I remember how the apple blossoms fell from the trees like a winter snowstorm every year when I was a child. I remember the simple joy of running through them, laughing as they parted before me while my parents watched, content, from their bench in Falconwing Square. My father’s full lips and light green eyes showing his good humor at my cavorting. My mother absently brushing a lock of Raven-black hair from her eyes, wedged comfortably in the crook of his shoulder. I remember the caress of warmth as the afternoon breeze ghosted softly from the city-side of our little paradise, redolent with the exciting smells, sounds, and textures of civilization, progress, and affluence. We were a proud race, then, and an exceedingly rich one. Rich in worldly possessions, rich in culture, rich in knowledge.
And, as my parents often demonstrated, rich in love.
I was denied nothing growing up in the outskirts of our magically-powered city, yet for all that I was not spoiled. My father often spoke of our duty as virtual immortals to guide the younger races away from the paths of self-destruction they virtually careened down at top speed. That duty, instilled in my from the age of six, as well as my apparent and sometimes frightening aptitude for the magical arts, led to a fulfilling apprenticeship with Magister Jaim Sunfury; one of the most respected practitioners of magic in our little empire. I learned quickly and gained confidence, all the while lovingly supported and encouraged by those whose respect I desired most.
It was idyllic. It was utopian. It was glorious.
It was fleeting.
For you know, you remember, what came next. How the plague ravaged Lordaeron, leaving most dead and some far worse; how the Orcs fell upon us in a fury of bloodletting and murderous rage; how the Scourge nearly wiped us all off the face of Azeroth; how our world almost ended.
I was still young and idealistic then, and remember the bitter, senseless arguments held in our courts, by our mages, by our military leaders, by my parents. Oh, everyone said the right things; the arguments were sensible and logical: Entrench, prepare, hoard, defend, parlay. The counterarguments were equally good, however: Attack, surprise, conscript, flank, never stop or capitulate. I remember the first gut-wrenching time I realized the truth, and all my idealism and naivete was swept away in one painful rush:
No one knew what to do.
Yet our armies marched, proclaimations were made by pontiffs who knew better, households were prepared for seemingly inevitable sieges, larders were filled to bursting with hard tack and magically-preserved foods, battalions of mage trainees, myself included, were conscripted into elite units…I remember it clearly, these terrible days of debate and waiting.
All that ended when the Sunwell died. I remember. Gods, how I wish I did not.
The chaos. The pandemonium. The shrieks of my friends, some of whom I had known for years, as were traumatically severed from source of our knowledge, our morals, our sanity. I remember a few of them lashing out with their power at anyone and anything around them, burning buildings to ash with fireballs, freezing fleeing men, women, and children solidly in place with frostbolts, or simply tearing the object of their misplaced wrath apart with pure threads of the etherium. No description of this event in any textbook, or by any fanciful storyteller, can ever do justice to the awful certainty of destruction that hung over us all at that moment. That any of us lived was a miracle. That I lived, where so many did not, was something out of a tragic poem.
I remember heat, cold, screaming, than pain and disorientation as something cracked against my skull hard enough to send me flying into one of my beloved apple trees. I remember looking up through blurred, blood-filled eyes at the pink, red-veined blossoms. So beautiful, so ephemeral. I remember seeing the blast of flame inexorably marching toward them, flung in madness from a compatriot who had already torn his own eyes from his skull. My soul wept as the fire splashed against the trunk of the tree, setting it alight almost instantly. The blossom, caught in the conflagration, wilted and then crisped, raining ash in a parody of their natural life cycle. I remember knowing I was going to die, knowing that the fire would reach me soon. But somehow, the heat, the pain, the wonder of watching the blaze greedily devour everything it touched…it made me feel…feel…
Then movement and dizziness as someone plucked me from my addled reverie, swinging around enough to grant me a vision of Hell. The city was exploding, engulfed, tearing itself apart. I remember…I think I remember…my mother trying to trying to fight through the chaos to reach me, calling my name in anguish as she was pressed back and out of the main square by the mob. The last thing I remember that day was Magister Sunfury’s voice telling me to close my eyes, to not look upon what he would have to do to win out with our lives. I obeyed, fainted, and the world fell away.
How we survived in the ensuing years, and even thrived, still astounds me. We all became mana addicts to one degree or another, a poor replacement for the Sunwell’s influence, but were mostly able to control our vice and retain our wits. I prospered more than ever before as one of a handful of mages that had survived that black day. My skills were in demand, my tutors were delighted at my progress, if somewhat chagrined at my changed demeanor and total lack of self-preservation, but were ultimately pleased that I had finally settled on a sphere of mastery. I spoke little, made no friends, performed the functions of my profession, and lacking any other option, grew up quickly.
One day, Jaim pronounced me ready for combat duty, and I was assigned to cleanup detail in the ruined portions of Silvermoon City. “Cleanup” was a euphemism for execution of the wretched ones; Elves who, having lost their minds to total mana addiction, fled for the supposed safety of their fellows. Killing them was a mercy, and one I was ideally suited for. Our situation had made me cold, detached, calculating, and completely devoid of any compassion. I was less than a machine. I was a tool; nothing more.
And so I killed. As a tool, a weapon, an assassin. Again and again, I killed and felt nothing.
Until one day, returning from those fields of the damned, I was confronted by a particularly wretched-looking wretch. She might have been beautiful once, but now her Raven-black hair lay limp and matted against gaunt, filthy shoulders. Her wordless snarl revealed broken, rotted teeth framed by cracked and bleeding lips, wild eyes, and hate. She raised her makeshift shiv, a low growl building in her throat.
I sighed in irritation, calling forth the cleansing red and orange flame that had replaced all that was lost in my life, preparing to finish her in one quick shot. There was nothing to these once-proud Elves, after all. They went up like so much dry tinder at the lover’s caress of the fire. Almost a waste of power…but pretty to watch, at least.
The fire was never released, though, as my adversary’s growl suddenly stopped, her shiv lowered. I stared in sudden consternation as recognition flooded her eyes, her mouth dropping open in shock. The flame in my hands died as her voice, long forgotten and rusty with the harsh rasp of permanent addiction, whispered past her abused lips.
“K-Kats? Is it…is it…really you?”
I remembered…I remembered, damn you all! I had not truly forgotten, but buried that which was too painful to bear. No one, no one but…but…her…had ever called me that. Not my friends, not my father, not Jaim Sunfury, no one else. She had often chided me with the diminutive of my name when I was younger, teased me good-naturedly with it. I hated it, of course. I also loved her for doing it, of course.
When my voice came, it was barely a husky whisper, equally as unused as hers had been. “Yes. It’s really me. I’m…oh, I’m so sorry that…that…this happened to you. It’s my fault. My fault for not coming for you that day. My fault for running.”
She shook her head, dismissing my concern. The wild look to her eyes was gone, sanity returned. The hunger remained, but I did not delude myself into thinking that would ever leave her soul. “No, no, baby. It’s alright. It’s…a lot of us ran that day when we should have fought. I…I ran…I ran to find your father, but couldn’t. I don’t know where…how he…if…”
She trailed off, her eyes darting left and right, searching, beseeching. “The fire was everywhere. In everything. Everyone burned, or ran, or died, or became like…like…I am.” She licked her lips, and I tried to hide my distaste as one particularly putrescent scab broke open on her upper lip, pus and blood running freely, unnoticed. “But I’m better now, Kats. I am. I really, really am. I can control it. I can…be…who I was. I just…I just…need a few more crystals. Just one or two more and I’ll be right as the spring rain, you watch!”
Her smile as she lied to her only child was the most disturbing thing. I saw she believed it, believed it entirely. She was lost. She…my mother…wasn’t there anymore. Only this masquerade remained. The smile died as quickly as she had plastered it on as her clawed fingers reached for my jerkin, pulling us both down to the ground as she shrieked into my face.
“I need it! You’re a mage, so I know you have it! Just one! Just one crystal! Give it to me! Gods damn you, you ungrateful little bitch! GIVE IT TO ME NOW!”
Her voice broke. She degenerated into wracking sobs, head lolling on my shoulder and soiling my clothes with blood, mucus, tears, and who knew what. I sat, unmoving, unable to comprehend what was going on, unable to superimpose this creature on the smiling, lovely face of my youth, unwilling to face what I knew had to happen here.
And something else. Something was about to break loose inside me. Something dark and limpet, struggling to be free of the whirlwind of that dark place in my mind I had shoved all the memories that I could not, would not, dared not, let out. I couldn’t hold it back, couldn’t contain it. And with one soft, strained sentence from her, it was free to ravage my conscience.
“If your father were here, he’d make you give it to me. If he were here. If he were only here…”
And I remembered. All of it. All at once. Every face of every one of my victims for the past months. Every wretch I had put down, thinking it a mercy to execute them. For the first time, I heard their screams, their pleas as the fire took them. I remembered the faces of friends, rivals, entertainers I had loved as a child, political figures most of us had detested, minor royalty…and one face. One face above them all. His denials and shrieks had been long and loud. His rounded jaw melting in the heat of the flames, the spark in his light-green eyes starting to go out in excruciating spasms as the blistering heat contracted all his muscles. But most haunting, most jarring…the recognition on my father’s face at the moment his soul shed its charred vehicle.
I almost gave up then. I nearly laid down, bowing to the inevitable tortures and horrors my erstwhile mother, and the others like her, were certain to visit upon me, as they would any interloper. Idly, I wondered what would kill me first; their madness, or the malfunctioning guardians that still roamed the old city. I wondered if I cared. So many terrible things I had done, so many deaths. No atonement, no altruistic act of contrition, could ever cleanse the stain on my soul. My indifference had made me a murderer, and guilty of possibly the worst crime of all: patricide. To forfeit my life in exchange seemed paltry in the face of the karmic debt I had accumulated. I deserved no less, and perhaps much more.
Ironically, it was the pathetic, wailing thing leaning heavily against me that saved my life. I remembered an afternoon, and a conversation my parents had had with me right before I was to begin my apprenticeship under Magister Sunfury. My father spoke at length of our duty to minister wisdom and prudence to the younger races; my mother spoke of the compassion one must have in the course of those duties; both impressed on me the responsibility that was now mine. At the time, it seemed like one more speech, one more lecture, and I only half-listened, making the right sounds back at them by rote.
Now I understood, truly understood, what that duty and responsibility meant. It meant that no matter what I felt inside, no matter how hard it was to follow the path I had been set on in my youth, to turn away, to lay down and await oblivion, was more than just cowardice. It was treason.
And that’s why, as I held my mother close, my hand found the discarded shiv and brutally thrust it between her ribs.
Her fingers dug into my shoulder as she convulsively gasped in pain, eyes flying open wide in surprise. Gently, I leaned forward and reclined her against the hard, ash-laden ground. “I must release you from this pain," I said, surprised at how even, and hard, my voice was. "I have a duty, now, and I can’t turn my back on it for anything, or anyone. Not even the people who once loved me. I hope you understand and can forgive me. But even if you can’t, please…please be at peace.”
She couldn’t respond, of course. I knew my trade well, and had punctured her lung to avoid attracting the attention of others like her. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t curse, couldn’t berate or chastise, but neither could she praise or forgive. She just stared up at me, the rising and falling of her chest becoming more infrequent, more labored. Finally, after only a few minutes, or maybe an eternity, she took in an erratic, grasping breath, let it rattle out from her ruined lung…
I remember wanting to cry, but not daring to, as I turned and left the blasted portion of the city. The flame of a simple conjuration licked around my mother’s corpse as I strode away. I couldn’t just leave her for the vermin, rodent or bipedal. That much compassion, at least, I still had to give. Soon, her ashes would mingle with the torched remains of our legacy, but I would be long gone by then. When she died, the last vestiges of my old life expired with her. My previous duty had ended, and a new one was about to consume my existence.
It took less than an hour to pack my meager belongings, requisition enough field provisions to last at least two months, and leave the barracks behind with no one the wiser. The wretched ones, and the occasional abortive attack by the remnants of the Scourge invaders, were simply a symptom of the disease. I saw that clearly, now. The true threat, the enemy who had nearly destroyed us, the creature responsible for my never-ending pain, the Lich King, was now my target.
And striding toward the Ghostlands where a bloody road of revenge and justice were soon to begin, I remember my resolve, my all-encompassing fury at what he had done to all of us. Then, as now, I swore an oath to never stop until I saw the architect of our suffering laid low and bleeding at my hand. I held no illusions, no doubt that this quest could only end in my eventual death, but that seemed a small price to pay to become the tool of our vengeance.
Even kings can burn, after all.