Presenting the Blizzard 2011 Global Writing Contest Honorable Mention, “Ashes over Stormwind.”
Ashes over Stormwind
By Ryan K. Stansifer
Mere hours after the great tidal wave slammed into Stormwind Harbor, General Marcus Jonathan is summoned from relief efforts to a brewing riot in the heart of the Trade District. As he struggles to restore order, he finds himself questioning his devotion to the city as an ancient evil bears down upon Stormwind.
General Marcus Jonathan sprinted over the canal bridge into the Trade District, his hair soaked and armor encrusted with mud. People spilled out of the District, while the sounds of battle mixed with the shrieks of frightened children. He shoved his way through the crowd, hammer and shield glittering in the afternoon sun. Beside the Auction House, blades flashed between crazed citizens and desperate Guards. Marcus froze in shock as those he had sworn to protect lashed out in panicked rage.
Before Marcus could join the fray, a dagger slammed between Private Dawson’s ribs. His freckled face went pale, mouth caught in a cry lost in the uproar of the riot. Blood stained Dawson’s blue and gold tabard. The private fell to his knees as Marcus crashed through a barricade of broken mailboxes into the small square.
“Hold, you fools!” the general roared. “What madness has taken you?”
Defenders and rioters froze, neither willing to act with the General of Stormwind bellowing at them. A hulking man with a ragged scar across his face ripped the dagger from Dawson’s side, sending a fresh burst of blood to the cobblestones. In a blur, he dropped to one knee and shoved the blade against the private’s throat. Marcus glimpsed madness lurking behind the man’s bloodshot eyes.
“Don’t you know, soldier boy?” he spat. “They’re gone! Just when the wave hit!”
“What are you talking about man?” Marcus’s hand tightened on his hammer, judging the distance between them. “Who is gone?”
“The Twilight Cult, you idiot!” Spittle flew from his cracked lips and dribbled down into his matted beard. “They left us to die ‘cause we wouldn’t join ‘em!”
Marcus heard familiar steel footsteps behind him. The reinforcements had arrived. But Dawson’s pain-filled eyes still bored into him. The young Guard pleaded silently as his color drained away. Righteous fury threatened to overwhelm his composure, but Marcus forced himself to breathe. With a subtle gesture, he signaled the reinforcements to hold. He needed to end this without further bloodshed.
”They were right! The world’s ending!” The leader’s eyes threatened to pop from his head as he ranted. “Stormwind Harbor was only the beginning!”
Murmurs rose up around the District, whispers of agreement and fear, a far cry from the usual bustle of merchants and sellers. Trampled letters swirled in a cold breeze. Shadows crept from between the huddled buildings, as if summoned by the man’s words.
Marcus forced his voice into something approaching calm.
“So when the cultists failed to see Stormwind fall, you desired to take it by force?” Marcus shook his head. “The Harbor lies in ruins and you riot in the streets. Every one of you should be assisting your fellows, not attacking one another!”
The leader said nothing, but tightened his grip on his hostage. The rest of the rabble shifted uneasily, expressions of guilt and regret flitting across their faces. Still, none lowered their stolen weapons. They were just terrified enough to follow this raving lunatic.
“Worse is coming!” the leader cried. “There’s no hope! We got to prove we’re worthy of ascension before the end!”
The dagger twitched against the private’s neck and a drop of ruby blood suddenly appeared upon the weapon. Dawson was already near death. Marcus refused to allow one of his own to die with a blade to his throat. The general straightened and leveled his hammer at the ringleader.
“Citizen, if you kill that man, nothing shall save you.”
The man’s voice was a death rattle. “Weren’t you paying attention? I’m already dead. We all are.”
His hand moved.
Marcus vaulted forward, though he knew he would not be fast enough.
A thin shape shot past Marcus. The leader of the rabble jerked and the dagger tumbled to the cobblestones. He looked down and wrapped a hand around the crossbow bolt still quivering in his chest. Confusion passed over his face and with a final accusing glare at Marcus, he toppled backward. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Marcus glanced behind him. Major Samuelson reloaded his crossbow and took aim once more, his face a mask of cold satisfaction. The general clenched his fist. He had wanted the man alive.
“Enough of this!” Marcus shouted. “Lay down your arms and release your hostages, citizens. Do so and you shall not be harmed!”
The rioters hesitated and looked to their fallen leader, who now lay still beside Private Dawson. Dawson’s chest still rose and fell but Marcus knew that pallid color all too well. His patience with these fools was at an end.
“I shall not ask again,” Marcus growled.
One by one, steel and iron blades clattered to the cobbles. After silence had descended, Marcus signaled the guards to take the rioters into custody.
“Set them to work in the Harbor,” Marcus snapped. “Perhaps seeing their fellows suffering shall reacquaint them with their priorities.”
The Guards marched the thirty-two rioters to the stricken Harbor. Marcus scratched his beard and shook his head. Good and honest people driven to madness by fearmongers. They were simply the latest victims of that thrice-damned Cult. If the Light were with them, they would be the last.
Without turning around, he growled, “Stay here, Samuelson. I shall deal with you momentarily.”
“Yes, sir!” Marcus ignored the sneer in the major’s voice.
A guard medic was at Dawson’s side, working her healing magic on the wounded soldier. He already had some of his color back. The private looked up at Marcus and gave him a shaky salute.
“Rest now, young man.” Marcus knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Report to the Mage’s District infirmary once you are fit enough to walk.”
The private nodded, wincing in pain. “Yes, sir. T-t-thank you sir.”
“He’ll be just fine, General,” the medic assured him.
“Make sure of it.”
As he swept into the Lionheart Armory, yet another small earthquake ran through Stormwind. Marcus ignored the creaking cargo nets above him. After a few moments of searching among the healers and wounded, he found a battered and bruised Guard Captain Melris Malagan amidst the crates and broken barrels. Melris’s brown hair was matted with blood and he favored his right leg. As Marcus approached, Melris waved away a silver-haired priestess and commanded her to find someone else to annoy. Marcus almost smiled.
When Melris saw the general, he stumbled in his haste to snap to attention.
“At ease, Captain. And allow the priestess to do her work.”
The captain slumped into a chair and hung his head. The exasperated priestess bathed Melris with the Light. The wounds disappeared and with a nod to Marcus, she moved on.
“Sorry, sir. We didn’t know what to do.”
“What happened, Melris?”
“It was my own damn fault.” Melris did not meet his eyes. “They were just normal people. They swarmed out of nowhere and before I could say a word, the leader cracked me on the head with a plank. Next thing I knew I was shaking off the cobwebs back here.“
Marcus sighed. “They acted rashly and out of fear, not malice. Thank the Light none were seriously injured save the leader, who now lies dead. I shall talk to the Moores and ask them to overlook the incident.”
“Melris! Oh thank the Light!”
Melris stood as a short brown-haired woman shoved her way into the Armory and flung herself sobbing into the captain’s arms. He stroked her hair and whispered something in her ear.
“I thought you were dead!” she cried. “Emma ran up a few minutes ago, then the Guards wouldn’t let anyone through and—“
“I’m fine, Kelly,” Melris said. “Just a bump on the head. You shouldn’t be here, though.”
Marcus held up a hand. “Melris, I expect your full report in the morning. Have Demailer take over the Trade District watch for the evening and put extra Guards on patrol.”
Melris managed to salute around Kelly, who disentangled herself and smiled up at Marcus.
“Thank you, General,” Kelly said, kissing his hand. “Thank you for stopping those maniacs!”
At the door, he glanced back. Melris gave Kelly a light kiss on a tear-stained cheek while her engagement ring sparkled in the lamplight. Kelly would have been devastated if anything had happened to her soon-to-be-husband.
Allowing himself a moment of melancholy, Marcus wondered if anyone would mourn him when he died.
“I am getting too old for this.” He marched back into the street, trying to ignore the pull of the letter in his satchel.
“Samuelson!” Marcus shouted as he closed on the major. “By the Light, what possessed you to kill that man?”
Samuelson saluted. “Saving Private Dawson’s life, General!”
“Do not lie to me, Samuelson! I have seen your skill with the crossbow. We needed him for interrogation.”
“I could not disable him without endangering Private Dawson, General. I acted. It was necessary.”
“That man may have had connections to the Cult and you—“
The officers turned. Marcus’s hand snapped up as if a puppeteer had pulled a string. “Your Majesty!”
King Varian Wrynn had the air of a quietly seething volcano. His thick eyebrows were furrowed in displeasure and the two vicious scars were dark beneath the fierce blue eyes.
The king paused, struggling to keep his anger in check. When he spoke, his voice was as cold as the wastes of Northrend. “If you have a moment, General, I would like to speak to you regarding these events.”
”Of course, sire. Samuelson, you are on report. I shall finish with you later.”
The major saluted. Marcus turned and fell into step behind the king. As he left, he could feel Samuelson’s glare burning into the back of his head.
Twilight fell upon Stormwind as Varian Wrynn knelt before the gray pillar. The bronze plaque, crafted by the finest bronzesmiths in the Alliance, glinted in the failing sunlight. A solitary dove cooed in the branches above Tiffin Wrynn’s memorial. It was the only sound save for the cries of the rescue workers in the Harbor and the gentle lapping of Stormwind Lake.
Marcus stood vigil behind the king as Varian placed a white-flowered wreath upon the grave. To give him a moment of privacy, Marcus turned and gazed back down the length of the cemetery. The salt air overpowered the subtle scent of wildflowers that grew among the tombstones. Down the path, Highlord Bolvar Fordragon’s memorial stood alongside the grave of the long-dead Marshal Reginald Windsor.
How many comrades now lay to either side of the winding stone path? How many heroes never had the chance to make their way here? How many lay dead in lost graveyards, forgotten?
“I am glad you never had to see Stormwind like this, old friends,” Marcus whispered to the empty spaces beside him.
With a frown, he touched the leather satchel at his side. The parchment within still weighed on him. After seeing Melris and Kelly, the decision seemed right. Every time he saw a family pass through the Valley of Heroes, he found himself dwelling on the thought, especially when he saw the little ones. Yet he had only written the letter this morning and found himself unable to deliver it.
Marcus took a deep breath in a futile attempt to regain control. He was the General of Stormwind Defense, for Light’s sake. This sort of indecision was beneath him. At least, that is what he had repeated to himself for the last several weeks.
Varian interrupted his thoughts. “General, let us move on.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty,” he said. “If I may ask, sire, does not Prince Anduin usually accompany you?”
“He is assisting in the relief efforts within the Cathedral. And he prefers to remember his mother in his own fashion as of late.”
Bitterness tinged Varian’s voice. Marcus did not press the king further. He knew the prince’s relationship with his father was strained.
They walked through the quiet cemetery in the fading sunlight. Varian’s attention remained on the rose-colored spires of the Cathedral of Light while they passed Bolvar’s memorial.
“You have made your wishes regarding today’s incident clear, General,” Varian commented. “Why so lenient?”
“I believe restitution will heal more wounds than the Stockades, Your Majesty.”
”I see.” Varian paused. In front of them, the fading sun danced on the slow ripples of Stormwind Lake. “What of the Guards? Any serious injuries?”
“No, sire. Private Dawson was stabbed, but the medic assured me he would make a full recovery. I arrived in time to prevent things from going too far.”
Varian nodded distractedly. “Tell me, General, do the citizens of Stormwind find comfort here?”
A woman and her three daughters knelt by a grave beneath a weeping willow. Incense and quiet prayers intertwined in the air, reminding Marcus of his own desperate prayers. Lost in memory, the four women did not notice them.
“The war in Northrend cost many lives, sire,” Marcus admitted, rubbing his thick mustache. “Your efforts to keep them in memory sit well with most of the city.”
“Yet not all of them.”
“I am no politician, sire. I do not see the big picture.”
Varian snorted as they passed the outdoor chapel and continued on the white stone path toward the Cathedral courtyard. “I no longer have patience for ‘the big picture.’ You stand at the Valley of Heroes, General. I would hear your thoughts.”
The giggles and cries of children echoed across the District. As they turned the corner, the orphans of Stormwind scampered around the Cathedral fountain, played on the gray stone benches and swung off the wrought iron lampposts. Marcus found himself transfixed by the sight. An unbidden smile crept upon him.
The moment passed when the ever-watchful Matron Nightingale called her charges back into the Orphanage. She ignored the groans of protest and curtsied to the two men before she disappeared inside. Marcus found some small comfort in children still being children, even after the ruin unleashed upon the Harbor only hours ago.
“General, I asked you a question.”
Varian’s voice returned Marcus to the moment.
“The citizens…” Marcus tried to find the right words. “The citizens tire of war and death, sire. Only a short time ago, frost wyrms attacked from on high and undead crept into their homes. And then, the Battle for the Wrathgate…”
A sneer of hatred curled Varian’s lips. Marcus pressed on.
“The city mourned those who fell at the Wrathgate for weeks. We have all suffered much. And these latest horrors only further the pain. The elemental attacks, losing family members to the Twilight Cult. Now the ocean itself raises its hand against us.”
“And we have overcome and will continue to do so.”
He thought about the empty grave beneath Bolvar’s memorial. “But at what cost, Your Majesty?”
“They should trust in the wisdom of their King,” Varian grunted. “And the Alliance. This doubting leads only to the sort of foolishness we saw this afternoon.”
Despite Varian’s fervor, the words rang hollow. Doubt gnawed at Marcus like an itch beneath a steel breastplate at inspection.
Varian scrutinized his companion. “I wonder, General. Do you speak of the people or of yourself?”
“No more, General. This is the last time I will ask you to speak your mind.”
“This is not an appropriate time, sire—“
A hint of something dark and familiar flashed over Varian’s face.
Marcus ran a hand through his short-cropped hair and reached into his satchel. Without meeting the king’s gaze, he handed him the parchment.
Varian read it with a raised eyebrow. “You wish to resign?”
“Retire, Your Majesty,” Marcus corrected. “I have served Stormwind faithfully for many years.”
Varian almost smiled. “I remember a young private once bragging about the grand mustache he would one day own.” He paused. “I suspect this has been long time in coming, General.”
“That young private is now an old general, sire.” He studied the violet clouds above. “I have buried too many comrades and now I find myself looking to ideas of family and peace. War has dominated my life for many decades, Your Majesty. I long to find something—“
The tolling of the Cathedral bells interrupted him as the prayer service for the victims of the Harbor released into the courtyard. The stocky, white-clad Archbishop Benedictus joined his congregation outside the door, offering words of comfort to those in need.
Before Marcus could suggest they move along, a small voice rose up behind them.
“Is that really the King?”
Marcus and Varian turned to face the critical stare of a small girl with red pigtails and a yellow dress. Despite his mood, the general had to hold back a chuckle at Ashley Bridenbecker’s impertinent question. He was well acquainted with the young farm girl. Her family often passed through the Valley of Heroes to buy supplies for their small homestead in Elwynn Forest.
“Yes, little one, he is the King,” Marcus answered. “Now where are your parents?”
“Leaving the service.” She returned to her study of the lord of Stormwind. “Shouldn’t the King have a crown?”
Marcus sighed. Ashley was the master of the insightful and occasionally uncomfortable question, such as “Where is the rest of that dragon?”
“He left it in the Keep, Ashley. Now shouldn’t you run along?”
“Nope. How come he walks around with all that big armor and that giant sword? Is he going to beat someone up?”
Marcus thought he heard a snort of laughter from Varian, but when he looked, the king was impassive.
“Ashley!” The call saved Marcus from answering the girl’s latest question.
A young woman rushed out of the growing crowd, her eyes only for her little girl. That is, until Kim Bridenbecker realized to whom Ashley was speaking.
She bowed so low her golden hair brushed the ground. “King Varian! Please forgive her intrusion!”
“I don’t think that’s really the King,” Ashley said, squinting up at Varian’s scarred face. “Shouldn’t the king be more ma…ma…” She frowned and squeezed out the word. “Majestic?”
Kim’s hands flew to her mouth. “So…my…beg…” she stammered. “Please…Your Majesty…”
Varian waved a hand to silence her spluttering.
“I remember when Anduin was your age, little one.” Varian patted Ashley’s head with a massive gauntlet. “He asked such questions as those. Keep asking them.”
A stout man joined them, holding the hand of a towheaded boy who gaped at the king.
Kim smiled weakly at her husband. “Ashley made some…um…new friends, Rob.”
Rob Bridenbecker bowed, having a bit more composure in the face of Varian Wrynn. “I can see that. Hello, sire.”
“What about—“ Ashley began.
Marcus intervened to save Kim from another mortifying question. “Your Majesty, we should return to the Keep. We should discuss—“
The cobblestones beneath his feet trembled. Something about it set his teeth on edge.
“General?” Varian apparently hadn’t felt the tremor.
”Nothing sire, a momentary distraction. But we should speak on other matters.”
“Very well. Let us take our leave.”
The Bridenbecker family said their farewells and Marcus led Varian toward the eastern archway.
As they passed the Orphanage, windows rattled from another shiver. Infants burst into tears and adults grumbled as they fought to keep their balance.
“When will these quakes stop?” Varian growled while dust fluttered down from the rooftops. “I had thought the Harbor would have been the end of it. The wretched shaman tell us nothing useful.”
“I do not—“
In a heartbeat, the movement changed. The ground rolled as if they were on the open sea.
Cries and shouts echoed from the courtyard behind them. Marcus had to clutch a lamppost to keep from being thrown to the ground.
“Anduin!” Varian spun on his heels and raced back to the square, Marcus a few steps behind him.
The Cathedral courtyard was in chaos. People fled in every direction while masonry crashed to the ground. The terrified wails of the orphans ricocheted across the square as the fountain cracked and a jet of water shot into the sky.
“All citizens to the Cathedral!” boomed Archbishop Benedictus, his voice amplified by the Light. “Into the Catacombs!”
Marcus stumbled. People pushed past him, rushing to the Cathedral. He shouted for order, but insanity engulfed the square.
A wall on the west side of the District crumbled. The falling masonry buried three fleeing dwarves before they could scream. A Cathedral spire collapsed and crushed a paladin trying to guide people into the church.
Varian rushed to the Cathedral doors where he started to usher people inside. Beside him, Prince Anduin Wrynn worked the Light for an injured warlock. Stormwind rocked again as an explosion in the Dwarven District sent a pillar of foul smoke billowing into the sky.
Abruptly, the people stopped. They stood transfixed on the sky behind the Cathedral. As Marcus craned to see what they were gawking at, a new sound rose over the trembling earth.
“Are those…wings?” somebody asked.
“By the Light,” Marcus whispered in horror.
Behind the Cathedral, the sky burned.
A nightmare bore down on the city, trailing a path of churning smoke and roiling flame. A gruesome fusion of blackened flesh, scarred metal and twisted fire loomed over Stormwind.
In a wake of charcoal and death, the monster streaked up over the Cathedral like a goblin rocket. It hung there for a moment, black against the pink and blue sky, an angel of death. Then mammoth beast fell, plummeting like a stone upon Stormwind. With an explosive crash, the gargantuan dragon slammed into the Trade District.
The shock demolished nearby buildings and drove Marcus to the ground. Screams of terror were cut off by sickening crunches.
The tattered crimson and ebony wings swept over Stormwind, spanning from the Keep to the Mage’s District. Blazing veins pulsed and writhed beneath the thin membranes. As the ground settled, the dragon reared and unleashed an ear-shattering roar across Stormwind.
Marcus clapped his hands to his ears as glass burst in every lamp and window in the District. With renewed terror, the people stampeded toward the dubious protection of the Cathedral of Light.
In the echo of the dragon’s cry, a shrill shriek pierced the chaos of the rumbling city. With a sense of dread, Marcus searched for the source.
Ashley Bridenbecker thrashed beneath a smoldering timber pinning her in the charred ruins of a broken building. Crimson flames licked the blackened stone, feeding on cracked wood and spilled lamp oil. Her cries seemed to drown out the rest of the world, save for a single voice.
“Let us through! My girl’s out there! Ashley!” Her father screamed as the panicked crowd swept him and Kim into the Cathedral.
Acting on instinct, Marcus dashed forward through the fleeing masses. Drawing his shield, he used it like a blockade and stormed through the raging fire. He shoved aside a broken door just as an aftershock rattled the building, sending bits of wreckage down upon both of them. He heard a crash behind him, but ignored it and focused all his strength on hoisting the timber. He lifted it a few inches, allowing Ashley to squirm out.
He snatched up the weeping girl and spun around.
The opening was gone. All he could see was smoke and fire.
Ashley clung to his armor. For a heartbeat, her giant eyes latched upon his. In that one moment, something resonated deep within him. A passion he had forgotten; a truth he had lost. The world crystallized.
“I want my Daddy!” Ashley wailed.
Marcus flung his shield aside and drew his hammer.
The dragon screamed again and Ashley buried her head in his chest. Clutching the girl close, he hurled his hammer into the wall of debris and threw himself forward just as the roof collapsed.
They crashed to the cobblestones together. Ashley held on for dear life as they rolled away from the smoldering wreck.
Ashley’s father rushed up, overflowing with gratitude. Rob pulled Marcus to his feet and then scooped up the girl. She clung to his neck and cried “Daddy!”
A rush of stifling wind swept over them. The beast was rising.
They sprinted to the entrance of the Cathedral, past the crushed bodies. By the door, the one-eyed Lord Grayson Shadowbreaker attempted to pull Varian inside, but the king refused to move. Varian’s gaze jerked from the dead innocents in the courtyard to the black dragon.
“What is this monster, Your Majesty?” Marcus asked as High Priestess Laurena hurried Rob and Ashley into the Cathedral.
“Deathwing,” Varian snarled.
Blue light shimmered and Marcus spun to see the blackened and torn robes of Lady Jaina Proudmoore. Ash and soot darkened the archmage’s golden hair. The tall woman clutched her staff, trying to catch her breath. Beside her were old Sergeant Bates and the wounded Private Dawson.
“We must leave, Varian! We need—“
“I will not abandon Stormwind to this beast!” Varian proclaimed. “Jaina, take us to the gryphon tower in the Keep. General, have your men prepare to counterattack. You’ll come with us to coordinate.”
Marcus nodded, instantly understanding the king’s intended tactic. “Dawson, Bates, get to the Old Barracks and rouse the men. Station archers and mages at all high points within the city. Then man the ballistae! Double-time!” He turned to the paladin. “Grayson, find anyone within the Catacombs who will do battle with this beast.”
Both Guards saluted and sprinted toward the barracks. Dawson still limped, but he managed to keep pace with the sergeant. Lord Shadowbreaker nodded and disappeared into the Cathedral as Prince Anduin emerged.
“Your Majesty, we need to get the people to safety,” Jaina protested. “You know what this monster can do!”
“Father!” Anduin cried. “We should—“
The king whirled, his face contorted with savage rage. “Anduin, see to the people. Jaina, teleport! Now!”
Jaina glared at him, but cast the spell anyway. The world twisted and Anduin disappeared with his mouth half-open in surprise.
They stood atop one of Stormwind Keep’s mighty towers, in the empty stables for the second wing of the new air defenses. Before them, the sprawling city was lost in a patchwork of fading light and burning fires. He could see nothing of the Valley of Heroes and the Trade District was shrouded in red-hued smoke. Marcus cursed at smoldering claw marks upon the twin stone towers rising above the haze. There was no way to tell how the rest of his soldiers fared.
The dragon hovered over the city as if studying a colony of panicking insects. Marcus saw thick metal plates holding the dragon’s pulsing body together. The great fiery gash in Deathwing’s chest dripped molten lava upon the city, turning homes into funeral pyres.
Captain Hobbes and his squad of marksmen stared out a window at the destruction. Beside them, a nervous gryphon rider fiddled with his pristine helmet. They all turned at the flash of Jaina’s spell.
Hobbes saluted, his blue eyes glinting. “Your Majesty. General. When do we take down this beast?”
Marcus almost grinned. Hobbes was never one for small talk. “Is the rest of your squad ready?”
“Stationed along the battlements and the three towers, General,” Hobbes nodded. “I think we can take him.”
“Rider,” Varian snapped. “Get Stormwind’s gryphons in the air.”
The gryphon rider gaped. “But, sire! We’re only a few days out of training!”
As if in response, Deathwing spat a bit of flame upon the Vault’s clock tower. Gears ground to a halt and a flaming cog arced over Stormwind like a shooting star.
“You heard the King!” Marcus snapped. “Move, soldier!”
The rider scampered to the lower levels.
“Why is he just flying around?” Varian muttered. “Why isn’t he attacking?”
“I do not know, sire. But we should get—“
The words died in Marcus’s throat. The dragon’s insane laugh echoed over the streets of Stormwind. Marcus had fought undead, orcs, elementals and more, yet he had never heard such madness as this. It crashed against itself, reveling in death and pain.
Deathwing’s malevolent eyes were two enraged stars. They raked the city, as if searching for something. His focus drifted from the Keep—
And he looked to the Park.
“Oh no,” Jaina whispered.
“Where are those gryphons?” roared Varian. “Get them in the air now!”
“We’re not ready, sire!” a soldier cried from below. “Give us two minutes!”
“I said now!”
The dragon’s head reared.
Marcus could think only of his men. “Lady Proudmoore! You must teleport me to—“
White-hot lava blasted from Deathwing’s maw and crashed into the Park District. The impact shook the city to its very foundations. Marcus staggered. A tempest of hot ash ripped over his sweating skin. The white stones of Stormwind glowed scarlet as Deathwing bathed them in the burning light of damnation.
The dragon stopped and surveyed his work.
Agonizing seconds passed before Marcus could see through the haze. There was nothing left of the Park, save for a blackened and smoking cliff. Between the Harbor and the cliff, only twisted metal and smoldering wood remained of the barracks. Bits of burning trees, molten stone and shattered planks rained across the city. The smell of flaming grass and charred flesh overpowered the omnipresent tang of salt air.
Marcus blinked away the afterimages. With every blink another face appeared to him, each a brave solider who had served with honor and distinction. Every one, now a mound of ash and bones. Tears of rage spilled down Marcus’s face.
He could not believe it. This was not happening, not again. They had defeated the Lich King. Had not Stormwind suffered enough? Had not they earned some peace? Now an insane dragon lands on his city and kills half of his soldiers in one strike? He could not accept it. He would not allow it.
He would slay the damn beast himself if he had to, but he would not sit by and watch his city burn again.
“King Varian, request permission to lead the attack!” Marcus’s voice was twisted in grief and rage.
Varian did not respond at first. The king reached behind his back and slowly drew his sword, Shalamayne. When Varian turned, Marcus saw not the King of Stormwind, but savage Lo’Gosh.
“No,” Lo’Gosh spat. “But you may fly beside—”
“The Hour of Twilight falls!” Deathwing roared. “All of Azeroth will burn beneath the shadow of my wings!”
“Sire!” shouted a gryphon rider from the stairs. “We’re ready!”
“We’d best not keep our visitor waiting.” Lo’Gosh marched to the stairs. “Jaina, get messages to the rest of the city. We attack in one minute.”
Marcus and the king turned. The horrible orange-yellow eyes were now fixed solely upon Stormwind Keep.
“Take flight!” Varian shouted below. “Archers, open fire!”
A storm of flame swept over the gryphon tower, igniting the archer’s arrows in midflight. Jaina threw up a shield of ice just powerful enough to prevent those within from vaporizing. Yet despite her efforts, the tower groaned in protest.
The ceiling crumbled upon them in a haze of heat and smoke. Marcus tried to push Varian out of the way, but he was too slow. Both of them were slammed to the floor by what felt like a half-ton of brick and wood. His head swimming, Marcus flinched when a block of masonry smashed through the floor inches from where he lay.
Crossbows twanged in rapid succession. “Fire again!” Hobbes bellowed.
Through a broken window, he watched Deathwing’s tail crush the far tower and part of the stone arch to the central spire. Half buried under the collapsed roof, Marcus roared helplessly as Hobbes’s other archers plunged to their deaths.
With unholy speed, Deathwing’s head shot forward. In one bone-crushing snap, the dragon devoured five falling soldiers and a massive chunk of the central tower’s outer wall.
Sickened by the sight, Marcus turned in time to see a section of the gryphon tower give way under Captain Hobbes, Jaina and the archers. Hobbes shoved Jaina clear before he vanished with a roar. The sight roused Marcus from his stupor.
The planks beneath him cracked. With renewed strength, he scrambled to escape from under the wreckage. A few yards away, Jaina scuttled back from the crumbling edge. He shoved the last timber aside and Marcus leapt forward as the floor underneath Jaina disintegrated.
By Light or by luck, he managed to snatch her hand in midair. But he misjudged the jump. Only a quick grab at a hunk of bent iron saved them from plummeting to their deaths.
They dangled above the Keep, watching flame engulf the first level. Hobbes and his men were gone. A burning gryphon nest fell, crashing against the side of the tower twice before splintering on the distant earth. The monstrous shadow covered the tower and blocked the final hazy rays of the sunset.
Jaina looked up and gave him a small smile. All he could hear was the dragon’s wings. He closed his eyes and prayed for the people of Stormwind as his fingers slipped.
A strong hand clutched his arm. His face coated in blood and grime, King Varian nearly wrenched Marcus’s arm from its socket as he pulled the two of them up. While Jaina scrambled to her feet, Marcus rolled over and stared into Deathwing’s fiery maw.
“Jaina, go!” Varian shouted.
The teleport whisked them away as a final blast shattered the gryphon tower of Stormwind Keep.
A soot-stained King Varian Wrynn stared at nothing in the cavernous hall of the Cathedral of Light. Moonlight filtered through the high windows. Pews were stacked in a corner to make room for the hundreds of cots and bedrolls. Medics and priestesses worked feverishly. The general tried to ignore the cloying smell of incense and antiseptic. Three hours after Deathwing had inexplicably departed, the city still reeled from the savage assault.
The leaders of Stormwind sat around the repurposed altar, all of them battered, blackened and bruised. Varian, Jaina and Marcus sat on one side, while Archbishop Benedictus, Matthias Shaw, and High Sorcerer Andromath sat across from them. Grand Admiral Jes-Tereth paced the dais, grinding her teeth.
“Please General, continue,” Jaina prompted.
“We are still trying to tally the dead.” Marcus’s words were dull as he spoke. “The Keep’s center spire is intact, though damaged. The great span and flanking towers are destroyed. Our gryphon wing escaped and the Royal Guard evacuated the majority of the nobles into the tunnels beneath the Keep.”
Andromath muttered something under his breath. Marcus ignored him.
“Baros Alexston assured us the Trade District is salvageable,” he continued. “The architect and his crews are inspecting the damage. Earthen Ring shaman and frost magi are working on the last of the flames while dwarf teams are removing the rubble from the Valley of Heroes.” The vision of the scorched towers and the fallen statue was seared into Marcus’s mind.
Varian didn’t respond. He stared at a scorched Guard badge he’d found in the ruins of the Old Barracks. The king rubbed away the soot, revealing the warped face of the Lion of Stormwind. Marcus wondered how many more lay in the rubble.
“It’s no better in Old Town,” Shaw said. The spymaster’s voice was brittle. “After he destroyed the Keep, Deathwing took out half the Command Center. We lost some good people in there.”
“The Light remains with Stormwind.” Archbishop Benedictus smiled. “We saved a great host within the Catacombs, Your Majesty. The tunnels have been well fortified over the years. Moreover, your son’s unflagging efforts lifted the spirits of the people.”
On the east side of the Cathedral, Prince Anduin worked with High Priestess Laurena. The prince was just as soot-stained and smudged as the rest of them, yet he tirelessly moved from bedroll to bedroll.
Melris and Kelly worked beside Anduin. Silent tears ran down Kelly’s face as she pulled a bloodstained sheet over a pair of night elves. Melris, weary with exhaustion, gently guided her to the next patient.
“Lifting their spirits is one thing,” Grand Admiral Jes-Tereth said. Brushing a lock of ragged black hair out of her pale face, she studied the filled Cathedral. “But we need more than that if Stormwind is to survive. The Assurance survived the wave and is en route to the rest of the fleet. Some of the ships will return to port, while others will seek aid from our allies. We must rebuild the Keep, the Harbor and the Trade District if we are to survive this madness.”
Andromath shot her an ugly look. “There is more to Stormwind than war, trade and economics, Admiral.”
Jes-Tereth didn’t rise to the bait. “Indeed. Yet such things will be necessary if Stormwind’s citizens are to recover.”
Varian interrupted before Andromath could respond. He sounded more tired than Marcus could ever recall. “How many?”
“Sire?” Marcus frowned.
“How many died in the Park and barracks?”
Unshed tears glistened in Jaina’s eyes. “The Park is gone. Nothing but a charred crater crumbling into the sea. If the survivors of the Harbor had been in the Park instead of the other Districts…” She paled at the thought. “Even then, it was far too many.”
“And the barracks? Did any escape?”
General Turalyon once told Marcus good commanders always grieved over the loss of their soldiers. He never felt this as keenly as he did now.
“A few squads.” Marcus rubbed his face. “Our best estimate is forty percent of the Guard is dead.”
Varian’s hand tightened around the warped badge.
Marcus didn’t mention the two soldiers he had sent to their deaths. The memory of the promising Private Dawson haunted him particularly. The popular and eager young man had just arrived from Northshire. He had been proud to receive his tabard only a month ago.
Though he knew better, a small voice within told Marcus he had once again failed his soldiers.
It was the Wrathgate all over again. Death screaming down from nowhere, leaving only corpses and questions. And he was just as helpless as before.
Andromath slammed his fist into the altar. “What I don’t understand is why! Deathwing could have easily destroyed this city like we would an anthill!”
“It’s simple,” Shaw grunted. “Terror and revenge. We hung his daughter’s head over the Valley of Heroes. I do not fathom why he took her skull, but any member of SI:7 knows the power of terror. He wants Stormwind terrified…and he will terrify Azeroth in doing it. If he shows us to be impotent, then all lose hope.”
Marcus had his doubts about Shaw’s theory. If Deathwing had wanted to instill terror, why not destroy the Keep or Cathedral first? Why start with the defenseless Park? Even the attack on the Keep made no sense. At the last moment, Deathwing had paused, allowing them to teleport away.
Drumming his fingers on the altar, Marcus said nothing. There was no sense in adding to the tension.
“We are not impotent.” Varian snapped. “Deathwing may have caught us unprepared, but we will rebuild this city to the stone. Then we will bring a terrible vengeance upon him and his ilk.”
“Hear, hear!” cried Jes-Tereth.
Varian looked up from the badge, the shadow of Lo’Gosh burning behind his eyes. “But the Admiral is right. We first rebuild trade and defenses. Stormwind will be strong again. Our losses were heavy, but we cannot be cowed. We will rise up and grind our enemies to dust, be they orc, undead or dragon.”
He stood, signaling an end to the council. “Go to your tasks. We have much work ahead of us.”
As the heads of Stormwind departed, Marcus remained near the altar while Varian spoke to Jaina and Benedictus. Lost in his thoughts, Marcus was surprised when something slammed into him. Marcus glanced down to see two reddish pigtails against his battered armor. Little arms wrapped halfway around his waist as Ashley Bridenbecker hugged him as tight as she could.
She only squeezed tighter. He didn’t know what to do. No one else seemed to notice his plight.
Her little head poked up and their eyes met. She crooked a finger at him and he knelt down obediently.
“Thank you!” she said and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Leaving him staring after her, she scampered back to her parents near the Cathedral entrance. He shook his head and smiled his first real smile since the Harbor had been ruined. Children were a resilient lot.
Kim and Robert Bridenbecker took the hands of their son and daughter. Kim smiled, mouthed “Thank you” and turned to leave. Before they went through the door, Ashley turned back. She beamed at him and gave him an energetic wave.
He waved back and then they were gone.
He picked a bit of mud off his blackened armor, a token from his work in the Harbor this afternoon. It felt like a lifetime ago. He glanced behind him when he heard footsteps and nodded politely to the departing Benedictus and Jaina.
“General…” Varian began as he stepped beside him. The king turned the Guard badge over in his hand. “Marcus. I do not hold you responsible for what transpired. I am loath to admit it, but we were all unprepared for this. At least, that is what Lady Proudmoore keeps telling me.”
“Thank you, sire,” Marcus nodded, unable to look him in the eye. “Lady Proudmoore is a wise woman.”
Varian handed him the badge. “There is one other matter. Your retirement.”
“My retirement?” Marcus blinked, the subject forgotten in the attack. ”Do not think of it sire. It was ill-timed.”
Varian ignored him. ”After consulting with Archbishop Benedictus and Lady Proudmoore, I have chosen to grant your request, on the condition that you can provide an able replacement.”
Marcus stared at Varian as if the king had just revealed himself to be three gnomes in an excellent disguise. “Your Majesty?”
King Varian’s eyes wandered to his son, who was still working among the wounded. “There is much to be said for the power of family, General. I would give you that chance. You once told me there must always be men to hold the gates. No longer must you be one of those men.”
Marcus considered it. For the first time, he truly considered it. The allure of finding a life without constant war and death tempted him. Long nights of telling stories to his children and grandchildren about armies of light and soldiers of darkness. It would be a wonderful life, maybe in a small cottage on the outskirts of Elwynn Forest. Perhaps he could raise sheep.
The happy vision stretched before him, until he remembered Ashley’s eyes as Deathwing roared above the city.
“King Varian, I have reconsidered. I would like to rescind my request for retirement.”
Varian raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because of the little girl you met earlier, sire.”
Varian said nothing. Marcus felt compelled to continue.
”She reminded me why I stand watch over the Gates of Stormwind, sire. For her and the others like her.”
King Varian clapped him on the shoulder. “Very good, General. See to your men and coordinate the relief squads in the city. The rioters who have served well may return to their homes. Then get some rest. We have much work ahead of us tomorrow.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Marcus Jonathan stepped out into the moonlight. The District walls were in ruins. Puddles littered the ground, remnants of the broken fountain. Even the Cathedral itself had cracks along its sides, but it still stood, as did much of Stormwind. The air began to clear as the ocean winds swept away the smoke and ash, allowing the pale light of the heavens to shine upon the white stones.
The world was broken. Reports were coming in from across Azeroth of massive shifts in mountain ranges, erupting volcanoes and devastating floods.
It would take months to repair the city. Yet, despite everything, it was still his city. They would rebuild. Stormwind survived. As did he.
And as long as General Marcus Jonathan survived, he would stand watch over the Gates of Stormwind. Not for his sake, but for ones such as Ashley Bridenbecker.