The Scarlet King @lord22
The Path of Bones

Chapter Four: The Path of Bones

Mal'Ganis sorted through one report after another. The news was good; new armies were being mustered from the dead. Very soon, an entirely new wave of undead would be at his disposal to campaign with. Even so, as he looked into the fires of his torches, he found he was waiting for news of Prince Arthas.

It had become almost routine to him. A daily part of his schedule, almost. Make a plan, enact it, and hear how Prince Arthas had interfered. Prevented it from achieving full success. Wherever he went, he rallied the humans to fight ever harder. It was odd, but Mal'Ganis almost applauded his spirit.

"Lord Mal'Ganis, we have a problem." said a necromancer.

"What is it?" asked Mal'Ganis, looking up.

"Prince Arthas has dispatched messengers throughout the land. He has ordered the destruction of all the corpses in the graveyards." said the man. "While not all of the villages are complying, we are losing potential forces. He has also destroyed our forces in Vandemar and scattered the Syndicate in that region."

Aiden Pernolde had not known anything, but he was still the person organizing things. "I see. He is ever a persistent adversary.

"Still, we have managed to recover a large part of our old strength. Our priority should be to slow him down. Continue your efforts and finish this stronghold. I will give the Prince the confrontation he seeks."

"As you command, Lord Mal'Ganis." said the necromancer.

Mal'Ganis realized he desired this confrontation as much as his enemy. It was a strange revelation. This was all becoming very personal.

Arthas received a letter from Falric three days after they had parted ways. The landscape around them now was not as blighted, but it was oddly quiet. Like all the animals had chosen to be elsewhere. Arthas didn't like it.

Fortunately, the letter had good news:

Prince Arthas,

As you commanded, we tracked down the Forest Troll village. We broke their lines and slaughtered all the warriors. Some of the beasts attempted to flee. But our knights were able to catch them and put them to the sword. We are now burning their corpses and all their dead.

We are now returning to meet with you.

Your loyal servant,

Captain Falric Alune.

It was written in the hasty scrawl of a man who learned to write late in life. But it was fully legible and refreshingly direct. Arthas smiled as he rolled it up and put it away.

Muradin eyed him in concern. "What is it, lad?"

"Falric has destroyed the main undead column and is moving after us," said Arthas. "But we can't wait for him. We'll have to press on and destroy as many graveyards as we can."

Muradin nodded, then looked up to where the corpses were burning high before them. They'd nearly taken all the bodies out of the graveyards in this region. They'd already left Vandemar behind and were making their way south toward Andorhal.

"If you say so lad," said Muradin. "But I'm getting real sick of the smell of burning corpses."

The smell was there. Arthas had hated it once. "I don't even notice it anymore."

Muradin sighed bitterly. "Well, maybe I'll get used to it."

Then Marwynn rushed up with Faldine with him. The soldier bowed quickly to Muradin, then turned to him. "Arthas, my scouts just got back. A large undead army is ahead of us. They are growing stronger by the minute."

"Are they aware of us?" asked Arthas.

"No sir, or at least they didn't seem to see us," said Marwynn. "They have truly massive numbers, though. Larger than us. I haven't seen anything like this since Harthglen."

"We might want to take our full forces for this, lad," said Muradin. "I'd hate to fight them all here."

Arthas calculated the odds. "If we wait, we'll be playing into their hands. Every minute may lead to the army getting larger. Bring me my horse and assemble the knights.

"We'll see if we can bait some of the creatures into a trap."

"That seems like something the enemy will see through," said Faldine, brushing brown hair out of her eyes.

"Will they?" asked Arthas. "The undead are many, but their commanders don't value them. And I suspect that Mal'Ganis has a shortage of commanders. If the enemies we had faced were properly coordinated, they could have destroyed us.

"I think Mal'Ganis' armies have lost cohesion. We have to use this while we can.

"Marwynn, I want you to establish a defensive position to hold the undead in place. Muradin, et the riflemen up on that ridge, ready to fire. I'll lead my knights. Faldine, protect Muradin's men."

"Understood, Prince Arthas," said Faldine, saluting.

"We'll let the knights get some glory," said Marwynn with a smile.

The knights were quickly assembled, and a horse brought forth. Arthas rode in front of the knights, hammer in hand. They stood still and silent, waiting for orders from their Prince. "Listen to me, my friends! Our task is to draw the attention of the undead! We will strike while they form up and draw them into a trap! Strike hard and fast, then disengage!

"For Lordaeron! For King Terenas!"

They drew their swords. "For Lordaeron!"

Arthas rode with his knights forward up the path as his forces assembled behind him. Soon they came within sight of the undead, who were assembling even now. Spurring his horse forward, Arthas swung his hammer and swept the heads off three ghouls. Then, raising his hammer, he sent forth a wave of light that broke the formation. The knights plowed in, hacking and slashing as they crushed the undead underfoot. Within moments they had passed through the front ranks. They wheeled around to strike on through again. With the second pass, they laid them to waste, and the other undead pursued.

A large part of the undead army lumbered after the knights as Arthas led them on. As he'd guessed, they lacked proper leadership. Soon they went past the ridge on the path, and the mortars and riflemen opened fire on them, taking many to pieces. Marwynn's men rushed forward as Arthas led his knights around. The footmen locked shields and became the anvil. Some of the undead tried to scale the hill, only to be shot down or hacked up. Others fought the front lines and were cut down.

Calling aloud to his men, Arthas led the formation of knights around the battle. They closed on the undead from the flank. They crumbled like clay hit with a sledgehammer. The entire undead force melted away.

Then it was over.

"It's done!" said Arthas. "The enemy vanguard is destroyed. Well done, men."

"Well, that's a good start," said Muradin, coming up to him. "What about the other few million?" And he pointed to where the undead ranks were swarming down the path in far better formation

"One thing at a time, Muradin," said Arthas. "Form up!"

The coming undead were blasted by mortar and rifle fire. Great chunks were taken out of their lines, only to rise thanks to the spells of necromancers again. Dark magic was cast that seemed to make shots go astray as the ranks fell on the front line and were held in place. Priests scurried this way and that, healing the injured. Mages slowed and transformed their enemies. The soldiers on the ridge held the line with shields and guns ready.

Arthas attempted another flanking maneuver, but was met there by a rear guard. His warriors clashed with the abominations, hacking them down where they could. But he saw a knight and his horse cleaved in two by an abomination's cleaver.

And then he appeared.

Mal'Ganis swooped down from the skies and landed, sending a wave of darkness around him. The men caught in it fell, screaming to the ground. Others fell forward, collapsing into a dark sleep. And every wound the undead inflicted seemed to strengthen them.

"For the Light!" called Arthas, dismounting and smashing his way toward the Dreadlord. He healed and rallied those he could. At the same time, Muradin was going berserk, laughing as he hacked them down.

On the fighting went, back and forth as bodies fell on the ground in great numbers, only to rise again. And then Arthas found his hammer meeting a spear in the middle of the fray. He was face to face with his enemy.

"Mal'Ganis." he said, shoving him back.

The Dreadlord smiled, spinning his spear as he parried a flurry of strikes from Arthas. Then he sprang back and sent a wave of darkness. Arthas sent a wave of light, and the two met with a flash before Muradin came at the Dreadlord from the side. Hammer and axe went for him, but Mal'Ganis evaded all.

At last, Muradin and Arthas stood before him as the armies made space for them by some will. They were in the eye of a neverending storm of dead and dying men.

"So this is the beastie you tracked to Northrend and back then?" asked Muradin. "Nasty piece of work isn't he?"

Mal'Ganis' smile widened as he took a stance. "I'm disappointed in you, young Prince. Obviously, you are not as strong as the Dark Lord predicted."

"You don't know what strength is," said Arthas.

Mal'Ganis surged forward, stabbing at Arthas with immense speed. As Arthas backed away, Mal'Ganis brought around the butt of his spear to catch him across the face. "Believe what you will, boy. But the harder you strive to slay my minions, the faster you deliver your people straight into my hands." He stabbed forward, but Arthas rolled aside and lashed out with his hammer. Once again, Mal'Ganis withdrew, even as Muradin came at him from the side.

"That will be of little comfort to you after I've cut those hands-off," said Arthas, surging forward.

Now he and Muradin were on either side of the Dreadlord, attacking in what must have been a blur. All Arthas' focus, all his energy, was set on destroying this abomination. And yet even as Mal'Ganis yielded ground, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

At last, he sprang away to land upon the corpses of several abominations. "Ever your words are bolder than your heart. My armies are legion. And you will never defeat them all. Not without Frostmourne."

"Captain Falric!" called someone. "Captain Falric is here!"

Mal'Ganis looked up as Falric's forces came into view. They shored up the defenders and striking into the enemy forces. The tide of the battle turned against Mal'Ganis, and he frowned. "So you are saved again."

Arthas surged at him, but Mal'Ganis flew high into the air. "Come back, demon! Let us finish this!"

"Finish it?" asked Mal'Ganis. "I told you before. Your journey has just begun."

Then, even as the undead were destroyed to the last, Mal'Ganis faded into darkness. Arthas fell to one knee, feeling exhausted. He slammed his fist against the ground. "Damn it!"

"Lad, we've won," said Muradin.

"We will never win until Mal'Ganis is dead and once again, I've failed!" snapped Arthas. Then a hand went to his shoulder. He looked up to see Falric. "Prince Arthas, we have to press on. The graveyards and these bodies must be destroyed. Even now, Mal'Ganis may be gathering still more forces to face us."

Arthas looked to his men, exhausted and many of them dead. The battle had been a costly one. "Right, press on. But keep an eye on the trees and send scouts ahead. I'll remain behind and see to these."

"Undead! Undead are on the flank." called a man.

"Form up! Hold them off!" said Arthas even as he looked to see them coming.

And so began a series of smaller battles. Arthas hardly remembered them afterward, for they blurred together. They had repulsed the first wave. Then they rested only long enough to heal their wounded and start the pyres. From there they headed north and found mile after mile of burning grain. And out of that grain came undead.

They saw a village wiped out to the last child. They fought many of those children in the form of zombies. On and on it went one nauseating combat after another. Waves of undead harassed their lines and had to be chased off. Ambushes were found and turned against the undead trying their hand at them. But they found few cultists and those they did find fled.

It was a truly miserable experience. One made all the worse by some of the tracks they found at one of the graveyards. All the bodies had been dug up, but aside from a few guards, there were no undead. What there was were wagon tracks and heavily laden ones.

"Carts," said Arthas. "They're leading away carts of corpses."

"There are a great many of these," said Faldine. "It seems they have been drawing them off for some time."

Arthas wished he were anywhere but here. He wanted to back to Dalaran before all this happened. To leave behind the blighted flaming hellscape all around him and go home. To Lordaeron as it should be.

"And we'll see them again soon," said Arthas. "So be it. Burn everything that remains and send word to the towns beyond. If any survive, ask them for information on Forest Trolls, we may have to initiate some reprisals."

"I have a bad feeling about this lad," said Muradin. "But there isn't much else to do but our best."

He had pursued Mal'Ganis because he'd felt as though killing him would bring it back. As if removing the demons head from his shoulders would be the end of a fairy tale. Like he could close the book after reading that he lived happily ever after.

How naive he'd been.

Even if Mal'Ganis died tomorrow, the war would go on. If the Scourge was destroyed, there would be other enemies to deal with. Arthas would spend the rest of his life fighting until he died in battle. At best he'd wither away from exhaustion as Father had.

He was so tired.

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