Chapter Thirteen: The Scarlet King
It was the last few hours before the operation began.
As the men carried this way and that, preparing for war, reports came in regularly of Mal'Ganis' attacks. The Blackrocks had managed to force him to a standstill, however temporary.
Now Arthas called one final council of his officers. "Blackthorn, are you certain this way will lead to the rear of the main undead line?"
"Yes, Prince Arthas," said Blackthorn. "I've been in contact with my scouts, and Mal'Ganis has completely missed it. If we strike hard and fast, we could easily destroy his fortress nearest to Alterac. The Syndicate men are cooperating with us as well; nobody wants to be caught on the losing side.
"Or worse, the undead's winning side."
"Wilhelm, what of your end of things?" asked Arthas.
"We've established forces at the critical points of retreat, Prince Arthas," said Wilhelm. "It's all just as you ordered. Limited fortifications and ambush positions have made it, so we should be able to seal them up.
"If all goes well, we should be able to catch our enemies as they retreat.
"Though most of the fortifications in these passes were built to stop orcs, not save them."
"Nothing ever turns out how we expect it to," said Alexstrasza from the far side of the table.
Arthas looked at her. She'd seemed reluctant to be involved and had several times brought news of one bad thing or another. It was clear she was trying to convince Arthas to abandon Lordaeron.
Which wasn't to say there wasn't plenty of reason to make an argument for it. All the militias being called had made farming difficult. The harvest was late in several places and far smaller. Food had been purchased from afar, so starvation had been bought off for the time being. But distributing the grain was difficult. And with all the draconian examinations they had to go through.
Suicides had apparently become fairly high in certain areas. Other people rushed into the wilderness with a weapon, looking for the undead. Few if these returned. And the rest of the men and women of Lordaeron had become grim. Black comedy was the only source of laughter, and kindness had become rare. Uther had expressed concerns on the subject in several of his letters.
And now, even the nobility was waking up to how grim their world had become. There had apparently been an attempt by Graymane to sally out of Gilneas. It had been a disaster, and the whole force had been butchered. Garithos had now started firing mortars regularly over the walls.
"Queen Alexstrasza, are the rest of your dragons standing by?" asked Arthas, realizing he'd let the silence stretch on.
"Yes, Prince Arthas. I've called for many of them from all around," said Alexstrasza. "Many of my children have arrived here to aid us faster than ever expected. The Kirin Tor's use of mass teleport was very effective."
Why had Arthas arranged to start attacking Gilneas anyway?
Yes, they'd betrayed them, but surely there was a greater enemy. A sane man would have waited until after the Scourge had been dealt with. But then, the people of Lordaeron weren't sane anymore. They were angry, vengeful and wanted to hurt the people who had hurt them in turn.
Their land had been turned into a blighted wasteland, one where they fought for survival every day. And all those fine Kings who swore eternal friendship had abandoned them. Why should Lordaeron be the only people to suffer?
Arthas had gone silent again. "Excellent work, all of you.
"We'll now discuss the next stage of your plan. Wilhelm, your task is to use our less experienced troops to wipe out the enemy as they flee. The peons will make up the brunt of this army. Blackmoore, you will strike directly at the strongholds nearest to Alterac. Once captured, you will ensure the undead do not threaten the people of Alterac.
"Send messengers to them. Make it clear our enemy is the Scourge and those who stand with them. And no looking, we'll be relying on their goodwill to rebuild the Alliance."
"We had plenty of goodwill after the Second War," muttered Wilhelm. "Not that it did us any good before."
"And we've demonstrated the cost of betrayal with Gilneas," said Arthas. But he was only rationalizing an act of vengeance that had been impulsive. In the end, Arthas had attacked Gilneas because he hated them. Everything else was an excuse.
"Sounds fair enough to me, milord," said Wilhelm. "But what about you and Inquisitor Whitemane?"
"Whitemane and I will be attacking the undead by air," said Arthas. "The Red Dragon Flight will transport us by air in an assault force. We'll land directly behind Mal'Ganis' siege of the Blackrock Villages. That will cut them off from their main force."
"You are aware it is considered an immense honor to ride atop a Red Dragon. Let alone a Dragon Queen," said Alexstrasza, voice chiding.
"I have done manual labor when the situation is dire enough, Queen Alexstrasza," said Arthas. "I don't see why you should be exempt."
"And we won't be riding atop you anyway; we'll be taking those baskets."
"I just thought you ought to know what you were asking," said Alexstrasza.
"We can save the complaints about after victory," said Arthas. "If Mal'Ganis seizes Alterac, we'll have far larger problems. Now, let's get to work, shall we."
On the preparations went.
Blackthorn and his men headed out, leading a column of troops. With them marched a large troop of newly trained peon recruits. Arthas expected that their casualties would be high. But they would compensate for undead numbers. And they were fighting to save their fellow Blackrocks, so he did not doubt their loyalty.
Eventually, it came to disembark. Arthas walked before his assembled troops, even as many red dragons landed. Alexstrasza was some ways away in dragon form. Arthas noticed several people marveling at her beauty. She was a particularly big red dragon, he guessed, but shining scales meant nothing to him.
"You men are among the experienced of Lordaeron and Quel'thalas," said Arthas. "Many among you are paladins of the Silver Hand. Others have come from as far away as Quel'thalas. Now is the time that you will become legends.
"If we gain victory here, the Scourge of Lordaeron will be broken, once and for all. And this war will soon be won. Fight with fury unyielding; let no fear sway you. Serve the Crusade! Serve humanity!
"We die or triumph as one in this Lightforsaken era!"
Men saluted in unison, weathered but not beaten. And Arthas smiled in satisfaction. "Now get to your transports, and may the Light guide your path."
The men moved in groups, scaling into huge transport baskets. Each one had on it handles that a red dragon took hold of. Arthas nodded to Alexstrasza and then looked to Whitemane. "Come, Sally. We have work to do."
Climbing into his own transport, Arthas felt the lift as the dragon rose skyward. It and the others flew away over the Alterac Highlands. They moved swiftly, and Arthas wondered how Blackthorn and Wilhelm's plans were going.
If even one element of this plan failed, the victory would not be complete.
Over the snowy peaks, they flew, and Arthas found he was not even shaking. Nothing shocked him anymore, and he felt... detached. Like he was only a passenger in his own body. Looking down, however, he saw the dragons coming over the cliffs. There, in the pass, was a large contingent of the undead.
They'd set themselves up in heavy ranks with defenses. However, they evidently did not expect to have the enemy appear behind them. The men off Lordaeron rushed out, swords readied. They locked shields and moved toward the defenses, which fired at them en masse. However, even as they did, the Red Dragons began to pour flames down upon them.
The lines met, even as the Spirit Towers fell. Before long, the enemy line was destroyed, even as Arthas stepped out into the wreckage. Eyeing the bodies, he looked up to the Blackrock Village. The enemy had surrounded it, but even now was panicking at the chance. Red Dragons were pursuing fleeing pockets of undead and scorching them.
"A rearguard," mused Arthas. "That is unlike Mal'Ganis' usual tactics."
"Perhaps he is learning from his previous mistakes," said Sally.
"Perhaps," said Arthas. "However, Mal'Ganis' style usually expands his forces and strikes in as many places as possible. Individual troops are of no concern to him. He must be getting desperate." He looked to a group of mages that had come with him. "Once we land, you are to seal off all teleportation in this region. Do not break the spell unless the battle turns against us."
"Yes, Prince Arthas," said the men.
And Arthas took his place before the armies of his men. At some point, the standard blue had begun to disappear from uniforms. Now they went clad in leather and whatever defense they could put together. Their weapons were anything from axes to swords to spears, and they were scarred men.
Some had even begun to wear red, like the orcs before them.
But they were his subjects nonetheless. He had gathered them together for a purpose; to purge the undead from Lordaeron in a great crusade. And that purpose would be done. "Forward, men of Lordaeron! FOR THE LIGHT! FOR THE CRUSADE!"
"FOR THE CRUSADE!" They echoed.
Mal'Ganis' armies descended toward them, even as Arthas rushed to meet them. The Red Dragons struck at the flanks, however, annihilating many of the undead. The undead flyers fought to try and stop the Red Flight. There were several undead Dragons could be seen supporting them. And they were keeping them occupied for a short time.
And then the forces met.
It was no contest.
The men of Lordaeron smashed through the undead, hacking and slashing with fury. The undead's hunger and hatred for life was nothing before it. Arthas smashed them aside with his hammer and blood-spattered over him. He waded through them, slashing and hacking with endless fury. And all the while, he felt more detached, more distant from what he was doing.
Where was Mal'Ganis?
The undead lines buckled, and then they did something he'd never seen. The undead fled. They broke and ran in terror, disobeying their necromancer's commands. Those necromancers, in turn, fled or tried in vain to teleport away.
"They are breaking before us! Forward! Wipe them out!" said Arthas.
Mal'Ganis appeared then and sent forth his reserves, many abominations. His dark will infuse the undead, and they turned to fight again. However, even as they did, the gates of the Blackrock Village opened. From it poured the orcs with Jubei'thos to flank them. And the Red Dragons overwhelmed the undead flyers.
Caught between all those they had wronged, most of the undead fled. Some cowered in place, screeching with their faces on the ground. And Mal'Ganis surveyed the events in terror from a hill. Arthas sensed him, saw him, and then the demon fled.
Or tried to.
Arthas saw the demon taking to the air and flying to try and escape. No, no, he would not get away this time.
Snatching a spear, Arthas hurled it.
The spear flew through the air with a speed and accuracy that surprised Arthas. It was as though it was guided by the Light. It pierced the demon's arm, and he howled before falling from the sky like lightning. Arthas rushed from the fray, making for him, and hewed down several abominations that got in his way.
Making his way through, he saw Mal'Ganis rising to his feet. Many ghouls gathered around to defend him. They rushed forward toward Arthas, but he raised a hand, and in a moment, they were obliterated. Moving forward, Arthas saw Mal'Ganis drawing the spear from his wing.
The Dreadlord was afraid.
"I told you that I'd hunt you to the ends of the Earth if I had to," said Arthas.
Mal'Ganis readied the spear. "...So, you've ignored the blood the Blackrock's have shed simply to kill me.
"I can see why the Dark Lord thought you had such potential. Still, the game has only-" He stopped, and Arthas smiled.
"Trying to teleport out?" asked Arthas. "No, Mal'Ganis, you won't escape by teleportation to come back for revenge. If you want to escape this place, you will have to go through me."
Mal'Ganis looked afraid now. His gaze turned to the armies, but he mastered himself. "...Do you think this will end with my death, young Prince? I am but the lieutenant to a far greater power. And not the greatest."
"You waste your breath, Mal'Gannis," said Arthas. "I'll kill them soon enough. And you won't live long enough to see that day."
"Wait, Prince Arthas," said Mal'Ganis, raising a hand. "Both of us have an opportunity here. Have I not been the most formidable of your enemies? You have won a battle, but not a war. And many greater threats lie before you.
"Allow me to serve you.
"With our combined strength-"
Fury suddenly overtook Arthas. He surged forward, swinging his hammer, and smashed Mal'Ganis by the shoulder. The demon screamed as he fell back, and Arthas began to hit him again and again. Blood spewed from the demon as Arthas rained one blow after another on him. Soon Mal'Ganis was not moving or screaming, but Arthas kept hitting his corpse.
At last, Arthas halted and saw the disfigured corpse. Mal'Ganis had died horribly, his designs destroyed and being beaten to death. Somehow, it didn't make Arthas feel any better. Then Arthas remembered all those he had hurt and all those he'd meant to hurt. Their ghosts might be at peace, now.
Perhaps a little.
"It is finished," said Arthas, feeling dead. "...I'm so tired."
Making his way back to his army, he found the army all but over. Wherever he looked, he saw men chopping up corpses. Pyres were being started, and the body parts were thrown onto them. A few were sitting on top of a stone and eating and drinking. Dismembered bodies were mere feet from them, and they did not even care. They talked and laughed.
Was this what Lordaeron was becoming? A violent, brutal people who lived for revenge on a world that abandoned them? Turning his gaze to the west, he wondered if there might be some escape there.
"Prince Arthas, we've driven them before us!" said Sally, coming forward. "Even now, the remaining cultists have fled to their remaining bastions!
"They are actually offering us their surrender!"
Laughter came from a number of men.
It was a critical moment. And Arthas remembered Mal'Ganis' earlier words. "Accept it."
"What?" said Sally.
"Accept their surrender," said Arthas. "The cultists until now would rather take their own lives than be captured. They likely have a wealth of information.
"We'll show them mercy and use what they know to plan the next stages of our campaign.
"There may be a road to redemption for some of them."
Perhaps by raising such a possibility, even faint, he could turn back the brutality. Words spoken to him by Uther long ago came to him now.
'If we allow our passions to turn to bloodlust, then we shall become as vile as the orcs.'
"If that is your will, Prince Arthas," said Sally.
"Send word to our remaining forces. Take the living servants of the Undead Scourge alive," said Arthas. "I want no one sent to hell which might otherwise be saved." Assuming there even was a hell in this worthless world. And also assuming that everyone didn't go to it.
What followed was the miserable organization of the burning of bodies. There were a lot of them, and many had been made by the Blackrock Clan. Alexstrasza was apparently meeting with the Blackrock Clan leaders. Arthas set a guard, just in case they had to fight and gave orders where he could.
He missed Falric, Marwynnn, and most of all, Jaina. And he wondered if he'd ever see her again.
"Prince Arthas?" asked a man.
Arthas saw a man in messengers' armor. "Yes?"
"I am a messenger from Blackthorn," said the man. "We've seized the fortress as you commanded. We've captured many of the cultists for interrogation.
"We are now working to capture the lesser fortresses."
Arthas nodded. "Treat them well. We may have use for them."
Then he looked up and saw the orcs emerging from the Blackrock Village. Their armies came forward at a walk, and the bloodstained army of Arthas formed up. Many of them were smiling and looked ready for war. He felt almost as if he was looking at an army of orcs in human for.
Moving forward to the front, he saw Jubei'thos. The orc halted with his men and the Red Dragons around them.
"Jubei'thos," said Arthas. "Why do you come before me?"
Jubei'thos bowed before him, and so did all his warriors. They set their weapons at his feet. "The men of the Blackrock Clan swear ourselves to you, Prince Arthas. You tainted red by the blood of your enemies are our Warchief. And the rightful Warchief of this world."
"All hail Arthas, the Scarlet King!" cried Sally Whitemane at his right hand.
"Hail the Scarlet King!" cried the men.
"Hail the Scarlet King!" cried the orcs.
"Hail the Scarlet King!" cried the elves.
Arthas nodded and took Jubei'thos' sword. Then he offered it back to the orc who took it. "Rise a knight, Sir Jubei'thos, and sin no more. The Blackrock Clan will find their salvation in my service."
At that moment, a man appeared. It was a messenger mage, and he rushed forward. "Prince Arthas!"
"What is it?" asked Arthas, annoyed at the interruption.
"The Tomb of Kel'thuzad has been raided!" said a man. "A dreadlord of terrible power attacked and slew the Paladins guarding it. After raising them as undead, he took the remains and disappeared."
And, as if by some evil fortune, Queen Alexstrasza descended from on high and took on her elven form. "Queen Alexstrasza..."
"Prince Arthas, I bear ill news," said Alexstrasza. "Quel'thalas is under attack from the sea. The undead are sending legions of troops from Northrend to land on their beaches. Even as we speak, the Dreadlord Tichondrius marshalls his forces.
"It is as I feared.
"You must travel west. When Quel'thalas falls, they will surely come here. We must use the time we have bought to create a fallback plan."
Here was the moment.
To flee, having done all he could to hold the enemy. Or to fight on and find other ways. No shame could be put on Lordaeron for leaving now. They had done all they could and do great harm to the enemy. Perhaps a better future could be found to the west.
But to stay, to remain in hell and do battle there. To try and make a decent world within this desolated realm, to die unbroken? Would that not be a far greater glory? And who would look to those left behind? The Prince of Lordaeron could not abandon his people to save his own life.
There was only one correct answer.
"Sally..." said Arthas.
"Yes, Prince Arthas?" asked Sally.
"Tell the Scarlet Crusade to prepare for war!" said Arthas.
Azeroth would break before the Crusade did.
So, 2020 has been the worst year of my lifetime.
Who knew that Blizzard's cooperation with China was all part of an elaborate scheme. One to reenact the Scourge of Lordaeron in real life. I for one, can't wait for the zombie apocalypse to destroy the CCP.
Just remember that we can beat this thing. We just need to adjust our schedules for the longterm. Instead of a total lockdown, the answer is a lifestyle change that reduces our risk.
Remember social distancing, wear a mask, and avoid high-risk areas. If you do all those things, you are saving lives. If you begin to get stir crazy, consider trying to go out to a less risky place. Taking a walk in an open park, for instance, is far safer than going to the gym.
If you must go to a restaurant, stick to ones where you can order by phone. Get take out and eat it out. Or better yet, order delivery so you don't have to go out. As for holidays, see if you can adapt the holiday to a safer method.
For instance, members of my family had Holloween without the risk. They took their kids on a walk through the neighborhood with costumes and stuff. But instead of trick or treating, we had candy with a scavenger hunt. So we didn't have contact with other people, but the kids got the experience.
Just be creative, and we should be able to get back to normal with a few passive changes.