Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Blasted Lands
A crumbling desert of red clay stretches beneath a storm-tossed sky, twisting with colors familiar and alien. Jagged streaks of lightning flash and crack on the horizon, the boom of thunder audible across the land. The air is at least as damp as it is in the Swamp of Sorrows, and much hotter. Yet the moisture comes from no visible source. No pools or bogs fester in the wastes. The Blasted Lands are intolerably humid, but a traveler can easily die of thirst. Only a paltry handful of hardy thorn bushes and weeds survive in the rocky earth.
There are a few signs, besides the humidity, that the Blasted Lands was once the teeming swamp called the Black Morass, only the remains of black and hollow trees sticking up at odd angles, their roots calcifying into the ground. It was in that land that the orcs of the Horde first poured into Azeroth. The swamp dried up over time, the essence of Draenor bleeding into this world. The Dark Portal still stands in the southern reaches of the Blasted Lands, hurling arcane and infernal energy into the cursed realm.
My first destination was Nethergarde, situated in the northeastern mountains. The hardened clay barrens go on with little in the way of variety. Few live in the Blasted Lands today, but orcish villages and base camps covered the once-swampy land like a pox. At one point I spotted the broken remains of a small adobe house, built in the rounded and organic style of the First War's Horde.
Where sapient beings have fled, animals remain: small numbers of monstrous boars roam the waste, somehow sustaining themselves in the dying environment. Bony spikes cover their hulking bodies, and some specimens are sheathed in translucent flames that do not mar the flesh. They may not be mutants at all, and instead be natural pigs from Draenor. If the latter is the case, I shudder to think what the Draenor equivalent of bears or dragons might resemble.
The path to Nethergarde goes through the mountains, which are low and easy to scale. Alliance forces destroyed the structure housing the Dark Portal in the last battle of the Second War. Much to their chagrin, the portal itself remained. The wound in the skin of reality had become too terrible to heal. Rumors of an infinite army of orcs waiting on the other side spread like wildfire among the exhausted troops, sowing fear in even the most hardened soldiers.
Unfortunately, one of the most widespread beliefs was that the Kirin Tor were entirely capable of sealing the rift, yet chose not to because they wished to keep it open for experimentation. This led to a regiment of Stromgarder infantry foolishly attempting to force the Kirin Tor to close it at sword point. It failed, of course, though mercifully only the ringleaders were executed. Ironically, the rift was too small and unstable to be used at that point. Even so, it was quite possible for a new portal to be built around it.
Urging calm, the leaders of the Alliance elected to establish the fortress of Nethergarde, which was largely a united effort between Stormwind, Dalaran, and Gnomeregan. The Alliance staffed Nethergarde with some of the greatest mages and warriors in the world, and equipped them with cunning arcane devices.
Nethergarde was put to the test when Ner’zhul finally rebuilt the Portal. An army of orcs attacked the fortress, though this was only a feint. While Nethergarde was besieged, Ner’zhul somehow broke into the Royal Library of Stormwind and absconded with the Book of Medivh, a tome holding the secret to creating new rifts. Nethergarde repelled the invaders with relative ease. Soon after, the ill-fated Alliance Expeditionary Force went to Draenor in pursuit.
Two days of hard traveling brought me to Nethergarde. The landscape around the lonely keep is no cheerier than anywhere else in the Blasted Lands. A great mine, crowded with work crews, delves deep into the red mountains. Two soldiers in violet tunics, emblazoned with Dalaran’s Eye of Illumined, approached me.
“Are you from Stormwind?” asked one, who saluted me smartly.
“Not in an official capacity. I’m only a traveler.”
The soldier nodded. If he was disappointed, he did not show it.
“You need to be inspected before you enter Nethergarde. Stay here and we will return with a mage. Be warned that if you move forward, you will be killed. We shall return as soon as possible.”
As soon as possible turned out to at least be an hour. In the meantime I examined the extensive mine work. A few of the miners and engineers saw me, but none came near. The heat and humidity must have rendered the already exhausting work nearly intolerable.
The two soldiers finally returned, along with a robed woman who looked like a mage. I was slightly alarmed to see that the soldiers had their swords drawn.
“The swords are merely a precaution,” a soldier assured me.
The mage, whose bloodshot eyes told of long and sleepless nights, drew a dusty orb from the folds of her robe. She held it in front of my face, then lowered it and did the same to my sides and back.
“Welcome to Nethergarde. We had to make sure you were not tainted with demonic energies before we allowed you to enter. I am Drea Kasner.”
“I am Talus Corestiam, also a mage.” For a moment, I was sorely tempted to use my real name. I reconsidered at the last moment.
“Hm, we could use the skills of a mage here. Where were you trained?”
“As were many of our number. I myself was trained in Stromgarde, though by a Dalaranese mentor.” A fair number of mages had learned the Art outside of the Violet Citadel.
On the way up to the citadel I inquired about my old friends, Danner and Emette. Drea said that she did not think there were any mages by those names in Nethergarde, though I should ask one of the senior mages to make sure.
“What sort of ore is in that mine?” I asked, pointing to the wounded mountain slope.
“I do not know. And if I did know, I probably would not be allowed to say.” Drea spoke in the curt tone of someone who did not wish to engage in conversation.
Part of me hoped that the Dalaranese of Nethergarde would attempt to recapture the old nation’s elegance. Regrettably (though perhaps, necessarily), Nethergarde is quite utilitarian. Two squarish keeps and a tower dominate the space inside the walls, along with a multitude of other buildings that service the inhabitants.
Drea left me to my own devices. Unfortunately, much of Nethergarde is off-limits to visitors. There was no official place for me to stay, though they permitted me some room in a battered warehouse near the gate.
“We are paid well, though it’s scant comfort,” complained Callos, a blacksmith who repaired the equipment of the soldiers.
“How long have you been here?”
“Years. Seems like a lifetime. I’m afraid I’ve died and gone to Hell.” A look of horror passed over Callos’ weathered face, suggesting he at times believed it.
“You’re still in Azeroth, for better or worse.”
“I know. It is easy to forget. I fear these mages. Who knows what they are really doing? Mahar can’t watch everything all the time.”
“Mahar Ba?” I knew the name; he was a mage renowned for some of his theoretical writings back in Dalaran. I could have sworn I'd heard he was killed during the Third War.
“Indeed. He lives at the top of tower.”
The sound of harsh laughter came from a soldier walking outside the smithy, and Callos flinched. Then he kneeled on the floor and began whispering a prayer. He got up, his face red and covered in sweat.
“I can’t abide laughter any more. Every night we hear Kazzak laughing in the distance.”
“A great demon. It takes a week to walk to his land, yet when he cries out his challenge we hear it all the way here.”
“Has he ever attacked Nethergarde?”
“No. One day he will though. Or Teremus, the Devourer.”
“Who is that?”
“A black dragon. He roams the skies, destroying anyone he sees. The ogres attack, from time to time, though not as often as they used to. It’s the terror though, knowing that Kazzak is always lurking somewhere in the wastes. Great and unstoppable, I fear. That is why I sometimes believe we are in Hell.”
“What more can you tell me about Kazzak?”
“They say he first fell to this world in the Battle of Mt. Hyjal. The blood of a hundred warriors stains his body to this day. When his master died, he somehow got here. I wonder if he was attracted by the arcane. Demons sniff out the arcane, do they not?”
“Massive influxes of arcane energy can attract demons. But there are other places with a greater concentration of arcane energy than here, and they are not—”
“This is also close to the Dark Portal however. The mages care only for their research. They’ve brought death and damnation to us all. You are a mage; perhaps you could tell me what they plan?” His eyes narrowed with suspicion.
I excused myself from Callos’ company. I quickly detected a divide between the magic-users and those not familiar with the Art. Immense stress and fear can have an unpredictable effect on humankind. Though it can foster division, it more often forges a greater bond between individuals with shared experience. An enemy outsider is, at times, the perfect antidote for inner division. The fact that the soldiers and wizards of Nethergarde, presumably trained for great stress, had become so fragmented struck me as odd.
This should not be taken to mean that Nethergarde is undergoing civil war. Rather, it has polarized into two factions that work together but are increasingly distrustful. The laymen suspect the mages of having ulterior motives, or of not telling them the whole truth about the Blasted Lands. In turn, the mages speak of the soldiers and workers as falling under demonic sway, lacking the mental discipline to resist. There was some cause for concern. A year before I came, 30 soldiers had abandoned Nethergarde and joined a demon cult called the Shadowsworn.
I was able to find a roster of personnel at Nethergarde, and scanned it for names I remembered from my student days. A few were tantalizingly familiar, yet my memory of life was too distant to attach faces or personalities to those names. I was surprised to realize that I did not feel particularly disappointed. It was simply something to be accepted.
As Callos had said, the darkness of the night is sometimes interrupted by a hideous metallic voice booming over the sound of thunder. The taunt begins with a peal of laughter foul enough to inspire the faithless to pray. Then Kazzak challenges the defenders of Nethergarde, saying that his blade thirsts for blood.
A war band from the Dreadmaul ogre tribe attacked the mine on my second day in Nethergarde. The ogres lumbered along the rocky ridges near the mine and began throwing boulders at the people below. Three deaths, two miners and a soldier, were recorded. Five ogres were killed. Other than being better armed than most, they were not significantly different from any other tribe. I did not actually see the battle, only its aftermath.
That evening I spoke with Anruic Elsomar, a mage of advanced years. He had been present when Nethergarde was first built and stayed there ever since. We met in the first floor of Nethergarde’s tower.
“I was curious about why it is so humid here in the Blasted Lands. I haven’t seen any water, and it never rains,” I noted.
“I know. Hateful isn’t it? It always promises rain but never delivers. The reason is fascinating though. You see, the Blasted Lands are not quite the deserts of Draenor. The Black Morass still exists on some level. I suppose it is apt to say that the Blasted Lands have merely been superimposed over the Black Morass.”
“An effect of the Dark Portal then?”
“Everything here is.”
“Could it potentially spread?”
“Ah, well we are still looking into that. Current evidence says no. The Dark Portal is not really open. The rift is there, but no one can go through it. If it were to open in earnest it might spread.”
“Is there any chance of the Dark Portal reopening?”
“My boy, there is a chance for anything!”
“How do you keep this place operational? From my understanding there have not been any recent shipments from Stormwind.”
“The crown seems to have forgotten us. We’ve managed, though only with great discipline. We mages conjure our food. It’s foul stuff, but it fills the belly. Of course, the non-mages also need to eat and drink so we tried to teach them how to create sustenance with the arcane.”
While magic is not an inborn trait, as some believe, most individuals have such difficulty learning the basics that it is effectively impossible for them. These individuals may have potential, but are unable to really grasp the energies of the Twisting Nether. Even if they are able to use the fundamentals of magic, the increasing complexity of the higher levels of the arcane becomes much harder. Studies suggest that individuals with greater capacity for abstract thought tend to make better mages, though causation has never been proven.
“Did that work?” I asked.
“It did for a few. It’s nearly impossible to teach magic to adults who have never before dabbled in the Art. Others refused, and we nearly had an uprising when we tried to teach some of the soldiers.”
“They feared demonic influence?”
“Yes. The soldiers here are not as disciplined as they should be, I think. They’re a rabble. You’ve heard Kazzak, I’m sure.”
“He is rather predictable. We do know that some demons prefer to attack through more subtle means, whispering fear into the ears of the simple-minded and gullible. The Dreadlords they are called, sometimes known as the Nathrezim.”
“I am familiar with them.”
“I think there is a Dreadlord here weaving his machinations among the soldiers. He plants strange little seeds of fear in their empty heads, and waters the fear until it comes to full bloom. Light save us if that happens!” Anruic had become suddenly animated, his pale blue eyes bulging from his gaunt face.
“I see. Do you think it could also afflict the mages? To, um, spread fear?” I hoped I had not provoked him. Yet Anruic gave a sudden and ghastly smile.
“Oh come now, you’re a mage aren’t you? We have defenses against it. We’re too clever for some damnable Nathrezim.”
“That is good to know. So how do the non-magic users get food?”
“The gnomes set up a mushroom farm in the mountains, around a spring that feeds the Swamp of Sorrows. Frankly the mushrooms taste better than conjured food, though I suppose you have to like mushrooms to think that. It’s small, but enough of us can conjure food that it is able to keep us fed. Some hunting too. Watcher Mahar Ba has been communicating with the Steamwheedle Cartel to get food shipped here from Booty Bay via zeppelin, so in that respect things may get better.”
“Ingenious. Have you had any trouble with Stonard?”
“They raided some of the supply caravans, back when they still came. Other than that they haven’t caused any difficulty. Do you know why?”
“Thrall wants us here. We act as a buffer between the Twisting Nether and the rest of the world. If the demons attack, they’ll have to go through us before they get to Stonard, which is just the way the Horde wants it. Of course we don’t get any thanks from the damn greenskins, and this whole land is crawling with orcs that still serve demons.”
I was not sorry to leave Nethergarde. I felt tense simply walking through the place. I departed the day after I spoke with Anruic. I wished to see the infamous Dark Portal, though the people of Nethergarde warned that it was surrounded by demons. As usual, I elected to take my chances.
Six days passed as I traveled through the muggy, sodden air of the Blasted Lands. I drew closer to the endless lightning storm hovering over the Dark Portal. The bizarre and corrupted wildlife I saw in the north all but disappear in the lands closest to the rift. Strangely enough, I no longer heard Lord Kazzak’s laughter in the night. Apparently, only the poor wretches of Nethergarde hear his hateful voice.
I was twice nearly struck by lightning, which is so constant that the dark realm is filled with white flashes. The stream of thunder might have done serious damage to my hearing had I still lived. The lightning storms did not appear until after Draenor’s destruction. A Nethergarde soldier told me that, on the rare occasions when troops scouted around the Dark Portal, they wore earplugs and darkened goggles. Metal armor was out of the question.
Immense chunks of iron slowly rust in the desert, driven into the ground by some terrific force. I do not know where they came from, though I would guess that they are remnants of the original Dark Portal.
I finally reached a gigantic crater. From my vantage point on a crumbling ridge of clay I could just make out the Portal, wreathed in an unnatural darkness. It is a monolithic structure, the nightmarish chaos of the Twisting Nether playing endlessly within its boundaries. Aimless demon patrols march around the gate, looking for something that only they know how to find.
The savage felguards serve as the rank and file of the Burning Legion, and it is they who maintain vigil over the Dark Portal. They are clad in the hell-warped armor common to demons. The baroque and elaborate design of demonic armor should be quite impractical on the mortal plane. Somehow, the malice of the Twisting Nether makes their bizarre weapons gruesomely effective. Eyewitness accounts claim that the felguard are sown into their armor with golden threads that disintegrate upon the demon's death, though I did not get close enough to see this. Also present are felhunters, the fleshy, spike-covered hunting dogs of the Legion.
I did not stay for long in that bleak place. The oppressive dampness and foul, alien air nauseated even me. I began walking north without any particular goal in mind, driven only by a lonesome melancholy.
I had not gone far when I heard the sound of combat on a rocky slope leading down from the road. Cautiously, I went to investigate. I saw a felguard engaged in furious battle with a lone night elf warrior. The bodies of three slain felguards lay in a heap near the two combatants. Before I could do anything, the elf lashed out with his crescent-shaped blade and cut the felguard open. Blood that looked like molten metal sprayed from the massive wound and the demon fell without a sound. The elf turned; he was blindfolded, though I saw a pair of blue flames dancing behind the cloth around his eyes.
“You stink of death and the arcane,” he said, in a voice I could barely hear above the thunder. “Yet there is nothing of the demonic in you. I will not call you my enemy, unless you wish me to.”
His name was Veshlan Ash’kerai, once called Windleaf. Veshlan was of an order of night elf warriors called demon hunters, who wage an endless shadow war against the Burning Legion. I had not heard of them, and was curious to learn more. I accompanied Veshlan as we walked the road to the Tainted Scar, where he said his destiny lay in wait. Grim warnings stand at the sides of the road; the dried skin of dead warriors lashed to weathered skeletons. Veshlan did not speak until we made camp.
“What brings you all the way here?” I questioned.
“I could ask the same of you.”
“I am here to learn as much as I can about the world.”
“An interesting task. Do you enjoy your new immortality?”
“It has a number of advantages.”
“I thirst for the same. My entire race was robbed of its birthright. For us was eternity beneath the trees and stars. Now time slips through our fingers.”
“You cannot know what it is like to lose that.”
“I suppose not,” I said, trying to conceal my irritation. “I know little of the demon hunters. Could you tell me about them?”
“Our order is an ancient one, though I am new to their ranks. Do you know the story of the Sundering?”
“I know the basics.”
“Though it irks me to admit it, Illidan, the Betrayer, is in many ways responsible for our existence. Do you know of Illidan?”
“I know who he is, yes.”
“Illidan was not always a hated name. Once, it was respected. When the armies of the Burning Legion first began their corruption of the world, he fought them bravely. He slew a great warrior of the Doom Guard, a demon called Azzinoth. Illidan took the twin blades of Azzinoth and slaughtered many more of the demonic host.”
“These weapons were quite powerful, I take it.”
“Yes, but power was not what inspired us. Those were dark times and all but the most naive realized that extreme measures were necessary to save this world. Illidan received a fitting punishment for his crimes; none of us would deign to forgive him, and all of us would gladly kill him.”
“Essentially then, you turn the tools of demons against them? Are your swords also demonic in origin?”
“Yes, to both of your inquiries. The druids and priests shunned us from the beginning, and still do today. To them we are blasphemers, and some refuse to realize we bear no love for the Betrayer.”
“I’ve faced a rather similar attitude myself.”
“No, you have not. The demon hunters were outlawed for many years until High Priestess Tyrande finally took mercy upon us. She knew that the hunters suffered much in their battles against the satyrs and trolls. Our order is no longer persecuted, though we are forever doubted.”
“Why do you wear a blindfold?”
“The sights of the world distract us. While the druids dance in groves and Sentinels bask beneath the moon, we do not allow ourselves to be lulled into inaction by the beauty of this world. We cannot always see demons, but it is very rare that we cannot smell or hear their infernal auras. We hear shapes and movements, which is how we are able to make war.”
“Why did you become a demon hunter? Were you alive during the Sundering?”
“No. I was born many of your years ago. At least a thousand summers passed in my home on the slopes of Hyjal. I was a Tender of the Roots; trees and blossoms danced beneath my hands. Such joy, my Circle and I had. I can keenly remember the cool illumination of Elune’s beauty in the night sky. I think it would be a relief for my burning eyes to again feel it. That is past though.”
“My friends, those companions who joined me. Then, in less than a year it was all destroyed. The demons surged through Hyjal withering everything they touched! I lost everything, and stood at Mt. Hyjal in preparation for death. When the assurance of paradise is gone, how can one continue to live? Yet what finally happened? The destruction of Nordrassil by the druids! I would never have dreamed that.”
“It was then you became a demon hunter?”
“Not immediately. I was ready to die, yet instead I received a short and paltry life. What could I do in such little time, in mere centuries? My only option was to slay demons. I had never before regarded the demon hunters with anything but revulsion. Yet if the druids could destroy Nordrassil, then everything was cast into doubt. Many wished to join the demon hunters in the days after the Third War. Some in the order did not want so many new members. They thought our anger would lead us down Illidan’s path. As if any of us would think of imitating the Betrayer!”
“I take it that the new arrivals were eventually accepted?”
“A few were, with reluctance. I came under the tutelage of Loramus, a demon hunter who was once a Cantor of the Arcane, those who sang magic in the ancient cities for the entertainment of the multitudes. Loramus taught me well.”
“Did he send you here?”
“No. He thought it better that I watch over the night elven people. That was not possible for me. How could I care for them? They, who can barely comprehend that they are mortal? When the realization strikes, Fandral and Tyrande will see anarchy across Kalimdor.”
I wondered what Veshlan would have thought of Erelinde, back in Stormwind.
“I am here to kill Kazzak, or to die. Kazzak was the demon that destroyed my village, that slew my beloved. I cannot stand this existence where in a few centuries my life will end. I cannot have succor or joy with that dread inevitability in the back of my mind. If Kazzak falls to my swords, I shall have brief respite. If I fall to his, than I will rest.”
We reached the Tainted Scar the next day. It is a vast gray wound in the dying earth, swirling with dust and foulness. Lord Kazzak resided somewhere in that pit. Veshlan studied the hellish landscape, his jaw set.
“Veshlan, your skills in combat are remarkable. Few could fight four felguards and win, as you did yesterday. Think of how much more vengeance you could wreak if you fought alongside the armies of Darnassus.”
“Do not try to dissuade me wizard. My path is set. I warn you not to follow; none may fight by my side. If Kazzak is to fall, it will be to me alone.”
“Think about this, Veshlan! Even as a mortal you have more power than most elves could ever hope to have! Your skill is remarkable, don’t throw it away on this pointless quest!” I was exasperated with the demon hunter.
“Silence!” he roared. “Do not speak to me of elves, for you are not one. You have eternity.”
“Then join the Forsaken. Our Dark Lady was an elf in life, I don’t know of any night elf Forsaken but I’m sure the Apothecarium could arrange something.”
“A tempting offer. But not for me.”
I realized then that no logic would have an effect. He had made up his mind to die in pursuit of a selfish and impossible goal. Veshlan stood to his full height and hissed something in Darnassian. Then he charged into the darkness. With terrible suddenness, a massive felguard charged into sight, wielding a gigantic sword.
Veshlan howled in rage and dove into the demon, both his blades flashing. I fired a number of arcane bolts into the felguard, perhaps a redundant effort as Veshlan's blades had already split open the fiend's chest. I saw a bloody cut on Veshlan’s side; he had not come through that battle unscathed. He turned to me, scowling.
“I told you to leave, wizard. Do so before I kill you myself.”
I said nothing in response. Veshlan turned and disappeared into the shadows.
A cacophonous symphony wakened me from light slumber. The sun never makes itself visible over the Blasted Lands, though the clouded skies had begun to lighten. Hollow drum beats, whining flutes, and jangling bells joined with joyous shouts and praises. I looked to the east and saw a column of figures prancing towards me, like revelers on their way to a festival.
They were puzzling in their variety. Many were orcs, yet I spotted a number of humans, trolls, and even a few Forsaken. As they got closer I saw a goblin woman among their number. The procession continued in my direction. They did not seem to be hostile, but I still prepared myself for a fight.
In a minute they surrounded me in a loose circle, some of them playing recklessly on their instruments. One of them, an emaciated troll in a bright red hat, blew his flute in front of my face, dancing and staring dumbly at me. Then an orc walked towards me and the obnoxious troll retreated, still playing. The orc was massive even by the standards of his race. Dust and clay caked his skin and his robe was a tattered, multicolored mess. Easily the most bizarre feature was his headpiece, a crude wood-and-cloth figure of an obese, smiling demon with its tail wrapped around the orc’s brow.
“Good morning, my dead brother!” he bellowed.
“Good morning,” I said in response.
“What brings you here, to the Blessed Plains?”
“Splendid! Would you like to walk with us as we celebrate the many glories of the Angel that Speaks With the Voice of a Thousand Friends?”
At his words, the tempo of the drumbeats suddenly increased, and some of the mob drew weapons.
“I suppose I could, for a little while.”
“While you are with us, your name is the Ragged Eye of the Enlightened! I am the Red Face that Smiles. Onwards!”
A bizarre cheer went up from the others and we began traveling north. I marveled at the energy possessed by the celebrants, who continued playing their instruments and singing all through the day. By noon, I was convinced that their endurance stemmed from a most unwholesome source. While it was understandable in the Forsaken among their number, such constant activity should have been impossible for those who still breathed. The Red Face that Smiles sometimes shouted nonsense at the sky for minutes at a time without taking a breath.
The exception to this was the goblin woman. She was dressed much differently than the others, in simple, practical garb not rotting from neglect. Also, she quickly became exhausted. She requested that the procession stop several times, yet they ignored her. When she made an attempt to leave an orc blocked her path, grabbed her arms, and danced her to the middle of the crowd. Frantically she pulled herself away.
“I take it you are not a member of this group?” I said to her.
“No! Are you?”
“I should say not. Who are they?”
“The Shadowsworn, a local demon cult. I need to get out of here, I can’t keep going like this!”
“I can carry you, if you’d like.”
“Um, I’ve got some stuff back at my camp, I can pay you back then,” she said, her voice unsteady.
“You don’t need to—”
“It’d be wrong if I didn’t!”
“We’ll concern ourselves with that later. What’s your name?”
“Spirra Sprangelfrazz. I’m a surveyor for the Steamwheedle Cartel. My zeppelin is back there. We have to get back to it.”
Spirra’s small size allowed her to fit in my backpack, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. She soon fell into an exhausted slumber.
Even the Shadowsworn eventually grew tired. At around sunset they abruptly stopped at the southern base of a large mountain. They let out a discordant cheer before falling to the clay ground. Some of them fell asleep instantly. I examined the feet of one of the human cultists; his soles were scraped raw.
The Red Face That Smiles passed out bowls holding sickly vegetables mixed with raw meat, greedily devoured by the cultists. Spirra, who returned to some degree of awareness, refused to eat the stuff. It seemed like a wise decision on her part. The Forsaken cultists, who had less need of rest, stood watch and prevented escape.
We began moving again at night even though it was too dark for most of the cultists to see anything. Not all of the cultists stood back up. Some lay dead of exhaustion and exposure. Their brethren appeared unaware of the fact, and continued making merry.
The Shadowsworn walked to the west. At midmorning, we came to a crude camp set up in front of a pass winding up into the mountains. More of what I took to be the Shadowsworn were there. Though they appeared to be in better condition than my captors, they too were horrendously dirty. The Red Face that Smiles raised his arms.
“We have brought more of the faithful!” he shouted.
A cacophony of animal noises came from the assembled Shadowsworn, followed by a chaotic rush of drum beats.
“Ragged Eye of the Enlightened, Weeping Blood in the Endless Heart, come forward to your new masters!” the cultist said to us, a maddened grin on his face.
Spirra (whom I took to be Weeping Blood in the Endless Heart) was again awake. I tried to find some avenue of escape, but none was available.
“Perhaps you could tell me more of your masters. You have not said anything about them yet,” I said, trying to stall for time.
“All will be revealed, Ragged Eye of the Enlightened. Let us ascend to the Altar of Storms, and we shall speak.”
The Red Face that Smiles walked up the path, staggering from side to side like a drunk, followed by the hideous whine of his congregation’s flutes. The Altars were common sights during the Second War, built around fragments of the Runestone of Caer Darrow. I thought they had all been destroyed.
“When the steel armies fell upon us we feared all was lost,” explained the Red Face that Smiles. “Yet I heard hope in the winds of the Beyond! It called us here, those who dabbled in strange things, and we called ourselves brothers. What difference is there between human and orc, dead and living? We are all friends to the Shining Legion, the Manifest God! Surely you know this?”
“The Shining Legion? You mean the Burning Legion?”
“Do not say those words!” he screamed. “Only the Blinded speak of them as a Burning Legion! Demons are Angels! In their majestic field we shall all have a place, we shall all be carried by their blessings to worlds uncounted. That is why we are so happy. We do not need to concern ourselves with the fears of the Blinded for we are no longer the Blinded. Ner’zhul was mistaken. The Shining Legion are not tools of the Horde, the Horde and Alliance both are to be part of the Legion. We will be Legion. Ner’zhul was wise, I do not deny this. But he did not know enough. The Shadow Council can only see some of the truth. Fear not, they shall see as we do, soon enough.”
“What are you planning to do at the Altar of Storms?” I demanded.
“We shall become Legion there!” he yelled, barely audible over the shrieking orchestra behind him. The Shadowsworn danced as they moved, frenetically throwing their limbs in the air with no sense of direction or reason. I got ready to run. Death is better than damnation.
As if they read my thoughts, bulky Shadowsworn enforcers ran to surround me. A nightmarish keening arose from the cliffs at either side. Shadowsworn cultists yelped and chanted, groveling in pits of gravel, mortifying their skin.
“Can you do anything?” hissed Spirra.
“I’m open to suggestions.”
Then we stood before the Altar of Storms, a great slab of gray stone that sucked heat and life from the world. The air was suddenly dry and ice-cold. A pentagram glowed in the circle, and three giant statues of robed figures stood over the central altar. The altarpiece itself was a thing of nightmare, carved from a dragon’s excised spine. Skulls and candles (somehow lit despite the cold) lay in chaotic piles around the altar. Mercifully we stopped before having to step on that cursed surface.
“Let us hear the Angel that Speaks With the Voice of a Thousand Friends!” exclaimed the Red Face That Smiles.
The Shadowsworn fell silent. There was a disturbance in the air above the altar. Dark colors coalesced into a roughly anthropoid shape, though I saw that the figure had dark wings. Finally, an imperious dreadlord stood in the middle of the pentagram. Silver armor spiraled across his body and runes of horrific beauty gleamed in the fabric of his wings. Golden flames appeared around his hooves.
“Ah my friends, I am glad to see you again,” he said, in a voice that was indeed like thousand-strong choir, each voice as clear as crystal.
“The Angel!” shrieked the multitudes.
“Do not fear me, for I am not a cruel angel. Yet I sense some here are terrified of my presence.” The dreadlord fixed his eyes on me. “You and the goblin, my Ragged Eye of the Enlightened, my Weeping Blood of the Endless Heart, why do you fear? You need not be here if you do not wish.”
The Shadowsworn began to dance, their faces blank. I tried to think of something to say.
“Be at peace. The rage of the Legion is peace, for once it is accepted, everything is decided. I hate the worlds of the Titans, yet do I seem troubled?” he asked.
“You do not,” I said. “If I need not be here, than I think I shall take my leave.” I was about ready to bolt.
“See my gifts first. Then go on your way, and revel in hatred. Most of your kind are quite adept at that.”
The dreadlord rose several feet into the air and bade the Shadowsworn come forward. Only a few did, among their number the Red Face that Smiled. The rest continued their dance, the stiff movements making them seem like marionettes. The dreadlord held up his left hand. A green-tongued mouth slavered in the palm, and it spoke in the sound of a hundred tiny silver bells approximating words.
“I am so happy to have you with me. The Burning Legion,” the mouth smiled as he spoke those words, “is always open.” None of the Shadowsworn heard him use the hated term of Burning Legion, or perhaps he could use it with impunity.
The pentagram suddenly turned a deep, angry red. A serpentine coil of crimson light rose up from the circle like a living thing and spiraled around the altar. Joyful shouts arose from the cultists nearest the demon. Unseen force lifted them bodily into the air, putting them in slow orbit around the Dreadlord.
Then their figures were wrenched out of shape, limbs twisting and turning red, ripped by bony blades and burning incisions. They screamed and cried though not in agony or fear. A burning pentagram, a twin to the one on the altar, appeared in the sky above, pulling the transformed Shadowsworn towards it, their unrecognizable bodies changed into masses of demon flesh.
Not wishing to see any more I turned and ran down the path, away from the Altar of Storms. A few Shadowsworn approached me with drawn weapons, their features fixed in placid smiles. Then the dreadlord, the same as the one who resided over the blasphemous ritual, walked out of the air beside me. He raised his right hand, a blood-flecked red mouth set in its palm.
“Let them go. They are not ready for us yet,” it said, speaking in a voice that sounded like iron being wrenched apart.
The Shadowsworn lay down their weapons and bowed. The dreadlord smiled, and stood aside to let me pass. I broke into a run, still ready to cast a spell to defend myself though it turned out to be unnecessary.
“Are we out of there?” asked Spirra. She had covered her eyes with her hands.
The clay wastes of the Blasted Lands took us in, and dreadful though they were, nearly anything was better than the Altar of Storms. I conjured some food and water for Spirra who insisted on paying for them. I accepted the six copper pieces she gave me, mostly to put her at ease.
Though tired and shaken, Spirra led me to her zeppelin. Spirra explained that as a surveyor, her job was to examine regions and determine if they could become profitable to the Steamwheedle Cartel.
“There isn’t really anything here that’s worth much, materially. We might be able to make a decent amount of coin trading with Nethergarde though.”
“How many times have you been here?” I asked.
“This is my third time. I told Survey Manager Gimbozz that there wasn’t anything more to see in this place, I covered everything in the first two trips! The bastard sent me here anyway and I nearly get killed. At least I’ll be able to get some hazard pay off of this.”
We made it to the zeppelin without incident. It was a peculiar sight, tethered to the branch of a dead tree and floating quite a ways off the ground. A rope ladder dangled from the basket, which was about the size of a rowboat. Large packs, filled with food, supplies, and sand, hung over the edges of the vessel. They were meant to weigh down the zeppelin so that it did not drift too high.
Spirra made some quick inspections to ensure everything was in working order. When that was done we both climbed up to the zeppelin. Spirra untied the tether and pulled it back up, able to use it almost like a lasso. The goblin then turned a crank and I felt a brief surge of arcane energy as the propeller in the back came to life.
Soon we were moving, drifting through the strange skies of the Blasted Lands. The jagged mountains separating us from the jungles of Stranglethorn lay ahead. In the distance, I could see little patches of green on the rocky slopes, growing in defiance of the Dark Portal’s corruption.