Hey, the first half of Sholazar Basin is going to be late. This is for several reasons. First, I broke my own rule regarding fanfic (ie, never write any fanfic other than Travels through Azeroth and Outland) and wrote a short piece for the Marathon Trilogy, a sixteen-year-old game franchise made by Bungie, better known for Halo.
Now, I'd certainly be flattered if you read it, but don't feel obliged. Though Walder on A Writer's Recluse enjoyed it despite not knowing about Marathon (and thank you for reading it if you're here), it might be hard to get into if you don't know the series' background. One of the problems with fanfic is that it's built-in audience also acts as a limitation. Anyway, you can find it here.
Second, the finale of Suburban Fury on Scratched Nerve took longer to write than I'd planned. I'll post it either tonight or tomorrow. Third, my real life's been insanely busy lately. Still, I have done a bit of work on Sholazar, so it should be up in the first half of July.))
Friday, June 11, 2010
I jumped off the drake’s back only to sink knee-deep in the snow covering every inch of Coldarra’s surface. Pale blue mountains ring the freezing island, almost reaching the heights of the Storm Peaks. They form a cold wall of ice and stone, the rest of the world shut out in this loneliest of places.
Transistus Shield is the main Dalaranese base on Coldarra, a collection of artificially warmed tents and cabins sheltered under a field of force, looking like a slick violet bubble sheltered in the mountains. Mages take shifts maintaining the shield, the strongest that modern magic has to offer. A handful of red drakes, ridden by experienced warmages, patrol the perimeter to defend against Blue incursions.
“Fierce for sure, but no match for a true dragon. Whenever Malygos sends a true dragon to attack, we lose at least a few riders.”
A young officer in the Dalaranese Mage Guard, Adami had spent the better part of the year at Coldarra. The brutal cold had taken its toll, her youthful features hardened and aged by exposure to the icy winds.
“But you’re able to fend them off?”
“Usually. This isn’t the first Transistus Shield, you know. Malygos himself annihilated our earliest base in the south and killed every single person there. The next shared its fate. The third held on for a month until a strike team of three dragons wiped it from existence. I was among the six who survived.”
“This is the fourth?”
“Yes. Now we know the nature of the enemy, and can exploit the Blue Dragonflight’s weaknesses. The auxiliary troops also contribute a great deal.”
Freelancers come from all over the world fight the dragons in Coldarra. Dalaran pays well, its deep coffers filled with the wealth of centuries. Their motivations are not always financial. As is always the case in such epic events, there are those who rally to the cause out of idealism or love of glory. More peculiar motives also exist.
“Malygos’ madness gives the world an object lesson in the dangers of the arcane,” snarled Helestemer Shadeleaf, a burly druid who wore a perpetual scowl. The Dalaranese appreciated his skill and fighting spirit, though they cared less for his self-righteousness.
“Malygos is attempting to limit the usage of arcane magic,” I pointed out.
“He draws the arcane energy to himself, furthering his corruption and threatening to destroy the world. Were he truly aware of magic’s dangers, he’d eliminate it, not seize it!”
Closer to dragons than most, not even the Kaldorei really know much about them. The night elves of ancient times dealt mostly with the Red and Green Dragonflights, who shared the elves’ appreciation of the natural world. Yet with a few exceptions (such as the Green Dragonflight’s connection with the druids and the city of Loreth’aran), the involvement did not extend very far.
However, figuring out exactly where and when dragons have involved themselves in major events is never very easy. Dragons are known to disguise themselves as elves, humans, and sundry races. This serves a practical intelligence-gathering purpose, though some dragons supposedly enjoy it. Disguised dragons wooing mortal women is a staple in Stormwind’s popular literature. Kaldorei novels sometimes explore this theme as well, though generally with more nuance.
In a happy coincidence, I found an old friend of mine among the Dalaranese at Transistus Shield. After the first two years of study, a student at the Violet Citadel is assigned to work for a recent graduate. This work most often consists of research. Intended to operate in pairs, in practice a graduate usually has two to five students working for him. Many of those who finish their studies immediately go into work at the Violet Citadel, or in arcane laboratories, limiting the number who can participate in this tradition.
It is no exaggeration to say that I owe the breadth of my knowledge to the time spent with Eliast Sandone, my graduate instructor. Studying and teaching all subjects with equal vigor, his enthusiasm spread to his charges.
Eliast recognized me on sight, my undeath only giving him momentary pause.
“Ah, I only wish we could’ve met at a happier time. Still, I am so glad to see you again! Please, come to my tent. I’ve got some wine I’ve been saving for the next dragon we kill, but this is a far worthier cause!”
Over a glasses of aged shiraz we caught up on our lives. Tears filled Eliast’s eyes as I told him of my death, but he’d suffered just as badly. His wife and infant child had both died in the Third War, killed by the Scourge.
“I tell you with no shame that I was ready to embrace death. Nothing, I thought, was worth living for after that. But in time,” he smiled, the expression a bit rueful, “there was just too much that I still wanted to learn.”
He’d remarried shortly after Dalaran’s migration to Northrend. His broad face glowed as he told me about his wife Chanterri, of her wit and beauty.
“And a child on the way! That is why I will not die here; there are too many important things for me back home!” he laughed.
Knowledgeable in every subject, Eliast’s true passion lay in alchemy. Dalaran sent him to brew the chemical formulas sometimes needed in the Nexus War, as the fight against the Blue Dragonflight was called.
“Is the entirety of the Blue Dragonflight aiding Malygos?” I asked, after we’d finished catching up.
“No, a handful turned away from his folly. They provide valuable intelligence. A few are located here, though they maintain human or elven guise.”
“Why did they choose to help Dalaran?”
“Not all of the blues shared their master’s reclusive nature. The flight has always sent a few to mingle among the mortal races, to keep abreast of developments. These tended to take our side in the conflict, though I do not know their specific reasons. Talking to dragons is never easy, as they think on a level far beyond what you and I are capable of, and we’re hardly fools!”
“If they are so wise, shouldn’t they be able to explain complexity?”
“I am sure they could, but it may not benefit us to know. Would you teach a child how to cast a pyroblast?”
“I suppose not.”
“Even when the dragons do reveal their truths, they often use a fine and subtle magic to compel silence. Alexstrasza herself might tell me the meaning of life, but I would be unable to share it with others unless she permitted it.”
“That does explain the surfeit of knowledge regarding the dragonflights.”
“A sad necessity. As we grow as a species, I think we shall learn more.”
“You seem rather enamored of the dragons,” I said.
“Oh, you know how I get about these things. Still, these dragons date back to when the Titans walked Azeroth. There is so much that they know, and you can sense this when you see one, even if he’s in human guise. No wonder our distant ancestors worshipped them as avatars and demigods!”
“I simply wish they would share this vast knowledge. I find it difficult to have faith in something so secretive.”
“They know what’s best. Look at Dalaran for comparison; we learn from the finest minds in the world, uniquely preparing us to take our place in the world, often bettering it. You cannot let some fellow off the street be in charge of everything. To the dragons, we are that fellow in the street.”
“Yet even the very wise make mistakes. Look at Dalaran’s own history: the Guild Riot, the abuse of the Violet Citadel. Now think about Deathwing and the Black Dragonflight.”
“Fair enough, I would not disagree with you on that. But who else are we to trust?”
“What I am saying is that trust is conditional. Being very old or having a good education does not mean that someone is trustworthy or has good judgment. Anyone in a subservient position, whether a human before dragons or a Dalaranese citizens before the mages, should be able to question the authorities and hold them accountable. Certainly this needs to be done in an orderly manner, to avoid mob rule,” I added.
“By the Light, Destron! You sound like a gnome,” laughed Eliast.
“I find much to admire among the gnomes.”
“Indeed, there is much. I do not think that humans or any other race are mature enough to question the dragons. You do, which puts us at an impasse. You put far more trust in the hoi polloi than I ever expected.”
This took me aback.
“It’s not so much that I trust the common man; he is frequently foolish and ignorant. Merely that I extend my skepticism to the elite, and to myself. Knowledge without doubt is a dangerous combination.”
“There is some truth to that. However, when it comes to dragons, you are comparing two very unlike things. If we are to question them, than perhaps cattle should also agitate for more freedom.”
“Cattle aren’t sentient.”
“Perhaps to the dragons, neither are we.”
“But I know I am, and you know you are, and we can both vocalize and defend this belief.”
“Vocalize and defend it to each other. Perhaps more doubt is needed?” he suggested with a sly smile.
“Undone by my own words. Still, dragons can be wrong. As can mages and everyone else. There is always Deathwing.”
“True, though sources suggest his corruption came from an outside source.”
“Even so, the dragons are not perfect if they can be so corrupted.”
My debates with Eliast rarely ended in anything but a draw. However, at the end of the day we always knew where the other stood, and a clear understanding of positions is preferable to false agreement. Eliast’s duties unfortunately prevented him from devoting much time to such conversations during my visit.
Three teams of specialists, working in shifts, maintain the camp’s eponymous defense. A simple protection field cannot preserve the inhabitants against a direct assault, so operators must stand by to constantly modify the shield. The work is more boring than anything else.
“Mobility is the key to this conflict,” said Warmage Adami, as I spoke to her again on my second day. “Malygos must keep control over the Nexus here on Coldarra. All we must do is wear down his forces. At the same time, the blue dragons can strike almost any position on this island.”
“Why don’t they make more attacks here?”
“Because our troops in the field lay down powerful spells of misdirection. Confusing a dragon is no easy task, so we help things along by harrying our victims with our squadron of red drakes.”
“Do the dragons counter these spells?”
“They get better at it each day. Variety slows them down: Dalaranese forces use cutting edge arcane magic, Kaldorei druids turn nature itself into a tool of deception, and orc shamans call spirits to mislead our foes. Transistus Shield would not stand here today without the help it’s been getting from outsiders.”
Transistus Shield is no longer the only Dalaranese base in Coldarra. Two others exist, one at the north and another to the south. Maintaining so many encampments is difficult at best, though Transistus Shield is now relatively secure. Cut off from the mainland by the Red Dragonflight, the size of Malygos’ army dwindles every day.
Suspended over central Coldarra’s splintered ground, the Nexus is something felt as much as seen, radiating its unearthly energies for miles. A pillar of white light strikes skyward through rings of living ice, each one miles in circumference. Stone platforms make slow orbits around the anomaly, occupied by mind-slaved wizards spying on Dalaranese ground movement.
Coldarra’s forests stymie these surveillance attempts. Seeing the trees came as a surprise, as the scant descriptions of the island claimed it too cold to support much plant life. I learned that the forests came about through the efforts of the Red Dragonflight, who raised life from the frozen ground in defiance of the Blue. This symbolic gesture also aided the war effort.
I crouched in the snow with my companions, operatives from a Sin’dorei-dominated Horde partisan group called Dawn’s Grace. Renowned for their finesse, the Dalaranese assigned them the delicate tasks that could not be entrusted to the more careless freelancers.
Most of those in Dawn’s Grace were the scions of Sin’dorei houses destroyed during the Third War. Now operating under the aegis of House Summerdawn, they seek to bring honor to their patron’s name. Seven of their number came to Coldarra; two had died, and two more had returned to the mainland to recuperate from their wounds. I filled in for one of these. Elterella Rosethistle, a priestess who wore her grisly facial scars with pride, led our small team.
We waited at the edge of Blue territory for Ustarion Lightsong (a scout) to return to us with information regarding our objective, a brainwashed Dalaranese mage named Corboran Detienne. Because he was the eldest son of Ondre Detienne, who headed one of Dalaran’s most influential families, the Kirin Tor deemed his retrieval a high priority.
“They pay well for the snot-nosed noble brats,” said a Forsaken Dawn’s Grace warrior named Murgon. Happy to see another Forsaken, he quickly engaged me in conversation as we left Transistus Shield. Greasy yellow skin hung limp from his scarred face, a preserved eye rolling in his left socket. A native of northern Gilneas caught up by the Scourge after the construction of Greymane Wall, he spoke with a pronounced accent.
“Dalaran doesn’t have nobles. Great families need to remain competent to maintain their influence,” I explained.
“All the ones we’ve rescued acted like stuck-up aristocrats.”
“I didn’t say that they weren’t arrogant; just that they weren’t nobles.”
“I don’t mean to doubt the abilities of Dawn’s Grace, but I do find it odd that Dalaran’s outsourcing a task this important.”
“It’s not really that important. Most times it’s just politics, looking after some high-up wizard’s wayward child. Dalaran doesn’t give a whit about saving mages without important relatives. In fact, I hear that a lot of the disappeared get written off as dead, so their families don’t clamor for us to rescue them.
“Dalaran’s right keen on keeping every important mage on board. See, the idea’s that the really skilled wizards won’t be so useful if they’re weeping over a loved one. That’s why we get these special rescue missions. But the Kirin Tor’s not fool enough to risk its troops saving these runts. Dalaran’s barely got enough for this war.”
“But the Horde and Alliance don’t think it’s urgent enough to warrant significant aid,” I said.
“Oh, I’d say it’s urgent enough. The damn world will end if no one kills Malygos! The Kirin Tor just went about it all wrongheaded. See, they know that the Nexus is stuffed with all kinds of magical goodies, pieces of real power, you know? They wouldn’t want the Horde or Alliance getting their hands on such objects.”
“But they rely on partisans,” I pointed out. “That’s even riskier.”
“Right, because they tried to keep the official troops out. Then they found out they couldn’t handle it on their own, and then Wrathgate happens—makes me feel right embarrassed to be Forsaken it does—and everyone’s too busy to lend troops. ‘Why, you said it wasn’t urgent!’ they tell Dalaran. So they get partisans.”
My shoulders slumped at the thought of even more potentially vicious freelancers seizing artifacts of untold power.
“They let the partisans in the Nexus?”
“Dalaran can’t stop them. They give big rewards to anyone who’ll turn in what they find, but only fools take that offer. As I said, Dalaran tripped over their own feet on this one.”
“What about Dawn’s Grace? Do you intend to go into the Nexus?”
“Miss Rosethistle says no, we’re here to do good in Lord Summerdawn’s name. If Dalaran asks us to retrieve something for them, we might do it.”
I did not take Murgon’s story at face value, and tried to learn more about the matter on my own. I found out that Dalaran is more concerned about kidnapped mages from non-prominent families than Murgon had claimed. However, only other blue dragons can deprogram one of these brainwashing victims, and it is a difficult and time-consuming process even for them. Because so few blue dragons aid the Kirin Tor, they can only help so much.
I must also reiterate that these spellbound wizards are violent fanatics, not easily captured. Killing them is sometimes the only option, and this can be the case with even the most influential victims. While I still think more effort should be made, the matter is far less clear-cut than Murgon’s story indicated. And, as I would soon discover, finding Corboran complicated matters even further.
Ustarion, a Dawn's Grace agent, emerged from one of the icy chasms that jagged through the island. His long red hair made for a shocking contrast against the dark blue of the Nexus’ base, its chaotic shape so much like a frozen storm of rock and ice.
“He is below, guarded by two mage-hunters,” reported Ustarion, referring to the hound-like reptiles bred by Malygos to hunt Dalaranese wizards.
Ustarion said that we’d have a height advantage if we moved quickly, so we planned with that in mind. Elterella ordered Murgon to lead the way, with me close behind. Upon seeing Corboran I’d polymorph him while Ustarion (from a ledge) unleashed a volley of arrows at the mage-hunters. After that, Murgon would rush Corboran and bind him upon the spell’s cessation. Elterella planned to offer healing and other forms of support.
We moved quickly to follow Ustarion’s path, the farstrider’s footfalls silent even on the snow. He guided us down the forked rifts, the Nexus’ bright chill an eerie beacon above our heads. Keeping my gaze on Ustarion’s form, I stopped when I saw him raise his hand several yards ahead of us, just past where the stone walls made a sharp swerve to the left.
Creeping forward, Murgon and I turned the corner to see the path open up into a shallow depression. A bearded human in tattered robes stood at the center, his eyes fixed on the Nexus. Mage-hunters slunk around his feet, starved dogs wrapped in cobalt hides.
I looked back to see Elterella motioning for me to strike. With Corboran’s back still turned, I focused most of my energy into a single spell, the streams of mana reaching deep into probability to pluck out the desired outcome. Less than a second later, a sheep stood in Corboran’s place.
Bowstring twangs heralded Ustarion’s expertly shot arrows, the first driving deep into a mage-hunter’s skull, dropping the beast in an instant. Two arrows burrowed into the flank of its companion and it whirled in place, the twisted jaws snapping in fury. Murgon charged towards the altered Corboran, the anti-magic manacles in his hands as a fourth and final arrow lanced through the last mage-hunter’s throat, throwing its shriveled body to the ground.
Murgon clapped the shackles on Corboran the instant the mage popped back into existence. Bound before he had time to react, Corboran blinked in dull surprise.
“You can thank us later, or not. Either way, you’re with us now,” grunted Murgon.
Taking hold of the confused mage’s shoulders, Murgon steered him towards us, his smirk opening the tiny wounds around his mouth. Corboran tried to free himself, twisting in Murgon’s grip to no avail.
“You fools! Malygos needs me. I will not help you destroy yourselves,” he sputtered.
“Right, Malygos is quite the saint he is. Come on, quicker you do this the easier it will be.”
“You are not the first mage rescued through our efforts, nor will you be the last,” said Elterella stepping forward at the last moment.
“Rescued? Do you think I am spellbound? Malygos did not need to resort to such tricks; his servants merely told me the truth. Magic is a cancer that will destroy the world! He showed me what will happen. Mark my words, demon armies will bury this world if we do not stop.”
Murgon raised his hand as if to cuff the fuming wizard, but Elterella cautioned him to stand back.
“Malygos will destroy this world if not stopped," she said.
“I know that! And it is better that he destroy it than let it fall into the hands of the Burning Legion! Already their armies wait on the other side, eager to take the power that lies in this world. Nothing will stop them if they hold it. We must destroy Azeroth to save existence.”
Elterella raised an eyebrow in confusion.
“Say, mind if I shut this brat up?” asked Murgon.
“I can see that you do not believe me. I didn’t at first. Malygos himself opened my eyes. Trust him, before it is too late!”
“If Malygos is correct, then why resort to kidnapping?” inquired Elterella.
“Because most Dalaranese will not listen. They love their soft lives of arcane luxury. Only a few of us realized that action must be taken.”
“Interesting. Murgon, shut him up.”
Murgon withdrew a cloth from his pouch and jammed it in Corboran’s mouth, tying the ends behind his neck. The mage made no effort to speak, and glared at us with sullen anger as we made our escape.
We escorted Corboran to North Eye, a Dalaranese forward observation base a day’s walk northwest of Transistus Shield. Hidden by a dozen layers of enchantments and a wall of snow-laden boughs, it represented the Kirin Tor’s slow but steady progress. Our orders directed us to take Corboran there for interrogation before bringing him back to the main base.
North Eye utilized the latest in arcane techniques for its defense, including dozens of remote optic enchantments, more commonly known as spotters. Mages can use spotters as eyes, seeing through five at a time. A mage can even cast spells through a spotter, though only through one of the five. Spotters draw their inspiration from the sentry wards used by troll witch doctors in the Third War.
The Kirin Tor had assigned leadership of North Eye to one Warmage Parcell, but every Dalaranese there deferred to Balyuregos. A renegade blue dragon disguised as a high elf (so as to accommodate mortal insecurities, in his words), Balyuregos basked in his aura of command.
In truth, his mere presence almost compelled obedience. He carried himself like a king above other kings, his power subtly apparent even in mortal guise. Balyuregos’ voice, rarely rising much above a whisper, seemed to strike past the listener’s defenses and personality, hacking into some deep and fearful part of the soul. I pitied Corboran as I saw him being led into the tent where Balyuregos would conduct the interrogation.
The Dalaranese invited us into the mess tent, which offered bowls of hot gruel and little else. The Sin’dorei filled their bellies while Murgon and I played cards with a stout, middle-aged woman named Oladette Thierru. Responsible for maintaining the enchantments that conceal North Eye, Oladette was taking a brief respite from her labors. I was surprised at how comfortable she was at joining two Forsaken for a card game, and commented on the fact.
“First off, I can tell neither of you are silly enough to start trouble in a Dalaranese base. As to why I’m not bothered by the way you look, my son’s Forsaken. He lives in Dalaran now, researching new tactics for use against the Scourge,” she smiled.
“Admirable,” I said. Murgon nodded in agreement.
The conversation shifted to Corboran’s rationale for joining Malygos. Oladette sighed at hearing the news.
“I wish it came as a surprise, but it’s far more common than anyone cares to acknowledge. Malygos’ proselytizers are most convincing, it seems.”
“How many others share his opinion?”
“I haven’t been keeping count. Maybe a third?” she shrugged.
“Did you know Corboran before this? I gather he comes from an important family.”
“I taught him for a while, before the Third War. He was very idealistic, and thought Dalaran should spend more time teaching the Art to people in other nations. He spent so much time agitating for this cause that his studies suffered.”
“Completely the opposite of what he believes now.”
“What will become of him?”
“They’ll probably put him under house arrest until he admits to his wrongdoing. Then his father will say that his son’s recovered from Malygos’ influence, and is ready to do his part for Dalaran. I doubt Corboran will rise high in the ranks though; he’s a mediocre mage at best.”
“Is there any merit to what he said? About Malygos destroying the world so as to protect it from corruption?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“We all asked Balyuregos—the old lizard—what he thought about it, back when we first found out about Malygos’ little volunteers. Balyuregos will only answer questions if Parcell or someone higher up asks them, but the information filtered down to us. Near as we can tell, there’s some merit, but Malygos is missing the point.”
“That this is the only world to ever succeed in fighting the Burning Legion. Balyuregos and the other blue rebels believe that the Naaru—those glowing fishbones in Shattrath—are correct when they say Azeroth will be the key to defeating the Legion. Malygos is apparently more worried about stability, and wants to be sure that the Legion never benefits from controlling Azeroth.”
“Optimism versus pessimism, then.”
“In a sense. Really though, it’s our world so of course we’re going to defend it!”
“Look, if you two are all done bluffing with this chatter about gods and dragons, I’ve got a good hand here I’m right eager to show!” interjected Murgon.
“My my, so impatient,” clucked Oladette. I folded while Oladette and Murgon showed, the latter winning the day. Murgon smiled as we shuffled for another round.
I awoke to the sound of distant thunder; at least, what I thought was thunder. Even as my vision cleared I detected a subtle difference, the sound too slow and soft to be what I thought. Frightened voices and orders started breaking through the cold night air, and I got to my feet and rushed out the tent.
“Get to cover!” shouted a panicked mage as he ran through the snow, trying to cover himself with his arms.
Gusts of wind whipped past me as the thunderous noise grew louder and nearer. I looked up for just a moment to see gleaming blue stars writhe across the night sky, like constellations given life. My knees trembled when I at last realized what I saw, the colossal form of a blue dragon flying overhead, the light of the Nexus glinting off its scales.
The sky shook with motion as the dragon lowered its ponderous head, revealing the outline of its terrible jaws. Another gust from its flapping wings bowled me over into the snow, the force hitting me like some vast and unseen hammer. I watched as its mouth opened to release a column of violet light, catching all of North Eye in its stark glow. Trees and tents shattered as the arcane blast hit North Eye, obliterating all that it touched.
“Begone from this place, mortals!” it bellowed in the voice of a god.
On hands and knees I tore through the snow even as the light of the dragon’s breath faded. I threw myself to the ground as another blast, this one from my left, lanced through the darkness. Passing yards above me I still felt the distortion caused by its wake, ripples of force quaking through my bones.
I remained prone as the world subsided, dark spots speckling my vision. On shaking limbs I pushed myself up from the ground, feeling as if I’d just emerged from a tornado. A titanic crash echoed through the mountains, followed by an even louder roar, and I crumpled to my knees. The world spun around me in an icy tempest, my senses broken even in undeath.
Hearing a thud, I looked to my side and saw a glistening blue scale embedded in the snow, as big as a shield, its edges razor sharp. Another hellish cry sounded out from above and I finally got ahold of myself, running away even as the light of dragon’s breath filled the sky.
“Destron! Here!” called Murgon.
I ran to the sound of Murgon’s voice, my legs seeming to bend like noodles. He grabbed my arm and pulled me into the forest, dragging me along until I plunged through a hemispheric arcane shield. Five others sheltered under its dubious protection: Oladette, Elterella, and three mages unknown to me.
“—so fast! I cannot believe it, he switched it around so fast! All our defenses falling away like nothing!” exclaimed Oladette.
“Calm yourself, madam,” said Elterella. “We need to plan a course of action while Balyuregos fights our attacker.”
“Olbrandt got word back to Transistus Shield, right before the dragon destroyed his tent,” reported one mage. “They will send dragons once they are able.”
“How long will that take?”
“A few hours. Even if Balyuregos defeats the dragon, there will be the dragonkin to deal with,” he said, referring to the lesser dragonspawn who act as a flight’s foot soldiers.
“Can we help Balyuregos?”
“No. Both dragons are using dozens of spells in addition to the physical attacks. Interference will likely just hurt both parties.”
He winced at the sound of another draconic screech.
“Judging by the fight so far, Balyuregos will have at least wounded the other dragon. If our ally falls, we may be able to finish the job.”
“How many other mages are there?”
“I cannot say. At least half are dead. We may be the last.”
“They will pay for their crimes! Murgon, have you seen Ustarion?”
She nodded, and I saw her teeth press into her lower lip.
“What about our quarry?”
We all flinched as another piercing cry echoed across the forest, followed by a deep tremor that threw us to the ground. Our panicked eyes searched the sky as the ponderous wing beats grew louder and nearer.
“Rest easy, mortals.”
Strain marred Balyuregos’ near-divine voice. The ground shook again as he landed.
“Never I dreamed would I shed the blood of Valorogos, brother to my sire, defender of my nest. Prepare yourself, mortals. More of my kindred come, and I am too weak to fight them all.”
“Lord Balyuregos, how many are on the attack?” asked Oladette.
“For now, the lesser dragonkin gather on all sides of North Eye. Other true dragons shall arrive in time, eager to avenge Valorogos.” Heavy pauses lay between his words, as if spoken by a dying man. “I shall defend you as best I can, as I swore to do when taken to the service of Kalecgos in this war. Yet I am not long for this world.”
“Is there a safe path back to Transistus Shield?”
“Nothing is safe in Coldarra. I will clear away as much of the rabble in the southeast as possible.”
“We will use the spotters to hold off the others while you do this. Lord Balyuregos, your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” said Oladette. Her voice shook, though I do not know if it came from sadness, fear, or a combination thereof.
“All things are forgotten in time, mortal. Prepare yourselves.”
Wings again pushed through the air, Balyuregos’ shadow passing over us. Oladette sprang into action.
“Everyone, back to North Eye. I want each mage to man a spotter station and cut down any dragonkin that walks into sight. Murgon and Elterella, search for survivors.”
The shield vanished and I followed Oladette as she ran through the woods, the magic lantern in her hands shining like a miniature sun.
“How do I use the spotter station?” I asked.
“It’s quite intuitive, just strap yourself in into the frame. If we can find a survivor to take your place, he will; if not, you’ll have to manage. Wait! You don’t have eyes. It depends on—”
“I have some glass eyes that I use for social occasions,” I pointed out.
“Finally, some good news! Yes, you can use those.”
We reached the camp, or what little remained of it. The dragon’s breath had vaporized the snow and soil, revealing an expanse of slate-gray rock. Heaps of dust lay where tents once stood, and brittle skeletons splayed out on the ground.
Oladette pointed out the spotter stations, standing right at the edge of the devastation. Shell-shaped frames made of copper wire, they looked like a gnome scientist’s rejected experiment.
“Half of them survived, and we’ve got enough wizards for all but one. Take positions! Aim arcane bursts at the legs; we don’t need to kill them, just cripple them!” ordered Oladette.
I approached the nearest station, stepping within its confines and inserting the glass eyes into my sockets. An iron circlet hung from a peg, connected by golden filaments to the rest of the apparatus. Picking it up, I saw that it was adjustable and widened it a bit to fit my scalp. Looking to my side, I saw another wizard doing the same through the space between wires.
Nothing happened at first. Then, five circular lenses popped up on the periphery of my vision, each showing a spotter’s vantage point with a clarity far beyond mortal eyes. I almost jumped in surprise, overwhelmed by the sudden influx of sights. Moving my eyes, I found that an outline of blue light would appear around the lens where my gaze fixed. This, I gathered, represented the spotter through which I could cast spells. I rolled my eyes, watching as the outline made a full circuit through lenses.
“One down!” shouted the mage next to me.
Snow fell in powdery cascades off the branches of the trees beheld by the upper left lens, the serpentine form of two dragonspawn charging into view. I felt a strange detachment, wondering where, exactly they were.
Fixing on that spotter, I waited for them to get close. Dragonspawn are essentially draconic snakes with four legs and two arms, wielding weapons of expert craftsmanship. I struck with perfect timing, my arcane blast propelled perhaps miles away through the spotter, the force crushing the hind legs of one dragonspawn, and the forward legs of the other.
Sensing movement in the lower right, I turned my gaze just in time to see a single dragonkin trampling through the underbrush, its golden eyes lighted by fury. I fired another arcane burst, twisting one of the front legs. Weight and speed carried the dragonspawn into the snow, its mouth springing open in a silent scream.
“The way is clear! Flee, now!” called Balyuregos, his voice breaking.
He landed roughly on the ground where North Eye had once stood. As Oladette gathered us for the escape (along with the one survivor found by Murgon; Ustarion was sadly among the dead), I saw the blood slathered on Balyuregos’ scales and dripping onto the rock. Shriveled flesh and broken scales clung to his body in ugly swaths, the result of dragon breath. For a moment his ancient eyes met mine, tired as if weighed down by the passage of time.
Oladette tied a long and slender rope around each of us, enchanted to expand and retract as necessary. Elterella took point, her keen elven eyesight better suited for the dark forest night. Oladette’s lantern would attract too much attention. The rope, Oladette explained, would keep us together. She wore a thick metal pendant that she’d retrieved from the ruins, a silent and lightless emitter that gave a scent only detectable to dragons of the red flight.
We fled with my mind spinning, the night’s chaotic events jumbling together in my thoughts. My fingers trembled at the memory of fighting from a distance, crippling and killing foes miles away from me. It was a strange and disagreeable thrill (though I do not in any way condemn the Dalaranese from using such devices; it’s only good strategy, after all). I am sure that the Horde and Alliance will soon develop spotters of their own, informed of their existence by the freelancers in Coldarra.
The clash of the dragons weighed even heavier on my mind. I finally understood full well why the first humans worshipped them. Though I had only heard them fight, some part of me had invested itself in the drama of their battle, indifferent to the outcome. That it was a battle between gods, and the death of one a tragedy for the world.
My more rational mind wondered why I felt this. Again, looking at the facts, there is no compelling reason to treat the dragons as gods. Clearly they disagree and make mistakes, and the consequences can be literally earth-shattering. Certainly I respect such creatures, but the near-imposition of reverence struck me as suspect, like some glamour used on mortals. Or, perhaps more likely, it simply reflects the human (and Forsaken) tendency to be impressed by size and majesty.
Slivers of guilt started working their way into my mind. Balyuregos had given his life, and I could only dissect the awesome nature of dragonkind. As Forsaken, it is sometimes easy for me to lose perspective, though that does not make it any more acceptable. Whatever his motives, Balyuregos had sacrificed himself so that we might live.
We ran through the darkness and continued as dawn’s light reached over the jagged mountains. Then, glowing ruby-red in the sun’s glare, our draconic rescuers at last came to return us to safety.