his continual harassment grows tiresome. I was in the midst of important studies, delicate magic that requires weeks of preparation and ritual." Kel'Thuzad had been forced to wait for hours, fuming at the insult, before he was permitted the bare courtesy of confronting his accusers. The group's apparent spokespersons, Drenden and Modera, had long been two of his most vocal critics. Nonetheless, they would not have launched this latest inquisition without support from Antonidas, who had yet to show himself. What was the old man up to?
Drenden snorted. "That's the first time I've heard your sort of magic called 'delicate.'"
"An ignorant opinion from an ignorant man," said Kel'Thuzad with cold precision.
A distant voice spoke to him then, the voice of a friend. By now its remarks had grown so familiar that they felt like his own thoughts. They fear and envy you. After all, thanks to this new course of study, you are continuing to gain in knowledge and power.
There was a sudden flash of light, and a scowling gray-haired archmage appeared in the hall. A small wooden chest was tucked under his arm. "I would not have believed it if I had not seen it myself. You have abused our patience for the last time, Kel'Thuzad."
"The venerable Antonidas graces us with his presence at last. I began to think you had fallen ill."
"Age frightens you, doesn't it?" Antonidas snapped. "You realize there's only one alternative."
Let him think so, if that comforts him.
Calming somewhat, Antonidas said, "As for my health, you need not have concerned yourself. I was merely busy elsewhere."
"Searching my chambers for evidence of forbidden magic? You should know better."
"True, your chambers bore no such evidence. The warehouses you own in the northlands, on the other hand..." Antonidas gave him a disgusted look.
Damn the man for being a self-righteous snoop. "You had no right--"
Antonidas tapped his staff to the floor, silencing him, and turned to the other magi. "He has turned the buildings into laboratories for a series of foul experiments. See for yourself, colleagues. Behold the fruit of his labors." He opened the chest and tilted it so that all could see.
The decaying remains of several rats. Two were still scrabbling clumsily at the sides of the chest in a vain attempt to escape. Several magi bolted to their feet, and there was a hubbub of dismay. Even the golden-haired high elf who had been sitting in the back of the room seemed startled, though Prince Kael'thas was a man whose age made that feat nearly impossible.
Turning back to the captive rats, Kel'Thuzad saw that they had collapsed and stopped moving. Another set of failures, apparently. No matter. Someday he would create a stable undead specimen. His hard work would be vindicated. It was only a matter of time.
There are loose threads in the spell that silences you. Shall I show you how to unravel it?
Time, and his unknown ally, whose enigmatic voice occasionally helped him to move one step closer to his goal. Show me, he thought.
A young woman arrived in another flash of light. As she went to stand by Antonidas, the high elf's gaze followed her with troubled, brooding intensity. But Jaina Proudmoore took no notice; she was utterly focused on her duties. The handsome prince didn't stand a chance.
Her vivid blue eyes spared Kel'Thuzad a curious glance. She took the box from Antonidas, who explained, "My apprentice will see to it that the chest and its contents are incinerated."
The woman inclined her head and teleported from the room. Across the room, the high elf frowned at the spot she had vacated. Under other circumstances, Kel'Thuzad might have found the silent drama amusing. However, left unchallenged, Antonidas was continuing his tirade. Mutely seething, Kel'Thuzad resumed his efforts to free himself.
"We have permitted this state of affairs long enough. Rapped his knuckles occasionally for his more questionable pursuits. Tried to guide him. Now we find he has been practicing evil magic. The name of the Kirin Tor is fast becoming a curse on the lips of the local villagers."
"You lie!" Kel'Thuzad burst out, and a few of the magi were his again, waiting for him to offer an explanation. "Peasants remember the Second War just as well as we do. Say what you like about the orcs; their warlocks wielded great power. Power against which we had precious little defense. We have an obligation: we must learn to wield and counter these magics ourselves."
"To form an army of dead rats, their unnatural existence measured in hours?" Antonidas asked dryly. "Yes, my boy, I found your journals, too. You kept quite detailed records regarding this abominable enterprise. You cannot mean to use these pathetic creatures against orcs. Assuming, of course, that the orcs should ever emerge from their current lethargy, escape the internment camps, and somehow manage to become a threat again."
"Being younger than you hardly qualifies me for boyhood," retorted Kel'Thuzad. "As for the rats, they are the gauge by which I measure my progress. It is a standard experimental technique."
A sigh. "I am aware that you spend most of your time in the north these days. Your increasingly lengthy absences were what caught my attention in the first place. Yet even you must have heard that the king's new tax has given rise to civil unrest. Your selfish pursuit of power could incite the peasantry to revolt. Lordaeron would be engulfed in civil war."
He hadn't known about the tax. Antonidas must be exaggerating. Besides, true magi would focus on matters of greater substance. "I will be more discreet," he offered, gritting his teeth.
"No amount of discretion could possibly hide a secret of this magnitude," said Drenden.
Modera added, "You know that we have always walked a fine line in order to protect our people without becoming a danger ourselves. We dare not sacrifice our humanity--not in appearance, and certainly not in truth. At best, your methods would see us condemned as heretics."
It was too much. "We've been called heretics for centuries. The church has never been fond of our methods. Such sentiments notwithstanding, we are still here."
She nodded. "Because we avoid dark magic, which leads to corruption and catastrophe."
"Because we are necessary!"
"Enough." Antonidas sounded weary. To Modera and Drenden, he added, "If words alone could have reached him, they would have done so before now."
"I have heard your words," Kel'Thuzad said in exasperation. "Merciful gods, I have heard them until I am sick of them! It is you who will not hear mine, and put aside your antiquated fea--"
"You mistake our purpose here today," interrupted Antonidas. "This is not a debate. At this moment, your properties are being thoroughly searched. All items tainted by dark magic will be confiscated and, once identified to our satisfaction, destroyed."
His nameless ally had warned him this might happen, but Kel'Thuzad had not believed. Strange. He felt almost relieved that events had come to this pass. The need for secrecy had limited the scope of his work, hindered his advancement.
"In light of the evidence," Antonidas said heavily, "King Terenas has agreed with our judgment. If you do not abandon this madness, you will be stripped of your rank and holdings, and you will be exiled from Dalaran--indeed, from all of Lordaeron."
His mind racing, Kel'Thuzad bowed and left the hall. Doubtless the Kirin Tor were keeping his so-called disgrace quiet, fearing repercussions should his actions become public knowledge. For once, their cowardice would work in his favor. His wealth would never line the king's coffers.
* * * * *
pack of wolves stalked Kel'Thuzad for miles, just out of spell range, before they fell behind. Glancing warily over his shoulder, he saw them snarl and flatten their ears before darting away. Thankfully the arctic winds were dying out as well. In the distance he could make out the summit, a bleak mountaintop, the sight of which gave him a sense of triumph and foreboding. The very peak of Icecrown. Few explorers had ventured onto the glacier, and even fewer had survived to tell the tale. But he, Kel'Thuzad, would scale its heights alone and look down on the rest of the world.
Unfortunately almost no maps existed of the frigid continent of Northrend, and he found them woefully inadequate, like the supplies he'd proudly packed for this journey. Uncertain of the path ahead and his ultimate destination, he could not teleport. Not sparing himself, he staggered onward. He had lost track of how long he'd been walking. Despite his fur-lined cloak, he was shivering uncontrollably. His legs felt like pillars of stone: awkward and numb. His body was beginning to shut down. If he didn't find shelter soon, he was going to die out here.
Eventually a glint of light drew his gaze: a stone obelisk carved with magical symbols, with a citadel beyond it. At last! He hurried past the obelisk and crossed a bridge of what looked like pure energy. The citadel's doors opened at his approach, but he stopped short.
The entryway was guarded by two grotesque creatures that resembled giant spiders from the waist down. Six narrow legs supported each creature's weight; the other two limbs were attached like arms to a vaguely humanoid torso. More fascinating than the creatures themselves, though, was their current state. Their bodies showed an assortment of open wounds, the worst of which had been roughly bandaged. One guard's arms were bent at improbable angles. Ichor oozed from the other's fanged maw, but the guard made no effort to wipe it away.
Despite the familiar stink of undeath, the guards showed no sign of confusion, unlike Kel'Thuzad's rats. The spider-like creatures must also have retained most of their original strength and coordination. Otherwise, they would have made poor guards. Their creator was clearly a skilled necromancer.
To his surprise, they moved aside to let him pass. Unwilling to question his good fortune, he gladly entered the citadel, which was significantly warmer. In the hallway ahead was a battered statue of one of the half-spider creatures. The building itself was of recent construction, but the statue was quite old. Come to think of it, he'd seen similar statues in the ancient ruins he'd passed through on his way north. The cold was slowing his wits.
At a guess, the necromancer had conquered a kingdom of these spider-like beings, successfully converted them into undeath, and taken their treasures as the spoils of war. Exultation filled him. He would surely learn great things here.
At the end of the hall, a gigantic creature lumbered into view: a grotesque mixture of beetle and spider. It approached him at a deliberate pace, and Kel'Thuzad observed that its towering body sported an even greater number of wounds and bandages. Like the guards, it was undead, but its sheer bulk made him feel more frightened than impressed. He doubted he had sufficient skill to vanquish such a monster, much less raise it from the dead.
The creature greeted him in a deep bass voice that reverberated within its ponderous body. Although it spoke perfectly understandable Common, the sound chilled him. Strange buzzing and clicking underlaid its words. "The master has been expecting you, archmage. I am Anub'arak."
It had both the intelligence and motor skills for speech--astonishing! "Yes. I wish to become his apprentice."
The huge creature simply looked down at him. Possibly it was debating whether he would make a tasty snack.
He cleared his throat nervously. "May I see him?"
"In due time," Anub'arak rumbled. "Thus far, you have devoted your life to the pursuit of knowledge. An admirable goal. Still, your experiences as a mage cannot have prepared you for serving the master."
What could have inspired such a speech? Did the majordomo consider Kel'Thuzad a rival? That was a misconception to dispel as soon as possible. "As a former member of the Kirin Tor, I have more magic at my command than you could probably imagine. I am more than prepared for whatever tasks the master gives me."
"We shall see."