Shortly after midnight, there was a knock at Lana’thel’s chamber doors.
“My lady,” said the archmage, holding forth a small red orb. “The princes… they’ve-“
“I know,” Lana’thel interrupted, refusing to turn from the window where she stared out at the Citadel’s icy parapets. “Leave it near the door, and leave me.” She did not move until she heard the orb click down on a side table, and the door whisper shut. Assured of being alone – and here she laughed bitterly, for who in this wretched palace was truly alone, with Frostmourne licking at all their thoughts ? – Lana’thel moved towards the table where the archmage had left the Darkfallen Orb. What remained of it.
Lana’thel’s fingers caressed the surface of the orb; it used to be fat and smooth, like a seedpod ready to burst. Now it lay dormant in her hands, the glassy surface still hard but wrinkled and much smaller than it used to be. Instead of a steady thrum of power, she felt only the thready beat of a damaged heart. Fools, fools, to have used the orb thusly! And with nothing to show for it but three decaying corpses to be tossed off the nearest tower. She felt she could weep. Not for the loss of a powerful weapon, but for the three Princes she had trained and studied with. Arrogant Valanar, brilliant Taldaram, loyal Keleseth. Having them and the San’layn to command had not lessened her rage at being raised but she was a commander, and she needed them as much as they needed her to lead them.
Now there were three dead lieutenants and an army of soldiers knocking at her very door, while any source of power the Darkfallen Orb might have lent her in the coming fight was useless. She was fighting a war on two fronts; her body and mind engaged with the forces of the living and her soul – what remained of that – with the King of the Scourge.
With a furious shriek borne of the same kind of helpless fury that had led her to shatter Quel’Delar, she hurled the orb out the window that looked out over the sere landscape. Panting with rage, she rushed to the window to see the deflated orb shatter against the cobbles below.
“What a sick joke this is,” Lana’thel moaned, fingernails digging into the sill.
When Lana’thel had turned her lieutenants, fallen on fields of battle far from Icecrown, she had gathered ones consumed with blood. Blood, the antithesis to the forsaken existence of undead. Taldaram led the way, for he gloried in consuming mortal blood before his first death. Glutting themselves on blood and flesh, the Darkfallen Princes became a part of a power play Lana’thel could not admit to herself, for fear the Master would discover it.
As they gorged, Lana’thel channeled the power of their blood-soaked excesses – first, into the charnel pits below, and later into the Darkfallen Orb. Her quarters became known as the Crimson Halls for their coppery reek. Well, and what of it? Better fresh, hot blood than the unidentifiable oozes and gasses that occupied the Professor’s wing. And the green dragon – her presence had been the most poisonous of all, for tendrils of dream would purl outwards from the enslaved dragon, touching Lana’thel with waking dreams of ranging the woods of Eversong with her blade naked in her hand. Such things were gone forever – and thus, she had feared the dragon almost as much as the Lich King himself.
“Very well then,” she muttered to herself. It was time for more drastic measures to ensure that these… heroes, these laughable sacks of meat, did not venture any further. For if she failed, Lana’thel was certain the second death would be preferable to an undeath which would become very, very unpleasant for her.
Calling for her attendants, she stood in front of a large mirror in her chambers, draped with purple and red silk, and carved with leering, hunched gargoyles. It had amused the King to gift her with such an item, knowing she had been vain of her looks – was still vain, truth be told – and mocking her for it. Sometimes, late at night, when the candles flickered just so, she thought the gargoyles bore the faces of her beloved dead. That one there, Keleseth, distorted with pain…
Two acolytes arrived, disturbing her contemplation. They were dressed in simple long tunics with their faces and hair veiled and shadowed. Lana’thel lifted her arms and allowed them to undress her, removing the stiffly embroidered silk dress, shoes and jewelry, leaving her in a simple shift, laced at the front.
One attendant carefully hung the sumptuous dress while the other combed out Lana’thel’s hair, having released it from its formal style. She stood rigidly, staring at herself in the mirror and hating that her reign as Queen was as much a joke as the mirror itself, but knowing she could be nothing less. When the attendant finished untangling the snarls from her hair, it was tied back quickly in a loose bun, and the acolyte retreated to the door where the other was standing patiently at attention.
With a brisk finger snap, Lana’thel dismissed them. This next part was to be done in secret, alone and in the dark.
She twitched the silks over the mirror, cloaking its moon-bright sheen. She knew well enough the scars that her first death had left on her body. All the blood in the world could not repair the places where Frostmourne had bitten deep into her torso. Even so, Lana’thel did not like to look upon them when she could help it.
Unlacing the shift, she drew it off her shoulders and let it puddle around her feet. Her bathing room, adjoining her bedchamber, was sumptuously appointed: rich amber stone patterned with streaks of pink and red, a deeply sunk tub that could accommodate her, wings and all, thick towels. Here Lana’thel almost felt alive again, as if she was only washing off the blood from a slain deer instead of blood from the thousands of mortals who had died screaming in her chambers below.
Her fingers caressed the marble of the tub as she passed. It was not her goal tonight.
Behind the armoire holding her towels was a door. Her fingers brushed the dark wood softly, seeking the latch to slide it aside. A trick learned from Arthas. She laughed bitterly once again; would she never stop owing him?
The tunnel behind the armoire twisted downwards, dusty and full of old webs. Near the door was a torch, and she lit it with a small tongue of sorcerous fire. Ever since the Princes had brought her the Darkfallen Orb, she’d had no need for older, more barbaric techniques. Desperate times, however… Lana’thel let the cobwebs cling where they would; they would be washed off soon enough. She clamped her wings in tight to prevent scraping their delicate membranes along the roughened stone walls of the stairwell, and resigned herself to a long descent.
She smelled the room before she saw it, the staircase falling away to a large, damp cave, smelling of mildew and worse. Her eyes picked out the features in the flickering dark: here a small stool, with a bucket next to it; here a sunken hole, dark with old blood; here… her eyes traveled upward and the Queen shuddered slightly.
Here, chains dangled from the ceiling, rusted and vicious.
Lana’thel shut her eyes, closing out the room but not the fear. She hated this, hated the ceremony, hated the necessity. When she had worked out the Orb with the Blood Princes, she had quivered with joy at the thought of no longer needing this room. The Princes could access the blood’s dark power without her channeling it through this wretched ritual. She had closed the armoire for what she’d thought was the last time and savoured the click of the door closing behind her.
Once again, disappointment held court in her heart.
The Queen was not a coward, not by any stretch. She was vainglorious, yes, and proud; it was pride that caused her to shatter Quel’Delar after she had been turned into a minion of the Lich King. He fostered her weaknesses, chuckling, feeding on her hatred for him as much as the souls she collected for him.
Now the Princes were dead, the Orb shattered – another casualty of her pride – and she must suffer the burden of defeating those who seek to kill her Master, even as she half-hoped they’d succeed. She reached out blindly, fingers scrabbling to find the lever she knew was there. Opening her eyes, she set the torch down into a stand near the stool and bucket.
With a shuddering groan, the chains began to lower towards the pit. They hit the centre of the rough pool, clanking and coiling in upon themselves. With steady hands, Lana’thel laced herself into them. Chains around her ankles, torso and armpits; chains too, hoisting her wings, keeping them clear of her body. She was strong, but she would need all her strength now for the upcoming battle and keeping her wings elevated would take too much effort on top of the demanding sorcery.
As she prepared for the ceremony, the Queen remembered the lusty gleam in the Professor’s face when she’d commissioned the machine, not for her body – the undead were far beyond those lusts – but for the clank of the chains, the whirr of cogs, the whish of pumps and valves.
“Ah yes, yes,” he said gleefully, “We can do this for you, my pretty little Queen, yes, can’t we darlings?” He rubbed his palms together, and Lana’thel shuddered slightly as he caressed the head of the collection of parts he called “son”. The thing was playing with an altered dog nearly as ugly as he was. The son grinned up at his father, drooling and nodding.
Lana’thel coughed delicately, causing the Professor to pop up from his crouch, and he swept a hand over the sheaf of papers she’d brought him.
“Yes, quite. Well, the most obvious challenge is the storage and that should be quite simple, really, if we can dig for access to an outer wall here – not too close mind you! Otherwise the blood will freeze – we can accomplish that quite neatly, quite neatly. “
“I trust you’ll make the necessary arrangements,” Lana’thel said smoothly.
“Yes my dear, yes, we can do that, anything for our lovely Queen.” She suppressed a sigh. The man was as obsequious as the slime he worked with, honestly! Eyes greedily taking in the plans she had brought for him, he bowed her out of the room, and Lana’thel took her leave with pleasure. She navigated the dripping corridors and tiny servants carrying buckets of ordure, thinking on her plan. They had plenty of slaves, fresh blood for their magic, but the Queen wanted more. The Princes were collecting prisoners faster than they could drain them. If this worked, then Lana’thel would be more than a commander of her San’layn forces – she could be a vessel for all their power.
Of course, the Darkfallen Orb had been a stroke of luck and magic, one for which she had rewarded Taldaram handsomely. But she was never one to keep all her eggs in one basket, and so she merely sealed up the cavern. She bowed her head in blessing for that foresight now, especially in light of her poor record of keeping things past their usefulness.
Looking into the stained pit under her feet, Lana’thel no longer felt the same sense of security as she once had. The Professor, for all his eccentricities – and wasn’t she one to talk about eccentricity, the only remaining Scourge creature swimming with hot, living blood? – knew what he was about, and it worked flawlessly. But the Queen still had her Princes then, and then the power of the Orb. She had never had to rely on this disgusting pool alone. And yet, here she was.
Sensing her fear and loathing, she felt the frigid touch of Frostmourne on her mind, like icy needles behind her eyes. Lana’thel bit her lip, and bent to her task, determined to ignore its presence.
Once the chains were in place, the Darkfallen Queen raised herself up onto the balls of her feet to reach a heavy box on a cord with two buttons. She pressed the topmost button. With a damp click, the cogs began to turn, and the chains around her chest and wings pulled taut, slowly lifting her into the musty, foul-smelling air.
The Professor had not questioned the lifting mechanism; he had seen her fastidious attitude around the laboratory of the Plagueworks and leered into his tool bag. In spite of the Blood Queen’s odious appetites, her distaste for uncleanliness was widely-known. He and Lady Deathwhisper – whose scorn for things of the flesh was equally widely-known – had laughed amongst themselves at her well-preserved mortal frailties. He’d nearly vomited with mirth when she commissioned her bathing room.
It was all true, of course. The Professor had managed to keep the stores of blood from freezing entirely and bursting their cisterns, but it remained sluggish, clotted and frigid. If the Lana’thel had to stand in the pit, while cold, rank blood swirled around her feet, she would surely go mad.
As soon as she had been hoisted high enough in the air, Lana’thel pressed the first button once more, halting her ascent. The second button opened nozzles into the pool and, with a guttural moaning of the cold pipes, began gushing blood. The pool, though deep, filled in a matter of minutes, the blood roiling and winking crimson in the torchlight.
With a heavy sigh, the Queen pressed the topmost button again, twice in rapid succession, and the chains began to lower her into the pit, wings hoisted painfully above her head.
The source of the San’layn’s power was two-fold; the most obvious, and the only one that Lana’thel cultivated amongst everyone but her lieutenants, was the blood they drank from living creatures.
The other was a closely guarded secret – harnessing the magical power of blood, first by crude methods, and then later by the might of the Darkfallen Orb. The blood still had to be drained from living beings, but no one questioned her motives for capturing the various heroes and soldiers who assaulted the citadel in an effort to reach her Master. Deep below the secret room were cages and cages, filled with drained husks: orcs, humans, elves, even gnomes. Anything Lana’thel or the Princes could get their hands on and did not need to eat immediately went into this cold den.
The last of them had been captured just before the deaths of the princes, and drained ruthlessly – to feed the Darkfallen Orb, Lana’thel had planned, but that time was over. She had shattered the Orb in her rage and pride, and now she would have to suffer the consequences.
With a shriek, the Queen was submerged into the rank pool. Throwing out her hands to slow her descent, the blood closed over her head just after she squeezed her eyes shut.
It seemed like hours had passed before Lana’thel opened her eyes, peering into the thick, stinking mess. She felt heavy, limbs undulating slowly through the flesh and clotted blood. With a sinking feeling, she realized she was heavier than usual – the winch had not stopped in time and her wings were in the blood with her. She fought to quell the rising panic.
“You. Are. The. Queen.” She hissed through clenched teeth into the silence of the pool. “This must be done, it will be done, and you will do it.” Blood gushed around Lana’thel’s fangs, filling her mouth, but this would’ve happened as soon as she incanted her spells and the pep talk reassured her. No doubt because it was true. She was all that was left. Of course, there were her armies of San’layn, but she scoffed, snorting blood, at the thought of them being anything other than cannon fodder. They were hers to command, but they were not like her Council, who had bolstered her with their own power and the strength of their advice.
There was only Lana’thel now.
Clasping her hands in front of her, Lana’thel began to chant the words of power. Slowly, the blood around her warmed, growing hotter as the minutes passed. She unlinked her fingers, palms up, and began to wave one finger after another, like fronds in a pool, gathering the energy and the blood with it back into herself. She altered her incantation slightly to account for the unusual situation with her wings – with luck, they would make a potent new weapon for her – and the wings filled like sails, bloated with blood and power. As she chanted, the blood drained from the pool. The heat of it boiled over deep within her, and as the spell reached its climax, Lana’thel realized how much she never wanted to do this, or anything like it, ever again.
She stood in the empty pit, a pillar of crimson, revenge blazing in the fathomless depths of her eyes. She was a bolt pulled taut on the crossbow, a sword at the zenith of its swing. Lana’thel quivered with the desire to be released. The problem was the target.
Lana’thel burned to launch herself at Arthas. He had stolen everything from her, and Quel’Thelas from her kin. But she was bound to him for good or ill, and a slave could not strike her Master any more than water can flow uphill. On the other hand…
The Orb had been powerful, but its power had been split four ways. This night’s power was hers, and hers alone.
Would it be enough?
She sluiced her face and arms with water from the nearby pail. The blood was becoming tacky as it dried, and she did not want her movements to be hindered, whatever her night held. Lana’thel danced around any sort of conclusive thought, knowing that the King and Frostmourne were alert to betrayal. She laughed softly in the flickering dark, and her laugh was like a keening winter wind. Who was most alert to betrayal but traitors?
She missed Quel’Delar more than ever in moments like this. Though the Queen had an aptitude for sorcery, she longed for a sword in her hand, the well-worn handle crossed with strips of leather, her evenings redolent with the scent of oil and polish after a good day’s hunt. Of course, Quel’Delar’s power had been helpless against Frostmourne once, and Lana’thel knew a second time would not favour her either.
Dripping gore and water, Lana’thel ascended the stairs to her quarters. As she was sliding the panel back to enter her bathing room, her fingertips tingled with the power that heralded a vision. The King spoke into her mind, needle sharp and insistent.
“Queen Lana’thel, attend.”
Had he sensed her thoughts, in spite of her careful warding of the room below? But the stabbing presence faded, and she went into her bedchambers to dress for an audience with Arthas, the Lich King.
Atop the Citadel, Queen Lana’thel issued a sweeping warrior’s bow to the Lich King on his throne. He was her maker, her Master – and her eternal enemy.
“Your lieutenants have fallen, Lana’thel.”
“Sire,” she acknowledged and bowed again, “They were arrogant, and underestimated their enemy. They were fools.”
It pained her to say it, especially since it was true. Use of the blood power channeled through the Orb with magic had made them powerful – and overconfident. Lana’thel had tempered it as best she could, as any good commander would, but it had not been enough.
With disarming ease, Arthas plucked out the current thread of her thought, as easily as a child plucks an apple from a low hanging branch.
“And their commander? Is she equally… foolish?”
“No, my lord King.” She didn’t think the undead were capable of sweating, though Lana’thel had an alarming visualization of beads of blood forming on her brow. She kept her head bowed just in case.
“These… heroes… are proving difficult.” The Lich King sneered, his words layered with Frostmourne’s soft, mad gibbering, and the effect was more disconcerting than the Queen would have liked. “You better have a plan.”
“Yes, my lord King.” She hated groveling, and Arthas knew it, exploiting it ruthlessly. Let him think she was groveling to avoid punishment for the failure of the Council; she was not so proud she would die for them, when they had been foolish, and if he thought her turmoil was the result of having to toady to a hateful master, so much the better.
“Does it have anything to do with this?” he asked, holding out his gauntleted palms. His light words betrayed the bubble of power that exploded from Arthas as he clenched his hands shut. It dragged at Lana’thel’s wings, tightly tucked against her body, and drew them out with a wrenching tug. The frigid wind atop the open air throne room could not disguise the musty stink of blood and the crackling, ozone scent of magical power. The Lick King stood, shadowy power flickering in his fists, and Lana’thel was pulled into the air as he raised his arms.
“What is this, my Queen?” His tone was still light, but she could hear Frostmourne underneath, like the choking roar of an ice clotted river.
Beneath that, cacophony of screams and moans – the souls trapped within. She could even hear a dry chortling laugh and her throat closed up. Ner’zhul! Either Arthas was losing his grasp on the power of the Lich King or the ritual had indeed made her more powerful. She dangled in the his grip, wings and eyes wide.
“My lord- my lord King, I have used the powers the Princes brought to my attention in an effort to push back the invaders.”
Putricide must have betrayed her. Lana’thel cursed the Professor, glad he had seen his monstrous children killed before being slaughtered himself.
“Sire, I had no wish to commit the same folly the Princes had. With the Orb destroyed -”
“-By your hand.” Arthas hissed.
She continued as if she hadn’t heard the accusation. “With the Orb destroyed, I have to rely on cruder, but no less powerful, methods.” As Arthas considered this, she pressed on. “My lord, these soldiers have succeeded thus far only because of the power of the living they have – their blood. The old Lich knew this, though she mocked it for a weakness. With this power, I can meet them on equal footing, and destroy them.”
“Their life is weakness, Lana’thel.” But dangling at the height she was, she thought she saw a flicker of doubt through the grate of his helm.
“Perhaps,” she retorted, as coolly as if she were arguing tactics in Silvermoon’s military district rather than dangling seconds from obliteration at the hands of a creature she hated, “But all the same, they are here, knocking at your door.” She stared insolently at him, willing him to believe her, letting her old prideful self show. “I can fight them.”
The glow of his eyes flickered, as if he were searching her face. Lana’thel struggled to keep her mind blank, as his presence swept through her, seeking. She kept her gaze steady, ignoring the icy fingers that wandered through her thoughts, making her want to start screaming and never stop. If she was caught now, she would be killed. Again. Destroyed completely, but… she had to look away and shudder, thinking of the tortured husk that remained of Bolvar Fordragon in the catacombs. Oh yes, she would die. But not before the Lich King taught her a lesson about loyalty.
The Queen dragged her gaze back to Arthas’ face. This was it. This was…
Cape swirling, the Lich King turned away, releasing his psychic grip on her wings and dropping Lana’thel painfully to the icy parapet. Despite the pain, she rolled to her feet, and lunged towards his back, without thought, without pause. She swept her wings up protectively, and brought her arms across her chest as she dove at Arthas’ unguarded back. I’m doing it, thought Lana’thel dazedly, whatever happens, I am my own right now. She had not dared hope this moment would ever come, and now that it was here, she savoured it like a sunny day in the woods, or a sweet pastry snatched from the baker’s cart. Tears rolled down her face to patter on the ice in hot puffs. Hot? she wondered.
Looking down, Lana’thel saw red pockets in the snow, softly steaming. Blood.
“Oh.” She said softly. It was hers, the stolen blood. The Lich King’s back still faced her, but Frostmourne thrust out through his tattered cloak, scoring her left side deeply. Looking at the wound, she could feel the pain blooming, deep within her despair. Almost gently, she stepped to the right, and the sword made a grinding sound as it scraped along her hip bone. Lana’thel panted slightly, pulling up her belt and fastening it tightly around the wound. She felt dizzy, she was in pain. But worst of all, the effect on the blood power was a slow, steady seepage. As a vessel, a body of flesh – even dead flesh – was vastly inferior to the glass Orb.
Her tears were cold and bitter.
They pleased the King, and he took pleasure in tormenting her further, the visions swirling like a howling blizzard in her mind, blinding and insistent.
But in the end, he laughed, crooning with rage and amusement.
“You will face these mortal lapdogs for me.”
“But-” Lana’thel stammered.
“There are any range of delightful torments I could devise for you, my Queen. But nothing, I think, will please me better than having you serve me one last time as Commander of the San’layn.”
She stared, wordless.
“Fight these soldiers, Lana’thel. Fight them, and die, pierced by arrows, seared by fire.”
She looked down at the bloody snow between her feet and began to laugh. She threw back her head and howled, mad with rage and hilarity. Her hair tumbled down her back and her throat worked as she laughed, and all the King could do was stare. Finally, she throttled herself to a choking giggle and faced his cold glare. She swept him a courtly bow, gritting her teeth against the pain.
“Of course, I will gladly die.” And finally she smiled at him, her first genuine smile since her lands had been burnt and loved ones killed. She was beautiful. “And then, my King – they come for you.”
She left him, sitting on the throne, Frostmourne propped between his legs, dark with her stolen blood, and he watched her go. She returned, still smiling, to the Crimson Halls to await her death.
Shortly after midnight, they came for her. She was waiting for them in her master hall, garbed gorgeously in scarlet, face elegant and hair coiffed. The acolytes had bound up her wounds as silently as they served her in all else.
“Lana’thel!” shouted one of the warriors, her voice muffled by the heavy helm she wore, “We have come to end your reign of terror.” The mage beside her nodded, fire dancing between his palms.
She watched the heroes, the blood that remained pulsing within her gently. She could see the ties of light and life in them; here, the warrior who had spoken stepping forward to protect a druid, who gazed at her with love and respect. Here, a knot of three casters, bound close in longstanding friendship. Here, an older rogue protecting her young son. These were the powers of life. Not their blood. But their love.
Stepping forward to engage them, Blood Queen Lana’thel spoke in a pleasing voice, low and sensual.
“You have made an… unwise… decision.”
Only she knew that she was talking about Arthas.
And soon after that, she knew nothing at all.