...when I saw it happen, I knew she would get angry. Anyone who has ever worked with the girl knows that she has a temper. One she loses with sometimes alarming frequency. Upon losing it, she often goes into what I've come to call an "unstoppable rage" in which she will blindly throw whatever magic she deems appropriate at her foe, without thought to the consequences of her actions. More often than not, the consequences lie in her disregard for her own safety. If her spells were to fail, she would be left completely vulnerable to counterattack.
But what few know is that her anger has another side. Just as her rage can become a raging inferno, so too can it become cold as the chill of Icecrown Glacier. Her face does not become contorted in rage, but instead a tranquility falls over her, betrayed only by the deathly chill in her eyes. When this tranquil fury overtakes her, she becomes more dangerous than the most powerful of Old Gods. You see, even they have rules and a sense of self preservation that guides them and prevent them from doing anything that might harm themselves.
When she reaches this stage of anger, Poldaran loses all regard for any rules and no longer cares what happens to herself, or even the whole world. Truly, all she cares about is vengeance, and making those who harmed her suffer as much as she can. When I see this look upon her face, I know that I am about to witness some form of atrocity.
Very little scares me. But that look chills me to the bone. Before our journey into the Storm Peaks, I had only seen it once before. I pray to any gods who will listen that I never see it again.
-An Excerpt from a letter to the Archwizard Khadgar from his student, the Journeyman Wizard Yadier.
Prologue: A Twisted Vision
Poldaran sat up in a cold sweat, the night air chilling her, even through a heavy down comforter. The dream had come once again. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see it.
At first she thought it an illusion, treachery planted by the Lich King to weaken her resolve. Now, however, she was beginning to suspect that it was something else. She had been gifted with prophecy from the time she was very young, though she never thought of it as a gift. It was more of a curse.
Sure, she had used its power to avert a number of catastrophes, and to save countless lives on many occasions, but despite that, she could not bring herself to count it as a blessing. It had been of no use in saving many of her friends, and worse, had actually led to the death of one when she had tried to avert his death elsewhere. She did not like to think about that and had never told anyone about those failures.
She felt a hand stroke her back reassuringly. "The dream again?" Nihlus asked. She turned to him and nodded. "Put it from your mind and get some sleep," he said. "It's just a dream, everything will be fine."
"Okay," she responded. She kissed him and laid back down. However, despite his assurances, Poldaran could not find solace. If he was wrong, if it was some kind of prophecy, nothing would be fine ever again.
The Lich King was going to win this war, and when it was over, Poldaran would find herself kneeling before the Frozen Throne, swearing her allegiance to the Scourge.
** * **
Alexandrine parried the swing deftly. "You must strike harder, Bethany. If you wish to use a sword like that, some of the art is in the sheer force of your blows. You have to make my shoulders ache from the impact of your attack. You have to unbalance me with the resounding crash while not overextending yourself. Again!"
"I told you to call me Azmaria while we're in public," the younger girl said with a sigh. "It would be best if my identity were hidden, as Poldaran suggested." She swung again, this time throwing as much force into the blow as she could. Alexandrine dodged the stroke by rolling past her opponent and countered by striking her sister with the flat of her axe across her backside.
"You overextended yourself and couldn't adapt to the changing situation. You have to walk the fine line between power and balance. In truth, I think the problem lies in the fact that you're using too large of a sword. You don't have the physical strength to wield that one."
"I won't use a different weapon," Azmaria said firmly. After destroying the runeblade that the Lich King had given her, Poldaran had purchased this sword for her in Dalaran and had spent several days enchanting it before she had helped Azmaria carve the proper runic symbols into it. Alex might be right and the sword might be too heavy for her, but Azmaria could not bear to part with it.
"Alright," Alexandrine said, defeated. "Then we'll have to go about this the other way. Just like the weapon masters of the Knights of the Silver Hand did for me, I will craft for you a program of intense physical training to help you increase your strength and stamina to the levels you need. At times, your body will cry out in such agony that you'll wish for death, but when it's through you'll be much stronger for it. But first, no sense training on an empty stomach. Let's head back to our tent and see about some lunch."
Azmaria nodded. As the two girls walked from the training field, she began to wonder aloud. "So, why do you think Poldaran sent us out here?"
"Many reasons, I suspect," Alexandrine said. "Foremost, I think, is that you need training, and this tournament offers excellent facilities to do so. However, I also think she wants to see you make more of a name for yourself. I'd imagine that if you use your power over necromancy, you'll find few opponents in the tournament you won't be able to beat. Fame can be very useful when Poldaran needs you to do something, as people tend not to stand in your way when your reputation precedes you."
"Needs me to do something?"
"Yes. You see, Poldaran's reputation leads to a lot of people coming to her for help when problems are beyond the scope of normal means. This happens often enough that she isn't always able to help all that need it at once, so instead, she sends out one of us to help deal with larger problems, like Scourge raids, demonic invasions and the like."
"Why would they need her to deal with these things?"
"In truth, I suspect that they don't. However, for centuries, the Guardian of Tirisfal has dealt with all the big problems like those, so it was easy for people to latch onto someone to fill in for that role after Medivh's disappearance. The problem lies in the fact that she's not the Guardian. She doesn't have his power and can't deal with it all alone. So she sends us when she can't do it herself."
"But why would she agree to any of this?"
"Poldaran has a strange sense of duty," Alex replied. "You see, she's not the Guardian, but she's still a member of the Council of Tirisfal, and as such, she feels that she has to do what is necessary to protect the people of this world. The 'do what is necessary' part has begun to worry me, though. Sometimes her methods are scary. Sometimes she crosses lines I'd prefer she didn't. At times, it can even become hard to determine whether she's worse than those she fights."
Azmaria looked at her sister. " 'He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.' "
"It's from an old philosophy book, dating back to the Strom Era, as I recall. Dad had me read it when we were discussing the internment camps. He was disgusted by the treatment we were giving the Orcs and worried that Humanity might become the greater evil if we didn't do something to correct our path soon."
Alexandrine reflected upon it for a moment. "It seems fitting, here."
"So you worry about Poldaran becoming a monster?"
"I do." She laughed suddenly. "However, I think she worries the same about me, sometimes." Amzaria's look was one of confusion. "We were talking about why we're here at the tournament earlier. I think Poldaran sent us here so that I could interact with righteous and noble members of the Horde and begin to get over my view of the Forsaken as monsters after my trip into the Undercity with King Wrynn. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps I do need to forgive what I saw. Perhaps I need not become a monster filled with hate."
"That's good to hear," Azmaria said. Her stomach growled audibly. "However, right now, I think we have more pressing concerns."
Both girls laughed as they entered their tent in search of a midday meal.
** * **
"Foolhardy, my daughter. To think that you could defeat me alone was lunacy at best. Is your wish for death so great that you've taken leave of your senses?" Kel'thuzad asked the young woman standing before him.
"You might be right, Father. Had I come against you alone, I would indeed have been a fool. But you see, I haven't come alone," Poldaran said, her lips pulling back in a sly grin.
"Our scouts saw no one enter this place with you. You are bluffing," the Arch-lich replied, though his voice was uncertain.
"I sense fear in you, Father. Perhaps you have realized the truth of the situation? Perhaps you realize that not everyone in Naxxramas is as loyal as you once thought?" Her grin was now positively wicked.
The look in her eyes sent the Arch-lich into a panic. "Minions, servants, soldiers of the cold dark, obey the call of Kel'Thuzad!" He looked around, not so much as a ghoul had come to his aid. "What is the meaning of this?!"
A voice spoke from the shadows. "I'm afraid they won't be coming, Arch-Lich."
"That voice!" Kel'thuzad nearly screamed. "Traitor!"
Noth the Plaguebringer stepped from the shadow. "Careful there. You'll hurt my feelings."
Poldaran answered. "It's quite simple. Noth was a friend of my master's back in Dalaran. When I learned he was here, I came to speak with him and learned a great deal. While he was drawn to power initially, he eventually began to despair at the things that he was made to do. Sensing his unrest, you used your magic to freeze his heart within his chest." A ball of flame appeared within her hand. "I simply found a way to unfreeze his heart and now it burns for revenge."
"I should have expected no less a devious scheme from you, Poldaran. I must say I approve."
"Thank you, Father. Now be so kind as to perish quickly. I still have a few loose ends to tie up here and I'd like to turn this place over to the Argent Crusade before tonight's full moon rises, as I promised you I would."
The battle was quick and dirty. The Arch-Lich of the Scourge, one of the most powerful necromancers the world had ever seen faced off against the two most powerful living necromancers in the world. In the end, the Living prevailed, though not without a cost. Noth the Plaguebringer's anger burned within him so hot that he used a spell of sacrifice to end Kel'thuzad's reign. Once and for all, it was done.
Poldaran followed that victory by defeating the remaining horrors within Naxxramas, and as she had promised after the fight between Alexandrine and Azmaria almost a month before, by the time the full moon arose, the dread citadel of Naxxramas had fallen.
** * **
Azmaria sat quietly sipping her tea in the corner of the dimly lit and smoky tent. She was surprised at how much time she had been forced to spend finding a place that would serve her. Most of the small dining tents had been merely dismissive of her and a bit rude, though one owner had chased her out with the threat of calling for the mercenaries he had hired as security.
She was quite shocked at this kind of treatment. In the weeks she had been here, no one had treated her this way before. On the other hand, Alexandrine was sleeping off a minor cold and had not come with her, so this was also the first time Azmaria had been out and about on her own. Nonetheless, even when she was with Alexandrine, she had seen the looks on the faces of people as she had passed. Distrust was always present in their eyes, and Azmaria wasn't sure why.
It came as a shock when a woman approached her. "Is this seat taken?" the woman asked, indicating another chair at the table where Azmaria was seated.
Azmaria smiled at the woman, the first person other than her sister to say much to her since she had arrived at the tourney. "Not at all," she said warmly.
The woman sat across from her and motioned to the owner. "I'd like a plate of whatever it is you have roasting back there and a cup of mead. Get my friend here another cup of whatever it is she's drinking as well." She turned to Azmaria, a smile on her face. "So, you must be Azmaria. There's a lot of talk about you amongst the folks here for the tourney." She pulled her black hair back and secured it with a pin in preparation for her coming meal, revealing more of the pale skin of her face.
"Talk about me around here? From the looks I get and the way other establishments have treated me, I take it none of the talk is good."
The owner placed a plate of meat and a cup of mead in front of the black haired woman, who thanked him warmly. He then served Azmaria another cup of tea. "Not good, perhaps, but there is very little bad said about you either."
"That seems surprising. You would think that there were rumors going around that I was some kind of plague carrier or something with the looks I get."
"I wouldn't let it get you too upset," the black haired woman said, taking a bite of her meal. "People aren't afraid of you." She took a sip of mead. "Wait, let me rephrase that. People aren't afraid of you because of anything you've done. They're afraid of someone else entirely. You just have the luck of being associated with someone they fear. It's probably for the best that they don't realize that you're related to her."
"You mean Alex? Everyone around here seems to respect and trust her completely."
"No, not her, Bethany. Your older sister. Well, sort of sister, since you two don't actually share any blood relation."
"How did you know that name? And why would people be afraid of Poldaran? She's a great hero."
The woman almost choked on her drink, then started laughing. "A hero? I see you've led quite the sheltered life. As for the first question, we'll just say I have excellent sources of information and leave it at that. The answer for the second question is a bit more complicated." She took another bite, obviously contemplating her words. "When people think of heroes, Poldaran of Wintermoon's name rarely comes up. She isn't seen as a hero by more than a few people in this entire world."
"Why is that?"
"Poldaran's methods have always been, well, extreme. People don't just remember what she has accomplished, they also remember how she accomplished it. They remember the number of lives lost by her decisions. They remember how many of her actions, while leading to victory, rarely followed a path of honor. They know about her use of dark, forbidden magic to do what she has to do. And more than that, they know about her true parentage, and many see her use of necromancy as proof that she's no better than her father, one of the greatest traitors of our time."
"But she's beaten back the Blue Flight! She destroyed a Scourge army! She defeated Kael'thas Sunstrider! She was with those who took down Illidan!"
"That's how one who knows her sees her. Your average citizen, however is stupid. People have heard about her threat against the Blue Flight, her promise of brutal extermination. They saw her image, her hair caked with blood as she declared victory to Dalaran after that incredibly brutal battle. They suspect that she used her connection to the Scourge to stage the attack on Wintergarde as a cover for aiding the Forsaken, who are currently mistrusted by the populace for the business at the Wrath Gate, in destroying the presence of the Scarlet Crusade in the area. They suspect that she used her friendship with Kael'thas Sunstrider to get close to and assassinate him in an underhanded sneak attack, much like the actions of Garona years ago. And a powerful artifact went missing after Illidan's defeat. They claim that her aid against him was merely a pretext for her to acquire said relic."
Azmaria was getting quite upset. "But Poldaran's not like that!" she said.
"I know, but you will have absolutely no luck convincing others of that." She took another sip of her mead. "In fact, Poldaran herself doesn't see herself as a hero. She's merely the person people call when they need a job done, regardless of the cost. And that's what most people see her as too. Most folks are simply waiting for the other shoe to drop and are afraid of what will happen when, not if, she betrays the Alliance and Horde."
Tears streamed down Azmaria's eyes at the thought of how bad Poldaran must feel all the time. "It's so sad. Why must people think like that?"
"I'm not sure, other than to say that people are idiots."
Azmaria, thanks to the ability to see the flows of magic she shared with Poldaran, saw the shimmering form of someone cloaked in an invisibility spell walk up behind the other woman. Person wasn't quite the right word. Azmaria suspected it was actually a demon. "Mistress," the invisible figure said. "The gnome is doing something stupid again."
"Thank you, Mirwena. I will be there momentarily," the black haired woman said. She smiled at Azmaria. "Well, Bethany, it has been fun talking with you and I hope we can do it again in the future." She stood and pulled a few coins from the purse on her belt, flinging them at the owner of the tent, who caught them deftly. "It seems, however, that duty calls," the woman said as she turned to leave.
"Wait!" Bethany called out. The woman looked at her, puzzled. "You never told me your name."
The black haired woman laughed. "Trust me, it's not all that important. And probably better that people didn't know you've been talking with me. You have enough problems as it is with people associating your name with Poldaran."
With a wink, the woman turned and left the tent to attend to whatever business it was that needed attending.
** * **
Within the highest tower of the Violet Citadel, Jaina Proudmoore sighed. "Well, that could have gone better."
"Agreed," Rhonin said with a nod. "Now we're left without the resources we need to deal with the threat from Ulduar and Yogg-Saron within."
Brann Bronzebeard nodded as well. "Magni has agreed to supply us with a few siege tanks despite Stormwind's reluctance to aid us."
Rhonin took some relief at that. "I'm sure we can hire some crews from the goblin expedition in the Storm Peaks to aid us if we can pay their price. They might even be able to supply us with a few other heavy weapons. But even with them, our numbers are going to be too small for this to be effective. Dalaran is still dealing with the Scourge and resistance from the Blue Flight while the Explorer's League doesn't have enough soldiers to make an effective army. We were really counting on the Horde and Alliance for soldiers. I'm not sure we can accomplish anything the way things are right now."
Archmage Modera took a sip of her tea. "We might not be able to, but there's someone who might."
Ansirem Runeweaver glared across the table at her. "If you're thinking who I think you're thinking, then it's absolutely out of the question. She can't be trusted. You of all people should know this!"
"I agree that there's some question as to where her allegiance lies. However, she did capture Naxxramas. Further, immediately upon its capture, she turned control of it over to the Argent Crusade, which was probably the most reasonable thing she could have done. In one action, she managed to hand the Crusade a weapon to use against the Scourge and alleviate some of my concern regarding her relationship with her traitor father. I can't say I trust the girl completely, but my biggest concern was addressed."
Rhonin considered this. "I agree with your position, but we must also consider the questions raised by her capture of the necropolis. She went in alone and recruited aid from within. Her report claims that she was able to turn Noth the Plaguebringer against his master and then single-handedly slew the remaining threats once Kel'thuzad was neutralized. I have to question such claims. Is Poldaran really capable of such things? Or is it more likely that she had other support? And what about the bodies of Gothik, Faerlina and Patchwerk, all of which were missing from the citadel when the Crusade arrived?"
"What do you mean?" Modera asked, definitely confused.
"Well, is it more likely that Poldaran managed to turn Noth good and then go on to single-handedly slay every foe in Naxxramas or does it seem more likely that she recruited the aid of Noth and several others to deal with the resistance within? If the latter is the case, why would those others have agreed to help her? Could it be that instead of turning them, she recruited them as an agent of the Lich King to put down a rebellious faction led by Kel'thuzad that had taken control of Naxxramas? Something about the whole ordeal just doesn't sit right with me."
Jaina Proudmoore rose from her seat at the large table and looked out the window. "Be that as it may, I'm not sure we have a choice. We need all the help we can get if we're to deal with this threat. If she goes, some of the greatest heroes of Azeroth will follow. Further, Nihlus, known as the Black Swordsman will follow, bringing dozens of skilled warriors from Silvermoon and the Scryers with him. And Poldaran is on friendly terms with the Frost Giants of the Storm Peaks, so she will likely be able to draw in their aid as well, especially since they have no love for Yogg-Saron's lieutenant, Loken. I'm afraid that if we want to have a shot at saving this world from this Old God, then we're going to have to trust her enough to send her against him. And even if she is a servant of the Lich King, at least we can be certain that he'll view Yogg-Saron as an enemy and stop her from dealing with it."
"I still don't like this!" Ansirem Runeweaver shouted. "She should be locked up in a cell, not leading an army!"
"I don't disagree with you, Ansirem. However, it seems we have no options. But that doesn't mean we can't take out a little insurance, at least."
"What do you have in mind?" Archmage Modera asked.
"We'll send Khadgar's student, Yadier. His loyalty to the Kirin Tor is unquestioned and she trusts him, so she'll allow him to come along. At the least, he can report on what's happening so we can prepare for anything she might do. And we can have the commanders we send ready to follow any order he gives if she does turn against us."
"Alright, then," Modera said. "I'll contact Poldaran and give her these new orders."
"I should be leaving," Jaina said. "I need to head up to the Argent Tournament. Both Varian and Thrall were invited by the Crusade to attend and I should be there to help deal with any fights that break out."