Warcraft Fan Fiction ❯ [Epic] What Happened in 49' ❯ Chapter 2: Lord of Avernus ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Chapter 2: Lord of Avernus
On a dark night, a plain man, an average man, sat watching the ocean's waves crash upon the docks of Raider's Landing. To those passing by, the silent observer might have appeared strange, transfixed as he seemed watching the hypnotizing mass of the sea, but the human was so unremarkable in appearance as to immediately be forgotten as soon as he was noticed.
At length, the man stood up and walked away, disappearing into alleys and reappearing in streets, though everytime the crowds of pedestrians dissimulated him from the eyes of jealous spies.
The man's face came to rest near a broken door, and entering, it's plain features gazed down at the body of an unrecognizable monster. The nightmarish Lesale had the corporeal form of a demon, but his visitor was not repelled. Those few who visited Lesale had their own demons to torture them.
But tonight, luck had not been on the side of evil, for the difformed carcass of the poisoner was sprawled haphazardly among the debris of glass beakers and bottles. Long marks showed where a dagger or a sword had sliced away at the unfortunate tradesman, the shallow cuts a signal to the watcher that Lesale's killer had done so not to kill but to inflict pain. His interrogation had evidently ended with a final slit on the throat, at which point Lesale's greenish fluids had evidently leaked out.
The plain man left the shop and walked away, coming at last near the jovial chatter of an inn. Pausing to check the tavern's sign, the human was evidently satisfied enough to enter. The only strange act was that rather than ordering a drink, he picked his way through the mass of revelers to find a table near the edge, where sat two other silent figures.
"Well," the ordinary newcomer said, "Lesale is dead."
The two others looked at him, though they did not object to his arrival. The first was a sailor, his face obstructed by tentacles which came out of his mouth, though in a city of pirates of every race, creatures like this were unusual but not terribly so.
The second figure was cloaked and hooded so that nothing of his features could be seen. Unlike the first, he did not drink, but when he turned to look for spies a flicker of electricity could be seen, flashing up his body. What god or revenant of lightning hid beneath the disguise could only be guessed at.
"Lesale's services will be missed," the tentacled sailor said, "He was a good poisoner."
The others bowed their heads and the sailor took a drink of ale in remembrance.
"So," said the cloaked one, speaking for the first time, "How goes your search, Darkterror? I am growing impatient."
The sailor smiled, tentacles parting to reveal a grinning mouth, "Mogul will find the Necronomicon, have no fear. He is like a bloodhound set loose upon his prey; he will not fail."
"I should hope not," the cloaked one said, "A lot of people will be very disappointed if he should."
Darkterror's smile disappeared as the tentacles returned to dissimulate his features, "The Necronomicon is with the Lord of Avernus. We are sailing to his castle to take it from his hands. It shall be in our possession in half a year at the latest."
"You have a Scourge assassin on board," the plain man hissed, "That is dangerous!"
The faceless void shrugged, "He is our excuse for going to Avernus. Once the deed is done we can deal with him. The Scourge is clueless of our true intentions, I assure you."
"So the Necronomicon is with Lord Arath," the cloaked one mused, "And you propose to storm an Alliance stronghold with a paltry band of sailors and a Scourge thug."
"Do not underestimate me, my lord. The Axe is an ungodly beast in combat, and his crew worth more than a dozen of your finest. The human lord will fall, and his knights with him. There will be no failure."
The human smiled, "That is good to hear. One last question, if the Axe is as powerful as you say, how do you propose to deal with him?"
Darkterror smiled again, "I will. That's all you need to know, gentlemen. A little faith is all I ask."
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In another part of the world, near a haunted forest, another spy waited, shivering in the cold night air and anxiously watching a tent and its unknowing occupant.
The spy in question sighed in frustration as she considered the length of her nails. Long nails were at best an inconvenience, as annoying as they were when handling a stiletto, but that pig Gondar seemed to find them appealing for some reason. Maybe she would too once she could dig them into that slimy throat of his.
Infinitely cheered by that thought, Akasha found her vigil interrupted by the stealthy arrival of a new intruder. Prowling like a dog, the figure was covered in a long robe such as wore orcish shamen, though time and poverty had reduced it to little more than glorified rags.
Sniffing the ground, the creature shuffled forward, hunched forward so that its humped back gave it the appearance of some inhuman boogeyman to frighten away children on Hallow's Eve.
Akasha's thoughts became more serious as the prowler discovered the scent of the tent's occupant. Raising itself, the creature unfurled inch-long claws and softly parted the silk entrance. Sniffing the air furtively, the assassin glanced around one last time before sneaking into the tent.
The succubus smiled grimly at the reception Rigwarl the Pig was about to recieve. A first rate bag of trash, the stout razormane was a well-known enforcer of Gondar's, paying a visit to whoever persisted in speaking out against the crime lord. Tonight though, the Pig was out of luck, though pity lay in the fact that that thuggish brain of his would never know who killed him.
More importantly though, Akasha had to find out who this assassin was. Gondar was, as far as she knew, her territory, and the Scourge were not to interfere with her plans in the Alliance camp. Balanar had known this, and had steered clear of those she flagged as her own (though come to think of it, where had the demon gone? Balanar had not been seen for several days now at least).
The creature emerged, not a speck of blood apparent on him. Instead, he seemed to have grown, an aura of vigor and vitality surrounding him. Stretching his claws out lazily, the creature paused to take down his hood, basking in the joy of a good kill.
And Akasha saw its eyes. The red of a vampire, though lacking any sense of sentiency which such undead had, mixed with the regard of the hunter to make a combination that was not quite animal but not quite capable of intelligent thought. The long snout and protruding facial features of a half-orc were offset by the pallid grey of the monster's face, dessicated flesh now pulsing with life as veins shone brightly throughout the otherwise pale visage.
Akasha's heart froze as the monster turned and saw her. It's eyes gazed sightlessly in her direction for such a long moment that she realized it was myopic. Barely daring to breathe in relief, the succubus began to back away slowly.
Then the eyelids slid down and flickered, and when they came up the eyes were completely different. No longer was a dull monster seeing through them, but a being of vast intelligence. Cold, calculating, triumphant, the eyes stared at Akasha and smiled.
It was a smile which spoke volumes. A smile which told of knowing she was there, but letting her go because her time had not yet come. A smile which predicted a later reunion which would not end so well. A smile of condescension and mockery.
The creature turned and ambled away in search of new prey. Akasha disappeared into the night.
As the Queen of Pain made her way back to Gondar's tent, she found a new meaning for the smile.
An invitation to a game. Akasha smiled. She adored games.
The only thing she liked better than games, in fact, was winning.
The cold dank stairs of the castle were familiar to me. Trotting down to the mead hall, I knew what to expect, but I could not stop myself. I had to go on.
Inside the harsh faces of battle-scared warriors and retainers glared at me; squires, guardsmen, servants, cooks, and the countless other commoners who inhabited the castle, forgotten and unseen until such a time as this, when their true number was revealed.
To stand in shame before them all was disgrace enough, but it was not at them that I looked to for judgement. The great lord Arath, with sickly pale Vladimir by his side, stared down regally at his eldest son, the tempestuous northern temper apparent in his feature. In his hand was his sword, given to him by the king of the Alliance when he had been the first of the northerners to give up his raiding ways and accept to serve the king as knight and lord.
The guards closed behind me and shut the doors, placing themselves before them threateningly. The way back was closed.
I looked around for aid but there was none. Master Herban, squire Emmet, kindly Father Omric, even Anastasia's gentle maid Alicia all stared at me coldly, as if they did not know him. From the corner of my eyes I saw a troll, chains wrapped around his wrists, being dragged forward by the guards.
Ilooked at me father and I stared him straight in the eyes. I was no longer a boy, to cower before him, but a man. If I was to be executed, at least Father would remember with pride that he did not cringe before the end.
Father turned slowly, and signaled to the door guards. The massive iron entrance was thrown open, and I saw what was outside. Those gathered huddled together as the blizzard entered the castle, snow and a frigid wind whipping all those assembled, forcing all to crouch beneath their cloaks save Lord Arath and his son. Alone, our necks remained unbowed, our northern blood too strong to allow us to show a trace of weakness.
"No!" Vladimir screamed, breaking the grave decorum of the judgement, "Father, it was an accident!"
So at least there would be one who would mourn Abaddon, lawful heir of Avernus, now cast out by his family.
"Silence Vladimir!" the Lord bellowed, "Abaddon is not your brother! He is no son of mine! Get you gone from my sight, demon!"
I jerked my head in obedience and walked forward, mechanically, towards exile.
"No! Abaddon come back! Don't go!"
I heard Father strike Vladimir with the back of his hand, hard. I saw that some among the castle folk were crying, those who I had known as friends and companions.
I seemed to see things in a new light. My head hazy, I stumbled towards the exit, hearing Vladimir scream for me until Father had the guards escort him back to his chambers. I heard the troll brought forward, and his insinuous voice as he saluted the king in his mocking tone.
I heard Father order the guards to kill the troll, but they would not, for they were too afraid. Eventually, he was thrown out with me, his aged body responding harshly to the cold. When he tried to get back in to the heat Father sent an arrow at him.
I dimly heard the castle doors shut on me, forever. Then, through a veil of tears, I turned to look at the troll.
He was still howling at the castle, warily scanning the battlements for any archers, and pleading to be let back in. He did not notice as I crept up on him.
I had picked up a piece of log and smashed him on the head with it. When he had fallen, I kicked him with my metal-tipped boots. When he continued to scream, I smashed the log on him one more time.
I walked away, having decided my course of action. I aimed for Northrend. Behind me, I heard the troll's strangled words,
"Bathed in blood, young Abaddon, like your father before you. Twas the way you northerners were born and shall be how you die. I promise you this, Lords of Avernus, none of your cursed family shall ever find happiness, nor ever hope or satisfaction. Your end will be as bloody as the lives you have led, and when all is done, it shall be I who spits on your corpse. I bestow upon you this curse, Arath, upon you and your brood. There shall be no mercy."
I could have turned around and finished the witch doctor, but I was past caring. To Northrend I would go, so that my fall would be complete.
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Xardas stood knee-deep in water, sending out tendrils of magic around him to feel out the land. The river was icy, but human sensations were soon forgotten as Xardas concentrated on his magic.
Though a necromancer, he had studied in Dalaran. For 18 years he had learnt their spells, how to make the spells, how to apply them, but never allowed to actually use them. Eighteen years he had spent toiling for the haughty Dalarani, with little hope of joining their order.The Alliance had you think that it was the rejects which joined the Scourge to become necromancer. The truth was actually the opposite; it was the geniuses, disgusted by Dalaran's cautious, obsolete approach to magic.
To be a mage, one had to both learn how to cast the spells, and have the power to cast them. The latter was the hardest requirement, and it took anywhere from thirty to forty years for a novice in the Alliance to unlock his full power as a mage. The Scourge promised quicker results, among other things.
Xardas smiled as he thought of his days with the useless mentors and bureaucrats of the "magical capital" of the world. If the fools concentrated less on ingraining a sense of cowardice and lethargy into their recruits they could have an army of mages, but instead they clung to their old ways, more fit for immortal elves than for humans who could ill bear to give up half their lives just to become a piddling mage in a country where sorcery was considered a profession equal to and not superior to others.
The Scourge understood though. The Lich King could see your potential and help you unlock it within years if not months. Within days after having been decorated with the robes of a necromancer Xardas had been taken to a graveyard and told to summon himself a small cortege. In the space of five months, the necromancer had gone from being a servant in Dalaran, paid with false promises of joining the Order in ten or twenty years, to being given his own command of loyal retainers, and free reign to do as he please. All this in exchange for a simple pledge of loyalty to a lich who, if rumors were true, should rightly be himself a god of magic rather than warring with the insignificant mortals of Kalimdor.
"Find anything, necromancer?"
Xardas jerked in surprise, though he did not turn around, having recognized the gravelly voice.
"I did not feel you coming, general."
"Disconcerted, necromancer?" Slardar rumbled, "Magic has little effect against me. My body has more runes and tattoos of power engraved on it than scales."
"To what do I owe the pleasure of the visit, general?" Xardas felt uncomfortable in the presence of a being who could not be defeated by magic, "As I understand, even naga sleep at night."
"I wished to talk to you," the naga answered, "About magic."
The necromancer lifted an eyebrow, "For the coming battle with the enemy?"
"Yes. I have been reading about magic circles."
Xardas chuckled, "Magic circles are not for battle, my lord. They are useful, but not fit for combat. You see, a circle involves any number of persons capable of magic, all pooling their power together under one leader. This is useful for casting very powerful spells, for instance a spell of binding, which is traditionally administered by a lich."
"We have three hundred mages. The power they would have in a circle is unimaginable."
"Except, my lord, that the circle has been tried in battles and is a dismal failure. The death of one participant breaks the entire circle. Worse, the consequences of the breaking are unpredictable. At best, the magic will fizzle and there will only be an ex-circle of exhausted mages. At worst, it might combust; the destruction caused by such an explosion would depend very much on the size of the circle but in any case would be terrible."
"If the circle was adequately protected..."
"My lord, all it takes is one stray arrow, one sneaky crossbowman, one rogue stone from a catapult to end the circle. How would you guard three-hundred mages when, for the duration of the circle, they are basically serving as a target board for Sentinel marksmen and Alliance fireball-tossers?"
Slardar was silent, but the silence was not a disappointed one, but rather a pensive one, as if he was trying to answer Xardas' question. At length, he drifted away, still puzzling over this interesting riddle to solve.
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"Would you like to play at dice, Mangix?"
The pandaren looked up, distracted from his meditation. Looking at his companion, he chuckled.
"Somehow, I get the idea this would be no simple gambling game. I think I'll have to pass."
The first figure sighed and returned the dice to their containers, "I will not press you if it is against your will. I would recommend however, that you not try meditating in my presence. I seem to have been gifted with the ability to prevent others from finding peace, one which I am incapable of preventing."
Mangix shrugged and sat up as a third figure entered, a dwarven man muttering under his breath with feverish intensity. He took a quick look around the camp, as if surprised to find himself at his destination already, and then hastily made his report.
"Ain't nothing good in sight, boys. Some dude took a knifing rather hard, funny poisoner guy, and it seems to have stirred up the normally nonexistent elements of law in this dunghole of a town. That and the Culling Blade's in town, which means high chance of murders and rapes and overall mayhem. I could sneak in a bullet or two just to add in some excitement."
"Did you find him?"
The dwarf grinned at the speaker, "You got a dagger in yer eye, skelly boy. Might want to take it out, it aint known to attract the ladies. But no, I din find yer boy, though is hard for a good dwarf like me to ask questions in this town. Specially when their ale tastes like horseshite, pardon my language."
"Much excused," the figure answered, removing a dagger from his eye. Some foolish farmer had stabbed him there, thinking some rubbish superstition about the undead concentrating their power in their right eye. "It much vexes me that you were not able to locate my target. Paladine's word be true, he must be found. Well, I suppose you may remain here while I return to the mainland. Hopefully he has not gotten engaged in any of that silly infighting between those mindless humans."
"You'll find the humans, though their restraint and discipline is sorely lacking, are still much more worthy than you make them out to be. I think, with Pandaren wisdom, they would be a formidable people," Mangix answered softly.
The skeleton stood up, stretching his joints, "And you will find that Pandaria's isolationist policies will lead to its demise within a short time."
More wistfully, the undead added to himself as he walked away, "That's the problem with being locked in a stasis. Eventually, you have to crawl out and realize the world has changed."
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Running up the tower, paws padding on the cold stone. Behind him, his companions whined as they tried to catch up, but Banehallow was determined to be the first to the top. What awaited him there he did not know, but it beckoned to him, drawing him ever closer. Anxious eyes darted up, seeing the beloved moon as it looked down at him.
For once, though, the adored moon seemed strange, distant, and inexplicably far. A vague feeling of unease drifted over him, and Banehallow almost turned to run back down, but the lure of the tower's top pulled him back. Drawn like a crow to a kill, he continued ascending the tower steps, utterly powerless in the face of this mystical call which reached deep inside his heart and pulled him there.
A bat swooped down low over his head, screeching just before the wolf ducked and the flying mammal crashed into the tower's stone. Passing by the dead body, Banehallow ignored the omen, his mind already a thousand steps higher, no longer his to control or command.
Hastily mounting the steps two by two, Banehallow slipped on a puddle of suspiciously dark liquid. Skidding uncontrollably, the wolf found himself sliding towards the edge and the thousand feet drop beyond. As his head came up, the breath left his mouth as he saw the moon eclipsed by a flight of shapeless dark shapes. Then, the drop came.
A jaw snapped around the scruff of his neck, and for a second, his fate held in the balance as four feet dangled precariously above a thousand feet of emptiness. Then he was yanked back up, and the scared muzzle of Barock met his own in a silent exchange to determine whether he had been hurt.
Then the race resumed as the the wolves pounded up the stairs, their hearts echoing their mad pace and demented drive to find out what awaited at the top of the tower.
Mounting the last steps, Banehallow found Jolgot already waiting for him, staring from the smooth platform of the open-ended tower's tip outwards towards the pale dream reflection of a forest. Banehallow and Barock silently moved to flank him, following his gaze.
It was an exodus. Dark shapes poured out from the forest, obscured in part by black flights of bats and birds winging their way east of the nefarious woods. No sound reached the three observers on the tower's tips, but no caption was needed for this massive nighttime migration. Elthop Forest was not safe.
There was laughter, and it seemed to grow. Louder and louder, until it was a rumble, and the very stones of the unnamed tower seemed to shake. Frantic eyes looked to the side at a slobbering Jolgot, but if the terrified wolf had anything to say, it was drowned out by the thunder of the demonic laughter.
Banehallow screamed as the tower lurched, and to the cackle was added the sickly grinding of stone being torn apart. His ears low on his head, Banehallow spun, trying to stabilize himself as the tower leaned precariously forward.
The stone tore with an almost animal deathscream, and the tower pitched forward. Leaping towards the stairs he had ascended but minutes ago, Banehallow heard a soft whimper as one of his comrades behind him was pitched over the edge. Then, blocking out the sounds of the outside world, Banehallow began sprinting down the stairs as they shook and fell.
The panicked wolf slipped on the same pool as before and flew forward. Desperately, he clawed at smooth stone before falling over, into thousands of feet of empty space.
Below him he saw the dark figures of two other wolves as they fell, whatever screams they might be emitting drowned out by the sounds of falling stone. But the horrific image which would forever brand itself in his mind was the gigantic, monstrous face of the demon as it laughed and laughed at him, its skull-like features twisted in sadistic ecstasy as it beheld the work it had done, and those doomed by it to die.
Awaken, fool!
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A spiderweb dangled, the soft tissue swinging back and forth as the wind played with it. The features of the skeleton watching it betrayed nothing on what was going on inside the undead mind, but it was always like that. Clinkz's mask was permanent, a show he had put on for thirty years, as Kel'Thuzad played with the strings attached to him. As far as bound servants were, Clinkz was rather loyal, interiorizing any hatred or dark thought he might have. This saved him, because the powerful lich who controlled him never had need to discipline him publicly, and the secrecy of his missions meant that noone knew of his service save the lich.
Kel'Thuzad had taken his secret to the grave. Among the Scourge, there were two types of servants, those so loyal to the Scourge that they were given free reign, and the vast majority which had to be bound directly to Ner'zhul or one of his liches. Someone who was bound was in most ways free, but never capable of raising a hand against his master, and never accorded the complete privacy of thought given to a very select few among the Scourge ranks. Treachery was impossible, as every thought could be read and every movement controlled, if the master so willed it, though Kel'Thuzad controlled enough servants that he did not spend much time meddling with Clinkz's mind. But now, with the death of his master, he was free.
Free to carve his own way in the world, free from the machinations and constant threat to life which existed in the Scourge camp. But first, he had to make the Lich King forget about him. He had to fake his own death, and for that he would need a witness. Someone like Abaddon, whom noone could deny was speaking the truth (in fact, it was almost certain that Abaddon was one of those directly bound to Ner'zhul, which would explain the power he wielded as a general).
"Arachnia," the skeleton whispered, "I sense something awry with the woods. Something dark is awakening, and it is testing the waters. We must make our move soon."
Soft purring answered him, followed by a strangely feminine voice, speaking slowly so as to enunciate the sounds so strange to its arachnid throat, "It runs in the night. I saw the dread spirit yesterday. It is hunting its prey."
Voices echoed from far away and the skeleton froze, "Someone is coming."
"A great deal of people," the unseen spider answered, "I can feel their vibrations in the ground."
"As can I," Clinkz stood up, "I must take my leave, my only friend. I must go before this army gets here, but this does not change our plans. I will lead Abaddon here, and he will see our demise, I swear it. At last, we shall be free."
"Take care, elf," the broodmother chittered, "let not the dread spirit catch you. It is out tonight."
Without another word the bone fletcher darted away, tireless limbs fluidly moving until it seemed as if the only part of him under his control was his head, watching the forest around him changed as his machine-like body continued its nightly run.
Clinkz froze, a soft whisper in the wind all the warning he needed to notch an arrow in his bow. Scanning the grey shadows of the forest, the skeleton could notice nothing out of the ordinary.
Then out of the foggy gloom he saw its outline. A dark sketch on grey smoke, the figure slowly approached, a distinctly human shape wrapped in necromancer robes revealing itself.
Clinkz's brain churned. Had Xardas been spying on him? If so, he had to be killed lest he betray him, though the distinct mark on his arrows would have to be destroyed later in order to not incriminate him.
This was not Xardas. He didn't know why he was so certain, but Clinkz didn't doubt it as the creature approached. Wrinkled hands rested on a polished scepter as the wizened old man came nearer, his face still hidden in a brown cowl. In the early hours of the morning, the wizard looked like a messenger of Death.
The man looked up, its face still hidden by a veil, and all doubt in Clinkz's heart vanished. His hand released the arrow and as time slowed, he watched the arrow fly. The figure was raising its hand as the arrow passed cleanly through the face and back out through the back of the hood. Then the hand ripped aside the rags covering its head and Clinkz felt shock at recognizing that face.
Rotund'jere leered back at him as another arrow flew, straight through his rotten right eye and through his head, flying past to disappear into the darkness beyond. Raising the scepter, the necromancer's face lit up in triumph as the skeleton archer feebly lifted a boney hand to protect its face. Then the skeleton was blown apart, and a thousand different pieces were carried by the wind. One at last snagged on a web and came to rest, floating on the currents of the wind, suspended by a single white string. And a single tear came down, as Clinkz's only mourner bowed her head in regret at the passing of her friend.
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"Ein sik thalam enur tur. Anakt."
The Death-Bringer nodded and gestured to the soldiers to continue packing up their supplies. Like the rest of the camp, the Quel'Thalan Legion was mobilizing, following the unexpected call by the general. Unlike the others however, the blood elves were doing so silently and efficiently. Arlitan Konig would soon see how blessed he was to have such allies as Nortrom's five hundred.
"Errm, sir?"
Nortrom's head spun to regard the speaker, his stolid face gazing down at the diminutive goblin in silence.
"Uh, well, we found something you might be interested in. Wouldn't disturb you otherwise."
Nortrom nodded and gestured to the goblin to lead on. Boush, his name was, though he had no idea what such a word meant in the goblin tongue. Nortrom, however, meant "defeat" in elvish, and was the name his father had granted him as he lay dying, his life slowly bleeding out of him. That was the name he had taken, as a promise that he would never see it applied to his people again.
Away from the camp, the goblin guide hurried into the woods, where Nortrom's heavy boots thumped against the grassy forest floor. The sounds of birdcalls quieted as the blood elf passed, as if in respect for one of the Pure. Only the animals, it seemed, knew of the sacrifice his people had gone through, and which the rest of the world seemed oblivious to.
"Syllabear's out and about, uh, sir. You know how he is. Just roamin, I guess, with that damn bear of his. Scary stuff, that thing. Just like...okay I'll stop talking now."
Nortrom continued to ignore the slightly unnerved goblin, like he shrugged off the screams of the wounded as they begged him to spare them and he answered with a swift stab of his spear. That was what it meant to be blood elf. Noone could weep for a heart of gold better than a heart of iron. The high elves had been statues of gold. The blood elves, however, were forged of steel.
"Here it is, sir. Make what you want of it."
The body of a night elf lay sprawled on a fallen tree trunk, the heavily tattooed masculine chest somewhat damaged by whatever scavenging animal had begun to feed on it. The rest of the body was intact, except for the face, which revealed the terrible fate the night elf had suffered. The back half of the skull was visible, while the entire front seemed to have been blown away. Pieces of bone littered the ground, as well as some drops of blood on the leafy floor. Whatever flesh and brain may have existed had served as a meal to a particularly messy animal, to which Boush the goblin responded by going aside to vomit. A keg of ale lay broken by the side of the fallen warrior, where it had rested since the soldier had dropped it.
Nortrom knelt down to examine the corpse, as the curious padding of heavy feet indicated the arrival of the unusual Syllabear, whose ungainly body moved with a grace not usually accorded to druids.
"Boush is going back to talk to the night elves. Found the body they had been looking for, the demon. Head caved in by some large object, cuts and gashes along the body, and a hole where the heart of the demon was cut out. Found the heart too, several feet away. Not even the beasts deigned to touch such a foul thing. Whoever took it out didn't find it to their liking, as it was carved up pretty bad."
"Know anything about this one?" Nortrom interjected.
"Ah," Syllabear sighed as he looked at the night elf, "Noone of importance. Night elves haven't reported any druids missing, so I'm guessing he's a mercenary or the like. No idea who killed him though, that's why Boush got you."
"Magic," Nortrom sniffed the air near the dead man, savouring the sweet, almost nauseating smell of the arcane, "The smell is strong. Either the deed was done recently, or the magic used was strong. Maybe both."
"Was another mage found dead two days ago. Lina Inverse, also killed by some wicked beastie. All her blood sucked out, very disgusting. Mages agreed it was the same thing that did the Razormane in. Konig's put a bounty of five hundred on it."
Nortrom mused over Syllabear's words. The druid and the goblin were both as bemused by him over this assignment given them personally by the night elf Furion (in the case of Syllabear, following forty years of isolation from civilization), but they were determined to do things right. In Nortrom's case, this provided a valuable opportunity to turn his thoughts away from the morbid past.
The assassinations made little sense, he thought. After having successfully murdered the highest ranking officer in the camp, the Scourge was now going after nobodies. Mercenaries, minor mages, and Gondar's scum-not even people attached to the Alliance or Sentinel armies. As for the assassins themselves, they were as varied as they were impossible to find. Sergeant Greenwich, the only logical target for the Scourge, had been found with a dagger in his back. The strategic papers he had been in charge of had been taken, as was expected, and hopefully that human idiot Konig had formulated a new plan of attack. Nortrom fumed to think of not only having a human in charge of the combined armies, but an inexperienced, pampered, noble human as well.
The blood elf concentrated back to the matter at hand. Lina, a mage not officially attached to any cadres, and Rigwarl, one of Gondar's criminals, had been killed by strangling. Their blood had been sucked out through two holes in the neck, leading the informed majority to infer that the assassin in question was a vampire. Nortrom questioned such a conclusion, though, as the punctures in the victims' necks were wide and messy, not at all like the marks a vampire with fanglike teeth would leave.
Triest the one-eyed archer had been killed in single combat with a demon. The perpetrator of that crime, Syllabear had just informed him, was dead, killed in a seemingly similar manner to the night elf now standing, or rather lying, in front of him. Garce had been shot down by an advance Scourge sniper, an arrow clean through his forehead. It was doubtful that that scuffle had been intentional, as Garce was foraging at a dangerous distance from the camp. Still, it was worrisome if Scourge skeleton archers were already claiming the mid-forest.
Hopefully that problem would be resolved today. Nortrom stood up as he heard the horn blow, and Syllabear by his side melted away into the forest. While their investigation was important, the war was even more so, and today Konig had unexpectedly declared that the first battle would occur. Of course it was not completely unexpected, as ever since the general had banned prostitution and alcohol distribution in the camp, his soldiers had been getting more and more mutinous, until it was only a matter of time before he lost control of his own army. A battle was imperative to demonstrate who was in charge here. A battle where, hopefully, Arlitan Konig would exhibit the much-awaited talent which the army would need for the battles yet to come.
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"Alright, Scourge dog. Your doom is here. Now, get out, and if you come back without the human's head, I'll slice your mangy one off as a replacement."
The Captain's derisive words echoed in his head as Banehallow made his way through the lands surrounding Castle Arath. For most human nobles, those lands were farms, whereby the tenant peasants would feed their lord in exchange for protection during wartime. In the case of Lord Arath, it was a graveyard.
Pikes, spears and stakes supported a gory array of heads, from grimy humans with their tongues lolling out to half-eaten green gobs of flesh vaguely recognizable as having once been trolls. There was an order to this sadistic display, from the western end where rows of clean, silent skulls stared silently towards Northrend, to the eastern side where criminals and heretics mingled together in their shared, morbid fate. As he approached the castle, Banehallow saw that behind the ominous towers of Castle Arath lay even more of the condemned.
There's a section for dissenting priests. There's one for adulterous wives, and one for trolls found in the Lord's personal forests. Whores and sailors have their own area, as well as all the other undesirables Arath finds faults with. Abaddon described this place to us a long time ago.
And where do those found hunting the human go?
I believe Arath takes considerable pride in catching assassins. Their heads would be mounted above the castle doors, or inside the eating hall. There is a lesson there Banehallow.
The human grinned. Failure had never been part of the plan. Once away from the ship, there was noone to match him and his peerless skill at his trade.
Very well then. But do not let overconfidence kill you. If you die, I die too.
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"They are moving slowly general. The night elves are accomodating their pace to make time with the humans, who will come out of that wood in about a half-day."
Salah-al-Dar nodded at the necromancer, his gaze still focused on the woods he could look down upon from the hill he stood on, imagining the upcoming battle.
"We are not equipped to meet them head-on!" Abaddon repeated, "They beat us in numbers. We should draw back and call for aid from Krobelus. Together, the night elves and humans defeat us three to two."
"We can face them," the naga answered wearily, "We have more magicians. And when they attack, our spy will sow havoc in their mage ranks. We will outmatch them in magic."
"Magic against Alliance steel and Sentinel arrows? Our necromancers will not long hold the line. Even with Magnus' strong we cannot overcome the pressure of numbers. Xardas can probably give us an additional two-hundred fifty from the battlefield nearby, but that is a paper fence against the enemy's advance. We are under-equipped, outnumbered, and to top it off, our Field Marshal is gone."
"Do you doubt that I can command this battle, death knight?" Salah-al-Dar smiled, "You give our opponents too much credit. They have no aerial support and very little artillery. They will be at most able to field two catapults and a few ballistae against us for the battle."
"Do you joke?" Abaddon sputtered, "We have no artillery. We have three rusty meat wagons that are practically falling apart. At best, we will be able to lob a few rounds of flaming boulders, and that's if we can find the boulders."
"All it takes is one stone to make a difference," the general recited sagely.
Salah-al-Dar knew the human was staring at him, "Are you talking about assassinating their command? Because if so, our machines are so rusty that if we even try to launch a stone in their direction we'll miss for sure."
"Then we'll just have to find something else to throw than stones," the naga turned to regard the ancient battlefield from which Xardas and his apprentices were collecting corpses.
Now Abaddon was really staring.
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"Ah yes, the much awaited messenger from the capital. So tell me, boy, is the King reinstoring command of the army to me, as I deserve, or will he continue to sulk in his chambers like a whipped dog?"
Banehallow smiled at Lord Vladimir Arath, the Terror of the North, "Things are very complicated at court. Replacing Konig currently could lead to...complications."
Well done. Just like a courtier would.
The gaunt figure of the Lord of Avernus sneered at him, "I don't give a damn about complications. I want my post back, and I want it now. Along with a formal apology from the king for being such an ass. Yes, that and a few thousand gold ought to mend old wounds."
This must be some crude Nordic humor, or else the man is completely mad. Regardless, I advise you not to anger him, but don't blow your cover.
"My lord," Banehallow bowed low, his arms away from his sides in a sweeping reverence, "The King wants to welcome you back into his fold. The past misunderstandings between us can be put to rest, and as proof of good faith, my sovereign assures you that he will grant you a position befitting your status as soon as is possible."
"Ah," the tall, silver-haired aristocrat smiled grimly, "It is nice to finally be appreciated. I knew Valen would see the light sooner or later." He looked up. "This deserves a reward. Come, together we shall feast and you shall tell me of life in the court."
Mercurial fellow. Beware the men who smile but do not laugh.
Agree. A giant bear, though his mood changes as fast as a swallow's flight, ever you must remember that underneath lies the power of the sleeping giant.
I disagree with Barock. This one is a python. He knows exactly what he is doing, and when the time comes, he will strike. For now, he is scenting the air. He plays the prey to mask his hunter's trap.
Banehallow allowed himself to be led inside the sumptuous feasting hall of Castle Arath, where a long table had already been set in anticipation of the Lord's dinner. The many empty chairs arranged around the massive table told tales of a hearth seen better days.
He feasts with ghosts and ghasts. The question though, is is he hunting his past, or is his past hunting him?
"Ah, have you noticed my trophies. I am quite fond of them. Here, tell me what you think."
Banehallow looked up at the giant insect head of a nerubian, mounted above the entrance and in pristine condition. Around the large hall were mounted several other skulls, with the weapons of the deceased owners attached underneath.
"What's that one?"
Banehallow pointed to an empty slot above a large two-handed sword. The enamel hilt of the sword indicated wealth, but it was the wolf emblazoned on the hilt that drew Banehallow's attention. It was a twin to the one on Vladimir Arath's sword.
"Ah, that sword," Arath smiled, but there was no mirth in his eyes, "Belonged to a traitor, who killed my father. He consorted with demons in the halls of my ancestors, and sacrificed his own wife to his hellspawn masters. When I find him, I will make of him the jewel of my collection."
Ah, and I wondered why Abaddon never presented us to his charming family.
"I see you have your own sword," the Lord of Avernus questioned Banehallow, "An interesting blade."
Banehallow looked down at the sword in his hand, the one he'd used ever since he had become the Lich King's assassin, "Thank you, it was my father's sword. He treasured it very much."
"Yes, it is very...unique."
Why is he staring at your sword? It's a very regular blade, even a bit shabby as far as swordsmen would think. What game is he playing at?
"Well, shall we eat now?" Banehallow asked, eager to distract Lord Arath from staring fixedly at his sword.
"Ah yes. Of course. We must dine. And truely, mister Goldpane of the Marshreeds, you must tell me what you think of this wolf meat I've procured for us. Shot it myself out hunting this morning. I think there's truly nothing more delicious."
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"Infantrymen, get into formation. Quick now, faster!"
"Archers, what the hell are you doing, move to the back! This is infantry reserved ground!"
"Sergeant sir, I want to tell you that we may be using this avenue for a charge later. Tell your men to be prepared to make way for cavalry."
"General sir, are you ready for the speech?"
Arlitan Konig glanced at his aide, disturbed from his reverie by young Carolin's last remark. Around him the rest of the army was preparing for battle, the hill across from them showing similar movement among the Scourge ranks.
"I shall wait a little longer for the men to quiet down, I think."
Konig stared across at where his enemy counterpart must be, giving out similar orders and perhaps mirroring his actions with a speech to his own troops. Or perhaps not. The Scourge after all, had no need to be riled up for battle. The dead have no passion, said the wise man Jonaleth, and that saying had proved to be both the strength and the weakness of the Scourge time and again.
"My lord, Priestess Mirana sends her regards. She will comb the woods for a flank attack while you proceed with a frontal advance, and if all goes well will be able to sweep around the enemy's left while you hammer them head on."
Konig nodded at the night elf to dismiss him, before surveying once again his army. Little ants melded together in busy activity before separating and arranging themselves in neat formations and regiments. Behind, horsemen cavorted in mock battle, before the sight of their general standing tall atop his hill quieted them. A small group of mages stood raggedly together, looking over at the enemy lines to try to estimate their numbers. Beyond them all were the mercenaries, who at this instant looked more like brigands than part of the well-ordered, organized ranks of the Alliance forces.
Arlitan greeted them all, "Well, this is it. This is the moment. Before us lie several thousand of the Lich King's Scourge, several thousand rusty bags of bones and nails, and before me, eight thousand of the Alliance's finest. I see before me men in shining steel with death in their hands and love for their beautiful nation in their hearts, and men and women in robes and armour with bows and staffs and swords and lances and eight thousand torches to keep away the darkness of Northrend. You know why we fight here. They invaded us, they tried to take away from us our lands and our freedom and our lives, but we answered in kind. The Alliance has stood for a thousand years and for a thousand years the Lich King has sent his pathetic hordes to our continent to be dashed upon our raised spears and pikes. We shall not fall! If Ner'zhul thinks it is across our dead bodies that he shall build his paradise of pain and fear, then he has yet to learn his lesson! This day we shall know that the men of the Alliance stood their ground against evil and did not waver! This day, we shall drive the ravenous hordes back! This day, we shall raise our bows and send the arrows flying, and we shall charge on horseback and on foot, with spear and sword and axe, and the Lich King in his tower shall say, "those, those are the men of the Alliance, see how boundless is their fury, how steadfast their hearts, how merciless their blades". And in his tower he shall quaver and know, that on this day, on this day the men of the Alliance did not fall!"
The army broke out into cheers and applause, and Konig turned to a beaming Edrian Carolin. The two nodded together before Konig looked beyond his squire, to where the Quel'thalan Legion stood impassively.
"Well, let's see how Nortrom handles them," Konig grinned, feeling slightly giddy after his empassioned speech.
The Silencer stood in front of his warriors, his red and gold armour gleaming in the sunlight. In his gauntleted fist was a lance, died completely black, which he held before him like a scepter of power.
"My brothers," he rasped, "I stare at this scepter and I see Quel'thalas again. I see them looking back at me. I see them, waiting."
Nortrom looked at his army and raised his staff high, "What do you see?" he roared.
"Mistress Death." As one, the legion responded, synchronized, passionless voices coming together as one voice.
"Mistress Death," Nortrom screamed, "We welcome you!"
"Mistress Death, we march."
"Mistress Death, this army is yours!"
"We march."
"Fifty thousand dead," Nortrom boomed, "Fifty thousand dead at Quel'thalas. Death, unavenged, unanswered, unwept for. Mistress Death, we are your children."
"For Quel'thalas."
"Fifty thousand ghosts stare down at us! Fifty thousand to welcome us in Mistress Death's embrace! Brothers, what do you see?"
"Mistress Death."
"Today we march into the wolf's maw! To Quel'thalas, we return! Today we march! To Mistress Death!"
"To Mistress Death!"
Suddenly chilled, Konig shared a long stare with his now silent squire.
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"So how is the capital, Mr Goldpane? I trust the king is doing well? I know how affairs of state can be trying upon one's health."
"The king is fine," Banehallow invented,"has been ever since he left that consort of his."
"A consort? Oh my this is interesting," Lord Arath smiled, "We get so little news in this corner of the world."
"Valen became besotted with some unknown street girl, probably a whore. Regardless, she disappeared a few months after he declared her Marquise of the Eastern Hearths, and has not been seen since."
"Valen you fool," the Northerner stood up, whispering softly to himself, "A weak king is not what is needed at this time. And I would help you Valen, but you spurn my aid."
"Not at all, sir! Valen would like to welcome you back to the capital, but it is the matter of the court intrigue that forces his hand. Not everyone is convinced of your loyalty."
Oh very good Banehallow. Divert his attention to the court.
"My loyalty?" Vladimir Arath snarled, "I have bled more for the Alliance than any of those soft-bred Southern sycophants. I have lost my father and my brother to the Alliance, I have seen more good Northerners die against Anub'arak and Krobelus than the South could even imagine, and yet they dare to question my loyalty? I who smashed aside the nerubian hordes at Falksmouth and Yulin's Pass, and sent the Banshee Queen fleeing at the plains of Ogrim? I, Vladimir Arath, the Blade of the North?"
"The court's opinion does not reflect my own, and a lot of their concerns are indeed baseless. But these men do have King Valen's ear, and so they must be convinced of your worth."
"Convinced of my worth?" the gaunt lord breathed, "They must be convinced of my worth? And when my castle lies burning under the baneful gaze of a demon, and my town a sacked ruin populated by skeletons, and my forests overrun with forest troll, and the port at Nadir's Depth a shooting ground for the Culling Blade, then will they be convinced?"
"The points they raise regard your father's relationship with Valen II, and the increasing criticism of your ways of, um, punishing crime here."
Too far. Do not tempt a madman, for he may fall for the bait.
"My father," Vladimir answered coldly, "Was knighted personally by Valen II for outstanding service to the Alliance. My father destroyed the troll presence in this area, slaughtered the pirates of the Frigid Coast, and purged this place of the witchcraft and heresy that was rampant. Valen the Second never truely appreciated all that my father did for him, and when he raised taxation, when it should be him that pays us for out efforts, my father did what any responsible lord would have done."
"Autonomy is not often given to provinces of the Alliance. You should be thankful the king never came after his taxes or the soldiers he levied from here."
"The taxes were not his to begin with! We were fighting the Scourge and the king sought to stab us in the back-to weaken us at a critical time. If he had dared to come, he would have bled just as much as the undead did."
"Such a conflict would not have ended well for Avernus."
"What would you know, Southerner," the lord's face contorted in fury, "Did you ever see Jah'rakal? An abomination of a troll, with the strength of ten men and the speed of twenty. Noone had ever conquered his lands, and the trolls with their savagery and heathen powers waged a war of attrition against any who trespassed in their forests. But we took them. We put Jah'rakal to the stake, nailed his arms to a tree, sliced off his tongue, and gouged out his eyes in front of his loyal subjects. You think we couldn't take Valen's pathetic Southerners? Avernus is a lot tougher than you think. We've had the Culling Blade haunt our shores for fifty years, and Scourge raids and troll attacks for even longer. You think that..."
A young woman stepped into the room, clad in the blue garb of a diviner, "I believe the battle has begun, my lord."
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Standing tall atop the highest vantage point his scouts could find, Salah-al Dar watched the human enemy begin marching down from their perch near the forest. From his point of view, he could see that at the point where the two armies would clash, the Scourge would be easily outmaneuvered and defeated. While the right flank of the Scourge was covered by a mound of dirt where a watchtower had once stood, the open plains on the other side would give enough room for human knights to charge in and hit the skeleton infantry right as the Alliance footmen closed in from the front.
"How are our troops?" Salah-al Dar did not take away his eyes from the ranks of the enemy, counting standards and making mental notes of where it was most likely these troops would go.
"Magnus is in position," instead of the typical necromancer aide, it was an anxious looking mercenary that answered, one of the few that had stayed on after the death of their leader Strygwyr. All the necromancers were needed elsewhere.
"The sirens await your order, sir," another answered.
"Xardas is ready."
"Longbowmen on the left ridge, sir."
"Myrmidons hanging back, as you ordered."
"Meat wagons loaded."
The general smiled, raising his hand to the death knight standing amongst the marching skeletons and ghouls. Abaddon did not need any more encouragement to raise his sword, happy to be back in his element, and spur his horse on forward.
With their commander charging in front, the skeletons broke into a synchronized trot, steel-clad feet clattering on dirt and stone while the raging ghouls behind them galloped on all fours to keep up.
"He trained them well," Salah commented, "We shall see if the longbows are as good."
From his viewpoint, Abaddon's heroic charge into the enemy was nothing more than a small grey dot disappearing in a mass of red and silver. Moments later, white bones met metal armour and the red stains became more prominent. For moments, the Alliance line held, then it began to be pushed back, trained skeleton warriors stabbing their way forward.
"Now they charge," the naga's eye roved over the armoured horsemen that began to advance slowly as the skeletons pushed forward, away from the ridge on their right that had protected them from a flanking attack, "Like babies, suspecting nothing."
Indeed, the knights could not see Salah-al Dar's malicious smile as they broke out into a trot, nearing the spot where they would turn as one and charge, straight into the sides of the skeleton army.
The naga watched them get ever closer and closer to the watchtower's mound until the knights at last stopped and began to form up into their lines, turning to aim their charge.
"Now, Magnus, now!"
Unable to hear his commander but more than able to smell the stench of horses, Magnus roared out his entry, his huge spear appearing the first thing that prepared from behind the large mound that had hidden him and his magnataurs.
The knights turned futilely but they were too slow. Amazingly fast for their size, the mammoths that served as Salah-al Dar's shock cavalry smashed into the armoured humans like a battering ram into a wooden doorway, horses and men slaughtered like lambs by spears, tusks, or simply the titanic mass of the magnataurs.
"My lord, look there! Our infantry is being pushed back!"
Salah-al Dar looked back at the battle, watching footmen quickly move to the sides as a shield wall of exquisitely armoured blood elves marched forward, arrows and magic whizzing over their heads into the enemy masses.
"The sirens, my lord, their wall is up!"
For the first time, Salah-al Dar looked back in the direction of where his circle of necromancers chanted in unison, working together to summon a magic stronger than any of them alone could control. They were completely invisible to even the naga's eye however, hidden as they were behind a massive wall of water, held tenuously in place by dozens of sirens, forming their own magical circle at the base of their formidable arcane defense.
The Alliance mages and commanders evidently noticed this too, and catapult stones and fireballs flew high above the infantry that lay fighting and dying in the plains to smash into the wall of water and disappear beyond. While the water quickly took down arrows and lesser projectiles, massive stones lobbed over or through the wall disappeared beyond this immobile wave.
Unknown to the mages and artillery that kept firing through the sirens' watery fortification, Razor stood just beyond, his formidable magical ability stretched to the limit, holding up a portal into which flew every projectile that managed to get through the prior defenses, to reappear in a completely different place, where Krobelus' pet demon, Azgalor, maintained the other end of the dark portal, his dread mistress gazing with pleasure at the fireballs and stones she incinerated as they passed through, knowing her lord would be pleased at Slardar's ingenuity.
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Banehallow grunted, his breaths coming out in painful gasps, blood flowing down the front of his shirt where the lord of Avernus had pinned him to the wall with a dagger.
"So," Vladimir snarled, his face inches away from the wounded assassin, "Who's laughing now, Mr Goldpane?"
Banehallow coughed, unable to answer, his body still held in paralysis by the magician while smiled at him sweetly from the other end of the room.
"Mira, close the doors and have some of the servants bring me a stake, will you? I am going to take my pleasure with this one."
The young woman grunted, sweat beading her brow, "I am having enough trouble keeping him still as it is. He is very strong."
"Servants!" Lord Arath called out imperiously, "Bring me a stake!"
Turning back to his prey, the rapacious Northern noble smiled, "I have perfected this method over the years. You will be slowly impaled on the stake, which will be pushed up from your right foot through your body. You won't die until minutes after the other end of the stake comes out of your mouth, but your vocal cords will have long ceased to work."
Vladimir chuckled, then turned back to the empty hallway, "My stake! Obey me, you fools!"
Banehallow's face turned purple as the invisible hand keeping him paralyzed began squeezing.
"Who sent you, fool?" Vladimir's face oddly ressembled Abaddon's at such close range, "Was it my brother? That traitor that consorted with demons in order to murder his own wife and dishonor our family? I recognized you as soon as you set foot in my hall. Noone but a Scourge assassin carries around a sword with rust on the handle. Pillaged from some tomb, no doubt, eh, Mr Goldpane?"
"My lord!" a page entered at a run, his face pale and his hands empty, "We are under attack!"
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"Myrmidons, forward!"
Abaddon turned his head to see a large blue trident bearing monster slither beside him, smashing down his weapon into the red shield of a blood elf.
Cackling madly, the death knight turned back to the slaughter, slashing down at the tall elf that adroitly blocked the blow with the side of his shield, trying to pin it between his and his comrade's shield.
Abaddon grinned and kicked out with his foot at his horse's head, the beast lunging forward in fright and impaling itself on the blood elf's long spear. The knight jumped as his horse fell on the surprised elf, crushing him beneath its weight. Drawing back his sword, Abaddon stabbed at the twitching corpse to finish the job, before turning back to neatly decapitate the elf locked in combat with the naga near him.
A particularly large fireball cast its shadow over the armies as it flew high and disappeared into Slardar's mystical wall of water. Something beyond had agitated the Alliance mages and they continued to send out magical attacks over the heads of the men and undead locked in brutal melee combat on the ground.
The ground shook and Abaddon looked up, slashing his way through his own soldiers to see the source of such noise.
Magnus waved his fellow tribesmen into a charge as he finally looked up from his slaughter to notice the grim line of lancers and horse archers now breaking out into a charge. A massive catapult stone crashed into the midst of Magnus' forces, sending heads and bones flying.
Abaddon turned from the cavalry battle to order his own forces forward, seeing the effect the myrmidons were having on the battlefront.
Still, there was something strange about the way the blood elves were falling back, the infantry behind them taking up their places as the crimson spearmen retreated. It was too rehearsed.
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Sir Galahad grunted in exhaustion as he retreated before his massive opponent. While rain slashed down through the darkness of the North's early night, the enemy had crept up and suddenly appeared on the walltops, climbing up ladders gone unnoticed by the sentinels.
Galahad heard a brutish bray of pleasure as a spray of blood answered his attempt to block his enemy's huge weapon. The force of the axe's downward slash broke through the resistance his sword offered and dislocated his shoulder.
Dodging backwards, the knight leaped back up to hold his sword at arm's length, like he had been trained all his life to do, knowing he was fighting here not for glory or tourney prizes, but for his life agaisnt an opponent vastly stronger than himself.
Out of the corner of his life, he saw a dark figure slip past the defenders and up the stairs of the tower. A ray of moonlight caught him on the side, illuminating a tentacle before the mysterious being disappeared inside the tower.
A savage downward slash recalled him to battle, Galahad's sidestep allowing him to avoid the axe blow but not the iron tipped kick that followed. The steel tip of his opponent's boot dug into his side, touching something that uncomfortably felt like a rib-bone.
Down on one knee, Galahad parried a thrust and answered with a riposte of his own, narrowly grazing his opponent on the cheek.
The monster stepped back and moonlight shone down on him, his foul red face illuminated for the first time. As Galahad stumbled back to his feet, the crimson lips parted in a sadistic cackle and the mutated orc opened his left hand, to reveal a small bag of powder.
"Present from Lesale," the orc laughed, as the wind sent the acid directly into Galahad's face, burning into his eyes and visage.
Blind and mouthless, the knight never saw the blow that opened up his stomach and guts, before clanging footsteps anounced the demon was past, leaving his enemy to bleed out his life in unbearable agony.
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Screaming with the exhilaration of battle, Manfred the Stout stabbed down at the mammoth beast by his side. Keening in fury as the lances of the 3rd Spear Cavalry penetrated it, the magnataur toppled, its legs no longer able to bear its weight. Like wolves having just brought down a kill and eager for more, the lancers took back their long spears and rode on, horsemen keeping pace with the fleeing enemy and trying to take down as many in their flight as possible.
Though ferocious and terrifying, the magnataur horde had quickly broken as the full weight of the Alliance's best cavalry broke down upon it. It was a pity about the five hundred knights that had been crushed by the enemy's ambush, but now the magnataurs were so completely outnumbered that they didn't stand a chance. Their great leader had lost an eye to one of the seven hundred horse archers that even now sent volley after volley of arrows into the stampeding horde.
Leaving his spear in another magnataur, Manfred took out his axe, laughing with the joy of the kill as he continued to pursue the enemy, his comrades-in-arms right beside him, spears and swords bloody and getting bloodier.
If the magnataurs had used their energy for fighting and not running they might have taken out a good deal of horsemen, Manfred thought, for even now his horse was sweating and panting and the ones he was pursuing showed no indication of slowing down any time soon.
They were crossing an abandoned battlefield, something Manfred dimly recalled in the corner of his mind. Skeletal remnants of armoured spearmen littered the ground, but the magnataurs took a long detour around the center of the field, and so the dead did not have to suffer the additional degradation of being trampled by the four-legged horde.
Manfred remembered the battle now, something his father had spoken of. It had been near Elthop Forest that a blood elf insurrection had destroyed the command of the local duke. The battle had marked the end of Alliance sovereignty in this region and even the blood elves soon left, the land being too poor to till and heavy superstition discouraging any attempts.
The battle had been a disaster for the Duke of Northreign, whose heavy cavalry had been utterly demolished by the unexpected discipline and intelligence shown by the young blood elf commander. Manfred didn't remember his name, but the elf had later become a mercenary and was reputedly still alive.
Nearing the cover of the temperate forest beyond, Manfred smiled. The magnataurs were hopelessly cornered. If they ran into the forest, they'd get stuck and cut to pieces. If they turned to fight, they'd be massacred. And if they tried to flee back across the battlefield, well, the horse archers would whittle them down.
And the caltrops. That was the name of the battle. Caltrops' Field, as the veterans called it, because the blood elf had littered the area with those disgusting inventions, the six-spiked balls which lamed horses and utterly broke charges. No wonder the magnataurs had not gone through the middle of the field.
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The real reason the magnataurs had not plowed through the center of the field manifested itself in the back, unnoticed even by the horse archers that roved around the mass of lancers and magnataurs. There were no caltrops, as Manfred had suspected, they were all gone. There were, however, dead spearmen. Lots of them.
Xardas licked his lips. If anyone thought there was no tactical use for necromancy apart from simply pushing the ranks, Slardar had just disproved that notion. Xardas and three other hand-picked masters of the art quietly began summoning while the cavalry beyond continued tearing around the field, oblivious to the incantations going on behind them.
There was a bellow when Magnus reached at last the forest, and turned to fight. His brothers turned as well, no longer any trace of fear or desperation in their eyes, but readiness for a battle they expected to win.
The Alliance troops were taken aback at first by this unexpected stand, but they still had the numerical advantage. Warcries emanating from helmeted lips, they plunged into the fray, but quickly retreated.
Xardas had carefully placed all the best pikes he could scavenge from the battlefield near the forest, as per his commander's orders, and in his stand, Magnus had seized the very best one for himself. Now, with twice the range of anything the Alliance lancers could produce, the magnataurs formed a circle and with long thrusts kept their enemy at bay.
For a few moments the horsemen milled around, unsure of what to do, and then their leader reasserted control. The lancers dismounted, forming their own wall of spears, while behind them the horse archers began sending volleys into the massed magnataurs.
Then one of the humans turned and his eyes widened. He had to catch his breath for a moment, and then he shouted in alarm. But it was too late.
Bone feet crunching, the undead blood elves charged into the back of the cavalry, horse archers turning in panic only to be spitted on the same spears and pikes that had defeated another army of Alliance cavalry. The lancers tried to remount, but Magnus's troops smashed into them with all the strength of a stampeding herd of buffalo. Caught between hammer and anvil, the humans quickly vanished under a sea of blood and horse entrails.
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Salah-al Dar looked down at the battlefield, watching Abaddon's and his own infantry push back the enemy at a rapid pace. But unseen to those on the ground were the red pennants of the Quel'thalan Legion, retreating in too disciplined a rout to be anything but a feint.
"The Alliance commander is a fool. I can read his every move."
"My lord," an aide's eyes widened, "The Night Elves!"
The naga nodded, watching as the huntress horde broke from the cover of the trees where they had been hiding, straight for the now completely exposed left flank of the undead army. The little black spots, bounding across the clearing, were too many to count, but Salah-al Dar's smile only grew.
"Meat wagons loaded?"
"Yes sir."
The general watched the night elves cover the distance between them and the infantry battle. If they continued at such a pace, it would be about a minute before Abaddon found himself fighting on two fronts.
"Fire on my signal."
"Yes sir!"
The huntresses continued to near, the last of the horde now safely several hundred feet from the forest's cover. When there was only about one third of the clearing between the vanguard of the huntress horde and the undead army Salah-al Dar let his hand drop.
"Fire!" he bellowed.
The scream as the two meat wagons seemed to launch a thousand minuscule pebbles in the area was heard all around the battlefield, tiny projectiles shrieking through the air and raining down on the black mass of the huntresses.
A few huntresses fell to the initial volley, but the charge did not stop. The distance between them and the undead continued to decrease.
This time the aim of the meat wagons was completely off, the tiny projectiles falling down in front of the huntresses instead of on them. The area between them and the undead was sprinkled with little black dots.
The sleek black panthers roared as they broke out into a charge, close enough to see the individual colors of the skeletons and naga ahead...and toppled. Night elves were sent flying into the air as the panthers tripped and stumbled, the ones in the back crashing into the ones up front.
The hail of tiny caltrops now descended behind the huntresses, the panther-laming impediments called caltrops now completely surrounding the elves.
"Now!" Salah-al Dar yelled, "Longbowmen, fire!"
The night elves made perfect targets for Abaddon's well-trained archers. Unable to run, they could only whimper as the black cloud of arrows fell down among them.
Night elves tried to flee on foot, only to step on the steel tip of a caltrop, impaling their foot on the unseen blade. Limping or crawling, they desperately tried to escape the volleys of arrows crashing down on them, to no avail. Without their speed, the bulky panthers were mown down by the archers, and the dark black of the huntresses' cloaks clearly marked them out on the green killing field for their machine-like butchers. With emotionless discipline, the undead longbowmen continued to fire off volley after volley, skeleton faces showing no reaction to the complete massacre of the enemy they were carrying out.
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Banehallow blinked as a gigantic hand broke through the wood of the great doors, the blackened six fingers groping around the doorway to find the handle.
Lord Arath gaped for a second, then stabbed at the hand with his sword, turning around as the monstrous appendages retreated.
"Go, find my niece and get her out of here!" he shouted to his diviner, who nodded and ran out, letting fall the paralyzing curse Banehallow was under.
"And as for you..." Abaddon's brother turned to Banehallow, "I will..."
The door exploded in a spray of wooden shards, the dust clearing a second later to reveal the huge half-orc Mogul Khan, striding through the debris with all the ease of a necromancer in a graveyard. His lips curled in a sadistic smile, he dropped the head of the servant boy Arath had sent out mere minutes ago and advanced on the Northern lord.
"Filthy Scourge," Arath panted, and Banehallow had to admit, the lord did not lack bravery, "I will see you burning in hell."
The Axe grinned, "Better say hi to my dad then," and with surprising agility he leaped forward and rammed his axe into his enemy, whose sword shook with the force needed to block the attack.
"My lord," the bleeding, shuffling corpse Banehallow recognized as Lion murmured, "I will finish him."
Bringing his knee up under Arath's sword, the captain of the Culling Blade knocked his opponent backwards, but before he could bring his axe down in a decapitating slice, a red beam slashed into the Northerner, incinerating him.
"I...did...not...ask...for...HELP!" Mogul's livid face was so red that when he sliced off Lion's head the blood could not even be differentiated from his skin color. Still hacking at the remains of the headless, dead Lion, it took a while for Mogul to realize Banehallow was with him.
"So, Scourge dog," he leered, "Been having a real picnic with the humans, have you? You wouldn't" he smiled as disarmingly as he could, "know anything about where my Necronomicon is, would you?"
Don't say anything and don't move Banehallow.
"Aw now that's such a shame, the mighty Scourge dog, the Lich King's greatest assassin, and he can't manage to kill a single, puny human," the Axe's crew laughed appreciative at their Captain's wit.
"Oh, you're paralyzed. I'm so sorry, I'd like to help," Mogul Khan grinned amiably, "In fact I think I can. If you can't move, we'll transport you back out to the ship and bring you back to your Lich King."
The other pirates waited expectantly for the punch line.
"Unfortunately," the Axe laughed, "cargo space is so limited we can only bring back your head!"
The axe grazed Banehallow's cheek, the clean swoosh behind him of Mogul Khan's failed decapitation all the encouragement the assassin needed to launch himself past the bemused pirates and into the hall beyond.
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The horn for retreat was everywhere, impossible to ignore and harder still to supress. The cavalry had been demolished, the night elves obliterated, the mages were still launching their stupid fireballs at the wall of water and some gigantic succubus had appeared in the middle of the archers.
That and the horn of retreat had sent the infantry into a panic, and it was with a deep sadness that the Spellbreakers' commander watched the humans lose all discipline and drop their weapons and armour, forming a general, untidy rout.
Of course, nothing more could be expected of lesser races. As Silencer, Nortrom had seen it again and again, and everytime, he was reminded of the scathing words which Hawksmith had used to describe the humans. Pathetic, mewling swine, he had written, fit only to grovel at the feet of their inbred monarch, their might founded on the exploitation of races far more ingenious and moral than their own.
Had not Hawksmith been right? Without the dwarves and the blood elves, their serfs in all but name, what were the humans but a kingdom of corruption and inefficiency, a land ruled by strife and stupidity.
With a nod of his head, Nortrom acknowledged his second-in-command's unspoken question. Returning his signal with a vigorous nod, the Death-Bringer raised his right hand and moved forward with his legionaries towards the advancing Scourge forces.
Thinking of Hawksmith was dangerous of course. The mad blood elf conqueror had been caught between the Alliance on one side and the Scourge on the other, and with his inevitable downfall, the Alliance had named it treason to even read his writings (which Nortrom had done so only to gain insight into the mind of one of the world's greatest tacticians).
Getting closer to the screaming skeletons, Nortrom could now see the skulls of his enemies. With a wave of revulsion, he recognized some of the elongated pallid faces as those of raised blood elves.
There was little need to tell the Spellbreakers what to do. Endless drills every day had formed them into a machine that needed only to be winded up, pointed at the enemy, and then released.
While the few blood elf archers with him could not produce the same amount of arrows the undead longbowmen could, those they did send out did not miss, like the Scourge arrows that clattered on the huge shields of the blood elf spearmen.
"Line up!" Nortrom shouted, watching the imposing behemoths of the front ranks (at least several heads taller than either the humans that ran past them, oblivious to their sacrifice, or the elven archers that shot arrows safely from the cover of their melee comrades' shields) form up into a shield wall, the large bronze plates making them nearly invulnerable to the Scourge marksmen. Behind every two or three Spellbreakers was a mage or an archer, sending out projectiles at the approaching skeleton horde.
Nortrom's eyes widened as he saw a gigantic spiral of firey magic appear from behind the nagas' wall of water. Protectively, he raised his shield as the orange wave swept towards him, incinerating the lead skeletons and the slower humans still trying to escape their pursuers.
The wave washed over the Spellbreakers' harmlessly, but Nortrom was not the only one who saw the painful grimaces which appeared on the faces of the Legion's mages, or the slight crackle of defensive magic on the enchanted shields of the legionaries. Then the wave was past and flying straight towards the mass of bodies that was the human army in full rout.
Nortrom had to give some credit to the Alliance's mages for the defenses they threw up against this unstoppable Scourge horror. Shields and wards popped up, shielding a those closer to the command tent against the fire (those still caught in full retreat between the Spellbreakers and Arlitan Konig vanished underneath a sea of red and yellow).
The Silencer seemed to be the only one who noticed where the wave was heading, oblivious to the mages that watched it pass overhead, congratulating themselves on protecting their commander and the bulk of his forces against this magical attack which in reality was never meant to assassinate Konig.
The fire hit Elthop Forest with a resounding explosion and a simultaneous screech of pain from several hundred animals and birds. Nortrom bent his head in respect as the screams intensified as the fire moved further into the forest, burning up the night elf army stationed there to protect the Alliance from a pincer attack.
An arrow clattered against Nortrom's shield, and he turned waving his command halberd imperiously. Catching his Death-Bringer's eye he nodded towards the screaming, panicking humans milling around near the burning forest, unsure whether to run into the inferno or wait for the Scourge to catch up and kill them.
For a lesser corps, it would have been difficult to retreat from a full-blown engagement with Scourge melee forces, but the Spellbreakers had no such difficulty. Stabbing with their long spears, the blood elves retreated slowly with synchronized step, marching backwards, mages propping up the wounded with healing spells and archers smoothly loosing arrows while moving back.
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Darkterror moved through the castle at a feverish pace, locked in a race with his unknowing captain to find the Necronomicon. Already he had caught one mage, not even pausing to savour her pain as he let his tentacles wander over her face, sucking out her life and resistance.
In the distance he heard a man's scream of pain. Good, he thought, that meant Mogul was still behind him. He was winning the race.
The rain still pounding down on the abandoned ramparts of the castle, Darkterror ran through the sheen of grey and blue, to the farthest tower, where he was sure the mage had been heading when he caught her.
Looking back, he was pleased to see that neither Mogul nor anyone else from the Culling Blade had even seen him, as far as he was in front of them.
Smashing down the meager wooden door with his club, Darkterror stumbled through, almost bumping into a wide-mouthed guard, who dropped his sword and turned to run.
The pirate smiled as his hand caught the human around the throat, and squeezed, his victim's kicking and punching becoming weaker and weaker.
His eyes skimming around the room, Darkterror made sure there was nothing even remotely ressembling a book before he ascended the stairs to the other rooms of the tower.
The next two rooms had nothing but children's books and games, but the last had a human occupant. A human girl that looked strangely familiar opened her mouth to scream as Darkterror entered, but his hand covered her mouth before she could, and he had swept her up before she could even think to resist.
Growling, he walked out of the room, his hostage still in his arms, and with his facial tentacles opened the trapdoor that led to the roof of the tower. Letting go of the child's mouth in order to hoist himself up, Darkterror almost laughed to see, far beneath him, a red dot battling on one of the castle ramparts.
Grabbing the child by the throat, the pirate hoisted her up and let her see how high up she was. Even drenched with freezing rain in her white nightgown, the girl felt nothing but abject terror as her wide eyes alternated between a faceless monster and a deep drop to her death.
"Where is the Necronomicon?" Darkterror growled, letting the girl down when he realized he was choking her.
Speechless, the girl opened and closed her mouth but no sound came out.
Angered, Darkterror slapped her across the face, nearly sending her skidding off the edge of the roof, "Where is the Necronomicon?"
"Da...Da..." but the girl could say no more.
"All right then," Darkterror picked her up and held her at arms length by the scruff of her gown over empty space, "Last try, where is the Necronomicon?"
The girl stared down at the muddy ground so far below her and her first attempt to speak came out as a pitiful mewling sound. The second time though, her words were more coherent.
"Father took it!"
And then Darkterror realized why the girl seemed familiar. He grinned at the girl being strangled by her gown and let go.
"Thank you," he whispered to the child still too stunned to scream as she plummeted through the air.
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Traxex's eyes widened as she took in the scene before her. Acrid smoke drifted across from the burning forest on the other side while a circle of necromancers chanted and raised their arms in unison. She could see, beyond a dark portal and a circle fo naga holding up a wall of water, crimson pennants slowly moving backwards, while black shapes swarmed around them like ants.
She had hoped to make her appearance in the Alliance camp after having scouted out the enemy, but the sounds of battle had drawn her past a horde of magnataurs and horsemen locked in combat and here, where she lay behind the enemy lines, witness to this horrifying destruction of the Alliance forces on the field.
Her eyes followed the movements of the necromancers and she saw now there was a sense to it, as the fire on the other side changed direction as the mages waved their arms. She squinted across the field at the fire and saw now where it was heading, cutting across the forest to surround the Alliance in a circle of burning forest, destroying any hope of escape.
"Not today, you bastards," Traxex fit an arrow to her bow and sighted down the length of the shaft at the nearest necromancer aiming straight for his red-tattooed neck before letting go.
The circle collapsed and the necromancers tumbled headfirst into unconsciousness. Traxex looked up to the other side, where she smiled to see the crimson pennants slowly moving back towards the part of the forest still untouched by fire, now joined in their fight by the high mages and elite guard from Arlitan Konig's command while the rest of the army fled to safety through this last escape route.
Traxex thought momentarily of trying to take out as many unconscious necromancers as possible, but the pounding of mammothlike feet heading straight for her decided her. Melting back into the trees, her light feet carried her through bushy forest and leafy overgrowth with ease.
A putrid odor stopped her in her tracks and she turned, terrified to see some Scourge horror behind her.
The ghost had the dessicated face of a long-dead corpse, ragged black robes shimmering around darkened flesh. A skeletal hand grasped a long, silvery staff, held at its side in the manner of a mage. There was an aura of pale light emanating from the ghost's entire body, as if to illuminate its deathly features.
Traxex backed away slowly, but the Reaper-like figure made no move towards her. After a few moments, it's cracked teeth seemed to open in a smile, and then the apparition turned and walked away, straight into the forest.
Traxex stared, uncomprehending, and then turned to walk away, too.