Shards of Ice - A Story About Dariahn

Stratholme - Seven Years Ago

Stratholme was as good as taken. Mal'ganis had been defeated by that hot-headed paladin-prince Arthas and fled to Northrend, but the whispers Etheris had been hearing suggested that this had been an intentional gambit, and the fact that most of the Alliance army had followed their prince after the dreadlord and abandoned the burning city to the Scourge suggested it had been a successful one. Now the only things left alive in the city were the Cult of the Damned, the necromancers like Etheris who served the Scourge. Everyone else, all the residents of the city, had either fallen to the plague and been raised into the Scourge's undead army or purged by Arthas' fire.

The fallen city echoed with the guttural celebratory shouts of the undead army and their foul sorcerous creators as Etheris made his way through the street. The necromancer looked like most other cultists, clad in voluminous robes and an elaborate hood topped with a skull and a mask that hid his identity from any who may have known him. Behind him, face expressionless, followed a young man, his sickly pallor and glowing eyes marking him as one of the undead horde. He looked to be – or have been – just barely into adulthood, and not long dead. In truth he was one of the citizens of the city fallen to the Scourge's plague whom Etheris himself raised scant hours before. He was clad in little more than scavenged, mismatched armor with a sword slung on his back. There seemed to be little in the ghoul-slave's mind but to follow his necromantic master as he sought a place away from the others, a place to experiment with the magic he had devoted himself to studying.

Eventually they came upon a building, mostly intact, door ajar, that Etheris approved of. The front wall was charred behind the burned skeleton of the erstwhile shop owner, fallen where he had no doubt been killed by Arthas' soldiers as he came to welcome them as the city's last hope. The necromancer stepped inside, shepherding the boy in behind him. Flickering orange light from the fires across the street illuminated the room, picking out racks of armor and weapons along the walls. He pushed the door shut behind them, then turned to his servant. The younger man stared back blankly as he regarded him. Etheris gently took his arm and led him to the shop's counter, then tilted his chin up just enough to bring their eyes together. His pale face stood out sharply in the firelight under messy black hair. The air between them began to fog with dark energy as the necromancer concentrated, slowly freeing up the boy's mind until the glowing yellow eyes widened. His mouth moved silently before finally a hoarse whisper came out: “Who are you?”

Etheris smiled back at the boy with a kindness that belied the darkness of the link between them. “My name is Etheris. I am your master, Dariahn.”

“Master...” Dariahn echoed, eyes still wide with confusion.

Etheris could feel the cloudiness muddying his thoughts. He focused on keeping him calm, releasing the boy's mind a little more, freeing him to begin thinking for himself - just a little, not completely - for the first time since his death, using the dark magic he had been taught to feel the memories there. “Yes. You fell to the plague, and I raised you. I've given you the gift of undeath because I could feel the potential in you. I want to free you to that potential.” He had sensed something promising about him when he had found the fresh corpse just outside the city wall, but only now did he have the time to do more than pick up vague impressions like the boy's name. There was a city to take, after all, and more dead citizens to raise than just this choice young man. But what he felt now confirmed his hopes: His soul held fear and distrust born of rejection, but there was a defiance underneath it. So much like he himself used to be, if lacking Etheris' ambition. He took off his hood and set it on the counter, revealing long, prematurely silver hair tied back at the neck framing what had been a handsome face before his necromantic dabblings had turned his skin ashen. He looked back to Dariahn to find him already back to his senses enough to seek out eye contact, the primal confusion on his face solidifying to a more intelligent questioning look. "I need someone like you. Someone to be more than just another one of these mindless creatures, someone I can trust to be my disciple, my enforcer, my invaluable assistant!"

Dariahn looked away, bringing an unarmored hand up to examine the pale, dead flesh. "I' of them now," he said quietly. His brow furrowed, and he looked back up at the necromancer. "I... It's hard think."

Etheris gently reached up to grasp the boy's hand in his. "You were dying from the plague. You're likely still muddled by the fever, but it will pass." He grinned and cupped his other hand under Dariahn's chin again, this time stroking his cold cheek with his thumb. He would be perfect, he could tell all ready. So long as he kept just enough control over him, he would be perfect. "This is a gift, Dariahn. I saved you. Plucked you from a rotting, festering oblivion and gave you eternal unlife."

Dariahn looked up at him uncertainly, the conflict in his mind nearly palpable in the Shadow energies linking them. Etheris had soothed away the fear of what he had become, but there were deeper conflicts within the boy, conflicts from the life now behind him, that he knew he was only exacerbating. Finally Dariahn tipped his head a little, leaning into Etheris' hand, and whispered, "Why me?"

Before he could pull away the necromancer leaned in and kissed the dead boy hard, pressing his lips against colder ones as Dariahn first stiffened in surprise and then slowly began to return it, warming up to the idea as his skin warmed with stolen heat. Finally Etheris pulled away, his eyes meeting Dariahn's disbelieving gaze as he murmured, "Because you're perfect. A perfect handsome young man, deserving of true undeath as so very, very few are."

" one has ever..." the younger man stammered. His eyes were wider and more confused than ever, but there was an awe there, an awe that Etheris noticed.

"Touched you like that?" Etheris cooed reassuringly, trying to hide the predatory edge to his grin. "My poor, poor Dariahn. It's not something that's spoken of in polite company, is it? But I understand. I think we'll understand each other very well." He gave the younger man a quick, passing kiss on the cheek before straightening up. He smiled proudly at the boy and gestured around the dark shop. "Take whatever armor or weapons you might want. It's our city now, and you'll need it to be my soldier." He reached out again with his dark magic, touching the dead boy's mind again, and nodded in satisfaction at what he found. "And an excellent soldier you will be..."

Brill - Now

"What do you know about Shadow magic?" Dariahn asked as he shoved a massive bookcase into place against the newly-rebuilt wall in Meridith's study. He fussed over getting it into exactly the same spot it had been in before the room was blown apart, using it as an excuse to avoid eye contact with Meridith after the sudden peculiar question. "Like, the kind that messes with people's heads. Or their souls."

Meridith, for her part, raised an eyebrow curiously as she watched the Death Knight positioning the bookcase with the precision of an engineer from the safety of a chair across the room. "As little as I can get away with, which has been a distressingly large amount, really. I've never quite trusted any form of magic that's tied to faith, but it's part of what keeps us going, so to speak." The Forsaken woman tilted her head, regarding him. He seemed like he had been an attractive enough young man before death took him, and by Forsaken standards he was still rather intact, with just some patches of flesh missing here and there where bone had worked its way through. His skin and hair had faded from peach and black to white and plum, but the mage was accustomed enough to undeath to think it suited him well. According to his sister he had been just as young as Meridith herself when he died, just over the threshold into adulthood, but the years she had spent as a free-willed undead made her feel much older than she appeared. Dariahn, however, had just had his will returned, and he still had a teenager's awkwardness. He had worn breeches and a simple blue shirt in place of his armor today, knowing Meridith likely hadn't called him to her home to slay monsters, but he had still brought his runeblade, Lichreaver. The mage glanced at the massive sword leaning against the wall by the doorway. It was forged of a dark metal, and down the middle of the thick blade were runes that glowed an icy blue that matched Dariahn's eyes. She looked back to him. "Don't you use Shadow magic, Dariahn?"

"Kinda. I mean, I do, but it's not...spellcasting, so much. When the magic is tied to a runeblade it's a little more instinctive."

She looked back to the sword, her brow furrowing thoughtfully. "Plagos knows quite a bit about the Shadow. Souls in particular."

"I know. But I dunno if I want to bring this up to him." Satisfied that the bottom of the bookcase was lined up exactly with the lines left on the floor from years of being covered by furniture, Dariahn stepped back and crouched to pick the more salvageable books from the stacks on the floor. "I don't want him to think there's anything wrong with me."

Meridith stood, straightening the skirt of her robe, and joined him in sorting the books. "Probably for the best. He has little tolerance for instability, especially with the trouble I've already gotten us into. But I'll tell you what I can."

The Death Knight stared at the book in his hand for a moment, composing his thoughts. "When I was part of the Scourge, I was...not like this. I was in the service of a lich, and I don't remember it really well but it seems like I was a lot stronger than I am now. Not physically, just..." Meridith nodded. Dariahn sighed, pausing in his work to look up at her. "I feel like when I was released from the Scourge, part of my soul splintered off. I can still hear it sometimes, but it's not really a part of me anymore. I think it's the part that was bound to the sword, and when I was released it broke away." He looked away again, self-consciously. "It, uh, talks to me sometimes. And it's like a different person. Like the soldier I used to be."

"You think part of your soul is still trapped in your sword?"

Dariahn nodded. "And I want it back. I want to be the person I was before it was separated from me. When the sword and I were like one and the same."

"Hmm... I've had a part of my own soul separated from the whole for safekeeping, and I've never really felt like my personality changed. But I suppose if the spell was targeted... You may need to find the one who did it to you. If this lich was responsible, you may have to force him to put it back together."

"And that means going back among the Scourge," he said with a resigned frown.

"It won't be easy," Meridith said sympathetically. "But if you want it back, it may be the only way."

Hearthglen - Four Years Ago

The reports of the upstarts calling themselves the "Scarlet Crusade" having taken the town of Hearthglen as a base were confirmed before the small Scourge unit was even able to see the town's high walls. The humans had had the temerity to plant banners along the road nearly a mile out, banners which Etheris ordered Dariahn and the others under his command to burn. They were no more than a small scout unit, the necromancer Etheris and his personal ghoul-servant and a handful of mindless undead under his control, but orders were only to see if the human zealots had truly been foolish enough to establish a base so far into the Scourge's domain.

As they moved up the road into the hills in which the town was nestled they found the foul mist from the plague cauldrons to the south thinning. To the west the stark white stone of the town wall was just becoming visible over the next rise as Etheris noticed the change in the air. The necromancer shielded his eyes with the sleeve of his robe and looked to the sky as unadulterated moonlight started to make its way through the break in the forest canopy, exposing them. He cursed to himself, then turned to Dariahn. "Keep your eyes open," he whispered. "We may be sighted."

The ghoul nodded silently, unsheathing his sword from his back and peering with unnaturally sensitive eyes into the surrounding woods ahead of them. He shifted defensively close to Etheris. But the first sounds of ambush came from behind. He turned sharply at the sound of running to see a handful of humans, likely a scouting party themselves, leaving the cover of the trees and rushing toward them with weapons drawn. With a gesture Etheris sent the undead soldiers to block their attack and the mindless ones clashed with the red and white-clad human soldiers, forming a rotting, putrid wall of crude weapons and claws to defend the pair. One human stood back from the others, a dark-haired man in plate armor that gleamed in the moonlight who radiated a sickening holy aura - a paladin. The man pointed at Etheris, shouting, "They have a necromancer with them! Take him down and the others will fall!" At the order from their commander the soldiers shoved the mindless aside and rushed at the necromancer.

"No!" Dariahn moved in front of Etheris, baring his teeth as he held his sword protectively before them. He could feel the familiar rush of magic as his master began a spell, but before Etheris could finish the soldiers rushed them, shoving both to the ground. Dariahn rolled into a crouch, but the paladin had been right: As Etheris fell to the Crusaders' blades, as Dariahn watched in horror as blood soaked his robes and pooled on the hard dirt of the road, the ghoul blacked out, collapsing like a puppet.

The young dead man felt himself being nudged roughly by the toe of a boot, but he dared not move. His thoughts were muddled and confused, but instinct told him it was better to let these people think he was dead. His eyes were open just a sliver, just enough to see that he was lying in a road with scarlet-armored people around him and a scarlet stain surrounding a dead robed man only a few feet away. A man's voice, booming with authority, called out orders to the others from above him. "We'll go back to town and let them know what we found. You, get some torches while we're there! We can't suffer these creatures to rise again."

A voice came into his mind, a female voice, beautiful but for the anger and fury in it. "Come to me and rally!" it beckoned. "You have been freed, now come and fight!" With the voice came a pull, trying to draw him to the southwest. Freed? He had been freed from something? Then there must be danger in this place... He waited until the soldiers left, listening to the voice calling to him until the last sounds of their footsteps and hushed voices faded away. Under the moonlight the young dead man rose to his feet and moved quickly into the forest, letting the woman's voice be his guide. Maybe she would know what was going on. Maybe she could help him.

The Undercity - Now

The fur-trimmed black plate armor had only been out of use for a scant few months, but already it was coated in a fine layer of dust from the stale Undercity air as it sat on a simple wooden stand in the corner of Dariahn's spartan room in the barracks of the War Quarter. It was the armor he had been wearing when he was released from the Scourge's control, the armor given to the Death Knights of Acherus. He thought it perfectly functional, but his sister Meg had been appalled at the idea of him continuing to wear it and had crafted him something she considered "less evil". Now he took the helm down from the wooden head of the mannequin and used a scrap of sturdy linen to polish it, sitting down on his rickety wooden bunk to cradle it in his lap as he did so.

It's good that you're finally seeking this out, the familiar voice whispered in his mind.

Dariahn frowned to himself. "It's not going to be easy facing Etheris," he replied aloud to Lichreaver, lying on the bare cot beside him. "The things I remember about him are...complicated. I actually cared about him, didn't I?"

The Etheris you cared about - the Etheris who cared about you - died years ago. Holding on to that sentiment will only weaken you, and you have to be strong. Your will is your own now. He can't control you if you don't let him.

Setting the polishing cloth aside, he stood and held out the helm to regard it. It was designed to cover most of the face, almost like a hood, with dark ivory horns curving forward from the sides and the opening in front like an inverted teardrop terminating in a pointed V at the chin. A Scourge helm. He set it back on the stand and nodded, satisfied. "I've been in Icecrown, right at the foot of the citadel. If I haven't fallen back to them yet I must be strong enough to resist them."

See? There's no need to worry. We won't fall back to them.

The shoulder pauldrons matched the helm, black and deep, deep blue with dark ivory horns and black fur trim. He took the left one from the mannequin and returned to his bunk with it, shining it as he had the helm. "And once he puts us back together, I'll remember how to be the warrior I need to be, right?"

Once you've walked among the Scourge again, you'll remember many things. And understand even more. If you want us to be one again, you have to face him.

Western Plaguelands - Three Years Ago

Something about the crypt made Dominic feel uneasy. It reminded the Deathstalker too much of the time he had been sent into Stratholme to scout, that uncanny sense of deja vu that he could neither shake nor place. He pushed the feeling aside, focusing on the job ahead of him. The Argent Dawn patrols based at Light's Hope Chapel had alerted the Undercity to Scourge activity in this crypt just east of Andorhal, but the fledgling group's forces were stretched too thin to investigate themselves. The Undercity, for their part, had sent him: A lone Deathstalker, tasked with determining what exactly the Scourge was up to here before they put together a proper force of Deathguards to root it out.

The shadows in the subterranean marble building were deep, more than deep enough to hide him. His black leather armor, black mask, and plum-hued hair left only his dead white skin and polished metal swords to catch any light, and fortunately for him there was next to none apart from the yellow glow of his eyes by the time he got two levels down into the mausoleum. He tread silently down another set of stairs, carefully sidestepping the old bones strewn here and there across the floor. He noticed as he neared the bottom that a cold blue light was starting to filter up from a lower level, and he paused with his back to the hard stone wall to listen from around the corner. He could just make out a soft murmuring, like someone chanting or talking to themselves at the very bottom of the crypt, a couple levels further down.

He continued silently to the next floor, the pale blue light growing brighter as he descended. His skin began to feel strangely stiff, and he looked down at his armor to find it coated with silver frost. The murmuring grew louder, forming a distinct chant that made Dominic's hair stand on end. He stopped at the corner just before the final stairway. The chanting was a man's voice, though hollow and strange, and something about it brought the uneasiness he had felt since entering the crypt to a crescendo. He closed his eyes, trying to push the feeling away again. From the bone-chilling aura he could tell that the man - or creature - was a lich, marking him almost certainly as a Scourge agent. But he had encountered liches before, and never had they affected him like this.

Just as Dominic was resolving to take what little information he had back to the Undercity the chanting stopped. A rustling sound of bones and cloth came from the chamber below, followed by words that rang not just in the air but in his mind itself. "My dear Dariahn. You don't have to sneak around, you know. I don't blame you for what happened, and in the end it was a blessing. The Lich King saw fit to give me the same gift I gave you. Now come down and join me. I would be happy to have you at my side again." And with the voice came an overwhelming stifling feeling, pulling him into oblivion.

Dariahn stepped out from the corner into the stairway, weapons still sheathed. The lich, little more than a robe-clad skeleton surrounded by frozen chains and a glowing blue aura of dark, cold magic, stood in the middle of a chamber edged by tables full of magical tomes and artifacts. He regarded the undead man with a death's-head grin as he descended the stairs and knelt before him. "And I would be happy to be at your side again, Master Etheris."

Dalaran - Now

Dear Meg,

If you're reading this, I'm sorry. I've gone to Icecrown to take care of something, and if Meridith has given this to you I'm likely either dead or back under the control of the Scourge. I couldn't tell you what I had planned because I knew you would try to stop me, and I couldn't have you weakening my resolve to do this. Don't blame her for letting me go, either. She couldn't have stopped me.

I told you about the voice I hear from my sword. I've come to realize that that voice is a part of me, or at least I think it used to be. It got separated when I broke away from the Scourge. I've gone to track down the lich I used to serve to make him put me back together. I know you've said that I act a lot like I did when I was alive, and that seems to bring you comfort, but I can't stay this way. When I was one of them I was a real, proper soldier, good enough for them to make me a Death Knight. I want to be that strong again. I want to be a hero like my big sister.

Dariahn looked down at the parchment on the table in front of him, frowning. He had never been good at expressing sentiment, but as he had sat at the wall overlooking Icecrown's snow-capped peaks planning his next move he realized his sister deserved something like this, just in case. He hadn't remembered her when he was first freed from the Scourge, but she had an archivist from the Argent Dawn keeping an eye out for signs of him and they had been reunited shortly after he returned to the Undercity. Meganna had her own problems she was clearly struggling with, but she had done her best to take care of him in her own way. So he had retired to the Filthy Animal, donning his goggles to avoid drawing attention to the ice-blue eyes that marked him as having been one of the Scourge's elite. Lichreaver was strapped to his back, and he was clad in the fur-trimmed black armor from Acherus, but enough adventurers had taken such equipment as spoils from fighting the Scourge that he hoped to pass as one of those. As he stared at the letter he mused idly that he would soon be playing up the very traits he usually tried to mask from others, trying to pass as one of the many Death Knights who still served their Scourge masters in order to find Etheris. Lichreaver picked up on his thoughts and began whispering encouragements. It'll be so much easier for you there among them, letting go of what these others think.

The Death Knight growled and rubbed his temple with his left hand, still holding the small quill with his right. "I know," he muttered. He thought of his sister's disapproving speeches about the dark nature of his power and sighed. She just didn't understand. The humans here in Dalaran, the high elves, the trolls here in the inn who eyed him warily and spoke with hesitation when they came to his table to ask if he wanted a drink, they had never been given such a horrible gift against their will, had never had to work to harness such a thing to serve a better cause. They couldn't be faulted. But their fear and disdain weighed on him. The sword was right, it would be a relief to be back among those for whom such power was common, even if it was just to work against them.

I just want you to know, if I never see you again, that I appreciate everything you've done for me. I know I wasn't always the brother you wanted me to be, but you loved me anyway. Thank you for everything you helped me remember. You're a strong woman, Meg. I know you'll be okay without me.

Don't blame yourself for this either. It had to be done.

Your brother, in this life and any other to come,


Mord'Rethar: The Death Gate - One Year Ago

The frigid wind of Icecrown tore at Dariahn's hair and his matching purple cloak as he stood atop the massive saronite wall, but the dead man didn't notice the cold. He regarded the Scourge forces working below idly, arms crossed over his armored chest, leaning on one of the tall, curved, clawlike pillars bordering the walkway that ran atop the fortification. All around him, preparations were being made. Soon, they had been told, once the gates were in place, once the vrykul had been fully bent to the Lich King's will, once the army had been armed and armored, they would strike at the cities to the south with just enough of a force to draw them north, to fight on the Scourge's own ground. Here, they would be crushed. Now that Arthas had risen from his slumber they would be victorious. Or so the proclamations went. Dariahn, for his part, simply did has he was ordered.

Like a living creature might recognize the smell of another, he felt the familiar magic of his master as the lich approached him. "Master Etheris," he greeted without moving as he heard the sharp flapping of robes behind him over the whine of the wind.

"I've news for you," Etheris said in his hollow voice, sounding eerily cheerful. Now that his face had been reduced to no more than a glowing skull Dariahn had become adept at gauging him by only his voice. He placed his skeletal hand possessively atop Dariahn's shoulders. "I've found a role for you in all of this."

Dariahn rolled his head back, trying futilely to look up at his master. There was a time when such affection was normal, but that was when Etheris had still been alive, before he had joined Dariahn in undeath. Now it just struck him as insincere. "Hmm? What is it, sir?"

"Our beloved Lich King has declared his intention to recruit a force of new Death Knights." He brushed his bone fingers through Dariahn's hair as it fell over them. "I have offered your services."

Rather than stare up at the slate-gray sky Dariahn closed his eyes. "So you'll be training me for that, too?"

Etheris chuckled softly. "No, I'm afraid not. I'll be helping prepare you, but they'll be training to the south in the Plaguelands, and I'm still needed here. The control over the cold I've helped you learn will be of use to you, but you'll be under another's command. They're sending some of the instructors from Naxxramas itself, though to a new necropolis, turned over entirely to training Death Knights. It'll be a great honor to join them. And a great honor for me to have sent you."

He opened his eyes again, frowning. "You're...sending me away?" Looking back down at the field of soldiers at work below, Dariahn stiffened. His master had only grown in power since being raised as a lich, and it had only made Dariahn feel increasingly unnecessary. Etheris had begun training him in some of the same magic he had mastered, but Dariahn's strongest skills were in traditional combat. He knew he was of less and less use to his master, but he hadn't expected this. He hadn't expected to be given away, to be used as a pawn in some political game.

It bothered him less than it once would have.

"Oh, I'll make sure you're taken care of," he cooed, patting Dariahn's shoulder in some vague approximation of reassurance. "I'm going to have the best craftsghouls available forge a runeblade for you before you go. I was thinking we could even use that sword of yours as part of it. You know, the one you've had since I found you? Wouldn't that be nice, reforge it with saronite and runes and power?"

Dariahn growled softly to himself, but the sound was lost to the howling wind. "Of course, master."

The Shadow Vault - Now

It had occurred to Dariahn a few weeks before that if his friend Carnage were a little more intact, and if someone were to attack him with a hairbrush, he would probably look a great deal like Baron Silver, the pale, red-haired sin'dorei Ebon Blade commander based at the Shadow Vault. He tried not to let himself get distracted by the thought as he brought his horse Umbra up alongside the Baron's own deathcharger and nodded a greeting. Dariahn's goggles had been left in his pack, and his helm for the moment hung from his horse's saddle. The Shadow Vault was a base for the Knights of the Ebon Blade, and there was no need to hide what he was here among his fellow Death Knights.

The Baron nodded in return, glowing blue eyes matching Dariahn's own trained on the skirmish at the south entrance to the platform in front of the Vault. The Knights of the Ebon Blade fought constant attacks from Scourge forces trying to reclaim it, but thus far their defenses had held and they had maintained this foothold in the fight against their former masters. The Ebon Blade forces were comprised entirely of those who had broken away from the Scourge, making it hard to tell which of the undead soldiers fought for which side, but Baron Silver knew the forces under his command well. "Baron Silver, sir," Dariahn began, "I'm looking for some information on the location of a Scourge agent. A lich by the name of Etheris."

It was a moment before the stoic sin'dorei showed any sign of having heard the request. "Our last information placed him at the Death Gate, overseeing the enslavement and training of some of the Horde and Alliance's fallen soldiers. Are you intending to seek him out?"

Dariahn set his jaw and nodded. "I am."

He finally looked over at Dariahn, one long eyebrow raised. "Is this a mission of vengeance, Death Knight?"

"He oversaw my enslavement and training as well, until I was sent to Acherus."

The Baron regarded the fighting at the steps again. "Vengeance is something we all understand, and it would be a service to have more of that kind dealt with. The fewer they have to reanimate fallen soldiers, the better. Good luck to you, brother."

Dariahn nodded, and as he nudged Umbra into a slow walk again, without thinking, he spoke the old traditional parting: "Suffer well."
Eastern Plaguelands - Six Months Ago
We vowed vengeance against the Lich King! For what he had done to us!

Dariahn set his jaw as he rode his deathcharger through plague-decimated countryside, trying to drive the words from his mind. The Forsaken man's pleadings, confused and delirious as they were, had affected him. It had clearly been a case of mistaken identity, the way the man had kept addressing him as "Dominic", but his words had hinted at something that had been nagging at him since he had left Northrend with the Ebon Hold. But the Lich King himself was here overseeing this operation, and as awestruck as the newly-forged Death Knight had been at his liege's presence he knew it meant he could not afford such doubts. It had been strange to go from being the servant of a single lich to reporting to Arthas himself. In the past few weeks he had been given power, incredible power, but more than ever he felt himself under the Scourge's thrall. What had the Lich King done to them? What had Etheris done to him?

But now was not the time to think of that. Lichreaver, his runeblade, bound to his very soul by dark magic, sang to him of hunger. And there were to be many souls for it to dine on at Light's Hope chapel. He just hoped he could make it before the battle commenced.

Mord'Rethar: The Death Gate - Now

The frigid wind of Icecrown tugged at the deep purple cloak Dariahn had wrapped himself in as he rode Umbra on a slow trot along the top of the towering wall of Mord'Rethar. All around him his fellow corpses walked, the freshly recruited bodies of fallen soldiers made to dance to the tune of the Scourge's necromancers, the latter sometimes living, sometimes not. Umbra, for his part, was spooked neither by the height of the wall - towering a few hundred feet above the valley of glacial ice below - nor by the creatures atop it. Like Dariahn he was a creature of Scourge-magic and Shadow, though unlike the Death Knight he still served his master well. It hadn't been difficult to slip back into their ranks, not with his deathcharger and his armor and his runeblade to vouch for what he was. He kept his helm on, hiding his face in its shadows. True, he was unsure if any here would even recognize Etheris' pet ghoul, or if they did if they would know he had joined the Knights of the Ebon Blade after being freed at Light's Hope. Some, after all, had willingly returned to the Scourge even after that betrayal, unable to conceive of an unlife outside of the Lich King's rule. If any did recognize him from the shadows of the helm, let them think for now that he was one of those.

He had been right, though, that despite the risk of being caught as a traitor he felt more comfortable here than he had in what passed these days for normal society. Death Knights were some of the Scourge's best soldiers, and the creatures he passed on the walkway along the top of the wall regarded him with deference. His power was something to be respected and feared, not something to be ashamed of. Carnage had said he needed something of his own to be proud of, but he realized as he watched geists scamper out of the path of his deathcharger's brightly glowing hooves that he already had it.

A gentle tug on Umbra's reins brought the horse to a stop beside one of the clawlike pillars that ran along the edge of the wall. He peered out from under his helm at the valley below, dotted here and there with Scourge necromancers in search of more fodder for their army from the last futile Alliance attack on their stronghold. Tightening his grip on the reins, he fought against a sudden unsettling wave of vertigo. He had stood here before. His eyes widened with the realization. He used to stand here and watch the other gates being built, the forces being gathered, the first of the frostwyrms being raised whenever Etheris didn't have any work or training for him. This was where he had wondered what would become of him when his master finally had no more use for him, and where he had learned the answer.

He shook his head and growled, turning away from the view. "You're not one of them anymore," he assured himself through clenched teeth in a whisper that was lost to the wind. He closed his eyes and stoked the spark of anger lit from that memory of being discarded, fueling it with fury at having been enslaved against his will and twisted into believing it was something he wanted, hatred for the creatures who had destroyed his home and his kingdom, heartbreak at the emotional wreck his strong, brave sister had become at their hands. He let himself feel everything that had been suppressed by Etheris' mental control, the pain and rage of every memory he could scavenge from his broken mind, letting it bolster him until he found himself having to bite back a battle cry. And when he finally opened his eyes, glowing bright with the power mustered by his anger, he found Lichreaver in his hand.

"You!" he barked, leveling the runeblade at a passing geist. His voice came out as a deep, hollow rumble, commanding and cruel. A Death Knight's voice. "Where is Etheris?"

The creature stopped its loping run and rolled easily to a crouch, looking up at him. Its one large eye blinked fearfully at the blade. It shook and gibbered nonsensically, pointing further along the wall to the west, to a round, spired building entrenched where the wall abutted a mountainside. The walls of the building had protrusions that gave them the same serrated look as nearly all of the Scourge's other fortifications here, and black banners flapped in the wind above a high arched entryway. With a nudge of his plated boot Dariahn coaxed Umbra into a gallop. He understood now why his fellow Forsaken were so obsessed with vengeance, those who remembered and mourned for what they had once been, but the understanding was less a revelation than something that had been there all along, something he had just failed to notice until now. That hunger for vengeance was as much a part of him as his flesh, his power, his runeblade. He focused it, holding himself from lashing out at the Scourge monstrosities between him and his goal, saving every bit of it for his former master.

A tug on his reins brought Umbra up to a stop just in front of the towering arched entryway of the vaulted building. Further along the walkway ringing the outside he noticed a skeletal lich casting a dark spell over a pile of fresh Alliance corpses. As he watched a few of them rose to an unsteady, shambling life, disentangling their broken limbs from those of their fallen fellows in the charnel pile. At the glowing, robe-clad skeleton's gesture the dead bodies marched into a formation, waiting with the patience of the dead for the same necromantic magics to bring more of their brothers in arms to their sides. With a practiced grace Dariahn dismounted. Umbra snorted softly, but the deathcharger stayed obediently in place as Dariahn pulled his cloak around him and, with an authoritative glare at the plagued monstrosities guarding the door, approached the procession.

He was nearly upon them by the time Etheris looked up from his casting to see the Death Knight approaching. Once he was close enough to feel that familiar taste of magic, once he was certain he had found his target, once he had his former master's attention Dariahn took off his helm. The lich moved a step back, and the corpses that had just started to stir fell back into the pile as his spell was interrupted. "Dariahn?" His fleshless face was unsatisfyingly expressionless, but his voice spoke of hope and uncertainty and best of all fear.

The Death Knight returned a cocky, devilish grin, letting that uncertainty linger in the air between them. He approached the lich deliberately, runeblade still in hand. "I've returned from my training, master." Etheris straightened warily as Dariahn neared, and the black-clad warrior drove the tip of his massive blade into the ground before Etheris' feet. He knelt, letting his dark hair fall down over eyes of a hue not far removed from Etheris' own frigid blue glow. "And I've come back to thank you."

"I...I thought you were lost to me," Etheris said, the hope in his voice rising. "I should have had more faith in you. I should have known you would be loyal." Dariahn watched carefully, and the moment came: The lich let his guard down and approached, reaching a bony hand toward him to brush his hair back from his face. The death knight sprung like a trap, lunging at Etheris, pushing him into an alcove formed by the building's serrations out of sight of the guards and pinning him to the wall. The lich let out a cry that was quickly stifled by Dariahn's own power. They had trained him well in silencing and breaking magic, and the startled lich found himself unable to so much as speak above a whisper. He hissed fearfully as Dariahn slid his sword under his jaw, forcing the lich's head up. He tried to struggle, but his strength was in the magic that Dariahn had subdued, and his skeletal frame was weak. As he stared into the glowing blue orbs of magic that served as the lich's eyes the Death Knight felt the cold, familiar touch of Etheris trying to subdue his mind. "Let me go, Dariahn. You don't want to hurt me." The words echoed not just in the walls around them but in Dariahn's mind. The Death Knight struggled against it, using the sheer force of his anger to bolster his will enough to block his former master's dominance. There was panic in his voice as Etheris realized he truly no longer had any control over his now-Forsaken servant. "W-what is it you want from me?"

Dariahn opened his mouth to speak, but the words died on his lips. He had come to demand that Etheris fix his splintered soul. But he understood now, in the same simple way he had come to understand the need for vengeance, that it had never been quite so easy, nor quite so unnatural. It had been his identity that had splintered under the weight of Etheris' control, his poor traumatized mind, and it had started reforming the moment he had begun to feel those memories of being a Scourge soldier not as something that happened to someone else but as if they were his own. Lichreaver had said he would understand once he was here, and now he did. He didn't need Etheris to put him back together, he just needed to face the truth of what he had been.

And with the same overwhelming feeling of inevitable truth came another revelation: He was Lichreaver. The hunger belonged to the blade, but the voice was that splintered self, locked away to take over when necessary. Now that voice, that self, was a part of the whole again, and it had another goal in mind.

Eyes glowing brightly, Dariahn growled a single word: "Vengeance."

"Is that all?" Etheris whispered, trying in vain to hide the growing terror in his voice. "Something so simple and petty? And for what? I gave you immortality!"

"You made me your pet!" Dariahn spat back, pushing the lich harder into the wall, driving the blade further under his jaw, threatening to separate his skull from his spine. "I would rather have been left for dead than only allowed to live at your whim! Now that I'm free of you I finally know how much I've lost. What you gave me was nothing compared to what you took away! What you all took away! And you served them willingly!" He snarled in anger, slipping a gloved hand into the folds of Etheris' robe to yank out an ornate red crystal amulet hanging on a chain against the lich's ribcage - his phylactery. "And I know how to kill you. You taught me well."

Seeing his very soul in the Death Knight's grip, Etheris writhed with a renewed fear, but Dariahn kept him pinned to the wall, focusing his power on negating the magic around them. Etheris clutched at the arm holding Lichreaver, his skeletal fingers wrapping around the saronite gauntlet. "You wouldn't... I...I loved you, you know, when I was still capable of it," the lich whispered desperately, the glowing blue sockets of his eyes seeking out Dariahn's own for sympathy. "I truly did."

Dariahn closed his eyes, tightening his grip on the phylactery. "I could say the same." He shifted away, letting the amulet fall against Etheris' chest. In one smooth motion he pulled the runeblade back and brought both hands to its hilt above his head, driving the tip of the blade down through the amulet into the lich's ribcage, breaking it against the wall behind him. The crystal gave a sharp crack and split in two. Etheris groaned as the runesword absorbed his soul from the broken crystal, giving Dariahn a brief thrill of power as it was drawn in. Almost immediately the lich's glow faded to nothing, leaving only bones and an empty robe to fall to the ground.

Dariahn took the phylactery from the tip of his sword and cradled it in his hand. The amulet itself was still mostly intact, but the crystal at the heart of it was shattered. "I'm sorry it had to come to this," he said quietly, under the howl of the wind. "But you brought it on yourself." He sheathed Lichreaver on his back and stepped out of the niche in the wall, picking his helmet up from the ground and setting it back over his head. Without even needing a command Umbra trotted over to him and stopped, waiting for him to mount. He pulled himself into the saddle, noticing as he did that the reanimated Alliances soldiers who had been so patiently waiting had fallen again to the ground, puppets with their strings cut. Baron Silver would be thankful to have one more necromancer dealt with. And with the broken phylactery in one hand and Umbra's reins in the other, he pushed the horse into a gallop and left the Scourge behind.
Stratholme - Seventeen Years Ago
It would have been better, Dariahn thought to himself as he made his way down the steps of his Uncle Mallory's house on the outskirts of Stratholme, if the day had been less beautiful. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was perfect, the flowers were blooming, and it was with a heavy heart that the boy made his way across the yard to the tree near the road where his sister sat crying. A day like this deserved rain. Heck, let it rain for a week. Or a month. Let it rain forever.

Their mother was dead, lost in a battle far from home at a place called the "Dark Portal". Their father had sent a letter to Uncle Mallory, who had been left with the unenviable task of explaining to eight-year-old Dariahn and eleven-year-old Meganna that she was never coming back. It had been a few days now, and sometimes it still hit Dariahn hard, but just as hard on him was the toll it was taking on his sister. He came up behind her quietly, bracing himself not to start crying too if she turned and saw him, if he had to see her face puffy and wet and miserable. But she stayed huddled up against the tree, her face tucked against her knees in her simple skirt until he wrapped his arms around her neck. She sat up a little straighter, reaching up to put her hands over where his clasped at her collar. "Hey Dare," she whispered hoarsely.

"Everything's gonna be all right, okay? I'll protect you," he blurted out, clinging to his sister. With the words that had been welling up in him finally released, he felt the tears come, and he buried his face in her long dark hair so she couldn't see.

Meg squeezed his hands, sniffling. "Don't be silly," she said quietly. "I'm bigger than you." She wiped at her eyes and turned, grabbing him and pulling him onto her lap into a tight hug. "You don't have to be responsible for me just because you're a boy. If anything it's the other way around. I'll have to take care of you now."

Dariahn looked up at her, his tear-reddened brown eyes matching his sister's. "Are you gonna cook for us?"

"Dad can cook just fine." She gave one last sniffle as she brushed his dark hair back from his face. "Unless you want me to."

"What if Dad doesn't come back?"

Meg lowered her head as her face scrunched up, fighting back another wave of sobbing. "Don't...don't say that, Dare. He'll be back."

Dariahn wrapped his arms around her again. "I'll protect you if he doesn't."

"How about we just protect each other? We'll promise, no matter what happens, we'll protect each other. Okay?"

"Okay. I promise."

Dalaran - Now

Meg looked at her brother pointedly across the table as she set the letter down. "Why did you give me this?"

Dariahn grinned roguishly and shrugged. "I didn't want to have to explain it all again." He cleared his throat, eying the mug of mead on the table in front of her. "And...I still mean it even if I'm still around."

The Legerdemain in the earliest hours of the morning was the quietest it was ever going to get, with only a handful of patrons at the bar and one small table occupied. Most of the sorts who were generally up and about in Dalaran this time of night frequented the Cantrips & Crows in the sewers, but Meg preferred it here. She lifted her mug for another sip, then looked down at the letter, sighing. "Did you all that, then?"

"I found him, yes. And..." He tapped his bony fingers on his own mug, frowning. "And I killed him."

Meg looked up at him, brow furrowed. "Did you have him do what you needed him to? Are you...okay?"

"In the end I didn't really need him to do anything. I just had to face things. I think I'm...better, at least. I remember some things I didn't before."

She looked up at him, her glowing eyes hopeful. "Things from when you were alive?"

"Mostly after that. But...a few things from before, yeah."

She sighed and took another sip of mead. "You should have told me you were going, Dare. You're all I have left. I'm just trying to protect you."

He grinned again, a far more confident grin than he had worn since being released from the Scourge. "Pfft. I'm bigger than you."

Meg nearly choked mid-drink. She coughed a little and looked at him wide-eyed. Dariahn thought she looked like she'd be about to cry if she was able to, and he walked around the table to grab her in a hug where she sat. "Heh, yeah..." she said awkwardly. "So...are you going to do anything different now? Or are you just going back to taking orders from that bastard warlock?"

"I'm still going back to that, yes. But not because I need to be taking orders from someone. Because the work he's doing in Northrend is some of the most important work I could be involved in. With him I'm fighting the Scourge and helping protect my people. And protecting our people is a family tradition, right?"

Meg sat quietly for a moment, then reached up and patted his hands where they met at her collar. "I...I know I've given you a hard time about...a lot of things, but...I'm proud of you, Dariahn. I really am."

He hugged his sister tightly, and as naturally as he had remembered everything else he remembered how fortunate he was to have something he truly cared about protecting. "Thank you, Meg. That means everything."