It seemed impossible that something so vast and heavily armoured should be able to take flight. In the space between breaths, Jaina Proudmoore pondered how many impossible events she had witnessed in her life. More than was healthy, she decided. More than a mortal ought to.
Deathwing denied impossibility and surged across the surface of the water, slowly outstripping the pursuing gunships. Black smoke poured from the fissures in his armour, from the edges of his ragged wings, and blood like lava spilled out steadily between his teeth. He was injured, but not enough to slow him sufficiently.
Atop Wyrmrest Temple, someone shouted, "He's heading for the Maelstrom!"
"No!" That was Alexstrasza, her voice raw and anguished. "The Maelstrom will allow him back into Deepholm!"
Jaina knew what that meant- in Deepholm, the plane of elemental earth, stood the World Pillar. Deathwing had tried once before to destroy it and bring about a cataclysm that would end Azeroth.
"He must not reach it!"
From her vantage on a lower level of the Temple, Jaina saw Alexstrasza lean out, struggling to spread her shredded wings.
"Save your strength, Lifebinder!" Jaina shouted up to her. She abandoned her place among the heavy artillery and blinked to the deck of an Alliance gunship.
Kel'Thuzad! Come to me!
The lich obeyed. Jaina raised her hands, took a deep breath, then wrapped her magic around the entire fleet. There was a boom of displaced air, and every vessel flashed through space, into the dragon's path.
Deathwing saw the fleet only a split second before he plowed into it. Two hapless Horde vessels- one a gunship, the other a zeppelin- appeared just in front of him. Neither their crews nor Jaina had time to turn the vehicles or stop the collision. Deathwing's weight and momentum were such that his head burst through both craft, shattering bands of iron and splintering timbers, but for precious seconds his body and wings were tangled in the wreckage.
Before the gas in the zeppelin ignited, Jaina caught a glimpse of the captain: still at the helm, he raised his fist in defiance. The explosion blew an armour plate off Deathwing's neck and rocked him back with billowing force.
Then he shook free and surged away from the fleet again.
Jaina gritted her teeth, teleported them forward and caught him again. She blinked watering eyes, wiped her running nose and saw her sleeve come away streaked with blood. Even my own arcane magic hurts me now? She sniffed back blood and pointed to another Alliance vessel, the closest to his head. This time Kel'Thuzad blinked the two of them across the distance.
"Tell your crew to abandon ship," Jaina ordered the startled captain. He obeyed without question.
Now the fleet began to close in. Adventurers- heroes- in ones and twos launched themselves with grappling hooks and harpoons, magic and sheer physical strength, from the decks of the ships onto the dragon's back.
And still he plunged onwards, out of gunship range.
Jaina threw her commandeered ship forward one last time. There was no one left aboard to work the cannons but she and Kel'Thuzad were weapons enough.
"Deathwing!" Amplified by magic, her voice rang out like a death knell, pitiless as the tundra wind.
His eye fixed upon her.
"You!" He roared. "Lich King! Abomination!" His voice made the gunship propellers rattle in their mounts.
"Me," she replied with a thin smile. Ice fog crystallized around her.
And he took the bait.
Deathwing opened his jaws and the airship was engulfed in flames. For several seconds, it was all she could do to hold her shields of ice intact against the onslaught.
"Well, you have his attention," said Kel'Thuzad when the deluge ended.
Jaina pelted the dragon's face with frostbolts. The airships were catching up. More adventurers made it onto Deathwing's back while his attention was on her, and she gasped, tasted acrid smoke and iron, and kept up the barrage. Blood trickled over her lips and chin.
Deathwing was past threats, beyond words now, and came at the gunship with teeth and claws, taking great bites out of the deck. Jaina and Kel'Thuzad held their ground at the stern as the ship began to list downwards and the doomed zeppelin captain's face flashed through her mind. If this should be my end…
Jaina teleported the Helm of Domination to her hand, settled the ruthless metal crown over her head, and for the first time in her life, she called up the full strength of the Lich King's power and levelled it at Deathwing's head.
For a moment, she was blind, seized by vertigo, unable to breathe.
Her vision returned and she watched as one of his horns exploded, cartwheeling away in a spray of molten blood. She blinked, shook her head to throw off bloody sweat. From the heroes on his back, magic of every school tore at him, weapons of every shape and size found the gaps in his armour, and now the gunships dropped below his belly to avoid firing on the fighters above. The boom of cannons became one ongoing roar.
They had him now.
Jaina choked, staggered by agony. Her bones seemed to bow under her own weight, her muscles sagged, and she felt Kel'Thuzad throw his chains around her, buoying her up, forcing her to channel the deadly magic through him instead of herself. Locked in tandem, they focused a gale of sharpened ice through his wings, shredding the membranes, and pulverizing bone.
Suddenly the airships were firing on their comrades and the heroes clung on with ropes, with magic, with weapons, and bare fingers. Through the haze of pain, Jaina watched in slow motion as a troll warlock grabbed the reaching hand of a human paladin and hurled her upward in a great arc to find purchase again.
In this long moment, they were not Horde or Alliance- they were Azeroth.
The roll made Deathwing falter and lose altitude. Again, he opened his mouth and Jaina raised a glacial shield of ice. She summoned the water straight up from the ocean, reinforced it with the strongest weaves she knew, and felt it crack and crumble as Deathwing's infernal breath sublimated the ice to searing steam.
She could hardly breathe. The Lich King's magic- her own magic- clutched her and throttled her towards undeath. Black splotches clouded her vision.
Kel'Thuzad flung out one hand and gathered the steam into frost. Ice slicked the metal plating Deathwing's head with the squeal and creak of sudden cooling. The dragon's jaw jerked sideways, dislocated by the pressure.
Then Deathwing cut the remains of their gunship in half with his tail and took a breath.
There was not enough time for Jaina to summon another shield of any strength.
Deathwing's open jaws spanned her vision and he exhaled. Kel'Thuzad was suddenly between them and then gone, vaporized in the dragon's breath, and Jaina threw her arms up uselessly as fire consumed her.
Jaina woke gasping for breath and stared blankly into the darkness for a moment until she remembered where she was.
"I'm not dead," she whispered. Her heartbeat raced in her throat. "Not dead."
The familiar details of her bedchamber in Icecrown Citadel slowly emerged from the darkness. Her eyes, dazzled by imagined fire, adjusted to reality.
The nightmare was insidious because it was almost entirely true.
Jaina sat up and gently rubbed her hands over her face.
She always woke before the part where someone screamed, "Catch her! Catch her, catch her!" as she fell, burning, and choking on her own blood. She always woke before the healers reached her. To this day, she couldn't remember their names but they had been adventurers, bloody and burned themselves. They had saved her life while the rest carried on to fight Deathwing.
It had been a close thing.
When all her shields of magic had failed, it was the Helm of Domination - the symbol and tool of the Lich King's power - that was her final protection.
The Helm left its mark.
The healers had to separate the scalding metal from her flesh before they could treat the wounds. Jaina was in a state of shock at the time and felt nothing. She stared up, past them, between them, counted every breath as a victory, and knew that if she died here one of these people- these selfless, gracious strangers- would inherit the burden she carried. She fought for consciousness and watched the black smoke slowly clear from a blue maritime sky.
Jaina shuddered as her palms passed over the lines of scar tissue that furrowed her cheeks and bracketed her mouth. There was another scar on the bridge of her nose where the Helm's nasal projection had seared her to the bone.
Clearly she wouldn't get back to sleep this morning. Might as well begin the day. She washed, dressed, put up her hair, and donned her cloak. This one was made of dense black fur, lined with cheerful Stormwind blue; a gift from King Anduin Wrynn.
Before Jaina left her chamber, she took up a wooden cane. She could not yet walk long distances without it to steady her. It made a dull clink with every other step.
Jaina stood at the top of the stairway that led down to the lower floors of Icecrown Citadel. She had never considered stairs to be a challenge before. Now, she made a small sigh and started down them, one at a time.
It had been some months and still her body struggled to heal. Jaina couldn't blame it; caught between Deathwing's burns, past injuries, and the Lich King's dark magic attempting to drag her into undeath. That magic was not meant to be used by the living, and yet she did.
Perhaps, she mused, she had become one of those impossible things herself.
A/N: I've been sitting on this for a couple of years, picking at it on and off when I have time. Originally I wanted to start posting it when I had at least 7 chapters written and ready to go but, hey, the world's gone sideways, we're all stuck in quarantine and need entertainment, and I have more time to write, so here we are. Update schedule: probably once a month. I write slowly. Anyway, here we go! I hope you enjoy :D