Learning too much (Part II)
The fifth and last of the ghouls scrambled over the edge of the dark pit to stand with its brothers. The remains of their scarlet armor glimmered in the moonlight as if painted with wet blood. They glared hungrily at Mairead, but did not advance.
Ythfas did not move to join them, standing in front of the cabin door. His eyes were distant. The effort of controlling the undead monsters was clearly taxing his concentration, yet his voice was soft and gentle. “Mairead… I implore you. Go. Tell my father that you have failed. That the price for success would be to kill both his sons.”
She took two more backward steps, but refused to flee. “Ythfas, stop this! Do not do this!”
The ghouls snapped their jaws impotently. Ythfas did not turn to face his niece, keeping his eyes trained on the five ravenous monsters. “What would you have me do, Mairead? Betray him a second time? Send away all of his guards to let him be slain again? I’ve been here before, Mairead! So many times, wishing that I could only go back to that moment… and change things.”
He smiled sadly. “And now… I can. But I never imagined it would be you.”
She stopped her slow retreat, trying to catch his eye, “Do you intend my death to bring about your brother’s memory? Is that how you think this will work? Because you are mistaken!”
The necromancer giggled softly, “His memories? No, no, my dear niece. My redemption! I can right a very old wrong. But no one has to die tonight. If I protect him… that will be enough. Now, please, go. Leave me to my work, which, as you can see, is coming along well. I’ll soon be able to wrest him from Arthas’s control.”
He paused, breathing erratically, eyes darting from one ghoul to the next. “And then… when his master’s bonds have relaxed, I can make him remember. There are ways to stop the flesh from rotting, even give him the appearance of life. Once I master them, he will be back! My brother will be among us again!” He swayed on his feet, a sheen of sweat gleaming on his forehead in the moonlight.
She took another step back, muttering a spell. Ythfas smiled to see the tiny pebble of shadow energy had no effect on his minion but a strange glow.
She shouted, as if to cover the shame of her failure, “Redemption?! You think this act will redeem you? You have lost your mind, Ythfas! Remember that it was a necromancer like you who originally raised Stephan and Grandfather! Do you truly wish to be like that? A monster?”
Between clenched teeth, he muttered, “There is no other way.”
Again she mumbled a spell, and again, the feeble bolt of shadow magic did nothing but set a second ghoul to glowing.
She continued to shout, “Of course there is another way! This is not it! You do this, you are just as bad as the one who did this to them in the first place! Let go, let me finish this! You cannot let this happen!”
He shook his head violently. “NO! You’re wrong! When the Burning Legion came, I became a warlock to fight them. My men spoke as you do. Saying that I was no better than the enemy, but they were wrong! I can control it. I never let my demons master me! So will it be with this!”
She snarled, hurling a third tiny bolt at another ghoul, again to no lasting effect. Her hands gathered more magic from the nether and she shouted, “Tell that to Swallowtail!”
And with that, she hurled a powerful bolt at the first ghoul, and leapt backwards. The monster’s flesh burst, igniting a chain reaction in the other two victims that destroyed all three in an instant and forced Ythfas to shield his face, his concentration broken.
The remaining two ghouls, now free of his control, broke into a sprint, fearlessly ravenous for Mairead’s flesh. Their dull eyes glowed in the night, and streaked across the clearing toward her.
Regaining his senses, Ythfas extended his hand, freezing one in its steps, but the second would not be controlled. “Go!” he shouted desperately. “Run!”
The freed ghoul howled in agony as she shouted a curse at it, but did not slow. She had time to lift her hand and shout for her Voidwalker… the demon had barely appeared before sacrificing itself to form a shield around its mistress just as the fetid claws of the monster reached her. It pounded against the barrier and screamed its frustration, digging frantically at the arcane bubble that protected her warm flesh from its bite.
From behind her fading shield, she mustered her magics, throwing spell after spell at the demon. The howling beast was twisted to the left and the right by the rapid spells, fighting madly to reach her to the last, then the lights in its eyes burned out, and it flopped to the dirt like a ragdoll.
Ythfas struggled to remain standing, his knees shaking with the effort of keeping just one bloodthirsty ghoul from doing what ghouls were made to do. “I will not shed Vinguld blood,” he swore.
Her panting breath forming tendrils of mist in the cold mountain air, she pulled off her glove, revealing the scar along her palm, and thrusting it at him. “Vinguld blood! Remember? Remember what I did at your behest those many months ago?”
He flicked his eyes to her hand, then quickly back to the ghoul, nodding. His sallow face flushed red with effort. He remembered the oath. He had made her swear it, and made her give her blood to prove she meant it. The tower had tasted noble blood that night, though no one had known the truth of it. That the vintage was his own family label. “You kept your oath,” he whispered under his breath, “after everyone else had gone, you stayed faithful.”
She did not hear him, but it did not matter. It was no less true.
Narrowing his eyes, he aimed his hand back toward the pit, and the ghoul was helpless but to obey. Slowly, reluctantly, it moved toward the pit. “I cannot let him be killed. Not again. One betrayal is too much.”
At length the undead beast howled in impotent frustration, then let itself tumble into the pit. Ythfas lowered his hand heavily and slumped against the doorjam, feebly, he pleaded between gasping breaths, “Leave us, Mairead. I can save him. I just need… time.”
“I cannot leave, Ythfas. And your attempts to save him are turning you into the one who caused the plague in the first place. You are no better than he.”
The bone wand fell from his limp fingers, clicking as it bounced on the dirty flagstone and rolled away, forgotten. He shook his head sadly, “No, I’m not better. But soon, I will be. And when I am, I can undo this pestilence.”
She arched her brows in shock, “You seek to become stronger than the Lich-King? You have lost your mind indeed!” She looked around the clearing, the chunks of dead flesh, the pit with its lone howling denizen, the ramshackle cabin, the wasting nobleman in its doorway. “Please, come back with me. See what you have been missing. There is nothing here for you but madness and vain ambition!”
His weary eyes wandered to the mountain trail again. “Swallowtail, is she… happy?”
Mairead sighed, “I do not know. I have not seen much of her. I have heard she keeps to the shadows of the Nightsabre hall, but that is all I know.” She lifted her hand, offering it to him, “Come back with me, and find out.”
He glanced at her hand, seeing only the thin scar. Again, he looked away. “And my father is well, I take it? He was always so much better at rulership than I. But leadership is another matter…” his voice trailed off, his thoughts far away again, then suddenly drawing a deep breath and adding, “And Yshka? Still safe in my life-- in Aktarin’s hall?”
She lowered her hand slowly. “Aye, grandfather is well enough. The family is not shattered. You have another brother, by the name of Terenius, and a cousin, Ythwilt. As for Yshka, the last I heard, she was still in the Warden’s care, but I have not heard word of her in some time.”
He perked up at the news, taking his shoulder away from the cold stone to stand on his own feet again. “A brother? One of my father’s indiscretions, I suppose? And a cousin too? It seems my family flourishes best in my absence.”
She chuckled softly, “Aye, one of grandfather’s indiscretions, but a Vinguld just the same. He stayed in the tower for a time, after you had left. Seeking a home. This was before I was aware of his blood.” She caught his gaze, her green eyes pleading. “Come back with me. See what you have missed, and be reunited with us.”
The necromancer sighed. “I will come down from this mountain. But not until my brother walks beside me. You must understand, Mairead, I too have taken an oath.”
“If only for a while?” she asked.
He sighed helplessly. “I cannot leave him unguarded. The Scarlet Crusade will show no mercy if he is found. I have managed to keep them at bay when they wander too close, but…” he gestured toward the pit, “always, they send more.”
“He could be moved. There are other places…”
He smiled sadly. “If we are discovered, Mairead, I will have more than the Scarlet Crusade to worry about. Every Paladin in the plaguelands would come beating on my door. This place is safer than moving him.”
A mournful howl echoed from the cabin, and Ythfas’s eyes were suddenly full of worry. Mairead paled at the sound. “Stephan is hungry. I was about to feed him when you arrived.” He stared at her for a moment, seeking something in her features, and then looking down at her feet.
“You understand…. Don’t you? Why I must do this?” He needed her to understand. Why could she not see as clearly as he?
She shook her head, “Every part of my being screams out that this is the wrong path, Ythfas. That there is no hope for your redemption.” She closed her eyes tightly, a tear leaving a silvery trail down her cheek.
He pulled off his gloves, lifting an emaciated hand to her face and wiping away the tear with his thin thumb. Her eyes opened again at his touch, wet and confused. Her voice cracked as she asked, “Why are you set on following this path? Why can you not just let the past die?”
He cocked a half-smile. “The past HAS died. What is there to go back to? The tower has crumbled, my— the Warden has moved on. My family is safe, and my father is back at the helm, where he belongs. I have nothing left to lose, Mairead. It’s all gone.”
“And what of your allies? We thought you were dead. There are those that would rejoice to see you still live! Please come back to us, do not destroy yourself.” Another tear rolled down her cheek, and she looked down, only then noticing his other ungloved hand, blackened with sores and oozing puncture wounds.
“What have you done?” she gasped.
He looked down at his hand, as if noticing it for the first time, then hastily pulled on his glove. “It’s nothing. Stephan can be… a bit wild at feeding time. But he’s doing much better now! I swear, in the daylight, I know he recognizes me. I’m giving him blood infusions when I can, and slowly, I can feel Arthas’s hold over him waning.” His voice trailed off again, and he muttered, “Stephan was always strong. I know he’s still there, under all of that. Holding on… waiting for his chance.”
She paled, and put her back to the cabin wall, leaning heavily on the cold stone. “Ythfas… what if he’s just waiting for his chance to take revenge upon you?”
The necromancer shook his head. “Impossible, he cannot know I was the one…” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “who sent the guards away that night. I’ll tell him when he’s regained his senses.”
“You don’t know what Arthas may have told him.”
Ythfas shrugged, “Then his revenge is nothing more than what I deserve, is it? My father was right. I killed them both. I was a foolish boy, and a traitor to my blood. I’ve had to live with that for a very long time, but soon… one way or another, I will be absolved.”
She sighed, “And just how do you think bringing Stephan’s mind back will redeem you? I hardly think he would forgive you for your acts.”
He looked down at his hands, turning them over as if to examine them for blood. “You didn’t know him as I did. Stephan was the most generous… giving and forgiving man you could meet. He had a mean streak when provoked, and he wasn’t the most… brilliant man, but his heart was pure. If anyone could forgive me, it would be him.”
She laughed softly, bitterly. “Pure? How pure was he when he seduced my mother?”
“It’s no sin to fall in love. And if you knew him as I did, you wouldn’t think it was him that did the seducing. He didn’t have a dishonest bone in his body. Trickery was completely beyond him… which is why I got the better of him so much in our youth. I looked down on him as a simpleton.”
She shook her head as if to clear it, “Ythfas please, look at me. Hear me. Yes, you made a mistake, but do not do this thing. This is an abomination!” Again she looked around at the cabin, the clearing, her eyes falling again on the pit. “If you do this, you will become as bad as Arthas.”
He waved away her protest dismissively. “It is sorcery. Nothing more. I would expect a warlock to understand that. The knowledge to do these things does not make one evil. Power itself is neutral. I can use this power for good. To BREAK the hold of Arthas!”
“And if you are corrupted in turn? I know of the sword.”
His eyes widened in panic. How could she know of his plans? He had confided them only to Stephan in the depths of his long nights. His only hope seemed to lay in denying it. “Frostmourne? Do you think me mad? To covet the lich king’s sword as well as his power?”
She snorted, “Not Frostmourne, you fool. I heard what happened with Sul’Thraze.”
He hissed a breath of relief through yellow teeth. She did not know. So much the better. “Oh… that. This is different. Mairead, this is a dark path I walk, I’ll grant you. And I have sacrificed…” his eyes grew distant, “… so much to come this far. If I turn back now, it will have been for nothing. I would have lost everything that matters in this world, only to fail. Can you not see that I must stay and finish it? That… the only path worth walking is forward?”
“And can you not understand that I must follow my own path as well?” she snapped. “Stephan must be destroyed so that he does not spread the plague any further.”
“My brother is in no danger of spreading the plague now. He is quite neutralized where he is shackled. What harm is there in leaving this one to me? Be reasonable, Mairead… if I succeed, he will walk among the living, and be no more dangerous than my father. If I fail… nothing will remain to keep you from your revenge.”
She shook her head, “I do not know just what dark pacts you are planning on attempting, but I fear they will fail, and that you will both run rampant under Arthas’s control.”
He shrugged, “Then you should come and check on us. Now that you know the way. But come alone. It will be nice to have visitors who don’t brandish swords and holy symbols once in a while.”
Her hand twitched, a small burst of flame appearing, then vanishing. “And what of my grandfather? What of my promise to him?”
Ythfas chuckled wearily, “Tell him what you found, but not where. Tell him that I would not let you pass, and that you could not raise your hand against me. He would find that… noble.”
She shook her head again. “I do not know if that will be enough for him.”
“Of course it won’t. But he will not send you to kill me.”
“I am not sure he considers you his son anymore.”
He chuckled, “By now, you should know him better than that.”
She smiled wryly, “You have not heard him recently.”
“Have you met my half-brother?”
She nodded. “Indeed, I have. And he is a Vinguld, no matter how base-born he is.”
“The bastard favors my father, does he?”
“He resembles his mother in looks, but in seeking power and glory, he is Vinguld.”
The necromancer looked up at the moon, half-hidden now by clouds. “You know, we were once a shining icon of the nobility in Lordaeron. Long before this current generation. Our coat of arms was feared and respected. I grew up hearing what it was to be noble. Not from my father, but my mother. Fairy tales and stories of chivalry and heroism. I would that I could hear her tell those tales again. When I hear of my father… I long for those stories if only to believe for a time that we were once so pure.”
His eyes fell then to the pit. “But for everything, there is a price. Isn’t that right, Mairead?”
She nodded at the truth of it. “I only hope he will pay the price for what I endured because of him.”
Ythfas inclined his head, “What did he do to you? Sire you? Surely you cannot blame him for your birth…”
Mairead turned to him, eyes burning with the injustice of it all, “It is because he sired me that Cynwal Ametia despised me, that his bride’s firstborn was not from his seed! It is because of his blood that I rebelled, that I became what I am. It is because of his blood that I nearly died at the hands of Cynwal Ametia!”
Ythfas shrugged, as if all of this meant nothing. “And because of his blood that you prevailed against him, no doubt.”
She lowered her head, saying nothing to that.
He continued. “You are who you are. You are the choices you’ve made. I blame my father for a great many things, but never for who I have become. For the wrongs that I have done. Those were mine, every one of them, and no one, not even my father can take them from me.”
She smiles, conceding the point. “Choices indeed, but blood can influence that choice.”
“Then let it prevail upon you now. Leave this place, Mairead. Take what you have learned here and tell no one. Honor the blood of your father. Leave me to my work. Let me put this all behind us.”
She sighed softly. “May I see him?”
He turned his head to glance at the door uncomfortably. “Do you not think it best to remember him as he was?”
She held out her scarred palm again, as if knowing that mark was the key to every secret door in his heart. That it could open any locks she wished. “Please. Let me see him. You have my word I shall not harm him this night.”
The necromancer nodded in defeat. “Your word is more than enough of course, but I wish you would reconsider. The creature in this house is not who Stephan truly is. Once you see him, you cannot unsee him.”
Slowly he stepped aside, clearing the doorway but not opening the crooked door. As he moved, the flickering candlelight from within drew a glowing line up her robes where the light leaked through the rough planks.
Taking a long look at her emaciated uncle, she drew a breath and said, “I will see him.”
Gesturing toward the door, he shook his head. “I knew you would. But I had to try.”
Taking one deliberate and steady step to the door, she steeled herself, becoming again the mighty warlock who had killed the ghouls just minutes before. Briefly, she closed her eyes, gathering her strength, then placed her hand on the broken latch, and pushed.
The motion of the air set the flies to humming again, lifting briefly into a black cloud before settling back greedily upon the bucket of rancid meat. The stench of the room, all but unnoticed by Ythfas, hit her full in the face, but she did not flinch. She kept her eyes on the floor, letting them wander to the tiny unkempt cot by the door, the shelves to her right that held stacks of books, scrolls, bottles of unguents and reagents, flasks and beakers. The cracked halves of the ceramic bowl, and finally, the thick-boned and meaty ghoul crouched in the corner, chains at its ankles, neck, and wrists tethering it to the stone wall opposite the door.
She shook her head, trying to take it all in. The ghoul glanced up at them, then returned its attention to the cracked bone in its claws, its long grey tongue probing into the hollow to lick the marrow inside.
Ythfas gave a slight bow as he entered behind her. “Stephan! This is Mairead! Your daughter! You remember that dalliance with the Ametia girl?” Mairead’s back stiffened at the words.
The ghoul snapped its jaws, giving not the slightest indication that it heard anything said. It glanced at them again, then returned to its meal.
“You see?” Ythfas asked excitedly. “He recognizes you!”
“I can hardly believe that!” she hissed in disgust.
The necromancer approached the beast slowly, his gloved hand extended. “Easy, Stephan. We’re friends, remember? Are you hungry?”
The ghoul swiped at him, and Ythfas withdrew his hand hastily. “That’s a yes, then.”
Mairead did not approach, hugging herself nervously. “Ythfas, what… what are you planning?”
He nodded toward the bucket of rotting meat. “Be a dear and hand us the bucket, would you? Your father is hungry.”
Suddenly, the massive ghoul lunged, its chain going taught and vibrating between its collar and the bolt in the wall, a thin cloud of rust surrounding it and settling slowly as the beast snapped its brown fangs, entrails pulsing from where its gut had rotted through, as if anticipating the coming feast. Tiny pebbles of dried mortar from between the heavy stone blocks of the wall rattled down to join the dusty pile behind it.
Mairead jumped backwards reflexively, here eyes widened in terror. With a trembling hand, she reached for the foul bucket and handed it to Ythfas quickly, as if afraid to catch whatever malady had turned this cabin’s residents into gibbering madmen.
Ythfas spoke as if to a favored pet, “There there, Stephan, we’re getting your dinner, see?” He reached into the bucket, waving his hand to scatter the stubborn black flies before taking a decaying joint of meat in his hand, tapping it quickly to dislodge some of the maggots, which fell back into the bucket like so much rice. He tossed it gently to the ravening monster.
Immediately, the ghoul squatted to the floor, snatching up his prize in yellowed claws, tearing the meat from the bone and stuffing it into his greedy mouth. He tilted his head back, swallowing great chunks of grey meat without chewing.
Ythfas smiled proudly. “You see? He’s much tamer than he used to be.” He turned proudly to Mairead, utterly convinced that she must now acknowledge the vast progress he had made.
But Mairead’s expression could only be described as a combination of hatred and pity. “He is still Scourge.”
He nodded, watching his brother make short work of the joint, finally taking the bones to its mouth to crack them open, and lap at the thick purple marrow. “Yes, but that will change. I’ve already learned so much.”
She mumbled, “Too much,” then shook herself and stepped back toward the door. “If you lose control of him, I shall kill him.”
“All the more reason for me to complete my studies, then.” He watched the ghoul for another minute. “He’s in there, Mairead. Can you not feel it?”
Her eyes flicked back to the hideous beast, taking his measure. “Perhaps so, but I do not know him.”
“Soon… I’ll be able to introduce you properly,” he pulled a shallow wooden bowl from the shelf and rolled back his sleeve, drawing a thin knife from his belt as he exposed the many shallow cuts among his heavily scarred and skeletal forearm. “It won’t be long.”
“Perhaps not… but in the mean time…” her voice trailed off, and he heard the door opening again behind him, clicking closed, then opening again a moment later. She drew up next to him with a parcel wrapped in mooncloth.
“A gift?” he asked.
“Sustenence,” she answered, flipping aside the covering to reveal a bundle of sweetbreads, several glass jars of what looked like stew, and several stacked pies. Even in the thick stench of the cabin, his hungry nose could smell their savory aromas, and his mouth watered. When was the last time he had eaten more than boiled grain? A month? Two months? Suddenly, it was all he could do to keep from tearing into the succulent fare.
But a single glance at his brother, and the thirst in his eyes, and he returned to his grim task, slicing open his arm and letting his thin blood trickle into the tiny wooden bowl.
She set the bundle down on the floor, the shelves offering no space at all, and flapped the cloth back over the food to keep the flies at bay. “My culinary skills have greatly improved, and you need to keep your strength up if you insist on this insane path.”
He smiled, holding his trembling arm over the bowl and giving his life into it, drop by drop. “I am grateful.”
She nodded simply. “You owe me.”
He nodded in agreement, repeating the litany that had kept him alive through so many hardships: “For everything, there is a price. We both know how it works. But what will you tell my father?”
She sighed. “That you are well enough, that you send your regards. That you are attempting to bring Stephan’s memory back. But I won’t tell him where you are.”
“Again, thank you.” He shook his arm, trying to dislodge the last thickening droplet, but the wound had clotted already. It would yield no more blood. “Let us hope I will be able to pay you when the debt comes due. You will tell no one else, I trust?”
She shook her head. “Why would I wish to air the family’s dirty laundry to the world?”
Ythfas smiled, and turned to her. “Spoken like a true Vinguld.”