It rained for three days after the end of the great war. Three days of slipping through the mud, gathering lost comrades and giving them proper burial. Under the elven moon, they toiled together tirelessly, orc and human, night elf and dwarf. To clean up the aftermath was their goal, and then sail back to their respective lands to rebuild that which had been destroyed. It gave Jaina little time to put things into perspective, little time to mourn and even less time to wonder.
To wonder what had become of Arthas.
Even alongside Thrall and Tyrande, Jaina could never quite take her mind off her childhood friend. They cleared out the remains of the undead camp, finding nothing but rotting corpses and the stench of a graveyard. No where among the recognizable bodies did she see the former prince of Lordaeron. His body was not among the fallen and no matter how much she knew Uther would lecture her in disgust, she could not help the sensation of relief. If he was not among the bodies, then he could not be dead.
But where had he gone? The elven scouts reported the Scourge’s movements in the first days of paranoia. Into the cold of Northrend, where few except the undead might be able to tolerate the freezing temperatures. Was he undead now? A shell of the man who once brought a smile to her lips and a warmth to her life? Would he lead the undead minions south someday to divide the people again? From the outlook of it, they too had taken heavy tolls. The scouts ceased to watch them after a time, for there was no activity.
As rain came to an end, so did the last vestiges of their efforts to cleanse the land. The Tree of Life would heal on its own. The Night Elves would tend to the forests. And the human alliance and the orcs would travel home again. Jaina sensed a new bond between them, speaking with Thrall, Tyrande and Furion. Their promises to remain allies, and to end the ages old war that had infected their lands and nearly ended their lives. It should have left her with a sense of closure. The desire to return to Dalaran and rebuild Antonidas’ dream. Uther would rebuild Lordaeron. The humans, alongside their dwarven and high elven allies, would find peace again.
But her heart remained troubled. No matter how hard she tried not to think of him, not to dream of him, she could not put Arthas aside. She had to know.
She had to see him.
It was a dark night, the moon new and the sky black without lunar light by which to see. Only the stars glittered in the skies, diamonds set into a nocturnal velvet. The hilltop rustled, newly sprouted grass weighed by dew that would turn to frost by the first rays of dawn. With the defeat of the Burning Legion, the seasons continued forward inexorably. It was late fall now, and winter fast approached.
Cloaked within her magicks, she waited beneath a copse of trees and stood stock still as she heard the distant sound of unnatural hooves beating over the land. Her breath caught in her throat to see him up close. She recalled a warm touch, a gentle smile and a blazing determination within the prince she once loved. Now, here she beheld a pale shell and a lifeless apathy worn on his features.
“You can come out, Jaina. I know you are here.”
A quick incantation brought her into the open with a flash of pale blue light. He dismounted casually, one leg swinging over the beast’s saddle and sliding down with a solid thump. And then they stared at one another, a loss of words rendering both their tongues silent.
Until Jaina spoke up with quiet hesitancy, “So, this is what you have become.”
“Yes, this is what I have become,” he replied coldly. His voice was still soft, but it chilled her, for she realized there was no more fire in his words. The light of fervor she once viewed in his eyes was nothing but darkness now. Soulless. “I am dead to you, Jaina. Go back to Dalaran and rebuild. In time, we will see one another again, but the Arthas you loved is no more. Mourn him not for he built his own cage, and find another.”
“No!” she hissed, her hands tightening on her staff until all her knuckles turned white. “I will not leave you to this fate, Arthas. I don’t care what sins you have committed, I refuse to believe you have done these things of your own free will! There is another way, a way to-to-to…”
“To do what, Jaina?” the voice turned vaguely amused and a wry smile curved the corner of his lips. “To free me from this? To pry my soul from the blade I willingly carry with me?”
The Sorceress frowned, falling quiet again to gather her wits. Another gust of wind rippled her cloak, feathering around to touch at the death knight’s. When at last she spoke again, she chose her words carefully, gaze lowered toward the ground, “I cannot remember a time when Arthas would fail to uphold the Light. I can remember a man who thought he was doing the right thing. Artha–“
Her voice cut still as a gloved hand reached out for her throat. She barely had time to register the motion, stilling her tongue to hold back enchantments she knew would hurt him. He pinned her there to the trunk of the nearest tree, regarding her with those same, lifeless eyes. “I murdered my father. I betrayed Uther. I destroyed Lordaeron. I turned my back on you, on the Light and on everything I ever loved. I slaughtered innocents. I lied to those I held most dear and then I sold my soul to the Lich King. And for what? Vengeance! And I got exactly what I wanted. Do not seek to paint me a hero, Jaina. Instead, you should revile me as Uther does and destroy me.”
“Is that what you want?” she whispered, barely able to breathe beneath the pressure against her windpipe. His expression shifted, consternation and his grasp relinquished suddenly, leaving her to gasp for breath and reach to feel the bruises surely soon to appear against her delicate flesh. “It is, isn’t it. You want me to destroy you, is that the only way to free you from this?”
“I am the Lich King’s Champion, Jaina. He will seek to revive me. Don’t be ridiculous.” He turned from her, then, grasping the reins of the beast as he prepared to mount yet again, armor creaking and protesting his movements. But Jaina was not about to let him escape just yet, darting forward to grasp the pommel, the hood of her cloak falling back as she gazed up at her former lover.
“Why did you come here today, Arthas?”
“You called me, I came.”
“No,” she shook her head at him, “You didn’t have to come here. I can imagine your Lich King didn’t want you to come here. Why, then?”
“On the contrary,” he chuckled down at her, gloved fingers closing over her hand to pry it loose. “He told me to speak with you. The Lich King sees everything, Jaina. And he knew you would never stop until you saw me for yourself. My soul belongs to Frostmourne. Now, go home, as I intend to.”
She could not stop him. Jaina Proudmoore, the most powerful Sorceress in all the land could only watch the Lich King’s great champion ride off into the darkness without lifting a finger, or speaking the slightest of incantations to pause him. Instead, she fell to her knees, letting the chill dew soak into her breeches while she wept hot tears into the scorched earth. She grieved for Arthas, not for the scores of men and women who fell fighting the Burning Legion. She mourned her own heart, instead, for there could be no healing before then.