Aveith: The Last Holdout

Fwhump. Fwhump. Fwuhmp. Fwhump.

The ever-present layer of snow covering the broad courtyard at the foot of Icecrown Citadel muffled all sound, even the heavy footfalls of the plate-clad monster pacing slowly from one end of the Court of Bones to the other. Once, this area teemed with Scourge – the Lich King’s mounted commanders and their shock troops defending the citadel from mounted crusaders bearing the blazing sun banners of the Argents. The monster heard and felt the echoes of those battles. The cries of hideous undead steeds and the screech of frost-bitten saronite blades against the weapons of those wielding the Light lingered as surely as the lost souls still wandering the frozen wastes. Ghosts, the monster thought to itself, took many forms.

Now, the court lay bare and barren. Even had the Citadel not perched atop a glacier, nothing could ever have grown here. At the edge of his vision, the monster thought he saw a flicker of movement. His head turned. A beetle scrabbled its way out of a crevice in the glacier, its segmented limbs struggling for purchase as it emerged into the open air. It paused, antennae waving, and the shiny black carapace flicked open to reveal the translucent wings furled tightly beneath. Before it launched itself into the air, however, a heavy saronite boot crushed the life from the fist-sized vermin.

The death was a small one. The monster inhaled deeply, though he did not require breath. He savored the tiny degree of relief that the insect’s demise had granted him. Relief, yes, and also insight. An image flashed before his cold, lifeless eyes.

An elf woman, so gaunt she might have been mistaken as undead herself, cringed against the wall. Cringed away from the monster before her. Her cell was bare. A paper-thin garment hung like a death-shroud from her body. There was a deep, festering bite on the left shoulder. The monster could smell her flesh dying by degrees. Bit by bit, each frantic leap of her heart brought her closer to her new unlife.

The vision dissipated before the monster could make any sense of it. Memories came to him like this – in bits and pieces, disjointed and nonsequential. Some showed him a time before his death. He knew this because the sensations that accompanied those memories were different. Others showed a time between that self and the self he now knew – the monster. Sometimes, he was a different monster altogether.

Time had passed. Years, he thought. Years passed since the presence at at the pinnacle of Icecrown changed. For a few brief moments, years ago, the monster had been free. That terrible, commanding will dissipated. All was chaos. The lesser troops scattered, confused. Some turned on their brethren. As for the commanders, some tried to salvage what they could of their command. Others vied among themselves for power, thinking that with the king dead, a path was open for a new leader. Still more had left, seeking the turncoats of the Ashen Verdict and the Ebon Blade. He knew where their stronghold lay. For those few brief moments of absolute freedom, he considered seeking it out. Who else in all of Azeroth, if not the death knights of the Ebon Blade, knew how to be a monster without serving the most monstrous of them all?

By the time he decided, a new presence arose. Once again, that unbreakable will asserted itself. This time, however, the orders surprised him. Always before, it had said “Kill. Maim. Ruin.” Now, it said only, “Stay.” A command for a mutt. A hound. A beast.

The monster paced back across the Court. He was a dog, after all. Too confused to grasp freedom when it was offered, and too obedient to wrench it for himself. The unquenchable thirst for violence rose within him again. The relief brought by the beetle’s death faded. The elf woman from his memory disappeared. The world once again narrowed to the empty expanse of ice and death.

Fwhump. Fwhump. Fwhump. Fwhump.

Those who remained in the north were the most mindless of the former Scourge. The devourers. The abominations. Ghouls, shamblers, carrion-eaters, and wraiths. Was he, then, as mindless as they? Was that why the voice that ached in his bones said only “Stay”?

Another scrabbling sound near the far side of the Court of Bones, where Corp’rethar raised its sinister silhouette toward the gray clouds overhead, drew him from his maudlin reverie. A frost wyrm crouched near the gate, lowering its skeletal body near enough to the ground to let a figure dismount. The figure adjusted its armor – heavy, frost-rimmed saronite – and began crossing the empty space between the wyrm and the monster at the foot of the citadel.

Instinctively, he reached for his weapon. “Stay,” the voice commanded. He froze with his hand on the hilt of the double-bladed greataxe. “Stay.”

The newcomer halted a few paces from the monster. Reaching up, it removed its horned helmet to reveal the face of a human woman. She bore the same marks of undeath he did – sickly complexion, empty blue eyes, an aura of sheer wrongness. She, too, was a monster.

“It’s been long enough, Lump,” she said. Her voice echoed strangely in the dead air. “Something’s coming, and you’re the last holdout. You need to follow me.”

He shook his head and gestured at the saronite collar bolted to his neck. To demonstrate, he opened his mouth. No sound emerged. Seeing comprehension on her face, he gestured toward the citadel behind him and shook his head slowly.

Her glowing eyes narrowed a fraction. “Does he?”

Ssssstaaaay.

The mute monster nodded.

“Have you tried leaving?”

Behind the visage of his helmet, the monster blinked in surprise. After a moment, he shook his head. No, he hadn’t tried.

“Follow me.” She turned and started back toward her wyrm, confident that he would follow. The monster glanced upward and behind, toward the Citadel. He still felt the will of the king, high upon the Frozen Throne. Could he defy that will?

Fwhump.

With each step that led him away from the citadel, he expected the voice in his bones to command him to stop. The order never came, not even when he stood at the frost wyrm’s shoulder with one hand grasping the bony protrusions of the thing’s spine.

“Come on. You’ll need some training before we send you out into the world.” The woman settled her helm onto her head once more, then offered the monster a hand to help him mount. He ignored it and swung up onto the beast’s shoulders, settling himself behind her. Without a single word of warning, she urged her mount skyward. Instead of steering toward the Shadow Vault, where he assumed they would go, she turned her mount’s head south.

He tapped her shoulder to get her attention, then swept his arm in a half-arc that encompassed the frozen landscape below. It took a moment, but she finally gathered his meaning.

“Acherus!” she shouted back. “We’re going to the Ebon Hold!”

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