Lost Souls: Countdown to Shadowlands

Sir Eran Heskin turned in the doorway and ran like a bat out of hell.

He jumped into his gunship and flew all the way back to Stormwind, rushed into the Mage Tower, into the portal in Azsuna, and then back into the air. It never occurred to him at all that he still had his old hearthstone.

Landing in Dalaran, he ran all the way to the Ledgerdemain Lounge, the room that Adesse Surrette rented whenever she was in town… the room his grandson, Donal, had stayed in when he left with her from Booty Bay. The city guard was already there… and they were carrying a covered stretcher. “Is that…”

“Sir Eran?” The city guard captain knew him, having seen him in Adesse’s company during the war. “You’ve heard?”

Heskin looked at the covered stretcher, lifting the sheet from over the body. It was Adesse Surrette. Her blue-purple suit of Dalaran style was covered in blood, her throat slashed, stab wounds in her chest. A strangled sound of rage and anguish came from his throat. His hands shaking, he asked in a near-whisper, “Who did this?”

“We don’t know, Sir Eran. Her room was closed and locked; she was last seen coming in there the other night. We think she’s been dead at least four days.”

Heskin was outraged. “And nobody noticed before now?! What kind of city are you people --”

The captain raised a hand to quiet him. “We’re looking into it, Sir Eran, you have my word. I want to know what’s going on just as much as you do.” His jaw clenched. “This was vicious. And whoever did this must collect mage staves… hers was missing. So was the runeblade she carried in the Legion war.”

Heskin suddenly remembered something he had heard about a courier delivering the staff to the Lightforged couple. But that didn’t matter at the moment… as he reached out to the small gold pendant she wore around her neck. It bore the entwined sigils of the Kirin Tor and the Argent Crusade, with “NORTHREND” embossed on the upper rim. He had a similar pendant, the Crusade sigil with the lion of Stormwind. He gripped it in his fist, and gently pulled it from her neck. The guards covered the body and took her away.

The captain watched them go for a moment, then asked, “Do you know if she had any instruction in the event of her death?”

Heskin was quiet for a long time, looking at the pendant in his hand. “No, I don’t think she did,” he said finally. His hands were shaking. His voice, thank the Light, was not. “Have her cremated… I will take her to Lordaeron, and scatter the ashes in Lake Mereldar, south of her home village. It’s the least I can do.” He looked up at the captain. “Please see to it. I will return… later.”

“It will be done, Sir Eran.”

As he made his way back to the Greyfang Enclave for a portal back to Stormwind, the thought that kept going through his mind was: What the hell will I tell Donal?

Zulimbasha returned to the Necropolis after his meeting with Lord Vendross, his mind troubled as he began to assemble the things he had been hearing into a coherent narrative in his mind.

Sylvanas and her strange powers. The Ebon Blade raising new warriors of death for their ranks. Rumors of wildlife withering and dying in Pandaria and here in Zandalar. What Lord Vendross had said the professor had revealed about something “affecting the realm of death”. And what he had told the Nightborne arcanist about Bwonsamdi’s increasing silence. His loyal priests and those who had made bargains with him had heard nothing in recent weeks; while the pact-makers might think they were now scot-free, Zulimbasha and his fellow priests were worried.

Loa could die, sure enough - Sethraliss had fallen to Mythrax in ancient times, the Drakkari had killed and consumed theirs to fight the Scourge, and the Atal’zul had killed or corrupted quite a number of them here - but Zulimbasha did not think Bwonsamdi had been slain. His followers would know of it, just as the followers of Rezan had felt the death of their lord. No… it was as if Bwonsamdi’s attention was elsewhere. Zulimbasha suspected he was occupied with ensuring the souls destined for the Other Side actually got there - because those he collected for that purpose seemed to need… extra direction. It was something he had never experienced before.

And he didn’t like it.

Zulimbasha suspected the Ebon Blade knew more than they were letting on; while he shared Lord Vendross’ disgust at these heathens, he also knew not to underestimate them. The old arcanist believed them to have sinister motives, especially given that they had taken to raising Nightborne, pandaren, Highmountain, Zandalari… even vulpera. But Zulimbasha was not so sure. Given how many new knights had arisen in the past few months, if they were planning something malicious, they would have acted already, with the world once again weakened by a world-spanning war. If what he had heard Tavener say was true, there was something else here… something that scared them, and scared whoever commanded them.

And whatever it was, Zulimbasha suspected, it would involve Bwonsamdi - and those who served him…

Urgan of the Black Harvest, ex-Shadow Council acolyte and current head of what remained of the Modas il Toralar, sat on a rocky outcrop of the Dreadscar Rift, large green fingers drumming on the ground. There was to be a council here tonight, he knew, and he had no doubt that the recent… strange events were the topic of discussion. Whether he would be able to attend or be called away by other matters… depended on the circumstances.

“Lord Corruptor.” He looked up at the grating lisp of one of the wyrmtongue servants. “She is here.”

“Thank you. Leave us.” He did not turn as the other approached. “Well?”

“He is as short-sighted as ever, Master. His blood elf minders did not even let me into the door. Rumor is he has been in council with that Zandalari priest, who is not particularly fond of our arts, either.”

“Not entirely unexpected.” The Corruptor shook his head with a grim chuckle. “He seems to make more enemies than he does allies with his ways. Perhaps that served him well while your city was in isolation, but this is the real world. Small wonder the priest is so tied to him; he’s just as much a blinkered fool as his new friend.”

“You think they should be removed?” When he didn’t answer, she went on, “The priest, no one will miss. The idea of Bwonsamdi being ascendant in Zandalar is not popular with the people. With Lord Randarel, however… he has two children. His son Erdanel is an arcanist in the Nighthold, as he is; his daughter Telisa is trained in the pandaren arts. His line would continue - and possibly continue to cause trouble.”

The Corruptor dismissed that with a slight wave of his hand. “Erdanel does not command the respect of the Nighthold that his father does, and Telisa… let her do her little pandaren dances all she wants. With any luck, whatever is coming will deal with them. But him… we do not need rabble-rousers like that interfering with what must be done over a question of morals. That is something you’ve taken quite well to heart, Elodie - not to indulge your morals over your practicals.”

Elodie Noirceur shrugged lightly. “The moral way is not always the right way. That’s why we’re here, after all, is it not?”

“Indeed.” Although he bore a disdain for elves that even some humans could appreciate, Urgan believed he had found an ideal apprentice in the Nightborne sorceress. Although at least a couple of centuries older than he, Elodie was a relative novice in the warlocks’ art. When she came to the Rift late in the Legion war, he found himself drawn to her, volunteering to instruct her in the finer points of demonic summoning and soul collecting - and she had taken to it so quickly that she had become known as the “Shadowreaper of Suramar”, with a scythe to match. “There was a murder in Dalaran last week. Saavedro’s foster sister, Adesse Surrette. Looked like she had been butchered. That night elf is one cold-blooded killer. The professor has done wonders with her.” He chuckled. “I wonder if he was able to find, or even create, an orb of dominion… or simply brought out her real dark side, to go with those freakish eyes.”

Elodie repressed a shudder. The night elves with the dark eyes, the mark of their “Night Warrior”, gave her the creeps.

“Our lot has not been particularly popular with him and his, come to think of it,” Urgan continued. “He sees you as being no different than Elisande, whereas I see you as one who prefers to widen their horizons.” He tapped a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “Much as we warlocks and all the others may not like one another, we will have to work together. Yes, even with puritans and paladins. But ‘true blue’ souls like Lord Randarel will be an obstacle to that end.”

Elodie understood full well what he meant. “An obstacle to be removed.”

“Exactly. And when the time comes, my lady Shadowreaper, you will be the demolisher to clear the path. Return to Suramar and observe the house. When I send the word…” The Corruptor smiled cruelly. “He was always fond of that mausoleum up in Tel’anor, waiting for the day where he would join his wife there. I say we grant his wish.”

Elodie returned his smile with a sly smirk of her own. “It would be my pleasure, Master.”

After posting a letter addressed to the office of the Watch, Sir Eran Heskin settled down in the room of his boarding house in the Trade District. With a sigh, he set his axe-pike on the weapon rack above the dresser, then removed his helmet and put it on the armor rack next to it.

“You’re getting old, knight.”

His hand immediately grabbed the axe-pike back from the rack as he turned in one quick motion, staying his hand once he saw who it was. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“I’m a former SI:7 assassin, Eran. I can get anywhere I want, if I have the time for it.” His visitor shrugged. “It’s a bit harder with armor, I admit, but…”

Heskin scowled and put the axe-pike back on the rack. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Nyssha?”

“I want to make sure we’re on the same side here.”

“That’s rich, coming from a ‘redeemed’ traitor.”

Nyssha glowered at him. The old files of the Watch (those collected during the regency of Highlord Bolvar Fordragon, well before Orwyn’s command) had listed Nyssha Petrand, a.k.a. Nyssha Swiftblade, as a former Defias assassin from Westfall who was granted a pardon by the Highlord at the behest of Saavedro of Stratholme, and later employed by SI:7. The file would have also listed her as dead, killed by agents of Urgan the Corruptor.

And she was indeed dead… as if the greenish skin, sunken cheeks, glowing eyes, and the stitching around her neck wasn’t a clue. She had been raised to fight in the Scarlet Enclave, and then became one of the original Knights of the Ebon Blade - those who had taken up that mantle after the bloody conflict at Light’s Hope Chapel.

“You seem to have a talent for stirring up trouble, Eran. Especially when it’s not needed. And not just that crack at me… you’re getting people killed. People we could have used in what’s coming.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean. You knew how he had no real regard for social mores - he speaks his mind and doesn’t give a damn who’s listening. We need more like him, tell you the truth. And yet, you exposed a traumatized survivor of Lordaeron to someone talking openly about serving the Lich King. What the hell did you think she would do? Thank him?”

Heskin’s expression was one of shocked outrage. “You’re blaming Adesse on me? She’s a fire mage, for Light’s sake. For all her good cheer, she’s always had a short fuse.”

Nyssha stared coldly at him. “Which burned out, no thanks to you. It’s pig-headed crap like this that makes sure we’re always getting into stupid fights when there are greater foes to fight.”

“Stupid fights? The Alliance–”

“The Alliance means nothing in the long term, you tin-plated idiot! The world does not revolve around the Alliance and the Horde, and yet both sides keep trying to make it do so! And don’t give me that ‘protecting the homeland’ bull, either - you don’t care about your homeland.”

“Of course I care for my homeland! I’ve fought for Stormwind for forty years - longer than you’ve been on this planet at all, living or dead.”

“There you go, proving my point. No wonder Taran hates you.”

Heskin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What did you say?”

“You heard me. Your homeland is more than this city, Eran. But just like Anduin, and Varian before him, and Bolvar in life… you forget that. It’s people like you that led people like me to join the Defias, because you uppity ‘elite’ abandoned us. All you care about is your status as a ‘veteran’, fighting for the King, and all this… gaudy crap you get to wear.” She gestured to his ornate armor, a dazzle of white and gold, with lion sigils.

“How dare you? We --”

Nyssha went on, as if he hadn’t spoken. “So you’re with the 7th Legion. Ooh. Ahh. Didn’t help you boys much at the Wrathgate, did it? How about Wintergrasp? A wonderous ancient vault, and all you people saw was something to blow up. Even in Icecrown Citadel, with your big gunships, you were more focused on the Horde while we and the Argents fought inside against Arthas’ forces. People like me do all the work, and goose-stepping morons like you get all the frigging credit.”

Heskin’s fists clenched, shaking with rage. “Nyssha, you have exactly five seconds to get the hell out of here before I rip your head off… and do a better job of it than the Corruptor did.”

Nyssha’s blades were in her hands almost instantly, both crossed under Heskin’s chin. She had earned her nom de guerre for a reason. “You’ll be sporting these stitches yourself soon enough if you ever threaten me again, Eran.” She snorted. “I wanted to know if we could rely on you for the battle to come. Now I know we can’t.”

Heskin didn’t even flinch. “Little hard to prepare for a battle if we don’t know what’s coming. You damn death knights keep everything so close to the chest… people think you’re behind all the undead activity lately, the resurgence of the Cult of the Damned… I’m starting to think they’re right.”

“Think what you want, you pathetic little man.” Under different circumstances, she would appreciate the irony, as she was actually shorter than he was. “Even if I told you the truth, you wouldn’t believe me. Why would you? I’m just Scourge filth, right?”

“Grandda?” On hearing that voice coming up the stairs, Nyssha swiftly withdrew her blades, returning them to her belt just before the voice’s owner entered the room. Donal Heskin’s eyes widened as he saw the death knight. “Is she here to raise you?” His voice quivered.

Nyssha glared at the elder Heskin, who had the decency to look somewhat stricken. “No,” she said. “I was just leaving.”

Nor’taeron Sunblade could sense the dark magic even from outside. Drawing his sword, he ran inside, feeling a pit growing in his stomach. As he entered the main entry hall, he saw the blood - and the bodies. The House Guard, slaughtered yet again. As he approached the study, his heart sank even before he entered the room.

The Blood Knight stepped inside, sheathing his blade, and noticing his booted feet squelching in the pool of blood soaking into the carpet. “No…”

Randarel, lord of House Vendross, was absolutely soaked in his own blood, courtesy of the several knife wounds in his chest. The dark magic he had sensed from the door emanated most strongly from him. He was barely breathing - he was surprised to see him alive at all. Kneeling next to him was Zulimbasha, the death-priest from Zandalar. His hands glowed softly, a power Nor’taeron often associated with the Light. His mask sat on the floor next to him. On hearing Nor’taeron enter, the Zandalari priest looked up and grimly shook his head. “She tried, mon, she really did. But his soul be destined for a bettah place.”

“Who?” Nor’taeron was shocked and angry. “Who did this?”

Two more figures entered the room - and one of them, to his relief, was his sister Nadiya. Her cream-and-gold robe was ragged and blood-stained, but from her easy movements, he was sure it was not hers. She was dragging a dissheveled night elf by her green hair. With a contemptuous flick of her wrist - boosted by a bit of magic - she threw her quarry to the floor, next to where Randarel lay. Her eyes were as black as night, the mark favored by followers of Tyrande.

Looking down at the fallen arcanist, she hissed hatefully in Darnassian and spat on him. Nadiya kicked the assassin in the stomach. “Let me kill this murdering filth right now,” she said in Thalassian. “I want her to burn slowly for what she did.”

“Not yet, sister,” Nor’taeron replied in the same tongue. “There is much we must learn first.” He looked up at the Zandalari death-priest, and switched back to Orcish. “What happened?”

“Dat warlock ya sent packin’ came knockin’ again,” he replied, disgust evident in his tone. “Dis time with death instead of diplomacy.”

“We caught the night elf in the middle of the act,” said the other figure - Vilaya, Zulimbasha’s vulpera enforcer. “Her… ally used her magic to bring the shelves down on us while they ran out. We were only able to find the night elf.” She held up a pair of daggers. “She was carrying these.”

Nor’taeron frowned, looking at the shadow-corrupted blades… then back at the elf. “Who are you working for, assassin?”

In response, the night elf simply smiled at him… and then bit hard. A loud crack was heard from her jaw. Immediately, she began to convulse, but her eyes - and her smile - never faded. Finally, through bloody foam coming from her lips, she spat, “Tor… ilisar…thera’nal…” Finally, she was still. Her dark eyes became vacant, like those of a doll.

Nadiya cursed venomously. “Coward.”

A hoarse, pained whisper emitted from Randarel’s lips. In the excitement, Nor’taeron shamefully admitted he had forgotten about him. He leaned forward to better hear him. “My… chil…” He gasped painfully.

“Your children are safe, my lord,” Nor’taeron replied, although he had no idea whether that was true or not. All heads looked up at the sounds of footsteps… and he recognized Master Velade, who was training Randarel’s daughter Telisa in the pandaren monk’s arts. Telisa stood next to her, and coming up behind him was her elder brother, and Randarel’s heir, Erdanel.

Randarel saw them, and gestured them forward weakly. As they knelt next to Nor’taeron, they saw him remove the ring from his finger with a shaking hand, and hand it to Erdanel. “I… I’ll… give your… mother… your love.”

Looking up at something only he could see, Randarel smiled…

On the outskirts of Stormwind, near the farmlands behind the Embassy, is an Ancient of Lore that had survived the burning of Teldrassil, and been evacuated here to be healed by surviving druids from Darnassus. At its “feet”, Lucia Zherron sat alone, the druidic scythe that had belonged to her father, Eidan, in her lap. Her clawed fingers tapped on the haft as she tried to organize her thoughts.

She knew very few people who looked at her as Lucia, and not just as Eidan’s daughter… and there were only two people she had ever really bonded with. One had also lost his father at Tirisfal; they had burned the bodies together in a clearing near Andorhal. Ord’taeril had seen far too much tragedy in his lifetime, and that was even knowing he would probably still be alive centuries after she had returned to nature. She wondered where he was - probably still keeping himself isolated at the Temple of Five Dawns, if she had to guess. The recent resurgence of N’Zoth had rattled him.

The other was dead, killed in a rear guard action during the siege of Dazar’alor, so that she and Admiral Aximand could escape from the vengeful Father Shankolin and the Horde forces pursuing them after the death of King Rastakhan. Of all the people to call her friend, and to be called friend, he had to be the strangest - she remembered hearing rumors that he had been a serial killer before ending up in her father’s cell in the Northgate rebellion, and had been granted a pardon with the rest of them to fight the worgen. But he had not been one to mince words… indeed, he had not really been one for words at all. She had appreciated his blunt manner. She knew he had pledged his blades to her out of respect for her father, but unlike those who simply saw her as “Eidan’s daughter”, he had made clear that he respected her just as genuinely as he had respected Eidan. She had asked him why once, and he had simply shrugged. “Just a feeling,” was all he said.

With the world once again about to go straight to hell, Lucia missed the old murderer. If she had him around, she wouldn’t be so –

“Thought I’d find you here.” Lucia looked up, her eyes going wide. “World ending threat, where else would you go? Communing with nature. Just like the old man.”

Not for the first time, Lucia wondered if she had a knack for thinking about people, and then there they were. But it couldn’t be. She had seen him die. He didn’t appear to be a death knight, or otherwise reanimated. Scarred, yes, but… alive. It was impossible. And yet…


“Reckless fool.”

Professor Rakeri Sputterspark stood on a platform just outside the High Tinkertory in Mechagon City, having now been convinced that his unlikely ally was not coming back. He had “loaned” her to the Corruptor’s new servant, that Nightborne, with the intent of assassinating an “obstacle” in Suramar - an obstacle not only to the illusion of unity in these troubled times, but to them personally. Making Arrenhae Leafrunner see warlocks as the lesser evil had been a masterstroke, for which he gave a lot of credit to her original patroness, Lady Tavira Nightswan. Her skills had proven efficient since his rebirth at removing his own irritants. Eliphas Aximand, Mersadie Kittridge, Lianis Darkfrost, Adesse Surrette… he had pondered the idea of sending her after Orwyn at some point, too.

It should have been an easy hit-and-run for her, no matter that Randarel Vendross had ten thousand years of experience. But it had been several days, with not so much as a word from her. Rakeri was convinced that Arrenhae was dead. Most of the assassinations she had committed had been against members of the Alliance - people who she would have no real cause to hate. But the Nightborne belonged to the Horde… and as a survivor of Teldrassil, she likely would not have been able to let that go. And it had most likely gotten her killed.

Good help is so hard to find these days, he thought, his attention turning to where his sister, Marennia, was busy in the workshops below. She was avoiding him again. It was the same thing that had happened when they had been mere gnomes. She had thought like the rest of them did about him, but when he was killed on Draenor by Taeril’hane Ketiron, she flew into a rage and swore to avenge him. Then she realized his spirit had found its way back to her and lingered in her subconscious… and then she worked to bring him back.

Now she was backing away from him again. This simply was not acceptable. With Arrenhae dead, and with what the Corruptor had written him from that meeting in the Dreadscar Rift, he would need her blades at his disposal, now more than ever. But confronting her about it was not going to change the fact.

Perhaps, he mused, the stupid elf’s death was not a major loss after all. Marennia had not been all too happy about his resorting to murder. But now, perhaps, he wouldn’t have to… nothing could link him to Arrenhae, and even if they linked her to the murders she had committed, she was dead, and nothing would come of it. But if it was to be “peace and love” again, cooperation with the ignorant and uninitiated for a “greater good”, then perhaps it would soothe his tempermental sister’s rages. One could hope, anyway.

Besides, making nice with Orwyn and his jack-booted jokes had worked well enough before. Who was to say it wouldn’t work a second time?

He turned to the cowering, shivering form of the Corruptor’s servant, Tyluu, a Wretched blood elf once bound to Lady Nightswan. “Return to him,” he said. “Tell him we are in agreement.” The simpering minion-thing’s head was kept close to the floor the entire way out the door.

Before she had even felt the effects of the hearthstone fade, Silna could feel him standing there, waiting. “Master Zulimbasha?”

Zulimbasha reached out a hand to her and gripped it tightly. Even blind as she was, she knew he was terrified. His hand shook. “Walk with me, child,” he said in a carefully-controlled voice. He led her out into the moons’ light, and down onto a lower tier of the pyramid of Dazar’alor.

“Did ya find what ya be lookin’ for in Northrend?” she asked after a long silence.

“I did,” the Collector replied grimly. “And da world will learn of it soon enough.” He removed his gilded orc-skull mask, holding it in his hands, before he said, “Open your mind’s eye to me.”

Born physically blind, Silna had possessed a hidden gift that her mother - before she was mind-slaved to Zalazane - believed would be awakened in time. Silna found herself guided by two events in her life. First had been the brief emergence of Bwonsamdi during the effort to overthrow Zalazane and reclaim the Echo Isles; it had led her to endure the skull-and-bones tattoos that marked her face, arms, and chest, as a form of devotion. The second was Zulimbasha’s arrival in the Echo Isles aboard the Golden Skipper, the Zandalari transport that ran between the isles and Zuldazar. She knew he was marked by Bwonsamdi, and he had led her to the priesthood, where he taught her to use her gifts - the ability to tap into the “voodoo” - as a form of sight when feeling was not enough. It was not sustainable for long periods, but it was better than nothing…

The shadows around her swirled, as Zulimbasha removed his mask from his face, and gently placed it over hers. Through it, and through her powers, she saw…

…the endless plains of snow and ice, dominated by walls of unholy metal. Before her stood the great citadel of the Lich King, where (some said) he still ruled the hordes of the damned from the Frozen Throne. And as her gaze went upward, there was… “By all da Loa,” she breathed.

The sky was broken. Like a massive lid smashed by the world’s largest hammer. And beyond the breach, she felt… swirling, overlapping feelings. Hatred. Despair. Rage. Agony. And… she could see the vast strands coming across the sky, visible to those attuned to the power of death. They seemed to come from everywhere.

To her horror, she realized they were souls. The spirits of the dead were being pulled right through to this… open sore in the world… like wound-fester.

She stared at this sight for what felt like ages and began to scream…

…and collapsed to her knees from the shock, the mask fumbling from Zulimbasha’s hands and clattering onto the ground as he supported her. The nothingness had returned to her sight again, but the memory of the vision was still quite vivid. “What happened?” she asked. “What be dat… horror you saw?”

Zulimbasha was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know,” he admitted finally. “But it be nothin’ good, I can tell ya dat.” His voice was as grim as any Silna had ever heard in her life, and it frightened her. “Whateva it be… it has just begun.”

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Lord Eldred Valmy sat alone in his room at the small inn serving the village of Bradensbrook, a pair of pince-nez spectacles perched on his snout as he read a letter from the orc warlock Urgan, his “resurrector” and sometime colleague in the Council of the Black Harvest.

When he had come to the Broken Isles during the Legion war, Eldred had been amazed to find a Gilnean village here of all places, settled in the woods of Val’sharah, in the shadow of Black Rook Hold. It turned out it had been settled by refugees of Pyrewood Village fleeing the Scourge years before, and thus they were among the few Gilneans to escape the curse of the worgen. They had been trying to go to Stormwind, but a storm blew their ship, the Sea Wolf, off course and onto these strange islands. The place had quieted somewhat since the fall of the Legion, or at least enough where he could find some solitude. After this crazy war, he could certainly use it.

All the indications from the Council, however, were that his solitude was to be short-lived. Urgan had spelled out what had occurred in the dark conclave that had taken place in the Dreadscar sometime before, reports of a distinct… deficit of souls to power their rituals, and that the sky had split in Icecrown - not a magical rift and suddenly there was something there, like Argus, but completely broken. No one was entirely sure how or why. It was the effect of some kind of magic, of that Eldred was sure. But what? Was it connected to the uptick in death cults in Dalaran and elsewhere? Was it another strange incident to be put at the banshee’s feet?

Or was it something else entirely?

If there was anything he appreciated most about the path he had chosen, it was that there was always something to learn. He did not see these events in quite the same world-shaking (or possibly world-ending) prism that most people around him did. He saw it as a challenge. Just like he had seen Argus, and Draenor before that, and the Cataclysm.

Of course, there were bound to be people who would exploit the coming chaos - and he was sure there would be quite a bit of that - to their own ends. He wondered where the tin-plated little monster was now, and what he was up to… and what sort of foolery he would get involved in. Eldred had been under no illusions when Marennia had approached him to resurrect her brother; Rakeri was known even by the Council to be a complete lunatic. But he was also a very powerful lunatic, and it was thought by some in the Council - himself included, he had to admit - that such power would be needed in the conflict to come.

Eldred wondered if whatever was coming would be what they all had in mind… but he doubted it. The beginning almost never gave a truly clear indication of how it would end. The only signs of the Cataclysm they had seen in Gilneas had been the breaking of the Greymane Wall and the collapse of Duskhaven into the Great Sea. They hadn’t known it heralded the coming of Deathwing, or any of that. And no one had known that the whole time travel nonsense that had created another Draenor would result in that timeline’s Gul’dan coming to Azeroth to herald what would (hopefully) be the Legion’s final invasion… or that the Dark Titan’s blade would set off a war over the very blood of Azeroth itself.

But that was all part of the challenge - no one knew what tomorrow would bring.

As he had been preparing to head to Light’s Hope Chapel, Eran found his orders altered; the dead had started rising at home, too. He had asked his wife, Katerina, to collect the family from the homestead near Moonbrook and bring them to Stormwind.

Taran was refusing. Again. Just like he had during the Cataclysm. “I am not going to hide behind walls,” he had said back then. “This is my home, and I’m staying here with my family.” The emphasis had been an early indication that he was beginning to not see his father as part of “his” family. So, he was on his way back, his grandson/squire Donal as ever travelling with him.

Taran was in his field, as he usually was at this time of day. Not that anything grew in Westfall anymore - at least, not to the same degree it did in Elwynn or Redridge. One of the few places Eran had ever seen like it was the aptly named Barrens in Kalimdor. He looked up as he saw his father approach. Eran knew something was wrong by the blank look on Taran’s face as he walked over. Without a word, Taran gripped his son by the shoulder and took him inside. When Eran made to follow him, Taran slammed the door in his face.

“For Light’s sake, Taran!” he shouted angrily. “Enough with this petulant nonsense! You wanted me here to help protect the homefront… well, here I am!”

“Taran, please!” That was Katerina, trying to reason with him. “He’s trying to --”

“I know what he’s trying to do. I don’t need him, or you, or any of them.” Eran’s heart skipped a beat at how… calm his son sounded. The calmness of a lunatic right before the kill. “Where we’re going in the end… we won’t need anyone.”

“Taran, what are you… Taran, put that down!”

“Taran, no!” That was Madeline, Taran’s wife.

As Eran raised his foot to kick the door in, he heard a gunshot. Ice filled his veins. Light help me, he didn’t. He couldn’t.

His boot kicked the door right off its hinges. Katerina was sitting in a corner of the one-room house, spattered with blood - but to his relief, it wasn’t hers. Madeline lay in her lap with a gunshot wound to the head. Eran realized that Maddie had stepped into Taran’s path the moment he took the shot.

Enraged, Donal had reacted immediately, tackling his father to the ground. But he was still only a boy… and Taran’s toil in the fields had built up his strength. He threw his son across the room like a sack of potatoes. Donal’s head banged into the edge (not the corner thankfully) of the table, and he collapsed, unconscious, to the floor.

As Taran raised the rifle again, Eran stood in front of him. In a voice shaking with rage, he asked only one thing: “Why?”

“All that die will be his. I’m simply doing my part, just as she is doing hers, and his other loyal servants do theirs. Stormwind will fall at last, as will all who live in this failed world.”

Eran was horrified, not only at what Taran was saying, but how he was saying it. There was no anger in his voice, nor any hint of smugness… it was cold, matter-of-fact. He also saw he had no sorrow in him for killing his own wife. He had shot her down like a game animal - and in the back of Eran’s mind, he reminded himself that if she hadn’t stepped into his way, Katerina would have taken that bullet…

“I knew you would come here, and bring the brat with you,” Taran continued, “so I could attend to you myself. He promised me your blood, and I promised him your soul. He has delivered you to me… and now I will uphold my end of the bargain.”

Strong as he was, Taran was no soldier… and he also didn’t have heavy iron plate. Eran did, and he demonstrated it by backhanding Taran across the face, splitting his lip and breaking his nose. Chillingly, he did not utter a sound; in fact, he smiled, and spat blood into his father’s face, blinding him for a moment… before raising the rifle again.

His eyes suddenly widened as a blade went through his stomach. Donal, bloody-faced and woozy on his feet from the crack on the head, had taken the small sword he carried - which was quite real, Eran not skimping on his proper training - and had risen to protect his grandfather. The eyes that stared up at him were not those of a boy anymore. “You’re not my da,” he said. “You’re a monster. My da would never hurt anyone… especially not his family.”

Taran swayed as Donal pulled the blade out of his gut… and then he collapsed to the floor. “Darkness… take me,” he whispered, as the light in his eyes faded.

Donal looked down at the man he had thought was his father, and then up at his grandfather. Eran’s knees, shaking from the shock of what had happened, finally gave out, and he fell to the floor next to him, breathing heavily. “Donal,” he said after a long moment, “take your granna and head to Stormwind. Deliver a summons to the Watch. They… will want to know about this.”

Katerina gently laid out her dead daughter-in-law on the floor before rising to her feet. Her clothes were soaked in blood. “Eran…”

“We will make something right of this, Kat,” he said, not looking up. But he could not hide the tremor in his voice. “I need to stay here until the Watch arrives.”

Katerina nodded sadly, gently putting a hand on her husband’s lion-marked shoulderguard, before she and Donal walked out the broken door.

Alone in the wreckage of his family’s home, Sir Eran Heskin cradled Taran’s lifeless body in his arms, tears of anguish running down his face. He had thought he served the kingdom to protect his family… but they suffered anyway. He rocked the body of his dead son, like he had when he was an infant.

Light, why have you forsaken us?

Katerina Heskin didn’t report what happened to the Watch - she never got the chance. But not in the way one might expect…

Not far from the river dividing Westfall from Elwynn, they encountered a familiar face. Donal’s eyes went wide with terror and anger as he recognized her. “You’re not gonna raise them! No!” He drew his small sword and stepped in front of his grandmother. “Stay away from them!”

She looked equal parts confused and annoyed as she batted the blade right out of his hand with her own armored gauntlet. “We’ve been through this, boy. Was the meeting I had with your grandfather in Dalaran not enough to convince you we’re not the lunatics here?”

“Then what brings you here, Miss Petrand?” Katerina had known her when she was a child in this very land… and knew full well what she had been before Bolvar had pardoned her.

“Seeking a comrade to fight the damned, Lady Heskin,” Nyssha Swiftblade, as she preferred to be known, replied. “I had hoped, though we didn’t exactly leave on a high note, that we could set that aside. This is a lot worse than Northrend. A lot worse.”

Katerina bowed her head. “I know.” She sighed. “Taran became one of them. Spouting things about how we wouldn’t need anyone ‘where we’re going’. He and Madeline are dead, and Eran…” She couldn’t find the words.

Nyssha’s eyes were wide in shock. She knew Taran was a hateful bastard, reminding her uncomfortably of the most rabid zealots she had known in the Defias. But a death cultist? She had not expected that. “Take me to him,” she said gently.

They rode in silence back to the homestead near Moonbrook. Nyssha dismounted her skeletal steed, similar to those of the Forsaken - it had belonged to her old mentor, the late General Varan Metheius - and gestured for Katerina and Donal to wait outside. Inside the one-room house, she found Madeline lying on the floor, a bullet hole in her head. Across from her, she saw Eran. His engraved armor was covered in blood, all of it from his dead son, whom he cradled in his arms like a sickly babe. He did not look up at her, but he knew she was there. “Come to gloat?” he said in a near-whisper. “Come to mock my pain?”

Nyssha shook her head. “Nothing I say can make you hurt any more than you already are, Eran. But no, I am not here for that.” She bowed her head. “You were right, we should have told you what he was preparing us for. But I don’t think he was prepared for what’s happening.”

Eran snorted. “How would you know?”

“Because he told us.” Nyssha pulled a chair up from the table and sat down. “You knew there was another Lich King after Arthas. You never knew who.”

“I’ve heard the rumors. They’re dismissed, but…” Now he did look up at her. “It is him. Bolvar.”

Nyssha nodded. “It is. Lich King no more, now… the rift you’ve heard about, above Icecrown - his crown is broken, and its breaking has pierced the veil. Something far worse than us, worse than even Sylvanas, is directing this.” She looked at the dead face of Taran. “And seems to be finding followers more zealous than the Cult of the Damned.” She looked back to the bloodied knight. “What did he say?”

“He said that someone had promised my blood to him, that he could kill me, so that this someone could take my soul. He talked about ‘doing his part for him’… just as she was.” Eran’s eyes narrowed. “Who is he?”

The death knight shook her head. “We don’t know. But… we suspect whoever he is, he is more powerful than anyone who has ever worn that crown. And he is responsible for taking our leaders… including the King.”

Anduin’s kidnapping, right from the middle of Stormwind - at the memorial to his slain father, no less - had sent shockwaves through the Alliance. High Exarch Turalyon, the leader of the Army of the Light, had taken charge as regent, as Anduin had no heirs; his former service as Supreme Commander, Lothar’s chosen successor, made him the ideal candidate. “This is a disaster,” Eran whispered. “My King is gone, my son is dead… and my grandson killed him.”

That got Nyssha’s attention, as she looked out the door, where the boy was waiting. That had explained the blood on the blade he had drawn on her… “You were sending them to Orwyn?”

Eran nodded. “I can’t just sweep this away, Nyssha. I promised him I would let him know anything I found out… though…” Tears began to roll down his face again. “No parent should have to bury their child. No matter what…” He finally broke down, sobbing, rocking his dead son in his arms again.

Realizing not much was left to be said, Nyssha stepped outside, and looked to Katerina. “You were heading for the Watch?” At her nod, the death knight replied, “I think it might be an idea to stay with him. He will need you here.” She knelt down to eye level with Donal. “You’ve got some pretty funny ideas about people like me, kiddo. But you’ve seen for yourself that even dead as I am, there are people who are worse.” She glanced in the house. “Haven’t you?”

Wordlessly, Donal nodded.

All in all, Urgan mused, the broken sky was an improvement. It added a bit of color to this dull place.

The Corruptor stood on the edge of Sindragosa’s Fall, overlooking the frozen hellscape of Icecrown. The wind whipped at his robes, causing the green flame on his felsteel shoulderguards to billow. It was a lot colder than he remembered, and he was not entirely sure whether it was some kind of storm… or if it was that metaphorical “chill of death” made real. What he had witnessed here in the past several days now convinced him that the realms of death itself were merging into the world. He vaguely remembered some mention years ago, back during the war here against Arthas, about the fabric of reality being thin here ever since the Frozen Throne had arrived on Azeroth.

Urgan admittedly couldn’t remember the details… he had had other things on his mind at the time. Like his old foe, Saavedro of Stratholme, for instance. He hoped the scum was suffering in whatever oblivion awaited him.

While everyone else scrambled to help the Argents feel relevant again and “contain” the threat, he suspected it would not be as simple as last time. This new foe would not be here in Northrend… or, indeed, anywhere on Azeroth at all, if his guess was right. As he had thought earlier, he speculated - as did some of his colleagues among the Black Harvest - that this rift led directly into the Shadowlands, the true land of the dead. If so… how would the living enter it, he wondered? Because he knew full well that all the “heroes” would be running to enter the place… and those like him as well, seeking to take advantage of whatever had caused this whole mess.

The Corruptor shrugged to himself. Speculation did no good… as ever, he would wait and see for himself.

Gazing down in the fields below, he spotted a familiar figure. For all the frigid cold, he still wore his open vested armor, and that skull mask he got from the Mag’har, thinking it made him look fearsome. Small wonder I should find you here, wretch, he thought. He smiled as a thought occured to him. If this does go to the Shadowlands, maybe I’ll see what this “Other Side” is all about… before I finally send you to it!

Nadiya Sunblade sat alone in her quarters at the Magisters’ Terrace on the island of Quel’Danas, having returned from Suramar - probably for good, as Lord Erdanel had banished her and all “outlanders” from his household upon their return from Tel’anor. The Nightborne might be part of the Horde now, he had said, but he would not be. He and his sister, Telisa, would remain in Suramar, and watch over their home. “Go and die in a way best suited to you,” he had said coldly. “You outsiders have done enough to us.” And then he had shut the door in their faces, and that was that.

The past months had been a complete nightmare for Nadiya, and for her elder brother, Nor’taeron - and this was the icing on the cake. Over and over, they had been asking themselves the same question: How could this have happened? And, over and over, they could not find an answer. Erdanel was no help, either. He had made clear that he was not the same as his father, and this simply emphasized that.

To hell with him, then. There were other matters to deal with, and both she and Nor’taeron would help deal with them. She hoped.

Having Euphrati, whom she had been surprised to call a friend in this chaotic scene, close to hand would be a welcome bonus as well. The Forsaken monk was working with a new student, a young pandaren from the Wandering Isle; she had gone back to the Temple of Five Dawns for a time for their training.

She had put herself back to work, trying to return to home life after so long spent in the perpetual twilight of Suramar. Yet she couldn’t get it out of her mind. Death did not shock her much anymore; she had seen her fair share of it during the Third War. But this…

Some time earlier - prior to the incursion

Nadiya tapped his fingers against the hilt of the sword she wore at her hip as the cortege made its way up the mountain roads to Tel’anor. It was a nervous habit she had whenever anxiety came, and she had been feeling it ever since Lord Randarel’s death. She worried that she and Nor’taeron would finally get themselves killed… or that their friends here would as well. Randarel had lain in state on the harbor terrace of his estate, where Erdanel, the new lord of House Vendross, had given the eulogy. “Tragedy… we have seen much of it,” he said. “I have seen much of it. It’s led me to believe that our sorrow is our strength.”

They all wore formal robes for the ceremony. Erdanel and his sister, Telisa, wore traditional Suramarian garb; he carried his staff, and both carried torches. Nadiya wore the regalia of a Magister, while Nor’taeron had taken up the robed armor favored by paladins, matching the huge warhammer he had elected to wield, a relic crafted by his old mentor, Taeril’hane Ketiron. Euphrati Velade, the Forsaken monk who had worked with Telisa, went with pandaren style, as she often did, a white robe with pandaren script.

Behind them, on either side of the cart carrying the coffin, were two lines of six guards each - half blood elf, have Nightborne. Nor’taeron and his late comrade, Kirenna Summerlight, had done wonders with the new House Guard, even with the void elf-related hiccups. It showed the spirit of brotherhood between Silvermoon and Suramar would endure any tentacle-haired freak’s intervention. Hopefully.

The road to Tel’anor was rough, and the driver of the cart - which typically carried arcwine, not bodies - had no experience with rough roads, especially as the road got higher. He hit a particularly large bump which actually lifted the casket several inches from the cart’s surface. Nadiya’s ear picked up something… strange. Why was something rattling around inside?

“Hold,” she said. Erdanel and Telisa turned, frowning. She stepped up into the cart, hoping her suspicions were unfounded… and opened the casket.

“Nadiya?” Erdanel looked baffled. “What in the stars’ name do you --” He stopped cold as he saw what she saw. Inside the casket were Randarel’s formal burial robe, and the staff he had wielded when he died; it had been that which had rattled in the casket.

But no Randarel.

Nadiya felt a sickening feeling in her heart, and glanced over at her brother. Nor’taeron’s expression told her that he was thinking the same thing: This is not possible.

Erdanel stared at the empty casket for a long moment, horrified shock making him almost immobile… before his fists clenched in rage. “Who did this?” he whispered harshly. He looked at Euphrati, the lone attendee who didn’t have a pulse, before he screamed, “WHO DID THIS?!”

“Brother, please,” Telisa said, trying to take his arm.

Erdanel angrily shook her off, and pointed a shaking finger at Euphrati, at Nadiya, at Nor’taeron. “This is all your fault,” he raged. “You outlanders tolerate filthy undead in your society, and now one of your friends has taken my father to do gods-know-what to him! Probably bring him back as one of you” - and at that he had again turned his attention to Euphrati - “to finish the job Sylvanas started.”

“Now just a Light-damned minute!” Nadiya didn’t realize at first that the voice of outrage was her own. “Need I remind you, Erdanel, that the person who killed your father was one of your own people? Not to mention that the assassin who made it into the house was a night elf?”

“That’s Lord Erdanel to you, pup,” Erdanel snapped, “and if you damn outlanders didn’t constantly meddle in what you didn’t understand, the Legion would not have been here, the shield would have stayed up… Elisande would not have betrayed us, or had my mother executed, or my father banished… Valya would still be with us…” Valya Tiren had been Randarel’s guard captain for millennia, ultimately meeting her end first in exile - for choosing to fight against the night elves and worgen in Darkshore, in service to the Forsaken occupation - and then in death at the hands of the worgen warlock Eldred Valmy, whose dark magic had returned him from the death she had sent him to. “And Father would still be here.”

“We can’t always block out the outside world, m’lord,” Nor’taeron said grimly. “We tried that, and it came to us anyway.”

“Silence, incompetent! If I want the opinion of someone who let my father get killed, and then his body get stolen, then I will ask for it.” Erdanel’s expression was icy. “Let us return to Suramar. Then you can take your outsider things out of my house and go back to Silvermoon.”

The Sunblade siblings were outraged, but it was Euphrati, silent all throughout the ranting and accusations, who answered calmly, “As you wish, my lord.”

Nadiya’s heart felt sick as they turned around in hostile silence. As she glanced out the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a largely built figure standing on the hillside, wearing dark armor and concealing headgear… and what looked to be the tabard of the Ebon Blade. When she turned her head to take a proper look, she saw it was a pandaren. It took her a moment to remember, having spoken with the Zandalari priest in Randarel’s household… and then it clicked: Zhaoren Deathtide, the brother of the Lorewalker friend of Euphrati’s. The headgear he wore was that of the Shado-Pan, which he had been in life. His scythe seemed to be gone, however; now he carried a bone-bladed sword.

Zhaoren stared back at her for a long moment, then gave a brief nod. Nadiya looked over at Nor’taeron, to see if he had noticed, but his eyes were looking straight ahead. The Vendross siblings didn’t see either, nor did Euphrati. Their attention had been on what had just happened.

When she looked back up, Zhaoren was gone.