t care. She was alive. Alive, and in the arms of the (very confused, and not quite sure he could be relieved just yet) man who loved her. “I don’t know who it is for, but I don’t care. Because it’s not for y–”
The ground shook. By instinct, Fin held her and rolled them both away from the edge, down the bit of slope she’d come sprinting up moments before. When they came to a stop once more, he disentangled himself and helped her to her feet. They turned as one towards the Riders’ line, and saw a new kind of dismay written on the faces of those gathered.
Brother Paxton had once said there was a prayer for everything under the Light. Threnn had been sent to him for penance more than once over the course of her early training, often with either Kaven or Tarelyn at her side. The Abbey’s librarian never seemed ruffled or outraged by their transgressions, merely asked them to recite the specifics and disappeared off into the stacks to find the appropriate prayers to say while sitting vigil.
Threnn wondered what prayers there were for this, when your family was gathered on a high place, caught in the hate-filled gaze of a man who once was a beloved prince of a beloved country. What words did you chant when a dead king had you in his sights?
Naiara gave her a kick, one Threnn recognized as the baby looking for reassurance when her mother was upset. It was an almost furtive movement, one she could usually quell by rubbing her belly and murmuring softly to her daughter.
Problem was, she couldn’t even summon the courage to lift her hand. If I move, he’ll see it. She didn’t want that dread glare to light upon her. Logic and reason said it was unlikely he was truly looking at this particular spot. Stormwind’s finest were down below, all the heroes of Horde and Alliance, looking for glory on the front lines. This ragtag band on a hill couldn’t mean nearly as much to him as the prizes on the field before him. It was a trick, it had to be. Some kind of intimidation tactic, or an enchantment of some sort, meant to scare them.
But no matter what the logical parts of her mind said, it felt all too real.
Naiara kicked, harder, then kicked again.
The longer the Bloody Prince stared, the heavier her limbs grew. It could only have been a few heartbeats, but she wanted to lay down, right there in the snow. Lay down, close her eyes, and wait for the world to end. It was going to, that much was clear. We can’t fight him. We can’t win this.
She tried turning her head to find Bricu and tell him she was sorry, that they should have stayed home after all.
Then he was there, beside her, surrounding her with the Light while he whispered his plan in her ear — he always had a plan; how could she have ever doubted that? — and she was able to move at last. She slipped a hand beneath her breastplate to calm the baby, and reached for Bricu with the other.
That was when the explosions began.