Warcraft Fan Fiction ❯ [Epic] What Happened in 49' ❯ Chapter 1: The Culling Blade ( Chapter 1 )
[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Culling Blade
“I smell the human. He is straight ahead.”
“Banehallow, there is something wrong, let us go back.”
“No we must not retreat now. Barock, how close is he?”
“He has not detected us yet. But I agree with Jolgot, this smells of a trap.”
The wolf leapt out of the bushes, narrowly missing landing on the human figure with its back turned to it. The human whirled in surprise and raised his staff.
The world exploded in pain and agony.
Banehallow jerked awake, shaking his head free of the memories of the haunted past.
Had a bad dream?
He growled at Rotundjere's taunting voice. Whether in his dreams or in life the Necrolyte continued to follow him.
Don't say that. I help you. For one thing, I keep you from going insane with these two animals in your head.
Banehallow, one day you must find a witch human and have him beat this spirit out of your head.
I agree with Barock, the human is most displeasing. He is not pack and he talks too much. Send him back to death.
Banehallow sighed. When he was awake, he was never free from these disputes going on inside his head.
“Banehallow, my love, how good you look on this fine morning.”
A young woman sauntered toward him, and any thoughts of bodiless voices and long dead wizards disappeared as he got up. Smiling back at Akasha, the man strolled toward her, carefully picking his way with his two slender human legs on the rocky ground.
“I try my best to look pleasing for you, Akasha.”
“And I for you, love. Do you know, I brought you something back from a human camp? Here, I'm not quite sure what it is, but I'm sure you'll like it.”
The girl reached inside the front of her blouse and pulled out a long chain, with a golden broach at the end which, when opened, revealed a little arrow, ticking around a series of numerals.
“This, Akasha, is called a watch. Humans use it to keep track of the time.”
Banehallow shrugged, or tried to with his small human shoulders, “Humans are easily fascinated. Anything that hints of novelty they must obtain, even if it does practically nothing for them. I think watches are worn just to signify the wearer's wealth.”
Akasha smiled, “Well that explains it. You know, I love watching you talk. You roll back your shoulders every time you say something.”
I doubt she was listening to a word you said.
Shut up, human.
Shut up, dog.
“You wouldn't know a way to exorcise spirits out of one's head would you, Akasha?”
I hate you Banehallow.
He hates you too, human.
I agree with Jolgot.
“Do you have...err...spirits in your head?”
“No, forget it. Anyways, I think we should get going. We want to be prepared for when the naga arrive.”
“I'll be right there, love,” Akasha grinned slyly and fluttered her eyes at him. Banehallow blinked. She was gone.
Personally, I would hate a girl who can just vanish like that. Doesn't make for a stable relationship.
You know nothing about relationships human. Your kind are too easily amazed by colored rocks and little pieces of gold to ever understand take the time to understand one another.
Might I remind you, wolf, that I forswore worldly goods when I became a holy man. I have never considered the pursuit of earthly riches as an even remotely attractive prospect.
Banehallow felt relief upon seeing at last the bustle of the camp's center. The long trecks through the rocky marshes the Scourge had decided to camp on were becoming a living hell. Not only did he have to contend with navigating the rocks and hidden pools of marshwater with his inadequate human body, but he also had these voices to live with.
Relax, wolf man. Too much tension in your body. And you know that's unhealthy.
You know what else is unhealthy, human?
“Ah, Banehallow, there you are.”
A tall, silver-haired man came up to the slightly shorter Banehallow. The two shook hands before the silver-haired warrior quietly took his comrade aside.
"Banehallow, I'd like to talk to you about a mission."
"As you know, the humans are massing in force. The Sentinel have already organized their army, but they will make the humans go first, as the first line. The orcs will be as slow to mobilize as ever, so we need not fear them for some time."
"So there is division in our enemies' camp."
"Of course. The humans are stupid and will accept to serve as cannon fodder for the night elves. However, even they are dangerous under the right hands."
"And which hands would those be?"
"Lord Vladimir Arath. He is a minor lord in the North, but on the battlefield, he is a demon. He has led his armies to several impossible victories against Scourge forces and if not for his disagreement with the King, he would already be a field marshal of the Alliance."
"Arath. Of course. I was under the impression that he had finally been assassinated."
"If only, Banehallow. No, though from what we understood a Watcher attempted to enter Arath's fortress. His head was stuck on a pike and now is but one among many outside the Lord's castle."
"And what would you have me do about it?"
Abaddon sighed and looked down.
"Lord Arath cannot be allowed to command the Alliance army in the coming campaign. You are our best assassin and have the greatest chance of infiltrating Arath's castle."
"And what makes you think I could do what a Watcher could not?"
"Anub'seran, for all his bluster and mystery, is blinded by his faith. Arath has perfected the detection of undead-the man is paranoid, and lives in constant fear-but you, under your human guise, could very well pretend to be one of the King's messengers."
"I see, and how will I get to Arath's lands, a hundred leagues away?"
"I have arranged transportation with a pirate ship. The captain is reliable and the ship sails swiftly. No more could be asked."
"I see. Meanwhile, the Naga have arrived. Let us go greet them."
The Naga general brought ten thousand, straight from the Maelstrom and ready to lay waste at his command. Himself draped in gold baubles and elaborate jewelry, the Slithereen Commander seemed a fine representative for one of the greatest empires in the world.
After the Scourge of course.
"Hail!" the Naga's voice boomed out to the hundreds of spectators come out to see the arrival of their allies, "I greet you all in the name of the Empress! I, Salah-al Dar, bring the might of the Seaborne Empire to your aid, that our mutual foes may be slain to the last man, elf, and orc, their lands devastated, and their riches taken for our own. Hail, mighty Scourge!"
He talks a lot for a fish, Abaddon thought wryly. He had nothing but contempt for these dressed up sycophants that played at being generals. They reminded him of the Alliance.
"Hail, Salahdar," answered an ancient icy voice, "In the name of the Lich King, our eternal master, I welcome you. I am Krobelus, Field Marshal of the Scourge, and greet you with all the respect you deserve."
With that enigmatic statement Krobelus turned and entered the commander's tent. The Naga general stood as two burly guardsmen divested their leader of his ceremonial trappings and without further ado, he followed the Scourge Field Marshal's example. After a moment of watching the Naga ceremonial guard and their restless, shifty eyes, Abaddon too entered the tent.
As he sat down, he glanced around the interior of the makeshift command post. Around a large wooden table stood the other notable officials of the army, save for a few that were elsewhere. There was Razor, resplendent in the dim lighting as wisps of electricity flickered down the length of his helmed body, Clinkz, the skeletal archer in command of intelligence and reconnaissance, and Strygwyr, who led the mercenary group of the Black Hawks. There was Akasha, who flashed him a smile with her perfectly white human teeth. Abaddon did not deign to answer, for though he might crave her company at night, in public he was above such displays of weakness. And seated at the far end of the table, almost invisible in the gloom, was a cowled figure, who's face seemed to be breaking apart until Abaddon realized it was tentacles that were covering the creature's mouth. The Faceless Void. A common sailor, and a pirate with no affiliation with the Scourge. His presence was a sacrilege, but so too was the Naga, and the mercenary.
Abaddon's mouth curved into a contemptuous smile. It was disgusting that the Lich King now needed to rely on such scum to help him defeat his enemies.
"So," Krobelus's voice rang out clearly in the silence of the tent, "our master has need of me elsewhere and so the fate of this campaign rests on your shoulders. Ner'zhul expects this army to press unrelentingly and undefeated into Alliance territory. Should there be failure, any survivors caught limping back to Northrend will be executed."
Emotionless as death itself, the Field Marshal continued, "Any retreat on this front will lead to the isolation and possible destruction of our allies in their respective campaigns. Should 1049 not prove to be a year of Scourge victories, we stand in danger of opening Northrend up to Alliance invasions."
A glance around the room assured Krobelus that 1049 would indeed be a year of Scourge victories.
"Now, on to the logistics. Salahdar has brought ten thousand naga infantry. Abaddon commands thirty thousand Scourge. Magnus has five hundred magnataurs and we also have a half-thousand necromancers and another five thousand Black Hawks."
Respective nods answered Krobelus's survey of the state of the army.
"Our enemies have stripped their garrisons to concentrate their forces into one army to march against us. What I want to know is whether we have the numerical advantage."
Abaddon spoke up, his voice passive but professional, "To combat a threat of our caliber, the Alliance can muster up to twenty-five thousand men-at-arms, knights, and mages. In a reasonable time rate though, they will only be able to field fifteen thousand against us. They will likely gain the other ten thousand over the course of six months."
"This campaign will not last six months," Krobelus's voice was pleased, "What of the Sentinel, Clinkz?"
The skeleton's voice was soft and reedy, and the skull creaked as the mouthpiece moved, "A Sentinel army will field twenty-thousand. Druids will not exceed a few hundred. The commander will be a priestess of the moon, a high ranking and powerful one."
"As always. Well, are you satisfied Salahdar? It seems we have complete numerical advantage over our enemies."
Abaddon interrupted his Scourge commander, "The threat here is in the Horde. Within a few months they will have fifty-thousand ready to ride and..."
"The Horde," Krobelus answered coolly, "has been taken care of. Our gracious friend Darkterror here has arranged an agreement with the Fel Orcs of the North. The Horde will have its hands full for quite some time."
As if on cue, the Faceless Void finally spoke, his voice rusty and thick with disuse, "Concerning the matter of payment..."
"The fee has already been agreed on. It will be paid after it has been earned, not before."
Darkterror's face darkened with anger, "My captain..."
"Is, though a great aid to the Scourge, still nothing compared to MINE. And Ner'zhul, I assure you, does not haggle," there was still no emotion in Krobelus's voice, though the volume did rise to drown out Darkterror's protests. Wearily, she turned back to the table, "Anything else?"
"Is, though a great aid to the Scourge, still nothing compared to MINE. And Ner'zhul, I assure you, does not haggle," there was still no emotion in Krobelus's voice, though the volume did rise to drown out Darkterror's protests. Wearily, she turned back to the table, "Anything else?"
"What of the Watchers?" Akasha's voice seemed almost meek, so carefully detached and soft as it was.
Krobelus froze, and a rigid silence took hold of the tent, finally, the general turned to regard her interrogator, "That is what you're here for, mistress of espionage, no?"
Akasha nodded imperceptibly, clearly unsatisfied with the answer.
"As you all know, the Watchers are a constant threat to us. They have agents in our camp and noone is above suspicion. Strange behavior should be reported to either me or Salahdar, as secretly as possible. We cannot allow the Weaver to upset our plans now."
"If there are no other questions I shall take my leave. Salahdar will assume complete control of this army and you will all serve to the best of your ability. I shall return as soon as is possible but the enemy will arrive here first. Remember that we must advance along this front as quickly as possible in order to concentrate the enemy's forces here, and shatter them."
Abaddon clenched his fists, enfuriated that the naga and not he had been placed in charge of the army. But Krobelus was not one to brook arguments and so there was no point in defying her.
Abaddon clenched his fists, enfuriated that the naga and not he had been placed in charge of the army. But Krobelus was not one to brook arguments and so there was no point in defying her.
Who knew, after all, there might always be a possibility for retribution later?
Banehallow glanced back at Elthop forest with a bit of regret. Akasha had given him a goodbye present he was not soon going to forget.
The assassin's thoughts sobered as he looked in front of him. Under the cover of night, he was to board the Culling Blade, a ship with a certain reputation that did not bode well.
Pirates, Banehallow. They're more bark than bite, as everyone knows. Culling Blade's no different, just a ship built on reputation.
Except the Culling Blade was different. It was a ship built on things more gruesome than reputation if even a quarter of the tales were true, and even then, the hospitality the Faceless Void had received at base camp proved the ship was no mere coastal raider.
You were always too superstitious, Banehallow. Stiffen that backbone of yours, you're only going to be with the Culling Blade for barely a month. Transport to Castle Arath, transport back, and that's it. Pretty funny to think of these pirates as nothing but ferrymen.
Banehallow's pace slowed as he neared the coast. The pirate galley was indeed waiting for him, its ghostly shape shining beneath the moonlight. The only sound was that of the waves lapping up against its sides, until a small canoe was put down and rowed to the edge.
Hastening down to the canoe, Banehallow stopped upon seeing the two sailors awaiting him. The first was a ghoul, demented eyeballs spinning around in a gruesome display. The second had no eyes, and its body was shrunken and stooped. Long, mangled fingers beckoned to the Scourge hunter to approach.
The ride back to the galley was conducted in complete silence, as the ghoul worked the oars and the other man stared ahead sightlessly at an uncomfortable Banehallow.
The blind one offered a putrid hand to Banehallow to help him climb the ladder that was thrown down, but the assassin denied the aid shakily. Climbing onto the deck, he stared at the crew arranged to meet him.
I have a bad feeling about this, brother.
Just a bunch of misfits, Banehallow. Don't be frightened.
A big black skeleton, bones almost invisible in the night due their ashen color, stared at the newcomer. Beside him a monstrous green bird writhed its head around its collar, green spit dripping from its ugly head. Holding its leash was another skeleton, a cape hanging off of its glowing neck-bone. Beside it a troll grinned lopishly at Banehallow, showing missing teeth and a gash on the side of its face. Three kobolds stared with curiosity, shovels in their hands while a huge demon stood behind them, smoke coming off of its hands. The last man was the Faceless Void, who looked passionessly at the new arrival.
"So...where's the captain?" asked Banehallow tentatively.
There was no answer, and behind him the Scourge assassin heard the two other sailors climb on to the deck.
The sound of a trapdoor opening jerked the hunter's eyes to the front of the ship, where a white tauren holding aloft a lantern stepped back from the steering wheel in respect as another figure climbed on to the deck.
Skin reflected red from the lantern, the captain stood up, impossibly tall. Gigantic muscles bulged on his lightly clad forearms, covered with tattoos. Around his belt hung his namesake axe, a simple two-handed weapon seemingly died in red. The face of a fel orc, with eyes a raging yellow, confronted Banehallow as the captain slowly walked toward him, his stride arrogant and contemptuous. Fingers ringed with gold jewelry contrasted with a neck bare of the ornaments which decorated most pirates.
The captain strode past crewmembers which quickly backed away until he stood right in front of the Scourge assassin, making clear his height advantage.
What a presumptuous brute. Does he need to reinforce how inferior he is to we more civilized people?
Willing Rotund'jere to shut up, Banehallow tried talking to the red-skinned orc, "Captain Khan, I presume. I...uh....am pleased to make your acquaintance..."
"I'm not," growled the orc, smashing his fist into Banehallow's face, "and I think we need to make a few things clear."
Blood spattered on the deck as Banehallow clutched his face, at which point a hard knee slammed into his stomach. Wheezing for breath he fell to the deck, the crew not uttering one word of surprise or consternation.
"This is my ship," continued the orc, his boot resting on the collapsed human, "and here, we go by my rules."
"That means you don't talk to me, ever," snarled the orc, his bootheel digging painfully into the hunter's side, "or adress me. If you have any complaints, you can just forget them, for your own good."
A crewmember barked out a weak laugh, unsure whether his captain had made a joke or not. Mogul Khan ignored him.
"Second," the orc kicked over the still-bleeding Banehallow, "You will not talk to my crew unless I give you permission. If you ever disobey my orders I will kill you. Do you understand?"
The assassin tried to choke out words, but only managed to cough violently. Trying a second time, he managed to whisper them out to the orc, who stooped down to listen.
"I am...Lich King...service...cannot...hurt me. Touch me... again...contract..."
Mogul Khan laughed, "Do you think I give a damn about your Lich King? I have had enough of the arrogance of the land scum, and your undead priests who think they are something. But on this deck, I break them. Those high and mighty, they come here and I break them. I see them on the wooden floor, kneeling and begging me to be merciful. They call me 'Captain Khan' and whimper and cry. Will you call me "'Captain Khan'?"
The human choked as a red hand encircled his neck and began squeezing. Desperately he nodded but the hand did not let go. Darkness descended.
Banehallow looked around, seeing the two wolves by his side sniff the air for the scent of their prey. Nodding to Barock and Jolgot he started ahead, his four feet padding on the floor.
The scent of his prey was heavy here, and the wolves trotted closer and closer to it, silent as wraiths as almost invisible under the dark canopy of the forest at midnight.
Peering through the bushes, Banehallow's yellow eyes picked out the humanoid figure standing before the fire, warming its hands above the hateful yellow light. A long wooden stick with the head carved into the face of a horse rested nearby, near a cloak that shone with colored stars.
The man did not move as two figures brushed their coats to Banehallow's. Eyes still fixed on the intruder the pack leader nodded, and together they leaped forward.
The human whirled in surprise, grabbing his staff to fend off the attackers. Light exploded and a wolf's deathcry sounded. Dark shapes flew off of the human, and yelps and screams broke the night's peace. Blood and fur splattered onto Banehallow but he ducked under the man's staff and smashed his canine teeth into his underbelly. The wolf's tongue tasted the sweet flesh and organs as powerful jaws ripped into the stomach. Sound disappeared as ears were cushioned in bloody body parts, Banehallow's head now so deep inside the man's body as to tear him in two.
The movement stopped as the giant wolf retreated, his head suddenly exposed to the chill night air again, deeply died red with warm blood and organs. The remains of the humans lay on the ground, the belly a ravaged mess to reflect that of another near it. Jolgot's white-striped tail was the only recognizeable part of his body still intact, the rest of the gore strewn on the ground being the result of the wizard's spell of destruction. Barock was farther off, having been cushioned by Jolgot but still thrown far enough to break his bones, smashing his head against a tree trunk. White bone shone from the front of his skull, where the skin had been torn off. There was no movement.
Banehallow looked down at his victim again, reluctantly moving closer to the man's head, sniffing at the face still twisted in an expression of agony and horror. The buzzing of flies crept closer as nature's closest scavengers came to stake their claim on the carcass.
Banehallow leaped back in surprise. The face was no face at all. The dream was receding suddenly, parts of the still tableau disappearing, but there was still the face. Not the face of Rotund'jere, who had killed Barock and Jolgot. Not his face, who Banehallow had destroyed in that fatal attack. It was a new face, a leering, skull-like face of madness and terror. A huge smile across an oval, monstrous visage.
Abaddon was awoken by the sound of footsteps outside his tent. Standing up as the voice of a necromancer called to him he mulled over his dream. He had been having yet another nightmare, again remembering his family, his father, and... Anastasia.
"What is it?" Abaddon snapped at the wizard, peering outside at the grey dawn, "Why do you disturb me so early in the morning?"
"I...I think you should see this for yourself my lord."
The wizard turned and walked off and Abaddon had no choice but to follow him. Still feeling the anger that welled up inside of him every time he thought of his past in Avernus, he did not notice where the necromancer was leading him. After a half hour of walking when he had decided this was really a waste of time the necromancer held up his hand to signal a stop. The mage strode carefully behind the bushes and curious, Abaddon followed.
The body of Strygwyr was sprawled on the ground, dried blood spotting the rocks and leaves. The orc was facedown, his back revealing two neat holes where something had pierced into him.
There was nothing near the corpse save Strygwyr's sword, which had not even left its scabbard. Whatever had killed the mercenary had done so quickly and savagely, without giving the orc a chance to fight back.
"The blood is...poisoned, my lord. There are no tracks anywhere and none of the ghouls noticed any assassin this night. The killer must have slipped past our perimeter guards."
Abaddon nodded slowly, trying to piece together what had happened.
"What sort of creature, my dear necromancer, paralyzes its victim with poison, leaves two fang-sized holes into a soldier's back, leeching out its life before it can respond, and can sneak past our defenses as if invisible?"
"Well...put that way my lord, it sounds like a nerubian."
"Except," Abaddon grimaced, "nerubians do not use poison."
"No," wheezed a third voice, "but spiders do."
"Spiders?" questioned the human knight, turning to see the skeletal carcass of Clinkz stoop down to eye the dead body.
"Spiders," answered the archer with his reedy voice, "like the Broodmother. Black Arachnia was one of our staunchest allies but she disappeared fifty years ago when Anub'arak died in the night elf ambush at Criken Pass. She was never seen since but it is entirely plausible that, driven mad by the death of her lover, she became a watcher."
"You're quite well-spoken for a skeleton," sneered Abaddon, to which a silent skull turned to stare at him for a few seconds, "if your eyes were as able as your tongue perhaps the assassin would not have gotten away last night!"
"Do not patronize me death knight," was the soft answer, "regardless, I was not here."
"Of course, the night of a murder it would be most convenient for you to be absent, no doubt practicing your wit in a comfortable and secluded corner of the camp," Abaddon'slip curling in derision.
"If you would like to accuse me," Clinkz spoke quietly, "then do so openly. But your suspicion is misplaced, I am no Watcher. I was in Elthop Forest..."
"Alone for an extended period of time?" the death knight mocked as the necromancer nearby slunk away in anticipation of a fight, "You should know there are better alibis. It is not customary for the person in charge of base defense to suddenly decide to go for a stroll in Elthop Forest for no reason at all."
"There was reason, death knight. There is a malignant force inside that forest, some hidden power which I fear will make itself known, at our detriment. Krobelus will agree with me."
"Krobelus is gone," answered the death knight, "she left yesterday night, while you were off searching for your malignant force. Another fortunate coincidence for you."
Clinkz's shoulder bones rose as if the skeleton was sighing, "Abaddon have you not felt anything out of the ordinary here? Nightmares come unbidden to trouble your sleep? Do you not feel something strange in this forest, do you not suddenly feel thoughts of vengeance appear as you wander deeper into the woods? You must admit, this forest is not normal."
Abaddon shrugged, "It is the resting place of a powerful necromancer. There must be some residue of his..."
"No, you have the order of things inverted. Rotund'jere the Necrolyte came here to study the power that inhabits this wood and it is here that he died, but it is not his presence that has desecrated this glade."
"You seem to know a lot about the history of this place for a simple scout."
Clinkz's mouthpiece smiled, "I was still alive then. I was one of the hunters sent to bring the Necrolyte down, but a wolf pack got to him first. It was a strang event, but there was nothing to explain it. Over the centuries I have forgotten it. Or so I thought."
Abaddon glanced more closely at the kneeling archer, "Do you have any theories about the spirit in Elthop Forest?"
"So you agree that this wood is not normal? Well, you are right. Close to a millenium ago the creature known as the Spectre and the Keeper of this Grove fought to the death near the heart of the forest. Spectre won, and went on to fight more battles until she disappeared on Draenor, but ever since that battle the woods have been considered haunted. Freakish accidents happen, such as the demonic wolfpack which once roamed this territory. And noone ventures inside the desecrated grove, for fear of finding whatever may lie there."
Abaddon nodded. Spectre had been one of the Lich King's companion before Ner'zhul had become lord of Northrend, and she had fought many battles alongside him. Her origin was unknown, though it was assumed that she was either a corrupted forest spirit of divine descent or a demon of collosal powers. She had disappeared ages ago while battling demons in Outland.
"It seems I may have been wrong about you, Clinkz. I will not fight you today, though I ask that you be more vigilant in the future. This Watcher must not be allowed to run amuck in our camp."
The skeleton cocked his head, "Where is Akasha?"
"She is already gone, to infiltrate the human camp. There is noone left to find Black Arachnia save you or I. Take your pick."
The skull leered at him, "Another test Abaddon? I told you your suspicion was misplaced. If you fear I am in league with the spider than go yourself to find her. I can give you directions, verifiable by any once-elf hunter. She was our quarry for a long time."
Salah-al-Dar, the Light of Heaven, the hand of Nur on Earth and the humble servant of the Empress, may she live forever, spat as he stared down at the maps given to him.
Being so far away from the sea bothered him tremendously, as he felt his scales dry up and wither. But for the Empress (may she live forever), pain was duty and duty was life.
These stupid maps were wrinkled, unlike the enchanted paper which could be found in the Imperial Palace, and so Salah-al-Dar had to handle them with special care, making sure not to crinkle or tear them with his clumsy hands. In truth a naga's hands were one of the most important signs of profession, a soldier's hands being without feeling, rough and strong, while a hunter's hands were agile and quick.
The naga general growled again as he stared at the map of Elthop Forest. On the other side he knew the human base was settling down, but from what the skeleton archer had said, there were night elves on the borders of the woods. It was a trap, the humans meant to entice the Scourge into attacking, and then being wittled down in the woods by elven archers.
"My lord," the human knight entered without pausing to ask his comamnder for permission, "I have news."
Salah-al-Dar knew the warrior was bitter, had been ever since the Field Marshal gave him command, and in every encounter with him the human had been rigid and formal, his voice cold and distant. In Nazjatar such jealousy would undoubtedly have motivated the bitter loser to send assassins out after him but from what he had learned, this was not the custom in the Scourge. Regardless, Salah-al-Dar always kept a dagger close to him.
"There are assassins loose in the camp, a fanatical sect known as the Watchers. They are peerless killers and they have already taken Strygwyr, the commander of the Black Hawks."
The naga nodded distractedly. Assassins were always a danger in Nazjatar, so their presence did not disturb him unduly. The pests were impossible to dislodge, as they always masqueraded as allies and subordinates, so Salah-al-Dar had just grown to ignore them. Subordinates could be replaced, and if they went for him directly, then the naga could strike them down with his mighty hammer. He had faced his first assassin when he was twelve and ever since had been a master in dispatching them.
"Meanwhile the humans have set up a base camp. I recommend that we attack them."
"No," answered Salah-al-Dar, feeling the harshness of his voice in the bitter, waterless cold, "We do not attack. They shall make the first move."
"With all due respect my lord," the human answered with some anger, "The humans are at their weakest, and we at our strongest. It would be folly to allow them to grow in strength when we have the opportunity to strike a crushing blow against them now."
The great naga general sighed, as if giving a lecture to his son, "The night elves will be waiting for us and give us many dead. The losses would outweigh the benefits."
"If we do not attack them they will attack us! Night elves will raid our camp every night and we shall be..."
"That is my hope. When the night elves attack, we shall be ready. I have spoken with Razor and he knows what to do. Do not worry, when they come, we shall give them the welcome they deserve."
Peeved at not being told what was being prepared, Abaddon had no choice but to nod and exit the tent. Grating his throat at the long-winded sentences, Salah-al-Dar took a long sip of water from the barrel nearby as he contemplated again how he could use the geography of the land to smash apart his enemies.
There was a howl outside and Salah-al-Dar saw the shadow of a demon stride past him. He smiled. Before she had gone, the Field Marshal had demonstrated her powers of demon conjuration by leaving a minion, something she called the Night Runner. In his opinion, the night elves would not be so affectionate in their naming of this midnight terror.
Arlitan Konig smiled as he stared outside the hole that had been cut into his tent to serve as a window. This was not his first time commanding troops but definitely the first in having so many soldiers at his disposal. Outside he could see infantrymen dig pickets while the shadows of elves could be seen patrolling close by. It had been the idea of the night elf general, Shandelzare Silkwood, to turn the creation of a base camp into a tactical opportunity but so far there had been no sighting of undead scouts much less a raiding expedition.
The sounds of armour hitting ground and a horse's shrill neigh turned Arlitan's attention to the east of the camp, where the nobles were jousting in preparation for battle. This, he had been told by the king personally, would be the most difficult trial in being general, as the high-brow cavalry was both naturally rebellious and too politically connected to suffer disciplinary measures.
To the west were the mages and camp followers. While tanners and workers rushed around dirty tents a few practicioners of magic set up wards, or rested easily reading or sleeping. It was said that mages regarded war as nothing more than a practical trial for magic, and what Arlitan saw did nothing to contradict that saying.
A cough from behind him reminded the general that he was not alone. His aide was a young noble, only recently a squire but purported by his parents to be of great intelligence and even better temperament, who was a very distant relative of the king's stepmother.
"Who is that clown over there?" questioned Arlitan, suddenly noticing a tall figure stride through the mass of drinking, carousing soldiers, equipped in beige armour that made him look somewhat like a crustacean.
Young Edrian Carolin jumped up to peer through the window, "It looks like a blood elf, his armour ressembles the pictures I saw of Quel'thalan uniforms."
"The Quel'Thalan legion," Arlitan groaned, "the king told me he had hired some mercenaries, but this, this is insane!"
While they had a reputation as the finest mercenaries in the world, the so-called Quel'Thalan Legion was also worth a king's ransom. For the same price Arlitan had no doubt he could have equipped and trained five thousand regulars instead of the meager five hundred blood elves the king had hired.
"They call their leader the Silencer, and their organizational structure is modeled around the theme of loss. The second-in-command is the Death-Bringer and the captains are called the Weepers. The footmen are called Spell-Breakers and specially trained in both resisting and combatting magic and in ancient Quel'Thalan tactics and formations."
"That's all very well, but I'd rather have five times their number in good old army men rather than...and who's that fellow over there?"
Edrian followed Arlitan's pointing finger to a dranei, laughing and joking with the infantry officers. The young man blushed, "That's Gondar. He uh...he serves liquor and...other necessities to the soldiers. I uh...ran into him earlier. He's very charming and very popular among the soldiers."
"Popular or not I'm going to show them how a real soldier acts. Tell the captains to meet me in an hour's time to discuss the problem of this...Gondar. Meanwhile I think we're going to have a talk with the blood elf," Arlitan's face did not seem pleased as he stared at the fast approaching figure of the tall armour-clad figure.
"We'll be docking in at King's Landing in a few days, Scourge dog."
The Axe had taken to calling his passenger Scourge dog after the assassin had made clear he understood who was in charge. However he had tried to provoke him, Banehallow had remained as passive and subservient as possible so that Mogul Khan had had no choice but to give up in disgust. Since then there had been less antagonism between the two though Mogul still adressed him as "boneless coward" or "Scourge dog" whenever possible.
"Aren't you excited to set foot on land, Scourge dog?"
Banehallow did not rise to the bait, as meek and obedient as ever, "Yes captain."
There will be a time when the hunter becomes the hunted. Killer is alpha male for now, but one day, Banehallow, we shall come back and he shall be the one who is on his belly.
Though he hadn't killed anyone yet, Mogul Khan had become known to Balrock as Killer and Jorgot had followed suit.
Not yet but he will soon. Mark my words Banehallow, this fighter is no mere fel orc. I sense more power about him than would befit either orc nor demon. This aberration is something much greater.
"Let me show you something, Scourge dog," the Axe grinned, and he stomped down to the hatch, letting out the musty smell of wood into the salty sea air.
Helpless to object Banehallow followed, warily scanning the captain's face though that was little help as Mogul Khan could change moods as quickly as a wolf could strike.
The orc did not seem to have any sadistic games for him and instead led him deeper into the ship, near the captain's private cabins into a storage area which had to be opened by key, which the Axe did so while furtively observing Banehallow, though not furtively enough for the assassin to miss his gaze.
"What do you know about demons, Banehallow?"
Banehallow jerked up, surprised. This was the first time the captain had ever called him by name, without scorn or contempt in his voice.
"I...well, very little. With the Scourge I had very little contact with demons or mages in general. I was closer to the night elf forests under the service of the Eternal Master."
"A thug then," the Axe's sneer returned, shrugging his shoulders.
The keys finally finished turning and the door swung open, revealing a desk and a few chests and crates scattered around the small room.
"As you can see," the Axe opened a crate, taking out a wrinkled tome, "I am a collector of books. They are my passion, my love, my dedication in life. I hope that does not seem out of place for a bloodthirsty pirate like me, but I do so love reading that I cannot help but collect all the books I can."
"Really?" Banehallow could not help but be surprised by this unpredicted admission, "Well...I...I suppose that is a fine pastime..."
"Would you like to see my book?" Axe smiled, the first gesture that could be remotely called innocent. Like a child he approached holding out his book, and the image of the Axe was so thoroughly transformed that Banehallow had to keep himself from feeling sympathetic towards the orc.
Banehallow that's not a...
The book opened and a scream filled the room, shattering ear drums and forcing the assassin to leap backwards, clutching his hands to his ears. A ghastly face shrieked at him, white visage and huge, reddish eyes howling in untold torment and agony.
The Axe snapped the book shut, his maniacal red eyes raging with mirth.
"The Maiden of Carlisle. She screamed like that as I raped her over the corpse of her brother and then beheaded her father in front of her eyes. She never stopped that damn yowling until I gutted her, but I didn't let her go so easily. All these books are filled with such souls, trapped and imprisoned forever for me to do with as I please."
Who is this fel orc? Soul trapping is one of the foulest arts, but more than that, it is one of the most difficult. What does a warrior do meddling in the darkest of magics?
"Ever heard of the Necronomicon?" the question was so soft and sudden that Banehallow instantly knew this was more than idle talk.
So the Axe wants something after all. As far as you're concerned you know nothing about the Necronomicon, and make it seem sincere or he'll roast you alive until you give him what he wants. Step carefully Banehallow.
Banehallow's confused shake of the head satisfied the captain, who stood silent for a moment, a dreamy look in his eyes. Then he smiled and led the assassin out of the storage room. With a mischievous glint he led the human nearer the captain's cabin, opening a door into a much more well furnished room.
A bed lay on one side, and a simple shelf on the other. There was a small table for two near the bed, on which was perched a book. Banehallow had an ominous feeling about what the book's purpose was, but what drew his attention was the human female staring out the cabin window.
She turned as the two figures entered the room, her face a wistful mask of pain and sorrow. She was entirely naked, and her body was as white as ice.
No need to explain what the book is for.
Mogul Khan grinned proudly as he stared at his trophy:
"The daughter of a marquis, who would have paid a fine ransom for her, but the Axe is not so easily bought. I plan to keep her for a few years, until I tire of her and throw her off the plank. Or maybe I'll sell her to the slavers, I'm sure they'd love that!"
The orc eyed his prize hungrily, the girl's response one of defeated fatalism.
A few years...more like a few weeks. This creature is leeching the life away from her, like a vampire almost. Within a week she'll start having wrinkles. Another and the grey hairs will appear. Give her a month and she'll be dead.
Banehallow nodded absently to Rotund'jere's voice, which the Axe either did not notice or took to be consent with his own words. Sensing his chance to make good his escape Banehallow darted away to Mogul's dreamy nod of consent. Both killers had things to think over.
The Captain was in a bad mood. Barathrum had limped back to the eating hall with his hand wrapped in a bloody kerchief. Meepo and his brothers roared with laughter as Barathrum unveiled the stub that had once been his hand. Glaring around the room for support, the white tauren met only blank skeleton gazes and the calculating look of Dazzle, the healer.
Lion scratched one of the welts on his body which had begun to ooze pus again and watched as Dazzle took advantage of the stupid tauren. As Barathrum basically swore himself into slavery Naix scrambled into the room, his vivacious gaze sweeping around those assembled until they focused on the blood dripping from Barathrum's arm. With a scream of delight he launched himself at the tauren, who fell into Dazzle, crushing the smaller troll into a nail. Nevermore bent down to smash Naix's skull with a wooden spar, taking pleasure in the sadistic act as the ghoul's head burst like a grapefruit.
Lion shrugged back as the kobold brothers ran into the brawl, Dazzle shrieking as a shovel smacked his leg, mistaking it for one of the limbs of the twitching Naix. Nevermore roared, throwing one of the kobolds into Leoric, who sliced down with his dark blade, neatly decapitating the kobold. The others rallied in fury, pulling down the larger demon in their fury to avenge their brother.
Darkterror's voice was soft yet by some magical property everyone in the room heard it. Lion felt Pugna stir by his side, as if the skeletal mage had not noticed the damage done around him. On the ground, Dazzle whimpered with pain, and the kobolds stood up, a mess of blood and shadow on the deck all that remained of Nevermore. Lion was not surprised however, as the mess picked itself up and walked to a corner. Nevermore was not easy to kill.
"Lion, Pugna. Come."
The two mages gingerly stepped over the debris that littered the floor as the other participants quietly left. Moaning softly Dazzle bent to heal himself before dutifully resurrecting Naix. Leoric remained where he was, unfazed by what had happened.
Darkterror cared nothing for the brawls which occurred almost weekly in the crew's eating area, but he did make sure that his mages remained apart from such idiocy. Leading the two spellcasters to the First Mate's chamber, Darkterror allowed them to pass the still hanging-corpse of Nessaj attached to the mast. Nessaj had muttered mutiny and challenged the First Mate to a duel. Of course, he had lost, his swordsmanship no match for a thrown axe in the back. The Captain's duels were sacrosanct but those of his subordinates fair game for his meddling.
Darkterror halted in his cabin, staring out the small window at the ocean outside. Lion jerked.
"She tried to kill herself again. Throwing herself out the window."
Darkterror did not turn around, "The captain will be most displeased if his mistress dies. Very displeased. Make sure to replace the wards and barriers so that she doesn't."
Lion nodded, wincing as his foot shuffled on to a nail and started bleeding. Pugna was still standing passively by his side, the skeleton as emotionless as a statue.
"Tell me, Pugna, what do you think of the assassin?"
Lion watched his comrade answer Darkterror's question. The skeleton's voice was dry but his words chosen carefully.
"He puzzles me. I do not know what he is."
Darkterror turned around, "Explain. Is he not undead?"
Pugna shook his head,"He seems to be. Those the Lich King has not bound are undead, and those are themselves tied to his necromancers and liches, and this assassin is definitely free. His mind is his own, and his soul as well. But there is no scent of necromancy. The magic to raise a being leaves residues, huge ones, and there is no such thing about him."
Darkterror continued to stare, "A free assassin that is not undead."
"Yes and no," Pugna grimaced, "I do not think he is living. There is something unexplainable about him, something which tells me he has lived longer than a human should. And he is a human, that I know."
Darkterror nodded, "And you Lion. A threat?"
"No," the demon witch answered, "Not directly. Without magic he is no match for you or the Captain I think. But, he is strange. He dreams and in his dreams he is different."
"It is difficult. As Pugna said, he is human but also is not. I feel spirits about him, which give him power. I think he is not alone in his head."
"Have you felt this Pugna?"
The skeleton shook his head, "I have seen no spirits about him. Only an undeath which is no undeath."
Darkterror turned again to Lion, "How is this?"
"The spirits are not necromantic. They must be something else. They are not divine, and they are no threat, but they are strange. And it is dangerous to be strange."
Darkterror nodded in agreement, "And the dreams?"
"Connected with the spirits. When they dream I see power and magic, but cannot find its source. And the spirit is at once detached to the body and yet still inside. I cannot explain better."
Darkterror did not speak. He turned again to the window and that was the acknowledgement that the mages could leave. The three separated thinking of Banehallow and the mystery about him.
Sneaking through the gloomy camp, Akasha once again cursed the night elves and their powers of night vision. To avoid them she was forced to turn invisible and when she did so the human mages detected her and came to investigate, at which point she had to rely again on regular dissimulation. It was an endless cycle, and was she not on a reconnaissance mission she would probably have killed the obnoxious sentries.
There was a howl in the forest and Akasha grimaced again. Of course Krobelus had to send her stupid pet demon out right when she was on an infiltration mission. If he got any closer the elves would probably come out en masse and she would be forced to retreat to Gondar's encampment. And she hated sleeping with the stupid oaf.
The spy peered over the pickets. The night elves were pretending to be asleep, in order to trap unsuspecting assassins, but Akasha was used to their tactics. Behind them stood the entrance to a spiraling wooden staircase to the treehouse which General Silkwood used as her base of operations. Inside were documents which might be of great usefulness to the Scourge.
As she decided to sneak past the guards invisible, Akasha stopped. A figure was approaching, in a black cloak and hood. The guards leapt to their feet but the figure brushed them aside with a few words and thrown authorization pass.
Akasha watched the stranger climb the stairs as the guards hastily read the note. It was not to their satisfaction however, and they called out to the figure to come back but it was too late. As the guards scrambled to the base of the the staircase there was a high-pitched scream and the sound of broken glass. Then the assassin reappeared at the top of the stairs, leaping over the heads of the guards, whose drawn swords managed to slice off a ribbon from the killer's cloak. Then the stranger landed lithely, her hood having fallen back to reveal her face, that of a young, female night elf. She looked around wildly and began running.
Akasha felt a tinge of admiration for this elf, whose acrobatic feat clearly surpassed anything the guards had been expecting. Then both fugitive and guards disappeared as they ran into the night, but the opportunity to steal Silkwood's document did not appear. Approaching footsteps and a starred cloak announced the imminent arrival of a mage, accompanied by soldiers roused by the scream of their general.
Back in the direction she had come from, the spy disappeared into the night.
The apprentice looked down at the vampire that was gnashing its teeth at him. He had never seen such a horrible being before, and the monster that stood before him had nothing to do with the creature it had been in life.
"Who are you?" he asked, trying to assume a position of authority, as he had been taught.
"SCRAAAH," the monster screeched, scratching its face with its claws, leaving deep, bloodless furrows in his skin.
"Do you, un...understand me?" the apprentice could feel himself losing the calm posture he had to maintain when speaking to undead.
The monster snarled at him,then glanced down at the ground, where spots of dried blood encrusted the rocks and moss.
"You have been raised, cr...creature. My master has resurrected you."
The creature gurgled, then bent down and began licking the ground.
"My master has raised you! He is your master too! Obey!"
The monster's eyes flickered up doubtfully and then the abominable face grinned, revealing long dagger-like teeth. A little blood dribbled from his mouth.
"You like it, the blood?" A loud voice interrupted, "You can have more if you want."
The apprentice swiveled, but saw only the long robes of a necromancer before he felt a jaw close on his back. Screaming and flailing, he turned but his attacker had no difficulty rending him apart.
After it was done the undead crooned a little, and began sucking on his victim's neck.
"The blood, it is everywhere," the necromancer strode closer, his voice commanding and certain, "Except where it should. Do you know what runs in your veins?"
The monster snarled, "POISON."
"Yes, do you remember why?"
The monster looked warily at his interrogator, not able to answer the question.
"No you don't remember how you died. A pity, but a shortlived one. You shall have your vengeance, at the will of my master."
"Yes, you'd like to meet him, wouldn't you? Then we shall go, and then he shall let you out into the forest, to kill."
"The rivers will run with it, oh Bloodseeker. And our master will be pleased."
Night is when the darkness comes. The darkness in which hides the enemy, in which thrives the enemy. But we are smarter. We take the darkness, and make it our own. And now, we are the darkness.
But not the enemy. Because the enemy never changes. The enemy remains constant, even while shifting faces. It is our gift to see through the disguises. Our penetrating gaze. Our unlimited patience. And when the enemy has forgotten, we strike.
Hello, Shandelzare Silkwood. Welcome to my home. This is where I live. Only me, but not the other me. He has no home. What a shame.
You have seen the enemy, Shandelzare. You have met him. He is always there.
Why is the enemy a he? Does the devil have a gender? I know not, for when he came to me, he had neither. He was a concept, an abstract.
But the enemy is not an abstract. We know it, for we have seen it. Been seeing it, for ages. Unnoticed, forgotten, but we have observed. And now we are ready.
You may aid us, Shandelzare Silkwood who has seen the enemy, if you are strong enough. Are you strong enough? Of course, otherwise you would not be here. Because I chose you. You see, I am the enemy. But not the real one. Sometimes, deception is necessary. So I became the enemy that you may see past me and see the real enemy.
We know it to be true. We are the gods of this world, and the other world. We shall rule these worlds, but first, we must destroy the enemy. Because it destroyed us. And we will have vengeance.
Banehallow raced through the tower, feeling the pirates behind him hot on his tail. A door opened in front of him and he jumped through, but it closed behind him and he saw the Captain. The Captain with his axe.
Banehallow jumped for the window as the Captain charged. He broke through the glass and fell, plummeting through the air. Then he hit the ground, landing on his four feet, as his brothers converged around him.
The wolves left the tower and marched closer to the forest, where evil lay. They had to go into the forest. Behind the tower the world ended, and in the tower waited the Captain with his minions.
So they went into the forest, where a young blood elf killed his family before running away in horror at what he had done. The forest where Rotund'jere waited, sleeping before the fire and waiting for the wolves to come and kill him.
But that was not right. Because the terror came when they attacked Rotund'jere, not before. And now was the time of terror.
Banehallow ran, searching desperately through the forest for something. But he could not find it, and he could feel the evil creeping up on him. His companions cried out and ran faster, but still they could not find it.
They searched and searched until the evil caught them. A leering, skull-like face of madness and terror. And then the darkness disappeared to be replaced by that of a swaying ship.
Traxex sighted down the shaft of her arrow, watching as the tip became one with its target. Feeling the peace and satisfaction that came before she even shot her arrow, but nevertheless knew it would land right on target, the drow took a moment to savour the pleasure. Then she let fly.
She gasped as the tip grew into a crystal lattice structure, beautifully sculpted spirals spreading out from the center. Then the arrow rammed into the center of the bull's eye and the frost exploded, little bits of snowflake falling on to the ground.
Amazed, the archer stepped closer, bending down to examine the icy debris. It was the first time such a thing had happened, and as far as she knew, unheard of, even in this age of magic.
"Lovely, isn't it?" spoke a voice wistfully, "But specious as well."
Traxex glanced back at the craggy face of the dwarf who pretended to work as a bartender. Kneeling down, she bowed her head in reverence.
"Was it you, master? I have never seen such a..."
"It was not me, dear Traxex, though it was indeed your master. His power leaks out to those who serve him, and manifest themselves in unpredictable ways."
Traxex stared at the mortal features of Zeus' avatar, a being who had once reigned over Mount Olympia as not a god but a king of gods. Yet the voice who spoke was not the confident, fatherly one who had rescued her from the elves but a shaky, depressed tone: something she heard in alcoholics and lovers.
"I do not understand, Master."
"But you do understand the Return of the Light, how I have engineered it and guided it to the supremacy it is about to gain. How the inquisitors and even the Archmage, every last one of them, are our pawns, useful as long as their goals coincide with ours?"
"I am your pawn, master," Traxex answered dutifully, "the arrow just waiting to be shot at your enemies."
Zeus sighed, "I do not speak of your devotion, which I do not doubt. I am speaking of games upon games of deceit and manipulation. I am speaking of one whose pawns are gods."
"Does someone seek to manipulate you, master?" the drow questioned, "You have only to say the word and I shall let loose an arrow into their heart."
"Maybe manipulate was the wrong choice of words. A master has no need to manipulate his slaves anymore than a swordsman must manipulate his weapon. The tool in question has no choice."
"You are noone's slave, master."
Zeus smirked, "And does the frost arrow come from Hera's goodwill toward you?"
The god brayed a laugh, before holding out his arms to the side, as if supplicating the heavens, "Do you not see the chains on me Traxex? I do, and from me they lead to you. To the humans, to the silly little inquisitors and their games of politics. The chains, which are unbreakable and invisible."
"Master, I do not understand. You are scaring me."
"Did you think me perfect Traxex? Invincible, omniscient, and faultless?" Zeus smirked again, the sad smile which brought despair to Traxex's heart, "But this one is stronger, his words of submission mightier than mine, and his thunder drowning out my lightning. He fancies himself a king, and who knows, perhaps he is. And probably he will be."
"Ah, yes, Traxex," Zeus smiled again, and seemed to suddenly become his normal self, "Your orders. Elthop Forest, where there has been a communique of recent assassinations. Join the soldiers, I have no doubt the archmage will give you a letter of marque and free passage. Find the mage's own agent there if possible, and work together. The Scourge spies will be destroyed."
Traxex backed away uncertainly, "Master..."
Zeus smiled sadly, "If we live in chains, might as well accept it. Now go, slave of a slave and fulfill my bidding. My only victory has been usurped by the master. So, cheers, to the victory of the master!"
King Valen III, monarch of the lands of the Alliance, smashed his fist upon the arm of his throne in anger and frustration. Young and inexperienced, the king's first year on the throne had not gone well. The nobles had laughed at him, especially Arath who had sent back the head of his messenger, gruesomely decapitated.
The king sighed again at thought of Arath. Whatever his other faults, the bitter northern lord was one of the greatest commanders ever to serve under Alliance banners and yet he refused to return to the royal court and aid his sovereign in fighting their mutual enemies. All because his father, Valen II, had quarreled with Arath over some minor issues.
And then there was the Inquisition, which was getting more and more on his nerves. They had practically taken over daily matters since his absence and now seemed to consider that to be perfectly natural. And the new archmage, who only spurred the inquisitors on in their bloody crusade across the city.
Valen tried to calm himself, seeing his loyal servant Ignacio watching him. It was always embarassing when Ignacio had to remind him to control his temper.
As always, Valen thought back to Akasha. He had thought she was the perfect woman for him, and had been on the verge of asking her to marry him when she disappeared. And noone could find her, though Valen knew nasty rumors circulated among the guards and citizenry. They could all burn in hell, the king thought darkly.
The double doors swung open, to admit in a white-cloaked man, his tall frame escorted on both sides by the so-called "Chosen of the Light", in this case High Inquisitors Purist and Vergil. As the Captain of the Guards and another officer followed them in, Valen could hear angry shouts and cries beyond.
"Why is that mob still out there?" snapped the king, "I thought that..."
"The mob wants your head, King Valen," the archmage snarled back, his face livid with fury, "And I am afraid there are some among the guards who sympathize with that."
Valen glanced at his Captain, who seemed to be intently staring at the archmage Edmile Zolare, whose furious gaze was locked with the king's.
"Might I remind you, archmage Zolare," Valen answered slowly, poison dripping from every syllable, "That I am your sovereign, and it is my wish that you disband that mob outside right now!"
Zolare smiled coldly, "I am afraid this matter is out of our hands. The mob is too great to be resisted. The palace guard will not oppose them. The only escape for you is to abdicate your throne, in which case you will be escorted safely to your summer mansions."
"You treacherous snake," Valen hissed, "Sir Jolath, seize him!"
The Captain of the Guards bowed his head in shame, but refused to budge.
"So you too, Jolath. Thirty years you served my father loyally and me you betray on the first occasion. May the heavens have mercy on your soul."
"The heavens have too long been ignored, King Valen," the inquisitor Purist spoke loudly, "But no longer. This is the Return of the Light, and the all-knowing will of heaven and good shall wipe away the decadence and sins of your dynasty's reign."
"Time grows short," Zolare repeated, "Give up the throne, or surrender yourself to the tender mercies of the mob outside."
"Not in a thousand years has such an act of treason been committed," Valen's voice grew in volume as he stood up, "I am your sovereign, placed here by the will of the gods! You may have this empty throne, conspirators, but the faithful will rally to me and we will overthrow the usurpers. Remember that, traitors!"
The fallen King strode out of the throne room, his servant Ignacio close behind him, and a pair of guards wordlessly detached themselves from the wall to guide their once-sovereign to the secret escape passage in the palace.
Another welcome morning, Abaddon brooded, a temporary escape from the nightmares. Automatically, he looked to the table next to his bed where the small shrine he had built rested.
The jeweled cross still stood, at its feet a bouquet of long dried flowers. A ring and a necklace were draped around the cross and reverently, Abaddon touched his lips to the ring.
"Anastasia," he murmured.
A huge crash outside awakened the warrior inside him and the knight strode out, longsword in hand, otherwise still unarmored.
"FRESH MEAT!" roared the ugliest creature Abaddon had ever seen as it charged at a terrified acolyte, who barely managed to roll to the side as its agressor ran past.
Sensing its prey had escaped, the ill-coordinated monster tried to turn as it ran, but stumbled and fell to the ground. Still roaring at the sky, it feebly tried to stand up.
"Pudge you disgusting piece of maggoty flesh," snapped a cold voice, "I told you to stay with the ghouls and the skeletons."
"Little man no order Pudge!" the abomination tried to stand up, "Pudge eat you!"
The High Necromancer Xardas did not seem at all frightened by the threat, instead placing a restraining hand on Abaddon's shoulder as the knight stepped forward threateningly with his sword, menacing to chop down the unruly abomination.
"Respect me Pudge," Xardas called out, "Would Kel'Thuzad have wanted you to act like a wild animal right now?"
Pudge blinked uncertainly, tottering on his feet, before he hung his head in shame. Like a petulant child he walked away slowly, dragging his hook on the ground.
After he was gone Abaddon turned to regard the necromancer, "What was that thing?"
Xardas shrugged his shoulder, "Kel'Thuzad's pet, and probably confidante. We were hoping to get some information out of him regarding his master's death, but he seems to have gone quite crazy."
"Put him down like a hound," Abaddon grunted, "He seems to have lost his usefulness."
Xardas smiled, "I am still hopeful we can awaken his memories. Krobelus herself detailed to us how to make him talk. Though he has not complied yet, perhaps in time he will. I believe it is simply because we have never had an abomination that felt such grief at its master's passing, and it is also possible the assassin may have used some mind magic on him. Either way, we must keep Pudge."
Abaddon nodded his head. The necromancer Xardas was one of the few people in the camp the human knight got along well with.
"Anything new happened this night?"
Xardas shook his head, "Balanar and Clinkz have still not returned. Apart from that, there have been no new murders in our camp, though no doubt the enemy has felt our assassins' blades all too well."
The death knight smiled, thinking of Akasha and the welcome the unfortunate human who fell for her charms would receive. Thinking of Akasha led to thoughts about Banehallow and his mission. Abaddon frowned. He did not want to think about it. Let Banehallow do his job and come back soon.
Xardas held up his hand for a halt, and Abaddon stopped, only now noticing that the two had been walking for what appeared to be half the length of the camp.
The High Necromancer nodded at Razor's tent, which thrummed with energy and occasionally lit up with a bright flash of blue.
"Razor and the naga have been conferring for a while now," Xardas explained, "which is strange as Saluuh...Slardar has not called a war counsel since his appointment."
"The damned naga doesn't want to talk to me," Abaddon explained, frowning, "He knows I'm better suited to the job and doesn't want to be reminded of it. I predict that by the first battle, he will order me to charge on the front line, hoping to get rid of me like that."
Xardas nodded sympathetically, "What a mistake that would be. I fear for the humans that dare stand in your path."
Abaddon smiled, "And I for the naga once the Watchers catch him."
Xardas jerked his head up in surprise, "Watchers! What do you mean?"
Abaddon's grim smile did not fade, "They killed Strygwyr yesterday, and now the Black Hawks have all but disbanded. Strygwyr, who was neither the Lich King's nor had any other connections with the Weaver. Draw your own conclusions but it seems to me the Weaver is playing this like a campaign, taking out our commanders one by one, until the Alliance defeats us."
"Then you are in danger as well, for you command the infantry."
The knight shrugged, "I am ready for any assassins. But it is the naga who does not see the danger, and I think soon he will taste the bite of their poison. And I must admit I will not mourn his passing."
Xardas nodded absently, thinking of his own reactions were he to be confronted by one of the Weaver's famed nerubian assassins. He shuddered a little.
"Dangerous words," whispered a voice, "were you not bound to the Lich King's will I would say almost...treasonous."
Abaddon regarded Clinkz passively, slightly annoyed at the way he had creeped up on them. But what drew his attention was the figure behind him, a night elf clad in assassin's garments, hooded and carrying a warden's blade by her side, and daggers strapped to her belt.
"Who is this?" asked Xardas.
"I picked her up in the forest," answered the skeleton, "assassinated the Sentinel general and then thought to join us."
Abaddon sneered, "We have no need for traitors and assassins. We have enough already."
"A shame that it is not your decision to make," answered Clinkz, "Xardas, will you do the honor of interrogating her?"
The night elf's head jerked out of its hood, "Interrogate me?"
"A mere formality," Xardas smiled coldly, "But we couldn't accept you within our ranks without a little questioning considering you are both a night elf and an assassin."
"A dangerous time for assassins," Abaddon murmured as a pair of ghouls arrived to escort Xardas and the elf to the necromancers' quarters.
Clinkz watched them leave before turning to the human knight again, "I think I am close to finding the Broodmother's lair. I spotted the remains of webs near the eastern end of Elthop, on the outskirts of the forest. She did not make her home in a cave as I would have suspected, but rather in the open of the forest."
The death knight nodded, "Bring ghouls and archers with you. She will put up a fight."
"What I was thinking. But there's something else in the forest, something strange."
"Not your spirit again!"
"No, a whisper. Phantom words as I brought back the elf. The wind seemed to whisper to me, 'Mortred, Mortred."
"The elf's name. But why should the forest remember her name?"
"You've been dead too long. Go see a necromancer."
"Raider's landing, Scourge dog. Most populated den of vice anywhere in Kalimdor. Now get out of my sight."
Banehallow hurried to comply with the Captain's order, amazed at the fel orc's good temper. Lately his threats had started becoming more and more precise and twice now Mogul Khan had "accidentally" bumped into him as he was staring overboard, almost knocking him over.
Once you reach Arath I recommend you kill the Axe. It might be difficult but I am convinced it is within your capabilities.
Do not be stupid, human, Killer has been alpha male for a long time. He will defeat you in single combat.
Barock speaks the truth, Killer will feast off your corpse if you challenge him. And his pack is honorless and would not stand by to watch their chief fall. You must let natre take its course and the old wolf die to time, the greatest enemy.
Banehallow was glad his human ears were so insensitive as he entered the wharf, as the sound was defeaning. The bellows of the fishmongers and the catcalls of the prostitutes mingled with the loud offers of the slavers and the curses of the sailors. Surrounded by a group of onlookers a gaudily dressed pirate was dueling with a rough-looking thug with the callused hands of a seaman. A man was going through the crowd of spectators taking bets while another strong-arm perused the marketplace for pickpockets. He spotted one and raised his club threateningly, and the street urchin darted off.
"Get out of my way, pipsqueak," snorted an orc, a red sash draped across his shoulder proclaiming him to be a privateer in the employ of the honorable queen of the Summer Isles. A one-eyed mage followed him, leering at Banehallow as he passed.
I always wondered why you didn't like civilization, wolfman.
The broad-shouldered human managed to make his way past a pair of drunks and reached one of the whores. Tottering, he put his arm around her and slurred his words as he spoke:
"Come wish me, girlsh."
Dragging her too forcefully to allow resistance Banehallow brough the unfortunate girl out of the marketplace and into an abandoned alley. Carefully surveying the area he took out his knife.
"Ever heard of the Axe, girl?" he asked nonchalantly.
The prostitute was obviously not used to interrogations at the tip of the knife, and her eyes bulged as she stared at the long-tipped dagger which her captor was sharpening with a wetstone.
You know you have a way with the ladies Banehallow.
"The...the...yes!" the poor girl stuttered, "He visits us every few months. Very brutal fellow, but pays very well."
"I...no!" the girl blushed, "he's got a brutal lot of sailors, and we cater to them whenever they put in to port."
"And have they done so recently?"
"A few months ago," her eyes widened as she stared at the knife which Banehallow held up before him admiringly, "One of them...Nessaj, challenged the first mate to a duel."
"Was he drunk?"
"Very much so. He was raving about a book and a prophecy, and then that tentacled monster told him to shut it, and then they started fighting."
"What was the name of the book?"
"I don't recall."
Banehallow's eyes flitted from his captive's face to his knife, then looked back up significantly, "I would advise you to reconsider that statement."
Defying the physical laws of what was possible, the girl's eyes widened even further and she nodded her head violently, "Necronomicon I think he called it. A book of magic and blasphemy. But I tried to forget it because it's bad luck to speak of..."
"Thank you, that will be all," Banehallow's bloodless grin distracted the still-chattering girl as his knife hand flashed forward. Her body fell to the ground with a soft thump.
That was cold, Banehallow. And messy.Too messy.
The assassin shrugged and walked off, wiping his dagger on the sleeve of his shirt. His eyes had contracted and his senses seemed heightened, as usually happened whenever he killed. It felt good to be back in his element.
It was a good kill Banehallow. In a city of hunters, noone will investigate into the death of one deer.
Banehallow, brother, you are being followed.
Hearing Jolgot's voice in his head, the human stepped up his pace. Crossing through an archway, he turned to the left and continued walking.
A second human passed through the archway, glancing to the empty street his target had just disappeared in. Then a hand flashed out and grabbed him by the throat, pulling him into the shadow of the arch before he could react.
"Is it customary in this city to be followed? Or should I ask whether you are looking for gold or simply for death?" The voice of his captor was harsh and grating, and the smell of his sweat was close.
"Leave me, fool, I am not your enemy," the spy hissed, struggling to break free, "I was trying to talk to you."
"Then I suggest you talk fast, as your next words will determine your fate."
"Do not make a hasty decision. I am from Northrend as well, one of the Bishop's faithful. You can trust me."
Banehallow smiled and released the man, pleased at finding an agent of Kel'Thuzad in this city.
"I've been laying low since the snake's head was cut off, we all have," the spy glanced nervously behind him, "We've been seeing shadows lately, and not even knowing who took over after the Bishop, it's been every man for himself."
Banehallow grunted in assent, sheathing the blade he had hidden behind his back.
"There's a matter you might be able to deal with, not being bound by the same problems as us. You're an independent right, so you won't mind this bit of work I think."
The assassin nodded cautiously, "I answer to the King himself and nothing lower."
"Your hands aren't tied up the way ours are. We've got shadows, but you're brand new to this town, and don't look like you'll stay long, so they won't have time to ferret you out."
And who are 'they' they I wonder?
"Lesale, a poisoner, we've been on to him for years, trying to find out what his game is. Lately, though, he's been having some strange buyers, more so than your usual lot. Hooded visitor, bipedal, comes only at night, though stopped a few months ago. We're thinking it's a Watcher."
"And you want a closer interrogation, is that it?"
The man spread his arms, "You'd be perfect for the role and virtually untraceable. His shop is hidden near the junction of the fishmonger's wharf and the potter's quarter. Has some rich clients, but none who would care much if he died."
Banehallow smiled, "I'll think about it."
Abaddon stopped as he entered the commander's tent. Slardar looked up, surprised, still cradling the book he had been reading in his hands. It was a large tome, and several similar volumes lay stacked nearby.
"Reading, commander?" Abaddon could not help but be disgusted by this weakness, "There must be something better for a general to be doing."
Slardar, with his infinite patience, calmly put down the book and spoke to the knight, berating a simple-minded child for his idiocy, "Only through studying the mistakes of the past and the great generals of old can we improve ourselves and strive to go further than ever the figures of history could."
"A good general needs no books to learn his trade," the human grunted.
The naga smiled back, "I do not agree with that opinion. What harm can there be in studying the tactics of the great minds of the Age of Steel?"
Abaddon shrugged, "The Fall of the Enigma seems a strange choice to read about tactics. It was a battle of wizards was it not?"
Slardar glanced back at the book, "At the height of their power, the wizards of Dalaran confronted the Enigma in his stronghold and destroyed him, losing many of their number but coming out victorious in the end."
"As I said, wizardly battles. What tactics can you learn from there?"
"Because," Slardar elaborated slowly, "We are in the Age of Magic. Kel'Thuzad marks the end of the Age of Steel as when King Leoric dueled with the Archmagister of Dalaran and lost. Kel'Thuzad promised that magic would take a greater influence on our world than ever before, and that even the face of warfare might be changed by it."
Abaddon smirked, "Interesting, for a lich who was killed by a simple assassin."
"A scholar needs brains, not brawn. And so too for the general. In order to defeat the Sentinel and the Alliance we must change. We must revolutionize our tactics, we must harness this new resource of magic."
"And what is wrong with the old ways? The Lich King has led us to victories over countless foes on the strength of our leaders and the mass of our numbers."
The great naga sighed, "And just as many defeats. The Alliance is changing, and we are not. If we remain in a stasis while they continue their technological progress there will be nothing but defeat awaiting us."
Abaddon smiled, "Do not worry about the Alliance. They are weak and an alliance only in name. Court intrigue and politics hamper their ability to wage war, and their knights are impulsive and whimsical, quick to charge and even quicker to flee."
"The Age of Steel is over. Forget the Alliance's heavy cavaly, focus on their mages. Even after the War of the Magi, the Alliance still retains the best and the most mages in the world. I know their research in evocation, enchanting, mysticism, and elemental magic is unmatched. They are catching up to us in restoration, and soon the only field we will dominate is conjuration and necromancy. Fields in which no new advances have been made in over a hundred years!"
"Ignore the damned mages! We will swamp them with skeletal hordes as we have done before. You greatly overestimate their might, Slardar: when their crossbowmen and swordsmen fall, only to be raised by our necromancers to increase our numbers, then what can their mages do? Can you cast fireballs for eternity, as skeleton archers snipe at you and swordsmen race up the hill to catch you? You said the Alliance had technology, but what is technology in the face of the devotion of our spies and assassins? The lady Akasha has fabricated a war between the dwarves and the humans, the dwarves with their gunpowder and aerial machines of destruction. Without them the humans have lost a great asset."
"And gained another one," Slardar gestured to another book, "There is a high elf named Nortrom who has created a military corps imitating the Legions of Hawksmith. His so-called "Quel'Thalan Legion" is, from all sources, even better trained than the originals, and their commander shrewd and cunning. They are an elite guard numbering five hundred. Terrorblade, who fought them near their home ground, claims they could stand toe-to-toe with the Death Guard."
"As great as Terrorblade was with a sword," Abaddon retorted, "He was not the finest of generals. I campaigned with him and he was no Gartox. Not even a Kel'Thuzad. Treat his analysis of the blood elves with caution, as the Field Marshal tended to overestimate his enemies. He was seeking an opponent, not a victory."
"And in the end met his match in a Watcher, as you say."
The death knight shook his head, "Not at all. Terrorblade was never vanquished in all his life. He was possibly the finest duelist the world has ever seen. His death was a treacherous backstabbing, by one of his own, exploiting Terrorblade's weakness. The Field Marshal, you see, was arrogant and only saw his opponents and his equals. He had no regard for the common man, and was as contemptious of assassination attempts as Kel'Thuzad was paranoid. He never saw it coming."
"And Kel'Thuzad died a few months later by the same Watcher, supposedly. You are running short of Field Marshals."
Abaddon thought back to the original ones, " Anub'arak died in the Passes of Ourschvald, as he was retreating with his forces. The elves waited in ambush and attacked in the night, setting fire to his escape route. Caught between the elves and a blazing inferno, Anub'arak and the greatest part of his forces were massacred that day. And before, there was Lord Wintermaul, who led the Death Guard on the fateful mission to assassinate the Founder of the Alliance. Lord Wintermaul fought the champion of the god Hextar and died. His opponent neither died nor lived, but ascended directly to meet his god. It was the one of the defining moments of the Age of Heroes.And King Leoric fought the Dalarani Archmagister on the peak of Mount Silverbeam and lost. The duel lasted for hours but in the end the Skeleton King could not outlast his foe's magical reserves."
"I fought the Archmagister," Slardar spoke slowly, "He was old and feeble, and easily vanquished. My sirens easily smashed aside his petty magical barriers."
"Archmagister Telvannis should have died that day on Silverbeam. He used up his power, to the point of forever scarring his ability to wield magic. You fought an old man who was only the Archmagister in name."
Slardar smiled, "I thank you for the discussion, Abaddon. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?"
Abaddon felt embarassed, having forgotten the reason for his visit, "Oh, oh yes, now I recall it. There is a night elf that wants to join our ranks, an assassin who claims to have killed the Sentinel general."
"No doubt that claim is true, as it would be folly to have such an easily verified claim of good faith be false."
Abaddon bowed his head, "I believe this is a trap, and that the elf has been sent to infiltrate us. Night elves do not join our ranks of their own free will."
Slardar shrugged his massive shoulders, "What is one spy among many? Our camp already seems filled with assassins and double-crossers."
"The only question," the naga continued, looking down at the chessboard on the table, "is whether they are willing to sacrifice a general to get a pawn on our side."
Abaddon stared at him.
This was why Nortrom despised humans. They had no self-discipline, no ability to control their whims and desires, however disgusting and obscene those might be.
Ever since the commander's foolish decision to ban alcohol sales the camp had lost all semblance of unity. The mutinous infantry drank and whored openly, that treacherous dranei omnipresent with his false smile and invitation to drink.
The cavalry was worse, having barricaded itself from the rest of the camp. The haughty nobles and knights had established a jousting field and spent their days there, as if this was some picnic isntead of a campaign. Any attempt to enter their sacred ground resulted in the derisive mockery of a half-dozen drunk nobles, already occupied in killing each other through their duels and games of honor.
If the horsemen had isolated themselves from the camp, the mages had practically declared themselves independent. The assassins which struck in the night seemed to specifically seek out spell-casters and now the majority of magicians and witches spent their days inside their tent, viewing any outsider with terror and only coming out to reset their wards.
The Quel'Thalan Legion was not affected, functioning as they did as an independent arm of this army, and no assassins had yet reached their camp. As ever, the rituals of practice for combat, meditation, and prayer went on. It made the Silencer proud to compare his own soldiers to the rabble of the Alliance camp.
Nortrom felt the urge to visit the nearby woods. Such impulses came rarely to him, and were usually easily resisted, but there was no danger in indulging this one. It would be good to have some time to meditate and think.
As usual, the sentries let him pass, eyeing him with animosity and contempt, derisive as they were of his uniform. Let them laugh, a blood elf cared nothing for the thoughts of the lesser races. Like insects they would be crushed by the Scourge, and run, but his blood elves would hold the line.
Elthop forest was a strange place. On the one hand, there was nowhere more terrifying at night, when the trees suddenly seemed menacing and the quietest noise seemed to echo for leagues. But in this particular end of the forest, there was peace whenever he came, and there was no fear of assassins as there were never any footprints about.
"Nortrom," said the voice, "I need your help."
The words were spoken quietly, gently and the blood elf was not suprised to see that the speaker was an old and wrinkled figure, his crinkled night elf features fitting perfectly well with the simple oak staff he held in his hands.
"Who are you?"
"I am Furion, an important figure in the Sentinel hierarchy, but I have come to you as a simple petitioner."
"What do you want?"
"I see you share no love of your fellow elves, but that is fine with me. You are the most intelligent and able being in this camp, which is why I beg you to aid me. To aid us."
"I see you share no love of your fellow elves, but that is fine with me. You are the most intelligent and able being in this camp, which is why I beg you to aid me. To aid us."
"What do you want?" Nortrom intoned.
"I have heard reports from my druids of assassinations rampant in this camp. You must understand that this campaign must not be allowed to fail. And so it is my duty to intervene and ask you to help stop these things."
Notrom shrugged, "I am a soldier, not a spy."
"It is your duty as a soldier to serve! You have your gold, now do what you are told! These assassins must be stopped and it is in both of our interests that we have someone both entirely trustworthy and very capable in charge of handling this matter."
"What can I do?"
Furion smiled warmly, "I am so glad you have accepted. I have two companions for you, both also reluctant members in this search but they will be an invaluable assistance to you. There will also be a fourth person arriving soon."
"Shall I begin with Shandel'zare's death?"
The old man shook his head, "Not at all. We have no need to delve into that particular killing as we know both the participant and her motive. No, concentrate instead on the others, the poisonings and the vampire killings."
"And when I wish to report I should..."
"The fourth person will clarify everything," Furion smiled, "Now I must take my leave and return to the capital. This matter is of the utmost importance Nortrom. Do not fail."
Shrugging the blood elf left the woods and was not at all surprised to see two new sentries staring at him. One was a goblin, young and with a sharp gleam in his eye, and the other an elf, a druid with gnarled hands and a restless gaze.
"Ah, Furion gave you the talk, huh?" The goblin grinned, "I'm Boush, and this is Syllabear, whose talking capabilities are surpassed only by his love of the city."
"Nooortrooom," said the druid slowly, "Nooortrooom."
The Silencer squinted at Syllabear, and his puzzled expression clearly asked the goblin whether the druid was simple in the head. The negative head shaking was not a satisfactory answer.
"Nooortrooom," the druid fixed the named blood elf with a steady look, "the woods do not speak well of youu, Nooortroom."
"No doubt there are better things to do than listen to the chatter of the trees, " the Silencer answered coldly, "We have a job to do."
The elf marched off. Boush and Syllabear glanced at each other questioningly before following.
Valen Cambold, once King of the United Confederation, or the Alliance, brooded in his chair as he stared at the flickering flames dancing before his eyes.
"Why, Ignacio, why?" his voice was hoarse, and the hazy vision his faithless eyes showed him of the fireplace betrayed the presence of alcohol in his body.
Behind him, his manservant diligently stitched together a hole that had appeared in Valen's shirt after his flight from the palace.
"Too many scandals, too little attention paid to Zolare and his traitors, my king. There was the dwarves, and then there was your consort, and meanwhile the Inquisition grew bigger and bigger."
"Akasha..." came a the slurred, dreamy answer, "Akasha..."
"The people thought she was a Scourge spy. She probably was too, but now it doesn't matter. The conspirators seized their chance and began preparing their coups. Zolare replaced Andromath in the court, and some of your strongest supporters were taken out. The nobility sent off to war, the high priest of Hextar accused of corruption, the Duke of the Southern Marches killed in a duel with a drow."
"They'll come back," Valen said desperately, "They'll put me back."
Ignacio was grim, "Not till the war is done. Arlitan Konig's in Elthop Forest, Roger Carolin with the Northern army, the Duke of the Summer Isles putting down a rebellion in his duchy. The chancellor is in Durotar, negotiating with the warchief, and the treasurer disappeared. By the time your father's old friends can come back, it might be too late."
"There's got to be something they haven't thought of. I...I am the king!"
"The Return of the Light has had huge initial support. Inquisitors broke into the slums and shut down the gambling houses, the brothels, and the drughouses. They practically destroyed all organized crime in the capital in one night. They've got enough city-wide celebrations planned to ensure the unconditional love of the people for at least a few months, and they're proposing reforms everywhere. Government, medicine, transportation, military structure, justice, and even city hygiene."
"And the court just...accepted these imposters?"
"You know how courtiers are. With some of the major people gone already it wasn't hard to convince the rest of the court to either bow down or face execution by the mob. I heard the Lord of Belsworth saw his own daughter tortured before he accepted your abdication."
Valen shook his head, "That's vile. Elena was such a gentle girl... I had plans to marry her before...Akasha."
"Our options are limited my lord," Ignacio set down the mended shirt beside him, "The conspirators have the capital and the rest of the kingdom follows the capital. Our own supporters are too busy with their own problem, and this damned Scourge invasion. The other powers are both too busy, and wouldn't care anyways. There's only one way out as I see it."
Valen turned around to look at the man who was known to his court as his servant but to himself as both bodyguard, spymaster, and advisor.
"The people have forgotten you for the moment, but they'll remember if something terrible happens. Something unforgivable. Something like a defeat in Elthop Forest."
Valen frowned, "That's unthinkable. If we lose Elthop that leaves the Scourge open to take everything down to the Northern Marches. We could lose about a third of our territory!"
"It's the Northern Marches, or your throne. We can't win, Valen. We have to give something, and this is the only way out I see. Yes the repercussions would be terrible, but it's the only way you could come back to power. If Elthop Forest falls to the Scourge, the Return of the Light is gone. Zolare will be hanged by his own mob overnight."
Valen tried to focus his bleary eyes on his advisor's face, "How do we do that?"
"We can't. Elthop is untouchable, at least for now. I've got agents there, but so does the Inquisition. And if the Inquisition can link you to sabotage or anything else in Elthop, you're gone. Obliterated. The merest hint of treason on your part will make even Roger Carolin abandon you."
"So am I to leave my fate in the hand of luck?" Valen roared, spilling the wine cup on the small table next to him, "That's not advice! Can't you...do something? Assasinate someone? Create a coup d'etat?"
"My network is laying low for the moment. Zolare's got his eyes and ears everywhere and he's virtually unreachable. And even if I could do something, what would be the result? I kill Zolare and his inquisitor cronies and what happens? More inquisitors take their place, or some pigsty prophet from the street. Your highness, you don't have enough public support to take back your throne now, so whether we like it or not, we're going to have to wait and see what happens."
"Fine. Fine, whatever. But I'll get my throne back. I swear it."
Clinkz watched through the trees as a swirl of red robes approached him, the footsteps of the intruder betraying nervousness and excitation. Calmly, the fletcher fitted an arrow to his bow and sighted down the length of the shaft, aiming it to where his visitor would soon arrive.
Xardas crashed through the branches, his grey face for once colored with sweaty panic. Clinkz lowered his bow and withdrew the arrow, pulling his quiver from the ground as the necromancer bent over double to catch his breath.
"Clinkz...bad news. Straight from...headquarters."
The fletcher set down his quiver, with the arrows he had lovingly made all set snugly inside and looked up at the human.
"Krobelus," Xardas panted, "ambushed near Cairn Hafnock. Watcher. Barely escaped."
"Yes. Secret itinerary, but somehow the Weaver caught wind of it."
The skeleton watched his companion regain his breath, thinking to himself about the cold matriarch that was Krobelus.
"She...she's scared Clinkz. Dead scared. And when Krobelus is scared, she starts killing people."
Clinkz fixed the red-faced necromancer with a piercing gaze.
"She's going paranoid Clinkz. Someone sold her out, someone high up. Someone like us," Xardas' eyes were red, "Who do you think is going to the racks for this?"
"Find Akasha," Clinkz whispered, "Unearth the Watcher. We need Akasha."
Xardas straightened, "Maybe you should get her. You seem used to sneaking around in this forest."
"What are you implying?"
The necromancer stared back at the expressionless skull of the bone fletcher:
"Absolutely nothing. But when the questioning starts, there might be some actions of yours that might need explaining."
Clinkz smiled coldly, "Perhaps I will explain to them that I have been seeing some unexpected trespassers in the forest. An undead orc, would you believe, our very own Strygwyr. Recognize him?"
Xardas' eyes hardened, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
"That's some deep magic," the skeleton continued, "more than your regular necromancy. Something I would think beyond your power. Interesting, wouldn't you say?"
The human leaned forward to answer his friend in a confidential whisper, "Then maybe it would be mutually beneficial for both of us to keep our mouths closed. After all, neither of us betrayed Krobelus, so there's no need to give her unnecessary information, right?"
Clinkz smiled, "Right."
Purist stared at the newly appointed High Chairman of the Council of the Light. The two were in a secluded room, with the doors cushioned so that even the guards outside could not hear them.
"Are you serious!"he hissed, "The night elf general! That's insane, Zolare, completely crazy!"
The Ex-Archmage shrugged, "Her successor seems capable enough. A priestess of the moon, with some prior experience combatting orcs in the Eastern Reaches. Not that it matters much for us, we still have to depend on Konig for victory." "We've got dwarves waging guerilla warfare in the countryside, undead assassins prowling through Elthop Forest, street prophets speaking of a new reign of terror, and now the night elf general! By the light, Zolare, this is getting serious!"
Zolare's smile was as emotionless as ever, "Mirana will do fine. If we play our cards right we can pull a victory out of Elthop, and Zeus will be pleased."
Purist stepped closer, seeing the mage take an unconscious step back, "And what," he articulated, "About the assassination of a night elven general? I've let you play your little games Zolare, but this goes beyond the limit? What do you think Zeus will say?"
Purist stepped closer, seeing the mage take an unconscious step back, "And what," he articulated, "About the assassination of a night elven general? I've let you play your little games Zolare, but this goes beyond the limit? What do you think Zeus will say?"
Zolare's grey eyes showed no exterior signs of trauma save their refusal to blink, and the voice of the Chairman was of a forced calm as he adressed his comrade, "I think it would be best for everyone if you were to take a slight leave from the capital. Go pacify the trolls of the Green-Fern Jungle, I hear they've got a rebellious witch doctor there or the like. It's a nest of smugglers anyways, nothing your inquisitors can't handle. I'll talk to Zeus, everything will be fine. Come back in a few months, hero of the people, and take your place on the Council back."
His dirt-matted hair billowing out behind him, Purist marched out of the room, the two inquisitorial guards clicking their hills together in a smart salute. Zolare watched him go out with a slight smile on his lips, his mind already gone to events which were unfolding half a world away, in a small forest that stood between two great armies.
Salah-al-Dar turned his head around in a full rotation, his reptilian neck capable of contortionist feats lesser land-bound races could not achieve with their rigid bodies and even more rigid minds.
"General," the necromancer apologized, bowing his head, "I would not disturb you about such matters but you asked to be made specially aware of any news concerning the night elf. Following your recommendations concerning interrogation procedures, we found the elf to indeed be, a Sentinel spy. We have confined the elf to a subterranean cell in the meantime, awaiting the return of Akasha or whoever is in charge of prisoners."
The great general's eyes blinked once, sea-green eyelids dismissing High Necromancer Xardas from his presence. Opening them, the mighty naga stared blankly at the walls of his command hut.
"Why," his lips silently mumbled, "Would the elves sacrifice their own general just to send us a spy which was so easily caught?"
Yellow eyes turned to face the south-west, where the enemy waited in their tents for the battle which promised to come soon.
"Something is not right."