четвъртък, 3 септември 2009 г.

DIABLO: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS




“GAZARA! WENDOTYUREH! MAGRI! MAGRI!”
Clouds began to form over the shadowed kingdom, dark ones that did not remind Kentril so much of
Heaven as of that other realm. Arms stretched toward the ruins, Quov Tsin continued shouting the spell.
“Lucin Ahn! Lucin—”
“In the name of the Balance,” someone broke in, “I charge you to cease this effort before you cause
great calamity!”
Tsin faltered. The mercenaries turned as one, some reaching for blades.
A slim figure clad completely in black eyed them all with the arrogance reserved for those who did not
just believe themselves superior in all ways butknewit to be truth. Plain of face and younger than the
captain by more than a few years, the intruder would not have disturbed Kentril if not for two things. One
had to do with the slanted eyes, so unearthly a gray color that they seized the attention of all who looked
into them. Yet almost immediately those same eyes repelled, for in them Kentril sensed his own mortality,
something no mercenary desired to come to know.
The man was a necromancer, the most feared of spellcasters . . .


THEKINGDOM
OF
SHADOW

RICHARDA. KNAAK

ONE

The horrific scream came from the direction of the river. Kentril Dumon cursed as he shouted orders to the others. He had warned his men to avoid the waterways as much as possible, but in the dense, steamy jungles of Kehjistan, it sometimes became
difficult to keep track of the myriad wanderings of the rivers and streams. Some of the other mercenaries also had a tendency to forget orders when cool water lay just yards away. The fool who had screamed had just learned the danger of growing complacent—not that he would likely live long enough to appreciate that lesson.
The slim, sunburnt captain battled his way through the lush foliage, following the pleading call. Ahead of him, he saw Gorst, his second, the giant, shirtless fighter ripping through the vines and branches as if they had no substance at all. While most of the other mercenaries, natives of cooler, highland regions in the Western Kingdoms, suffered badly from the heat, bronzed Gorst ever took all in stride. The scraggy mop of hair, dark black compared with Kentril’s own light brown, made the giant look like a fleeing lion as he disappeared toward the river. Following his friend’s trail, Captain Dumon made better time. The screaming continued, bringing back graphic memories of the other three men the party had lost since entering the vast jungle that covered most of this land. The second had died a most horrible death, snared in the web of a horde of monstrous spiders, his body so injected with poison that it had become bloated and distorted. Kentrilhad ordered torches used against the web and its hungry denizens, carefully burning out the creatures. It had not saved his man, but it had avenged the death somewhat. The third hapless fighter had never been found. He had simply vanished during an arduous trek through an area filled with soft soil that pulled one’s boots down with each step. Having nearly sunken to his knees at one point, the weary captain suspected he knew the fate of the lost soldier. The mud could be quick and efficient in its work. And as he considered the death of the very first mercenary lost to Kehjistan’s fearsome jungles, Kentril stepped out into a scene almost identical to that disaster. A huge, serpentine form rose well above the riverbank, long reptilian orbs narrowed at the small figures below who sought in vain to pry free the struggling form in its tremendous maw. Even with its jaws clamped tight on the frantic mercenary whose screams had alerted Kentril and the others, it somehow managed to hiss furiously at the humans. A lance stuck out of its side, but the strike had evidently been a
shallow one, for the behemoth appeared in no way even annoyed by it. Someone loosed an arrow toward the head, likely aiming for the terrible eyes, but the shaft flew high, bouncing off the scaly hide. The tentacle beast—the name their esteemed employer, Quov Tsin, had used for such horrors—swung its prey around and around, giving Kentril at last a glimpse of whom it had seized. Hargo. Of course, it would be Hargo. The bearded idiot had been much a disappointment on this journey, having shirked many of his duties since their arrival on this side of the Twin Seas. Still, even Hargo deserved no such fate as this, whatever his shortcomings. “Get rope ready!” Kentril shouted at his men. The creatures had twin curved horns toward the backs of their heads, the one place on their snakelike bodies that the mercenaries might be able to use to their advantage. “Keep him from returning to deep water!”
As the others followed his instructions, Captain Dumon counted them. Sixteen, including himself and the unfortunate Hargo. That accounted for everyone—except Quov Tsin. Where was the damned Vizjerei this time? He had a very annoying habit of wandering ahead of the band he had hired, leaving the mercenaries to guess half the time what he wanted of them. Kentril regretted ever taking this offer, but the talk of treasure had been so insistent, so beguiling . . .
He shook such thoughts from his head. Hargo still had a slim chance for life. The tentacle beast could have easily bitten him in two, but they just as often preferred to drag their prey under and let the water do their work for them. Made their meals soft and manageable, too, so the cursed sorcerer had said with scholarly indifference. The men had the ropes ready. Kentril ordered them in place. Others still harassed the gargantuan serpent, making it forget that it could have long finished this encounter just by backing away. If the mercenaries could rely on its simple animal mind a little longer— Gorst had a line set to toss. He did not wait for Kentril to give the order, already understanding what the captain wanted. The giant threw the loop with unerring accuracy, snagging the rope on the right horn.
“Oskal! Try to throw Hargo a line! Benjin! Get that rope on the other horn! You two—give Gorst a hand with that now!”
Stout Oskal tossed his rope toward the weakening, blood-soaked figure in the behemoth’s maw. Hargo tried in vain to grab it, but it fell short. The tentacle beast hissed again and tried to retreat, only to have the line held by Gorst and the other two men keep it from getting very far.
“Benjin! The other horn, damn you!”
“Tell ’im to quit wigglin’, and I will, captain!”
Oskal threw the rope again, and this time Hargo managed to grab it. With what strength he had, he looped it around him. The entire tableau reminded Kentril of some macabre game. Again he cursed himself for accepting this contract, and he cursed Quov Tsin for having offered it in the first place. Wherewasthe foul sorcerer? Why had he not come running with the rest? Could he be dead? The captain doubted his luck could be that good. Whatever the Vizjerei’s present circumstances, they would have no effect on the desperate situation here. Everything rested on Kentril’s already burdened shoulders. A few of the fighters continued to try to wound the serpentine monster in any way they could. Unfortunately, the tough hide of the tentacle beast prevented those with lances and swords from doing any harm, and the two archers still at work had to watch out for fear of slaying the very man they hoped to save.
A rope caught the left horn. Captain Dumon fought back the swell of hope he felt; it had been one thing to catch the monster, but now they had to bring it in.
“Everyone who can, grab onto the lines! Bring that thing onto shore! It’ll be more clumsy, more vulnerable on land!”
He joined with the others, pulling on the line Benjin had tossed. The tentacle beast hissed loudly, and
although it clearly understood at some level the danger it faced, it still did not release its captive. Kentril
could generally admire such tenacity in any living creature, but not when the life of one of his men was
also at stake.
“Pull!” the captain shouted, sweat from the effort making his brown shirt cling to his body. His leather
boots—his fine leather boots that he had bought with the pay from his last contract—sank into the muddy
ground near the river. Despite four men on each rope, it took all they could give just to inch the aquatic
horror onto the shore.
Yet inch it they did, and as the bulk of the beast came onto land, the mercenaries’ efforts redoubled. A
little more, and surely they could then free their comrade.
With the target much closer, one of the archers took aim.
“Hold your—” was all Kentril got out before the shaft buried itself in the left eye.
The serpentine monster reared back in agony. It opened its mouth, but not enough to enable the
gravely-injured Hargo to fall free, even with two men pulling from the ground. Despite having no
appreciable limbs, the tentacle beast writhed back and forth so much that it began dragging all of its
adversaries toward the dark waters.
One of the men behind Gorst slipped, sending another there also falling. The imbalance threw the rest of
the mercenaries off. Benjin lost his grip, nearly stumbling into his captain in the process.
One orb a mass of ichor, the tentacle beast pulled back into the river.
“Hold him! Hold him!” Kentril shouted uselessly. Between the two ropes snaring the horns remained
only five men. Gorst, his huge form a mass of taut muscle, made up for the fact that he had only one other
mercenary with him, but in the end even his prodigious strength proved ineffective.
The back half of the gigantic reptile vanished under the water.
They had lost the battle; the captain knew that. In no way could they regain enough momentum to turn
the tide.
And Hargo, somehow madly clinging onto life and consciousness, obviously knew that as well as Kentril
Dumon did. His face a bloody mess, he shouted out hoarse pleas to all.
Kentril would not let this man go the same way the first one had. “Benjin! Grab the line again!”
“It’s too late, captain! There’s nothin’—”
“Grab hold of it, I said!”
The moment the other fighter had obeyed, Kentril ran over to the nearest archer. The bowman stood
transfixed, watching the unfolding fate of his unfortunate companion with a slack jaw and skin as pale as
bone.
“Your bow! Give it to me!”
“Captain?”
“The bow, damn you!” Kentril ripped it out of the uncomprehending archer’s hands. Captain Dumon
had trained long and hard with the bow himself, and among his motley crew he could still count himself as
the second or third best shot.
For what he intended now, Kentril prayed he would have the eye of the best.
Without hesitation, the wiry commander raised the bow, sighting his target as he did. Hargo stared back
at him, and the pleas suddenly faltered. A look in the dying man’s eyes begged the captain to fire quickly.
Kentril did.
The wooden bolt caught Hargo in the upper chest, burying itself deep.
Hargo slumped in the beast’s jaws, dead instantly.
The act caught the other mercenaries completely by surprise. Gorst lost his grip. The others belatedly
released theirs, not wanting to be pulled in by accident.
In sullen silence, the survivors watched as the wounded monster sank swiftly into the river, still hissing its
rage and pain even as its head vanished below the surface. Hargo’s arms briefly floated above the
innocent-looking water—then suddenly, they, too, disappeared below.
Letting the bow drop, Kentril turned and started away from the area.
The other fighters nervously gathered their things and followed, keeping much closer to one another.
They had grown complacent after the third death, and now one of them had paid for that. Kentril blamed
himself most of all, for, as company captain, he should have kept a better watch on his men. Only once
before had he ever been forced to resort to slaying one of his own in order to alleviate suffering, and that
had been on a good, solid battlefield, not in some insufferable madhouse of a jungle. That first man had
been lying on the ground with a belly woundso massive that Captain Dumon had been amazed any life
lingered. It had been a simple thing then to put the mortally wounded soldier to rest.
This . . . this had felt barbaric.
“Kentril,” came Gorst’s quiet voice. For someone so massive, the tanned giant could speak very softly
when he chose. “Kentril. Hargo—”
“Quiet, Gorst.”
“Kentril—”
“Enough.” Of all those under his command through the past ten years, only Gorst ever called him by his
first name. Captain Dumon had never offered that choice; the simplistic titan had just decided to do so.
Perhaps that had been why they had become the best of friends, the only true friends among all those
who had fought under Kentril for money.
Now only fifteen men remained. Fewer with whom to divide the supposed treasure the Vizjerei had
offered, but fewer also to defend the party in case of trouble. Kentril would have dearly loved to have
brought more, but he had been able to find no more takers of the offer. The seventeen hardened fighters
accompanying him and Gorst had been all who would accept this arduous journey. The coins Quov Tsin
had given him had barely paid them enough as it was.
And speaking of Tsin—wherewas he?
“Tsin, damn you!” the scarred captain shouted to the jungle. “Unless you’ve been eaten, I want you to
show yourself right now!”
No answer.
Peering through the dense jungle, Kentril searched for the diminutive spellcaster, but nowhere did he see
Quov Tsin’s bald head.
“Tsin! Show yourself, or I’ll have the men start dumping your precious equipment into the river! Then
you can go and talk to the beasts if you want to do any more of your incessant calculations!” Since the
beginning of thistrek, the Vizjerei had demanded pause after pause in order to set up instruments, draw
patterns, and cast minor spells—all supposedly to guide them to their destination. Tsin seemed to know
where he headed, but up until now none of the others, not even Kentril, could have said the same.
A high-pitched, rather nasal voice called from the distance. Neither he nor Gorst could make out the
words, but both readily recognized their employer’s condescending tones.
“That way,” the giant said, pointing ahead and slightly to the right of the party.
Knowing that the sorcerer had not only survived but had utterly ignored Hargo’s fate ignited a fire within
Kentril. Even as he proceeded, his hand slipped to the hilt of his sword. Just because the Vizjerei had
purchased their services did not mean in any way that he could be forgiven for not lending his dubious
talent with magic to the desperate hope of rescuing the ill-fated mercenary.
Yes, Kentril would have more than words with Quov Tsin . . .
“Where are you?” he called out.
“Here, of course!” snapped Tsin from somewhere behind the thick foliage. “Do hurry now! We’ve
wasted so much valuable time!”
Wasted it?Captain Dumon’s fury grew.Wasted it?As a hired fighter and treasure hunter, he knew that
his livelihood meant risking death every day, but Kentril had always prided himself on knowing the value
of life nonetheless. It had always been those with the gold, those who offered riches, who least
appreciated the cost the mercenary captain and his men suffered.
He drew the sword slowly from the scabbard. With each passing day, this trek had begun to seem more
and more like a wild chase. Kentril had had enough. It was time to break the contract.
“That’s not good,” Gorst murmured. “You should put it back, Kentril.”
“Just mind your place.” No one, not even Gorst, would deter him.
“Kentril—”
At that moment, the object of the slim captain’s ire burst through the jungle foliage. To Kentril, who
stood just over six feet in height, Gorst had always seemed an astonishing sight, but as tall as the giant
appeared in comparison with his commander, so, too, did Dumon loom over the Vizjerei.
Legend had always made the race of sorcerers seem more than men, tall, hooded figures clad in
rune-covered, red-orange cloaks calledTurinnash,or “spirit mantles.” The small silver runes covering
much of the voluminous garment supposedly protected the mage from lesser magical threats and even, to
a limited degree, some demonic powers. The Vizjerei wore the Turinnash proudly, almost like a badge of
office, a mark of superiority. However, although Quov Tsin, too, had such a cloak, on his barely five-foot
frame it did little to enhance any image of mystical power. The slight, wrinkled figure with the long gray
beard reminded Kentril of nothing more than his elderly grandfather—without any of the sympathetic
nature of the latter.
Tsin’s slanted, silver-gray eyes peered over his aquiline nose in obvious disdain. The diminutive mage
had no patience whatsoever and clearly did not see that his own life hung by a thread. Of course, as a
Vizjerei, he not only had spells with which to likely defend himself, but the staff he held in his right hand
also carried protective magicks designed for countless circumstances.
One quick strike, though,Kentril thought to himself.One quick strike, and I can put an end to this
sanctimonious little toad . . .
“It’s about time!” snapped the mercenary’s employer. He shook one end of the staff in the captain’s
face.“What took you so long? You know I’m running out of time!”
More than you think, you babbling cur . . .“While you were wandering off, Master Tsin, I was trying
to save a man from one of those water serpents. We could’ve used your help.”
“Yes, well, enough of this babble!” Quov Tsin returned, his gaze slipping back to the jungle behind him.
Likely he had not even heard what Kentril had just said. “Come! Come quickly! You must see!”
As the Vizjerei turned away, Captain Dumon’s hand rose, the sword at the ready.
Gorst put his own hand on his friend’s arm. “Let’s go see, Kentril.”
The giant casually stepped in front of the captain, effectively coming between Kentril and Tsin’s
unprotected back. The first two moved on, Kentril reluctantly following them.
He could wait a few moments longer.
First Quov Tsin, then Gorst, vanished among the plants. Kentril soon found himself needing to hack his
way through, but he took some pleasure in imagining each dismembered branch or vine as the
spellcaster’s neck.
Then, without any warning, the jungle gave way. The early evening sun lit up the landscape before him as
it had not done in two weeks. Kentril found himself staring at a series of high, jagged peaks, the
beginnings of the vast chain running up and down the length of Kehjistan and heading even farther east for
as far as the eye could see.
And in the distance, just above the eastern base of a particularly tall and ugly peak at the very southern
tip of this particular chain, lay the weatherworn, jumbled remains of a once mighty city. The fragments of
a great stone wall encircling the entire eastern side could still be made out. A few hardy structures
maintained precarious stances within the city itself. One, possibly the home of the lost kingdom’s ruler,
stood perched atop a vast ledge, no doubt havingonce enabled the master of the realm to gaze down
upon his entire domain.
Although the jungle had surrendered in part to this region, lush plants still covered much of the landscape
and had, over time, invaded the ruins themselves. What they had not already covered, the elements had
battered well. Erosion had ripped away part of the northern section of the wall and taken with it a good
portion of the city. Further in, a sizable chunk of the mountain had collapsed onto the interior of the city.
Kentril could not imagine that there would be much left intact anywhere inside. Time had taken its toll on
this ancient place.
“That should assuage your anger a bit, Captain Dumon,” Quov Tsin suddenly remarked, eyes fixed on
the sight before them. “Quite a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Lowering his sword, Kentril eyed the ruins with some discomfort. He felt as if he
had just intruded upon a place where even ghosts moved with trepidation. “Is that it? Is that—”
“ ‘The Light among Lights’? The most pure of realms in all the history of the world, built upon the very
slope of the towering mountain called Nymyr? Aye, captain, there it stands—and, for our needs, just in
time, if my calculations hold true!”
Gasps came from behind Kentril. The other men had finally caught up, just in time to hear the sorcerer’s
words. They all knew the legends of the realm called the Light among Lights by the ancients, a place
fabled to be the one kingdom where the darkness of Hell had feared to intrude. They all knew of its
story, even as far away as the Western Kingdoms.
Here had been a city revered by those who followed the light. Here had stood a marvel, ruled by regal
and kind lords who had guided the souls of all toward Heaven.
Here had been a kingdom so pure, stories had it that it had at last risen whole above the mortal plane, its
inhabitantstranscending mortal limitations, rising to join the angels.
“You see a sight worthy of the loss of your men, captain,” the Vizjerei whispered, extending one bony
hand toward the ruins. “For now you are one of the few fortunate ever to cast your eyes upon one of the
wonders of the past—fabulous, lostUreh!”

вторник, 9 юни 2009 г.

"Night of the Dragon"


TWO

Korialstrasz soared over Lordaeron, forcing himself as best he
could to pay no mind to the turmoil below. He was determined to
reach the opposing side of the Baradin Bay without even the
slightest delay. It was of the utmost importance he do that. The
dragon dared not allow himself to become embroiled in any part
of the continuous struggle against the Scourge. That had to be left
in the hands of other defenders. He could not become involved...
And yet...more than once the immense red dragon failed in his
resolve. Korialstrasz could not let the innocent suffer nor allow
flagrant strikes by the undead go unpunished.
Nor, when he sighted it toward the end of that shrouded day,
could he let the massing of hundreds of the twisted and decayed
servants of the Lich King remain untouched.
It was just as he first smelled the distant bay that he saw the
macabre army preparing to march...an army built from the
scavenged body parts and corpses of more than a thousand good
souls. The rusted and dented armor of paladins hung upon
fleshless frames and empty eye sockets stared out from under
helmets. By the builds of some of the undead, the dragon saw
that the Scourge was not prejudiced against one sex over the
other, nor of young over old; all who fell were potential soldiers
for its evil master.
And neither did the fact that some of these had once been
women and children have any more meaning for the enraged
dragon, who dove down among the ghouls, unleashing his full and
terrible fury. A river of flame coursed across the center of the
unholy ranks, decimating scores in a single moment. Dry bones
made marvelous kindling for a red dragon's fire, and the inferno
quickly spread as some undead tumbled into others.
Korialstrasz attacked well aware of what destination this army of
the Scourge had in mind, none other than the shield covering
Dalaran over which he had not that long ago flown. The wizards
were a foe that Arthas, the Lich King, could not let recoup. The
dragon had expected such an assault before long, though the
Scourge had moved swifter than even he had calculated.

And so, they thus enabled the red dragon to do his former
comrades in the Kirin Tor one daring favor before flying from
Lordaeron.
Skull-faced warriors fired upon him with bows of many makes, but
their shafts fell far short. They were not used to aerial attacks of
such monumental nature. Korialstrasz banked to the north, then
struck the lines there, first diving down and raking the ground of
warriors, then sending another burst into those still standing.
He finally sensed magic stirring from the back lines and responded
accordingly. Lesser dragons might have fallen prey to the Lich
King's spellcasters, but Korialstrasz was far more
experienced. He immediately noted the location of his new foes
and focused his own considerable magic on the spot.
The ground there erupted, a huge forest of grass tendrils a
thousand times their normal size and thickness bursting all
around the casters, lesser liches who had once probably been
honored wizards until seduced by the dark power of the Scourge's
lord. The huge tendrils encircled their prey, crushing and ripping
apart the undead before the latter could finish their own
treacherous spells.
Thus does life vanquish unlife, Korialstrasz grimly thought. As the
consort of the Aspect of Life and, thus, a servant of that cause, it
disgusted him to use his abilities so. The Scourge, though, gave
him no choice. They were the antithesis of what his mistress
represented and a threat to all that existed in Azeroth.
A savage pain in his chest suddenly sent the behemoth spiraling.
Korialstrasz let out a furious roar and cursed himself for becoming
distracted just like a young dragon, after all. He nearly crashed
among the Scourge, managing to pull up only at the last moment.
Forcing himself high into the gray clouds, the behemoth eyed his
chest.
A black bolt as long as one of his claws lay embedded between
the scales. The head was not made of steel, but rather some dark
crystal that pulsated. It had struck Korialstrasz just perfectly,
digging deep into the so very slim gap. Such a strike was certainly
not happenstance.
New pain wracked him. Even though better prepared against it
this time, the red dragon barely kept himself from descending.

Pushing himself to his limits, Korialstrasz flew higher yet. What
remained of the Scourge below now seemed like a rush of ants.
Satisfied that he was for the moment safe from further magical
assault, the leviathan focused his own powers on the sinister
shaft.
A crimson aura surrounded Korialstrasz. The dragon fed his might
into it, fixing on the area where the sorcerous arrow's head lay.
The black bolt exploded.
Yet, Korialstrasz's sense of triumph was short-lived, for a sharp
twinge immediately thereafter took him. It was not nearly so bad
as the agony he had felt earlier, but harsh enough. He explored
the area of the wound, seeking the cause.
Three small fragments of crystal remained. The sorcery used to
create the arrow for use against such as him—there could be no
other explanation for the weapon's existence—was so potent that
even these few pieces caused him great pain.
The Lich King's minions were growing more and more cunning.
With another spell, Korialstrasz expelled the fragments from his
body. The effort took the wind from him for a moment, but fury
at what had happened to him quickly renewed his strength.
Roaring, the red dragon once again dropped like a missile toward
the rear lines. Whoever had cast the black crystal was among
those down there.
This time, Korialstrasz set the entire area awash in dragon fire.
There was no possible chance of anything there escaping his
wrath. The Scourge would learn that dragons were not to be
trifled with.
Undead wrapped in flames stumbled in all directions before
collapsing. In the center of his strike, the fire consumed the fiends
entirely, leaving only ash.
Korialstrasz looked upon the scene with satisfaction. He had dealt
the Scourge a bad blow with this assault. That would benefit
Dalaran and the rest of the defenders immensely.
Taking a deep breath, Korialstrasz soared on without hesitation
toward the bay...and distant, beckoning Grim Batol.

On the eastern coast of central Kalimdor, a tall, cloaked figure
silently strode into the unsavory town of Ratchet, a settlement
begun long ago by smugglers and now populated mainly by not
only their foul ilk, but also all those others whom various societies
had cast out. The hood and voluminous cloak completely hid both
the new arrival's features and garments. Indeed, it dragged so low
on the ground that even the legs and feet were invisible. While in
many places this would have immediately drawn the attention of
all around, in Ratchet such images were more common.
That, of course, did not mean that other eyes—goblin, human,
and otherwise—were not watching, merely that they did so very
surreptitiously. There were those in the ramshackle collection of
crumbling stone buildings and decaying slat huts who gauged
each newcomer for their possible value and others who marked
them for possible threat. More than a few of the unshaven,
unwashed figures were here because others desired their demise,
and so they were willing to kill any supposed assassin first. That
they might slay an innocent was a notion long willingly accepted
by them.
The covered form shuffled through Ratchet, the hood peering this
way and that in the deepening gloom and at last focusing on a
weathered sign hanging over the front of what had once been, in
another time, a fairly reputable inn. The faded letters still
managed to spell out the establishment's unpromising name...
The Broken Keel.
With fluid movements, the stranger veered toward the inn. A
lanky, scarred man in leather boots and billowing sea garb leaned
against the wall by the cracked door. He peered up at the
oncoming figure, then silently moved off. The hood shifted
slightly, watching his departure, then turned again to the inn.
Although the flowing sleeve stretched to the handle, those close
by might have noticed that they never quite touched. Yet, the
door swung wide open.
Inside, the goblin proprietor and three patrons stared at the
intruder, who, at nearly seven feet tall, stood a hand higher than
the biggest of them. The men's garb and the cutlasses at their
sides marked them from the stories the newcomer had heard.
Bloodsail Buccaneers. Yet, the figure paid no mind to their
interest; only one thing mattered.

"This one seeks transportation across the sea," the hooded form
declared. For the first time, the four registered some
astonishment; the voice sounded neither male nor female.
The proprietor recovered first. The short, green, and somewhat
potbellied goblin grinned wide, revealing his yellow teeth. He
strode back behind the bar, where, despite his girth, he easily
leapt up on an unseen bench or stool so as to be able to see over.
His reaction was one of mockery.
"Ya wanta boat? Not too many in here! Food and ale, maybe, but
we're fresh outa boats, heh!" As he spoke, his stomach swelled,
straining farther out of the stained green and gold jerkin and
almost completely over the wide, metal-clasped belt holding his
weathered green pants up. "Ain't that right, boys?"
There were a couple of "ayes" and a slow nod, the last from one
particularly keen-eyed drinker among the trio. Not one of the
band had yet taken his gaze off the shrouded newcomer, who
evinced no concern, no other emotion.
"This one is a stranger here, true," the figure replied, again in a
voice unidentifiable as anything. "But a place where food and
shelter are offered is often a place where knowledge of transport
can also be found..."
"Ya got gold ta pay for this 'transport,' my muffled friend?"
The hood nodded. The sleeve that had opened the door now
stretched forward again. It was not a hand that popped out of it
now, but rather a small, gray pouch that jingled. The pouch swung
from two leather strings that vanished into the sleeve.
"This one can pay."
The interest in the pouch was obvious, but the newcomer did not
seem moved by that interest. The proprietor rubbed his pointy
chin then rumbled, "Hmmph! Old Dizzywig, the wharfmaster,
might be crazy enough to sail you there. Leastwise, he's got
boats."
"Where might this one find him?"
"At the blasted wharf, of course! Old Dizzywig lives there. Go left
out the door, then around the building. Walk a little bit. You can't
miss the wharf and the docks. There's a lot of water beyond 'em,
heh."

The hood dipped forward. "This one thanks you."
"Tell 'im Wiley sent ya." The proprietor grunted. "Happy sailin'..."
With a graceful turn, the stranger stepped out. As the door closed
behind, the figure surveyed the vicinity, then turned as the
innkeeper had dictated. The sky was now dark, and while it was
doubtful that the wharfmaster himself would wish to set sail at
night, that did not matter.
Figures scurried to and from various buildings as the hooded form
passed by. The stranger paid them no heed. So long as they did
not interfere, they meant nothing.
The dark sea suddenly beckoned. For the first time, the hooded
figure hesitated.
But there is no other choice, the stranger concluded. No choice but
to dare one new thing after another...
While there were some larger ships anchored nearby, none were
what the stranger sought. A small boat that could be handled by a
lone sailor would serve all the stranger's needs. Three ragged but
potentially-useful craft sat at the edge of the water, the fine finish
of each a thing of the past. They likely floated, but that was it. To
their right, the first of the docks stretched out into the black
waters. Several wooden crates waited to be loaded on some
vessel apparently not yet in port. An old but tough-looking figure
that could have just as well have been Wiley's brother, father, or
cousin sat upon one box, his gnarled hands working with fishing
line. He looked up as the newcomer approached.
"Hmm?" was all he said at first. Then..."Closed for night. Come
tomorrow..."
"If you are Dizzywig, the wharfmaster, this one seeks transport
across the sea. Now, not tomorrow." From the voluminous sleeve
emerged the coin sack.
"Ya does, does ya?" He rubbed his lengthy chin. Up close, the
older goblin was thinner and in better shape than Wiley. He also
wore clothes of a better quality, including a purple shirt and red
pants that both contrasted greatly to his green hide. His
boots, wide like all goblin boots due to the splayed feet of their
wearers, were also of better condition. "Are you he?" asked the
stranger.

"'Course I am, fool!" The goblin grinned, showing that, despite his
age, he had kept most of his sharp if yellow teeth. "But as to hirin'
a boat, there're some ships that would do ya better. Where's your
destination?"
"This one must cross to Menethil Harbor."
"Goin' to visit the dwarves, eh?" Not bothered in the least by the
stranger's odd voice, Dizzywig grunted. "None of the ships are
goin' there, that's for sure! Hmmph..." Suddenly, the goblin
straightened. "And maybe you won't be goin', either...."
His slanted, almost reptilian black and coral eyes looked behind
his would-be client, who followed the gaze.
Their approach had been expected. The ploy was an old one, even
where the stranger came from. Brigands were brigands, and they
always sought the tried-and-true paths used before them.
From behind his seat, Dizzywig pulled out a long piece of wood
with a huge nail hammered through the head. The point stuck out
for at least half a foot. The wharfmaster wielded the wood with
an ease that bespoke of years of practice and use, but he did not
jump up to give aid to the hooded figure.
"Touch my wharf, and I'll pound your damned heads to pulp," he
warned the buccaneers.
"Got no quarrel with you, Dizzywig," one of the trio muttered. He
had been the most interested of those observing the newcomer in
the inn. "Just a little business with our friend here..."
The stranger slowly turned so as to completely face them, in the
process sliding back the hood enough for those in front to see the
face beneath. The face, the blue-black hair down past her
shoulders, the two proud horns that stretched from each side of
her skull...
Eyes widening, the three men from the tavern took a step back.
Two looked anxious, but the leader, a scarred individual wielding
a knife with a curved blade nearly a foot long, grinned.
"Well now...ain't you a pretty little female...whatever race you is.
We'll be taking that pouch girlie!"
"The contents of the pouch will not bring you much comfort," she
said, discarding both the spell that had hidden her true, almost
musical voice and the speech mannerisms she had used with it.
"Money is only a fleeting vice."
"We like a little vice, don't we, lads?" the leader retorted. His
companions grunted their agreement, greed having overtaken
astonishment over what stood before them.
"Let's finish dis before the bruisers catch wind of it," one of the
other pirates added.
"They won't be around this way for awhile yet," the first snarled.
"But 'tis true I don't fancy payin' the watch off with what we get,
eh?"
They converged on their intended victim.
She would give them one more chance. "You don't wish to do this.
Life is valuable, violence is not. Let us have peace between us...."
One of the lesser buccaneers, a balding, skeleton of a man,
hesitated. "Maybe she's right, Dargo. Why don't we just leave her
be—"
He immediately received a sharp, back-handed strike across the
jaw from the leader. Dargo glared at him. "What's gotten
into you, you son of a sea cow?"
The other brigand blinked. "Dunno..." He stared in shock at the
tall female. "She done somethin'!"
Gritting his teeth, Dargo turned on her. "Damned mage! That's
the last o' your tricks!"
"That is not my calling," she explained, but neither Dargo nor his
friends were listening. The buccaneers ran at her, trying with
swiftness to avoid any more spells. Common sense would have
dictated that they flee from any caster, but common sense was
clearly in short supply among these brigands.
A hand—a light blue hand covered in part by an array of coppercolored
metal strands—thrust out of the left sleeve. She muttered
a prayer for her foes in her glorious native tongue, too long
unheard by her from any other's lips.
The leader was again predictable. He thrust the blade at her
chest.
She easily dodged aside his clumsy strike without even moving
from her position. As he fell forward, she touched him on the arm
and used his momentum to send him flying past her and onto the
hard wood of the nearest dock.
As he hit, his thin companion drew his cutlass and made a slash at
her outstretched arm. The stranger gracefully pulled her limb
from danger, then kicked at his midsection with what was not a
foot, but rather a large and very tough cloven hoof.
As if struck by a barreling tauren, the second pirate went tumbling
back like a missile into the third brigand, a stouter pirate with a
bent nose. The pair collided hard, then collapsed in a jumble of
arms and legs.
She spun about, the shifting of the two tendrils coming from
behind her ears and lining her slim but beautiful features the only
outward sign of her emotions. Her hand caught Dargo's wrist as
he came at her from the dock and turned his force back against
his arm.
The buccaneer let out a howl as his shoulder cracked. With his
path already leading to the ground, it was a simple matter for her
to let the villain fall face first at her feet.
Atop the crate, Dizzywig chortled. "Hah! Draenei women make for
some tough customers, don't they? Tough and pretty, that is!"
Glancing at the goblin, she sensed no malevolent intent in his
comments. With his occupation, it was not entirely surprising that
Dizzywig had apparently seen or heard of her race at some point
in the past. At the moment, he sounded honestly curious about
her—curious and amused—but nothing more.
The wharfmaster had maintained a neutral stance during the
confrontation, an understandable choice, if not her preferred one.
The draenei had wanted to keep her activities secret. She was not
where her kind should be.
But her oath and her quest demanded otherwise.
Leaning down to Dargo, she whispered, "The bone is not broken."
The anguished brigand seemed not to appreciate that gesture. In
truth, she had done as much as she could to avoid injuring any of
them, regardless of their wicked ways. Unfortunately, these three
had demanded of her a brief exhibition.

But now the trio was more malleable to her advice...and abilities.
In a level voice, the draenei declared, "It would be best if you all
departed and forgot this incident."
The abilities granted her calling added weight to her words.
Dargo and his companions scrambled to their feet and scurried off
as if hounds with their tails on fire, leaving their weapons behind.
She turned back to Dizzywig. The goblin simply nodded. "Can't
make out much under that robe, but you've got the smell of a
priest about you...."
"I am of that calling."
Dizzywig grinned. "Priest, mage, monster, man, don't matter to
me none just so I get paid. The red boat there," he indicated with
a crooked finger. "That's a good craft, if you've got the money."
"I have." The pouch materialized from the depths of her sleeve. "If
I can trust that the boat will sail."
"Yeah, it will...but not with me in it. You want a crew, you
should've held on to that sorry trio, heh!"
She shrugged. "I only need a serviceable craft. I'll make it on my
own, if that is what is destined for me."
The draenei tossed him the pouch, which Dizzywig immediately
opened. The goblin poured out the coins, his eyes wide with
pleasure.
"That'll do...just," he said with a larger grin.
Without another word, the priestess strode toward the boat
indicated. Its sides were more green than red due to layers of
algae, and the wood was well worn, but she saw no weakness in
the thick hull. A strong, single mast with a mainsail-foresail
combination gave the fifty-foot-long sloop its only source of
movement. Climbing in, she also found two sorry emergency oars
resting in the hooks on the inside walls of the hull.
Dizzywig no doubt expected her to ask for supplies, but she was
growing uncharacteristically impatient and did not want to spend
time bartering for what she did not believe that she needed. Bad
enough that she had spent futile weeks following a false trail.
Secreted on her person was enough sustenance for the journey
across.

The wharfmaster chuckled again, and although she no longer
faced him, the draenei knew that he wondered what she would
do next. For Dizzywig, the stranger was a good night's
entertainment, indeed.
Wondering whether he would be disappointed with what she now
intended, the priestess extended her hand...and began working
the lines and the sail for departure with the practiced skill of one
familiar with the sea, albeit no sea as the goblin would have
known.
When she was done with that, the draenei leapt out. Judging the
mass of the craft, she gripped one part of it and shoved.
Dizzywig let out a hmmph of surprise. It should have taken two or
three brawny men to break the boat completely free. Fortunately,
the priestess had not relied on brute strength, but a careful
measurement of balance.
The boat silently slid the rest of the way into the water. The
draenei leapt aboard, thanking those who had trained her.
"The sea's no safer than the land, these days. Just remember
that!" the goblin called jovially. Then, with another chuckle, he
added, "Enjoy your trip!"
She did not need the wharfmaster to warn her of the dangers.
Over the past weeks, the priestess had confronted more than her
share of the darkness seeking to engulf this world. More than
once, she had nearly been killed during her pursuit, but, by the
grace of the naaru, she had survived to continue the chase.
But as Ratchet, as all Kalimdor, rapidly dwindled in the dark and
the sea enveloped her craft, the draenei felt that she had only
tasted the least of dangers thus far. Now that the priestess knew
that she followed the true trail, she was also aware that at some
point, those she hunted would note her approach.
Note it and do what they could to slay her.
So it must be...the draenei thought. After all, she had taken up
this quest of her own volition, her own desire.
Taken it up even though all who knew her now thought her
utterly mad...




вторник, 2 юни 2009 г.

"Night of the Dragon"

ONE

So quickly passes time when one manages to live to be so old,
thought the robed figure as he sat in his mountain sanctum
surveying the world through an endless series of glimmering
globes hovering around him. At a gesture from their creator, they
shifted about the gargantuan oval chamber. Those he most
desired came to rest before him just above one of a series of
pedestals forged by his magic from the stalagmites that had once
filled this place. At the base, each pedestal appeared as if carved
by an artisan, so perfect were the lines, the angles. However, as
they rose, they transformed into what was more the dreams of
the sleeping rather than the result of physical labor. In those
dreams, there were hints of dragons, hints of spirits, in the
shaping, and at the very top something resembling a petrified
hand with long, sinewy fingers stretched up, almost but not quite
grasping the sphere above.

And in each of the spheres appeared a scene of much relevance to
the wizard, Krasus.

The faint rumble of thunder managing to reach his hidden
sanctum gave great indication to the turbulent weather without.
Shrouded this foul eve in violet robes that had once bespoken of
the Kirin Tor, the lanky, pale spellcaster leaned close to better
view the latest scene. The sphere's blue illumination revealed in
turn features akin to those of the high elves—a people now all but
extinct—including the angular bone structure, the patrician nose,
and the long head. Yet, despite also bearing the handsomeness of
that fallen race, Krasus was clearly not of any true elven lineage. It
was not merely that his hawklike face had lines and scars—most
notably three long, jagged ones running down the right cheek—
that no elf of any sort could gain unless he had lived well past a
thousand years, nor the exotic black and crimson streaks in his
silver hair. Rather, it was his glittering, black eyes—eyes like no elf
nor even any human—that told of an age beyond any mortal creature.

An age possible only for one of the eldest of dragons.
Krasus was the name by which he went in this form, a name that
many knew only as once a senior member of the inner circle of
Dalaran's ruling council of wizards. But Dalaran had failed to stem
the growing tide of evil despite the best of efforts, as had failed so
many other kingdoms during the wars against the orcs and the
subsequent one against the demons of the Burning Legion and
the undead Scourge. The world of Azeroth had been turned
upside down, with thousands of lives lost, and yet was still only
barely in balance...a balance that looked more and more fragile
with every passing day.

It is as if we are trapped in a never-ending game, our lives hinging
on the roll of a dice or the turn of a card, he thought, recalling
catastrophic events even further in the past. Krasus had witnessed
the collapse of civilizations far older than any existing now, and
although he had had a hand in helping salvagesomething from many, it never seemed enough. He was only one being, one dragon...even if he was, in truth, Korialstrasz, consort to the great queen of the red flight, Alexstrasza.
But not even the great Aspect of Life herself, his beloved mistress,
could have foreseen all that happened or been able to stop those
events from taking place. Krasus knew that he placed a far greater
burden upon himself than he should have, but the dragon mage
could not relent in his efforts to help the peoples of Azeroth, even
if some of those efforts were doomed to failure from the start.
Indeed, there were even now many situations that drew his
attention, situations with the potential to wreak utter havoc upon
his world...and at the core of those problems were his own kind,
the dragons. There was the vast rift leading into the astounding
realm called Outland, a great portal that in particular both
fascinated and disturbed the blue dragonflight, keepers of magic
itself. From it had already come a mysterious cure for the
madness that had long engulfed the blue lord. Yet although the
Aspect of Magic, Malygos, was now completely lucid, Krasus did
not at all like the path the leviathan's mind had now chosen.
Outraged at what he felt was the younger races' destructive
misuse of magic, Malygos had begun to suggest to the other
Aspects that a purge of all those wielding such power might prove
necessary to preserve Azeroth. In fact, he had grown quite
adamant about it the last time he, Alexstrasza, Nozdormu the
Timeless One, and Ysera—She of the Dreaming—had gathered in
the far-off Northeast for their convocation at the ancient,
towering Wyrmrest temple in the ice-bound Dragonblight—a
significant, annual ritual originally begun to mark their combined
might managing to overcome the dread Deathwing more than a
decade ago.

With mounting frustration, Krasus dismissed the image that he
had been viewing and summoned the next. His thoughts,
however, were still focused inward, this time upon the last of the
four great dragons, Ysera. There were rumors of nightmarish
things happening in the ethereal realm of which she was mistress,
the almost mythic Emerald Dream. Exactly what was a question
no one could answer, but Krasus was beginning to fear that the
Emerald Dream was a problem potentially more disastrous than
any other.

He started to dismiss the next sphere without even really glancing
at its contents...then belatedly recognized the location revealed.
Grim Batol.

All thought of Malygos and the Emerald Dream vanished from his
attention as Krasus surveyed the sinister mountain. He knew it
too well, for he had been there in times past and had sent agents
serving his purpose into the very heart of the accursed place. In
Grim Batol, his beloved mistress had been enslaved by orcs—the
same barbaric race, oddly enough, that would prove such
beneficial allies thirteen years later when the demons of the
Burning Legion returned—utilizing a sinister artifact called the
Demon Soul. The Demon Soul, unfortunately, had been able to
bend her will to the Horde because it had been forged by the
Aspects themselves, only to be perverted by one of their own.
Alexstrasza had produced young for the orcs for their war efforts,
young who became the brutish warriors’ mounts in battle. Young
who had perished by the scores in combat against wizards and
dragons of other flights.

Through his guidance of the impetuous wizard, Rhonin, the
high elf warrior maiden, Vereesa, and others, Krasus had been
instrumental in releasing his queen from captivity. Dwarven
fighters had assisted in wiping out the remaining pockets of ore
resistance. Grim Batol had been emptied out, its evil legacy
forever eradicated.

Or so all had thought. The dwarves were the first to feel the
darkness that permeated it, and so they left almost immediately
following the orcs' defeat. Alexstrasza and he had decided then
that it was the duty of the red flight to seal off Grim Batol again.
This despite the irony of the fact that, having already guarded it
since the ancient Battle of Mount Hyjal, the red dragons' presence
had made it so simple for the orcs arriving there to enslave them
with the Demon Soul.

And so, despite some misgivings on Krasus's part, crimson
behemoths had once again stood sentry around the vicinity,
making certain that no one wandered in, either by accident or
thinking to make some use of that evil.

But then, only recently, the sentries had sickened for no reason at
all, and some had even died. A few had gone so very mad that
there had been no choice but to put them down for fear of the
devastation they might cause. The red flight had finally done as all
others had, abandoning Grim Batol to itself.

And so, it had become nothing but an empty tomb marking the
end of an old war and what had turned out to be a very, very
short period of peace.

Yet...

Krasus eyed the darkened scene. Even from so far away, he could
sense something radiating from within. Grim Batol had become so
bathed in evil over the centuries that there was no redeeming it.
And from it had come rumors of late, rumors that hinted of the
baleful past rising from the dead. Krasus knew them all.
Fragmented tales of a huge, winged form barely seen in the night
sky, a ghostly form that had, in one case, wiped out an entire
village miles from Grim Batol. In the light of the moon, the teller
of one tale had claimed to see what might have been a dragon...but one neither red, black, or any known color. Amethyst it had been, something impossible and so surely of the frightened farmer's imagination. Still, those with distant sight, mostly agents of his, had reported strange emanations in the sky above the
mountain and when one—a trusted young male of his own
flight—had dared try to track those emanations back, he had
utterly vanished.

Too much was going on in the rest of the world for the Aspects to
focus upon Grim Batol, but Krasus could not let it rest. However,
he could no longer rely on agents, for sacrificing others was not
generally his way. This now demanded his own effort, no matter
what the outcome.

Even his death.

Indeed, at this point there were only two others he would have
entrusted even with the knowledge, but Rhonin and Vereesa had
troubles of their own.

It was up to him alone, then. With a curt wave of his hand, Krasus
sent the spheres flying into the shadows above. Death was no fear
to him, who had seen it and nearly experienced it far too often.
He wanted only that—should it happen—it at least would mean
something. He was more than willing to die for the sake of his
world and those he loved, if that was what was required.
If such is required, the dragon mage pointed out to himself.
He had not yet even begun the journey. Now was not the time to
think of his demise.

The search must be done with stealth, Krasus considered as he
abandoned his seat. This is no mere happenstance. There is
something going on that threatens us all; I feel it-...
If it had been another time, if it had been the Second War, Krasus
would have known who to blame. The mad Aspect once called the
Earth-Warder or, more specifically...Neltharion. But no one had
called the immense black dragon by his original name for
millennia, a much more apt one having arisen after the first of the
insane behemoth's monstrous plots.

Deathwing, he was called now. Deathwing the Destroyer.
Krasus paused in the midst of the huge cavern, taking a deep
breath in preparation for what was to come next. No, Deathwing
could not be blamed for this, for it was nearly positive that he was
this time dead. Nearly positive. That was far better than in past
incidences when the black dragon had only been presumed likely
dead.

And Deathwing was not the only great evil in the world.
Krasus spread his arms to each side. It did not matter whether
what lurked in Grim Batol was simply the culmination of ages of
past evil or some sinister new foulness; he would find out the
truth.

His body swelled out of proportion. With a grunt, the mage fell to
the floor, dropping on all fours. His face stretched forward, his
nose and mouth melding together as they formed a long,
powerful snout. The robes Krasus wore shredded, the pieces
flying up into the air, then immediately settling all over his body,
where they became hard crimson-colored scales.

From Krasus's back burst two small, webbed wings that grew as
his body did. A pointed tail sprouted. Hands and feet twisted into
powerful paws ending in a sharp set of claws.

The transformation took but the blink of an eye, but by the time it
was done, the mage Krasus was no more. In his place stood a
magnificent red dragon who nearly filled the cavern and who was
dwarfed in size by few of his kind other than the great Aspects.
Korialstrasz stretched his vast wings once, then leapt up toward
the stone ceiling.

The ceiling shimmered just before he reached it, tons of rock
becoming as if water. The crimson dragon dove into the liquefied
stone unimpeded. Powerful muscles lifted him ever upward as he
drove full pace through the magicked barrier.

Seconds later, he burst into the night sky. The rock solidified
behind him, leaving no trace of his passage.

This latest of his sanctums perched among the mountains near
what remained of Dalaran. Ruins appeared below, yes—far too
many ruins of once-proud towers and powerful keeps—but there
was something much, much more astounding enveloping most of
the fabled realm. It originated from where the Kirin Tor had ruled
and spread equally in all directions. It was the desperate attempt
of those that remained of the inner council to resurrect their
glory, to rebuild their might while aiding the Alliance against the
Scourge.

It was what appeared to be a vast, magical dome, a dome of
shifting energies, but especially those that gave it a shimmering
violet or gleaming white appearance. It was utterly opaque, giving
no clue to the efforts within. Korialstrasz knew what the wizards
planned and thought them mad for it, but let them do as they
must. There was still the hope that they would succeed....

Despite their own not-insignificant abilities, the council of wizards
was utterly ignorant of the dragon almost in their midst. When he
had been a part of their order—one of its secret founders, in
fact—they had known him only as Krasus, never as his true self.
Korialstrasz preferred it that way; most of the younger races
would have found it impossible to deal directly with such a mythic
beast.

Shielded by his magic, the dragon flew over the fantastic dome,
then headed southeast. He was tempted to veer toward the lands
of the red flight, but such a delay might prove costly. His queen
might also question his journey, even forbid it. Even for her,
Korialstrasz would not turn back.

Indeed, it was for her in great part that he sought to return to
Grim Batol.

The dwarves were a motley group, even compared with how
dwarves often were seen in the eyes of humans or other races.
They themselves would have preferred a better state of affairs,
but their duty demanded that they ignore their discomforts for
the sake of their people.

Squat but powerfully built, the dwarven warriors numbered both
males and females, although those not of the race might have had
some difficulty discerning the physical difference from a distance.
The females lacked the thick beards, were of slightly lesser builds
than their counterparts and if one listened close, the voices were
a little less gruff. However, they were known for fighting with as
much determination, if not more sometimes, than their mates.
But male or female, they were all grimy and exhausted, and this
day had seen two of their comrades lost.

"I could’ve saved Albrech," Grenda said, her lips twisted into a
frown of self-recrimination. "I could’ve, Rom!"

The older dwarf to whom she spoke bore more scars than any of
the rest. Rom was commander and the one with the most
knowledge of Grim Batol's legacy. After all, had he not also been
leader years ago when the wizard Rhonin, the high elf archer,
Vereesa, and a gryphon rider from the Aerie had aided his forces
in ridding the foul place of the orcs and freeing the great
Dragonqueen? He leaned against the wall of the tunnel through
which he and his band had just run, catching his breath. He had
been young not that long ago. The past four weeks here had aged
him in a manner unnatural, and he was certain that it was the
sinister land's doing. He recalled the reports concerning the red
dragons and how they had suffered even greater before finally
having the sense to depart barely a month back. Only dwarves
were hard-headed enough to march where the very realm itself
sought to kill them.

And if not the realm, then whatever black evil that had now
burrowed deep into the dread caverns.

"There was nothing that could be done, Grenda," he grunted
back. "Albrech and Kathis knew this might be."

"But to leave them to fend for themselves against the skardyn—"

Rom dug under his breastplate to retrieve his long pipe. Dwarves
went nowhere without their pipes, although sometimes they had
to smoke something other than what they generally favored. For
the past two weeks, the band had been making due with a
combination of ground brown mushrooms—the tunnels were full
of those—and a red weed found near a stream that was their best source of water. It made for a tolerable smoke, if not much else.

"They chose to stand and help the rest of us get our task done,"
he replied, stuffing the pipe. As he lit the contents, Rom added,
"and that was to bring this stinkin' creature back with us...."

Grenda and the rest of the party followed his gaze to their
prisoner. The skardyn hissed like a lizard, then snapped sharp
teeth at Rom. It—Rom was fairly certain the thing was male, but
did not wish to grant the skardyn even that much identity—stood
slightly shorter than the average dwarf, but was a little wider. All
of that extra width was muscle, for the scaly creatures dug
through earth with their clawed hands as not even the most
powerful of Rom's people could.

The face that stared out from under the skardyn's ragged brown
hood was a macabre mix of dwarven and reptilian features, the
former not at all a surprise to its captors—for skardyn were
descended from the same race as Rom and his comrades. Their
ancestors had been Dark Iron dwarves, accursed survivors of the
War of Three Hammers hundreds of years earlier. Most of the
traitorous Dark Irons had perished in that epic confrontation
between dwarf and dwarf, but there had always been rumors that
some had escaped into Grim Batol after their leader—the
sorceress, Modgud—had cursed Grim Batol just before being
slain. As no one had desired at that time to hunt any possible
remaining foes in a place blackened by magic, the rumors had
remained just that...until Rom had had the misfortune to discover
the truth in them shortly after arriving.

But whatever links there had been between Rom's people and the
skardyn's had long ago become so intangible as to be nonexistent.
The skardyn retained the general shape and some traces of facial
similarity, but even where they had once sported beards, coarse
scales now covered everything. Their teeth were, indeed, more
like those of a lizard or even a dragon and their misshapen
hands—paws, to be precise—also resembled those of the two
beasts. The thing that the dwarves had captured was also just as
likely to run on all fours as it was on two legs.

That did not mean that the skardyn were merely animals. They
were cunning and well-versed in weaponry, be it the daggers they
carried on their belts, the axes—unchanged since the War of
Three Hammers—or the metal, palm-sized balls wickedly spiked
that they either tossed by hand or threw using slings. Still, if
disarmed, they were also more than willing to utilize their teeth
and claws, as had been disastrously proven the first time the
dwarves had encountered them.

That time, the verification that these were the descendants of the
Dark Irons had been proven by the garments, which still retained
the markings of the treacherous clan. Unfortunately, it had
proven highly difficult for Rom's force to capture any of the
creatures alive, so fierce did the skardyn fight. Three times before
this had he organized missions to take a prisoner, and three times
had the dwarves utterly failed.

And three times had others under Rom's command perished.
That last damned streak still held with the loss of two fine
warriors this night. However, at last the mission had something to
show for its efforts...or so he hoped. Now, at last, Rom believed
that he had a source by which he could at last discover what could
be so malevolent and powerful that even dragons fled in fear of it.
What darkness commanded the skardyn with
such absolute mastery that the abominations would die for it?
And what now howled its anguish as unsettling lights and energies
radiated from the desolate peak?

The skardyn spat as Rom leaned close. Its breath was awful, which
said much considering the stenches to which dwarves were used.
Rom discovered another change that further pushed skardyn and
dwarves apart; the prisoner had a double-forked tongue.
None of these alterations were natural, but rather the result of
living in a place so saturated with evil magic. The dwarven leader
peered grimly, matching the bloody red gaze with his own stern
one.

"You filth can still speak the language," Rom rumbled. "Heard you
use it before."

The prisoner hissed...then tried to lunge. The two hefty guards
holding its arms had been chosen by Rom for their strength, but
they were still hard-pressed to keep the skardyn in place.
Rom took a deep puff of his pipe, then exhaled deeply in the
creature's face. The skardyn sniffed longingly; one trait that
apparently had not changed was the love of the pipe. When first
the dwarves had checked the bodies of dead ones, they had found
curled pipes carved not from wood, but crafted from clay. What
exactly the skardyn used to fill those pipes was another question,
for the only substance anyone had discovered on the skardyn had
smelled like old grass and mulched earth worms. Not even the
hardiest of Rom's followers had been willing to try it.

"You'd like a smoke, would you?" Rom took another puff, then
again blew it in the creature's face. "Well, just talk with me a little,
and well see what we can do..."

"Uzuraugh!" snapped the prisoner. "Hizakh!"

Rom tsked. "Now that kind o' talk will only get you turned over to
Grenda and her two brothers. Albrech, he was Gwyarbrawden to
them? You know that old word? Gwyarbrawden?"

The skardyn stilled. Dwarves counted their blood connections in
many ways. There was the clan, of course, the most prominent of
ties. Yet, within and without the clan there were other bindings,
and the ritual of Gwyarbrawden was foremost among the
common warriors. Those who swore Gwyarbrawden to one
another marked themselves as willing to cross all of Azeroth to
find their comrade's slayer, should that happen. They were also
not averse to making the death of that slayer long and harsh, for
Gwyarbrawden was a justice all unto itself. Clan leaders did not
publicly acclaim its existence, but neither did they condemn it.
It was a part of dwarven society that very few outsiders knew
about.

But skardyn were not outsiders, evidently, for the wild, crimson
orbs flashed toward a grinning Grenda, then back to Rom once
more. Legends concerning Gwyarbrawden quests often finished
with extravagant descriptions of the prey's lengthy death. It did
not surprise Rom to know that such grisly stories would still
circulate among this creature's kind.

"Last chance," he said, taking another puff. "Going to talk so we
can understand you?"

The skardyn nodded.

Rom hid his anticipation. He had not been entirely bluffing about
Grenda and her brothers, but giving up the prisoner to
them might have meant finding out nothing. True, Grenda would
have done her best to wring some word out of the ugly thing, but
he could not discount one of the three perhaps too eagerly
pursuing Gwyarbrawden and killing the skardyn before that
happened.

With a final glance at Grenda to remind the captive of what
awaited it if it did not answer, Rom said, "The veiled one! Your
comrades brought her something, and now Grim Batol echoes
with a roar like that of a dragon...only no dragon's been seen here
in months! What's she up to in there?"

"Chrysalun..."The single word escaped the skardyn with a
hoarseness that made it sound as if speaking was a rare and
terrible effort for it. "Chrysalun..."

"What by the beard of my father is a chrys—chrysalun?"

"Bigger..." the prisoner rasped, its tongue darting in and out.

"Bigger inside...not out..."

"What pile of tailings is that beast spouting? He mocks us all!" one
of Grenda's brothers snarled. Although not twins, her siblings
looked even more like one another than most dwarves did, and
Rom always had trouble telling which was Gragdin and which was
Griggarth.

Whichever he was, he followed his declaration by charging
forward, ax raised as best the tunnel allowed. The skardyn hissed
and struggled anew.

It was Grenda who blocked her impetuous brother. "No,
Griggarth! Not yet! Put the ax down now!"

Griggarth shrank under his sister's admonition. She was the
mistress and they were her two hounds. Gragdin, who had no
reason to, imitated his brother's reaction.

Grenda turned back to the skardyn. "But if this filth doesn't make
more sense with the next word he utters..."

Rom seized control again. Finishing the last bits in his pipe, he
tapped the ashes out, then muttered, "Aye. One last time. Maybe
a different question'll stir you right." He considered, then said,
"Maybe something about the tall one and what his ilk would be
doin' here of all places."

His suggestion had a disquieting reaction on the skardyn. At first,
Rom thought that it was choking on something, but then he
realized that the damned beast was laughing.

Drawing his dagger, Rom thrust the point under the skardyn's
brown, scaly chin. Despite that, the prisoner did not let up.

"Be still, you blasted son of a toad or I'll save them the trouble of
flaying you and—"

The ceiling caved in. Dwarves scattered as tons of rock and stone
tumbled down.

And with it came three massive figures not only armored in brass
breastplates and guards, but scaled even more than the skardyn.
Worse, these imposing giants—nearly nine feet tall by Rom's
expert reckoning—were far more deadly and far more
unexpected than the descendants of the Dark Irons had been.

"What are—" cried one dwarf before a huge, arced blade cut
through his midsection, breastplate and all.

Rom knew what they were, if only by description, but it was
Grenda who cried out their foul name. "Drakonid!"
She lunged toward the first, her ax already out. Looking as if
someone had melded a dragon and a human into one vicious
warrior, the black-scaled drakonid she moved against swung at
the dwarf with the already-bloodied weapon. As it struck her ax,
the blade flared, cutting through good dwarven
workmanship as if through water.

Only Rom's swift action saved her. Having launched himself
toward the monstrous figure at the same time that Grenda had,
he was there in time to shove her aside. Unfortunately, the
confines of the ruined tunnel did not give him enough room to
avoid being struck by the blade meant for her.

The dwarf screamed as it burned through his wrist. He watched
with amazement as his hand fell to the ground, where it was
trampled under the drakonid's massive, three-toed foot.
If there was anything fortunate to come from the terrible wound,
it was that the magic of the blade also cauterized the cut. That,
combined with dwarven endurance, enabled Rom to throw his
strength into a one-handed swing.

The ax cut into the armored hide near the shoulder. The drakonid
let out a growl of pain and backed up.

Laughter rung in Rom's ears, laughter that less and less sounded
like the skardyn's and more like something far more sinister. He
glanced over his shoulder to where the prisoner should have still
been held.

But the guards lay dead, their eyes staring blindly and their
throats cut. Their axes remained harnessed on their backs, and
their daggers were still sheathed in their belts. They looked as if
they had simply stood and waited to die.

Or had been bespelled...for what stood where the skardyn had
been was no magic-degenerated dwarf. Instead, the figure stood
as tall as a human, but was slimmer of build. His long, pointed
ears were clue enough to his identity, but his crimson robes and
fiercely-glowing green eyes—the sign of demon taint—verified to
Rom's dismay just how big a fool the commander had been.
It was the very blood elf about whom he had been asking.
Rom's hunt for a prisoner who could give him information had
been turned into a trap for the dwarves. His pulse raced as he
imagined his followers slaughtered or, likely worse, captured and
dragged back into Grim Batol.

With a war cry that resounded in the ruined tunnel, he charged
the blood elf. The tall figure eyed the powerful dwarf with disdain,
then held out one hand.

In it, a twisted wooden staff materialized, the head ending in a
fork in which a huge, skull-shaped emerald matching the blood elf
s evil orbs flared.

Rom went flying back, the dwarf colliding with the wall behind
him.

As he dropped to the ground, Rom uttered an epithet that would
have burned the ears of any human, much less one of the elven
races. Through his blurred vision, he saw dwarves desperately
trying to make a stand against the powerful drakonid. It was not
that the dragon men were unstoppable, but his people seemed to
be moving sluggishly. Gorum, a fighter whose swiftness was
second only to Rom's, hefted his ax as if it weighed as much as he.
The blood elf...it...it has to be the...blood elf... Rom struggled to
rise, but his body would not obey.

Worse to him than even his own certain demise was his failure to
his king. He had sworn an oath to Magni that he would discover
the secret of what was now going on in Grim Batol, but all Rom
had accomplished was this horrific debacle.

That shame managed to get him to his knees, but from there he
could rise no farther. The blood elf turned his attention from Rom,
yet another insult to the dwarfs honor.

Rom managed to seize his ax. He struggled against both the spell
and his own pain—

A horrific roar that shook the walls rose above the tunnels,
causing everyone to look up.

The effect on the blood elf was greatest. He cursed in some
tongue Rom did not understand, then shouted to the drakonid,
"Up! Quickly! Before it gets too far!"

The dragon warriors crouched, then leaped up and out of the
tunnels with astounding agility for their immense size. Their
leader tapped the bottom of the staff twice on the ground—and
vanished in a brief burst of golden flames.

Rom abruptly found it possible to move, if somewhat wearily.
Slowly, the conditions of his comrades registered. There were at
least three dead and several others wounded. He doubted that
the drakonid had suffered much more than one or two cuts each,
none of them threatening. If not for the mysterious roar, the
dwarves would have been lost.

Grenda and one of her brothers came to his aid. Sweat drenched
the female warrior. "Can you walk?"

"Hmmph! I can run...if I've got to, girl!"

It was because of no sense of cowardice that he suggested
running. There was no telling if the blood elf and the drakonid
would return as quickly as they had left. The dwarves were in
disarray and needed to retreat to a location where they could
recover.

"To...to the slope tunnels," Rom commanded. Those tunnels were
much farther from Grim Batol, but he felt them the best choice.
The ground of the region there was full of rich veins of white
crystal—highly sensitive to magical energies—which would make
it difficult for even a mage like the blood elf to scry for them. In a
sense, the scouts would become invisible.

But not invincible. Nowhere was it completely safe.
With Grenda's assistance, Rom led the dwarves off. Glancing over
his battered followers, he saw again how much the very brief
struggle had cost them. If not for the roar—

The roar. As grateful as he was for that interruption, Rom
wondered at its origins, wondered about that...and whether or
not what had been the dwarves’ salvation was the harbinger of
something far, far worse.

неделя, 31 май 2009 г.

"Night of the Dragon"

PROLOGUE

He was trapped...trapped...trapped...
The darkness of his prison closed in around him. He could not
breathe, could not move. How had this happened? What were the
foul little creatures who had somehow managed to ensnare him?
Vermin capturing a leviathan! It was impossible!
But it had happened...
He wanted to roar, but could not. There was no sound here,
anyway. The silence drove him mad. He needed to be free! There
had to be some escape—
A blinding emerald light enveloped him. He shrieked as it painfully
ripped him from his prison and thrust him into the beyond.
But that shriek turned into a mighty roar of relief mixed with fury.
He spread wide his magnificent, shimmering wings, his
gargantuan, teal form filling much of this new place in which he
found himself. Jagged, almost crystalline protrusions erupted
along his spine and head, the latter creating an impressive crest
akin to those worn on a warlord's helm. Huge, glittering white
orbs—more like pearls than eyes—swept over a massive cavern
filled with toothy projections thrusting from both the rounded
ceiling and the rough floor.
And then his baleful gaze fell upon the vermin that had dared—
somehow!—to trap his greatness. A subtle magenta aura
suddenly radiated from him as he bellowed his righteous fury.
"Foul little worms! Foul little gremlins! You would dare make of
Zzeraku a caged pet?" As Zzeraku cried out, his already ethereal
body grew more translucent. He fixed on a small party of his
captors. They were ugly little things that moved like squashed
draenei but were scaled in some places and furred in others. They
had vicious little mouths filled with sharp teeth and wore hooded
and armored garments. Their eyes were red like molten earth and
despite his obvious threat to them, they did not appear properly
frightened.
It was clear to Zzeraku that they knew very little about nether
dragons.
"Foul little worms! Foul little gremlins!" he repeated. His body
suddenly crackled with lightning the color of his wondrous self. He
reached out a taloned paw as if to wipe away the creatures, the
lightning suddenly shooting forth from it.
The first bolts went oddly astray, turning from the little creatures
at the last moment. At the same time, the foreheads of each
briefly revealed a strange, glowing rune.
Without hesitation, the captive nether dragon cast again.
However, this time the lightning struck the ground around his
tormentors. Rock and dirt exploded everywhere, the snarling little
beasts thrown with the rest. Their hissing bodies scattered
through the air with pleasing effect. "Foul little worms! Zzeraku
will squash you all!"
He summoned more of his power. Veins of dark azure suddenly
crisscrossed his chest. The lightning crackled more violently.
From somewhere to the side, a long, sinewy strand of silver
energy looped around his left forelimb, tightening painfully.
Startled, Zzeraku forgot his own intended attack. The nether
dragon was a creature of energy; the strand should have slipped
through him. He snapped at it, only to receive a vicious jolt to his
jaws. His limb dropped, suddenly bereft of all strength.
As that happened, his other forelimb was likewise snared. Zzeraku
tugged in vain, the slender magical strand so very powerful.
The nether dragon's body swelled, the blue veins that distinctly
marked Zzeraku now nearly black. He took on an even more
transparent appearance, as if fading away to mist.
The silver strands flared.
Zzeraku let out a pained roar and fell forward, crashing on the
cavern floor as if made of flesh and bone. Cracks ran across the
stone. A crevasse opened up, into which two of the tiny creatures
tumbled to their doom.
The others ignored the fates of their comrades as they set into
motion two more silver strands. Five of the vermin at a time
wielded the sinister threads of energy as if gigantic whips. The
strands soared unerringly over Zzeraku to the opposing side,
where the ends were seized and guided into the ground with
small emerald stones.
"Release Zzeraku!" the nether dragon roared as the strands
flashed and his body suffered renewed agony. "Release me!"
The new strands forced him to flatten against the floor. Zzeraku
struggled, but his magical bonds kept his powers entirely in check.
All around him, the scaly figures rushed about, adding dread line
after dread line until they had all but enshrouded him in them.
Each cut into the nether dragon's body, simultaneously burning
and freezing him. Zzeraku shrieked his fury and pain, but nothing
that he did could alter his situation.
The creatures continued to feverishly work, evidently uncertain as
to the strength of the strands. With the emeralds, they constantly
readjusted the bonds, often to the nether dragon's further
torture. One chortled at his pain.
Zzeraku managed a last burst of energy at that tormentor. Black
energy surrounded the creature, who now shrieked with
satisfying fear. The nether dragon's magic crushed the one captor
into a pulpy mess that then solidified into ebony crystal.
Immediately, another strand fell across his muzzle, clamping it
down. The glistening leviathan fought, but his jaws were held as
tight as the rest of him.
His captors continued to scuttle about the huge cavern as if in
great anxiousness, although Zzeraku could no longer imagine it
had anything to do with him. He let out a frustrated hiss—a sound
muffled by his sealed muzzle—and tried yet again to free himself.
And yet again, it was to no avail.
Then, without warning, the squat, scaly creatures paused in what
they were doing. As one, they stared at a point to the nether
dragon's side but well beyond his sight. However, Zzeraku could
still sense that someone approached , someone of tremendous
power.
His true captor...
Those around him dropped to the ground in homage. Zzeraku
heard a slight movement that might have been the wind if not for
the fact that no wind could reach this accursed place.
"You have done well, my skardyn," came a voice that, despite its
feminine allure, touched what passed for the soul of the nether
dragon like the coldest ice. "I am pleased...."
'They obeyed their orders well," replied a second, more masculine
speaker. His voice held a clear contempt for the creatures.
"Though they opened the chrysalun chamber too soon, my lady.
The beast nearly escaped."
"There was never a need for concern. Once here, escape for this
one was impossible."
The feminine voice drew nearer...and suddenly a small form
stepped into sight before Zzeraku. A pale figure clad in a formfitting
gown the color of night paused to study him and be studied
in turn. She reminded Zzeraku of another, one who had tried to
befriend him and taught him something beyond the absolute
chaos he had known in the realm some called Outland. Yet, the
nether dragon could smell that this being, while similar in some
ways to the one he recalled, was also very different in others.
Long, ebony hair flowed down past her shoulders. She kept her
countenance to the side, as if not paying particular attention to
the captive beast even though Zzeraku knew full well that she did.
What the nether dragon could see of her features were flawless in
the way his friend's had been, even more so.
Yet the coldness Zzeraku felt from that half-lidded gaze made the
giant struggle anew.
The edge of her red lips curled up. "You need not trouble yourself
so, my little one. Rather, you should make yourself comfortable.
After all...I've only brought you home."
Her words made no sense. Zzeraku strained at his bonds, seeking
escape...escape from this tiny figure that somehow so frightened
him.
She turned to face him directly, in doing so revealing that the left
side of her visage was draped by a silken veil...a veil that fluttered
aside just enough when she turned to let the nether dragon see
the horrific, scorched flesh beneath and the gap where once an
eye had been.
And although she was a mere speck in comparison to the girth of
the nether dragon, the image of her ruined countenance still
magnified Zzeraku's anxiety a thousandfold. He wanted to be
away from it, wanted never to see it. Even when the veil settled
over the marred area, the nether dragon could still sense the
horrific evil beneath.
Evil that far outshone any that he had known in Outland.
Her cold smile stretched farther yet, farther than her face should
have allowed.
"You shall rest now," she said in a tone that demanded he obey.
As Zzeraku instantly began to lose consciousness, she added,
"Rest and have no fear...after all, you're among family here, my
child...."

Welcome

The first novel will be...

"World of WarCraft: Night of the Dragon"
by Richard A. Knaak

Enjoy!

събота, 30 май 2009 г.

Welcome in this world

Welcome to "World Adventures"! I hope those of you who like this genre *adventure* will appreciate my work. I here to put portions of some of the most popular adventure books and such, I am personally wrote. For now I can only say ... Enjoy!