Despite recent victories, the Argent Crusade knew their hold within Icecrown was tenuous. The undead marched through the majority of the frozen wastes, perverting and slaughtering whatever poor souls they encountered. They made no effort to mask their ambitions, single-minded in their purpose. Even the blinding gusts from the storms could not hide their rotting faces, the Lich King’s minions crawling and dragging their way through Scourgeholme.
Not a living soul stirred in those wretched depths. The noxious green vapors made short work of any that tarried for too long. Filling their lungs, it would begin a slow, painful march through their bodies. Living tissue swelled and rotted, blood slowed and thickened, until all that remained was a shambling, macabre shadow of what they once were.
Too many of his fellow soldiers had succumbed to that plague.
Bridenbrad crouched atop the snowy hill, Crusaders’ Pinnacle rising behind him. The giant, stone tower challenged the Scourge, taunting them with its stalwart walls and valiant soldiers. The undead dared not approach, however, not since their last disastrous encounter. At that time the walls were untested and they thought it an easy victory. The Crusader and his fellows had driven them back, cannons and holy fire spitting in anger.
The Scourge hissed. They screamed. No matter their protests, however, they could not assault the Pinnacle. Father Gustav had blessed the small tract of land, making it impossible for any but the mightiest of the Scourge to set foot upon it. So the Argent Crusade sat, an uneasy stalemate maintained from their hill. Their troops were not yet sufficient to storm the whole of Icecrown and the Lich King had not seen fit to send any of his more powerful lieutenants to lead a charge.
The Crusader ignored the wailing dead. Bridenbrad’s thoughts drifted back, back to his wife and children within Stormwind. They were tethers, anchors that held him to the land of the living and filled him with hope. Too often he plunged into the writhing, choking mass of dead flesh to drive away the darkness. Too often he was forced to turn his blade on former friends as they rose, flesh sloughing from their bones as the plague devoured them. Too many dead…too many graves. In those trying times he held fast to the vision of his family. They were a goal, they were the reason, and they kept his heart and soul safe even as he wept for the fallen.
Life before the war was simple. He was no soldier, though not from lack of courage. Like his father before him he assisted with the plans for the city. His signature graced many a blueprint, including those drawn up for the mighty harbor. His position afforded him a measure of comfort and it was not too long before he caught her eye.
Elizabeth Valora. Beautiful beyond comprehension and wise beyond her years. Many men tried for her hand, but she was too clever. She saw through each invitation, each innocent conversation, and danced from their amorous nets. She wanted something more than brief companionship. She wanted more than a short-lived burst of passion.
Honor. Dedication. Loyalty to wife and family above all else.
It was Bridenbrad that found himself pursued.
He cracked a smile, despite the undead shuffling through Scourgeholme. He had not tried to escape her, falling into her carefully constructed traps. Stepping into them may have been more accurate. Her tests may have downed a weaker man, but he glided through them with little effort. Goldshire served as an ideal spot for their wedding and, only a few years later, little Kathryn and Victoria joined their growing family.
Then came the crates.
The smile seeped from his lips. He remembered the first horrible discovery. Those unloading the diseased packages were found dead, corpses lying near the harbor and within the city. The sickness stopped them where they sat or stood. The officials tried to keep order, secreting the bodies away until they could ascertain their cause of death. All would have been well.
Until the dead clawed their way from the morgue.
The Argent Crusade caught wind of the cowardly attack, sending their most powerful healers to stop the spread of the plague. They were successful, saving Stormwind from destruction.
Despite the return of relative peace, Bridenbrad knew he must act and do what no other had done in his family. He must take up arms. The Crusade offered him a position, a chance to ride against Arthas. He accepted, knowing that if the Lich King could strike there, he could strike anywhere. Elizabeth and his girls were not safe.
She protested. He countered. For such a serious matter the argument was short.
Now he knelt, thousands of miles away from home, perched on some gods-forsaken hill.
The commotion pulled him from his dark thoughts. Soldiers clambered through the small camp, strapping on their swords and straightening as if the king himself rode to meet them. Bridenbrad turned, watching as the figure plodded his way up the steep path.
The Ashbringer. Tirion Fordring saluted each man as he passed. His sight drove the bitterness from the Crusader, hope and light once again filling his soul. Bridenbrad rose, bowing at the man’s approach. They had all fought together to claim the small pieces of Icecrown, and Fordring’s presence on the field always served to lift the hearts of the soldiers.
Tirion looked out over the gloom of Scourgeholme, his scowl matching the encroaching darkness. Clouds gathered on the horizon, heralding some new storm. They blotted out the sun, casting the white hills and slopes in a ghastly pallor. Rising winds ripped into both men as they surveyed the scarred, desolate stretch, worming its way beneath their armor and against their skin.
“Your men are rested?”
“I have a mission for you, then.”
Bridenbrad’;s eyes settled upon the twisted buildings. “Scourgeholme?”
“No,”; Tirion responded. He sensed the disappointment without Bridenbrad uttering a word. Fordring smiled. Bridenbrad’s reputation preceded him; he was one of the first to charge from the Argent Vanguard, driving back the undead within the Valley of Echoes. He charged into battle as if he wielded Tirion’s mighty sword himself. Of course, he was afforded none of the benefits of such an artifact.
His actions and disappointment only proved to Tirion he had chosen the right man.
“Mord’rethar, the Death Gate, lies to the northwest. The Alliance has gathered to take it and mean to drive a hole into Arthas’s defenses. Such a victory would allow us to seize more of Icecrown, for Scourgeholme is supported by the undead at the Gate.” He watched Bridenbrad’s face as he continued. “We cannot risk sending a large contingent to assist them, for the undead would muster their most powerful to raze the Pinnacle.”
There was no fear. No flicker of doubt marred Bridenbrad’s face despite the apparent impossibility of such a task. They had seen the Death Gate and forces amassed there. One could only hope the Alliance had brought enough forces to match the threat. He listened to his orders, saluted once, then turned to gather his men.
Marshal Ivalius waited with his troops. The knights were pilots, trained to steer their giant war machines across any terrain and through any opposition. The contraptions sat silent nearby, waiting their masters’ call. Beyond them milled the remainder of the Alliance forces, each man casting fearful glances toward Mord’rethar.
The Scourge had not discovered them.
Ivalius watched as the clouds grew ever darker, snow cascading down upon their shoulders. The winds howled, threatening to knock each man off their feet, ignoring their heavy armor. The blue and gold tabard, its lion’s head growling forth, whipped around the Marshal’s body.
Visibility fell. The tall Death Gate drowned in the sea of flakes. It only took a short amount of time before he could scarcely see his gathered pilots.
The plan was simple. The Alliance were outnumbered almost ten to one. Only a cunning strategy would help them win the day. Ivalius knew Icecrown well, he and his men having taken many days to reach their hidden position. The weather was always cold, always foul, and devolved into long-lasting blizzards with alarming frequency.
This would serve him well. The Scourge forces, blinded and deafened, would be taken unawares by the war machines as they rolled over them. The dangerous plague wagons were to either side of their path, providing them a straight shot to the Gate. His men would follow on foot, cutting down the fleeing Scourge.
The rumbling, belching machines lumbered forward.
As fate would have it, the weather lifted a small fraction as Warlord Strongbrow and his men passed.
The mighty orc raised his hand, his officers sending the signal down the line. Motioning a few of his fellow Horde warriors with him, Hork shuffled his way through the snow to the top of the rise. Crouching, for he knew the Death Gate rested nearby, he pulled himself to the edge and peered over.
The Scourge screamed as the war machines rolled over them, crushing bones and grinding them to dust as they continued their onslaught. The gold and blue tabards of Alliance knights flitted as they marched into the confused, enraged creatures, blades slicing through their hasty defenses. One of them, their leader no doubt, raised his sword and issued a rallying cry, sending his troops barreling through the thickening snow as the blizzard closed in.
The Warlord sat still as the weather buried any further revelations.
They meant to take the Death Gate. Such a victory would only raise the Alliance presence within Icecrown, affording more lands and opportunity to the weak humans and their ilk. Yet they were outnumbered, their assault contingent upon the howling winds and driving snows.
A slow smile spread across the orc’s face.
There was little they could do.
Bridenbrad stood with his men on the bluff, watching as the Horde and Alliance soldiers were overrun by the Scourge. The Crusaders had arrived a few moments ago and now watched with horror as the blizzard waned.
The war machines had stopped their forward momentum. Drivers were pulled from within, torn apart as they struggled against their attackers. Abominations lumbered through both forces, chains whipping out to impale the unfortunate. These kicked and screamed as they were dragged through the snow towards the rotting behemoths. Their cries were cut short as they were smashed into the unforgiving ground. Horrendous gargoyles swooped overhead, picking up the terrified, wriggling men, only to drop them in broken heaps.
Despite this, despite the undead swarming over them, slaughtering and turning their comrades…despite this, the Alliance and Horde fought one another.
“Fools, all of them,” Bridenbrad swore.
The blizzard moved in again.
“What do we do?” one of his soldiers asked.
The Crusader hesitated. He knew the battle was already lost. There was nothing his men, even with their holy abilities, could do to turn the tide back in the Alliance’s favor. Adding their own corpses to the blood-soaked field was all they would accomplish.
There remained only one task.
“All of you stay here. I will rescue as many as I can. Take who I find to the Pinnacle. Hopefully our healers can mend their wounds.”
“Sir, that is madness! Surely we could do a better job with more…”
Bridenbrad shook his head. “No. More men means more risk. A greater chance for discovery. If one of us is found, you can rest assured that the Scourge will hunt the rest of us down. Then no one is saved.”
He did not wait for their response, drawing his sword to creep into the blinding cold.
Screams erupted all around. The white snow was reduced to a slushy, sticky red. He smelled smoke from the burning war machines. It stung his eyes, threatening to choke the life from his lungs. He pressed onward, coming to the first Alliance soldier. Bending, he took the man’s arm.
It was then he noticed the Horde arrows protruding from the young man’s body.
The Crusader shook his head, a deep stab of sadness piercing his heart. The Horde. It was no miscalculation on the Alliance’s part that led to their downfall. A simple betrayal, one that probably pleased Arthas to no end, was all it took.
There he was. The orc was propped against a boulder, laughing at the carnage and dying humans. Blood ran from his many wounds, dripping from his green mouth every time he let loose a guttural chuckle. The Horde tabard was shredded, but the Crusader spotted the military insignia.
Warlord. Leader of these traitorous forces.
Hork gripped his blade as Bridenbrad emerged from the swirling flakes. Seeing the star upon his chest, however, he relaxed, knowing the Argent Crusade would not strike him down. He attempted to speak, but the knight did not respond, grasping his arm to lift him to his feet.
The Warlord was the first of many he pulled from the blood-soaked ground. Each trip sent him further into the Scourge, leading him farther from the safety of his men. On more than one occasion he had to fight, one of the undead careening into him as it chased some unfortunate soul. Before it could speak, before it could scream out the Crusade’s involvement, he cut it down.
Marshal Ivalius slapped away the scrabbling hands of a ghoul as it laughed. Though his sword was sharp, coated with the blood of Scourge and Horde alike, his weak attempts made it all but useless. Bridenbrad stole up behind the creature, then lopped its head from its body.
Ivalius smiled as he was assisted through the carnage. “Thank the Light the Crusade has arrived. Now we might take the Gate.”
“I am sorry, Marshal,” Bridenbrad said, “but my force is too small. All we can do now is pull you from the field.”
The man scowled as they passed by one of the dead Horde. “Leave these dogs,” he spat. “They are the reason we failed, the reason why my men are now walking abominations or dead.”
“I know,” was all the response the Crusader could give. He did not want to reveal his decision to pull both factions from the slaughter. Ivalius, military man that he was, would rather the Horde be thrown to the undead. Better that they die or join the Lich King. It would be a fitting punishment.
Bridenbrad knew better. He knew they would need all the soldiers they could muster from both factions in order to defeat Arthas. And Arthas did not need more Scourge to throw at them.
A wounded soldier grasped his foot as they shuffled past.
“I shall return soon,” he answered.
His men took the Marshal from his arms. Bridenbrad noticed the anger as Ivalius saw the orc Warlord hauled up the path before him. His look suggested that the Crusader had performed more of an evil than the orc, twisting a dagger of betrayal into his back. Hork continued to laugh, despite the protests of Bridenbrad’s men. Not even the coming shadow of death would rob the Horde of their gloating.
He returned to the field after ordering his men back to the Pinnacle. There was but one man left that he knew of. The rest were dead or turned.
The blizzard began to lift as he traced his path back to the soldier. The man was on his knees now, barely holding himself aloft with his battered sword. The Crusader saw the dark shapes of the Scourge as they scrabbled through the snow, hunting for more victims. It would be a small matter of time before they smelled his blood.
“Come,” he said, helping the man up. “Hurry.”
They almost made it.
He felt the vibration along the ground as the abomination lurched after them. Turning, Bridenbrad let loose his precious cargo, taking his sword in both hands as the man fell. A ghoul approached from his right. The remaining winds concealed the second abomination’s approach.
The strike caught him from behind, lifting him through the air. Horrified, he watched as the plague wagon loomed into view, the bubbling, frothing liquid glowing an eerie green. There was nothing he could do to halt his descent, arms and legs flailing. As it rushed towards him, visions of his wife and family flashed through his mind. A second before contact, a primal scream of denial broke from his throat.
The wagon cracked and splintered as he landed. Sticky, putrid fluid washed over him as a rotting stench permeated his lungs. He fought against breathing, trying to rise from the slippery mess. The effort was futile, the taste of the bitter concoction riding his tongue.
“You have damned me,” he intoned. He could feel it burn as the plague seared through his tissue and veins.
The Scourge turned towards the Alliance soldier, ignoring the Crusader. He was one of them now.
“Not quite yet,” Bridenbrad muttered. He rose, grasping his sword. With a wretched yell he hurled himself at the undead, chopping into them. Anger, white-hot anger, guided him. The small ghoul was sheared in half before it could even turn, but that was not enough. As it fell, the Crusader lopped off an arm, then its head. Without slowing, he sliced through the calf muscles of the first abomination, bringing it to a howling, crashing halt. The second reached for the Alliance man just as he closed in, his Argent blade stabbing through to its heart.
Weakness embraced him. Bridenbrad sank to one knee, sword plunged into the ground. His breathing came in short rasps, the plague driving the life-giving oxygen from him. The rescued soldier approached, eager to lend a hand so they could escape.
The Crusader rose, raising his sword to point it at the young man.
“Leave. Make your way to the Pinnacle.”
“I don’t under…”
“I know you don’t,” he grimaced, sword wavering. His bottom lip trembled. “There is a letter…there is a letter at the Vanguard.” He stopped, eyes clouding with tears. “Make certain my wife receives it.”
“I could help you,” the soldier insisted.
He meant well, Bridenbrad knew. Yet, as he stepped closer, the Crusader’s eyes narrowed. “Go!” he yelled.
He watched as the Alliance man rushed away. It was all he could do to hold himself back, wanting nothing more than to flee to the Crusade. He could beg Father Gustav, plead with the man to bless him and drive away the plague. Tirion Fordring could use his ensorcelled sword, perhaps cleanse his body…
He knew the thoughts were both foolish and hopeless. Had the healers been able to counteract the plague, there were any number of men they would have pulled from the field of battle rather than striking them down. A single breath, a drop of sweat…that was all it would take for him to infect his fellow soldiers.
Bridenbrad stood amidst the Scourge. The sun dared reveal the contents of the horrendous field. Alliance and Horde soldiers, those too far gone for his rescue attempts, succumbed to the terrors of the undead. Some were infected. Others…
He shuddered. They ignored him, perhaps able to sense the transformation taking place. Unlike the others, the Crusader was largely uninjured, a prime specimen for the Lich King. With his knowledge of the Crusade, with his strong arm and shrewd mind, he would make an invaluable addition to his Death Knights.
That could not happen.
The fleeing Alliance soldier chanced a glance behind him as he ran, taking note of Bridenbrad’s slow walk into Scourgeholme.
Snow crunched beneath his feet. For once in his life, he had no path to follow, aimless in his retreat. Icecrown was the Lich King’s. In his despair he could think of no place to hide, no place to thwart Arthas’s sure plans for him. That the Scourge paid him no heed as he walked through Scourgeholme terrified him. Only the Crusade’s tabard caused them some concern, but this passed when they detected the plague’s stench.
His thoughts drifted to his family and all he had lost.
No more candles lighting the way to their bedroom, Elizabeth flouncing up the stairs and laughing as he chased her. No more sunny days spent in the park, his little girls rewarding him with flowers and squeals of joy. No more children…no more life…no more love…it was all gone.
He wept, sinking to the snow. His body quaked beneath his armor, sobs wrenching free from his chest. Tears streamed down his cheeks, intermingled with abject hopelessness. Alone, neither the sun nor snow brought him any comfort, for he could no longer feel them. Despair drowned him. Sorrow shattered his heart. Death drew near, though he knew it, too, would leave him. The Lich King would corrupt his soul, binding it to his plagued, diseased body.
A new vision sprang, unbidden, into his mind. Elizabeth screaming as he stormed into their home, rune blade striking her down. His summoned ghouls might move on to his children, chasing the little ones through the streets of a destroyed Stormwind. His family would rise from the dead by his side, rotting away for all eternity to share in his torment.
As his family propelled him in life, so they propelled him in death.
He ignored the strange lumps now erupting from beneath his armor. His movements became more rigid as the plague assaulted his system. Breaths came in short gasps, but he pressed onward.
Onward through Scourgeholme. Onward through the corpse- and coffin-filled pit just on the outskirts of the Scourge city. Onward through the snows and past the decaying, corrupted whelps. Up the giant slope he traveled, shuffling through the snows. Though the plague crept through his limbs and torso, twisting everything it encountered, it could do nothing against that sheer wall of determination in his mind.
Here. Here would do.
He did not need a fire, yet managed to fumble through his supplies to find the necessary materials. It would not last for long, he knew, but the mere sight of the dancing flames brought a smile to his face. Warmth. Light. It was his, and the Lich King could not take it.
The Crusader settled back, wincing. As he lay, breaths slowing, Bridenbrad became numb to the pain. Without the guidance of the Scourge, without the Lich King’s intervention, perhaps he might die in peace.
He smiled as he folded his arms across his chest.
He had never noticed how beautiful the stars were from Icecrown…