Sytekh: thanks for that, really. This story has fifty active readers and now four reviews - rather pathetic numbers compared to my others, trust me (most of which are with my older, worse writing) - so any feedback is highly appreciated. On A Savage Land, it's a shame I never got around to posting that final chapter. I'm utterly stumped with the last sentence of the story. I still consider it my best through, with Frank Herbert's Dune fresh in my mind and influencing my writing. Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy Abbendis too.
The tides of the battle changed in a sudden swoop, estimated two hours since Marcarius' death was reported. No longer did the Death Knights stand as champions among the endless hordes of undead; they mobilized as an army, crashing several scores of cavalry into the western most side of the Scarlet lines. The average footman, no matter how stalwart, was swept aside easily in only a few strokes of a runeblade.
Heated debate erupted among her advisers at what their response should be. The sides stood as one claiming the Lich King was desperate now, sending everything at once, and that they should counter with their all and crush him; the other cautioned them, considering the thrust only another test of the Death Knights and a simple maneuver meant to weaken them and draw out their strongest.
Abbendis had the final call. She felt strongly for the first side, knowing a necropolis could hold only so much Scourge and that very little of their fallen had been returned. Tyr's Hand's reinforcements finally arrived, completely fresh, ready to bolster their ranks by another two legions. More than ever, she felt certain in victory if they pushed now.
However, the voice of Marcarius spoke in her head, cautioning with his usual patience and confidence. Small comments, like, "The Lich King himself leads this army; everything, you hotblooded fools, would be everything." Only a few abominations had come and still no sign of a frostwyrm; that didn't sound like the Lich King getting desperate.
Unable to stand the bickering her advisers reduced to, she walked to cool her head. Time was precious, but their own heavy cavalry and paladins had been dispatched to contain the break in their lines. She had final call in their response, though.
As she walked, alone but not distant from her troops, she heard the laugh of a demented woman behind her and a choking sound. Whirling in place with her axe swinging out in an instant, she saw her reaction was too late. A Death Knight, some night elf woman barely visible with the shadow melding of her race, had her runeblade up and about descend into her back. Abbendis knew from observation that heavy plate armor did little to stop those cursed weapons.
However, the Death Knight was already restrained. Marcarius' demon harlot, Aelina she believed the name was, was there with a wide smile, choking the Scourge knight to death with her barbed whip. The succubus purred something into the struggling elf's ear and licked her cheek, then dropped the arm she was restraining and snapped the woman's neck. Abbendis saw the glowing blue eyes of the elf flicker out as she fell to the soil.
Calling holy fire, Abbendis burned the corpse away and frowned at the demon that had, essentially, prevented her assassination. "Why are you still here? Your master is dead."
The demon smirked mischievously as she coiled her whip, licking black blood from one barbed edge and her eyes glowing with infernal light and lust. "Child, my master will always get the last laugh. Even now he is returning, here, and he is pissed."
"He survived?" Abbendis asked, then quickly chastised herself for the hint of hope in her voice. Evenly, she continued, "Or is he now among the undead?"
"Oh, he died," the demon confirmed, but still her voice betrayed knowing amusement. "But if his soul were not his own, I'd have no reason to serve him." She glanced north with a frown suddenly and turned to Abbendis with a displeased expression. "If I had not the orders to guard you, I would be out there helping him return. He is weak."
With sudden fire in her eyes, Abbendis grabbed the harlot by the wrist and began pulling her along. "You will show me where Marcarius is. If he stands among the undead, we will put him to rest, and if he lives..." Aelina hid a smile as she was dragged behind.
Abbendis took only the paladin Sir Pendance with her. She had ordered the Crusade to bolster their defenses, giving rest to the men often with the many fresh troops, and to contain the damnable infestation of Scourge rats that tried picking them apart from the inside. Delay was what she wanted, at least until they returned.
"There!" the succubus shouted, pointing a pink-skinned arm over her shoulder to a black figure pressed against the rocks of the western mountain ridge. It was moving.
Abbendis and Pendance banked their gryphons downward and landed twenty spans before it. They dismounted while Aelina sprinted to the black figure, stooping to help support it with her slender shoulders. Pendance took a step forward, mace hanging slack in his fist. "By the Light... the commander."
Marcarius was a mess. His robes were soaked through with blood, torn to tatters, and what was visible of his skin showed lacerations and blood both dry and wet. Only one eye was open, glaring forward with a determination more animal than human. His skin was pale enough to be corpse. When Aelina got his weight on her, his trembling legs gave out entirely, though she barely sagged under his weight.
She had to be sure. Abbendis remained stone cold as she threw together her most powerful spell meant to turn away the undead. It would turn him to cinders in an instant, if that were the case, but would pass over the living harmlessly. Without a sound, she threw it at Marcarius, sending a rippling shockwave through his weak frame.
The warlock turned his one-eyed glare upon her. "Satisfied?"
"You look like hell," she commented lightly, but a smile suddenly spread her lips. Damn warlock.
Pendance ran over to the commander and knelt to heal him, calling down the Light in bright flashes. Marcarius coughed blood, then looked back at her with a bloody smile. "You should see the other guys."
Looking to the east, Abbendis noticed the the distant Scourge hadn't missed their brief show and presence. Already a band had broken off to shamble towards them, with at least one black armored knight. "Take him with you, Sir Pendance. We must go now."
The paladin gently lifted the wounded man and took him back to his gryphon. Aelina tried to follow, but there wasn't room for more than two. Forcing the temptress back on her own, Abbendis mounted and took to the skies before the Death Knight was close enough to use the ghastly grip spell. They flew back to New Avalon.
"I'm afraid I will be out of this war for good," Marcarius apologized, resting lightly in their tented hospital with Abbendis. "I will still advise as I can, if you'll listen."
"We can manage without you," she answered confidently, though added, "but you've earned your voice in council."
Outside, night had fallen, though the waves of Scourge were unrelenting. The fires of Havenshire's razing blocked the stars and moon with thick clouds of dark smoke. The sun shone the world as a dark orange when it was still high.
The warlock smiled sardonically. "You may yet change my opinion of the Scarlet Crusade, High General. If there were more like you, I'd even come to support it."
"I could have your head for that," she told him without heat. She was used to his barbed speak about her men. "One day you'll tell me how you lived, but that will come later. What have you to report, commander?"
He sobered considerably, showing impressive resolve despite his obvious weakness. "Is the fleet ready to sail?"
"I was told another thirty-six hours before all the supplies were finished loading," she answered, recalling how two thirds of the fleet were moored in the bay with no place to port to be stocked. It was slow work moving the stocked ships away and reeling in the fresh ones, especially with so many. Boarding the troops after would be another headache, no matter how disciplined they moved.
"A day and a half," he mumbled, frowning. "I pray it is enough."
"What did you see?"
"Every hero that ever fell against the Scourge that wasn't recovered is stored inside that necropolis. There are thousands of Death Knights to come. Some of the strongest Scourge leaders are there, even those I thought dead, and Patchwerk is one of the guards inside, ready to be loosed against us at any time. The frostwyrms are slumbering inside, yea nearly a score of them and all matured. And... High General... Abbendis... one of those knights, a son of Morgaine, wields the corrupted Ashbringer, or its like."
"By the Light," she gasped, then tensed her jaw with an angry scowl. "We are the army of the Light. With our brothers of the Argent Dawn, we are all there is to stand against the Scourge and the Lich King. With the reinforcements from Light's Hope Chapel and Hearthglen we will stage the final battle to once and for all destroy the traitor king."
"Nay, the Alliance would stand with you, should time be more plentiful, and even the Horde is not so foolish as to ignore a call to arms against the Lich King. But no matter how many legions we command, numbers mean nothing against this foe. Fifteen thousand Scarlet and Argent soldiers is merely fifteen thousand Scourge ghouls. Five thousand knights, five thousand Death Knights."
Abbendis smashed her gauntlet into the wood table beside his bed. "I know how the Scourge works, damn you!" The frustration and stress were getting the better of her. She withdrew to cover her face with her plated hand. The whole fight could seem so hopeless. At the very pinnacle of their power, with every resource available, their victory was in doubt. Why were they even fighting?
She remembered then the day in Lordaeron, during the celebration of the prince's return. She had walked the streets with her brother and sister paladins, taking in the peace and good cheer. All at once, things seemed to change pace. Alarms rose up, the soldiers and police scattering around furiously, the civilians in a confused panic. News shouted of the king's assassination, the prince's betrayal, and then the cultists unleashed hell. The Scourge were let in through an open gate.
Like every other citizen that survived, she wanted vengeance. Lordaeron would be reclaimed, and the Lich King called to pay for his crime. Since the forming of the Scarlet Crusade by her father and the others, they had managed to reclaim Hearthglen, the Scarlet Monastery, Tyr's Hand and the rest of the Scarlet Enclave. Through the blood of a thousand crusaders, Light's Hope Chapel had been cleansed into holy land.
They would not falter, would not retreat, and they would not give up the land they fought so hard to recover. The Lich King himself would not triumph over them, not quench the fires of vengeance that burned in every man and woman's heart. Whenever the hopelessness built inside, she only needed to remember the day of Betrayal to regain her passion.
She shared her thoughts with Marcarius: "Our defense is solid. Apart from the break in our lines from their cavalry, we've lost very little of our side to undeath; the number of ghouls has thinned drastically. Soon, the Lich King must perform another counter-stroke to gain any advantage. If we push forward, we lose the ability to destroy corpses, and thus fall victim to the Scourge Phenomenon. I see only two options for us."
"The first is like Naxxramas, yes?" Marcarius guessed. "Small, concentrated forces of the best that can fight without losses. However, the Death Knights complicate the possibility, as best will always face best and we outnumbered. But alas, the second eludes me."
"Holy ground," Abbendis said with grim resolution. "Like the Scourge grows stronger upon blight, they weaken when treading holy land. The bones under Light Hope Chapel cannot even be touched by undeath. If we could lure the traitor to sacred ground, we could dispatch him with ease. It does not surprise me, though, that you are unaware; only those who live for this war know."
The warlock's eyes lit with interest, though he was unable to sit up from his place. "And where might we find such a staging point?"
With a frown, Abbendis threw her hand towards the outside. "New Avalon was once holy land, but as the blood of innocents stain our soil, its power dwindles. The Lich King knows this and has his rats butchering our civilians in their own homes. Tyr's Hand is virginal and weak as such. The best grounds would be the unfortified Light's Hope Chapel."
"What duality," Marcarius mentioned. "Spilled blood can cleanse and spilled blood can taint. Are not the lives of the men lost in the lines turning that into holy ground?"
"Their blood prevents the blight from spreading any further, true, but cremation does not bring the peace that proper burial does. Their bones and bodies will not become a part of this land."
His lips drew thin as he mulled the information over. "A complex matter, but not entirely unfamiliar. I wish, High General, that you had educated me of this earlier."
"I wish, warlock, you had proven yourself more than an arrogant fool earlier," she returned dryly. He inclined his head, his smile insolent.
Silence fell between them for a long moment, until Marcarius' vitality seemed to wane. He settled back into his bed, his weakness and sickness showing more obviously in the pallor of his skin and his face. Abbendis stood. "Rest well, Commander. Tomorrow we'll speak again."
He met her eyes calmly, nodding. She found it strange how different he appeared, stripped of his robes and mystique and shrouded in bandages. "Send me the scout reports of the enemy's movement and positions. I may not be able to accompany the raids, but I can help devise crucial objectives."
"I won't hold war council in the hospital, commander." Her dismissal was curt but not unkind, and she turned to leave.
His smooth voice, dampened only by his condition, floated up behind her. "Then tomorrow I will go to you."
Abbendis smiled on her way out. Stalwart, that one. Already he changed her opinion on adventurers, even warlocks. The demon harlot was staring at her near the exit, a sly smile on her lush lips. Abbendis passed by without reaction.
"You can do it, can you not, High General?" Marcarius pressed, standing beside her and the other advisers.
No longer did the warlock wear his dark, crystalline robes, having retired from the fighting. He wore his simpler tunic and leggings, and over them was draped the pristine crimson and white tabard of a commanding officer. Abbendis took unspoken pleasure in seeing the man in their colors, as a Scarlet soldier.
The fear of a Death Knight assassin was small, allowing him to forgo his enchanted cloth armor, with the torturers having weeded them out nearly to the last man. Not to mention, he also had his harlot watching over him, hidden in her strange invisibility. The man showed no discomfort from his wounds, and she didn't concern herself with them either.
Everyone was speechless presently, looking at her with wide eyes and waiting on her next words. The plan Marcarius had drawn was a bold one, as was his usual, but not so impossible, granted she could conclude it. Taking a breath, she announced, "I can, and in the chance that I cannot, Tirion Fordring at Light's Hope has the power."
"By the Light, the Ashbringer's been corrupted," Sir Goldring groaned, then turned eyes of fire upon her. "High General, I offer myself to lead the assault."
The man was the strongest of her knights, the head of her private escort and blessed with great power in the Light. However, while the man could fight and lead, she already had one in mind. "No. Sir Pendance will lead the raid upon the Crypt of Remembrance. Sir Goldring, you will gather forty of our strongest knights and paladins, yourself included, to be a part of this. You know the importance of this mission; they must be the best we have."
The man saluted, preparing to depart, but then Marcarius spoke up in his slow drawl. "If I may, High General...?"
Her hand halted Goldring, and she stared at the man. "Speak."
He met her gaze. "The Lich King will surely guess our intent when we ride out. He will send his very best out to stop us and slaughter the raid, when what we face is already overbearing. I propose a second raid on the outside, to defend them from the encroaching threat. Knight Goldring would be my first choice for the head of that. Knights, after all, are best utilized as mounted cavalry, nay?"
Commander Jordan frowned, glancing at her. "Sending eighty of our best away will severely weaken the lines, High General. If we go that route, might we release some of our gryphons for aerial defense?"
"Twenty matured frost wyrms, Commander," another spoke up, grimly. "Would you chance losing some of our best defense against them?"
"We are in a hard position either way. We cannot keep up this war at the present state of things. Despite our many granaries, the civilians have grown restless since the north-side one was burned down. Quincy has been unsuccessful in alleviating their fears," a bishop reported. "As difficult as it is asking men to pack their things and leave their homes, it might be best to relieve pressure and allow an introductory evacuation to Light's Hope Chapel."
"If we start any evacuation, the civilians will immediately take that as us believing defeat is certain!" the High Priest shouted, outraged. "We will face a full riot!"
As they bickered, Abbendis noticed Marcarius hadn't once taken his attention and stare from her. Domestic issues were a valid concern presently, but unrelated to their mission. She cut their argument short. "Enough! Sir Penance will lead the finest paladins we have between us and Tyr's Hand's army, and Sir Goldring will lead his contingent of knights in a second raid for defense. Our mission is the retrieval of the Ashbringer from Mograine's Death Knight son.
"Commander Jordan, you will increase the number of active crusaders in the lines by a hundred and ready all of our ballista; we will shatter the siege in the same moment and ready our defenses for the Lich King's counter. Admiral, you will continue readying the fleet in all haste. Until the moment where the cleansed Ashbringer is in my hand, we will plan and proceed to take our army to the wastes of Northrend and shatter the walls of Icecrown at our prompting."
Everyone saluted, even the smirking Marcarius. The High Priest hesitated in the following moment. "General Abbendis... which did the Light tell you is the Crimson Dawn? The reclaiming of the Ashbringer or the crusade to Northrend?" All eyes immediately set upon her, including the suddenly flat pair belonging to the warlock.
She made no mention of the Nathrezim. "The Light will reveal it to you in the next twenty-four hours, High Priest. Now move!" Fists banged chests again.