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The voices whispered in his head as he moved through the huge cavern. Where once they were but an occasional occurrence, now they never ceased. Even in his sleep, he could not escape their presence...not that he wanted to do so anymore. The huge black dragon had heard them for so long that they were now a part of him, indistinguishable from his own twisted thoughts.
The night elves will destroy the world...
The Well is out of control...
No one can be trusted...they want your secrets, your power...
Malygos would take what is yours...
Alexstrasza seeks dominion over you...
They are no better than the demons...
They must be dealt with like the demons...
Over and over, the voices repeated such dire things, warning him of duplicity, betrayal. He could trust no one but himself. The others were tainted by the lesser races. They would see his decision as a danger, not the only hope for the world.
The dragon unleashed a puff of noxious smoke as he snorted at such treachery from those who had once been his comrades. Though he had the power to save everything, he had to be careful; if they discovered the truth too soon, it would mean calamity.
They must not know its secret until it is beyond their altering, he decided. It cannot be presented until the spell must be cast. I will not let them destroy my work!
Huge claws scraped fresh the rock floor of the cavern as the scaly behemoth entered his sanctum. As massive as the dragon was, the rounded cavern dwarfed him. A molten river flowed through the center. Massive crystal formations glittered in the walls. Huge stalactites hung like swords of doom from above, while stalagmites grew from the ground so sharp that they looked as if they waited for someone to be impaled upon them.
And, in fact, such was the case with one.
Teeth bared, the great black dragon peered down at the puny figure struggling to free himself despite the stony spike thrusting up through his heaving chest. The remains of a tattered, black and bloodred robe and fragments of ornate, golden armor hung around his oddly-shaped torso. High, goatlike horns thrust from his skull and the crimson visage resembled most to the dragon a long skull with a wide, fanged maw. The eyes were pits of darkness that immediately tried to suck the behemoth in, but they were no match for the will of the creature's captor.
In addition to being impaled, the horned figure was bound by thick, iron chains to the cavern floor. The chains had been set especially tight, pinning the demon to the stalagmite and keeping his limbs spread downward.
Constantly the captive's mouth moved as if he furiously shouted something, yet no sound emerged. That did not keep him from trying, however, especially when he saw the dark leviathan approach.
The dragon mulled over his prisoner for a moment, then blinked.
Immediately the cavern chamber filled with the venom-laced, rasping voice of the creature. " -- is Sargeras! Your blood will flow! Your skin he will wear for a cloak! Your flesh will feed his hounds! Your soul he will keep in a vial, ever to torment at his pleasure! He -- "
Blinking again, the dragon silenced once more his captive. Even still, the demonic figure continued mouthing threats and obscenities until, finally, the dark behemoth opened his huge jaws and exhaled, enveloping the prisoner in a searing plume of steam that left the latter shaking in renewed agony.
"You will learn respect. You are in the presence of my glorious self, I, Neltharion," the dragon rumbled. "I am the Earth Warder. You will treat me with the reverence which I deserve."
The demon's long, reptilian tail slapped at the rocks below. The mouth opened in what was obviously more silent blasphemies.
Neltharion shook his crested head. He had expected better from the Eredar. The warlocks were supposed to be among the commanders of the Burning Legion, demons not only skilled at casting spells but well-versed in battle tactics. The dragon had assumed that he would hear far more intelligent conversation from such a creature, but the Eredar might as well have been one of the brutish Infernals, the flaming, skull-headed behemoths who acted like fearsome battering rams or airborne missiles. The one he had tested before capturing the Eredar had only the wit of a rock, if even that much.
But then, Neltharion had not sent his flight out to pluck the demons from their rampaging horde for conversation. No, the captives had another purpose, a grand one that they, unfortunately, could never come to appreciate.
And the Eredar was the last, the most significant. His innate magical abilities made him the key to fulfilling the first part of the Earth Warder's quest.
It is time...the voices whispered. It is time...
"Yes..." Neltharion answered absently. "Time..."
The dragon raised one huge paw palm up and concentrated. Immediately a golden aura flared to life in his palm, growing so brilliant that even the captive demon paused in his tirades to stare at what Neltharion had summoned to him.
The tiny disk was as golden as the aura that had presaged its coming, but otherwise it was an astoundingly simple-looking piece. It would not have even quite filled the hand of a much smaller creature -- say a Night Elf, for instance. The disk resembled a large, featureless gold coin with rounded edges and a gleaming, untarnished shell. Its very unassuming appearance was all by Neltharion's design. If the talisman was to perform its task properly, it had to seem entirely innocent, harmless.
He held it toward the warlock, letting the Eredar see what awaited him. The demon, however, appeared quite unimpressed. He stared from the disk to the dragon, mockery filling his eyes.
Neltharion noted the reaction. It pleased him that the Eredar did not recognize the strength of the disk. That meant that others would also fail to realize the truth...until it was too late.
At the Earth Warder's silent command, the object rose gently from his palm. It floated above the paw for a moment, then drifted over to the captive.
For the first time, a hint of uncertainty colored the warlock's monstrous visage. As the disk descended, he renewed his futile struggles.
The golden talisman alighted on the demon's forehead. A brief flash of crimson light bathed the Eredar's face -- and then the disk sealed itself to his flesh.
Speak them...urged the voices as one. Say the words...seal the act...
From the savage, lipless maw of the dragon erupted words from a language whose origins lay not in the mortal world. Each one was tinged with an evil that made even the demon quiver. To the Earth Warder, though, they were the most wondrous sounds he had ever heard, perfect musical notes...the language of gods.
As Neltharion spoke them, the disk began to glow again. Its radiance filled the vast chamber, growing brighter and brighter with each syllable.
The light suddenly flared.
The Eredar warlock stretched his mouth as wide as it would go in a noiseless cry. His horrific eyes rained tears of blood and his tail slashed madly against the rocks. He tore at his bonds with such fervor that he scraped away the flesh from his wrists and ankles. But still the demon could not escape.
Then the Eredar's skin started to decay. It crumbled from his still-twisting body, his still-shrieking countenance. The demon's flesh became as if a thousand years dead, dropping from him in dry, ashy bits.
The eyes sank in. The tail shriveled. The warlock swiftly reduced to a cage of bone surrounding rapidly-putrefying entrails. Yet throughout the macabre ordeal, he continued to scream, for Neltharion and the disk had not so far permitted him the comfort of death.
But at last, even the bone gave way, collapsing inward and fragmenting. The jaw fell loose and the ribs rolled away with a clatter. With terrible efficiency, the power unleashed by the disk absorbed the demon's remains from the bottom up. The trail of dry dust spread fast from the feet to the legs to the torso until only the skull was left.
And only then did the Eredar grow still.
The sinister light ceased. The chains once holding the demon dangled empty.
Like a doting father reaching for a cherished offspring, the black dragon used two claws to gently lift the talisman from the skull. As Neltharion did this, the skull, too, turned to ash. The gray powder scattered over the ground.
He stared with admiration at what he had wrought. Neltharion could not even sense the extraordinary forces now residing in the disk, but he knew that they were there -- and when the time came, they would be his to command.
No sooner had he thought this than another presence touched his mind. The voices subsided abruptly, as if they feared discovery by this intruder. The Earth Warder himself immediately smothered his own desires.
Neltharion knew the touch well. Once he had believed it to come from a friend. Now the dark leviathan understood that he could trust her no more than he could the rest.
Neltharion...I must speak with you...
What is your wish, dear Alexstrasza? The Earth Warder could imagine her. A sleek, fire-colored dragon even slightly more imposing than himself. As he was the physical Aspect of the world's innate strength, so was she the Aspect of the Life that flourished in, on, and above it.
There are dangerous forces again playing around the palace of the night elves' queen...we must come to some decision and soon...
Fear not, Neltharion replied soothingly. What must be done will be done...
I pray it will be so...how soon can you make the journey to the Chamber?
The Earth Warder imagined that other place in his mind, a mammoth cavern that made his own seem but the burrowing of a single worm. The Chamber of the Aspects, as the lesser dragons respectfully called it, was also perfectly round and smooth, as if at some point in the past -- before even the coming of the dragons -- someone had set some great sphere into motion, completely shaving away the ripples and outgrowths found normally in caves. Nozdormu, to whom all things involving history were fascinating, believed that the creators of the world had made it, but even he could not prove so with any certainty. Hidden by a field of magic that kept it from the mortal world, the Chamber was the most trusted and secure of places anywhere.
Thinking that, the black dragon hissed low in anticipation. His crimson gaze shifted to the disk. Perhaps he should go there now. The others would all be there. It could be done...
No...not yet, said the voices just barely audible in the back of his subconscious. The timing must be right or they will steal what is yours...
Neltharion could not let that happen, not when he was so near to triumph. Not now, he finally told the red dragon, but soon...I promise it will be soon...
It must be, Alexstrasza replied. I fear it must be.
She left his thoughts as quickly as she had entered them. Neltharion hesitated, trying to determine whether or not he had left to her some hint of what was going on. The voices, however, assured him that he had not, that he had done very, very well.
The black dragon held high the disk, then, with a satisfied look in his blazing eyes, conjured it back to where he kept it hidden from all others, even his own blood.
"Soon..." he whispered as it vanished, a toothy grin stretching across his monstrous visage. "Very soon...after all, I did promise..."
The mighty palace stood on the edge of a mountainous precipice overlooking a vast, turbulent lake whose waters were so dark as to be utterly black. Trees augmented magically by solid rock created tall, spiral towers that jutted up like fearsome warriors. Walls made of volcanic stone that had been bound by monstrous vines and tree roots surrounded the huge edifice. A hundred gargantuan trees had been drawn together by the power of the builders to create the framework of the main building, then the rounded structure had been covered with stone and vine.
Once, to any who gazed upon it, the palace and its surroundings had been one of the wonders of the world...but that had changed, especially in recent times. Now the foremost tower stood shorn of its upper half. The blackened stone fragments and dangling bits of vine spoke of the intensity of the explosion that had destroyed it. That alone had not turned the palace into a place of nightmare, though. Rather, it was what now surrounded the once-proud edifice on all sides, save where the foreboding lake demanded dominion.
It had been a magnificent city, the culmination of night elf rule. Spread out over the landscape and very much a part of it, the high tree homes and sprawling habitations built into the earth itself had created a wondrous setting for the palace. Here had been built Zin-Azshari -- "The Glory of Azshara" in the old tongue, and the capital of the night elves' realm. Here had stood a teeming metropolis whose citizens had risen every eve to give homage to their beloved queen.
And here, save for a few select, walled regions flanking the palace, had been a slaughter of innocents such as the world had never seen.
Zin-Azshari lay in ruins, the blood of its victims still staining the broken and burnt shells of their homes. The towering tree homes had been ripped to the ground and those built into the earth had been plowed under. A thick, greenish mist drifted over the nightmarish landscape. The stench of death yet prevailed -- the corpses of hundreds of victims lay untouched and slowly rotting, a process made all the slower and more grotesque by the absolute absence of any carrion creatures. No crows, no rats, not even insects nibbled at the chopped and torn bodies, for they, too, had either fled with the few survivors or fallen to the onslaught that had claimed the city.
But although such carnage surrounded them, the remaining inhabitants of Zin-Azshari seemed not to notice it one bit. The tall, lanky night elves remaining in the city went about their tasks in and around the palace as if nothing had changed. With their dark, purple skin and extravagant, multicolored robes, they looked as if they attended some grand festival. Even the grim guards in forest-green armor standing watch at the parapets and walls appeared out of place, for they stared out at wholesale death without so much as batting an eye. Not one narrow, pointed visage reflected the slightest dismay.
Not one registered fear or horror at the grotesque giants moving in and among the debris in search of any possible survivr or spy.
Hundreds of armored, demonic warriors of the Burning Legion scoured Zin-Azshari while hundreds more marched out of the palace's high gates to supplement those moving beyond the capital. At their hand had this fair realm fallen and, given the chance, they would scour over the rest of the world, slaying all in their path.
Most were nine feet high and more, towering over even the seven-foot-tall night elves. A furious green flame perpetually surrounded each, but did not harm them. Their lower bodies were oddly thin, then expanded greatly at the chest. Their monstrous countenances resembled fanged skulls with huge horns atop and all had eyes of red blood that peered hungrily over the landscape. Most carried massive, pointed shields and glowing maces or swords. These were the Fel Guard, the bulk of the Legion.
Above them, with wings of fire, the Doomguard kept watch on the horizon. Similar otherwise to their brethren below save for a slight difference in height and a look of deeper intelligence, they darted back and forth over Zin-Azshari like prospecting vultures. Now and then, one would direct the efforts of the Fel Guard below, sending them wherever someone or something might be hiding.
Hunting alongside the Fel Guard were other fiendish creatures of the Legion, most of all huge, horrendous, four-legged monstrosities with a vague resemblance to either hounds or wolves. The scaled abominations, coarse fur atop their backs, sniffed the ruined ground not only with their massive muzzles, but also with two sinewy tentacles with suckers on the end. The felbeasts raced along through the carnage with extreme eagerness, occasionally halting to sniff over a ravaged corpse before moving on.
But while all this continued beyond the palace grounds, a quieter, yet no less horrific, scenario played out in the southernmost tower. Within, a circle of the Highborne -- as those who served the queen of all night elves were called -- bent over a hexagonal pattern etched into the floor. The hoods of their elegantly-embroidered, turquoise robes hung low, all but obscuring their silver, pupilless eyes...eyes now tinged with an unsettling red glow.
The night elves loomed over the pattern, muttering repeatedly the great words of their spell. A foul, green aura surrounded them, permeating their very souls. Their bodies were wracked with the continual strain of their efforts, but they did not falter. Those who had shown such weakness in the past had already been eliminated. Now, only the hardiest weaved the dark magic summoned from the lake beyond.
"Faster," rasped a nightmarish figure just beyond the glowing circle. "It must be done this time..."ar
He moved about on four titanic legs, a gargantuan, tusked demon with broad, clawed hands and huge, leathery wings now folded. A reptilian tail as thick as a tree trunk beat impatiently on the floor, leaving cracks in the sturdy stone. His toadlike head nearly scraped the ceiling as he moved among the much tinier Fel Guard -- who wisely scattered from his path -- for a better view. The green, fiery mane running from the top of his head to the tip of each of his squat hooves flickered wildly with every earth-shaking step.
Under a heavy, hairless brow, sinister orbs of the same baleful green gazed unblinking at the dark tableau. He who commanded the night elves in their unsettling task was one used to spreading fear, not feeling it. Yet, on this tempestuous night, the demon called Mannoroth was afflicted with the disturbing emotion. He had been given a command by his master, and he had failed. Never before had this happened. He was Mannoroth, one of the commanders of the Great One's chosen...
"Well?" the winged demon growled to the night elves. "Must I rip the head off another of you pathetic vermin?"
A scarred night elf wearing the forest-green armor of the palace guard dared to speak. "She won't approve of you doing that again, my lord."
Mannoroth turned on the upstart. Fetid breath washed over the pinched face of the helmed soldier. "Would she complain as much if I chose to give her your head, Captain Varo'then?"
"Very likely," returned the night elf without any sign of emotion flickering over his own face.
The demon thrust out one meaty fist more than large enough to engulf Captain Varo'then's skull, helmet and all. The clawed fingers encircled the elf -- then withdrew. Mannoroth's master had decreed early on to him that the queen of the night elves and those important to her were to be left untouched. They were valuable to the lord of the Burning Legion.
At least for now.
Varo'then was one whom Mannoroth could especially not touch. With the death of the queen's advisor, Lord Xavius, the captain had become her liaison. Whenever the glorious Azshara opted not to gift those working in the chamber with her magnificent presence, the guard captain took her place. Everything he saw or heard, Varo'then reported succinctly to his mistress...and in the short time that Mannoroth had observed the queen, he had determined that she was not so empty a vessel as some might have imagined. There was a cunning to her that her oft-languid displays hid well, but not well enough. The demon was curious what his master intended for her when he finally stepped into this world.
If he finally stepped into this world.
The portal to that other place, that realm between worlds and dimensions where the Burning Legion roamed between their rampages, had collapsed under a magical assault. That same force had also ripped apart the original tower, where the Highborne and demons had worked. Mannoroth still did not know what exactly had happened, but several survivors of the destruction had hinted of an invisible foe in their midst, one who had also slain the counselor. Mannoroth had his suspicions as to who that invisible intruder was and had already dispatched hunters to seek him out. Now he concentrated only on restoring the precious portal -- if it could be done.
No, he thought. It will be done.
Yet so far the fiery ball of energy floating just above the pattern had done nothing but burn. When the tusked behemoth looked into it, he did not sense eternity, did not sense the overwhelming presence of his master. Mannoroth only sensed nothing.
Nothing was failure and, in the Burning Legion, failure meant death.
"They're weakening," Captain Varo'then remarked blandly. "They'll lose control of it again."
Mannoroth saw that the soldier spoke the truth. Snarling, the monstrous demon reached out with his mind and thrust himself into the spellwork. His intrusion shook the Highborne sorcerers, nearly upsetting everything, but Mannoroth seized control of the group and refocused their efforts.
It will be done this time. It will be...
Under his guidance, the sorcerers pressed as never before. Mannoroth's determination whipped them into a manic state. Their crimson-edged eyes widened to their fullest, and their bodies shook from both physical and magical stress.
Mannoroth glared grimly at the recalcitrant ball of energy. It refused to change, refused to open access to his master. Yellow drops of sweat poured down over the demon. Foam formed on his broad, froglike mouth. Even though failure meant being cut off from the great one, Mannoroth felt certain that somehow he would be punished.
No one escaped the wrath of Sargeras.
With that in mind, he pushed even more furiously, tearing from the night elves whatever power he could. Moans arose from the circle...
And suddenly, a point of utter blackness formed in the center of the fiery sphere. From far within it, a voice filled Mannoroth's mind, a voice as familiar to him as his own.
Mannoroth...it is you...
But not that of Sargeras.
Yes, he reluctantly replied. The way is open again.
We have waited too long...it said in a cold, analytical tone that made even the huge demon shrink into himself. He is disappointed in you...
I did all that was possible! Mannoroth protested before common sense warned him of the foolishness of doing so.
The way must be made completely open for him. I will see to it that it is finally done. Be ready for me, Mannoroth...I come to you even now.
And with that, the blackness spread, becoming a huge emptiness above the pattern. The portal was not quite as it had been when first the night elves created it, but that was because the one who spoke from the other realm now also strengthened it. This time, it would not collapse.
"To your knees!" Mannoroth roared. Still under his sway, the sorcerers had no choice but to immediately obey. The Fel Guard and night elven soldiers in attendance followed suit a moment later. Even Captain Varo'then quickly knelt.
The demon was the last to kneel, but he did so with the most deference. Almost as much as he feared Sargeras, he feared this one.
We are ready, he informed the other. Mannoroth kept his gaze now on the floor. Any single act, however minute, that could be construed as defiance might mean his painful demise. We, the unworthy, await your presence...Archimonde...
Copyright © 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment