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We continued our march into the blighted lands of the Burning Steppes. Kalendrian once again assumed his cat shape and scouted ahead for us, while Sprit silently brought up the rear. Crianas continued, mounted, with the Baron and myself at his side. Crianas listed in a monotone voice various facts about the region – its formation when the Dark Iron dwarves summoned Ragnaros, its current occupation by said dwarves, Blackrock Orcs, and black dragons, and the war between the forces.

“And it’s those dwarves that we come to fight now,” the baron added. “As a service to our allies in Ironforge and the Alliance as a whole.”

We continued on a northward path. The Baron stated that we would not be stopping at Morgan’s Vigil, the Alliance encampment to the east. Instead, we would bear north for the dwarven ruins, and then west toward Blackrock Mountain itself. Crianas and Sprit stated that they had been on excursions into the mountain before. When the subject of why each of us was personally here, Crianas even made a startling admission.

“Once, the dwarves here managed to defeat and capture me. My link to House Blackstone made them want to ransom me, but a group of Horde travelers graciously broke me out of the prisons in the mountain and spared me after that. So when this opportunity for vengeance presented itself, I was quick to act.”

We made a camp in the shadow of Dreadmaul rock, to the northeast, to relax for the night. The baron started a fire, and we unpacked some dried meats and unleavened bread from our packs. “Isn’t even anywhere good here to fish,” Sprit lamented. The brimstone taste in the air permeated the food, and everyone but Baron Krestan seemed miserable. He happily munched on the bland food while the rest of us glowered. Crianas, predictably, turned his gloom on the Baron.

“So. That armor. Military issue, correct? Did you serve, or just want to dress like a war hero?” he asked smugly between bites.

Krestan smiled without hint of venom and replied, “No, I’m afraid I have no military decorations to my name. I was awarded this armor, however, in recognition of the skill with magic I learned in Dalaran.”

This last point seemed to flip a switch in the warlock’s brain, and for a reason I wouldn’t understand until much later, he began staring at the Baron’s hands.

Now, however, the venom came out. “What about your gruesome armor?” the baron asked. “The skulls on the shoulders – did you get those yourself, or just pay someone to look spooky?”

“Myself. Drakes,” Crianas replied.

“I thought so. What dragonflight?” the Baron probed, a shadow seeming to fall over his face.

The warlock twitched slightly, and paused before answering. “Red,” he said.

An unsettling silence fell over the camp, so I volunteered some information. “I made this armor myself,” I offered a bit awkwardly, and the conversation continued, but with a much more subdued tone.

We retired early that night, with Crianas volunteering to stand watch, and I offered to take the early morning hours. I rose at around one and relieved him, and proceeded to stare into the maw of that ashen land for hours until the rest awoke with the hazy dawn. The baron stated that we should probably leave the camp as it was- travelers here were rare, and the dwarves would likely not track us, if we did things right – elimination of stragglers was Sprit’s task. Since we were also no more than a day from the supplies of Redridge, we left our packs and proceeded only with armor and weapons.

We proceeded northwest until Kalendrian stopped us, and we looked out to barely notice the ruins in the distance. Various dwarven agents worked amidst the ruins, and employed golems for manual labor. Crianas summoned a succubus without a word, a creature that promptly disappeared. I drew my spear as Kalendrian and Sprit leapt ahead toward the city, and Crianas, Baron Krestan, and I strode toward the destroyed city of Thaurissan.

One dwarf was patrolling the outskirts of the area. Crianas’s succubus faded into visibility ahead of him, and with a wave of her arms, he was entranced. He slowly stepped toward this new form until with a lightning-quick movement, Sprit slit his throat before jogging off into the shadows once more. The succubus vanished and the corpse was the only evidence remaining. We continued on into what had probably been some kind of plaza. Dwarves were around the edges, but none had seemed to see us. The Baron strode out into an empty area, and began to yell.

“Flee to your caverns, cowardly dwarves, for your doom has arrived!” he proclaimed, and began channeling something. The dwarves seemed to stare for a moment in disbelief until a column of flame erupted beneath three of them and incinerated them all.

A moment later, a blast of shadow energy from our warlock slammed into the gut of one of the golems, making it stumble and fall back onto the ground with a crash, motionless. Another dwarf screamed as Sprit buried a dagger between his shoulder blades and tackled him. Two more dwarves turned toward her as I ran toward her position, and several others pulled out rifles and began firing at me. I charged one dwarf and brought the point of my spear down across his chest, then spun and slashed his neighbor before he could hurl a fireball my way. However, a sharp burning sensation still tore through my shoulder, and I turned to see another mage immolated by the Baron. A cool refreshing wave of healing washed through me, and I mentally thanked Kalendrian before sprinting after my next target.

The noise attracted more comers, and before long, the ground was littered with the bodies of dwarves and broken golems. Those stone creations gave our blades and claws trouble, but Crianas and Baron Krestan consistently blasted them into the earth. The Baron seemed to almost be having fun, cackling when his and Crianas’s ranged attacks, plus Sprit’s seemingly random and terrifying assassinations, caused near panic among the remaining Dark Irons. When the Baron, Crianas, and I strode around the corner and bore down on the last line of defense, the remaining enemies fled toward the mountain. Sprit and Kalendrian each dropped one more as they ran, and we returned to our campsite.

We chatted and joked with each other after ensuring ourselves of our health, and went to bed early. The Baron and Kalendrian took up watch duty, and the rest of us had a good night’s sleep recuperating from the battle. I awoke around dawn to find Crianas eating some of the ‘food’ we’d brought along, and the Baron meditating. Kalendrian was curled up in that particular feline way resting, so I scratched him behind the ears as I passed. He gave me an irked look that I think no natural cat could pull off and went back to his rest. Sprit emerged from her tent with her pet mechanical squirrel. She told me that it was named Boo, and Crianas had added sarcastically that it was called that because it scared off all Sprit’s suitors. “I hate you, Cri,” Sprit responded, and began chomping on her morning meal.

Baron Krestan joined us after a few minutes and stated that we’d be moving our camp farther west today. However, due to the presence of Blackrock orcs on either side of the road, we’d likely have to fight as we went. We loaded our provisions on Crianas’s dreadsteed and began the long march west toward Blackrock Mountain.

I walked with my spear, ready for orcs to give us trouble. Sprit and Kalendrian both moved ahead of the rest of us, and we’d occasionally hear the sounds of combat and come across the body of an orc on the road. Unfortunately, it would seem that someone amongst the Blackrocks noticed these absences.

We stopped at one point to reload the steed, as some of the packs had come loose. All of our party’s attention, save for Sprit and Kalendrian ahead, was on the horse, and when we turned back to the road, eight orcs blocked our way. They howled, and more howls joined in from a hillside to our left, where five shadowcasters stood.

The Baron frowned, but Crianas simply strode a couple of steps ahead. “Funny,” he said, “how these Blackrocks think they know how dark magic works.” His hands began to glow black, and the orcs on the hillside began channeling spells. The eight warriors ahead of us charged. “Deal with those eight,” Crianas said, and I would have rolled my eyes if I wasn’t staring at the attackers. The Baron turned and blasted one orc with a quick burst of flame, and he fell. I pulled my shield and blade from my back and charged at another, slamming my bulwark into his face before he could swing his weapon. The other fighters began to converge on me, and I quickly retreated beneath withering blows. I felt the ground shake and nearly lost my footing when the attack continued. One swipe glanced off my helm, another slashed at my shield, but a third went low and caught my bad leg. Another orc howled in fiery misery, but I stumbled back and fell beneath my shield. One orc ran past me toward the Baron, but two of the warriors ran to me, about to finish me off, when a giant, fiery stone arm caught them and hurled them away from my fallen form. Amazed, I watched the infernal, demon of rock and flame, storm the remaining orcs, who immediately attacked it even as its internal heat seared them and it attempted to pound them into submission.

When Crianas had summoned the behemoth, it landed squarely on top of three of the orcs on the hillside, blasting them to bits. The other two had been wounded and stunned, and the warlock magically scared off one while he and the other traded shadow magic volleys. Now the human was on one knee, left arm extended with a greenish tendril of energy being pulled from the orc, who continued firing shadowbolts at his opponent.”Where in Azeroth are Sprit and that blasted druid…?” he asked, his voice trailing off until both he and his opponent collapsed, motionless.  In the meantime, the other spellcaster had recovered and run back toward our battle site, where his magical assaults, combined with the blades of his allies, finally toppled the mighty infernal, and it fell to the ground as merely a pile of blackened stones, crushing one Blackrock beneath it. I slowly got to my feet once more to see two orcish warriors remaining. With a painful sprint and a diving tackle I cut one down, and a mixed barrage of fire and frost attacks from Baron Krestan defeated the other. The remaining spellcaster ran toward us until suddenly a dark sigil of a skull appeared above his head and he dropped to his knees in what appeared to be terrible pain. The Baron and I turned to watch him writhe and howl until even I could stand no more and walked over to finish him off with a quick jab from my spear.

“See…” Crianas said, with a cough, as he shakily rose to his feet. “Told you I could handle the spellcasters.”

I bandaged the warlock carefully. He was bleeding heavily from his right side, and that side of his face was also discolored – bruised, but also seemingly webbed with black lines, a side effect of the shadow magic.  He made a sort of hood and mask from his cloak and joined me in walking onward once more. The baron had gone ahead to look for Sprit and Kalendrian, and we soon came upon all three of them, surrounded by five or six more orc bodies.

Sprit, wounded herself, was trying to bandage Kalendrian as the Baron kept watch for any more attackers. The feline lay in an unnatural position on the side of the road, soaked with blood that appeared to be from multiple sources. He did not appear to have the energy needed to shift back to elven form and heal himself. Crianas and I just stared for a moment, feeling helpless as the druid lay dying.

The warlock quietly strode forward, kneeling before Boughwhisper and placing his hand on the cat’s paw. The cat stared back into Crianas’s eyes until Crianas turned away and walked back toward the Baron and I. Sprit came up behind him.

“Well, there’s only one option left,” the warlock said, as his hand began to glow black. Sprit nodded and the Baron turned away, but I felt compelled to watch as Crianas turned and nonchalantly fired a shadowbolt into the druid’s forehead. The cat seized, and was still, then slowly reverted to an elf.

>>Chapter 4: Revelations

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