Just when Kael's emotions threaten to consume him at a critical juncture, his fortitude is put to the test.
For all his adult life, Kael had always been the consummate commander and tactician. He was always extremely confident in his ability to lead, and perhaps more importantly, defer to the wisdom of others when necessary for the greater good--from his time as a member of Dalaran's shadowy Council of Six, to conferring with his own lieutenants to act in the best interest of the Sin'dorei once it was clear the so-called Alliance had abandoned them to fate. What on earth was it about Northrend, this situation, that was driving him to such ill-favored distraction?
It was not as though Kael felt him capable of treachery toward his people, despite his admittedly checkered past. Why could he not simply trust that his master knew what he was doing, after all that had happened? Of course, that question was hypothetical--the answer was obvious to anyone who was paying attention, much less an archmage as singularly astute as Kael'thas Sunstrider. Quite simply, he was letting his romantic feelings for Illidan cloud his judgment. He was not afraid that Illidan was lying to him, or meant to deny him his chance at revenge against the man who was responsible for the destruction of his kingdom and his people's malady. Kael was afraid that Illidan, a man he'd grown to love more than anyone else in his life, was going to die out there, and he would never see him again. Logically speaking, that was a positively ridiculous notion, of course. Illidan Stormrage was over ten-thousand years old, was the most feared demon hunter to ever walk the face of Azeroth, had stood down and usurped a pit fiend of his residence, and Light knew what else.
The Elven prince sighed and reached for the bottle of pinot noir that rested on the table before him, but then hesitated and drew his hand away. How much longer could this stand, truly? They were not even halfway to the Frozen Throne. Surely the danger would only grow from here. Kael would grow mad if he did not find a way to keep his emotions in check, and soon--because the only alternative, admitting his feelings to his master, was absolutely out of the question. Not only was it wholly inappropriate, and not remotely the time or place for such sentiment, but Kael flinched from what he felt would be the inevitable result of such a confession. It pained him even now to think of it, to even acknowledge as a passing thought the very stark reality that his love for Illidan would forever be an unrequited one. He was not about to go through that again, not after what happened with Jaina Proudmoore.
Vashj's words from the Black Temple still stung his heart, all the more so because he knew very well that she spoke the unmitigated truth. There was no doubt in Kael's mind that Illidan was incapable of returning his love, that his master's heart still belonged to Lady Tyrande after all these countless years. Better that Kael suffer and Illidan never confirm that truth with his own words. This constant, gnawing trepidation he felt was infinitely preferable to the crushing despair that would cause in Kael. The ridiculous melancholy that overcame him when Jaina spurned him in favor of Arthas would pale in the face of Illidan's rejection, and that was not something any of them needed right now. Particularly with this entire expedition--and likely Illidan's very life--resting on their shoulders.
Kael vigorously shook his head, as if to clear it of all this maudlin nonsense. He was Commander here, and his soldiers needed him. He gathered his wits and stepped outside the Sanctum to take stock of the situation. His engineers, as equally skilled with the hammer as with the spell, had all but repaired the breaches to the watch towers made by the Scourge's ghastly siege engines. The priests were quick at work tending to the few Elves that were wounded in the battle. As he passed through the camp, their faces shone with defiance and determination, even as their eyes dimmed in that tell-tale sign of arcane withdrawal. Truthfully, he himself was beginning to grow ill again, because he'd had little opportunity to siphon mana from the fel crystals he kept in his personal belongings. Kael was turning toward his private pavilion to do just that, when he saw a pair of his runners returning to the base.
A pair of Farstriders were sprinting toward the base, their faces grim. Kael met them at the edge of the camp and returned their salutes.
"What is going on, rangers?" Kael demanded.
"It's Arthas, my liege!" The lead ranger, a svelte blonde woman, gestured toward the horizon. "He has slain a mighty servant of the Blue Dragonflight and raised him through the Lich King's eldritch power to serve his will!" Kael's eyes grew wide and he grabbed the ranger by her shoulders, his fingers grasping the leather armor as though he were afraid she would run away without answering the one question that plagued him.
"What news of Lord Stormrage?" Kael's voice shot up an octave, the panic within it barely contained.
"He--my Prince, as we speak, he makes for the northern pass," the ranger answered, clearly startled by his suddenly crazed demeanor. Her partner, a lanky, crimson-haired male with a prominent dragonhawk tattoo on his arm, leaned in, placing a comforting hand upon the small of her back.
"My Prince, we overheard the spider lord speaking of a vast network of tunnels deep beneath the earth, where his kingdom once stood. Lord Stormrage believes Arthas seeks these tunnels as a shortcut to Icecrown, and the Throne," the male Farstrider elaborated. "The Master is moving to guard the entrance to that passage. Lady Vashj's naga have already blockaded the waterways to cut off their vessels."
Kael reached back in his memories, to his studies in Dalaran, and a single name came to him out of the pages of the Kirin Tor histories: that of the ancient kingdom of the Nerubians of which this "spider lord" was clearly one. "Azjol-Nerub..." he muttered absently. A steely resolve came over him, and his emerald eyes narrowed to near-slits. The fretting, lovesick fool was gone and the steadfast military genius had taken his place. Mercifully so.
"/Get your men over there!/" the Prince barked, following a long string of colorful oaths in Thalassian. Kael's initial instincts had proven correct, and now Illidan's sudden, baffling insistence on caution was about to cost him his life. He tore away from the scouts and immediately began shouting orders to his troops. "To me, Blood Mages! Engineers, I want those glaive throwers moved--/now!/ By the Light and the Nether, we must defend that pass! That motherless bastard must not be allowed to break through our blockade!"
Kael's sense of urgency was not lost on any of his soldiers. The mages quickly opened portals and sent the engines--the slowest moving of their forces--on ahead. The others carried out his commands with no less brutal efficiency, and within the span of only a few moments nearly the entire Sin'dorei force was marching toward the ravine which led to Azjol-Nerub, with only a token force left to hold the base. It was a gamble, but one Kael was forced to take--if Arthas broke through to Azjol-Nerub, those tunnels could potentially leave him on Ner'zhul's doorstep, and then it would not matter if one solitary base still stood.
They raced as fast as possible, Kael and his sorcerers and spellbreakers jumping far out in front due to the arcane power they commanded. It was of no concern to him. He had to get to Illidan before Arthas, or worse--that accursed--
And then he heard it: an ethereal, otherworldly cry of unfathomable rage, and it was as though it threatened to split apart the very skies above them. Kael's hands instinctively flew to his Elven ears to protect them, sensitive as they were. That was no banshee. His soldiers sent up the cry, taking to arms:
It was a massive creature whose flesh had rotted away entirely, leaving only a gargantuan skeleton bathed in an eerie sapphire light. It rose up from the depths of the ravine to the east, bringing with it what seemed to be an endless horde of ghouls and eldritch re-animated horrors. Some were haphazardly stitched together from random corpses, others were banshees that wore the faces of Quel'thalas' numerous dead. All were scenes out of nightmare. The wyrm cried out its challenge to the Sin'dorei once more, and took to skeletal wing.
Adrenaline rushing through his veins, Kael's hand went to the golden hilt of his longsword, the gorgeous heirloom once wielded by the greatest of his ancestors and passed down as a symbol of his House's authority. As he slid it from its jeweled sheath at his belt, it immediately leapt into burning arcane flame. Raising it defiantly into the air, he cried out his response.
"/Bash'a no falor talah!/" Kael screamed, and charged into battle.
Pillars of flame shot forth from behind him, arcing skyward to blast the wyrm. The Farstriders loosed their enchanted arrows after them at a signal from their commander. Those were followed by the dragonhawk riders, darting to and fro to engage the diving gargoyles in aerial dogfights before turning on the great wyrm.
Back on the ground, Kael cut a burning path through the shambling ghouls, his fiery sword carving through them as though they were simple rag dolls. He turned to face an abomination that was lumbering toward him with exceptional speed, and when the disgusting thing swung its enormous grappling hook at him to yank him forward, Kael spun with the effortless grace of a fencer, easily dodging the clumsy blow. He used his flaming sword as a conductor for his arcane energy, and brought it down in a single sharp movement, slicing open the creature's stitching until all manner of worms and larvae poured out, and with a final shudder it fell apart into its component parts. All around him, the Sin'dorei spellbreakers and assorted knights were making easy work of the Scourge and human cultists in close range. Once it was clear they had the ground battle well in hand, Kael gestured broadly with his sword in the direction of the Nerubian pass.
"Go, my brothers and sisters! Join Lord Illidan's blockade, and avenge your children upon Arthas!"
With a mighty cry in response, they moved on, thundering to the north.
When Kael looked up at the sky to gauge the aerial battle, it also seemed to be going well--with one notable exception. Though the banshees and gargoyles seemed to be mostly vanquished, there was still the problem of the frost wyrm. The rangers and blood mages were doing enough to keep it distracted, but they just could not seem to penetrate the creature's defenses. It dove and spun suddenly, then reared back and released a broad cone of frost from its gaping maw, taking out an entire regiment of mages.
Kael knew what he had to do, he could not risk any further casualties. He quickly and purposefully began to etch a swirling sigil into the snow with his sword, comprised of ancient Highborne runes and intricate spirals. To the untrained eye, it could have appeared that he was engaged in some sort of intricate sword dance, spinning and twirling, flames coiling about his limbs like serpents. When he was finished, he grasped the hilt of the blade with both hands and raised it to the sky.
"Al'ar, great Lord of the Phoenixes, House Sunstrider summons and stirs thee! I command thee to aid in my battle this day! May thou cleanse the miasma of death from this land with thy fires of rebirth!"
Kael slammed his sword into the center of the sigil, setting it aflame upon the surface of the snow. A fiery whirlwind engulfed him, and the spell was cast into the heavens. Descending from the sky in a great ball of flame, the mighty phoenix swept across the battlefield leaving burning death in its wake. It lowered dangerously close to the frozen ground, and when it glided close to Kael, he leapt on its back and rode the great beast right in the direction of the frost wyrm.
Weaving his sword in spiraling patterns, Kael engaged the undead horror in single combat. He guided Al'ar to the creature's hindquarters, blasting it again and again with arcane fire, then dove beneath it to dodge a sweep of its tail. When he attempted a thrust of his blade between the wyrm's ribs, his sword felt as though it hit a stone wall, and was easily repulsed. Kael would need to find a weak spot, and quickly. Spiraling on the phoenix, he emerged upon the monster's left, opposite flank. Wait--the archmage blinked, finding what he was looking for. Triumphantly, he raised his arms and began chanting another fire spell, this time aiming for the large, sapphire orb encased inside the skeleton. Now, the cursed thing would be finished!
A sudden wave of dizziness slammed into Kael as soon as he released the flames from his fingertips. Though they indeed made their mark, sending the wyrm into a great cry of pain, he would not be able to see it, because with that magical fire went the last of Kael's energy. The withdrawal symptoms had worsened with the sheer amount of energy he was expending in the battle, and now it had rendered him helpless. He swooned, his brain and his body consumed by unfathomable hunger, and Al'ar--no longer able to hold his form with his master faltering--began to fade into dying embers and dissipate into the cold winter air.
Then Kael began to fall.
The last thing the Prince of the Sin'dorei remembered, the last sensation he felt, was the cold creeping up his ankles, inching up his legs and easing across his body like a cresting wave. It was, unbearable, unnatural, this cold, and when it reached his face it felt as though it was suffocating him. Utterly spent and deep in the grip of magic withdrawal, Kael'thas could not even scream or cry out for aid.
Silently, he prayed that Illidan would not be the one to find his corpse.