It was done. A campaign that spanned long years and stretched across entire continents came to such a sudden end, it seemed almost anticlimactic. The Lich King was dead.
The moments following Arthas’ death were catastrophic for the Scourge in and around Icecrown Citadel. Atop its peak, a select band of heroes, Alhazad included, dethroned Arthas, destroyed Frostmourne, and ended a reign of death and destruction few ever thought they would escape. In the Citadel’s depths, the Lich King’s champions lay broken and beaten, their corpses symbolically impaled with the banners of the Argent Crusade or outright put to the flame. Saronite crenellations and bulwarks, battered and smashed by airship cannons, were melted to slag. The day was won, and a trail of victory led from the citadel’s shattered gate to the steps of the Frozen Throne itself.
Alhazad left his weapons beside Arthas’ corpse after the battle was done. Wretched and of Scourge craftsmanship, the enchanted axes were a grim necessity picked up in the Citadel’s lower reaches, now unneeded, and he was glad to be rid of them at last. Unlike past trophies, they would not return home with him to be added to his collection of arms and armor – Alhazad took nothing from this victory other than the satisfaction that an unfeeling tyrant had been felled and the world was loosed from his grip. The axes were half-covered with the pestilent ichor of his blood, anyhow. Let the Scourgeborne implements reside with the one who orchestrated their horrible construction.
Around him, his comrades ululated, applauded and embraced one another, some receiving accolades from none other than Tirion Fordring himself while others wept for fallen friends who could not partake in the victory. Each had their moment. Alhazad’s was bittersweet – at first he shouted a cry befitting the warrior spirit of his people, and many cries answered him in kind, but as the chill of the Throne cooled his blood he found the triumph less gratifying. The Lich King’s death presented Alhazad with a new problem – Arthas’ whispers were silent now, but in their place the warrior’s own inner voice buzzed with immediate, incessant questioning: after knowing only fighting and killing for what seemed like a lifetime, could Alhazad simply lay down his arms and return home? Stop fighting and be a father? He touched his temples as they began to ache. The Scourge had been defeated and five years of service to the Argent Dawn ended in a heartbeat, Alhazad’s pledge fulfilled. He should be celebrating, but he could only wonder: what would he do now?
If he hadn’t been fighting the Scourge, it was the Burning Legion. If not the Legion, then Dark Iron Dwarves. The Black Dragonflight. Onyxia. Nefarian. Ragnaros. Centaur. Quillboar. Could he ever truly “settle down” and live without fighting the next great enemy? And if he did choose to fight, would he have the ability to survive, to win? He looked at his hands. Could they defend his kith and kin? The campaign against the Lich King was the most taxing yet, for both Alhazad and the armies of the world, and often the campaign balanced atop a knife’s edge – would another triumph over a greater foe be even less a certainty? Arthas had laid the mighty Illidan low and commanded an army of undead, and yet he too had fallen. Who would be next? How insurmountable a threat would they be? How could he fight them, and with what weapons?
The Holy Light was one such weapon, he thought. One to strike with, endure with, stronger than steel and – unlike shamanism or arcane magic – one that seemed within Alhazad’s reach. It called to him, or so he believed; it could just as easily be a fanciful pursuit, a curiosity brought on by too much time spent with the Crusade and the Argent Dawn before them. In the fight against Arthas, the Light had saved Tirion only in the bleakest of moments during an impassioned supplication – would such a power ever truly lend itself to a tauren? To Alhazad? Alhazad was no champion of champions. He was merely a soldier, a warrior. At times, a brute that smashed skulls, a beast that entered battle in a haze of incensed fury, swinging weapons wildly, and a fighter that somehow, through sheer strength or dumb luck, always came out alive.
Perhaps the Argent paladins spoke truth when they whispered among themselves, thinking he was not listening; perhaps he was, as they said, primitive and undeserving of the Light’s purity and greatness. One could cover all of Northrend with records of Alhazad’s honorable deeds, but still they found him unworthy. They accepted his commission and used him to fill out the ranks of expendable infantry, certainly, and commended him at times, but to bring him fully into their holy order? To teach him the ways of the Light? “Surely not,” said one. Surely not.
Descending the frozen peak, Alhazad was met not with the tortured screams of the Citadel’s prisoners, but further exultation from wounded and battle-weary crusaders. He put on a smile to match those of his comrades. Arms were lifted high, paeans in six different languages sung, yet despite the revelry, the sea of smiling faces, the division between Horde and Alliance was strikingly obvious – kaldorei did not stand with sindorei, orcs did not celebrate with humans. The animosity still shared by the warring factions tempered their adulation, and if the two could not put aside their differences in this historic moment, Alhazad knew there was little hope for a renewed armistice. His smile faded. It saddened him, seeing the bright eyes narrow to distrusting slits as the two sides traded glances. It worried him. It birthed even more anxiety, new questions. These were the first brushstrokes of a future without the Lich King, but with continued strife – a future his daughter would be a part of. A dangerous future.
* * *
The days following the battle were a repertoire of duties done to purge the citadel of undead. Putricide’s laboratory was gutted, his tanks of slime and gaseous collections fired and lingering creations cremated. The frostwyrm brood were chained by harpoons, grounded, and crushed to dust. The Cult of the Damned was routed, with stragglers rounded up and thrown into the cages that previously housed their victims, tried, and executed. The contentious, like many of the vrykul, were cut down where they stood and the procedure became that much more forthright, not to mention cathartic. Successful escapees were such a minority they didn’t even warrant a footnote in the Crusade’s books. The Scourge was finished here.
Alhazad planned to remain behind as part of the clean-up effort for a day, two at most, while Mishotah returned to Mulgore. Six days later and with a seventh dawning, he was still up to his elbows in desiccated Scourge-husks. His luck, he had been on torch duty for the past three, and before that he was included in an effort to catalog and destroy dragon carcasses the late Sindragosa had intended to reanimate. As a tauren, he was naturally less suited for completing paperwork than he was for trampling bones, making his role in the task obvious. Nevertheless, he was necessary, and each report to the Dragonqueen included his hastily-scrawled signature among sixteen others. An unwritten but heartfelt apology went along with.
On the eighth day, he was asked to keep watch over prisoners – two Forsaken and a gnome, former members of the Crusade who were caught with Scourge contraband. Guard duty was the worst, he discovered, allowing no outlet for his welling anger despite how he wished to put his fist through the gnome’s chattering countenance. Testimonies of “it’s only a souvenir!” and “this could be of benefit to the entire Horde!” fell on deaf ears. His opinion? A dagger enchanted with the ability to resurrect a fresh corpse as a mindless slave was no bauble to place on a mantel in Tinkertown, and schematics of Lana’thel’s Darkfallen Orb were better off being kept out of the Royal Apothecary Society’s hands. Did their justifications matter? Not one bit; they would answer to and receive the judgment of Highlord Fordring himself, soon enough. Alhazad was a glorified jail door, there to ensure they didn’t escape.
On the eleventh day, things were finally wrapping up. Primary and secondary operations were complete and the opening foyer, which once comprised the Light’s Hammer staging area, was now barren save for the remnants of dusty crates, cold forges, and quiet anvils. The encampments here and on the outer ramparts had been dismantled and many of the blue-fire braziers had been extinguished. Nearly everyone had packed up to begin the long journey home, but in looking about the foyer Alhazad realized he was not alone; an aptly-named skeleton crew of a rear guard had been left behind. Death Knights. Judging by their ragged standard, they were none other than the Deathbringers.
Dumar’s Deathbringers, to those in the know. They were notorious, infamous for their iniquitous exploits throughout Northrend. Their squad of less than fifty men made a reputation on accomplishing raids and takedowns the Crusade would typically assign to whole divisions. They were reckless, brash, but incredibly useful. In undeath, Dumar possessed a bloodthirst double that displayed in life, and he was the driving force behind the Deathbringers’ disregard of wartime protocols even the unscrupulous Warsong Expedition deemed fundamental. They called him Dumar the Blood Painted for good reason, and he was an orc you simply did not get on the bad side of.
Dumar was, despite his claims to the contrary, not invincible. He expired, permanently this time, two weeks ago during an Ebon Blade sortie gone wrong. Faulty intelligence was to blame – what the Argent Crusade projected to be twenty of Arthas’ cultists turned out to be two hundred, and Dumar’s squad of thirty-two was neatly decimated by their enemy. Dumar perished in a blast of magic fire, leaving nothing, not even ash, to resurrect. His first lieutenant, Ikran, experienced a lengthier, more gruesome death, having his limbs pulled from his body by cultist blight-hounds – no doubt he served the Scourge in the days after as part of some newly-assembled abomination. Their leaders dead and their numbers decimated, the surviving Deathbringers scattered, only coming together weeks later on the steps of Icecrown Citadel to exact reprisal upon its keepers.
The demise of Dumar and Ikran left a vacancy in the Deathbringers’ top ranks. To fill the void, second lieutenant Takhota Ghosteye was given a field commission to captain, a rank he had since retained, judging by the bit of silver capping the tauren’s right horn. Alhazad had hoped not to run into his father at any point during the campaign, reserving his exposure to Death Knights for the wartime publications he read before sleeping, and he’d been fortunate until now. So much for his luck. He tried not to look too long at his father’s rank insignia, nor at any of the squadmembers, really – their work was a defilement of the natural world, not just the rules of war, and it disgusted him to see his father take up with such an unsavory lot.
The few fires that remained lit burned a bright cerulean. Centered in the hall, the braziers left the room’s edges bathed in thick blackness and licked at by long, trembling shadows cast by their wan illumination. Front and center, the Deathbringers had commandeered a long table previously used for war-making and lined it with loaves of bread and plates of fruit and cheese – most seeming no less than a week old, some more stale than others, and all probably scrounged from Crusaders long ago bound for home. It was the poorest of a poor man’s feast if Alhazad ever saw one, and the feasters blithely distracted themselves by talking, laughing, and drinking.
“Oh yeah? Plague Wing, I was there, took down fifteen of ‘em myself,” boasted one.
“Blood Wing, just me and those blood-drinkers. I got twenty three. Twenty three!” claimed another. “What about you, Yeg?”
A blood elf, handsome even in undeath, straightened his shoulders and smoothly replied, “Mmhm. That’s all nice and special boys, but I’m the reason Lana’thel kept all those pretty elves around. She missed my good looks.”
“Yeglin, I tink ya got it switched around. Ya be fittin’ better with da Putricide!” shot back a decaying troll, many of his words cackled.
Death Knights were typically a solemn bunch, and to see them celebrating was a strange sight. Did their dark hearts truly know joy? There was a playful rivalry to it, too. He supposed if there was ever a time for cheer, the aftermath of the fall of Arthas would be it. Let them celebrate, then. It was exactly that frivolity Alhazad hoped would distract them long enough for him to slip by unnoticed.
In trying to depart, he thought to himself: why couldn’t he face his father, the Death Knight? Previously it could be attributed to doubt, uncertainty that the entity claiming to be Takhota truly was Takhota, but Alhazad’s many investigations bore this out. The excavation of the chieftain’s unmarked gravesite turned up nothing, not even bones, and lent credence to the story of Takhota’s resurrection. Or simply reanimation. This prompted Alhazad to take counsel with the Dragonqueen, Alexstrasza, and she revealed to him a truth he truly did not wish to hear – indeed, Takhota Ghosteye lived again as a Death Knight and member of the Ebon Blade.
And here he was. His father had become the antithesis of how Alhazad remembered him. Yes, that was the reason why he wanted to avoid him. Where Takhota once wielded the powers of the elements, he now brokered in death. Where his eyes were once green-blue and kind, they now glowed with haunting, azure foxfire. His aura was drastically different, befouled. His words rang with a metallic, cutting resonance. No longer a chieftain of a mighty tauren tribe, he skulked about with degenerate, undead miscreants when he’d rightfully be ten times their better. True, his enjoyment of the festivities was difficult to measure, if present at all, but the very fact that he counted himself among their numbers – surely his unliving existence had to be a torment for his father. Hadn’t it? For his son, it was.
Alhazad remained in place, unable to will his legs into carrying him out of the room, staring at his father with his stomach turning like a wheel. Takhota the Death Knight still lived. He’d go on existing as a Death Knight – not a father, or a grandfather, or a spiritwalker or even a flesh and blood tauren, but as something unnatural. Alhazad felt angry and betrayed. Betrayed not by Takhota, no – his father had no hand in his own resurrection, it was forced upon him. He felt betrayed by the greater powers of life and death, the mysteries the Lich King once controlled, and cheated out of having his father fully alive or taking comfort in knowing his spirit rested. Takhota was trapped between life and death, and to Alhazad it seemed like the greatest injustice for the Ghosteyes yet.
“Alhazad!” Takhota’s voice boomed, reverberating – cheerily, it had to be said – as if shouted into a massive ironclad cavern. His son, spooked, reacted with a flinch. Takhota’s obvious elation was diluted and he showed patience as he approached, cautiously, perhaps as to not startle his son further. “Son, I’m so glad it’s you! I thought you might have left the citadel already.” He opened his arms to be embraced.
Takhota came too close. Five feet away, and it was still too close. Alhazad could smell the wrongness emanating from the Death Knight, even as his father smiled warmly. Crisply, he nodded and replied, unmoving. “Father.”
Takhota lowered his arms. Despite the icy reception from his son, he remained cheery. “I heard about what you did. Pressing on to the very top of the Citadel, fighting alongside Tirion, killing the Lich King? You and the Ani Ayastigi should be very proud.”
It was apparent that Alhazad did not wish to speak with his father. The two had been through this before; the Lich King had driven a wedge between them that quite possibly could never be fully excised. There was aversion in his son’s eyes. “Alhazad.” He sighed regretfully. “I know what you’re thinking. Do not hate me for being what I am. What Arthas did, my joining the Deathbringers – it hasn’t changed the fact that I am your father.”
By then, Takhota’s absence from the conviviality had been noticed, and subsequently so was the enormity of Alhazad’s presence. Few of the Deathbringers paid him much mind and within seconds they were back to their celebration, but one looked upon him as though he were the most interesting thing in the world. This particular Death Knight grinned, drooling a puddle of mead onto the table before himself, then sprang up with amazing alacrity to rapidly slither his way toward the pair of tauren. He was a Forsaken, and by Alhazad’s eye, the bandoliers overflowing with knives, stilettos, and shivs immediately identified him as none other than Okeer Olsen.
Okeer was one of the Deathbringers’ most infamous members. His aptitude with a knife was unrivaled, and his method of signing his foes with a distinctive ‘O’ was a trait uniquely his. Alhazad first came upon Okeer’s signature six weeks ago during a climb through Icecrown’s many foothills. While searching a dead cultist for intelligence, he rolled the body over to discover the ‘O’ scrawled bloodily into the man’s forehead. Further along the trail, two more bodies, this time their opposite cheeks marked with the same symbol. Three more were found later, and by then Alhazad was beginning to attribute it to some bizarre Cult of the Damned ritual. It was only days later,when he met up with a regiment of Crusaders coming down from Ymirheim did he discover the gruesome reality – Okeer must have been a few hours ahead of him that day, and with him, a fresh knife in need of “breaking in.”
Most Death Knights were content dissociating themselves from the living. Some, however, treated their interactions as experimentation. Okeer was one such Death Knight. He looked upon Alhazad with interest, and wandered nearer with a childlike wonderment. Alhazad was chiefly aware he was not only being watched, but approached. Perhaps Okeer wondered how the tauren would look with an ‘O’ carved into his snout? Alhazad wondered if Okeer would even draw the knife before he found a horn buried in his ugly puss.
‘Ugly’ was being too kind. The Forsaken Death Knight was doubly disgusting, pale white and with a gleaming pate lacking as much skin as it did hair. The permanently dislocated jaw hung at a lopsided angle, always bearing a crooked little grin. His right eye shone with turbid dimness and one would think it blinded, except that he could see as well as any living man could – maybe better. The left eye was missing completely, though a cluster of maggots or wriggling worms often made a home within the empty socket there. He drooled almost constantly and was always wiping his lipless mouth with a bony forearm. Despite bursts of agility, his gait was consistently more of a hobble, and an undeniable cleverness was masked by the ever-present slurring of his words. The most disturbing part? He reveled in his repulsiveness and the effect it had on others, and exacerbated his putrescence whenever he could.
It took all the strength Alhazad had – and that was considerably more than what he mustered to down the Lich King – to stop himself from retching on the spot. In his countless days spent on countless battlefields, he had seen some of the most atrocious sights known to man, tauren, or elf – fighters with their bellies split open, intestines seeping past fingers futilely attempting to hold them in; cavalry skewered by a fence of spears alongside their steeds; captains with their heads opened by musket fire. Through all that, Alhazad held his meager meals down, gritted his teeth, and fought on. Here, he nearly lost the bit of stale biscuit he’d eaten minutes ago, and the nausea wasn’t wholly the fault of Okeer’s appearance – rather that he enjoyed the grotesquery of it.
Alhazad was never fully comfortable around the Forsaken, and Death Knights by extension, but to tolerate Okeer was asking too much. Many upstanding members of the Ani were Forsaken. Renzokuken, a gifted mage, and Praow, a venerable seer, were two of their ilk who immediately sprung to mind. Although Alhazad did not know them in life, he could see something of their living years in how they conducted themselves. They were respectable. Reputable. Okeer was a repugnant brigand, and it showed in how, while awaiting an introduction, he openly teased at a boil on his cheek. Alhazad desperately tried to find something less offensive to focus on, to no avail – the haunting visages of skeletal faces carved into the walls and floor filled his gaze with a landscape equally, if not more, hideous. He was surrounded by death, and worse yet, his father was a participant in it.
Takhota must have sensed the pending eruption, either that of Okeer’s abscess or Alhazad’s threadbare temper, and made quick with announcements. “Alhazad. Let me introduce Okeer Olsen, master of knives. A quicker blade you will never find. Okeer, my son, Alhazad Ghosteye of the Ani Ayastigi, warrior of the Horde.”
“You’re the Ghosteye prince?” Thankfully Okeer opted not to rupture the boil, though in how he smiled it seemed the affliction might soon burst all on its own. “I’m charmed!” His tone was the definition of sardonic. “I hear we owe you a bit of gratitude? You had a hand in taking down the Big A. That’s something even the Deathbringers couldn’t do. We were too busy slogging through the sea of corpses down here in the depths while you were up top in the fresh air. So! Congratulations.”
Alhazad took a step back, unwilling to have his armor spattered with any more unidentifiable fluids. Okeer’s thankfulness sounded about as genuine as a specter. Alhazad’s was much of the same. “Yes. Thank you.” Tapping a bit of Okeer’s sarcasm, he then put in, “It seems even death may die.”
Okeer continued to smile. “Fancy that. So, what’re you going to do now, prince? Go back to Mulgore with that pretty wife of yours? Maybe bang out a few more calves and cinch up that ‘last of your line’ business?” Having suggested Alhazad go on a mating spree, the Forsaken’s hips – the bones of which lay almost entirely exposed – gyrated most lewdly while their owner cackled out a laugh. “Yeah? Good times?” That done, he prodded playfully at Takhota with an elbow and added, “Because you know you are the last one. Old daddy-bull here certainly can’t manage it no more!”
“Okeer!” Takhota’s castigation was like steel clashed against steel. Okeer flinched, and the sharpness in his captain’s voice immediately abated thereafter, becoming more the tepid entreating of a good friend – or a father. “Okeer, my mug is empty, and so is yours. There’s a brewfest keg, still sealed, in my tent outside. Go and fetch it, pour us a drink?”
Alhazad too flinched, but for a different reason. His heart suddenly ached. He heard a softness, a tender insistence in Takhota’s voice he’d not heard since his childhood. In hearing it, he realized how much he missed it.
Okeer brightened. “Now, there’s never a good reason not to tap a keg! Hah! Maybe I was a dwarf in my last life! No? Too tall. But sure as Sylvanas loves brooding do I love drinking! Tastes about the same as blighthound piss, but the smell’s a bit better!”
To Alhazad, the man was an animated enigma. So foul in his mannerisms, he could pass for a feckless Scourge, but so lively in his actions he could possibly outpace Mulgore’s most vigorous braves. Cheerful despite his grimness, Okeer raised a stein and bowed deeply, overly graciously, as he backed toward the large door some fifty paces away. “Until we meet again, dear prince. Perhaps you’ll join me in a drink? Hah!” With a laugh, he turned and left.
Alhazad made his incredulity evident as he and Takhota traded glances again. “You take up with someone like that? Why?” He didn’t wait for his father to answer. “You’re better than that fiend. Than any of this!”
Takhota seemed to wither. “You hate it. I can see that. You see the Scourge in us, in me. Nothing here is as it should be. It should be green, and the air should be fresh, the sky clear. Nothing dank, deathly. I would hate it too, were I in your place.”
“I don’t hate you, father. I just can’t… see you. You’re right. I can only see what Arthas made you. He made all of this. It’s still his domain. And Okeer… he revels in it. How could anyone revel in death?”
“I know. This skin, this fur, these eyes, they’re not mine. Only my bones are still my own, and my spirit. My mind. Otherwise I am cursed, we are cursed. Okeer delights in it because that is all he can do to stop himself from going mad. Have you stopped to think that this man had someone he loved, and who loved him back? A family? Land, perhaps even title – things to live for? They’re all gone. They’ve either been taken from him, or he’s had to forget them, and he fills his days with this. Murder of those who wronged him, and some attempt at revelry. I try to do more. I hold fast to my love for you, for my granddaughter – these are things Arthas could not take away from me.”
Takhota’s mention of Alhazad’s daughter soured him all the more. The taint of death that surrounded his father was something Alhazad would never let near his daughter. “She would only see the taint, the foulness. Okeer would be a monster the same as the Lich King, or maybe even worse. And you… I think you would frighten her. She knows only that her grandfather was a great tauren – one with eyes like the Earthmother, and who loved hot cider, and he could carry all of Thunder Bluff on his shoulders if he needed to.” Alhazad struggled as he weathered an upwelling of emotion, his next words spoken past clenched teeth. “I don’t want her seeing what you’ve become. I can barely stand it, myself.” Embittered and fighting back tears, he glanced quickly away and prepared to leave.
“Your child may see more than you think.” Alhazad was moving now, and not intending to stop. Takhota pleaded. “Alhazad, wait. Please?”
Alhazad stopped. “I should be going.”
“Just wait. Let me tell you something. I’ve wanted to tell you this for a very long time, please? You say you’ve told Sohale stories of me? Let me tell you something? Try to look upon me as you once did, with a child’s eyes?”
Alhazad did not make eye contact. Yet. “I’m listening.”
“Your mother and I were taken from you so early, we hadn’t the chance to tell you the story behind your name. It is an unusual name, for a tauren? That is because it is not a tauren name. It signifies a transformation of the mind, body and spirit, and I will tell you the story, if you’ll let me? Please? Before I’ve not the breath to tell it?”
Glancing toward his father, Alhazad saw more Takhota than he did the citadel around him. The shouts of nearby Death Knights seemed to fade, becoming whispers, then silent. He nodded, a little uncertain of what he was about to hear. “All right.”
Takhota nodded, too. He took a deep breath in before letting it out slowly, then closed his eyes before beginning. “Long ago, before either of us were born, there were many wars. And like all the others, one threatened the lives of all Kalimdor’s people, the tauren included. I speak of the War of the Shifting Sands.
“It is an obscure tale. Only the kaldorei can tell of it truly, if any who know it still live to this day. For us, the stories have been handed down over generations, recorded in our tribal history but otherwise lost to the annals of time.
“When war seemed imminent, the tribes sent some of their finest warriors to the front lines. The kaldorei did as well, though in greater number. Silithus was their land, after all, and Staghelm was a repugnant one. I believe even the bronze dragonflight was involved, if you can believe that! But what is important is not who fought, but those who sought another way.
“A tauren ancestor named Waanaki went to Silithus on a mission of peace. He was a peace-talker for the tribes – very wise, very patient. He was accompanied by a similar envoy from the kaldorei, Ethus Windsong. Their hope was to reason with the Qiraji and avoid a costly war. Some considered them brave, many thought them foolhardy. Our tribe respected them, but knew in our hearts their chance of success was small.
“Before Staghelm and his armies, before the destruction of Southwind Village, there were these two. The Qiraji named them Alhazad – ‘changer of things’ may be the direct translation – and treated with them. For one hour. Much of this time was spent deciphering their tongue, to little avail. Then the trap was sprung, Windsong was executed, and Waanaki barely escaped with his life.
“We knew then there would be no reasoning with these creatures. The silithid we expected to be little more than swarming beasts, and they were – but their Qiraji masters were nearly as bloodthirsty, compassionless despite their intelligence. ‘Alhazad’ was a foul word in their tongue, as they resisted any change save for what furthered their interests. And like the Empire of Aqir before them, their interest was conquest. The story Waanaki brought back with him confirmed what many of us had already known: the Qiraji desired no peace, only supremacy. We were going to war.
“But in returning, Waanaki felt at a loss. He had failed a mission he felt himself born for. Imagine if he were to broker peace between two cultures so unlike one another! He had invested so much in this, when hope of peace was lost, he felt diminished. He was no fighter, he had the gift of words, wisdom, reason. Gifts he felt no one needed when faced with an unfeeling enemy. He dismayed. Here was a turning point for him and he did not know how to proceed, how to apply himself. Do you know what he did?
“Like his brothers, he took up arms against the Qiraji. He made his body stronger, his mind sharper. He learned to fight, to win, and to lead. He used his words to inspire his fellow tauren before going into battle and his decisive mind to bring victory. As a ‘changer of things’ he changed himself and became what he needed to be. That is the story behind your name, my son.”
The telling of the story had a magic all to itself. Alhazad had been convinced little of his father’s power remained, and the Death Knight intended to only placate him with well-wishings, but such was not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. Alhazad found himself unexpectedly warmed by the chieftain’s words – Takhota’s grim visage faded to become the tauren of old, Scourge effigies crumbled, the band of Death Knights disappeared, and the icy chill of the Citadel’s interior was swept away by the wind of a verdant plain. Most alarmingly, the hollow tang of his father’s ghostly voice vanished, his words instead shored up by the powers of earth, air, fire, and the storm.
“I tell you this because I see in you the same uncertainty. You’ve felled a great enemy, accomplished something so unexpected you now feel without purpose. You had honed your ability to a razor’s edge for this fight; you’ve burned a path through your enemies to get here. And you’ve done it! What do you do now? If there is evil left in the world to fight, will you fight it? If there is none, can you live without the din of battle ever-present in your ears? Will the next enemy be too great, will your tenacity allow you to overcome them? To protect your family and friends? Or is there more you need to learn?”
Though his father’s words had him enthralled, he was not drunk on them – Alhazad remained astute, answering quietly, “I’ve been thinking about it, looking to see if there was anything beyond the arms, and armor. You were a great shaman, grandfather was a great shaman, but I…”
“I know you are studying the ways of the Light. There is a reason your heart guides you there and not to the elements, my son. Do not treat it as a random fantasy. Do not listen to the humans when they tell you it is not possible, or you are not suited. To the Nether with them! The Light as they know it is theirs – for you, there is something different, something more. Look into the eyes of the Earthmother and see what must be done. You will find a way to become what you need to be, Alhazad.”
“I don’t know if I can do it alone. Even with Mishotah, Sohale, the Ani… why don’t you come with me?”
“If only I could. You stand at a crossroads, my son. So do I. Decisions will be made and our paths will be chosen. I cannot walk with you, as much as I would like to. You are in service of the Earthmother now; there can be no greater purpose. I,” he paused and glanced away, the light in his eyes seeming to dim somewhat, “I must make the most of my curse, and answer to another authority.”
“But you can change it it! That’s what the story is about, isn’t it? If Waanaki could change himself, so can I. That was the message. You can change too! You remember what it was like. In Mulgore. In the good times. You’re a chieftain. You’re a spiritwalker, not a Death Knight! You don’t have to be like them!”
Takhota’s answer was honest, immediate, and strong. “I am like them.” Then his tone softened. “I remember what it was like to live a blessed life, Alhazad. These men do not. The indoctrination stripped them of everything that made them human, or orc, or troll. Somehow I held onto just enough to remain Takhota Ghosteye – not Takhota the Death Knight, not wholly – but they have only shades left, or less! Haunting little glimpses they’d rather block out than relive. Today they fake a smile, yes… and tomorrow, they’ll be back to sneering as the pain in their hearts hopes to seize them. If they succumb, they’ll become monsters – more monstrous than they appear now – and I cannot allow that. I can guide them. I have to guide them.”
Alhazad shook his head, uncomfortable with the explanation. To him, these men were well beyond saving. His father clearly thought differently, but what could Alhazad do about that? In a way, he was right – in his heart, Takhota was still Takhota, whereas the bulk of the Deathbringers appeared more hollow, their frivolity here simply a mask to wear for a time. The demons within them had to be numerous, to make them hide from them so.
Takhota smiled. “You see, I’ve already changed, my son. This is my lot in life, my next task. If I can remind these men what it was like to be alive, and what’s worth fighting for, perhaps they can show me how best to be what it is I’ve become.” Slowly, he reached forward to touch his son affectionately on the arm, his intent apparent should Alhazad wish to shy away.
Alhazad flinched when touched, but he did not recoil. He found his father’s smile to be familiar, tender despite the contrasting coolness of his hand and the ethereal glow in his eyes, though the Death Knight’s expression was also weary, sad. Alhazad shared the same look. He didn’t like what his father had said – indeed, did not have to like it – yet he understood it, and must accept it. In doing this, he lifted a shaking hand and returned the gesture, and the two seemed almost ready to embrace, but they did not. Oh, how Alhazad wanted to – surely his eyes told his father this, and volumes more, yet he held himself back.
Takhota squeezed his son’s arm. “You’ve a long road home ahead of you, Alhazad. After that, it will not be my voice telling you where to go. Listen to your heart, my son. Follow it. Always follow it, without err.”
Around them, the illusion began to fade. The Deathbringers came back into focus, and their conversations could be heard again, though only as a murmur. Alhazad was not distracted by any of it, his eyes locked on Takhota’s. His voice cracked. “I… I will.”
“Good. Go with strength, Alhazad. And honor.” This was Takhota’s farewell to his son, his last bit of guidance. Having said what needed to be said, the former chieftain then removed his hand, nodded, and prepared to return to the merrymaking of his fellows. Turned partly away from his son, he added, “I still like hot cider, but I’m too old to carry all the Bluff on my shoulders. I leave that to you, son.” He then moved away.
Alhazad was speechless. His father’s story raced about in his head, smashing preconceptions, drowning doubt, and reviving his inner fire. Inspired, and saddened, he realized something as he stood there, staring: he could see his father after all. There was a glimmer of the spiritwalker still visible through the superficial Scourgeness, past the rimed, macabre adornments of his armor. He couldn’t tell if his father was happy, or if Takhota could ever feel full happiness again, but one thing was clear – his father looked as though he were accepted, and belonged among his fellow Death Knights. A tenebrous future lay ahead of him and clearly he was prepared to meet it head on. If there was indeed a path for Takhota Ghosteye to walk, he was already on it.
Just as this knowledge came to Alhazad, the warmth of the storyteller’s fire left him completely. The lingering illusion gone, the reality of the dreary citadel returned like the swooping, shrieking apparitions who once inhabited it, and though Takhota stood no more than ten feet from him now, Alhazad felt closer to and yet farther away from his father than he ever had. What the Death Knight said rang true – they each had come to a crossroads with separate paths to take, and in walking those roads father and son would forever be worlds apart.
It might be for the best. Alhazad could now no more exist in Takhota’s world than his father could in his. Mulgore would not accept the former chieftain as a Death Knight. The spiced bread would have no taste, the cider no bite, and the summer wind of their homeland would be no different from the chill of Northrend to his unliving flesh. Takhota’s had become a life of silent watchfulness, unseen duty, and a responsibility – loath as Alhazad was to admit it – to the Deathbringers. They would be needed come the next battle, whenever Azeroth again was threatened, and through Takhota’s leadership they would perhaps begin to emulate their new captain rather than the other way around.
And Alhazad? The ways of the Deathbringers were too unlike his own, and their dark, solemn service was something he could not be a part of. He could remember Takhota and speak of his deeds great and small, past and present, but his frigid future was the Death Knight’s own. Alhazad had all of life’s simple pleasures to look forward to – the warmth of his wife’s embrace, the vibrancy of his daughter’s smile, the soothing smell of incense – altogether a brighter road to go, and with a trying campaign of bitter revenge put behind him, it was finally his turn to be happy. At least for a little while. Eyes stung by tears, Alhazad silently bowed his head in one final farewell to his father, and then stepped from the darkened hall into the light of a new day.