“Again,” her father demanded. Benedictus Voss was a mountain of implacable will wrapped in crimson robes and would not be moved.
“I can’t. No more. Please.” The words were all she could manage as she crumpled to her knees in bewildered exhaustion. “I’m so sorry, Gebler,” she whispered. “I'm so sorry.” She buried her face in her hands, letting her sobs deepen into empty, anguished retching.
"I said again, Lilian."
One of the onlooking Scarlets stepped forward into the chamber's ruddy torchlight. “She’s barely more than a child,” he said, placing a hand on her father's massive shoulder. “Surely, we can hold off on this gruesome target practice until she’s older. Let them spar with wooden swords a little while longer.”
Voss squared his jaw, pointing at the grated iron window that allowed smears of sickly green light to pool on the tables and walls. "The Scourge lurk throughout Tirisfal at all times, Melrache, waiting to prey on us. Weakness is an infection, and Lilian must learn that lesson, now."
Melrache gaped. “For the Light's sake, Benedictus—she's your daughter.”
“Question my judgement if you like, though blasphemy does not become you, Captain.” The elder man's eyes widened as he spoke, hinting at a deeper degree of fury that was roiling beneath his stony expression.
“Mercy is not the same as weakness.”
“Shall I ask Isillien to clarify the difference for you?”
The captain shrunk into the shadows at the mention of the Grand Inquisitor's name. “No, sir.”
Her father knelt, cupping Lilian's face forcefully in his hands. “Look at me,” he commanded. She blinked back salty blurs of tears, trying to will the world into focus. “Do you know why I make you do this?”
Lilian shook her head, too weak to answer any further.
“Our enemies seek to break us in any way they can, even by corrupting the bodies of those dearest to us.” He threw a disinterested glance at the boy shaking in misery on the floor.
She sniffled. “Gebler isn’t tainted.”
“No, my daughter, he isn’t, but you must learn to defend yourself against that possibility. Should you hesitate when it arises, the Scourge will be on you in an instant. Strive for perfection in all things, lest the Light abandon you.”
I have no choice but to do as he asks, Lilian thought. The Scourge has taken even that from me. She bit her lip, torn between fear and loyalty. "You'll heal him?" Her mind could not escape the gruesome sight of her friend's battered flesh, or forget how every purpling bruise was a cruel testament to what she had done.
"He could not be under better care than my own.”
"Promise me,” she said. The veneer of pride in her father’s smile blunted the comfort he was trying to offer.
"It will be as if this never happened,” he replied, stroking her hair. “Cleanse your mind from these earthly attachments.”
Then what do I have left? Lilian didn't dare ask her father that question. She kneaded her rage and injustice together to form shining orbs of holy fire in the palms of her hands. I hate the Scourge, she thought, letting the spell's heat blaze through her body. I hate this.
Soon, the entire chamber was awash in blinding golden rays, and the Monastery's halls echoed once more with the sounds of tortured screaming.
A rankling horn blast swept down from the watchtower above him, heralding the imminent arrival of a Deathguard scouting party. They, along with a dozen others, would be vying for his attention in a matter of moments. He sighed, and dredged up an oily piece of cloth from his tunic to scrub the bleeding gash on his fingers. Pointless habit, he grunted to himself. These cuts no longer heal, yet I still wipe them clean. He carefully folded the stained square of fabric, tucking it away. So little of what I managed to snatch back from the grave turned out to be useful rather than a nuisance.
"High Executor!" One of the returning scouts loped towards him, offering him welcome escape from the din of unwanted and cloying thoughts in his head.
"Deathguard. Report." Derrington folded his arms, impatient.
"Sir.” Withered ligaments cracked audibly beneath blue-black armor as the man lifted his hand to Derrington in salute. “The Scarlet Palisade has been completely obliterated. The entire building has been razed in violet flame."
He paused, studying the scout’s expression. “Any survivors?”
The scout shook his head vigorously. "Unlikely, sir. The place is in ruin. Our forces at Brill hoped you might be able to tell us more before we made our report to the Dark Lady on the situation."
"Indeed. Bring me a horse.” And next time, try to find some better intelligence before you decide to beg an officer to do your job for you.
Derrington’s mind groped for an explanation as the scout darted towards the stables. Scourge activity had been on the decline across all of Lordaeron for months, and the numbers needed to wreak that much havoc would not have passed into Tirisfal unseen even if their old enemy were still capable of mustering them.
Later, when he had ridden past the Bulwark's rows of catapults and siege engines full of luminescent plague, he turned around to view the mutated hulk that the outpost had become. Its new, immense fortifications heaved eastward, giving the impression of a vast stronghold to would-be invaders approaching from the Plaguelands. In truth, those walls protected little more than huddled scraps of tents; the whole place was a glamour wrought in stone, and he knew it. Briefly, he allowed himself to wonder if it were only the Forsaken themselves who had been fooled.
The questions that idea awoke within him were too much for him to bear. He dug rusted iron spurs into his mount's decaying flanks, letting its deafening cry cauterize all thoughts of a time when there were no walls between the capital and Andorhal.
I'm tainted, she thought. I’m the enemy. She sat herself next to the smoldering corpse that lay sprawled near the cage's open door, hugging her knees to her chest. The inferno of pain that had rent her heart earlier had since cooled into numbed confusion, leaving her with nothing but emptiness and the company of the dead. She tried to weep, but the only sound that came forth was a rattling hiss, thin and dry and sharp. "Did you think I actually wanted any of this?” she whispered. “Gebler, you gave me no choice. None of this has ever been my choice.” The depths of her heart ached as the body's blackened eyes stared back at her in silent accusation. I’m sorry, she thought, but the words would not come.
Her reflection stared back at her in Gebler's burnished shield, and she winced at the way it bore harsh witness to how misguided any future attempt at vanity would be: dirty hair clung to her cheeks like wet straw, partially obscuring the gaping wounds that yawned in her decaying flesh. She stroked the sutures of coarse black thread running haphazardly across her face from cheekbone to jawline, and choked back another rasping echo of a sob.
Unable to bear the sight of herself any longer, she looked out over the parapet, and into the darkened pines of Tirisfal. A line of red torches winked fiercely against the velvet black, leaking westward from the glowing windows of the Scarlet Monastery looming in the hills.
“They're coming,” she said, instinctively reaching for Gebler’s ashen hand. They’ve come to take me home.
The touch of his deadened fingers shattered her denial with a barrage of memories: the first sight of her rotting skin, the revulsion in her comrades' eyes, and worst of all, the loathing in the words of her closest friend, moments before he forced her to tear his life from him--We had hoped you would be a powerful weapon, Lilian . . . we will enjoy killing you.
Her anger curdled sourly as the parade of flames in the night illuminated the brutal truth of those words. "I see," she said, clenching the cage's iron bars. For a moment she considered hurling herself from the parapet, letting her body break against the ground. Rage burned in her limbs as she realized just how much the Crusade would appreciate the irony of that. "No," she hissed, "I gave you my life. I will not let you have my death."
She raced down the tower, feeling the exposed bones in her feet scrabble helplessly for purchase against stony footholds she'd once had memorized, making every step a mockery. The ground here is holy, she thought, and it no longer welcomes me. Light help me, I'm so tired. She grit her teeth, frustrated at how her mind had retreated into such an obviously pointless invocation.
Snuffling bounced through the emptiness of the courtyard as she burst out into the open. Then the jangling of metal, and then silence. An unliving horse, she thought, seeing the eldritch sheen of its hooves in the gloom. She froze, suddenly aware of how there was no air scraping in her lungs, no throb in her chest yelping an incessant plea to slow down. Her body was alien to her.
The ghastly creature’s rider stepped forward, his figure a hunched silhouette against the purple light still bleeding from the Palisade. He appeared to be searching for something; for what, she wasn't sure. She feared him, though not for any physical threat that he might have posed to her. Not one of the undead had made an attempt on her life, and that was precisely the problem--they insisted on attaching themselves to her like clinging shadows wherever she went, dragging her into a strange inversion of everything she’d ever known. Whatever this stranger came to tell her had been said before, and her heart held no quarter for it.
No more running, she thought. Gebler cornered me, and I destroyed him. An animal is at its most dangerous when afraid. I have to do this. She strode towards him, armoring herself in a mantle of constructed menace. Sallow eyes glowed beneath the man’s rusted helm, studying her as she approached.
"I suppose you've come to shove a mirror in my face or rescue me, like the rest.” A few moments' reflection made her consider how absurd she must have sounded.
To her surprise, the stranger shook his head. "Too many folk in Deathknell these days have forgotten what it feels like to wake from the grave and find half their face once belonged to somebody else." The sound of his voice was gravel in her ears.
"Don't bother preaching at me with the farce that seems to pass for mercy among Scourge,” she snarled. “Your brethren have been more than keen to give it."
"You won't find Scourge or charity in Tirisfal," he spat back. His fingers tightened their iron grip on the handle of his axe, almost imperceptibly. "Best you learn that quickly." The man's words were masked in cold arrogance, but the cracks of wounded resentment in his tone gave her pause. Her implication had struck a nerve.
This one is different. "Who are you?" she asked.
He removed his helm, revealing the horror of his appearance in all its glory. Shreds of gore hung from his throat in putrid ribbons, and the pieces of skin that still stretched taut over his skull were a patchwork of open sores. Lilian covered her mouth in nauseated disgust, feeling the unwelcome stitches that had been woven into her own cheeks press up against her fingers. Her hands fell to her side like lead as she realized her own hypocrisy, and she wondered if she would ever be able to touch her own face again without recoiling.
"High Executor Derrington,” he said briskly. “Servant to the Banshee Queen of the free undead.” He spoke his name and rank with a reflexive, punctuated tone that suggested his years as a soldier stretched back further than his years among the plagued. “Are you afraid of me?” he asked. His question had teeth, Lilian noticed, but they weren't biting quite yet.
“Fear is just another word for survival." She snapped her fingers, and a host of violet sparks broke off the smoldering eaves, swirling on the wind between them like snow. “I could kill you,” she added. “If I wanted.”
The echo of a smile appeared in the corners of Derrington's eyes. "Spoken like a true daughter of Lordaeron."
Daughter. Lilian winced at his remark. "The old kingdom is dead."
"So are we, yet you and I still find ourselves picking through what's left of it like the orphans we are.” Anger knotted at his brows as he spoke.
He is as lost as I am. Her mind found a small anchor of comfort in the bleak solidarity that thought offered her, and bereft of any other solace, she clung to it. "I'm Lilian," she offered to him at last. She would keep her claws sheathed, for now.
“Thought so.” He knelt down to examine a piece of charred timber lying on the ground and laughed as it disintegrated into blackened sand between his fingers at his touch. "Most of you who fall victim to the plague tend to end up dead by your own hands, but this--" He waved his axe in front of him in a wide arc, gesturing at the carnage. "--this is incredible. How?” Another laugh spasmed from his mouth, and his upper lip began to twitch, revealing grimy teeth beneath in short, broken flashes.
“Piety,” she answered, stony-faced. “Fear. My entire life's worth, spent on learning how to destroy what the Light apparently saw fit for me to become.”
“Ah. The Light.” The word dripped from his mouth like venom. “I don’t trust in anything that sees fit to punish those who died on its behalf.”
“I sacrificed my life to the Light long before I died, Derrington. For this,” she said, staring at the weeping, infected scars that covered her hands. “For nothing. I have nothing left.”
“You have your will. Be grateful for it. Anyone able to temper the confusion of nascent undeath into something as productive as what you've done here is far more likely to endure this curse with their sanity intact."
"I feel nothing close to intact." She dwelt on the notion for a moment, and wondered if she ever truly had.
“Get used to the sensation.”
"How did you manage it?” she asked. “At first, I mean.”
Derrington gave her a withering look. "My circumstances were . . . different from yours."
Lilian was about to probe him further, but in that moment a streak of yellow-white light whirred past their heads, agitating the air around it to a droning thrum. An ache bruised in her heart as she realized the energy that had once been an inextricable part of her soul now felt entirely alien. Rage followed as she remembered all that it had taken from her.
The sound of expectant shouting and hoofbeats rumbled in the distance. "Crusade.” Her voice hung in the air with determined finality. “They’ve come for me.”
Derrington eyes shone with a maddened gleam as he brandished his axe. "They always do, trying to chase us out like vermin."
“I don't run, Derrington.” She readied herself for the impending onslaught.
The Scarlets began to circle, surrounding them. “Neither do I.”
He braced himself for the crusader’s charge, trying to ignore the brazen shade of red that rammed at his brain like a maddened gadfly. You’ve dipped our flag in blood, he thought, just like this wretched piece of land. I gave my own blood up for this ruined kingdom, and yet you call me monster.
The banner had done its job, and the crusader had seen his opening. A moment later, Derrington found himself struggling to regain his footing as he parried blow after blow from the man above him. Focus, you fool, he told himself. Battles were easier to manage when your mind held no room for distractions. In the haze of pain and confusion, a desperate part of him perversely yearned for the sensation of the Lich King's iron will bolted onto his own, constantly offering him cold guidance through the fray of combat.
He grunted loudly in revulsion, driving the full force of his disgust into his axe as he slammed it into the horse's massive chest. The beast let out a horrific shriek as it thudded to the ground in a spatter of entrails. Derrington wiped the gore from his brow, pleased to see that the pathetic creature had crushed its rider. The Scarlet’s fingers still reached for the banner’s ashen handle, which lay coated in dirt and blood near the horse's convulsing head. As it should be, he thought.
"How many are left?" Lilian’s voice was brisk but untaxed, and Derrington found himself relieved that his near-miss with the paladin hadn’t turned the tide of the skirmish away from their favor.
"Eight," he shouted back. "Maybe a dozen at most."
Lilian leapt from foe to foe with a fearsome grace, never lingering long enough for any of them to return her strikes. She’s toying with them, Derrington realized.
"Good, I can handle that--get down!" A legion of shining bolts began to rain down on them from the hands of the Scarlet priests in droves, turning the whole of the courtyard daylight-bright. Lilian had already crouched behind a fallen piece of masonry to shield herself from the onslaught, and kept shrieking at him to do the same.
Derrington whirled around, shoving his axe into the torso of an attacker who had tried to rush him from behind. He had inflicted a mortal wound, and yet the crusader’s eyes still bore into him with vengeance, even mirth.
The man mouthed a single word as he fell to the ground, grinning. Filth.
An instant later, Derrington felt the searing burn of golden light lancing into the fetid muscle that still clung to his shoulder blade and collapsed in agony as waves of excruciating pain crashed through him. The clattering of steel filled his ears, and he knew immediately that it was over. His injury alone might not kill him, but the Scarlets slavering over his injured body certainly would.
So this is how I end. Again. Outnumbered. Again. For half a moment he was back on the fields of Darrowshire, waiting for the chittering hordes of nerubians to mow him down. Why does it always have to be this way?
He forced his eyes open in defiance of his fate, only to be gripped in awe of what he saw unfolding before him. Small tongues of darkened flame had begun to flicker at Lilian’s fingertips, darting feverishly around her hands like a million shadowy insects.
"You said I was a weapon. I couldn't understand, not at first.” Her voice had assumed a terrible, uncanny reverberation that gave even Derrington pause. The swarm of sparks crept inexorably over her body as she spoke, engulfing her in a halo of seething amethyst fire. She lifted a raging torch of a hand, and slowly clenched her fingers together. The remaining Scarlets dropped their weapons, clawing at their necks as they gasped for air.
The firey storm of hatred around her blazed. “But then you decided to hunt me down and slaughter me.”
The only response was the sputter of misshapen light from the hands of a priest who had foolishly attempted to defend himself. Lilian turned her head towards him, hissing, and her victim gagged as his eyes rolled back into his head. An instant later, his body was no more than a pile of limp rags and limbs.
She turned her attention back to the remainder of the Scarlets she held in thrall, smirking. "Strive for perfection in all things, lest the Light abandon you!” Her voice rang with the sing-song timbre of an angry child, mocking and resentful and rote. “Tell me, when did I fail? Or was dying for you my failure?”
Derrington could only watch. The only useful weapon is a honed one, and they believe the plague has dulled her beyond repair. How wrong they are. Lilian's body had become a scythe of living shadow, sharper than any weapon forged by human hands. In a matter of minutes, all that remained of her exquisite, elegant massacre was the silhouette of her figure as she emerged unscathed from the swirling clouds of smoke and bone.
She scrutinized the trail of pus oozing from the hole in his shoulder. "How bad is it?"
"I'll live.” The pain in his shoulder had shifted to an intense but bearable panging.
Lilian smiled wryly.
She treats this like target practice. He staggered to his feet, leaning on the handle of his axe for balance. "This was impressive. You have my respect.”
"Respect." She parsed the syllables slowly, as if the word itself was foreign to her. "It seems I never earned the Crusade’s--or my father’s. I let them use me, Derrington. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that it took my death for me to finally break free of that, or the fact that it was ever the case in the first place.” Where fierceness had once defined her features there was now only vulnerability, and it suddenly struck him how incredibly young she must have been when the val’kyr had gleaned her body from the ranks of Tirisfal’s fallen.
“It seems Arthas robbed the Scarlets of their will as much as he did the Scourge.”
Lilian nodded, without a hint of guile behind her eyes.
The blunt honesty of her gesture sent Derrington reeling. To find this accursed existence more freeing than life . . . His thoughts ground to a halt as he tried to form a response. For the first time since Frostmourne had ripped into his soul, he felt the husk of something that might once have been pity. Another pointless habit, he wanted to tell himself, but its presence would not be silenced or denied.
“Why did you save me?”, he asked. The question felt more like a confession. “What did---”
“--I want from you?”
He blinked, dumbfounded by how she had anticipated the conversation.
“You have yet to demand anything of me. That’s more than I can say of anyone back at the Monastery, even before they started baying for what’s left of my blood. That’s why I saved you. Call it gratitude.” The edges of the sky had begun to pale, and she sighed, lifting her head towards the horizon. “I’m so tired of duty. Of this.”
So am I, he had wanted to say, yet I have no choice, but Lilian’s figure had already melted into the forest. Derrington could only put a hand to his ruined mouth in stunned horror as he realized how much he had given up in service to the Dark Lady. When did the price of Lordaeron’s conquest become so steep?
“Close the damned flap,” he barked.
The soldier ignored him. “High Executor, the Dark Lady's emissary has arrived. She wishes to speak with you before traveling onwards to the front at Andorhal.”
Derrington drummed his fingers on the table in annoyance. “Ravensun's given herself that title as well?” He had little use for her, largely because she had risen to favor among the Dark Lady’s court without once showing her face at the Bulwark. Every Forsaken passed beneath his command very early in their training, and those who did not were usually either inept or cowards. This woman appeared to be neither, which only served to further sully his opinion of her.
“Bring her in,” he demanded. “I want to know why the vaunted Lindsay Ravensun can at last be bothered to grace us with her presence.”
The woman returning with the Deathguard carried herself with an inexplicable solemnity that bordered on condescension, and Derrington immediately found it tedious. Her unremarkable appearance made her demeanor appear even more out of place--sunken eyes, cracked lips, a mop of brittle hair that hinted at the cornsilk it had once been in life.
“At last, we meet. Victory for Sylvanas,” he said as he saluted her lazily from his chair. “Such a pity that you have been unable to visit us until now.” Possibly because your only skill lies in making the right friends.
Ravensun sighed in annoyance, indicating the extent to which she viewed this meeting as an inconvenience. “I understand you have spoken at length with the young woman we have to thank for eradicating the Scarlet camps to the west. Tell me, Derrington, why did she not return with you?” Her tone had a brazen, scolding edge to it that Derrington disliked.
There is more to this than she is choosing to reveal. “I offered her a post here at the Bulwark,” he lied. “She may yet choose to take it up.”
"Perhaps you should have tried harder to convince her. Her talents would be of great use to Lady Sylvanas."
"Do you actually think that idea hadn't occurred to me?" Derrington snapped, a little too quickly. “Regardless, I see no urgency in the matter. She has already decimated the Scarlets of her own accord."
“Merely further proof that this Lilian Voss is powerful, but volatile,” Ravensun replied. “War is simply a matter of resources, and even the most valuable ones must be handled accordingly. I hadn’t expected to waste my breath on explaining that to an officer of your status."
"Resources." Derrington threw the word back at her in disdain, wrapping it in equal parts accusation and insult.
"Yes, Derrington, resources. Sylvanas Windrunner has always managed hers exceptionally well. You’d do well to remember that ranger-generals of Silvermoon are chosen for their ability to strategize, not their compassion.”
He sensed the veiled threat immediately. Anything I say now is bound to make its way back to the Dark Lady, possibly with a few unwanted embellishments.“I wasn't disputing our queen's military prowess.”
Ravensun's lip curled smugly. “Of course you weren't.”
“Lilian deserved a choice,” he declared, slamming his fist on the table. “That has always been our way.”
“Indeed. I am disappointed in your failure to ensure she made the right one.”
“I didn't realize that was my responsibility.” He stood up, lifting the tent's flap of heavy indigo canvas open. “Get out. I have more important things to attend to than debate with some grasping slip of a girl who dares to suggest I ought to share more in common with the Scourge.”
The air seemed to darken as Ravensun glared at him, indignation searing in her eyes. "That was disrespectful, High Executor."
"Go win a few more skirmishes for Lady Sylvanas before you ask me for my respect.”
His guest narrowed her eyes as she tugged a tattered maroon cowl over her head and made ready to leave. The queen in miniature, Derrington thought. How quaint.
“Sylvanas will hear of your insolence towards me,” she said. “Remember, the Dark Lady watches over you.”
“Then let her judge me.”
“I assure you, she will.”
For half a moment, he thought the threat almost sounded convincing.
The moment Ravensun was out of sight, Derrington rode hard towards Scarlet Point Tower, his mind focused on one thing.
I have to find Lilian before that power-hungry harridan does.
The craggy cheeks of Benedictus Voss glistened with the beginning of tears as his daughter lashed at him with the cruelty of his own words. For them both, it was too little, too late. Labored breath rattled thickly in his throat, and at last then the eyes that had for so long tormented his daughter with their judgment saw nothing. His lifeless body ignited in flame, and the floor of Scarlet Point Tower shone wetly with a color more befitting of its namesake.
Satiated at last of her need for vengeance, Lilian felt herself gripped by terror as it was replaced by a void demanding answers she could not give. Who am I now, without someone to kill?
The old hatreds toward her father prickled reflexively beneath her skin as she blamed him for bringing her to this, but that debt had already been paid. She considered tracking down Derrington and offering herself to his Banshee Queen, but the thought of willingly subjecting herself to the servitude that undeath had finally freed her from was abhorrent. Even the path of suicide was closed to her; any temptation to end her life lost its dark comfort the day she understood that was precisely what her father had hoped for.
It may be an empty existence, she thought, but it’s mine, at last. She turned to leave the tower, vowing to endure for her own sake and no other.
A broken scrap of a man clapped his hands with exaggerated slowness as she approached the stony arch of the doorway. “Spectacular to watch,” he said. “As always.”
“What do you want, Derrington?” The weariness in her voice had instantly wiped all traces of amusement from his face.
“It’ll be best if I’m direct,” he said. His hands were fidgeting.
“Yes, it would.”
Derrington took a deep breath, and Lilian watched him tread silently over some unspoken implication.“The Dark Lady has always allowed her people to declare their allegiance rather than coerce them to her rule. There are some among us who prefer to view that as lip service.” His voice teemed with disgust. “Without it, we are no better than Scourge.”
Lilian laughed bitterly. “Every kingdom has its extremists. We both know that.”
“These happen to have powerful friends. You saved my life, Lilian, and I don’t mean for yours to be squandered a second time. I came to warn you.” He sniffed in disbelief. “Hmph. Apparently I’m still capable of gratitude.”
He had laced his comment in glib sarcasm, but Lilian saw the earnest truth of it laid bare in his haggard, mangled face.
“You have to run this time,” Derrington said. “Stay one step ahead. Of us, of the Scourge, of everything. I’ll lie for you if I must, but the rest is up to you.”
The rest is up to me. She placed a hand on the torn remnants of rotted skin hanging from his arm. “Thank you,” she whispered. The blankness she had felt moments earlier was suddenly no longer a terrifying hole, but a canvas. She would run. She would fight.
She would live.