Chapter Five: One More Battle
Arthas had won again.
He'd forced the undead into a disadvantageous position, even as they had been gathering. The battle had claimed some of his forces, but not nearly enough. Mal'Ganis had lost an entire army that could have otherwise destroyed many villages. Other smaller battles were taking place throughout Lordaeron. The paladins had become wise to what was happening.
This was turning into a war of attrition that Mal'Ganis was not sure he'd win. Fortunately, he did not need to win. "So our vanguard forces have been completely destroyed?"
"Yes, Lord Mal'Ganis." said the Necromancer. "However, we were able to draw back a large number of corpses and are working on them as we speak. Other areas have had similar conflicts with the paladins. While we've lost a number of battle groups, our forces are still growing.
"Even so, if things continue as they stand now, we won't be able to gather another army like this."
"So I have noticed," said Mal'Ganis. "Have you had any luck meeting with the Syndicate?"
"No, our attempts to establish contact have been rebuffed." said the Necromancer. "Whoever is in charge now, he refuses to have anything to do with us."
"Then he has greater wisdom than his predecessor," said Mal'Ganis. "I want you to have some of our undercover cultists to infiltrate their ranks. They may be of some use to us in the future, if only as unwitting pawns."
"What of the war?" asked the Necromancer.
Mal'Ganis looked at the map within his necropolis and considered the matter. Finally, he sighed. "Our initial goal has been partially successful. We have restored the scourge to power and weakened the humans. And we have burned vast acres of farmland. There will be starvation soon, and that will be to our benefit.
"Now we will recede into the night and do nothing."
"Nothing?" asked the Necromancer.
"Yes, we'll hide our forces in defensible locations and give the appearance of defeat," said Mal'Ganis. "I want the humans to believe that we have been beaten. The Alliance was already falling to pieces before this happened. Now it's dissolution will be a certainty.
"Once my plan is enacted, we will strike when they are weakest."
It was the last meeting Arthas wanted to have at the moment. But Muradin had insisted at least making a try for peace. So here he was before a pavilion, looking into a dark forest and waiting.
He was not kept waiting long.
Zul'jin emerged from the woods, flanked by an honor guard of savage warriors. They approached, and the two sides eyed each other distrustfully. Arthas had troops standing by to relieve him near at hand. The one-armed, one-eyed, troll was probably taking similar precautions.
"Zul'jin, your reputation proceeds you," said Arthas.
"I be knowing you, Prince Arthas of Lordaeron," said Zul'jin. "I remember you led an army in defense of Quel'thalas."
It had been a small action, defeating a series of raids. Uther had done most of the commanding while Arthas merely fought on the front ranks. He still felt ashamed he'd gotten the credit. "I did, though not out of any personal vendetta."
"Personal or not, the elves started der purges after you stopped that attack," said Zul'jin. "We never be forgetting or forgiving that."
"Whether you do, or not, perhaps we should move on to business," said Arthas. "You have been launching raids against my people in this region. I wish to negotiate the end to hostilities."
Zul' jin's one eye glared at him over his mask. "Why should we be stopping? You humans be on yer way out. We Forest Trolls be ruling all this land long ago. And we gonna be doing it again, once the rotting dead finish ya off."
"And what do you think the Scourge will do once they've 'finished us off?" asked Arthas. "They will destroy you next. For now, you are useful to them as a second front. But once we are no more, you will have no protection."
"We not be needing protection," said Zul'jin. "And you already be doing a pretty good job of weakening dem. I be thinking that I'll finish off the winner when all this blows over.
"Unless you can offer me some incentives."
Arthas looked to Muradin, and then back. He might as well hear him out. "What kind of concessions."
"I want Zul'Aman recognized," said Zul'jin. "Our territory given back."
"I may be able to arrange for Zul'Aman to be recognized, by some parts of the Alliance," said Arthas. "I'm not overly fond of the elves at this stage myself. However, I have no power to compel the elves to yield their territory."
"I not be talking about da elves," said Zul'jin. "Long ago my people be ruling all dese lands. Before you humans helped da elves drive us out and destroy us. We be wanting some of our ancestral lands back.
"You can give us it."
"The territories you speak of have been part of Lordaeron for centuries," said Arthas. "Any King who willingly yielded those to you would be wholly discredited." And those lands would be needed, with all the land that had been fouled.
"I not be thinking you be having a choice," said Zul' jin. "We be wanting our lands back."
The solution was obvious. Cut a deal with Zul'jin, promise him whatever he wanted, then rip up the contract and kill him once he was of no more use. Arthas had nearly done that to Zul'amon in Northrend. But that would have been wrong, an act of supreme dishonor, he knew that now. And the long term consequences could prevent any kind of negotiation in the future.
No. Arthas did not make promises unless he could, and would, keep them.
"Do you really think this will blow over?" asked Arthas.
"Maybe not. But that be my price. I be holding all the cards." said Zul' jin. "You want me to be thinking the world is ending. But you humans always be thinking the world is ending. We trolls live long, remember long, and adapt. We'll be returning to our old power, one way or another."
"…So be it," said Arthas. "I will crush your people if you leave me no other option. Even so, there are precautions you should take."
"Precautions?" asked Zul' jin.
"If you hope to defeat the Scourge," said Arthas, "it would be best if they had no corpses to raise more minions. I suggest you burn the bodies of your dead from now on."
"You be suggesting we defile our dead?" asked Zul' jin.
"If you don't want to fight them later," said Arthas, "yes. It will be to both our benefit, regardless of who wins."
"I not be listening ta any more of dis heresy" snarled Zul'jin. "Forest Trolls don't burn our dead like you. The Loa take our spirits, undead are just puppets. Dey look like da living, but they ain't them. We be going, unless you be having a change of mind."
"I've faced things far more terrible than a one-armed troll," said Arthas. "Do not force me to destroy you."
"I lost dis arm fighting the elves! I lost this eye in their torments while you humans sat back and watched!" snarled Zul'jin. "They were picking off our villages while our world burned down around us!
"Well, now it be our turn!"
"This discussion serves no further purpose, then," said Arthas. "You have safe passage back to your own domain. I suggest you use it."
Zul' jin and his trolls left, and Arthas watched them go. He dearly wished to order them shot, but there were rules of war for a reason. They had safe passage, and he would grant it.
Muradin sighed. "Well, that could have gone better."
"An understatement," said Arthas. "Why were you so insistent we have this meeting?"
"The important thing is that we tried lad," said Muradin. "Wars with trolls always get really nasty. If we tried to avert it before it starts, well, it won't win us any credit with the light for what we have to do. But at least we'll have made the effort."
"At least we know to view them as an enemy." said Arthas. "Come, let's return to the town."
They returned to town and as they did, saw the local graveyards in the process of being dug up and burned as the sun set in the distance. A hysterical looking woman rushed up to him, grabbing at him. "Why are you doing this Prince Arthas?! Leave the dead in peace!"
Arthas thrust her away from him, then waved off guards coming toward them with drawn blades. "I have no time for this. Get this woman to a chapel and ensure she does not harm herself."
There had been incidents like that since he began the work. Some villagers, usually the ones who had had scrapes with the undead, were willing to do the burning. Others had to be forced, and once or twice he'd had to break up a riot. But he went on, giving orders and making plans.
The next morning, to the smell of still burning pyres, he and his officers met together to plan their next move.
"What news, Muradin?" asked Arthas.
"Well, I've just gotten back from speaking with the scouts," said Muradin. "I hear tell there is a burial ground for Forest Trolls to the east of here. Maybe we ought to burn that too."
Falric smiled. "I'm surprised at you, Muradin. I thought for certain you'd be in favor of not provoking the trolls."
"Well, that seems a bit off the table now," said Muradin. "Moreover, if we burn their burial grounds it'll provoke em. Might give us a decisive battle to finish this quickly. Better than a long game of cat and mouse, you know."
"I see your point," said Arthas. "Ever since Falric burned out that outpost they've been staying mobile. We don't have the time to get involved in a lengthy game of cat and mouse.
"Although that still leaves the matter of the undead bastion to the south. Our scouts say that a powerful lich resides there, and the defenses are heavy."
"If it were up to me, lad, I'd leave a few men behind to guard the town," said Muradin. "Then I'd lay siege to the bastion and blow the place to bits. Once we've done that we can rush in."
"We're beginning to be stretched thin here, Muradin," said Arthas.
"Maybe so, but we can't very well leave our flank open to Zul'jin." said Muradin. "He might attack any day now."
Arthas nodded. "Right.
"Falric, ready the men and prepare to move out. We'll take all our siege equipment and heavy forces down there to besiege the undead stronghold. Marwynn, Faldine, you will remain here with a small force and keep an eye on the Forest Trolls."
"We'll take care of things," said Marwynn.
"Yes, Prince Arthas," said Faldine, "you don't have to worry about us."
So Arthas set out for war once again. He was truly sick of it all by now. He marched ahead of his army, making sure they were ready for war at any point.
But they did not find war. Only dying lands and the smell of rotting. No animals were seen in the dead woods around them. Not a bird was chirping as they marched on the road. It was eerie like all the world lay dead.
"No one's come to meet us yet." said Falric. "I don't like this, milord."
"Whoever we're facing doesn't want to confront us directly," said Arthas, trying to sound confident. "Likely they are conserving their forces and hope to tire us. That means they're getting desperate."
"Or they may just be fighting smarter, milord," said Falric. "We've dealt them enough defeats to be considered a serious threat. We can't rely on them being so careless."
"Let's try to stay optimistic, shall we?" said Muradin.
On they went.
At last, they came out of the trees and came before a great black fortress. A floating necropolis topped the skull carved walls. Shambling monstrosities walked the walls, and the gates stood forlorn and shut.
"There they are," said Muradin. "Not the sort of fortress I'd like to take without proper firepower."
"How do they build these fortresses so quickly?" muttered Falric.
"It is a question we'll answer later," said Arthas. "Form up the mortars. Prepare for bombardment. And ready the men to defend, the enemy may sally forth to fight us."
So the army scrambled. Many of those in this battle group were inexperienced militia drawn from the villages. Arthas had left many of his most elite forces with Marwynn and Faldine. He wondered if that had been a wise choice as the guns were arrayed.
"Mortars, unleash hell!" called Falric.
There was an earthshaking bang and then a hundred more. Rockets surged in great arcs through the air and plunged downward. Landing on and around the walls, they exploded. Clusters of undead were obliterated as great chunks of wall were blown out of the walls. On an on it went, and then the gates creaked open.
The riflemen were waiting for the coming tides. They unleashed a barrage of rifle shots into the enemy ranks. Many lesser undead died as they shambled forward. But then, as they neared the line, there was a flash of white and the air became bitterly cold. Many men in the center of the line screamed as they froze in place before their eyes.
Arthas raised his hammer to heal those he could, even as he and Muradin rushed forward to plug the gap. Muradin hurled his hammer spinning through the air to rip through an abomination. "Take this, you bastards!"
Then they met the battle, stepping over frozen corpses and hacking their way through. The men cried aloud as they locked shields to aid them. Then the battle began and became a blur of blood and murder. Arthas cleaved down one undead after another. As he did, little by little became aware of something.
A lich was amidst the battle, sending dark spells flying. Men were frozen to death from the inside out with each passing moment. For all Arthas' efforts, he could not heal them all. He fought his way through the fray, and as he did, the monster saw him. A spell was cast.
"In the Lich King's name!" said the lich.
Arthas raised his hammer and combatted the spell with the light. There was a flash, and a shockwave of magic and the undead between them were destroyed. Running forward, Arthas brought around his hammer.
"For Lordaeron!" he cried. "For the King!"
His hammer, blazing with light, swung around and smashed through the lich's ribcage. The creature screamed as his own dark energy was turned against him. With a final cry, his bones seemed to crush inward, before imploding into fragments. A wave of darkness poured out to destroy the undead surrounding them.
"For Khaz Modan!" called Muradin.
The battle lasted most of the rest of the day, but it was decided in the first hour. The Alliance forces held their ground against the onslaught. After wave after wave of undead washed against them, the enemy was broken. The walls soon followed. Little by little, the enemy fortifications were reduced to fragments of rock.
Within the broken remnants, they found hundreds of corpses in pits. They had found cultists working to raise them. Those that had not already fled were killed.
"Well, that's a lot of corpses," said Muradin as the pyres were raised again from dead wood. "Good thing we came here when we did, or they might of raised them and sent them after us."
"This is absurd," said Arthas, looking to the bodies of those men who were killed. He'd resurrected some of them, but not enough. Many had faced their first battle here today. "We've won dozens of battles now, and yet their numbers never dwindle. A dozen defeats hardly "slow them down, and yet a single victory is nearly our death."
"Lad, they may be hurting far more than they pretend," said Muradin. "I remember the Second War felt like that as well. Though the orcs at least you could talk to like a human. Ghouls are easier to kill, harder to negotiate with."
Arthas walked before his men as they worked. "Well done, men! The defenses are broken, and this bastion has been destroyed."
"Here's to hoping we don't have another fortress like that to take," said Muradin.
"Falric, send word to the villagers," said Arthas. "Tell them I will need their help burning the dead. Let the men rest for a bit, then follow up behind me."
"Where are we going, lad?" asked Muradin.
"To deal with the Forest Trolls," said Arthas. "We can't defeat the scourge with the beasts at our back. And the faster we deal with them the better."
"Right you are, lad," said Muradin.
Arthas had just won a great victory. Yet he was already planning to win another. He could win a thousand battles and not win this war. But he would win it. No matter the cost.