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Libram of the Valiant
Biographical information and meditative philosophy upon the Holy Light
War is my Master, and Death my Mistress,
With her at my side I shall not want,
With her at my side I shall not fear,
For who can fear life when Death walks at your side?
The Libram of the Valiant is a holy libram written by Eldanesh Kurnous, containing both biographical information and meditative philosophy upon the Holy Light.
For close to ten years I have fought the Scourge. Almost every waking moment of my life has been devoted to that end; there has not been a day since the fall of Lordaeron where I have not stopped in my tracks and thought to myself, How can I hurt the Scourge today? And why not? I did not choose this lot; it was forced upon me by circumstance, yet I do not obsess over such facts; I do not lament my reality. To waste time wallowing in what might have been or could have been is time wasted.
My lot in life is to command the valiant and virtuous into combat against our most dangerous enemy, and nothing can be done to change this. Despite my position, I do not "hate" the Scourge; not any longer. There was a time when my mind was consumed with a righteous anger towards them; for it was those monsters that had stolen my parents; my family and my friends. They had stolen my life, and it was because of them that I was not the man I was supposed to be. And instead, what am I? What have I become? I am a self-confessed monster; a slayer of women and children. A murderer, a blackguard and a man that in the end, shamed every Virtue he claimed to stand for. Of course, the latter revelation is not a new one. No more than six months had passed between than the Lightbringer's death at the fall of Andorhal and the time I slew my first innocent. A young woman, found stranded some miles from Felstone Field. We had no way of making sure, but it was assumed that she was beplagued.
We killed her.
I have not regretted those actions until now. For I realize that ultimately, they were the actions of a coward. Perhaps not in that moment when I spilled that young lady's blood, but in the weeks, months and years thereafter, when I would spend hours at a time justifying murder. I am a monster, I would say to myself. I was a monster because at the time, the world needed monsters. That was what I thought. I wonder what that woman thought in the seconds before I cut off her head. I highly doubt she was thinking, Thank Faol this monster is here to claim my life before the Plague does it for me., No, it is more likely she was crying just as hard inside as she was outside, wondering why I had decided to lower myself to the very standards of our hated enemy. Crying; lamenting what Lordaeron had become; when even her finest sons and daughters had forsaken the path of the Holy for the low road of the damned and cruel.
What a fool I was. I am a monster, I would say. And woe to those whom in their last moments, might question what I had lowered myself to. Nothing can be done to change what I have become. This world is one that needs monsters. But I was wrong. I did not have to be that monster; I never did.
The world and its circumstances might seek to move a man, but that man's soul is still his own. I made myself into a monster so that I no longer had to bare responsibility for what I'd done. I cannot help it. The Scourge and what they did made me into a monster; I am a monster now because it is all that I know.
How pathetic. How sad. I wasted countless hours lamenting and bemoaning a fate I considered forced upon me. But as I have said, such thinking was cowardly. Why did I not, instead of pouting and whining and acting like a child, seek to change what I had become? This question is a tad more complex than the one prior. I may have tried to change my ways and be judged by my brothers of the Scarlet Crusade, and then killed. Yet, what would have been the more virtuous act? To stand up for what was truly right and to be slain for it, or to continue existing, as a monster, so that I might fight the enemy? I do not know. I cannot answer that question, for I do not believe there is a right one.
Instead of asking questions, I will now state facts.
My name is Eldanesh Kurnous. The son of Vaul and Isha of Corin's Crossing. I was born in the heartland of Lordaeron on the shores of Lake Mereldar.
At the age of eighteen I left home to begin training at the Cathedrals and Abbeys of the Silver Hand. Within those hallowed halls I learned of the Holy Light and its Three Virtues.
From those mighty, wizened Paladins, I was taught the truth of the world; I swore to protect the innocent and defend the helpless from all whom would seek to do them harm.
Five years later, I threw all of those ideals away as I donned a crimson tabard and went to war against the undead Scourge. I did not think that the war I fought could be won by adhering to the tenets of the Silver Hand.
There are many others that do not believe that. Highlord Fordring amongst them. And in the end, these men, so upright and so righteous and pure as to never compromise what was truly right and good, even if it meant the end of all life, lasted longer than the Scarlet Crusade.
It is a difficult decision. I did not have faith, in those days, that the pious and idealistic could triumph over the profane. Yet let us say the Scarlet Crusade had not been destroyed and that it had finally vanquished the Lich King. What would be left? Would you wish to live in a world populated, indeed, safeguarded by such men?
I cannot answer that question without compromising myself. Although I suppose that I compromised myself the first time I let righteousness give way to necessity.
My name is Eldanesh Kurnous and I am a murderer, a liar, a thief; I am the most deplorable sort of human being to walk Azeroth. I mask my crimes in sheets of truth and piety, but even the most perfect justification cannot change those misdeeds. I regret them with every passing minute now, for I begin to believe, slowly, that they were not as necessary as I may have thought. Indeed, that they were even wrong. Wrong on so, so many levels. I claim to be a sworn defender of Lordaeron and a champion of this world, but if one were to strip away my Crusader's trappings and replace my sword and shield with a dagger, my likeness would be that of a petty dacoit.
In the end, nothing can change these actions; my crimes. And they are crimes, let us make no mistake about it. I do not wish to cross the line into petty, incessant whining and, as I rebuked before, lamenting what I have become -- but I will say this. I am through being a monster. Nothing I can do in the future will ever erase those terrible things, but perhaps before my time in this beautiful paradise is up, I can find a small measure of penance. And should I fall upon the field before this work is done, let all the good people of Azeroth come and spit upon my corpse if it shall erase the terrible memories of what monsters walked this land during the time of the Third War.
I do not know what has truly compelled me to put my thoughts to paper. My life, my existence, has not undergone any dramatic change in the past month, even the past year. I remain, as ever, a devotee of the Light, and a servant of Lordaeron. Yet, not all change is dramatic, sharp, and sudden. It can come gradually; slowly. Creeping into your mind unseen, subverting ideas and sparking both revision and new enlightenment. In this way, we are always changing. Every idea we are presented with, every thought that crosses our minds, shapes our future. It shapes our actions in the present. And those that would deny this are fools.
I will admit further—I am a veritable unknown. My name alien to those outside of my Order, with a select few exceptions. So I will start at the beginning. And maybe then, with the full measure of understanding before you, you can begin to comprehend why I think what I do.
My name is Eldanesh Kurnous. My given name is, as I was told by my parents, Thalassian. It is apparently one of their words for ‘Valiant’. I was born close to thirty-seven years ago, in Corin’s Crossing. My early life was a happy one; my parents were attentive and loving, though we were not the richest folk in our village by far, we lived well. If there is one thing I remember from my childhood, it is the lake. Lake Mereldar, a short walk from our little house. I would swim in it every day, for hours on end, uncaring of the wrinkles that started on my fingertips and spread across my hands. I loved swimming – I can still keenly feel the adulation, the rhapsody within as I cut through the water at speed, or slowed and let myself sink beneath the waves, the lake swallowing me whole.
I realize, now, that it was these experiences that most likely prodded me towards the Light. I do not prescribe to the new interpretations of the Light—I hear people worshipping it as if it were intelligent, I hear folk touting that something is “The Light’s will”—but this is false to me. The Light comes from within; it is the beauty of our eternal universe reflected upon us. Every action we take, every emotion we feel, connects us to our fellow beings, to the world we inhabit. When I was young, careless, and enthralled by the majesty and fun of my Lake, I was perhaps the closest to the Light I have ever been in my life, including the present. There was no enlightenment about it, but that is what makes it so beautiful. I did not stop in mid-swim to ponder the theological implications of my joy—I simply reveled in it. I shouted and I laughed and I leapt and dove, and in those moments, embracing the beauty of life and the world around me.
That is the Light. Not some righteous prayer spouted by the blind. Not some pledge to annihilate the unfaithful. Not some luminary being that comes from the Great Dark to rally us against the Deceiver.
The Light is everything. It is all around us; within is. To see The Light is to gain understanding of the world around us, to see people and things and realize, deep within, that their existence is shared with you. That every action of yours affects them in some way. And to care. The Light can be frightening – terrifying, even. These revelations can be unsettling to some, once the complete measure of it is wholly comprehended. And the selfish, who think only of themselves, have no business trying to understand something which is by its very nature, alien to them.
You may read this; you may think me a philosopher, or an idiot. But the best is yet to come, I assure you. Though as a boy I did not know what I know now, about the light, I was still drawn to the mythos of the Silver Hand. There is nothing wrong with that—it was a laudable thing, to strive for Knighthood. My parents were proud as could be when I announced that I wanted to become a Paladin, to defend our Kingdom, and to right the wrongs perpetrated by the evil and profane.
My training, and the years I spent at the Cathedrals and Abbeys of Tyr’s Hand and Stratholme can be returned to, and discussed at length later in this volume. But all that you need to know is that I grew. I matured. I was strengthened in mind, body, and spirit. Not only did I come to know the Light, I studied history, learned the medical arts, debated theology and theosophy.
And I became a Knight in Shining Armor. Flanked on every side by my brothers of the Hand. We were glorious. Magnificent. Untouchable in our chivalric splendor. The mythos of the Paladin is indeed alluring—we ride through the land, defending the helpless, supported the wronged and driving off injustice.
But majestic as we were, we could never hope to beat the foe we faced. I realize this know, years later. Arthas and his Scourge were not a foe that could be beaten simply by pedestrian force of arms. In fact, we were thoroughly outnumbered. Outmanned. But it was not merely that—we fought the wrong way. I learned many things in my time as a neophyte, the first among them being obviously, our famous Virtues. But at the end, near Andorhal, as Arthas’ damned legions fell upon us, and our beautiful world was swept into a maelstrom of rage, steel and screams, I realized the truth.
That we, the Knights of the Silver Hand, the most devastatingly powerful, terrifying and puissant foe that evil has ever known...had lost before we had begun. We had all lost before we had been born.
I was there at Tirion Fordring’s trial, as a young man. I remember hearing the angry cries and shouts about Orcs. Orcs. The beaten, lethargic Orcs.
Orcs. They were not our enemies. Not any longer. Our enemies had changed. They had grown, had adapted; had invested thousands of years of study into orchestrating our demise. There is a cliché saying, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” How could we think to win a war against the dark, when war itself had become the dark’s own weapon? When every one of our fallen brothers rose again as a ghastly facsimile of our old comrades, bent now on killing us? When every action we might take to contain this horrifying new enemy, would turn our own people against us?
We had been training to refight the last war. And we lost the new one. Our order shattered. Our Lightbringer slain by the Traitor Prince.
As we retreated from the disaster and rout that ensued following Uther’s death, I came across the shores of my lake. Lake Mereldar. It was infested; the clear waters a turgid brown color. Corpses floated in the deep, others were strewn out across the beach, some floundering in the light tide. All of those fallen heroes—all of them my brothers and comrades.
More than the Knights of the Silver Hand died on that day. Lordaeron died. Our majestic kingdom, for all its glory, could not stand against the darkness. It could not stand against a foe that rotted it from within and assailed it from without.
Tyr’s Hand was not so far away from Lake Mereldar and Corrin’s Crossing. I made my way there, joining with the remnants of our host, most of whom were as lost and leaderless as I was.
And there, something new was born. Something that most are wont to damn, and condemn as force of racists, of blind zealots. You called us murderers, rapists, bigots.
We called ourselves the Scarlet Crusade.
It is rather easy to damn the Crusade. There are many ways to refute our critics, to cast aside their ravings—but the first rebuttal must always be the simplest. And it applies to the lot of our detractors, those groveling, sycophantic fools who latch onto the most convenient bandwagon of disdain. This first reason, in particular, is for the impotent idealists who have never seen the horror that Lordaeron has become; for the foolish Elves and the naifish damsels that seem to find some romantic allure in consorting with the Forsaken.
You weren’t there.
How can you possibly seek to understand something you have never experienced? Let us consider the mindset of the remnants of the Silver Hand in those days after Lordaeron’s death. Let us explore what my psyche, and what most likely the psyche of all of my brothers, looked like.
We had just seen our honored and lauded mentor, one of the greatest warriors and most pious men that Azeroth had ever known, slain by the very traitor he had tried in vain to save.
We had seen our land, our very homes, our friends and family, defiled and despoiled by a soulless menace.
We had seen our battle brothers cut down by the dozen, swarmed by ravening ghouls and swamped by seemingly limitless numbers of skeletons. And we knew deep in our hearts that though they themselves had died when their body broke its mortal coil, that the sheath would remain, used as a vessel for our enemy to further its conquests.
How can you ever hope to comprehend what we might have felt? We were—are—Paladins! The sworn defenders of Lordaeron! And we had just seen our mightiest efforts fail. Fail spectacularly. Everything we did, every move we made against the enemy, was ultimately futile. Condemn the Crusade in hindsight if you must, but those who attack the mindset of those who took solace in vengeance upon that bloody day, are a grotesque miscarriage of rational thought. It is despicable and deplorable, judging a man based on the most radical actions carried out in his worst hour.
And of course, it gets worse.
We had not only failed in our mission to keep our noble King’s ashes safe, we had failed wholly, completely, in our duties as the protectors of Lordaeron. All of our best efforts were for nothing. Can you imagine what that feels like? To know that you gave it your all, your everything, only to come up so, so short? And of course, as Paladins, this failure meant something more. For to protect Lordaeron was our sworn duty. Sworn upon our lives.
Lordaeron died. But we remained.
The Light is a powerful tool, and it is linked directly to the emotions that we feel. Calling upon it in anger, using that terrible rage to fuel our connection, is a shortcut to power. I know this. I’m sure many others do too. When I came to Tyr’s Hand, there was nothing I wanted to do more than rally with the rest of us, and strike back against the abominations that had so recently—so easily—laid us low. Nor was I alone in this feeling. Thousands of us longed for something, anything, to replace the vacant chasm in our hearts where our vows to defend our people and loved ones had once proudly stood, stemming our darker urges.
A Paladin is a soldier. There is no doubt of this. When he swears his oath, to defend the people, he acknowledges that he will do his best to uphold the three virtues, as an example to all man; a thing to find inspiration within.
But of course, on that day in Tyr’s Hand, there were no people left to serve as examples to. The populace we had served was either dead or in exodus, fleeing to Kalimdor. And thus, there was no reason to hold it back anymore. No reason not to give into anger, to frustration, and to quench our rage on the Scourge, driving them back over a carpet of crushed bones and fallen abominations.
Thus, the last sons and daughters of Lordaeron remaining within its borders found themselves all soldiers, all ferocious and mighty Paladins…bereft of people to inspire. Lacking an image to adhere to. But still soldiers. And there was still a war to be fought.
Is such an action morally reprehensible? Yes. In fact, I wake every morning knowing—knowing!—that I broke my vows on that day. That I became a monster in all but name, simply to destroy the very thing that tried so hard to do the same to us. But as vile as it sounds, I lose no sleep over it.
As I have stressed repeatedly, the war against the Scourge was not one that the Knights of the Silver Hand could win. For then, we were Paladins first, soldiers second. Now, we are soldiers first. Paladins second—but still Paladins. Some of, in my opinion, the noblest Paladins to ever live.
Who else, but a Paladin, would damn themselves to win a war?
Who else, but a Paladin, would stain his soul to prevent the burdens of war, the horrors of necessity, from being weighted upon the shoulders of another?
Who else, but a Paladin, would do such a thing?
Perhaps not all of the Crusade sees their actions in this light (no pun intended). Some, I am sure, have gone mad, as pundits posit. But I am not mad. And as long as I breath, there will be one Crusader to defy this stereotype. The actions of my brothers reflect upon the tabard I wear, but they do not reflect upon my actions. Nor those who feel as I do.
The greatest irony of all, and one that I find myself laughing at to this day, is that of people--Dwarves, Elves, Draenei, Gnomes, other Humans--who see a Scarlet tabard and instantly assume the worst. Who mock the man that wears the tabard, hurling insults, making blind claims. Zealot. Racist. Bigot. Without even bothering to learn the details, the particulars. Perhaps I should revise my opinion of Mages as a whole, based upon the actions of a few power-mad Highborne. Perhaps the actions of van Cleef have made all spies and swashbucklers nothing more than thugs and seditionists.
Part of knowing the Light is knowing that every other being in this world is a person; a true, living thing, as full of emotions as you, as affected by them as any other. I know this. And that is why I laugh, when I am called a blind zealot for the colors I wear.
Because the person making those claims is acting the same way he accuses us of acting. Blind assumptions. Baseless, off-the-cuff claims. Action without bothering to know.
Irony. One of my few companions in these dark days.
In those early days of the Crusade, I would say there were two types of us. The first were mostly a minority, composed of those who had regained a measure of control over their emotions, and realized that an immediate strike back against the Scourge would most likely lead to our ultimate destruction. The second, more vocal majority advocated immediate retaliation. I will admit, their arguments were convincing—there were thousands of us, gathered in and about Tyr’s Hand, as puissant a force as there ever could be, and further unrestrained by the need to regulate our actions.
Had we attacked then, I have no doubts that we would have inflicted terrible losses on our enemy, slaughtering thousands, perhaps even a million of those hated, cursed abominations.
But in doing so, we would have killed ourselves. Inflicted staggering casualties on the enemy, I am sure, but not a hundred of us would have made it back to sanctuary in doing so. And every man who fell on that sally would have been raised again by our enemies, simply bolstering the numbers we would try in vain to deplete.
Thankfully, the rationalists among us won out in the end. There was to be no final, forlorn hope. In a sense, I think that moment defined the Crusade’s existence. No longer were we Paladins, fighting a war as noble, holy warriors, going willfully unto death, if only to maintain our implacable image. By then, we had become soldiers, and we realized that we were not fighting to protect our country anymore. Our country had been destroyed days ago; we were fighting a war, and a war we intended to win. And wars are not won by valiant, if ultimately futile operations.
Despite what this text may lead you to believe, I was not a rationalist then. Far from it; the memories of my beloved Lake raped by the bodies of friends had driven me into a fury, one so adroit that those days are but fleeting, blurred memory, so submerged was I in the depths of my rage. Had I been able, I would have gladly mustered out, even alone, if only to slake my pain and anger. And I would have died, alone, unsung; a pointless death.
But that did not happen. As you can surmise. Instead, I was saved by the woman who would become my teacher and commander. Marjhan was a soldier even then. She had no taste for politics, no real care for the intricacies of theology. She knew, as I know now, that we were past all of that. It was of no concern; we were locked in a battle of annihilation with a terrible, unceasing foe, and we had to rally and steel ourselves, lest the last of us be destroyed as well. I do not know what she saw in me, or even how she came to know of me, but before my wrathful urges could utterly consume me, she had me assigned as her aide-de-camp.
The fact that Isillien imposed quarantine upon us also helped to blunt the bluster of the radicals. That our leaders managed to impose such strict discipline, and apply a solid strategy for consolidation, speaks well of their abilities, no matter what their personal predilections may tend towards. Though he had yet to become Grand Inquisitor, I still remember him as a driving force in those days. My position as aide to Commander Marjhan regularly placed me in the presence of our upper echelons, even if opening my mouth to breathe would have led to a stern rebuking; I was an aide, not an equal. But I can remember his passion and his vision during discussions and planning sessions. Whatever he may have been in the weeks before he died, rumors considered or thrown out, Isillien was never a fool.
Marjhan taught me what I have sought to impart onto you. That the Scourge are not an enemy we can beat by simple force of arms. The anger, the rage that drove me towards the edge of sanity was something that could be controlled, but never, ever something that I must let direct my actions. It was to be guided, focused, but never let loose. I still knew the Light, even through my anger, but it was somehow different. It was not the joyful, all-consuming beauty that I remember from my childhood. The Light of rage was something less subtle; it was more direct with its power. Easier to control, more puissant. But of course, I knew that should I ever fall into a blind rage, I would never awaken from it. Every battle I fought must be considered carefully, the strategy inspected from every angle. “Charge in and hit the skeleton” would not suffice. I might slay the skeleton easily, and the next, and a thousand of them after that, were I driven by vengeance. But I would die. There was no question about it. And a dead soldier is a useless thing, a tragic waste, especially when his life is lost in futile, pointless engagements.
That was not all I learned. Under her direction, I learned the art of pain. Torture. And I was good at it, I still am. Flesh is quite pliable, agony easily gifted upon those that deserve it. The only redemption I might find in possessing such skill in such a despicable art is that I never inflicted undue agony upon the repentant or upon those that confessed. To them, my gift for cooperation was a swift, painless end. And I do not mean humans when I speak of this, though there have been exceptions to the rule. I refer to the enemy. Risen revenants, clothed in the bodies of old friends, would seek to deceive us. The great enemy’s plots were a spiderweb of sinister machinations, many of them directed towards us. And ferreting them out became a priority. The undead may experience blunted sensations, but they are still there. And pain, no matter how detached, can always be made acute.
And it can be made to last for what seems like forever.
Most of us no longer thought of ourselves as Knights of the Silver Hand by then. We had become something else. The Order of the Silver Hand had been a shining weapon, a gleaming hammer of light that swept aside enemies in grand spectacle. But not all wars are won with hammers. Some are fought in the dark places that none wish to walk in, save for a few brave souls.
I was walking into those dark places. And thousands of my brothers were walking with me.
When that month of quarantine was over, the Scarlet Crusade had been created. The Knights of the Silver Hand were long dead; that order had died with its greatest, and Master, Uther the Lightbringer, may he forever rest in peace. Nor had we spent that month idle. All of us had trained; all of us had drilled and steeled ourselves for what was to come. War. Total, uncompromising war. There would be no mercy given unto us by our foes. We simply planned to give none in return.
Lord Dathrohan, whom by then had been proclaimed Grand Crusader, led a wing of our forces north, striking at fallen Stratholme. He was accompanied by Abbendis the Elder, father of the current High General. Isillien, now Grand Inquisitor, launched a violent and rapid breakout with two thousand men, aimed at linking up with likeminded forces in Hearthglen, whose hereditary lord, Taelan Fordring, had pledged his hold to our cause. Given that the Crusade now controls Hearthglen as a base of operations in central Lordaeron, you can presume the success of that operation. For the military minded, I am sure a detailed chronicle of the expedition exists somewhere, in some archive. Dathrohan, too, was successful in his attack. He seized Crusader’s Square and hoisted our banner in the old cathedral, swiftly fortifying it and turning it into a bastion from which to direct attacks throughout the rest of the fallen city.
Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of the enemy cut him off from direct contact with the rest of us, the city gates of Stratholme being overrun by undead. Couriers, of course, ran the treacherous route with some frequency, as well as heavily guarded supply columns, but contact still remained infrequent. For all intents and purposes, our Grand Crusader had found himself besieged in the very city he sought to liberate. As a result of this, both Isillien and Abbendis acted with greater degrees of freedom, as direct orders from the Grand Crusader would have been micromanaging at its worst. If he did attempt to exercise his authority through missives, I am certain they contained no more than cursory thoughts and sweeping generalizations.
Personally, I think him a fool. He led an expedition into the heart of a city ruled by undead, without even pausing to consider his logistics and supply lines. Perhaps, if instead of striking directly for the old Cathedral, he had moved slowly, block by block, establishing clear fortifications in his wake, he would not have been surrounded. Then again, such a ponderous route would have placed him at the full mercy of the Scourge’s numbers. Once again, our enemies proved that they were not a foe we could overcome by simple campaigning.
Further to the west, Highlord Mograine the Ashbringer, and his son Renault, were said to have taken the old Faol Monastery as a base of operations near the old capitol. Hearthglen and Stratholme were not too far from Tyr’s Hand, but the Monastery lay far to the west, with the Scourge-infested city of Andorhal directly in the way. Communications were very, very erratic, and it took us some time to learn of The Ashbringer’s death. Rumors were instantly circulating through the city once word arrived, and there was near-immediate dissension in the ranks. Some cried out conspiracy, others whispered that he had been murdered. I paid no attention to them; I lent no credence to rumor. The Ashbringer was dead, and there was nothing that could be done to change that. We still had a war to fight; with, or without the Highlord.
Myself, I remained in Tyr’s Hand, still serving Commander Marjhan, who in turn reported to Abbendis the Younger. We were quite busy, then, overseeing the city’s fortifications and the influx of new recruits that trickled in from the ravaged countryside once word of our offensive began to spread throughout the land. Marjhan and I spent much time together, going over reports, coordinating matters of logistics. And of course, perfecting my growing expertise as a torturer. Some recruits, we found, we agents of the Scourge, or of the ‘Forsaken’, as the faction that had risen in the ruins of Capital City called themselves. We made no distinction between the two; both could be readily ‘persuaded’ to divulge information.
Several months after our quarantine ended, it was decided that an expedition was to be launched a short distance to the west, an attempt to further secure the area surrounding Tyr’s Hand, which would hopefully give us some breathing room against the constant attacks of Scourge. As it happens, Corrin’s Crossing, my home, lies within that sphere. For this reason, I was granted a promotion. Mere aide was I no longer; I was granted a Knighthood. Sir Eldanesh Kurnous, Scarlet Crusader. My heart swelled in my chest when Marjhan performed the honors, and deep inside, I could have only wished my parents had been present to see it. I had been born a peasant, and raised a peasant. But in that instant, I transcended my old status.
Yes, I wished very much my parents had been there. But I do not know what happened to them; I had not seen them since before the loss of Andorhal and the death of Uther. I can only assume they died during the fall of Corin’s Crossing.
Marjhan was given operational control of the entire area, and I was personally tasked with leading an attack towards the eastern end of Lake Mereldar. My force was not that large, in the grand scheme of things, numbering a five hundred men at most; less than one-twentieth of the forces stationed in Tyr’s Hand. We were mostly mounted, for the sake of speed and surprise, save for a small number of infantry skirmishers and scouts which were to proceed ahead of us, and also guard our northern flank against any Scourge forces that sallied from Corin’s Crossing.
As things went, my attack was a resounding success. We easily scattered the Scourge on the eastern shore, killing at least three thousand in a single charge. I, however, believe that I failed on that day. When we crested the last ridge overlooking the Lake, I did not pause to consider tactical measures, nor the sagacity of an impetuous attack. I saw red. Crimson. Scarlet. I saw the bloated bodies floating on the water after the fall of Andorhal. I saw the mangled and ravaged corpses washed up upon the shore. And with my lance and its pennon on high, I screamed my rage, and I attacked without thinking. There was, of course, no real danger. Five hundred Scarlet Knights was easily enough to overwhelm the ‘token’ numbers of undead in the area. But it was the principle of the entire thing. Had there been Scourge lurking in ambush, or had undead in Corin’s Crossing overwhelmed out outriders, my entire force could have been cut off and massacred.
My men celebrated the attack. They called it audacious. I thought it stupid. A monument to stupidity. Marjhan expressed as much to me when she came to visit that evening, spending the night in the base camp we had erected on the eastern shore. My men erected palisades, pitched tents, and set patrols. In my tent, she berated me. She called me a fool, repeatedly stressed what could have gone wrong. In her eyes, though, I saw more than mere military logic. There was an almost sad warmth there. She cared for me, I knew this. But I had never realized how much.
We made love that night. The third, and final virtue of the Silver Hand was compassion; compassion for all things, all people. I do not know if what transpired that night was the result of lust, or of love, or simply of Compassion taken to its most intimate extreme. To this day, I do not know. But I do know this – I love Marjhan. With all my heart. But I cannot be sure from just where, in my heart, this adoration stems.
I have heard Compassion referred to as ‘unconditional love’. This is quite an apt phrasing, for as Compassion was taught to young Paladins before the Third War, it stressed the wholeness of the Light; it emphasized the entirety of the world around us. That we must care for everything, that we must make it all the more beautiful by our actions. This, above all else, is what it is to be a Paladin.
Earlier, I had said that we had ceased being Paladins, and that we had become soldiers. I must now revise that statement, for the more I write, I realize it is not wholly true. Soldiers, yes. We were soldiers. But a Paladin of the Holy Light—a true Paladin—can never stop being one. For Compassion transcends such labels.
Our enemy, the darkness of the fallen Prince Arthas, was patient. It had waited for the perfect time to strike at us. And it had come that close to wiping us all out. But for all the strength of the darkness, it has one, fatal weakness. That the flickering light of one candle is enough to hold it back.
And Compassion is more than a candle.
Compassion can ignite the stars.
Writing of the past gives the author the benefit of hindsight. We may look back upon our previous actions and judge them, ultimately, as beneficial or detrimental to us as a whole, and indeed, to the rest of the world. With the full knowledge of circumstance behind us, and the added benefit of greater knowledge, our actions can be explored more fully, and hopefully understood on a more cosmic level. But whenever one is writing with the benefit of hindsight, the reader, too, must keep this in mind—that the author speaks now with new knowledge and new insights, things that he did not have at the time. Hindsight is crystal clear, but the eyes of the present are often clouded, and close to blind.
I have already spoken of how I came to join the Scarlet Crusade, an order that many consider murderous and corrupt. Whispers that once circulated through the halls of the Scarlet Basilica in Tyr’s Hand have now become open rumor that carries across all Azeroth; that the Grand Crusader is a demon; that the Ashbringer was murdered by his allies. I cannot speak for the truth of any of these rumors, for they are just that—rumor. And rumor must never be confused with fact, no matter how widespread.
Nor must we let rumor cloud our perceptions. The Grand Crusader, if he even still lives, commands from the Scarlet Bastion within the depths of Stratholme, surrounded on all sides by undead, out of regular contact with Hearthglen and Tyr’s Hand, where the majority of our forces reside. Allow me, for a moment, to speak hypothetically. Let us imagine, for just one moment, that Grand Crusader Saidan Dathrohan is, in fact, a demon.
This demon is impotent, neutered. His authority constrained by geography. His wickedness curtailed by the undead. He must fight the Scourge regardless, because they press against him on all sides, attacking his forces each and every day. Regardless, this demon was also one of the founding members of the Crusade, and though I could never hope to speak for what he planned and hoped to accomplish with those actions, I can further discuss what has been accomplished.
Again, we find the benefit of hindsight.
Perhaps—just perhaps—Saidan Dathrohan helped Isillien and the others found the Crusade so that he could corrupt it; so that he could weld it to his side as a tool to fight the undead, much as the Legion used the Scourge as a tool to destroy the northern Kingdoms. But Isillien is not a demon, nor the Abbendises, nor Fordring nor Mograine the Ashbringer. They are not demons, and they are some of the most righteous men to walk this earth.
So what if the Grand Crusader is a demon. He will find his reckoning at hand, of this, have no doubt. The Crusade takes care of its own, and we tend to whispers of corruption with the utmost swiftness and efficiency. Let him hunker on his Crimson Throne, forced to slaughter undead day in and day out, merely to keep his feeble existence whole. And then, when the siege of Stratholme is lifted, our Grand Crusader will have questions to answer.
But until that day, it does not matter. Besides, it is still nothing more than rumor. Those who let rumor and libel influence their perception are weak-minded fools.
The convenience of hindsight went straight out the window with the advent of the Scourge. We cannot act in the present with the knowledge of tomorrow, and so we must act merely with what we know and feel at the time. And as I have said time, and time again, we fight a war against a most terrible foe, whose only goal is the complete annihilation of every living thing upon this world. To win such a war, we cannot stop to think back upon what we did then, and how it might affect us now. Such inaction, such hesitation, can invite death all too swiftly.
I wish to speak now upon what it means, truly, to be a Paladin. We must begin by examining the very concept—warriors empowered by the Light, created by Lord Uther the Lightbringer and His Eminence the Archbishoper Faol in the days of the Second War, when once again, this world faced a terrible foe, the likes of which it had never seen before. Warriors with the power to heal allies as readily as they struck down legions of Orcs. But it went deeper than that—the Light is not something that can be truly embraced without first understanding it. To let the Light flow through you first requires understanding of what it is, and how it effects us.
This Light, this Holy Light, has always come hand-in-hand with goodness and compassion. The Silver Hand’s third virtue was even touted as such; compassion. Compassion and caring for all things. We are all inhabitants of the same world, the same universe, and all must live together, regardless of whether or not they embrace the Light.
Always, the wicked and profane will seek to trample over the health and safety of those less powerful, to emphasize their twisted lust for power by laying low the helpless. No matter what a Paladin does, it is always with this in mind that he must act.
The Crusade is no different. We have taken upon ourselves the mantle of protectors once more. Protectors of what, you must ask?
You. All of you.
Let us forget the military campaigns against the Scourge; forget my battles at Lake Mereldar and Corrin’s Crossing, forget the Siege of Stratholme and the assaults we have launched upon the Dread Citadel. All of that can be spoken of in hindsight, and broken down into simple matters of military logic. That we attacked here to isolate there, and moved on one village to turn the enemy’s flank. Cold logic. Justifications on many levels. But there can be no justification on such a level for the Scarlet Crusade.
That justification is much, much simpler.
Without the Crusade, the Scourge would rampage entirely unopposed throughout Lordaeron. Without such a puissant and relentless foe based squarely in the heartlands of their conquered territory, they would be free to turn their attentions outwards. To pour through Plaguemist Ravine and overrun the Hinterlands; to surge through Chillwind Pass and into the frigid heights of Alterac. Who would stop them? The Argent Dawn are impotent idealists with neither the numbers or resolve to truly stop the Scourge in a stand-up fight. Nor could the great Forsaken bastions of fallen Tirisfal stand for long against the full might of the Lich King.
It is the Scarlet Crusade that stops this from happening. We have placed ourselves in the figurative bowsights of every undead monstrosity for a thousand miles. And we have done this because it is our duty to do so. But what, you may ask, of the whispered atrocities? Of the zeal and the paranoia and the inquisitions. The answer is equally simple.
We have done this, because nobody else would. Because the Argent Dawn lacks the courage to truly do what is necessary to win the war against the Scourge. And make no mistake, to win this war, we must do all that is necessary. Our souls were in our keeping alone when we took this burden upon ourselves, and each and every one of us knew what the cost might entail. It does not matter—valor, true valor, is in right action, right thought. It is courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves against the onslaught of the unclean.
To think that upon the day we took the scarlet color, we were thinking Aha! We shall create an order of mindless, fanatical zealots, as hostile to fellow man as to our sworn enemies! is simple stupidity. It is, once again, a fallacious application of hindsight. And were it even wholly true, it would still be blind judgment.
No, upon that day, our thoughts were simple. That, with our souls in our keeping, we would do all that is necessary to stop the Scourge. They are, after all, our souls. And our souls are meaningless baubles compared to those we defend; to the thousands of refugees in Hillsbrad, to our steadfast allies of the Wildhammer Clan in Aerie Peak. For every living creature from the shores of Lordamere to the lush jungles of the Vale.
That we might sin, so that no other may ever have to.
In my time, I have seen terrible things. Horrible sights that would no doubt shake even the most indefatigable man alive. I cannot even lie and say that I escape from the profane vistas of defiled Lordaeron in my dreams, for my failure to protect her haunts me even then. Despite this, I do not dream of fallen Lordaeron. In my dreams, all is well—the land is still green and innocent, her people live their lives fully, and I might have never needed to become a monster.
The nightmares, I find, are when I wake up. The most recent cycle aside, I have spent almost the entirety of the past six years in the heart of Lady Lordaeron, nearest the center of its very corruption. On a clean day, and with the assistance of a spyglass, you can stand on the walls of Tyr’s Hand and lay your eyes on the Dread Citadel of Naxxramas and it floats above razed Stratholme. Not only have I seen this blot in the sky, I have ventured inside it; assisted in planning expeditions and assaults into the very heart of the Necropolis. And I have seen things within those twisted, cavernous halls that has made my blood run as cold as Northeron’s highest peaks.
Despite these horrifying sights, I do not fear the undead. They are nothing—nothing! Their macabre mind-games and profanity of the natural order of life is, to be sure, disquieting and disturbing. But so long as one hardens their heart to fear, these parlor tricks are nothing more than diversions. The ravening legions of undead that I must face? Nothing. Mere pawns, they are nothing but twisted facsimiles of the living, all too easily destroyed by the righteous wrath of the faithful. Do not fear the soldiers of the Scourge. They do not deserve your fear. Perhaps, were I wiser, I would fear the Lich King; I would fear the lich, Kel’Thuzad, and I would fear the most puissant of his fellow lieutenants. Surely, they are monstrous creatures, just as capable of destroying me in battle as orchestrating a devious plot for my demise. But I still do not fear them.
To fear the enemy is to invite weakness, and weakness we can ill afford. Doubt must be pushed wholly from the mind. Apprehension must be purged. When taking battle against the undead hordes, even the slightest wavering thought can mean your death. Yet, even if I did not know this sad truth, I would still not fear the darkness. For when I dispense my judgment upon the unclean, I am not alone. The whole of the universe fights with me, empowering me, filling me with its transcendent glory. The Light fights with me. With every step across a battlefield I take, I can feel it building within me, pulsing with every beat of my heart.
Though it is the beauty of the Light to give life, it is also true that the power of the Light can easily strip this life away. It can destroy as easily as it can create. I have seen devastating displays of power that have scorched entire detachments of undead to the ground within mere seconds. And once, I even had the honor to fight alongside The Ashbringer. No, I do not fear the Scourge. I fear the Light, for such is its power, that it deserves the utmost of respect. The blasphemous powers of the Scourge can lay a man low, they can kill him and strip away his life, but they cannot truly humble him as can the Light.
The Scourge have nothing within the entirety of their profane forces that can compare to the Light. When the power of the Holy Light washes over me, my weapons become shining instruments of deliverance that can cleave through the most wretched abomination with ease. With the Light’s enlightenment granting me serenity in the chaos of war, I can direct slivers of pure agony unto the impure with but a thought, driving into the wretched forms of those who would dare stand before me. With the power of the Light, my words become commands that cause demons and undead to turn and flee in terror. I could meet my enemies unarmed without a shred of fear in my chest, for I know that the Light guides my hand. And when I face down my enemies, I show them what the power of faith can do.
Yet, sadly, faith alone is not enough to reforge a sundered Kingdom. Were it so, I would gladly give my life a thousand times over, offered with unwavering devotion, so that Lady Lordaeron might live again. But it is not so.
This war—this world—it is all a nightmare. Nightmares are the stuff of monsters and villains, they are the domain of evil; dark places where hope and light are snuffed out all too easily.
A funny thing about nightmares, though—they always end. It may take time, but they are not eternal. A nightmare can be shattered with but the most innocent of things, and that is a dream. By daring to hope, the nightmare is weakened, its very nature attacked. It seeks to bring despair, to snuff out a man’s hope and consign him to wallowing pity.
Do not let the nightmare disconcert you. Laugh in its face. Mock it. For it is weak, so weak, that it must attack you in such a subtle way, preying on your innate concerns and natural consternations. I am living this nightmare, but there are thousands that need not. Dare to dream, I say. Fill yourself with hope, and the nightmare shrivels away, shrieking at the agony of faith and light.
Smash it! Push it aside! Fear it not! There are such things as love, honor, and the soul of a man, which cannot be bought with a price! Nor do they die with death. A man that has been reduced to nearly nothing, had his homeland stolen, his friends and family slain and his world thrown into chaos can still have faith.
And faith is the strongest weapon in our armory now.
I will break the nightmare that is the Lich King and his foul legions. I do not fear them. They shall fear me, for the terrible wrath and the swift destruction I bring upon them.
The days after our attack on Lake Mereldar’s east bank were somewhat uneventful; we skirmished frequently with disparate bands of undead that were left over from our initial strike, but it did not appear that the Scourge would mount an immediate counterattack. Marjhan left the following morning, returning to Tyr’s Hand, and gifting me with nothing more than a warm, if enigmatic smile as she rode off with her escort of Praetorians. My orders as they still stood were simple—hold our newly established base camp until relieved.
Such relief, however, hinged on the success of the other expeditions within the operation as a whole, more specifically, the prong aimed directly at Corrin’s Crossing. Despite the glory and thrill I had felt at my own command, one must remember that my force and mission was merely part of a greater, operational whole, with the ultimate objective of reclaiming and securing a sphere of territory around Tyr’s Hand. The purpose of my mission had been to secure our southern flank; thusly, any Scourge detachments that wished to circumvent Lake Mereldar in order to flank the main attack on Corrin’s Crossing would be checked by our position.
All of this was in theory, of course. And there is a very fitting maxim for this situation, that all who take a hand at war would be well obliged to remember: no battle-plan survives contact with the enemy.
With the southern flank secured, there was no reason for the main attack not to proceed. Nearly seven thousand men had been assembled for that very purpose, under the command of Lord Valdelmar. Once I had secured the Mereldar front, Valdelmar was to immediately proceed at the best possible pace along the western highway, and attack Corrin’s Crossing head-on. With both flanks secured (the northern front had been subject to an attack similar to my own, under the command of Sir Bestor, whom had established his base of operations at the old Eastwall Tower) Valdelmar had no reason not to advance with all possible haste.
Allow me to go on record as saying that even then, I was not too fond of Valdelmar. He was not one of ‘ours’, that is to say, he had not been stationed at Tyr’s Hand for long. No, Valdelmar was a member of Dathrohan’s vaunted Crimson Legion, and as such was not technically in the chain of command; the only officer who possessed the authority to command him directly was the Grand Crusader himself. High General Abbendis could most certainly have directed him without too much of a fuss, but Abbendis was not the one in command of the operation, that responsibility was Marjhan’s, and as a ‘mere’ Commander, Valdelmar was not too keen on accepting her direction. In other words, he allowed his personal status and ego to come before the needs of the mission. Nor was he a humble sort of man.
For whatever reason, Valdelmar did not advance immediately. Instead of having a decisive blow aimed at Corrin’s Crossing, falling upon the undead there like a hammer, its flanks supported, we ended up with merely two flanks—and a cavernous hole in our center where Valdelmar’s troops should have been. I was not aware of this at the time; my orders were simply to hold Lake Mereldar and prevent any flanking maneuvers the undead were game to attempt, as was Bestor. However, as the days progressed, and my scouts reported not a peep or hint or Valdelmar’s detachment along the main road, I became, quite admittedly, concerned. Very concerned—without Valdelmar to occupy the attentions of the undead at Corrin’s Crossing, my little force had suddenly become quite exposed.
Our very strategy hinged on speed and initiative. If properly executed, Bestor and I would have moved to our support positions, and Valdelmar would have reached Corrin’s Crossing and commenced his attack by either the early evening of the second day, or the morning of the third, leaving the Scourge within the town no time to grasp the bigger picture of our motions and move to overrun Bestor and myself, as without Valdelmar in the center, our own flanks were in the air. I dispatched a courier to Tyr’s Hand on the third day, inquiring as to the status of the entire operation, and requesting new orders if any were needed, but by the time my scout had returned home, all hell had already broken loose back at the Lake.
I cannot describe the grip of icy terror that seized my heart when I was roused just before dawn by one of my men, and stumbled out of my tent to be greeted by thousands of undead swarming atop the ridge outside of our palisade. I do not fear the undead now, but I was younger, not as steeled as I am today. And on that day, I had more than just my own life to be concerned with; trusted to my keeping were five hundred of my battle brothers, all of whom would be counting on me to make sure we saw the Scarlet Basilica again.
Bestor, I would later learn, was faced with a similar plight. The only difference was that his position was centered on a pre-existing fortification, atop a steep hill well suited for defense, and he had strengthened his already formidable position by erecting a rudimentary palisade and earthworks. Nor was he faced with as many of the enemy as I was, a fact owed to my much closer proximity to Corrin’s Crossing. Bestor’s force, the Light be with him always, handily held out until they were relieved, though Bestor himself was sadly killed by an enemy assassin while preparing for a sally.
I did not have many options on that day. To sally forth and attempt a breakout could invite disaster, as with their superior numbers, the enemy could surround and massacre us in the open. Further, I still had no grasp on the bigger picture; as far as I was concerned I had a position to defend. I did not pause to consider the fact that given the enemy’s position on my northern side, they must have come from Corrin’s Crossing—which meant, of course, Valdelmar had either been wiped out, or he’d never made it into position. Even without knowing the true circumstances, I highly doubted it was the former. I was supposed to be guarding his flank, but that blustering, blubbering, inept fool had in turn left my own exposed.
My second opinion was the only course I felt comfortable taking; shoring up the defenses as much as possible and hunkering down to survive the coming storm. We were on rather level ground, with only a slight incline favoring our position; not exactly a defensible locale, though the palisade would help. Our pair of ballista, which we had assembled as we constructed our defenses several days previous, immediately began battering the enemy from range, though bereft of any explosive dweomers to place on the bolts, and owing to the enemy’s prodigious numbers, they were not as effective as I hoped. Still, every ghoul that was killed by them was one less than we would be forced to kill in melee.
The enemy wasted no time. There was barely a quarter of an hour of breathing room while the Scourge spread out to surround us on three sides (the fourth was thankfully blocked by the mountains). Once they had completed their basic circumvallation, they attacked.
This was my second major action against the forces of the Lich King, and the first since Uther’s death at Andorhal. I cannot remember the precise details of the ensuing battle; I suspect that they would mostly be superfluous, anyway. It was a violent, chaotic slaughter. Our ballista pelted them all the way up to the palisade, doing their best to fell the larger abominations; our contingent of light infantry peppered them with arrows for the entire charge, though the mundane missiles were not as effective as the vicious, trauma-inducing blows of a mace or sword. The fortifications did not hold them for long, barely a minute, if even that. Then they were inside the perimeter, amongst us. I can remember doing my best to preserve order, to call out commanding shouts of direction, but those soon enough devolved into wicked battle-cries and mindless screams as the red mist came down over my eyes, and soon enough I was at the front as well, shrieking animal screams, blasting skeletons to bits with pulsating flourishes of the Light’s power, cleaving them in half once they closed to sword’s reach.
We fought shoulder to shoulder, holding the palisade for as long as we could. But there were only five hundred of us, and there were thousands of them. The first holes in the line appeared no more than ten minutes into the assault, this I remember. Ghouls poured through the breach, flooding our interior lines and casually slaughtering our skirmishers and a few ill-prepared arcanists. For our part, we fought magnificently. Our blades became whirling beacons of the light, our minds the epitome of directed rage. The sky was slowly lightening, and in the predawn twilight there flashed golden explosions of holy wrath; gleaming, evanescent flares pronounced our judgment of the enemy, and effervescent fissures flushed the ground where we stood, our command of the Light consecrating even the ground we stood upon.
But it was not enough. It was not enough at Andorhal, and it would not be enough on this day. It took the enemy no more than half an hour to completely overwhelm our perimeter and force us back upon our tents and artillery. I do not know how many were dead by that point, how many already in the process of having their minds shredded by darkness and their bodies converted to the Lich King’s profane cause. More than three hundred, I am sure.
The following quote I may give to you only because one of my surviving knights was so struck by it that he somehow fond time to write it down. And he lived—though sadly, not for all that much longer, as he was killed during an attempt at relieving Stratholme some months later. My eternal thanks to you, Athael Duorstone, and may the Light be with you always.
“If I were a proper commander, I would know by heart the litanies of deliverance we might recite, and the prayers that brighten our hearts. But I think you all know what faces us, and what we must do. I know not what chances of survival we may have, but we shall fight as if we have none. When Lady Lordaeron is born again, none might remember us, and we may never be buried in the halls of honor within the Basilica, so we will build our own memorial here. The Crusade might lose us and the annals of history might never know we existed, but the Lich King—he shall know! The Traitor-Prince will remember! We will destroy so many of his foul minions that he will remember us until our brothers avenge our deaths on the glaciers of Northrend! When that bastard falls, his last thought will be of us. That is our memorial - carved into the heart of the enemy. We cannot lose, Knights of the Scarlet Crusade. We have already won.”
Stirring words, I am sure. But they did not help us turn the tide. The undead fell once more upon us with their typical, single-minded ferocity. Of this final stand, I remember very little. It is all a blur—a fire sprung up amongst our tends, spreading from canvas to canvas, adding an eldritch element to the forlorn atmosphere. The one vivid memory I have is of a ghoul, burning, its entire body enshrouded by fire, ignoring this immolation to pounce upon one of my remaining Knights and tear him to pieces. I knew despair, then. But it was not the despair of death, for death was something I expected always. It was the knowledge that my death would mean so little, and that my body would transcend its mortal coil to fight again on the side of our enemy.
My thoughts were cut short, however. An abomination came upon us, casually backhanding the man to my left, sending him flying into the air to land with a bone-crunching snap. Then it turned its attention to me. I was tired, by this point. Exhausted, both mentally and physically. I tried to parry the first blow it aimed at me, and barely succeeded, deflecting a massive fist with a glancing gouge to its fleshy wrist. The second blow, however, took me clean in the chest. I fell back; my sword slipped from my hand, and the world went blurry, and then black.
But I did not die. Duorstone, along with several of the survivors, had gone to the kraal, and gathered those of our mounts that had not broken free or been butchered by roaming ghouls. I was not conscious to witness this, but he and his compatriots mounted, bridled all the spare steeds they could, and moved to escape. The abomination was an easy target for a mounted knight with a proper lance; I only wish I could have seen the way it punched through the abomination’s back and spine to fell the creature in a single blow. My soldiers then paused only to retrieve my body, and throw me atop an unoccupied mount. Were I conscious, I might have protested the abandoning of our position, though thinking back, I might have also just said to hell with it—to hell with the damned position, and especially to hell with Valdelmar.
They escaped. The undead perimeter lines had thinned once our defense had fragmented, allowing Duorstone and his troopers to punch through them and gallop off into the hills, making for Tyr’s Hand. It took two days, throughout which I regained consciousness for but a few moments before the blackness came again, but they reached the sanctuary of Tyr’s Hand. One of them had even salvaged our banner, and resolutely held the ragged standard aloft as we passed the gates.
Valdelmar and his host came upon our position two hours after our escape, and destroyed the undead there. He re-garrisoned and repaired the desolated camp, and then promptly began to march on Tyr’s Hand again. The coward had, instead of attacking Corrin’s Crossing, turned south to pursue the scourge that had attacked us once he came across evidence of their passage. Had he proceeded with his mission, the strike at their base of operations in the area might have caused the Scourge to recall the foul legion they had sent against my camp. But instead, the blind fool sought nothing but hollow glory, and the futile victory of destroying an incredibly lesser foe in the field. It was certainly a safe prospect.
I remained unconscious for the better part of a week. When I awoke, it was within the safety of Tyr’s Hand, my body bruised and battered, but slowly recovering. Valdelmar had wanted me executed for cowardice, and abandoning a position I had been ordered to defend, but Marjhan, and surprisingly Abbendis, blocked the notion. The irony of it all was not lost upon me—him, accusing me of cowardice. When I was told of it, I probably would have laughed, would such an action not caused me to cough blood.
Instead, I was made a hero. We had precious few heroes, in those days. And Valdelmar was certainly not one of them, no matter how much he might have lusted for it. I was made a Lord—not of the Crusade, but of Lordaeron. Someone in the upper echelons must have been incredibly naïve, or possessed an incredibly morbid sense of humor, for it was decided that I was to be created Eldanesh, Lord Kurnous of Corrin’s Crossing. My fiefdom a ravaged town that we had not even managed to liberate, my subjects a diverse demographic of skeletons, abominations, demiliches, ghouls, and banshees.
I might have swelled with pride and ego were the situation different. That I, a mere peasant boy by birth, had become the honorary Lord of the town I had been born in. But I was not—I just laughed. Laughed indeed, and this time, I did not mind the retching of blood and bile. The irony was just too great.
Our total casualties were three hundred and ninety four confirmed killed, seventy six missing, presumed dead, three wounded, later to succumb to plague or lingering injuries, and twenty seven wounded. Oh, yes. I was a hero, all right.
Irony. Always irony.
Reading through this Libram may, admittedly, give a false impression of me. I am sure that the preceding entries paint me in a rather favorable light; some might even go so far as to claim that I am one of the only sensible Scarlets in Azeroth. This might be true, I cannot say for certain—surely, I am sensible. I have always been something of a rationalist, a trait that I would say was imparted unto me during my instruction in Stratholme and Tyr’s Hand, before the Third War.
For the sake of truth, I must dispel this notion. I, Eldanesh Kurnous, am a monster. I am a murderer, a liar, and a cheater; an amoral, brutish thug. If I am given a task, I will do everything in my power to fulfill it, no matter what the cost may be, so long as I find that the mission itself is something worth damning myself over. The salvation of Lady Lordaeron is such a task, as are all the peripheral spheres of such a quest, is worth it.
The problem with my story as I have told it so far, is that quite simply, there aren’t many innocents in the Plaguelands. No human beings for these traits to manifest themselves upon. In Lordaeron, it is a very, very simple equation—just us. The Scarlet Crusade and the Scourge. The Argent Dawn too, though to a lesser extent, and those waifish fools are often content to sit in their little hovel of a chapel and dispatch misguided adventurers to do their dirty work, so starved are they for manpower. The Argent Dawn is not a threat; they aren’t even part of the equation. They exist, perpetually, in a state of impotence, too considerate and too high-handed to make an effect. The Argent Dawn represents the Silver Hand of old—the same Silver Hand that proved itself wholly unsuited to win the war we must fight.
From what you have read, you may consider me a valiant and virtuous man. And I will make no claims to the contrary, for I always consider myself on the side of right, even if others do not. But the fact remains, as I mentioned before; all you have read concerns only interactions between myself and my fellow Crusaders, and the undead. Where are the slain interlopers, the betrayed victims and the innocent casualties?
They come later. And we are fast approaching the period of time where the full extent of my crimes against virtue will become evident. I tell you this now, simply to prepare you for what shall come.
When I awoke after the disastrous battle at Lake Mereldar, the first thing I saw was Marjhan’s face. My vision was still blurry, but she was either smiling or scowling. I was not sure which one, and I never bothered to ask her, so it shall remain a mystery. Even more of a mystery were her actions, though through time and contemplation, I have come to understand them. She slapped me—hard, square in the face. I would have probably had to add a broken jaw to my list of ailments if she had been wearing a gauntlet at the time. Then she leaned in and kissed me hard on the mouth.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she told me quite flatly, before rising from her stool at the side of my cot and taking her leave. I continued to lay there for a few minutes, before I finally gathered my wits, rose, and stepped again into the living nightmare that Lordaeron had become. Valdelmar was still baying for my blood, and Duorstone and my surviving soldiers were, in turn, baying for his. The entire situation was very confused, not on a military level, but on a political one. Valdelmar was a very powerful man; and I have no doubt that had Marjhan not somehow managed to convince the High General of my worth, I would have been swinging from a noose by day’s end.
Instead, I had to make due with my hollow peerage, and Valdelmar’s condescending stares. For my part, I ignored them. The man was a worm, a callow insect not even deserving of my scorn. Such petty hatreds, I thought, could not be allowed to distract me. Of course, that did not stop idle fantasy, and there were many a day where I passed a long stretch of vigil on the ramparts by imagining what his insides would look like were they slowly removed and hung from the rafters of a barracks. Those days passed quickly, and once I had fully recovered from my nagging injuries, they passed even faster.
Those weeks, those months, mark a time when the Crusade began to change. I cannot pinpoint the very beginning; perhaps the process was inexorable. But regardless, I was noticing a subtle metamorphosis all around me. The Ashbringer was dead—everyone knew it by now, even if the official word had taken some time to trickle eastwards from the Monastery at Tirisfal. In response to his demise, a group of Crusaders had broken off from the whole, declaring the entire order corrupt and damned. You know them today as the Argent Dawn. With the Grand Crusader still besieged in Stratholme, it was Isillien and the Abbendises that began to really guide our actions, the High Inquisitor in Hearthglen, and father and daughter in Tyr’s Hand.
I was not all that familiar with the elder Abbendis. I knew his daughter, if only by virtue of my close association with Marjhan, but the father was quite aloof, even from me. He spent most of his days forted up in his little command center in one of the keep’s towers, pouring over maps, reading intelligence reports, and directing expeditions into the ravaged landscape beyond us.
It was also the elder Abbendis that decided we would launch an expedition aimed at breaking the siege of Stratholme and relieving the Grand Crusader.
I will not go into too much detail regarding that attack; the preparation involved was mammoth, the logistics alone could fill an entire volume. We planned and prepared for a month, two months. Almost the entirety of the Eastern Crusade (that is what I shall colloquially call our forces stationed in Tyr’s Hand, as opposed to the ‘Western Crusade’ in Hearthglen) was present, though Abbendis did not plan to utilize the full strength of our numbers in the attack. He was not so foolish as to leave Tyr’s Hand stripped to a skeleton garrison should the attack fall victim to catastrophe. Instead, he settled on six thousand; a little less than half of our total strength.
The expedition failed, obviously. Abbendis the Elder was killed during an attempt to storm the main gates. Though incensed and inspired by the fall of their commander, his men could not succeed in forcing entry through that avenue, and despite repeated, gallant attempts, they could not break through to Crusader’s Square no matter how ardently they pressed onwards. For what it was worth, the casualties were not obscene; far more wounded than dead, though a sad amount fell victim to plague, including my trusted compatriot, Athael Duorstone. We lost a thousand men in total, perhaps, through a variety of causes. Far, far better than what my darkest moments of anxiety conjured up. Obviously, a complete victory would have been preferable, but by then, I had grown up. A gallant, dramatic victory was not something I thought of much.
I lost friends in that attack; trusted friends who had stood beside me on many a day, many a field of battle. Nor was I alone in this quiet, unspoken sadness. Those men that died, all of them were my brothers, my fellow Crusaders. And I felt keenly each and every loss, whether or not I had known the man personally. That is part of compassion.
Again, I began to get angry. But it was not the boisterous, scream-bloody-murder-rage that I had felt before. It was something more subtle; nothing so pedestrian as mere outrage and fury. It crept into my mind slowly but steadily, fueling my desires to wipe out the Scourge. It is very difficult to describe the contrast between these two types of anger, but for the sake of description, I shall try.
The first is simple. You see red. Your heart pounds; rage fills you, and quite suddenly, there is nothing in the world that would satisfy you more than violently bludgeoning something to death. It is a simple sort of anger—direct, and to the point. I want to hurt something. Now. Preferably that which has wronged me.
But the second is different. The second does not come so easily, nor as obviously. There is no erratic buildup of fury, no blind seething to encompass your vision. You think clearly, very clearly. Almost too clearly, in fact, for you begin to discard things you might have considered before. The feelings of other people; the cost of what you must do to slake this rage, and especially, what embracing this cold, quiet anger, might do to you.
The first anger is that of flame. Chaotic, violent and sudden. It lashes out quickly, leaving a searing trail of blackened and scorched victims behind it.
The second is that of ice. It is cold, composed. Chilling to the very bone, for this is nothing so obvious as fire. Fire you can see, fire you can feel upon your skin far before it even touches you. But ice is different; its chill does not radiate so obviously as that of flame.
And it is see-through, transparent. You never even know it is there until you feel its terrible, frigid grasp upon you.
I missed the attack on Stratholme due to my lingering injuries from the Battle of Lake Mereldar. It might have been fate; perhaps it was mere coincidence. The fact remains that I lived, while hundreds of others died, or worse. I had never put much stock on the concept of 'Survivor's Guilt' until then, but it is most certainly real. Even the most implacable resolve can steadily be worn away under the right circumstances. And so I found my tenacity slowly eroding. It was not the mere fact that these men, my brothers, had been slain in an ultimately futile attack, but more that I was not there to help them. Compassion is the third virtue of the Light, and the most all-consuming one at that. Armed with Compassion, you are a protector, a defender. For this, I have always taken the burdens of others without complaint. But this time, I did not even have the chance. Recuperating within the abbey of Tyr's Hand, I was faced by this terrible reality, as I waited for days to hear word from Stratholme.
When it came, I was suitably devastated. But the sorrow lasted for mere moments, and I assured myself that my brothers had known full well the risks they braved when they had taken the red, and I could only hope that at the end, they passed beyond into serenity, satisfied that they had done their duty, and that they had met their deaths with no regrets or doubt in their hearts, simply the all-consuming serenity of the Light.
I can hope for this, even if on some level, I know it can never be true. Nobody wants to die. Especially in battle, locked in constant struggle with the foul armies of the Lich King. But it is a reality we must face, and one that I have accepted. My chances of dying peaceably in my old age, in a bed somewhere in Lordaeron, friends and family around me, are negligible. I am barely thirty-five years of age, and I do not expect I will live past forty. Further, I expect my death will come on the heels of violent agony, my flesh rent asunder, and my body broken.
But my spirit will always remain transcendent. For such is the Holy Light.
I have postulated that there are two types of anger; burning rage, and cold wrath. The first is spur of the moment; it is the epitome of directed passion. The second is calm, calculated. It is attained when every resource you can muster, every faculty of your mind, is directed towards the complete, utter destruction of one thing. Both are uncompromising, but it is the second that truly heralds destruction. And I do not mean the destruction of its intended victims. Toying too much with this icy, glacial anger can destroy you, as it has nearly destroyed me. And I expect that before I die, this uncompromising, brutal wrath, will consume me whole; it will eliminate the Compassion I have tried so hard to preserve, and entomb me within its cold, loving embrace.
For after Stratholme, I fell into this anger without even realizing it. No longer was it sufficient to simply engage the Scourge on a strategic level, to eliminate their territorial gains and push them back. I wanted them to suffer, as much as an undead being can be made to. But it was not just the Scourge that fell victim to this terrible anger. The Forsaken, too, became victims of my wrath. There were many agents of theirs, captured by the Western Crusade, or our forces in Tirisfal, that eventually wound up in Tyr's Hand. I spent many hours in the cellar of the keep, attending to these honored guests with a variety of implements. The Forsaken do not feel sensations as acutely as humans do, which makes inflicting pain upon them rather difficult. I viewed it as a challenge. Though they are undead, they still retain most faculties of the living. Targeting their nerve centers directly will still evoke pain. And since it since their feelings are blunted, they can endure agony that would cause a human to faint.
Yes, their nerve centers are where the most satisfying pain can be elicited from. The bridge of the nose, the temple, the septum, the clavicle, the coccyx, the radial bones and the spines. Stimulating these areas with direct pain will produce very satisfying results upon a Forsaken specimen. My favorite technique involves the patch of soft skin just behind the lobe of the ear. A slender, pointed implement, such a stilleto or ice pick, can be driven directly through this area, so that its point emerges on the diametrically opposite side, in the same position on the other ear. In doing so, the blade impales portions of the lower cerebellum, and bisects the spinal column. Sadly, there is often damage to the larynx as well, which can impair the victim's screams.
I find the screams quite invigorating. Even when hoarse and ragged. The best part is that it is not fatal; far from it. There will be impairment to the motor functions, but the damage alone is not sufficient to kill the victim. Thus, their torment can be prolonged until the required information is extracted.
It was written before; that I am a monster. My dalliances with torture are the least of my crimes, though they are perhaps the most obvious. Once I was of sufficient strength and cognizance to return to full duty, I did so immediately, once again serving under Marjhan, though no longer as an aide now, but rather as a direct subordinate. My actions at Lake Mereldar had made me something of a hero to the rank and file, a fact which Abbendis seemed all too happy to utilize for the common advantage. I found myself in command of several groups of soldiers, composed mostly of the remnants of my old command, and the units that had taken the heaviest losses at Stratholme. Though I had not been there, Duorstone had apparently spoken very highly of me to them before his untimely end, and I received the loyalty and adoration of my soldiers.
One night, I was approached in my cramped office within the keep by a line soldier; a rank and file Crusader. His name was Richford Mormont. He expressed to be quite clearly that he had been feeling doubts about our course; he told me that he felt our righteousness was being overshadowed by our zeal. I believe his exact words were, "In our reckless pursuit of the destruction of the Scourge, we have succeeding in divorcing ourselves from what is truly right." He was well spoken, as you can see. And he was, of course, correct. But as I have repeatedly stressed... We cannot defeat The Scourge by being right. It takes a monster to kill a monster, and the only way to fight hate is with more hate.
Mormont then told me of his intentions to defect to the newly-formed Argent Dawn. For my part, I nodded, and asked him calmly if there was any way he could be persuaded not to desert. I suppose he thought me a sensible man. In truth, I am sensible. Quite possibly far too sensible, for my pragmatism extends to foresight. I did not see a cheerful young man following the virtues in his heart, I saw only a soldier, striding off to join a force that had no hope against the enemy. He would die, his fall meaningless, and his body would be animated by our foes to serve as just another mindless automaton in their war against the living.
As he turned to leave, I rose too. Not many realize it, but I am a rather dexterous man; when not wearing armor, it is fully within my capability to move swiftly and silently. Such was what I did, nor did I even hesitate to ponder the knife I had deftly removed from my desk in the process.
I stabbed Richford Morment in the back. The knife severed his spinal column, ruptured the edge of his glandular tract and pierced his heart.
You must understand. Mormont had already articulated his desires to me; that he intended to leave the Crusade, and that he would join the Dawn. What was I to do, torture him until he changed his mind? No. I do not torture humans for pleasure. Nor would I subject a sadly misguided soul to such a fate. I granted him a swift end, and in his tragic death, I gifted Richford Mormont with a martyr’s crown. Forever will he stand as a testament to the monsters that inhabit Tyr’s Hand and make their home beneath Lordaeron’s dead sky and black sun.
Monsters, yes. We are. But what if I let him go? What then? Would he even make it to one of the Argent Dawn’s few, meager sanctuaries? The chances are low. Light’s Hope Chapel would be the closest, a nigh-defenseless, destitute little structure that somehow managed to avoid being overwhelmed. In journeying from Tyr’s Hand to Light’s Hope, he would have to brave the undead that control the intervening land; the twisted fauna too. The plaguebats and the hounds. He would fall, of this I have no doubt. Alone, devoid of a purpose in the end.
And such a death is the worst kind of death. It is the kind I have always strived to avoid. Even if it means that I must take a man’s life, before the enemy takes it from him, and twists it to his own purposes.
There is no easy answer to such a question. And while I cannot stand proudly by my actions, for I admit they are despicable and monstrous, there are precious few other choices.
Misdealt, mislead. I am a creature of evil. I freely admit that I have dabbled in the most vile and heinous acts that a man can perpetrate, if only to preserve that which is good.
But an evil creature? No. Never.
I can only hope that in time, the world will come to know the difference.
I had to admit that Marjhan's pert backside looked quite delectable as she bent over to slip her chausses back on. The sight brought a smirk to my face, and I opened my mouth to say something. Marjhan cut me off before I could even finish the first syllable: "No."
I blinked, looking up at her from my position sprawled out on the narrow cot that occupied one half of my cramped office. Again, I began to speak, but her second rejoinder came just as quick as the first.
She paused, looked me up and down, and then it was her turn to smile. "Well," she amended, a mellifluous chuckle on her lips as she went about pulling on her tunic and gambeson. "Maybe later."
You may find momentary confusion in the preceding passage, wondering how I remember it so clearly. In truth, I cannot recall the details of the particular morning I have in mind. But the picture I have just painted for you was quite common; those events nigh ubiquitous in one form or another as I started my days. Though I still served on reduced duty as the worst of my injuries from the battle at Lake Mereldar faded away, I woke early, as did Marjhan. She would always leave promptly when she spent then night, a trait that while not endearing to my libido, was perfectly rationale when compared to our duty.
Yes. Our duty. We may have been having an affair, but neither of us had forgotten that there was a war to be fought. I have seen far too many fools find solace in the arms of another; too many fools find hope and bliss in love. Yet they are weak -- for they let that fleeting sense of happiness overwhelm their duty to Lordaeron, to all Azeroth.
As I've said, our mornings together oft panned out the same way, day in, day out. It was our coy little ritual, if you will. But that day was different. Normally, Marjhan would dress and depart, leaving me to enjoy my rest for another hour or two before I sought to go about my own duties. Given the lingering aches and pains in my body, I spent the majority of my days overseeing the staff aspects of my command, while one of my subordinates, a Sergeant Major Roethe Willey, handled the daily regimen of training while I wrote up patrol orders and attended to the needed clerical issues. You would think, that being the only coherent group of living people left in Lordaeron, we would have had a fantastic excess of supply. Such was not the case.
It was no miserly procurement order that needed seeing to on that day, however. Soon enough I'd rolled off my creaking cot and seen to dressing, pulling on my mail tunic, spaulders, chausses and leggings in short order. Buckling my baldric on, I joined Marjhan in the hall outside, and together we strode through the halls of Tyr's Hand Keep. Despite the early hour, the keep was a veritable bee-hive, with knights and squires darting every which way and that. Couriers and young pages sidestepped around us, and soon enough Marjhan and I descended the main stair and hung a right, finding ourselves at the open door to the great hall.
The High General was not yet there, though already seated at various points about the long table were the great captains and lords of Tyr's Hand. Valdelmar, the sycophantic ass, sat glowering at me from his position in the first chair to the right of the table's head. I knew he would have just loved to be seated in that high chair that dominated the head of the table -- but that was Abbendis' seat, and hers alone. No matter how much some worm from the Crimson Legion might covet it.
Seated across from Valdelmar was Commander Jothæm Helbrecht, and seeing him gave me reason to smile. Sir Jothæm was an old friend; a familiar face. When I was a boy, he had been my weapons instructor at the abbey. I would like to think I'm still alive today because I made it a point to follow his instruction; a formidable blademaster, he is, and his teachings have served me well throughout the years. He was there, as was I, when Uther fell at Andorhal. I had not seen him much since the Crusade's formation, as his loftier rank in the old Silver Hand merited him an immediate posting as a Commander, and he was often in the field, leading our longer patrols.
There were three others also present, though I did not know them by name or by specific deed. New faces; cold, pitiless faces whose beady eyes stared across hawkish noses to transfix me with their scrutiny. They looked young -- younger than me, even, and I noted with revulsion that one of them wore the tabard of the Crimson Legion. For my part, I gave them back nothing more than an easy smile, and then followed Marjhan as she crossed the room and took a seat next to Sir Helbrecht's. I promptly took the next seat, so that the three of us sat in a little line. Several minutes passed, during which more officers filed in, finding their seats. I smiled, nodded and waved at the ones I knew, which was thankfully the majority.
As befitting her station, the High General arrived promptly. Which was to say, ten minutes after the meeting had been scheduled to start -- just long enough to remind us mere mortals of our place in the grand scheme of things, without drawing out the wait to a point that would irritate the higher-ranked Commanders. She strode up the length of the table, simultaneously meeting our eyes and ignoring us all at once. Valdelmar and Sir Helbrecht both rose once she approached her chair, but my old teacher was still quick as a viper. He was on his feet and had that chair pulled back before Valdelmar was halfway risen. Abbendis gave Sir Helbrecht a brief, genuine smile, and then sat down, jerking her chair forwards as she did.
"It has been decided that we are to attempt contact with Quel'thalas," she said simply.
The enduring silence could not have been broken by the detonation of a Gnomish explosive device. All of us looked at her, our expressions varying from dumbfounded to aghast. I can remember my own thoughts quite clearly. I was angry. Angry because I wanted to kill the enemy, not try and curry favor with the same race that had all but abandoned us during the fall of Lordaeron. I cannot say what a difference the Spellbreaker Legions may have made on that grim day outside Andorhal, but it is possible the outcome would have been quite different.
Despite the shock, and the lengthy silence, two men finally broke it, in near unison.
"My Lady," Sir Helbrecht began.
"Has His Eminence," Valdelmar started.
Both men stopped immediately. Both men stared at one another. There is precious little love lost between the line companies of the Crusade proper, and the overzealous praetorians of the Crimson Legion. Valdelmar cleared his throat, glaring daggers at Sir Helbrecht, and then continued on. "Has His Eminence Lord Grand Crusader Dathrohan--" I could see Sir Helbrecht's eyes rolling at the use of the entire, pomp-infested title -- "Been informed of your intentions, My Lady?"
"She is your High General," Sir Helbrecht muttered through gritted teeth. "Address her as your military superior, Crusader Lord."
Valdelmar seethed. Abbendis looked amused. As the Crusader Lord was opening his mouth to begin a tirade which would not be, obvious to all present, a serene acquiescence to the High General's lofty rank, the aforementioned august persona herself intervened. She raised her left hand to cover an almost dainty cough, and then offered the entire table a smile.
"That will be quite enough, gentlemen," she told Valdelmar and Sir Helbrecht, glancing at each one of them in turn. Valdelmar fell under her gaze last, and she added: "No, Lord Dathrohan has not been made aware of this expedition. The scope of it is, for one thing, too small in the grand scheme to merit his attention. And second, given his, ah, precarious position in terms of communication, I feel it would be inadvisable to wait for his approval." She paused, drawing out a pointed pause. "Do you hold issue with this, Lord Valdelmar?"
Her eyes now narrowed to deathly slits, Abbendis smiled at Valdelmar again. But this was no convivial rictus -- her lips were drawn tight, gently pursed to expose the tips of her teeth. The forced mirth was obvious, as was her banal stare. I had not, up to that point in my life, ever seen a more masterfully subtle threat and challenge. Under that icy stare, Valdelmar seethed. I could see the beginnings of what looked like a fidget, and he cast his glance around the table. His eyes lingered, for but a moment, on the young man next to him that also wore the tabard of the Crimson Legion. They then swept up the room, glossing over the seven other men present that did not wear that tabard. Men who were at the moment, favoring the Crusader Lord with the same sort of stare that the High General had adopted.
By all I hold dear, what I would give to be able to experience the triumph and elation of that moment any time I liked!
"No," he let out a held breath after a pregnant moment, shaking his head swiftly. "No, High General. No issue, Sir."
"I thought not!" Abbendis smiled wide, a disturbingly genuine warmth in her expression. She slapped her thigh once, her neck craning back as she tittered a merry laugh, before sobering and continuing with her briefing. "To this end, we will be utilizing six separate columns, all of which will follow the northward trails independent of one another. Each column will compose of roughly fifty crusaders, with an additional detachment of ten men from the support and arcane corps. At roughly seventy men a column, with six columns, we will be dispatching close to four hundred and fifty men, all total, with perhaps three hundred of those drawn directly from our line formations."
She glared at Valdelmar. "I trust that the loss of such a meagre amount of manpower for a brief scouting expedition will not drawn Lord Dathrohan's ire." She only pretended to not be speaking directly to him. Frankly, I suppose she thought a direct rebuke to be beneath her dignity. I disagreed. Then again, at that point I would have liked nothing more than to see her leap atop the table, claw out Valdelmar's eyes and urinate into their empty sockets. "As I said," she resumed, "Each of these columns will be under independent command, though I expect them to be operating in close enough proximity that communication will be possible by courier. To this end, Commander Helbrecht -- " she nodded at Jothæm -- "Will be placed in command of the number one column. He will retain command of the entire expedition, though operational command will be left at large to the individual column commanders."
Turning her head, the High General settled her eyes upon me. And simultaneously every muscle in my body tensed, as every bone locked up. I did not gulp. I don't think.
"Sir Kurnous will command number two column, and operate as Commander Helbrecht's executive in the chain of command."
I probably should have expected to hear something like that. I was, after all, the hero of Lake Mereldar. And in our world, a world where the average lifespan of a crusader was measured in weeks, any man with valuable command and combat experience was a treasure to be kept close, cherished, and then employed to the full extent possible. The more I allowed the prospect to wash over me, I realized that I was flattered. I had just been hand-picked for a command position by the High General herself! And though by that time I was beginning to discard the majority of my naive, Silver Hand-inspired beliefs, shaping them into something more practical, it was still a monumental honor to be granted another independent command after the disaster my previous one had suffered.
Marjhan’s elbow jarred me in the ribs, and I startled from my reverie.
“As the High General wishes, I shall obey.” The words fell from my lips almost instantly, and there was no deceit or falsehood in them.
“Good,” Abbendis smiled at me – an equally genuine smile, I was sure – nodded, and turned to one of the younger, newer faces on the other side of the table. “Sir Hopesfire will be assigned number three column, and,” she turned her attention to another of the new faces, “Sir Lightsgrace will take number four…” I zoned out the High General, considering implications. For a moment, I was struck by the fact that I seemed to be the only man in the Crusade gifted by fortune with a family name that was not some varying permutation of the words Light, Fire, and Holy. That thought passed quickly, and my mind began to instead focus upon the details pertinent to this mission. Geography; logistics. All would need seeing to. The remainder of the meeting passed rather quickly; Abbendis delegated the assignments, made a few remarks on how she trusted the lot of us, and then adjourned the assembly. We all rose, bowing and saluting our obedience as the High General departed, and then summarily dismissed ourselves.
Marjhan hurried out almost immediately after the High General, pausing only to wink at me before she disappeared through the door. I smiled, perhaps a bit too stupidly for my own good, because I saw the aforementioned Sir Hopesfire snickering at me. I turned to him, beginning to lash out with a cruel retort, when Sir Helbrecht’s grasp took me by the shoulder and ushered me from the room without so much as an opportunity to protest. Once in the hall, he released me, and gave me a wild smile.
“Now, now, young Kurnous,” his voice was just as chiding as it had been ten years ago, when he’d effortlessly beaten me around the training fields. “It won’t do for you to rip young Hopesfire’s head off before he even gets his boots dirty. He tilted his head, and grinned even wider. “Though I suspect, Elda—Oh, excuse me, it’s Sir Kurnous now, isn’t it?” His smirk was positively blinding; had it been dark inside the keep, I suspect it would have shone in the night like a beacon. Uncaring of my brief ponderings, Sir Helbrecht pushed forwards, wrapping an arm around my shoulder and spreading his other arm wide to gesture at the rest of the hall. “Regardless, Eldan—Sir Kurnous, it seems that you and I are about to be thrown straight into the grinder once more.”
“It is a great honor to be chosen for this command,” I protested, but Sir Helbrecht and his rakish grin would have none of it.
“Nonsense, young Eldanesh. It is a great honor to live to a ripe old age, and pass on quietly in one’s own bed whilst surrounded by friends and family. Not so much an honor to be eaten by cannibalistic, undead abominations, is it?”
I paled, and for the first time in my life I think I actually goggled at a superior officer. “W-what?”
“Tsk tsk, young Kurnous,” Sir Helbrecht began to walk down the corridor, “I always told you to focus less on your swordplay and more on your studying. Did you ever read Arathor and the Troll Wars? Or perhaps Wrath of the Soulflayer?”
My dumbfounded silence told him all that he needed to do, and Sir Helbrecht heaved a heavy sigh.
“You idiot boy. What the fel am I going to do with you?”
I began to protect again; this time it was a vague, half-hearted assurance that despite what he may think, I was now closer to thirty than I was to twenty and that while I may not have read everything the abbots assigned me to, it was I that had—
“That what? Had three-quarters of your command killed, and only managed to survive because one of your subordinates dragged you away?”
My mouth snapped shut. Sir Helbrecht grinned at me, shaking his head with a wry chuckle. “Really, Eldanesh. For one thing, relax. I’m merely teasing. And I suppose what with that peerage they gave you, you technically outrank me.”
“Nonsense,” it was my turn to snort derisively. “If titles were awarded by merit, Sir, you’d be the King of Lordaeron.”
“Alterac, maybe,” Sir Helbrecht snorted, and finally released my shoulder, turning to look me in the eye. “This is going to be a very dangerous assignment, Eldanesh. Do not mistake it for a simple stroll through the Plaguelands in the company of a heavily armed troupe. The Scourge, perhaps, will not be a problem so far from their centers of power, but there will still be roving bands of them. And once we pass into the great forests, we will face another problem entirely.”
He grimaced, and turned away, beginning to pace across the hall, back and forth, back and forth. “You will, of course, be on your own. And despite the fact that you’re a blockheaded buffoon, I might actually find myself mildly bereaved if you were to be killed in action.”
Again, he looked at me, and his nose wrinkled in between the mischievous gleam of his eyes. I saw it coming, and I winced preemptively.
“Not, at least, before we crown you the High Tinker of Gnomeregan.”
Quips aside, it did not take me very long to realize that Sir Helbrecht was quite correct. The most glaring affirmation of this came when, as I perused the library in our abbey, I came across a small tome by the name of Theological Practices of the Amani Tribe of Forest Trolls. Upon opening it, the first thing that struck me was a woodcut that portrayed two trolls holding down an Elf and cutting out his heart for consumption. The caption explained, in great detail, that certain Loa sects believed that in consuming the heart of an enemy, one gained his power. It further explained that the Amani, in particular, enjoyed torturing their victims of sacrifice for quite some time before finally removing the heart. Apparently, it made the organ taste sweeter.
When I communicated this grisly fact to my Sergeant at Arms, Mister Willey seemed less than concerned. In fact, he muttered a highly anatomical profanity concerning the perceived pertness of the Trollish buttocks, and how attractive such lodging might seem to an errant stick of dynamite.
I must now take a moment to speak about Sergeant Major Roethe Willey. Sergeant Willey is what most good folk would call a “character”. He was born in Lordaeron; Stratholme, I think, and is cousin to Cannonmaster Willey of the Crimson Legion. Since a young age, Mister Willey had a fascination with explosives. In fact, he blew half of his tongue off by experimenting with bomb-making when he was ten, and was then sent to live in Ironforge so as to learn from Dwarven miners the proper arts of demolition. As a result, he speaks with a heavy Dwarven brogue. This, coupled with his mutilated tongue, makes him incredibly difficult to understand. Furthermore, he is mentally unstable, prone to violence, wenching, and disreputable acts of all sort. I am relatively certain that the one and only reason that he was assigned to be my senior non-commissioned officer is that because for some trick of fate and Light, I have no issues comprehending his garbled speech.
On the upside, his loyalty is not to be questioned, and despite a lackadaisical system of personal belief that would likely have him executed for heresy should he speak of it to an Inquisitor, he is upright and honorable in most things.
It was to Sergeant Roethe Willey that I brought word of our new assignment, once I had left Commander Helbrecht and returned from the library. He took the news with his usual, philosophical serenity.
That is to say: “Th’uck’o’a’re’iffin’u’Igh’En’ral’ants’tae’end’us’f’t’uckin’El’Tal’ass.”
That is to say: The fuck do I care if the High General wants to send us to fucking Quel’thalas.
It was a simple statement from one of the simplest men I have ever known. In fact, it moved me to tears of laughter, and as I stood slumped against the wall of our shared little office, howling with laughter, Roethe stared at me like I was insane.
In the weeks, months and years since that moment, I have often come to wonder if I am insane.
Roethe and I took the rest of the day to study our rolls. We selected fifty crusaders from our company, those whom we had served with the longest, or knew the best. After the jarring, and frankly rather disturbing revelation that Sir Helbrecht had foisted upon me, I was not in the mood to bring untested, overzealous pups on an expedition that had the potential to degenerate so quickly. Granted, it was said that the Amani, as the forest trolls of Lordaeron call themselves, occupied a general position further to the east of our line of march, but I was not going to take chances.
We were ready to depart less than a week later. Three columns had already departed, sent out in advance by Sir Helbrecht to scout the area around Thalassian Pass. The remaining three, the ones under the command of myself, Commander Helbrecht and the new man, Hopesfire, were to follow as swiftly as possible, in one contiguous column, until we reached Northdale, where we would split off on our own paths.
Departing early in the morning, four days after the initial half of the expedition, we rode out from Tyr’s Hand and turned north. All of us were mounted, even the scouts and arcanists that our units had been augmented with, and we made good time. Surprisingly, there was very little active resistance from the Scourge – but then again, the largest concentrations of the enemy are oft found closest to their blasphemous strongholds. The fact we skirted the hollow where Light’s Hope Chapel stands might have helped. Supposedly, it is a sanctified structure that the Scourge wish little to do with.
Despite being mounted, it took us two days to reach Northdale. We could have made the trip in a single day, but given our relative dearth of numbers, Commander Helbrecht thought it wise to proceed more cautiously, a fact that I, and Hopesfire too agreed with. I did not know much about this Hopesfire fellow, though I learned from Commander Helbrecht that he and I had much in common. We had both been relatively young Knights of the Silver Hand during the time of Lordaeron’s cataclysmic death, except that Hopesfire had been one of the few to follow Jaina Proudmoore across the sea to Kalimdor. He returned home as soon as he was able, and joined the Crusade rather late, thus accounting for his relative anonymity.
He proved affable enough, however, and I even thought that I might be starting to tolerate him by the time we reached Northdale. At that forsaken old hamlet, we found no immediate traces of the Scourge, though two men from Sir Helbrecht’s column were set upon by an invisible banshee while inspecting a house. They were mourned, buried with all the honors, and soon enough we split off on our own routes.
Commander Helbrecht had directed me to proceed northeast, on a line of march that while not precisely parallel to the line of Thalassian Pass, came quite close. The rationale was that if the Scourge still controlled the pass itself, we would have to find a path through the mountains and then descend into the lowlands and forests of Quel’thalas proper, much as the Orcs had done during the second war. We rode off from Northdale, waving our goodbyes to our friends and comrades, our spirits high.
Approximately two hours after leaving Northdale, we stopped for the evening, and constructed a small base camp at the edge of Northeron’s foothills. Despite the fact we were only stopping for one night, I ordered a ditch dug and a palisade constructed to shield our bivouac. Some commanders might judge this overly prudent and an unnecessary precaution, but I am not, and have never been a man to take chances. The Scourge did not attack us that night, but what if they did? Would the time I’d taken to have the fortifications be considered wasted?
Only fools judge military caution by circumstances. A proper commander, in my mind, is ever vigilant and ever mindful of the perils that can befall him at any time.
This is why I consider myself, for my actions upon the next day, a great and fantastic fool.
We broke camp early in the morning. There was no point in destroying our little base camp – it wasn’t as if the Scourge would go out of their way to occupy it; it was too small to serve any real strategic or tactical value, and we might find a use for it in later weeks, months, or even years. Mounting up, we rode up through those same foot hills, vaguely seeking a path through the mountains and towards the bountiful, and hopefully untouched woodlands of Quel’thalas that lay beyond.
One of my scouts found a trail, and without considering the implications of this discovery—who had cleared it, for example—I ordered my column to pivot on the lead riders and follow this trail up into the barren wilderness. Despite this lapse, Sir Helbrecht’s words about Trolls were fresh in my mind, and I duly designated two advanced guards and four flankers, strung out in thirty-meter intervals to either side of the column, with the advanced guards likewise distanced from the van.
We were roughly three hours of travel into our march, with noon having just passed, when everything stopped. One moment, I was enjoying the cool breeze, relatively untainted by the foul plague cauldrons and blooming scourge spores at this altitude, glancing about to admire the dense, if nondescript ranks of pine and fir trees, and the next moment…
The next moment was not so much a moment as it was a single, horrifying second drawn out across the span of what seemed like an hour, where every terrifying, hellacious and disturbing sight that transpired in that fleeting moment was impressed unto me with a terrible veracity, as if it mocked my useless diligence and ran roughshod over all my preparations.
It began with a feeling—a sense, if you will. My feeling of resonance with the Holy Light suddenly eddied, like a comfortable road taking a sharp and abrupt dip. Even more, despite the perfectly serene surroundings that encompassed us, I felt my stomach lurch and my body twist around as if my horse was going to throw me—even as the Charger casually cantered along the trail, oblivious to it all. Inside my head, a throbbing ache surfaced, like someone had poured a bubbling ale upon my skull. Everything was suddenly wrong—it had never been more wrong.
Things were wrong because lying ahead, in the shallow defiles that lined either side of the forested trail, there were undead. Dozens of them, and I was aware of their presence as if I was casually sitting in a branch perched above them, observing them with my own two eyes. It was the Holy Light that had warned me of this trap, as I could sense the foul presence created by minions of the Lich King that despoiled this land—but this was different. A more subtle, insidious malice, somehow harder to localize, as if the foul creatures that lay ahead still retained some of their connection to this forest.
I realized the truth of this trap, as did almost every other Paladin within the first few ranks of our column. But by then it was too late.
A shower of javelins and wicked axes exploded out of the underbrush, and my two advanced guards, still in sight, were slaughtered. The first impaled through the throat by a twisted javelin, tearing aside the flesh of his neck with a muted, wet gurgle and an arterial spray of blood that caked his comrade’s face, adding a macabre light to his horrified cry, even as a flight of throwing axes impacted his body with a disgusting series of wet thuds, rending at his armor and eliciting more pained groans that only subsided when one final axe caught the edge of his neck and ripped open his throat, spilling his adam’s apple and the majority of his esophagus down onto his tabard.
It was not the fact of the ambush that stunned me, for I had seen men killed before, often in grislier ways. But it was the suddenness of it all, the careful, calculating malice that one rarely saw from the Scourge, that gave me pause.
Of course, this was because the things that had ambushed us weren’t Scourge at all. At least, not in the strictest sense.
Despite that horrified shock, I managed to wrest my body from the icy grasp of panic, and set my mind straight even before the first corpse of my slain men was tumbling from their mount. Sparing just a single glance to either tree-line, I was already raising my voice and crying out in command as the first rank of our mounts stalled: “Ambush! Close!”
As far as I am concerned, there are two types of ambush that any prospective commander of men should be aware of—close and far—and deciding which was which is the responsibility of the unit commander. The ability to tell the difference is perhaps one of the surest ways to separate the schoolbook soldier from the true field tactician.
The difference is crucial because the reactions to each should be diametrically opposed. In the case of a long-range ambush, the drilled reaction must be for friendly forces to take cover and use suppression and maneuver to assault the ambushing force. Of course, that is a gross simplication of things, and the result is often chaotic and bloody, but that is the general plan.
In the case of a close-range ambush, however, doctrine changes. Even with the inevitable care the enemy has taken to prepare his position, there is no sense in remaining in place when they already have you locked into the precise position they want you in. So the reaction to the close ambush is even simpler than the far ambush—charge.
A grim reality of any ambush, though, no matter how you prepare for it, how you classify it or thwart it, is that your people are going to die. Lots of them, even if you’re particularly lucky. Even as I was jerking the reins of my charger, and waving my lance and its pennon on high to lend credence to my shouted orders, throwing axes peppered the column proper. A man beside me went down, the sheer impact that those demonic weapons imparted denting his breastplate and throwing him from his mount beneath a flurry of axes. But I would not be deterred. We would not be deterred. My rowel spurs lashed at the flanks of my mount and I spurred the beast into a charge, still waving my lance before I brought it ‘round and couched it under my arm.
The folly of trying to lance an unseen foe dawned on me about ten yards from the tree-line, but by then, there was not much to be done. My horse leapt the berm on the edge of the road and slipped through the nagging branches of fir trees and falling pine cones. Throwing one hand up to reflexively shield my face, I stabbed blindly with the other, rewarded with a gurgling shriek that split the near-serene silence, giving way to what was but the first of dozens, hundreds of crashes, clangs and screams.
I leapt from my horse, leaving my lance stuck clean through what I now know was an undead Mossflayer troll. Drawing my sword, I darted forwards, even as the foliage behind me came alive with the trampling thunder of dozens of horses thrashing through the underbrush, congealing with the mixed shouts of my men and the abject screams of the wounded. I began to raise my voice to shout for order, but the cry faltered as a Troll came at me, seemingly melting out of a nearby tree and slashing at me with a pair of axes. I blocked the first on the fullers of my arming sword, but the second came diving in close, and ripped open a shallow, jagged chunk of flesh from the side of my cheek.
Never one to be deterred by pedestrian pain, I happily twisted my torso to gain momentum, flicking my wrist to send the Troll’s primary axe flying away from the lash of my sword, and hacked its right arm off at the shoulder. It fell back, hunching over, tusks gleaming in the midmorning light, and spared a glance to its wounded stump. I watched, in horror, the same process the creature waited for—there was no flow of blood, nor any of the otherworldly ichor I have sometimes come to associate with the “fuel” of the Scourge. Such was because like a ravenous, hungry swarm, skin had folded in around that stump, creeping forwards from the shoulder to swallow the wound itself.
The Troll had precious little time to savor this small victory, for I made the minutest adjustments to my footing and then stabbed it straight through the heart, kicked it in the pelvis to aid the task of sliding my blade from its chest, and hacked off its head with a strong, back-handed strike.
Turning around, I raised my sword on reflex at the first hint of motion, and then eased my slash as I recognized the plate-enshrouded profile of Sergeant Willey, his ungainly appearance amplified only by the distinctly non-regulation goggles that he wore in lieu of a helmet. “Sair,” he rasped, turning around suddenly and lifting his silver-plated shotgun, and using it with great efficiency and a startling, branch-bristling BOOM that sent a slug whirling through the air until it blew apart the torso of a nearby Troll, “Ah’air'ay’at’er’e’inna’il’it’o’a’ickle.”
Which was to say, “Sir, I daresay that we’re in a little bit of a pickle.”
A mirthless smile took to my lips, born from the kind of black, macabre humor that comes to many men in situations like this. “I daresay, Sergeant, that you may be right,” I snickered, and turned in a quick circle to take stock of things—our brazen charge had the effect I’d intended, driving the enemy back from the edge of the trail and getting us out of the open. The detachment on the other side of the trail, now faced with the prospect of continuing to ineffectually throw their missiles across the road and through the opposite tree-line, or break cover and cross the road.
Their choice seemed half and half, and a good deal of my skirmishers had taken fighting positions behind trees or logs that immediately formed the edge of the trail, picking off daring enemies that tried to dash the gap with accurate bow and gunfire. The mixed retort of snapping bowstrings and cracking blunderbusses was reassuring, and I took momentary solace in the fact that something seemed to be going right.
To my left, my main body was busy pushing the trolls back from the trail’s edge, and my moment of calm collection and observation was shattered like dropped porcelain by a whooping, undulating warcry that split the forest and seemed to echo from every direction. In that moment, I realized my second mistake—and I looked up with barely enough time to spare, nearly leaping to the left and raising my sword to eviscerate the Troll that had silently dropped from a tree, the point of my sword slipping into mottled skin just above its groin and tearing a jagged, lengthy trail up its distended belly until it was stopped by the creature’s collarbone. I deftly jerked my sword back and stepped again to my left, neatly avoiding the raining offal that had vomited from its ruptured chest as a result of the Troll’s abrupt evisceration.
I was unperturbed when the corpse slammed into the forest floor in a twisted tangle of limbs, and I concentrated on my men. We formed a rough skirmish line some fifty meters in length, our locus and center of the line around ten meters from the trail. Most of my knights fought in that line, hacking at elusive enemies and sheltering behind shields to protect them from the rain of axes that seemed to begin out of no where. On the other side of our makeshift formation, my skirmishers sheltered behind the trunks of trees, doing their best to keep the Trolls on the other side of the trail pinned down.
The entire situation was precarious, and it was extremely confused. My Sergeants and Corporals were not disseminated throughout the entire line as they should have been, owing to the haphazard nature of our charge, and instead of fighting in orderly lines with officers controlling the ranks, things were degenerating into a disjointed melee; the entire forest was a storm of confusion and panic as Trolls slipped in from above to drop down and gut the unawares with lethal knives and wicked axes. I turned, and commanded Sergeant Willey to the opposite end of the line—I wanted that flank refused, brought in close to the road to link to our skirmishers and present a salient on one end. With the right wing entrusted to Roethe’s generally-often-sort-of-Light-help-me-if-I’m-wrong-about-his-being-capable hands, I turned my attention to the left.
Or rather, what was left of it. Bloodied, battered and reeling crimson Knights fought with magnificent and valiant abandon, having been gradually pressed inwards by pressure on our hanging wing. That end of the line, too, was slowly curving back towards the road, but not from natural adjustment. Dozens of the enemy were leaping from bushes and falling from trees, slamming their bodies into stout iron shields with little regard for the way they opened themselves to be gutted by close-in swordplay, and caring only for the way their caustic rush opened their victims to be overwhelmed by the four or five fellows that followed. Screams were splitting the air; all-too human screams that were generally cut short by a wet gurgling sound.
I gathered the Light to myself and charged, holding my sword firmly in one hand and reaching up with the other to steady my barbute, and tug with irritably at its chinstrap. Coming upon the knot of clustered soldiers, I shouldered my way through them, ignorant of the blood that was seeping from my gouged cheek and staining my skin, raising my sword and leaping wildly at the nearest Troll.
I suspect the audacity in my attack caught it by surprise, for it fell back, raising one of its handaxes to try and parry my sword, only to find that my strike was a feint. I deftly returned to guard and lashed out again, taking off its left hand and then darting into the opening created, slamming my shoulder into its jaw with a sickening crack and reaching up to grab its hair with my free hand. With that purchase, I jerked its sinewy body forwards, rewarded with a muted, wet shearing sound as it was drawn onto my sword and impaled through the stomach.
Throwing the corpse aside, I turned and raised my bloody blade to shout triumph and encouragement to my remaining troops, and then started forwards again. We spread out, pushing through the underbrush in a tightly-packed formation of interlocked shields and bristling swords, our ranks broken only when trees or brushes interrupted our advance. Trolls came at is with whooping fury, but were often enough cut down before inflicting any real harm.
Time stretched out, once again drawing seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, and every motion I made seemed slow, languid. My senses were either dulled or honed to the keenest edge they’d ever been fashioned to, but I wasn’t sure. I was aware of muffled explosions that rocked the world, and over to my right, where the rest of our line lay extended along the trail, the world shattered and split into fragments of blinding light as a series of detonations lacerated the forest with whirling shrapnel and roiling clouds of fire. Dimly, I realized that they had come from Sergeant Willey’s cache of grenades, but it was a distant sensation. Muffled. Detached. I understood it on an intellectual level, but nothing more.
Another chorus of explosions set my world asunder, and all I remember of that last, final push is the methodical, economic motions of my arms as they set my sword to work, slashing and hacking with fatal ease at exposed enemies as we forced our way forwards, wheeling slowly at the right flank so that the column’s entire formation now resembled an inverse L. Again, and again that well-used blade sought Troll bile, and it was rewarded each time for its loyalty. Soon, it all blended together into a single moment in time; a snapshot of my world, shrouded in blood and iron, wracked by screams of the dying and the caustic retort of explosions.
My sword was a dead weight in my hand by that point, and I felt all the adrenaline-infused strength slowly seeping out of my body like a receding wave. My knees buckled; my vision blurred. Everything around me began to spin; vision intermixed with sounds intermixed with smell. I couldn't discern one person from another; I had no idea which of my men grasped me by the elbow to prevent me from toppling over whole.
But there was one thing that remained clear. One, simple thing that cut through all the chaos and confusion that crawled inside my skull. It was the stench; the sulphuric stench of the naptha that still smoldered and clung to blackened, burnt-out trees in erratic and flickering patches of wildfire.
I realized I loved that smell. That abhorrent, nostril-curling stench. It was something more than a mere, pedestrian odor by then -- in that horrific smell, I found something more. I found salvation. Deliverance. My eyes wide open, I gasped out for breath, bucking in the grasp of my men and breathing in the morning air.
It smelled like victory.