Warcraft (c) Activision Blizzard
Hearthglen was a wretched skeleton of a place. Stone and wood frames were gutted and hollowed out by neglect and decay. What remained in this desolate dream scape was battered by unseasonably arctic winds or encased in a jacket of white snow and dark blue ice.
Only one point of life existed in this waste of a town, a flickering ember of red and orange from an upper window in the barracks. The Death Knight Darion Mograine could see it through gaps in the rotted wood shutters, forced closed in a feeble attempt to keep whatever heat there was in.
The closer Darion came to this vision of Hearthglen, the more the Lich King's presence in his mind receded. What was once an iron grip that barely let any thought beyond the task at hand cross his mind, was now reduced to a fleeting thing. Like smoke blown away by an angry wind.
No, the steady decline of the Lich King's dominating will had been happening for some time now. And it was first truly noticeable back at that house by the river near Brill. Back at the grave where Darion was about to rip its occupant from their eternal slumber. When the stranger's voice had instructed him simply to stop and seek out his target for a new purpose: Salvation.
The Lich King wouldn't have permitted such a brazen thought of defiance and would've struck Darion Mograine down then and there. But no retribution came. Through the diminishing presence in his mind, Darion could sense the Lich King's cold fury, outrage and frustration at the state of affairs.
No. Not frustration. Helplessness.
It was equal parts amusing and terrifying that even a being as mighty as the Lich King could be rendered helpless. But it would take an extremely powerful will to stand up against such a power. And with that in mind, Darion could only conclude that someone or something was interfering with the Lich King's influence on his behalf.
That meant for the time being, his will was his own once again. And the actions he took next would be entirely of his own accord and no other's.
With that realisation came haste. The gulf that had formed between the Lich King's directive to kill this child and the mysterious other voice had grown to an insurmountable chasm. And free of thought, Darion became more and more inclined to listen to the latter's suggestion. Fueled by the pain of this hollowness in his wretched soul, a righteous anger at being so completely stripped of his identity outside a name and a sudden unbearable thirst for vengeance, he had redoubled his efforts to find the boy that would be his salvation in this place.
But above all the flurry of emotions raging in his unbeating heart, there was a wish he clung to from the bottom of his heart: Darion wanted to hear that unknown voice again. To speak to them on even terms. He had the sense that they had much to talk about, and he found himself longing for that moment with a desperate mania.
In the barracks, Darion's footsteps echoed and wood creaked as he ascended the staircase. He could hear the crackling of a fire in a hearth, steadily replacing the howling wind outside in the main chamber of the upper level. The door was unbarred and opened with a creak of a rusty hinge. A door that slammed shut of its own accord once the Death Knight crossed the threshold.
By the fire place was a young man, sickly and frail and huddled in a threadbare blanket. Lines of fatigue and sunken cheeks etched a grim visage, further emphasized by the yellow-orange blaze of the fire crackling defiantly against the merciless cold. A long flat object sat at his side, wrapped in equally threadbare material but Darion couldn't make out its true shape through the cloth. The sick creature made no acknowledgement of Darion.
"I thought I'd accounted for all the possibilities and outcomes for defeating the Lich King." The other said, he sounded as sickly as he appearance implied but he spoke with the tone of a seasoned veteran commander. "How damned arrogant of me. I should have known better than to believe that Arthas could have been defeated without something tripping us up. The Scourge must always have a King, lest they become an even greater menace to Azeroth. But I never realized what lengths the Lich King's consciousness would go to just retain his grasp on his 'precious' minions."
The sickly man laughed bitterly to himself, "I suppose that's my downfall in all of this: A failure of imagination. I never conceived of a scenario where the Lich King's essence would be detached from Helm of Domination. Didn't even know it was possible with all of the twisted magic that went into the forging the Helm. I suppose we should put a complaint forward to the Nathrezim who forged it in the first place."
A feeble, frail hand gestured to the room around them. It was carpeted by brown-black animal pelts. Old wooden shelves, empty now, and weapon and arming wracks lined the walls. A painted portray sat on a mantle, though the image was blurred to him.
"And trapped in this realm, with my soul sundered so, I thought to retreat to this place as respite. To take refuge in one of the few happy memories of my childhood to consider and plan my next course, but the longer I linger here the closer Arthas come to taking over. And the closer I edge towards oblivion with the Lich King free to use my unliving body as a puppet to further his schemes. Despicable bastard."
The man pulled the threadbare cloth over his shoulders in a feeble attempt to father warmth, biting his lip in frustration. "Light damn it all to hell. There's no outcome in this situation that allows me to escape unscathed. Even if I chose to end my own existence here and now and trust my Knights to take my head in the real world, this entire process will just begin again with someone else. And the cycle will continue ad infinitum. Even in defeat, the Lich King has the last laugh."
For the first time in his musing, the sickly man looked to Darion. He was struck to realize that this man was his complete double, a living breathing double with the same blue eyes and dirty blonde hair he once possessed in life. In those eyes, he saw a puzzling mix of resignation and defiance. "So the Lich King decided to send you to kill me I suppose?"
"Yes." Darion answered his other self honestly, Shadowmourne suddenly feeling so heavy in his grip as if the weapon itself was protesting against that course of action.
"And he wants you to use my own axe to do it?" The sickly one scoffed, shaking his head. "Typical. Arthas is a stickler for that sort of dramatic irony. All my strength and powers have been stripped away, and used to give you shape. An obedient corrupted little puppet dancing on strings. And if you're here, then the Lich King must not be far behind."
The Death Knight considered Shadowmourne in his grip. When the Lich King had presented it to him, it struck a wrong note in his mind that it was of Scourge weaponsmith's craft, but this other self claimed that this was his weapon all along. Like a puzzle piece slipping into place, the notion rang true and sparked a memory. Yes, it was not the Lich King who forged this weapon for his champion, it was of Darion's own make and design. At the edge of memory, he could feel the flicker of unholy magics that warped saronite into the razor edge, the shards to nether ice melting, reforming and melting again in the cold runeforge.
His lips pressed into a thin line under his helm, irritated in a way any craftsman would be when others stole the accolades for their work.
"If you mean to kill me then do it, but I will not sit quietly and allow it to happen without a fight."
Darion was pulled from the memory by the other's words. The sickly man was attempting to climb to his feet, dragging the long object with him, the distinct drag of metal revealed it as a weapon, but the man was using it as a crutch. In an instant, the Death Knight was across the room and pressed his hand down on the other's shoulder. There was so little strength in that feeble frame that keeping him seated was trivial effort.
"Let me stand at least; If I'm going to die I'm going to die on my feet." The other spat, glaring defiance up at his counterpart.
Darion shook his head, stepping back and taking a knee. He looked into the hearth, mesmerized by the flames licking back and forth over the lumber. "I have no wish to kill you. The Lich King did bid me do so, but for some reason I no longer hear his voice in my head. At the same time, another bid me seek you out."
"Another one? Are we not mad enough?" The other scoffed and shook his head at the incredulous situation,
Despite himself the Death Knight gave a short chuckle, "He said to seek you out. That you would be my salvation from this place. But I have the impression that statement cuts both ways."
"More than you realise," The sickly man answered bitterly, "The Lich King used Frostmourne to devour the soul of Arthas Menethil and turn the traitor prince into his champion. He attempted to do the same with me - with us. Cutting away and forming the pieces he thought he could most easily control into a minion to kill the greater whole."
"But without Frostmourne to focus his power, he did a poor job of it. I doubt this conversation would be happening if he had succeeded in his intent." The Death Knight concluded, "So what does that make me? Your cast offs?"
"Cast off implies I don't accept the feelings and emotions you represent, and by extension what I've become over the course of my existence. Or that it was my choice to have my soul sundered in the first place. It's very clearly not."
"Then who is the one that told me you would free me from this place?" The Death Knight asked,
"I don't imagine a name leaps to mind? Because I've had no one find me in this corner before you. That was kind of the whole point." The sickly one countered,
Darion simply shook his head, "No. I don't know them, I don't recognise it, even though every fibre of my being says I should. All I know is I want to that person to speak to me again. And that the thought of disappointing that man terrifies me a thousand times more than anything the Lich King could possibly do to me." The Death Knight scoffed, "Listen to me, I sound like a damn child."
The sickly man's eyes widened as though in recognition, and then offered a wry smile, "Maybe so, but we're two halves of the same coin. If those feelings make us childish then so be it. Though I can safely say that there's only a handful of people in Azeroth I have ever felt that way towards, fewer still among the living who'd fret over my ongoing survival."
"Since you bring it up, precisely how are we going to go about our continued survival? Whomever is shielding me from the Lich King's control won't last forever, and your body is ailing. We will not last long against him." The Death Knight mused in a dower tone.
"Aye, not alone. But we are one and the same, together we may just stand a chance." The frail man lifted his hand, his skeletal fingers curling into claws as he mustered a purple-black magic in his palm. Beads of perspiration dotted his brow at the exertion, and it was clear that in this split he did not inherit much in the way of physical stamina.
"What are you doing?"
"A gamble. If you can synchronize your magic with mine, then perhaps it will be enough of a conduit for our souls to join as one again." The frail one tried to stand once more, using the weapon as a crutch, his skeletal hand skill thrumming with whatever power he could muster.
"Do you truly believe that will work?"
"No. That's why its called a 'gamble'." The sickly man said, leaning heavily on the sword. The very act of standing draining what little energy reserves he had left.
"Although we have spoken, part of me still believes that this is an elaborate plot by the Lich King. And if I accept this, I'll be damning myself forever." The Death Knight voiced his reservation.
"I'm not going to pretend I don't feel the same way, and that the risk is equal for both of us. At the same time, I have to have faith that it'll work out. And if not... well, its not like either of us will be able to do much of anything about it."
Faith. That's what it always came down to wasn't it? Still, there wasn't much in the way of options, and if they failed? Well, they'd be cast into oblivion - at which point, what did the quarrels of Azeroth matter anymore? "You - I... we - are either very stubborn or completely insane to attempt this."
"Its amazing how often those traits co-inside."
Gathering his own magic far more easily than his counterpart, the Death Knight reached out to grasp the bony hand tightly in his own.
Despite the cold dark magic, a warm tendril shot up his arm and into his chest. A fraction of a second later the sickly double was gone. Vanished in a rush of dark purple magic. And the warmth turned to fire. Pain pierced through his heart and skull like a thousand razor sharp daggers. Where he held the other's hand was replaced with the pommel of the cloth-bound sword.
The missing pieces of his being slipped into place, returned to where they rightfully belong as a singular soul. He remembered Light's Hope Chapel, the Light of Dawn liberating them from the Scourge's control, Arthas stealing his father's spirit. The entire campaign of Northrend, the forging of Shadowmourne. All of it.
Then the brutal final moments of his retinue. Four elite Death Knights that had served him faithfully. He knew each of their names, had learned who they were before Arthas had raised them as Death Knights. He fought with them shoulder to shoulder in many battles. And through the Lich King's vile possession, they were all killed by his hand.
"That son of a bitch." Darion hissed, as a potent cocktail of sorrow, grief and hatred brewed in his reforged soul. His fingers curled into tight fists around the cloth-bound blade in his right hand, teeth grit to the point of pain.
They had watched him collapse under the weight of Lich King's invasion, knocked him out for his safety and their own, only to be killed by the Lich King's will for no other reason than amusement. He could still feel the last neck snap - of Sub-Commander Dante's pleading for his Highlord to see reason once more, only to die his final death.
Anger - true anger burned in his veins. A wrathful vengeance given clarity and direction. Darion would make Arthas pay for every Ebon Knight his vile schemes had stolen away. For every injustice he had put his men and his people through, and he would know what it meant to cross the Highlord of the Ebon Blade.
"NO!" The Lich King's bellowing cry shook the very ground under his feet.
An explosion rippled through the fortress, flinging the Death Knight out through the air and into the courtyard. Even knocked back as he was, the grip Darion kept on the two weapons was stronger than iron. One was a symbol of vengeance, The other a fleeting hope of redemption. They were his lifelines in this conflict.
He bounced once in the courtyard like a ball before, by some miracle of chance, the cloth-bound sword wedged into the ground behind him. Had he lived and breathed like a mortal man, the impact would have stolen air from his lungs and the sudden lurch would have ripped his shoulder from its socket.
The Lich King was upon him in a second and the ghostly Frostmourne all but screamed for his blood. There was no time to think, no time to act! He couldn't bring Shadowmourne up in time to parry the blow -
The voice came again. Gleaming yellow Light erupted from nothing, casting a barrier between the Death Knight and the Lich King's blade aiming for his throat. The dream being roared its outrage at being so defied inched from its desired victim.
Darion's eyes widened in recognition. "F-Father?!"
No time. This is the final battle, my son! Look to your defenses and fight as you've never fought before!
This chapter in a nutshell: Lich King rips Mograine's soul apart to make him kill his own humanity, only to have him recover it in record time and get ready to kick the Lich King's ass with the power of god - eh, the Light and anime on his side.
Also: Happy New Year!