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A week passed without incident. I sent my correspondence off to the Dawn, informing them of my planned absence. I polished and prepared my armor. I stocked up on sharpening stones and some combat elixirs. I exercised and visited with my trainers. When the sun rose on the day of our party’s departure, I gathered my belongings and set out for the Keep once more. I found the Keep free of the crowds of adventurers for once. The baron was there with his weasel of a familiar, as was the druid, Kalendrian, who spoke softly with the noble.  Both smiled at me when I entered, and I set my helm down on a tabletop and greeted each.

“Good morning, human,” the druid said softly. “I’m glad that I can work with a defender of the northern lands. I’ve spent my time there as well and know how dire the situation is.”

“Thank you,” I offered.  “I’m not from Lordaeron, but I still feel like it’s my struggle.”

“Not mine,” someone said.  “With all the idiots that can’t see past their own memories and property values up north, I can spend my time on other fights.” Though I didn’t recognize the voice coming from behind me, I recognized the tone, and knew that Crianas, the warlock, had arrived. The cacophony of footsteps I heard confirmed that he’d brought his demon, and that the gnome rogue Sprit and her companion squirrel had arrived as well. I turned around.

“The Argent Dawn isn’t fighting for nobles’ deeds in Lordaeron, they’re fighting the menace that is the Scourge,” I stated. “Do they not pay enough for your refined tastes, warlock?”

The older man glowered. “Don’t impugn my morality. You haven’t the fondest idea what I fight for.”

I sneered back. “Personal glory or the highest bidder, I’m sure.”

My impromptu opponent puffed himself up slightly, and was about to walk over to me when a firm “Gentlemen,” from the baron stopped him.  “I will not have such infighting on this expedition. Find out what drives each other through less confrontational channels, please. And we should have time to get to know each other during the travel.” Krestan turned to his supplies, and Crianas turned to deal with his own equipment.

Crianas caused no other problems that day.  Baron Krestan explained our timetable for travelling from Stormwind to Goldshire and Eastvale; from there, east to the mountains and Lakeshire, and from that town north into the black wastes of the Burning Steppes.  We were to leave the next morning, so my enthusiasm and zeal was put off another day.  I spent my remaining free time giving my equipment yet another look and walking around the city, taking in the sights. When I was a kid, my parents talked about Stormwind as if it was gone, in the past tense. This made my experiences there all the more magical.

Dawn broke on the Valley of Heroes, and I strode calmly between the statues of the fallen to the meeting point at the gates of Stormwind. My sword and shield were strapped to my back, so anyone following us would know I was a son of Stromgarde. I carried a spear as well, one gifted to me by a quartermaster for the Stormpike clan after I served against the trolls and orcs in Alterac. This I used as a walking stick for any long journey I took on foot.

About a year prior, I had been with a group of mercenaries that stopped in Hillsbrad Fields for a night’s rest. Our force consisted of a leather-clad skirmisher, a fire mage, a gnomish demonologist, myself, and another armored warrior. We retired to our beds that night peacefully, but after only about an hour’s sleep, we were roused suddenly by a cry from the gnome. We sprang out of bed to find a familiar looking orange mask that the sleepless gnome had spotted among the mage’s other things.

Unfortunately, it was that moment that the fully clothed and armored mage walked into the room with the other four of us dressed for bed.

When the dust cleared, the warrior was dead, and the skirmisher lay charred atop the mage with both swords buried into the other man’s flesh. The blasts of fire and shadow that had flooded the room knocked my leg into a burned and twisted shape. A Knight of the Silver Hand in Southshore managed to patch me up, but I’ve had a slight limp ever since. And so I use my spear for balance, and to relieve weight on long journeys.

Anyway, I approached the gate to find Baron Krestan waiting in the same red, ornate robes I’d seen him in a week before. Crianas stood to the side, seemingly staring at nothing. After greeting the Baron, I cautiously strode over to the warlock’s side – the opposite side as his blind demonic pet. His eyes darted between bushes and trees nearby. “What are you-?”

“Duel.”

“Duel?”

The warlock just pointed to a shadowy patch of bushes. I opened my mouth to speak again when I suddenly saw a dark panther pounce at something. A colorful ball rolled beneath the cat and shoved it away, landing on its feet as I recognized it as Sprit. The cat and gnome leapt at each other once more, clawing and slashing in midair before disappearing into the shadows again.

I blinked, and it happened again, except that the gnome knocked the cat down deftly with the flat side of a blade, then tackled it, holding a dagger to the side of its head. The pair froze, then Sprit climbed off and disappeared once more, and with a flash of green-hued light, the cat materialized into Kalendrian Boughwhisper, who waved at me. I waved back. “But where’d Sprit go?” I asked.

The druid shrugged and strode over, breathing heavily. “If you couldn’t tell, I couldn’t see her very well.”

I shook my head. “I just got here, I’m afraid.”

With that, the warlock pointed at the base of a tree about ten yards away. Kalendrian and I blinked, at which the warlock rolled his eyes, turned to his demon, and said “Ma’lak rizal.”

The pup bounded forward toward the point and we heard a squeal, then watched the felhound chase Sprit out from behind the other side of the tree.

“I hate you, Crianas, and I’m going to gut this demon if you don’t call it off!” the gnome warned.

After enjoying a long grin, the warlock snapped his fingers and the beast trod once again toward his side. We all turned to face the Baron, who smiled. “Congratulations, Sprit. Now then. Everyone please grab a rucksack of supplies.” He turned to gesture at the cluster of bags behind him.” I assume you’ve all left your mounts with the stable master…?”

He turned to see Crianas astride a black, fiery demonic horse among the rest of us. Crianas gave a remarkably innocent look.

“Mister Mishunadare, the rules for this expedition clearly state that-”

Baron Krestan, this is not a horse. It is a Xorothian Dreadsteed, and furthermore simply a physical instantiation, not a real animal. This summoning image requires no food or care yet can carry all of those sacks so that we aren’t burdened in combat.” And it was at that moment that I really began to appreciate that even though the warlock was right, he was very, very, very annoying.

The baron agreed to the warlock’s plan, and we walked off, Crianas mounted, into Elwynn forest. Kalendrian shifted once more into his feline form and darted off into the woods ahead of us. I would occasionally catch glimpses of him between trees, always slightly ahead of us on the path. Nothing much happened as we traveled from Stormwind to Goldshire, Goldshire east to the lumber camps, and from there into the rocky, red area south of Lakeshire. It was in the inn there that we spent our last night in the safety and decency of Stormwind’s lands.

Morning broke, and after a brief swim in Lake Everstill, I rejoined my four companions in the inn, where we dressed and prepared for the day’s travel. Once again, Crianas mounted his demonic steed, a fact that again seemed to bother the Baron, and we quietly set out from Lakeshire. The magistrate of the town there warned us of orcish raiding parties that would occasionally venture out from Stonewatch Keep, which had been captured by the Blackrock Clan. He stated that they should be no trouble for soldiers of our caliber, however, and I guess the orcs thought the same. I spotted a few scouts along our way, but none of them ever challenged us, or even got close. However, they might not have had a chance – Kalendrian was moving silently ahead of us once again, and when he rejoined us four at the north end of Redridge, I saw blood on his claws.

Between Redridge and the ashen Steppes themselves, there is a large, broken gate that dates from the orcish occupation. Our group paused there for a moment to catch some breath – this was the point that danger really began for our expedition. Cautiously we approached the gate, when suddenly Kalendrian reverted to an elf and halted us. He peered around the corner, then motioned for Crianas to approach. Crianas made some arcane motions with his hands, and a green orb appeared before him. He closed his eyes, and a pupil appeared to impossibly open on the orb before it sped ahead, floating in midair, and looked past the doorway. The orb disappeared, and Crianas opened his eyes again and dismounted. I arched a brow at him.

“Elementals,” he said quietly. Purple geometric light channeled about him for a few seconds, and then a shape grew from a shadow at his feet into a fully-fledged Voidwalker. Sprit and Kalendrian snuck to the other side of the doorway. He turned to the Baron, who nodded, and I drew my sword and shield. The Baron and I each pressed our backs against the heavy gate, prepared to turn and attack. However, Crianas just strode forward out the gate, and with a word in Demonic and a wave of his hands, his Voidwalker charged ahead.

Sighing, I turned the corner and saw three rock beings on a narrow bridge over a flow of lava. One earth elemental suddenly turned ethereal and greenish, its movement halting as it seemed to shimmer halfway out of existence. Two more charged at us. The Voidwalker intercepted one, and the two beings began swiping and swinging at each other. I charged the other rock form and deflected one large stony ‘fist’ with my shield. Kalendrian suddenly sprung from the side and pounced on the jumble of rocks so hard that it fell into the flow of lava, and the druid leapt to shore. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other attacker blasted into chunks by combined shadow and frost attacks, and I quickly sheathed my sword and shield and drew my spear. My opponent seemed stuck in the lava flow, and began to glow red. I twirled my spear once and drove it hard into the elemental, and the blade plunged into the melting rock. The burning eyes of the elemental went dark, and its limbs stilled, and I withdrew the spear. I heard a sigh, and Sprit materialized out of nowhere at my side. “I didn’t get to do anything,” she lamented.

We turned to the third, banished opponent, who still appeared enraged at us from whatever dimension he’d been forced into. When he rematerialized, a blast of magic from the druid, warlock, and mage forced him off the other side of the bridge and into the lava, where he lay trapped like his companion. Baron Krestan turned to the gnome. “Would you do the honors?” he asked, and with a flourish Sprit hurled a throwing knife right between the eyes of the construct, which then stilled.

The Baron clapped. “A good showing, everyone. Shall we continue?”

>>Chapter 3: The First to Fall

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