Monday, June 8, 2009
Shadowmoon Valley: Part 2
As the seat of the Illidari regime, eastern Shadowmoon Valley languishes under the Betrayer’s lawless rule. The Illidari fight with the desperation of cornered animals, so far repelling the incursions of the Burning Legion. Despite this, their influence wanes with each passing day. Few things in life are inevitable, but the Black Temple’s fall may be among them.
In terms of lost lives, the recent Battle of Eclipse Point surely ranks with the Siege of Blackrock Mountain and the Battle at Hyjal Summit. The warlords of the Burning Legion threw a massive army at the Illidari fortress of Eclipse Point, south of the Hand of Gul’dan. Kael’thas, still aligned with Illidan at the time, led the defenders.
The battle raged for three hellish days. Mobs of demons rampaged up the slopes, clashing with battle-maddened fel orcs and howling Broken. Sin’dorei magisters unleashed horrendous destruction on the Legion armies. Illidari propagandists probably exaggerate when they claim that fifty Legion troops died for each Illidari, but it may not be that far from the truth. The rate could have been a hundred to one, or even a thousand; it makes no difference.
The Legion grew tired and decided to retreat, prolonging the doom of the Illidari. Perhaps Kael’thas then realized the futility of Illidan’s cause, and began making plans to save himself and his people. Eclipse Point still guards the southern pass into the heart of Illidari territory, the second line of defense after the small and isolated fortress of Illidari Point, west of Wildhammer.
While Illidari armies guard against large-scale invasions, the Betrayer is quite vulnerable to more subtle approaches. Both the Scryers and the Aldor exploited this weakness and established reasonably secure footholds behind enemy lines. So far, aside from a few tentative attacks on the Scryers’ Sanctum of the Stars, Illidan has done little to hinder them.
I did not plan to explore much beyond the Sanctum of the Stars. Illidari territory is fantastically dangerous by all accounts, and no amount of guile or subterfuge would grant me access to the Black Temple. All in all, I thought it a rather anticlimactic end to my sojourn in Outland. Fortunately, I ran into a much more promising opportunity.
I trudged on the road south of the Hand of Gul’dan, the volcano’s demonic light a constant in my vision. Decimated draenic towns slowly succumb to the ash, burned away to the verge of nothingness. Abandoned Illidari blockades still guard the road, crude wood and stone fortifications falling into dust. I figured that the commanders relocated the soldiers at these blockades to more strategic areas, like Eclipse Point or Baa’ri. Aside from a few mutant beasts foraging for food, I saw no signs of life.
A dull blue light in the sky, barely distinguishable from the suffocating ash clouds, caught my attention on the fifth day. Clearly an animal or vehicle, it careened wildly, growing larger as it moved. Taking shelter in a nearby trench I peered over the edge to get a better look. Soon I saw majestic wings and a long neck ending in a draconic head. A dragon! Yet it was not from any Flight I recognized. Colored a dark blue and strangely ethereal in composition, I began to wonder if it was truly a dragon at all. Maybe it was simply a native creature that resembled a dragon. While Deathwing had brought a number of his draconic minions to Draenor, few had survived the wrath of the Gronn. Besides, what I saw was certainly not a black dragon.
Whatever the nature of the thing, I could tell something distressed it. The creature writhed in the air, banking sharply from side to side. Then it swooped low to the ground, picking up speed. I saw the distorted red figures on its back: fel orcs. The dragon disappeared behind a ridge, and I heard the sound of its landing followed by an eerie cry.
I jumped from my hiding place, scrambling towards the source of the sound. Shouts in distorted Orcish picked up, audible over the keening wail. A massive red body suddenly flew up into the air, arms and legs flailing wildly as it rose and fell, crashing into ground near me. Blood streaming from a dozen cuts, the fel orc lifted himself up without a second thought, his beady red eyes focusing on me. I did not give him a chance to attack, slowing him with a cone of cold followed by a volley of arcane missiles. Already wounded, the fel orc collapsed under the barrage, breathing his last.
“Death to you, and all other demons!”
A woman’s ghostly voice delivered the threat, spoken in Orcish. No fel orc sounded like that. Hurrying forward, I saw the dragon-like beast assaulted by a trio of fel orcs, two on the ground and one on its back. Thick axes scored gashes on the creature’s shadowy hide. Then her tail snapped into the head of an attacker, breaking his skull in an instant. The warrior on her back scrambled forward, scaling the neck and gripping the solitary horn at the back of her head. Howling in triumph, the tainted orc raised his ax to deliver the final blow.
I cast an arcane blast just before the ax fell, causing blue light to burst through from within his chest. His weapon dropped from nerveless hands and he slid to the ground. As he did, the creature sliced into the third assailant, splitting his chest in a single stroke. Enraged, he rushed the beast only to meet a massive claw flung in his direction, propelling him back with bone-breaking force. Raising translucent wings in triumph, she finished the fel orc I knocked down before announcing her victory with a piercing cry.
Then her head turned to face me, bright blue eyes cold and suspicious.
“What are you, and why did you aid me?”
“I am a Forsaken, and no friend of the Illidari.”
“Legion, then? You do not look like one. You look more like a failed human. Why does your gray flesh rot?”
“You are correct, in a sense. I was once a human.”
It made a rumbling noise in its throat, almost like a purr.
“Are you of the Alliance? Enemy of my father’s father, but no enemy of mine.”
“No. I am—” I almost said Horde, but stopped myself. How much did she know about current political affairs? She might associate the Horde with the evils of Gul’dan and Ner’zhul. “I am simply a Forsaken. My name is Destron Allicant.”
Her eyes, big as my fists, stared into me. I forced myself to return her gaze. Faint lights pulsed in her flesh, cold like distant stars. Her presence nudged at my mind and I felt the kiss of the arcane on my soul, its power crackling at my fingertips. There was an awesome and terrible suggestion of the infinite in her movements, the sense she was born of a realm far beyond my own.
“Who has forsaken you? Why?”
I explained the history of my unhappy race, telling her how our friends and loved ones cast us aside or persecuted us. I also told her of the Scourge, and its indelible link to the Forsaken.
“Hated for the sins of your creator,” she said, the piercing glow of her eyes softening.
“The Forsaken have committed plenty of their own sins, I regret to say.”
“Still, you described how the eyes of other beings regard you as one and the same, or very nearly so. If you are Forsaken in your world, than so too is my race forsaken in this one. You hail from Azeroth. Tell me, does Deathwing still roost there?”
“He may. Many claim to see him, but there is not yet any proof. There are certainly still many black dragons there.” My mind began to form a strange theory about this creature.
“As the Lich King is to you, so too is Deathwing to my flight. Deathwing came to this world seeking dominion, bringing a harem of his mates, siring us to conquer Draenor in his cursed name. He is gone and we remain. We are the Netherwing, and I am Sandraku.”
“Why are you not a black dragon?”
“We were born after the Breaking. Nether energy infused our eggs, touching us with the essence of the realms beyond.”
“Do you know of the other Flights?”
“Mother theorizes that others must exist. Why else would Deathwing’s flight need to distinguish itself by color? Do more exist on Azeroth?”
“Black, Green, Red, Blue, and Bronze.”
“Are they all cruel?”
“They are aloof and certainly capable of great cruelty. That said, the Black Dragonflight is alone in its level of malice.”
“Great, powerful, and indifferent. Dragons are a truly wretched species. Every living thing in Outland hates the Black Dragonflight. All their hatred put together does not amount to even a fraction of our own!”
Sandraku howled, her sinuous back suddenly arched in tension. Her vast head swiveled from side to side, eyes blazing like bonfires.
“What do you know of Deathwing, Azerothian? He is from your world!” she roared.
“I know nothing beyond what I’ve already said!” I protested.
“Why should I believe...”
Her voice trailed off, her body suddenly relaxing. I paused, torn between standing my ground and running away.
“You did aid me, risking yourself. Why would you hurt me after doing that?” From her voice, I could tell the question was not rhetorical.
“There’s no reason for me to hurt you.”
“That does make sense. Netherwing needs allies; Mother and father charged me and the other firstborn to find such. Perhaps you are one. Climb on my back: I shall show you more.”
“Are you certain?”
“Do this, Destron,” she snarled.
I clambered on to Sandraku’s back, not entirely relishing the prospect. She ordered me to grip the sapphire horn at the back of her head and launched herself into the air the moment I did so. Swirls of blue light bled from her body, the starry expanse beneath her skin flickering as she took flight. Her translucent wings flapped with great strength and in complete silence.
Sandraku soared over the ruined land, the flinty desert speeding by in a blur. My misgivings began to fade as I realized how much difficulty she’d spared me.
“Thank you for the ride.”
“I do not do this for you, Destron.”
“For your mother and father?”
“And my dragonflight.”
“Who are your parents, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Karynaku and Neltharaku. They hatched first, and took it upon themselves to guide the other Netherwing hatchlings. The world hated us.”
“Does the entire Netherwing Flight live here in Shadowmoon Valley?”
“Others exist in the Blade’s Edge and Netherstorm, but a lack of guidance rendered them nearly feral. We face too many threats to help them.”
“Threats like the fel orcs?”
“We hate all Illidari, though we reserve a special loathing for the fel orcs. We shall not rest until all are dead. There is no room for them to exist.”
“Did you know that normal orcs exist?”
“Yes, in Nagrand. They are too weak to help us, though we appreciate their hatred for the fel orcs.”
“There are others besides the Mag’har. The descendants of the Horde now live on Azeroth, casting aside their demonic heritage. Many are now on Outland, and they too are looking for allies.”
“The Horde? What use is the Horde to us?” she roared, suddenly diving towards a seething pit of green lava.
“This Horde is different!” I shouted. “They seek to make amends, and they will happily take arms against the Illidari and the Burning Legion!”
Sandraku stopped her descent, resuming a level position.
“Are you of this Horde?”
“You did not say so earlier.”
“I did not wish to alarm you without first giving you the context. It is generally unwise to alarm dragons.”
“Dragons,” she snorted. “Do you stay in their good graces because you fear them?”
“We rarely interact with them, but only a fool treats them with anything other than deference.”
“They shall find no deference from us. Think of it, Destron. Great beasts, powerful beyond measure, and petty enough to take offense from one such as you? No one should tolerate such behavior from an arrogant lizard! What right do they have?”
“In truth, I know very little about dragons. I’m not really qualified to say. However, they do watch over the world, ensuring that it continues running. So the histories say, at least.”
“What do you owe them? What debt must you pay? They maintain their own world? Of course they would! They have every reason to keep their lairs in good order, they would not do it for the sake of your pitiful race.”
Those who encounter dragons describe them as majestic and fearsome, beasts of legend come to life. Only the irreverent goblins seem inclined to distrust them. To hear another dragon castigate her own species is not something I expected. Still, given the unique circumstances of the Netherwing Dragonflight, I could understand the reason for such an attitude.
“As I said, I really do not know much about dragons. They do much to help, aside from the Black Dragonflight, and are thus considered worthy of respect.”
“Not here. Tell your dragons that they are not welcome in Outland. Death is the price of trespass.”
I steered the conversation away from the subject of dragons, instead telling Sandraku about Azeroth. This proved difficult. Sandraku lacked any real frame of reference, forcing me to be very careful in how I described it. I spent time explaining the nature of the New Horde, as well as the Alliance and the (often) counterproductive rivalry between the two.
The lava fields around the Hand of Gul’dan receded into the smoggy distance, giving way to a vast expanse of black dust and ash. Sandraku finally stopped to rest, perching on a rocky island in a sea of cinders.
“How do you manage to live here?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How do you sustain yourselves?”
“Arcane energies suffuse the very air of this place. It is this which gives sustenance to my kind.”
“Does the fel taint cause any problems?”
“Our spirits purify the energies. We near the Netherwing Fields, once a domain of my Mother and Father. Now we hide in it like pests, fleeing the onslaught of the fel orcs.”
I could scarcely believe the Netherwing Fields when I saw them. They seem unreal, a place where clusters of crystal spires, tall as castles, flourish in the ash. Almost transparent, they look too fragile to support their own weight.
“How did these come to exist?”
“They have existed as least as long as the Netherwing. Energies from these crystals incubate our eggs. That is all we need to know about them.”
Then I saw another netherdrake, and another after that. Their shimmering forms darted between crystal growths. Echoing cries sounded out across the fields and Sandraku responded in kind.
“They are wondering who you are. Strangers rarely visit this place,” she commented.
“I hope they do not find me objectionable.”
“My kin distrust you already, but they know I can easily kill you if you prove a threat.”
“That must be reassuring. It seems many of your kind still live here,” I said, as another pair of netherdrakes banked out from behind a mountain.
“Fewer than before. We rely on these crystals to incubate our eggs. Now, fel orc subjugators travel the fields in packs, capturing eggs and taking them to their fortress home.”
“How terrible! Can you not fight back?”
“We did, at first. Then the fel orcs captured Karynaku, our Mother. She is the only one old enough to lay eggs. Without her, we shall surely die. Now, crystal flayers swarm in the wake of the Illidari, harvesting the crystals that we need to survive. We drive them away when possible but the subjugators always watch. They capture older netherdrakes as well as eggs.”
“Is there a way to make more crystals?”
“Is there a way to make more mountains, or more Outlands? Do not ask such foolish questions.”
Such an incurious nature will only hurt the Netherwing. From what little I know about them, Azerothian dragonflights operate a bit like bee hives. Only the supreme female of the dragonflight (the outright leader in the case of the Red and the Green) and her small coterie of sisters are capable of laying eggs. Most drakes do not grow into full dragons; the general theory is that they only turn into dragons to replace those who die. This indicates that a flight is designed to have a fixed number of dragons. Of course, the Netherwing may operate under different rules.
I asked Sandraku a few questions along these lines, but she either dismissed them as unimportant or gave laconic and evasive answers. To some extent she resembled the draconic stereotype she so resented, though I sympathized with her confusion. Living under Deathwing’s legacy is not something any child deserves to experience.
“My kin agree that you should see Dragonmaw Fortress. We are not far from that wicked citadel. Tell me if you think your New Horde has any hope of prevailing against them.”
“How does it compare to other fortresses?”
“Dragonmaw is but a hovel compared to the Black Temple, but mighty compared to most of what we see. The fel orcs keep a watchful eye in their domain, so I shall use my sorceries to make you resemble one of their beastly number.”
“Will I be interacting with them?” I thought Sandraku only intended to give me a glimpse of Dragonmaw Fortress.
“Avoid them when possible, shout invective if they question you. That is how they speak with each other. Fear not, as our time there will be short.”
Sandraku’s fellow netherdrakes began to disappear from sight and the distance between crystals increased. Fine cracks run through their glassy surfaces. Looking to the horizon, I nearly lost my grip when I saw clawed red fists where my gray hands once held Sandraku’s horn.
“Is this the illusion you mentioned?”
“What else could it be? We are nearly at Dragonmaw Fortress. You will soon see other fel orcs, riding enslaved netherdrakes. Study the fortress, and tell me what the Horde can do to destroy it.”
Dragonmaw Fortress, as I soon found, is a disaster waiting to happen. Broken and incomplete ramparts, probably dating back to the Second War, stand dubious guard over a chaotic medley of tents and sheds that sag under layers of accumulated ash. Netherdrakes stand on crumbling towers, ridden by vicious fel orc warriors. Unlike Sandraku, the netherdrakes at Dragonmaw Fortress look dull and weak, shadows of their true potential. We flew in without difficulty.
“Well? What of this place?”
“I’m not even sure you’d need a full army to reduce this sorry fort to rubble. Though the netherdrake riders might pose a problem.”
“Can the Horde liberate this fortress? Yes or no?”
“Yes. The Horde authorities understand the importance of aerial superiority. Are the Dragonmaw riders skilled?”
“Most are not. They fly like fools, and their mounts are made imbecilic by enslavement.”
“This fortress is in terrible condition; aside from the riders, it should be quite simple.” At the same time, I realized other defenses might exist in its recesses, not apparent to the unaided eye.
“If it is so weak, why has not the Horde or Alliance destroyed it?”
“Distance. Neither of us can yet afford to extend our armies this far.”
I silenced myself as another rider swooped nearby, his crimson face a mask of blind rage. Looking at the ground level, I saw fel orc warriors lounging in the door frames of ruined buildings, sometimes picking fights with their peers. They fulfilled every miserable and wrongheaded stereotype about orcs, and would not have looked out of place in an Alliance propaganda pamphlet. Fel corruption is corruption in every sense of the word: physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual.
“The Dragonmaw Clan now raises our kind in captivity. Soon you will see the depths of their cruelty,” snarled Sandraku.
She banked around the main keep’s decaying hulk, descending to a large palisade. Immature drakelings flit around in the pen, watched over by Dragonmaw overseers and littered with bloody meat.
“I thought netherdrakes did not need to eat physical food.”
“We do not. That is the flesh of demons. Not satisfied with enslaving my kind, they now seek to corrupt us.”
Sandraku landed on a ridge overlooking the pen.
“I do not think these little ones can be saved. The corruption is too deep. Now you see why we cannot allow the fel orcs to live. They will stop at nothing, and they are everywhere. Remember that there is nothing I will not do to protect myself and my flight. Nothing.”
Old Horde records sometimes comment on Deathwing’s paranoia, and I wondered if some of that came through in his descendents. However, the netherdrakes have ample justification for their wariness.
Sandraku lifted off once more, circling the tattered fortress.
“You truly think the Horde could prevail against these odds?”
“I have no doubt.”
“They say Dragonmaw is among the greatest fortresses in Outland.”
“I’m sure it was, once. Given the decrepit state of this world, it is no longer so impressive.”
Older netherdrakes walk the glassy grounds near the fortress, leashed by fel orc subjugators. Sandraku swooped down, a growl rumbling in her throat. Near the wall we saw a trio of Broken slaves pulling a rickety cart laden with crates.
“Are there many Broken here?” I asked.
“Fel orcs lack the capacity for sustained labor. They must keep a few on hand for tasks.”
“Like sowing all these banners.” The masters of Dragonmaw Fortress spare no expense in proclaiming their allegiance. Black and green Illidari banners stand at every tower and gate.
“Do you hear that?” hissed Sandraku.
She suddenly changed course, sailing down the slope towards the huddled ruins around the fort’s base. I marveled at her keen hearing, still unsure what she detected. Then I saw a pack of fel orcs charging after a lone Broken woman, her black cloak rendering her virtually indistinguishable from the surroundings. One of the fel orcs stumbled, loosing a shrill yowl of pain and clutching at his feet. His comrades ignored him and continued the chase. Sandraku began to ascend, away from the pursuit on the ground.
“Sandraku, you seek allies, do you not?”
“You know the answer to that, Destron!”
“Perhaps you should help that Broken. The Broken tribes remember those who help them.”
Sandraku continued her ascent, Dragonmaw Fortress shrank into miniature below us.
“We do not rely on others!”
“You would not need to rely on them. The Broken might help your drakes fight the Illidari, or simply give you information about Shadowmoon Fortress. Certainly the Horde’s more powerful, but they are still far away. It may help to find nearby allies.”
“And open ourselves to attack?” As she spoke, Sandraku wheeled around in the air, initiating a slow descent.
“The Illidari are already your enemies. I hardly see how one Broken—”
I shut up and held on as Sandraku struck like lightning, diving into the fel orc patrol with frightening accuracy. Polished claws raked crimson scalps, her muscled tail a deadly whip. Seconds later her forward claws grabbed the fleeing Broken by the shoulders and lifted her into the air. Looking down, I saw the fel orcs scattering in all directions.
“How do these fel orcs pose a threat to you?” I yelled.
“Consider yourself fortunate that none of them were subjugators. Warriors are rubbish.”
Beneath our shouted conversation, I heard Eredun curses from our target.
“Do you speak Orcish?” I called.
“Death to you, foul thing! Demon wretch!” she shot back.
“I am not an orc, nor am I with the Illidari. This netherdrake is named Sandraku; she hates the Illidari as much as you do. You’re safe, for now.”
“How can I be safe if I’m dangling from a dragon’s claws?”
“Sandraku, do you think you could land and put our guest in a more comfortable position?”
“I do not cater to the whims of Broken or Forsaken. If she feels no gratitude, that is her failing, not mine.”
Still hearing the Broken’s oaths, we flew towards the ash-drowned ruins of Baa’ri.
A cloak of dust hovered over the entrance to the glass-walled cavern, blocking light and smothering flame. I lay on the flinty cave floor, wondering if I’d gone blind. Sandraku sat at the entrance, a presence felt rather than seen. Her anxious and irritable breathing gave the impression of some barely restrained beast.
“This is a trap,” she muttered. “Vokta is doubtless reporting us to her Illidari masters as we speak.”
I doubted that. I had finally convinced Sandraku to let Vokta on her back once we'd covered enough distance. There she showed me her frightening array of poisoned daggers and caltrops, all intended for the fel orcs.
“Fel orcs are blind with blood thirst, it is easy to sneak past them,” Vokta had said. “They thought I was a slave. Perhaps I am, but I do not serve a fel orc.”
“Whom do you serve?”
“I do not know if I may say, even though you did save my life.”
Vokta guided us to a cramped cavern overlooking Baa’ri, unseen through the smoke and ash. She told us to wait while she contacted her superiors, to see if they deemed it safe to tell us more. Sandraku instantly thought it an Illidari trap. I managed to allay her suspicions, explaining that Vokta was obviously no friend of the Illidari, and that she could not have known of our presence until we rescued her.
Time passed, and I began to wonder if Vokta intended to return. Sandraku’s doubts weighed like a physical presence in that stony prison.
“What makes you so sure Vokta will be true to her word?”
“The Broken usually appreciate those who help their tribe. Besides, I’m sure you’ll be able to escape if they attempt an attack. Broken can’t fly unaided.”
“You Forsaken have such limited minds! Illidan will not rest until all Netherwing is crushed under his heel! Perhaps Vokta was merely a lure.”
“She killed a fel orc with her caltrops!”
“Do you think Illidan cares about a fel orc? He can replace a thousand dead fel orcs with ease. Netherdrakes are harder to come by. My name is known among the Netherwing. Perhaps a subjugated sibling mentioned me. Not inconceivable.”
“There is no way Vokta could—”
“Why are you so keen on protecting Vokta? She is no friend to you!”
Pebbles rattled across the floor, followed by a loud thump. I scrambled to my feet, extending my arms out in the darkness. The sharp scrape of dragon claws inched closer, accompanied by ghostly breathing.
“I see it now. A trap for me.”
I could not miss the accusation in her voice. I knew that a cringing denial would only stoke her rage.
“If I wanted you dead I would have let the fel orcs kill you,” I said. “Instead I aided you, at great risk to myself. Who else in this world would do that for you? Every moment you lament the distrust that other races have for your kind. Is this how you typically reward outside help?” As I spoke, I wondered if I could kill a netherdrake.
A wave of air, warm yet sterile, blew past me. The strange and ragged sound of Sandraku’s breathing filled the cavern.
“You did help me. Father says that Deathwing’s madness lives in our spirits, that we must fight it. Yet how can I trust you? You helped me, but I remember it as happening to someone else. Now I only see threats.”
“Your father is correct. Think of what you know to be true.”
“How do I know what is true? A netherdrake’s perception is a shifting thing. I must protect myself and my flight, Destron. That is expected of me.”
“You’ll better be able to protect them with the help of allies. Netherwing barely survives on its own from what you tell me.” Her alternating paranoia and lucidity both fascinated and alarmed me. Dragons are said to be wise. The insight common to her species battled with Deathwing’s unique psychosis.
“No one is better able to kill you than a friend. I cannot take the risk. If I fail my flight with a moment of careless trust, I cannot forgive myself. Better to be sure!” she cried, taking a step towards me.
“And what if you fail your flight by earning a new enemy? What then?” Shocked at my own words, I could only wait for a response. Sandraku stopped, her alien breath wafting over me. I stared ahead into the darkness to where I thought she stood, not daring to move. My ears strained to catch any warning of an attack, the swish of a claw through air though I knew I’d never react in time.
I heard steps, flints crunching beneath her massive feet as she retreated. Puzzled, I stood in place, unsure as to her next move. Then came the flapping of great wings, followed by silence. Sandraku was gone.
Holding out my right arm I made my way to what I thought was the cave entrance. Blinded by the smoke I could not know in what direction she fled. Though her departure came as a relief, it also brought worry. If Vokta returned with a hostile force (which the logical part of my mind still doubted), I’d be hard-pressed to survive without Sandraku’s help. My near helplessness in the choking blackness worsened this fear. The combination of darkness, silence, and solitude was horribly suggestive of the Scourge, of the living death I refuse to suffer a second time.
Forcing myself to calm down I elected to wait a little while longer. I thought back to my other travels, or my time in Orgrimmar, anything to distract me from my grim surroundings.
Vokta returned as I prepared to leave. I heard her before I saw her, a quiet shuffling of loose rocks outside the cave. Her hushed voice emerged from the shadows no more than a foot away.
“Where is Sandraku?”
“She said she needed to return to the Netherwing.”
“That does not matter, my master is more interested in you. Please, come with us.”
We emerged from the ash, the Shadowmoon Valley’s angry light revealing two other Broken warriors besides Vokta. From where we stood I could see down into the corpse of Baa’ri, murdered by war and sorcery. Smoldering green cracks run through the streets, an extension of the lava sea churning beneath the earth. Cowed Broken slaves shuffle through the city setting up paltry defenses.
“Will the Illidari give us any trouble?” I asked.
“Not as long as you keep quiet. Elders of the Ashtongue Tribe, and their assistants like myself, still enjoy some freedom. We are lords among slaves,” she laughed.
“Who is your leader?”
Vokta marched me along the edge of Baa’ri, away from Illidari eyes. Though her position warranted a degree of freedom I figured she wanted to avoid undue attention. Carelessness appears to suffuse every level of Illidari society. I marveled that Vokta could freely show herself, without fear, after attacking Dragonmaw Fortress. Some of that is doubtless due to fel orc stupidity, but it also underscores the lack of communication within the Illidari. Illidan is almost defined by selfishness, a trait he shares with his underlings. Shortsighted and indolent, the Illidari are inherently unstable, likely to collapse even without the Burning Legion or the armies of Azeroth.
Vokta navigated the warped terrain with practiced indifference, her bulky form made elegant by her dexterity. Her companions exhibited similar skill, leaving me in the embarrassing position of stumbling behind them. Fortunately, Vokta was patient, and helped me when I fell behind.
We turned east after traveling south for at least half a day and headed towards a fort of orcish construction. Though not far from the gates, it took us a long while to reach it. Plains of burnt glass and unexpected ravines surround the fort for miles, preventing easy travel. Vokta also took circuitous routes to avoid the giant salamanders that infest the area, basking in the fel heat.
“Those beasts only appeared after the Hand of Gul’dan arose, a sign of the spirits’ wrath,” she explained.
Vokta and her comrades were understandably exhausted by the time we reached the fortress, little more than a rambling circular wall around a charred jumble of wood and stone. A towering satyr jumped from the shadows in front of Vokta as we entered the gate, holding out a clawed hand in warning. I wondered if the satyr followed Illidan from Azeroth, or if he was part of Magtheridon’s army.
“What is this? A guest? Do not disturb the elder sage with this wretch!” he bellowed in abominably accented Orcish.
“This is a prisoner that the elder sage wishes to personally interrogate!”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because the elder sage wields more power than the greatest of you satyrs.”
“The time of the Broken is over,” he snorted.
“Maybe, but cross the elder sage and your life will end today.”
The two other Broken moved forward, both of them fearsome physical specimens. The satyr laughed without conviction.
“Very well! Go on through, since it won’t really matter. I will let the Broken have their fun.”
Moving aside, the satyr waved us through. Ignoring him, Vokta stumped across a desolate courtyard towards a tunnel entrance yawning open in the center. Other demons lounged in the courtyard, few in number. All were low-ranking in the fiendish hierarchy: satyrs, imps, and hellhounds. Three satyrs stood in the wreckage of a wolf kennel, taking swigs from a wineskin filled with a viscous black liquid that dripped from the corners of their mouths.
I followed Vokta down a winding ramp that opens up into a tunnel flooded with murky water. Mold grows on the rough-hewn cavern walls, the lines of masonry visible under its thin layering. Broken under flickering torchlight bowed their heads in deference to Vokta.
“We can speak freely now. This is the Warden’s Cage, the one part of Outland that truly belongs to the Ashtongue Tribe.”
“Is the entire Ashtongue Tribe in rebellion?”
“Illidan broke the souls of most our tribe. Only those close to elder sage resisted, under his guidance.”
“This elder sage is Akama?”
“You know of him?”
“Rumors about him reached our world, though almost nothing is known for sure.”
“Akama is the greatest of the Broken. A wise priest when he was among the Pure, but there is no greatness in their number. Only as a Broken could he become a hero.”
“How do you keep this place livable?”
“Akama is the elder sage. The spirits listen to him the way they used to listen to the orcs. They hate Illidan as much as we do. Illidan enslaved our seers, and forced them to enslave spirits in turn. Akama liberated some and they give us what we need to survive.”
“Do the Illidari ever become suspicious?”
“We tell them that this place comes from Akama enslaving his own group of spirits. That is enough to satisfy them.”
Vokta stepped into the warm water and waded towards a cell at the other end of the hall. Passages branch out from the main corridor though most end in heaps of collapsed masonry.
“Who built this place?”
“Old Horde. They tortured draenei here, inflicting such pain that even a Pure One would confess anything to make it stop.”
A thought came to me.
“You call this place the Warden’s Cage. Who is the warden?”
“We kept Maiev Shadowsong here, before we killed her.”
Maiev’s story is one of the more peculiar ones of the Third War. Charged with guarding Illidan back on Azeroth, she kept a 10,000 year vigil and grew nearly as mad as her prisoner. Maiev swore to track down Illidan after his unexpected liberation at the hands of Tyrande Whisperwind, and found military support for her campaign after Illidan razed the elven fishing village of Salunthris. Determined to pursue Illidan even after Tyrande and Malfurion permitted him to leave (a questionable choice on their part), she took a sizeable army contingent to Outland. No one had heard from her since.
We emerged from the waters at a small cell. Vokta ushered me inside, standing at the gate.
“Someone will speak with you soon. I must close the cell in the meanwhile.”
“That’s fine. Thank you.”
She jerked a rusty lever. The bent prongs of a portcullis inched down from the top of the doorway before suddenly dropping to the ground in a deafening clang. Vokta flinched at the sound and muttered an apology before disappearing into an adjoining hallway. I remembered seeing that hallway on the way to the cell, noting it to be caved in like the others. I reasoned that there was a secret entrance there that led to other parts of the complex.
While in the cell I noticed a curious contraption just beyond the gate. Set on a raised platform was a tripod of aged bones, lashed together by strips of cured hide. A sort of jury-rigged waterskin dangled from the top of the tripod, the contents dripping into another, larger waterskin below it. The drops passed through a series of circles as they fell, decorated with brightly colored charms and semiprecious stones.
“What is that, if I may ask?” I said, pointing to the device.
The Broken looked at one another uneasily. I wondered how many actually spoke Orcish.
“That how we make water safe to drink,” said one, after a pause. “More of these things deeper inside Cage. Bad water goes on top, falls through spirits’ cleansing circle. Still tastes bad, but safe.”
“Ingenious. Thank you.”
Vokta returned some time later; I don’t think I had to wait for very long. She was soaked, as if she’d gone for a swim.
“The Elder Seer will see you now. Do not be alarmed by his appearance.”
She pushed the lever, the portcullis creaking upwards in response. As the gate opened, a massive Broken melted out from the darkness. Outland’s corruption was manifest on his face. Though obviously a Broken, his cruelly fanged mouth betrayed extensive demonic contamination. He greeted me, in a voice whose firmness of purpose could not quite hide his exhaustion.
“We’ve heard much about you, elder seer,” I said.
“That I am Illidan’s lapdog, no doubt. Traitor to my race.”
“I may be able to promote the actual facts of your situation, in time.”
“My future is not relevant, Destron. That I am a criminal, I will not deny. I promise that if the future I strive for comes to pass, I will be executed. My crimes demand death. I have only one goal now: to make Outland safe for its inhabitants.”
“A noble task. Why do you consider yourself a criminal?”
“At my direction did the Ashtongue scour Shadowmoon Valley and the rest of Outland. Instigators brought woe to the Haze, the Murkblood, the Wrekt, the Dreghood, the Waste-Walker, and others still. We set them against each other, weakening them so that Illidan might better enslave them.”
“Were you coerced?”
“Refusing Illidan would have meant my death, but I first followed his orders willingly. Now, I undercut his empire from inside.”
“The greatest deeds are often the most challenging. How do you hope to do this?”
“My followers are the best of the Ashtongue Tribe. This task is beyond even their formidable capabilities. However, we can help others to slay Illidan without also giving Outland to the Burning Legion. This is where you might be useful.”
“The Horde wants Illidan dead nearly as much as you.”
“I bear no love for the Horde, Destron. I am better-informed than most Broken, and I know that your orcs are of a different breed. Yet I do not trust orcs. They first brought the demons to this world. Even without demons they are violent, aggressive, and hateful. What would the Horde do with Outland?”
I paused, processing his words.
“Elder seer, I must tell you that I am not an ambassador for the Horde. I did not intend to contact you, and only saved Vokta because she needed help and fought Illidan. Please understand that I cannot promise anything; I can only give you my opinion.”
“I am aware of this. What do you think the Horde wants here? What do you think the Alliance wants here?”
“On the surface, the Horde and Alliance both want to secure Outland so that Azeroth might also be secure. Illidan represents an unstable element, and he cannot prevail against the Burning Legion. Both factions also have personal reasons.”
“The real motivators in any situation.”
“At times. The orcs want to learn about their heritage, to uncover what they lost. Maybe they found their heritage among the Mag’har, though I am not sure if all are pleased with the truth. The blood elf situation is more complicated. Once news of Kael’thas’ friendship with the Burning Legion reaches Silvermoon City—assuming it hasn’t already—there will be a power struggle. If the Sun King’s supporters win, the elves will probably leave the Horde. If not, then the Sin’dorei will no longer have as much interest in Outland.”
“And the Alliance?”
“I am not necessarily qualified to say. The draenei probably want to consolidate their people. I do not know if this includes the Broken or not. For the most part, I suspect they consider Azeroth their new home. The humans, dwarves, and gnomes all have a connection to Outland via the Expeditionary Force. They are probably here to stay.”
“I seek no quarrel with the defenders of Allerian Stronghold so long as they do not overstep their boundaries. What must be known is that the Pure Ones relinquished all right to Draenor when they fled from it, as did the orcs when they destroyed it. Outland is a world for the Broken and the Lost, the ogres and the Mag’har, the sporelings and the arakkoa. Do you understand?”
“I agree with you.”
“I promise you that Outland will destroy the Alliance and the Horde if they seek dominion here. I shall not give an inch, and will only surrender myself to A’dal. This is a cruel land and it has forged a cruel people. I know of the travails that afflict your world, armies of the walking dead and ancient evils stirring in the earth. You cannot afford to ignore these problems.”
“The Horde and the Alliance will probably not leave Outland entirely. They need to ensure its stability. Provided that they can keep all the portals closed, I doubt they will maintain a large presence here.”
“Leave Outland’s safety to A’dal. We will follow the Naaru, for we have not forgotten the Light.”
“I’m sure they will be happy to leave most of the work to A’dal. Even so, the Horde and Alliance have invested the blood of their own to secure Outland. They deserve some say in the matter.”
“Perhaps. But we will fight for every inch of this dying world. Should Azerothians come to live here in great numbers, they will sow only death and tears.”
“In that sense, I think the harshness of Outland’s environment is its best defense. Few would willingly live here.”
“We live here, willingly. We fought for it. The Broken at least deserve a broken world.”
Withered skin wrapped tight around his skull, Llane Osrick surveyed the demon army with obvious anticipation.
“Soon. Tomorrow, perhaps even today,” he croaked.
“You Forsaken sound more like orcs every day,” laughed Surk Bloodhammer, the Kor’kron warrior leading the strike force. “Suits you well.”
“Anything to feel alive again.”
I felt only dread. Fel lights blotted the horizon, a sea of glaring green below the Black Temple’s ramparts. This army, seemingly infinite in scope, was a mere probing attack, the Legion sending its troops to harry the Illidari. At times I heard the shrill whine of the Legion’s pipers crying out across the desert. Most armies march to a regulated beat, but the Legion’s marching songs exist only to inspire confusion in the enemy. Those who listen too closely perceive up as down, and right as wrong.
Akama released me almost immediately after we spoke. He told me that the forces of Azeroth and Shattrath stood firm at the gates of the Black Temple, ready to seize Karabor while the Illidari fought the demons. His words implied a great army, though I did not believe any normal force could make the trek across Shadowmoon Valley so quickly.
I was not surprised to find that the Horde force numbered only 33 soldiers, mostly Forsaken with a smattering of orcs and Sin’dorei. Their goal was to observe and inflict whatever damage they could on both the Black Temple’s guardians and the Burning Legion, not to actually seize the temple complex. An Alliance camp to the south likely pursued the same goal, as did a somewhat larger Sha’tari force in between the two. Without meaningful communication among the three factions, no one could be absolutely sure of anyone’s intent.
The Alliance’s General Stonejaw has long argued that air superiority is vital to success in Outland. The Horde took this lesson to heart. Rickety goblin flying machines were poised for takeoff around the camp, each designed to carry a pilot and a mage. Since one Sin’dorei wizard had fallen ill on the journey, Surk considered me a suitable replacement. Though not enthusiastic, I accepted his orders as obligation demanded. I told Surk of my encounter with Akama, and he promised to relay this information to the Horde authorities if I did not survive. Llane Osrick, a Forsaken bat rider who’d made his name in blood soaked Arathi Basin, was to be my pilot.
“Orcs talk tough, but the Old Horde made Shadowmoon Valley too tough even for them. There’s no way we’ll ever be able to put together a large army in this hellhole, much less the Alliance, so we need to operate in small groups. No problem for us though, eh?” said Llane, later that night. I envied his relaxed air.
“I imagine the Forsaken are quite useful for such a task.”
“None better, save demons. Our Dark Lady needs to protect the home front though, so she can’t spare too many troops. Generous of her to lend as many as she did.”
“Do you have any idea what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“We’re soldiers, Destron. No one tells us anything. Don’t worry, these fliers don’t look like much but they can take a good hit. All you need to do is cast fireballs or whatever at enemy fliers. I’ll take care of the bombs.”
I also spoke with the mage I was meant to replace, a feverish Sin’dorei named Exion Goldsky. He did what he could to help Surk plan the mission, though I sensed relief at not being sent on the strike. He sat in Surk’s tent when I met him, taking a rest from his labors.
“Thank you for taking my place, Destron. I feel only shame for the fact that my body failed me in this place, and that I cannot bring honor to the memory of House Goldenmist. Your bravery reflects well on House—”
Exion doubled over, seized by a coughing fit.
“I think you should rest, Exion.”
“No, no. I will be fine. It is a fine thing to suffer for duty. My conjured water should ease the pain.” He drank from the flask at his desk. “Karabor—I think it better to call the place by its true name—is a fascinating place.”
“I do not actually know much about its history.”
“Many of the leylines of old Draenor intersected in this place. Until the creation of Netherstorm, there was no better place on this world to do magic. That is precisely why Prophet Velen built the temple here.”
“For the magic?”
“Not simply the magic. Prophet Velen wanted to control the flow of arcane energy so as to prevent the Burning Legion from breaking through into Draenor. Unfortunately, he did not count on Kil’jaeden’s cunning.”
“Is that why he displaced the preferred hunting grounds of the Ragestorm Clan?”
“The draenei would never inconvenience the natives out of spite or indifference. There was a valid reason for building Karabor in this place.”
“And that is why we must control it.”
“Exactly—” he stopped again, interrupted by another fit of coughing. It took him a minute to regain his composure and I held his shoulders to steady him.
“Thank you, thank you. I’m fine. I learned much of this in Shattrath City, from the Aldor. I am not affiliated with either the Aldor or the Scryers, in case you are wondering. I find I’m starting to like the draenei, though I would not want to live with them. Still, none can deny their devotion. Such faith deserves respect.”
Before retiring for the night, Exion lent me a battered hand mirror which he said would prove useful on the flight.
I awoke after a restless night and marched over to the rear seat in Llane’s flying machine. It bore all the signs of Forsaken ownership. Patchwork skulls leered out from the black canvas and a preserved hand dangled from the fuselage. Llane ran through some last-minute checks. Much like the gnomish machines on which it was slavishly based, a large propeller worked to carry the machine through the air.
Our airfield lay near the Black Temple’s ramparts. The Black Temple is a mountain forged by faith. Built on a scope unknown in the familiar lands of Azeroth, the temple’s size tells of the Naaru’s power and glory, a testament that no amount of corruption can entirely erase.
The Black Temple is divided into three parts. Illidan resides in the central complex, located on the easternmost edge of Shadowmoon Valley. North and west is the Ata’mal Terrace, within sight of Surk’s position. A nearly identical city-sized ziggurat lies to the south, called the Ruins of Karabor. Both of those colossal structures serve to collect and refine Outland’s magical energies. Between the two is Illidan’s Path, where the Betrayer’s followers met the Burning Legion in battle.
Surk came to give a speech before we embarked. He and a few others were to stay on the ground. The goblin fliers around us were piloted from a largely unprotected seat placed in front of the propeller apparatus. The mage’s seat was located behind the propeller, facing the machine’s tail. Stubby wings stuck out to the side. They did not inspire much confidence.
“Demons are brutes with strength but without courage, and the Illidari are fools. You’re to teach them the true meaning of combat! Show them no mercy, for they will offer none. Target whatever you see fit; just remember to hurt both the Illidari and the Legion. If the Legion looks like it’s winning, focus on them. Return once you’ve finished your ordnance, or when you’ve suffered too much damage.”
“What about the Alliance and the Sha’tar?” asked a pilot.
“Ha! I’ll have the hide of anyone who targets the Sha’tar. As for the Alliance, don’t attack them unless they attack you.”
Strapping myself into the seat, I hoped for the best. Llane pulled the motor and the propeller sputtered to life, clicking and coughing as the blades picked up speed. Arcane heat surged from the engine, the entire flier shaking from barely controlled force. I flinched at the sudden bang as the machine lifted from the ground with a sickening lurch, tipping dangerously to the left before Llane corrected it.
“I much prefer to fly bats or wyverns! These machines simply aren’t very stable, but most living mounts can’t function very well out here!” Llane shouted over the engine’s rumble.
We stabilized as we picked up speed though I was painfully conscious of the machine’s weight. I felt as if we tempted gravity by flying about in such a contraption. I scrunched up in my seat, the propeller’s maddening beat sounding far too close to my head. Shadows growled in the distance, our companion fliers dark blots against the clouds.
Craning my neck, I could just see the battle unfolding to the south, an endless tide of fiends flooding Illidan’s Path. Enslaved netherdrakes strafed the demon masses nearly at will, and barely making a difference.
“Do you see anything up ahead?” I called out.
“Filth, nothing more! Keep an eye out for enemy fliers!”
I scanned the ascending ramparts of Ata’mal Terrace, seeing only occasional movement in the debris-strewn walkways. A lone netherdrake rose up from behind a barricade and flew towards the battle. I took out Exion’s mirror, though it helped little in the polluted Shadowmoon air. The sounds of battle grew louder as we drew closer, demon screams mixing with the piercing whistle of the pipes.
“Getting closer, Destron! Blast any netherdrakes you see, leave everyone else alone unless they cause trouble for us. Put in your earplugs too, you don’t want those damned pipers to confuse you.”
I reached into my coat and took out the earplugs, putting them in before vainly trying to look ahead with the mirror, which I finally put away in disgust. The flier suddenly dipped and I grabbed the sides of my seat, painfully conscious of the fatal drop. My bones rattled in tune to the sputtering motor.
I thought again of the mission objectives, which began to strike me as poorly planned. Llane said that the original objective revolved around testing the Illidari air defenses, and that the Burning Legion came as an unexpected target of opportunity. Still, a measly strike force of ten fliers could not hope to accomplish very much.
Was the real goal to test the fliers? Or was it simply to show up the Alliance? Perhaps the Horde had learned of the Alliance’s plans through the Sha’tar or some other agency. The Burning Legion attackers posed another question. Thousands of fiends burned their way across southern Shadowmoon Valley, either bypassing or overwhelming Eclipse Point. Wildhammer Stronghold never found out about them, and the only warning came from the Sanctum of the Stars, left oddly unscathed by the demon army.
Pressing into my chest the restraints gripped me and yanked me backwards, the sky spinning as I fell. Sharp and blue a netherdrake soared past, its pale underbelly exposed. I fired off a volley of arcane missiles, the second set interrupted as the machine cantankerously pulled back up, throwing me forward into the straps.
“What are you doing?” I yelled, already knowing Llane could not hear me.
The ascent offered a view of the sheer chaos on the ground, brawling felguards crashing through mobs of fel orc chattel warriors, who threw themselves on their attackers to score a final blow before dying. I saw this while virtually suspended from my seat, the flier’s sharp climb worsening an already perilous situation.
I sighed in relief as Llane righted the machine, flying more or less parallel to the ground. Lights flared in the battlefield, infernals sparked into existence by bloated mo’arg overseers. Sharp sounds assailed my hearing, imperfectly blocked by the earplugs.
Crackling white light hurtled past the flier and slammed into the demon army, detonating in a blinding flash. My vision cleared in time for me to see a griffin pulling up from the bloody impact site already half-filled with more troops. A bulky apparatus gripped the griffin’s beak, and I wondered if it served as some kind of air purifier. Had the rider targeted Llane’s machine? The stormhammer had missed us by inches. Already out of sight, I looked left and right, trying to see if the Horde and Alliance fought. There was no way to tell in the smoky chaos.
A sharp bank to the right threw me off balance and I gripped the flier’s frame even as the restraints held firm. We soared directly above the heart of the battle, demon corpses piled in heaps before a line of howling Sin’dorei warriors who held a warglaive in each hand. Moving like tempests they mowed down the advancing Legion forces, killing with quick single strokes. I admired their ferocity, even as I realized the futility of their efforts. The death of a million demons is of no consequence.
Another netherdrake flew into range, streams of blue gore dripping from its body. I fired a volley of arcane missiles and the flier held steady enough for me to unleash the spell in its entirety, sending the creature into a lethal fall. Bursts of searing light tore through a fel orc battalion, limbs flying into the air as a pair of griffin riders struck. Chemical flames from Horde firebombs licked the edges of the Black Temple, fed by Illidari corpses.
Llane began to turn the flier around and for a moment I saw the central complex of the Black Temple, silent and waiting. Would Illidan come out to do battle? He was no stranger to reckless impulse. I looked down in time to see a carpet of flame erupt from the ground as Llane tossed explosives down on the combatants. A moment later I saw a netherdrake flying towards me, pushing through the air with its vast wings. The rider made a throwing motion and a javelin tore through the flier’s tail. A hideous rattle shook the machine as it began to swing drunkenly from side to side.
Thinking quickly I prepared a frost bolt, icy energy accumulating at my fingertips as the netherdrake drew near, its jaws ready to close on the machine’s tail fin. I fired the spell and scored a hit, the netherdrake recoiling. The drake’s sudden movement ruined the pilot’s aim and the second javelin flew wildly off mark. Llane regained balance and picked up speed, and I fired three volleys of arcane missiles at my disabled target.
Llane turned sharp to his left, the very air seeming to shake as he moved. I cursed as I lost sight of the netherdrake. The battle continued to rage. I realized that the fight below us was from another era. The armies of the Horde and the Alliance heralded a wondrous and terrifying new world.
Spellfire coursed through the air in streams as a line of Sin’dorei magisters focused their attention on the air battle. Dark shapes, trim and sleek, darted around the flames with astonishing quickness. Smoke obscured their features but I could tell they were too small to be griffins or drakes. Llane twisted to the right just in time to dodge a furious netherdrake. Wings and struts shaking, the flier leaned into a wobbly fall, the engine straining in protest. Closer and closer the battle loomed, demons and fel orcs tearing each other to pieces on the front lines.
Llane somehow wrenched the vehicle back into a stable position a few feet above the fray. Arrows slammed into the side of our flier in a rapid drumbeat. I ducked low as Llane took us to a safer altitude. I cast spells without hesitation, cycling through each offensive tactic I knew, throwing them in the massed ranks. I only just stopped myself from firing at a Broken pilot who flew into my line of sight. He went by too quickly for me to get a good look at him, but there was no mistaking his mount: a sinewy nether ray. I almost forgot the battle as I saw the creature’s performance, skimming through the air backwards and sideways, dodging attacks with near supernatural agility as the pilot dropped explosives on the demons.
I lost sight of the nether ray (which I took to be from the Sha’tari force) as Llane ascended. Others swarmed in the filthy air, their numbers surprising me. Smoke from burning demons poured out from the battlefield, growing from the constant bombardments. I marveled at how much damage the combined assault inflicted, and at comparatively low risk.
Llane continued rising, slowly turning to the north. Light flashed at the edge of my vision followed by a withering blast of heat and force, smashing into the side of the flier. Flames danced all along the machine’s left flank, quickly engulfing the wood and canvas body.
I moved quickly, willing a frost bolt into existence but stopping halfway, resulting in a spray of water from my hands. This extinguished the fires nearest the engine. Another patch of flames blazed at the edge of Llane’s console. I undid the upper set of restraints, twisting my body until I leaned out the side of the flier. Not letting myself look down I strained to the utmost, extending my hand to get close to the fire. Each sudden jolt threatened to dislodge me and I prayed that the restraints would hold.
I again used a half-formed frost bolt, weakening but not extinguishing the fire. The machine tilted to the left, the hellish sky swinging up into view. Focusing on the struggling flames, I cast the spell again. The second attempt finished it and I cheered. Only when I returned to my seat did I see yet another fire, burning away the right wing.
The wing broke from the flier’s body before I could do anything and the machine careened to the left. Motors screeched as Llane picked up speed, trying to compensate for the instability. Demon armies sped by on the ground; our only hope was to crash somewhere beyond their range.
The black desert rose up to meet us and the impact threw me against the restraints like a rag doll, jarring bumps shaking the frame as the flier scraped its belly on the rocky ground. I gripped my restraints as the engine died, the propeller spinning its last. Jagged rocks flew into the air as the flier ended its violent journey.
When it stopped, I was no longer sure I still lived. I gingerly probed my chest, noting those ribs that gave way under pressure. I undid the restraints and clambered out of the burning wreck, stumbling when my feet hit the ground. Standing back up, I staggered over to the front of the flier where Llane was slumped over the controls. With aching slowness he lifted himself up on shredded arms, flesh peeled away from the bone. His eyeless face turned to mine, his lipless mouth spread in a grin.
Surk hailed us as heroes upon our return, having already given us up for dead. Seven of the ten fliers returned from battle, a decent success rate according to him. The surviving pilots boasted of their deeds, obviously eager to go out on more sorties. I felt similar excitement, though tempered with a strange fear. Perhaps the fear was born from my own experience of being bombed in Halaa. Still, war is always horrible.
Exion inundated us with questions about the battle, his excitement showing through his obvious poor health. I offered suggestions, which included a means of escape and a way to extinguish flames. While both of those are within a mage’s capabilities, pilots aren’t necessarily spellcasters. Such precautions cannot ensure safety. I refrained from using a slow fall spell for fear of falling in the midst of the demon army.
Illidari fury at last achieved a hard-earned victory at the Black Temple. Observers reported that the Burning Legion army spent itself in the attack, though another was doubtless being prepared. The Legion left behind a single weapon, a giant of blood and metal called a fel reaver. This terrible machine strode up and down Illidan’s Path, its metallic voice challenging the Betrayer. Unable to directly attack the defenders, the Illidari were similarly unable to take down the fel reaver. As such, both sides waited for an opportune moment.
Llane laughed when he heard about this.
“Fel reavers are right fearful when you’re on the ground, but they’re not so terrible when you’re in the air. The pilots in Thrallmar have killed more than their share. You just need to toss bombs into the big vents they’ve got in their chest, takes them down in minutes.”
“Does the Legion have anything to counter our air power?”
“I hear they’re starting to install cannons to shoot us down. Inaccurate and brutally careless, like everything in the Legion, but I suppose you don’t need to be careful when you have as much as they. That’s why we need to be smarter.”
We left soon after the battle ended. As we loaded the last of our supplies onto the zeppelin, an orc rifleman caught sight of a gan’arg peeking over a trench. I do not know what the gan’arg was doing there; he might have been a fleeing survivor or simply a scout. The muzzle flared to life and the demon’s head burst open. Standing in the ash, the orc raised his gun and loosed a howl of triumph.