They come for me.
Bolts of magical energies crash overhead as I dig deeper into the small depression in the grassy field. My demonic minion has faded into a cloud of sulphur, and my fel energies are all but exhausted. This time they ambushed me with a professional team. The amateurs I’ve faced over the previous attempts have contributed to my soul shards. But with this group, my future looks somewhat bleak.
I am an outcast. Thrall, or more likely, one of his over-exuberant lieutenants has put a price on my head. Of course, it is my fault. I willingly joined the Burning Blade to learn the secrets of the warlocks. While I never ascribed to the anti-Horde philosophy, it was the only way to learn the skills of my craft- at least until I came here, to Tirisfal. But by the time I left the coven, it was too late.
No matter that I killed fully a score of the Burning Blade during my escape, I am still the outcast. The undead of Lordaeron have accepted me, and have continued my training. They understand the need to be prepared. Why does Thrall not see the value of the power? Yes, I understand that we orcs were the puppets of the Burning Legion, and were held captive by the Fel powers, but now is the time to bend that power to our independent will. The Burning Legion will be back, and we will have to fight them using every tool available.
I believe it was a mistake when our clan’s shaman, my father, Curan, revoked his powers and returned to the ways of shamanism. He had been a powerful warlock who had held a coveted position of power in the Shadow Council under Gul’dan himself! Now, he wanders the Barrens, re-learning the ways of the elements. It would have been much easier if he would have taught me the ways of the forbidden arts.
I was a late-born of Curan, having been conceived after my family was captured by the humans and languished in the Internment Camps. I grew up in filth and hopelessness. My father seemed to sleep during most of our captivity, and it wasn’t until Thrall rescued us that my father fully revived. That is when he re-embraced shamanism.
But that road is not for me. I am the last of the clan’s warlocks, still struggling to learn the inner depths of my trade. My father believes that I travel down a sinister path, but leaves me to my own devices. He’s been there. He knows the lure, and gives me the opportunity to make use of it as I will. It has not been easy. The focus required to peer into the depths of Hell and bend its minions to my will has been difficult, but my mastery of it slowly grows.
As for these assassins, they have not gone unscathed. Two of them lie dead, ravaged by my demon before the others managed to banish it. A third lies screaming in agony, after witnessing his soul being corrupted. It is a truly ugly way to die. However the others are not deterred, and they have pinpointed my position.
The field in which I lay is considered pleasant for Tirisfal. Trees border the small glade, and the grass grows to about knee-high. A small, muddy depression lies in the middle. This pit has saved me from being pierced by several arrows, some of which are poisoned. But I have to keep moving.
There are at least six more of these assassins. Truly the price on my head has been increased to warrant this level of attention. Someone really wants me dead. But they have not realized what they have cornered. I am Zaegen of the clan Riht.
I am not some pampered Burning Blade warlock. My clan is built of fighters who roared into Azeroth to conquer a world. Even at the most listless, my father taught me how to fight and instilled into me the clan’s honor. As the spiritual leader, Curan presided over the growth and training of hundreds of Riht on Draenor, and his pride ensured that I grew up with the values forged by the blood of generations of the family. I might die today, but these assassins will have to earn their money.
With just enough energy for one more shadowbolt, I rise up briefly to launch the bolt into the copse of trees where a mage is hiding. A shout of surprise and anger tells me that I’ve hit the mark, and I am already moving. In a half-crouch, half-crawl, I move as quickly as I can through the grass to get into the trees. A bowman rises up ahead of me and takes aim. I do the only reasonable thing I can think of, I leap into him. He is a large orc, and his confidence in his strength is his undoing. Grinning, he quickly drops his bow and grabs an axe. But he’s too late. I tackle him and drive my dagger into his belly and rip a line to his ribcage. Now he’s too busy keeping himself together to worry about me.
Rising to my feet, I start running through the trees. I’m hoping to be able to find a more defensible position, or at least to elude these assassins until my fel energy replenishes itself. I also need to take a bit of time and summon another demon. With demon in tow and enough fel energy, I’ll have an even chance with the rest of these assassins.
However, it is not to be. A bolt of magic hits me in the back and the world goes dark.
The inn was dark, musty and in disrepair. Rotting, grey wood continued the fight to stay attached to sagging beams that served as the building’s frame. Gaps in the ceiling boards showed glimpses of the rooms above. Fireplace hearths, long dormant, crawled with centipedes, spiders and other insects seeking their daily meals. Broken tables, filled with webs and debris littered its once-lively floor. But the inn was not abandoned. Shuffling through the inn in a parody of life, undead moved, unfocused as they tried to remember their days of living.
These were not mere zombies, however. Lights of intelligence glowed behind empty eye sockets. Intelligible words flowed from the mouths of the undead as they talked to themselves and each other. These were the Forsaken, a relatively new race on Azeroth created as a product of magical plague and rebellious rebirth.
And there was life in this dying inn. At a table, two of the forsaken played cards with a third being. A being completely out of place in this setting. Broad, muscular shoulders defined themselves against brightly-colored clothing. A top-hat made of fine black felt covered his head. He wore a green, fluffy shirt and bright red pants. An orc in Tarren Mill was not necessarily unusual, but one in elvish-style, bright clothing certainly was not common.
One of the undead at the table peered at her cards. Her shriveled tongue slipped down to her shirt collar, unbound by the lack of a jaw bone. Her speech, however, was perfect, modulated by the same magic that kept her corpse from rotting into dust.
“I think you are bluffing, orc,” she said in a nasally high pitched voice. Nails on a chalkboard were more melodic. “There is no way that you could hold the Ace. I raise you three pieces of silver!” Then the unconscious cackling laugh that punctuated each complete sentence rolled from her skull .
To her left, the next corpse, more intact and almost human, stared glumly with his milky eyes at the pot, and then back to his cards. Finally he threw his hand on the table, stirring up a small cloud of dust. “I’m out, witch,” he grumbled. “I think you must use magic to win as much as you do.”
“Are you saying I cheat, Malcom?” Again the screech of a laugh as her left, skeletal hand closed into a fist and began to glow with green light.
Malcom pushed his chair back swifly, his face taking on an even greyer pallor than usual. “No, no, no, Matilda, no. I was just making a… joke.”
Matilda cackled again, but her hand stopped glowing- much to the relief of the other corpse. She then turned her empty eye sockets to stare at the orc. “So, my big, green, money-bags, are you going to fold as well?”
After a slight pause, the brightly colored orc counted out three silver from the pile of coins in front of him. Holding them in the air, he paused a moment dramatically, a savage smile on his lips. “I will see your silver, madam, and I will raise you…” Counting out five gold, he threw the coins into the pot. The shuffling around the inn stopped, and various undead turned and looked at the table. Even Innkeeper Shay wandered quietly over to the table. Five gold was a princely sum in Tarren Mill.
Agitated, Matilda looked into the triumphant gaze of the orc. She looked down at her cards and then at the pot. “I should have taken the money for that Riht fellow.” The orc froze, the triumphant smile immediately went flat. “Please, elaborate, madam.”
Matilda, still flustered, didn’t notice the change in demeanor. “Oh, some orcs came here a few days ago looking to collect on a bounty for an orc named Zaegenriht. “
“And?” The voice became softer, more dangerous.
The shift in tone seemed to wake Matilda from her focus on the pot. Realizing that there might be danger, she cackled manically as her left hand glowed once again. With feline swiftness, the orc pinned her glowing hand to the table with one dagger and thrust another to her throat, the tip poised to enter between the third and fourth vertebrae of her neck.
“You were saying, madam?”
Totally unnerved, the glow in her punctured hand subsided and Matilda began to babble breathlessly. “I knew this Zaegenriht. He had come for some lessons in the art of affliction. He paid well and I taught him a few tricks. Then he left. A couple of days later, these orcs show up. There had to be at least 20 of them. I told them nothing, but they spoke to some others and found out where he went. I can tell you too. He must be worth a lot of money. Certainly you could see your way to sharing a bit of the bounty with me, yes?”
The orc did not move a muscle as he stared at Matilda. A bit of dust from upstairs floated down to land on his cheek, but the orc seemed not to notice. The other patrons of the inn stood immobile, and if they had lungs, everyone would have been holding their breath.
Abruptly, the orc removed the daggers and quickly secreted them in his voluminous shirt. “Very well, madam, I will share with you the bounty. Now, where is this Zaegenriht?”
Again the screech of a laugh as Matilda regained her confidence. “Why, my new partner, he is in Tirisfal Glades, in the town of Brill I believe. But you had better be swift, and you better have friends. Those others were well outfitted and geared for war.”
Taking off his hat, the orc bowed low. “Thank-you madam. As for your share, you may keep that which is on the table.” With that, he threw on a dark, blood red cloak and swiftly left the inn.
Matilda stared sourly at the table of money. “But these coins would have been mine anyway.” Reaching over the pot, the witch turned over the orc’s cards. Whistling softly she shook her head, “And then again, maybe not. Maybe not.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, girl.”
Matilda turned sharply to look over at the innkeeper. “Explain yourself, barkeep!”
“Do you know who that orc was?”
“No, should I?”
Innkeeper Shay grinned- a hideous expression on his dead face. “Girl, that was Auralon”
The jawless forsaken’s cackle sounded uncertain. “The assassin?”
“The very one, girl. Among other things, he is known to be one of the Tranquillian, but more importantly, he is of the clan Riht. It’s a good thing that you didn’t admit to selling out his kin.”
Slowly, Matilda stood and gathered her coins. Perhaps it was time to move on. She had heard that Thunderbluff might be a nice place to practice witchcraft this time of year.
Darkness. Warmth and comfort fills me with contentment. Then, I start to feel. Dull aches permeate my muscles and a searing pain begins in my head. Sharp needles jab into my torso and neck. A pungent odor of mold and leaves assail my nostrils. A voice, as if from far away, speaks.
“Find him, but don’t kill him. The boss wants him healthy.”
Shuffling of feet and sharp, guttural replies start to recede. There are no other sounds. No wildlife, no breath of air. A cold mist clings to my skin, providing a moist layer over the haze of pain.
Slowly I open my eyes. I don’t want to make any quick moves to alert them to my presence. Why I haven’t already been captured is puzzling, but I soon figure it out. The blast from the mage must have knocked me off a small cliff and into a ravine of thistle and vines. I am covered by several inches of leaves and thorns.
The good news is that I am alive. The bad news is that I am severely injured and weak as a kitten. Blood freely pours from multiple scratches. The thorns have done their job well. Taking inventory, I find that my left shoulder has been dislocated, there are probably at least three cracked or broken ribs and my right leg doesn’t seem to be responding.
Through a small gap in the leaves above, I see a huge orc, decked out in mail with an axe. He is a few yards from me, and is slowly, but methodically cutting through the underbrush at set intervals. He will be upon me soon.
As weak as I am, some of my fel energy has returned. Not much, but enough. As he gets closer, I settle my thoughts and enter the calm state necessary to take the one chance left to me. It is a slim chance at best, but one takes what one gets.
He is now parallel to my position. A cut of his axe, and I tumble awkwardly towards him, falling to the ground when my legs refuse to work. But I don’t need legs for this. As his face lights up and his mouth opens to shout out his discovery, I strike.
A wave of dark, purple energy leaves my fingers and impacts his chest. A siphon is created instantly, and the orc’s life-force is sucked out of him and pulled into me. His shout becomes a scream of agony, and strength flows into my body, knitting my broken bones and reviving my health.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to kill him, and he goes berserk. With a scream of primal rage and pain, he picks up his axe and swings at my head. I barely move in time. While it is true that some of my wounds have closed and I feel stronger, I am in no shape to fight a berserk warrior. The axe cuts into the ground where my head was but a split second before. Instead of taking another swing, he drops the axe and grabs my arms pinning them to my sides. With another roar, he picks me up and holds me so that my face is level with his. Pain lances through my newly mended ribs and he begins to crush the life from me. Spittle and hot foam pour from his lips and his mouth curves upwards in savage joy.
Moments before consciousness leaves me, I smash my forehead into his face. Blood shoots from the smashed piece of cartilage and flesh that used to be his nose. That just angers him more. With a roar, he throws me bodily back into the thorns, ripping the newly-healed flesh of my scalp and back into tatters. Blood streams into my eyes, but I have no time to think about that. The enraged orc has regained his axe and is marching purposefully towards me.
Weakly, I push against the thorny underbrush as I attempt to stand. The thorns eagerly bite into me, digging new furrows in my skin. Ignoring the pain, I raise my arms in the sky and pause. The orc halts, warily looking at me. Through the blood , I grin, “You want me, fool? Come find me when I join you in Hell!” And with that, I use my recently-learned powers of affliction. I sear his body, setting it with fire that burns and peels his flesh from head to toe. Then I corrupt his soul, spending the last of the fel energy I had managed to husband up to this point.
Still, he doesn’t die. With a primal scream, the burning, bloody husk that is left runs blindly towards me, the axe high in the air ready to cleave me in twain. There is no time to move aside, so I close with this warrior moving under his upraised axe and plunging my knife into his chest. His body convulses once, stiffens and then falls, the axe still in its grasp.
Exhausted, I collapse. With his friends close by, I know I have to leave quickly, but I am spent. Already I hear the shouts as they come through the forest to find me.
Forcing myself to my feet, I pause briefly to salute this warrior. His breed is the type of orc to whom we should all aspire- fearless and driven. Unfortunately, I have no time to pay additional respects. If I am to live, I have to find a place to rest, recuperate and plan my revenge.
I stagger south, towards the hills.
The port bustled with activity. Surf crashing into the beach mingled with the cries of gulls and the calls of seamen loading and unloading cargo. The intense sun glared into the small seaside town of Ratchet, but its heat tempered somewhat from the cool breezes coming from the ocean.
The goblin town filled with more than the usual activity this day. Fully four large cargo vessels were in port, and the amount of jostling and argument between sailors and teamsters was much more verbose than normal.
Making his way through the throng of orcs, goblins and even the occasional human, Blon and his companion, the wolf, Sampson, made their way slowly, but steadily towards the inn. Despite the heat and the din, the orc whistled a soft tune and walked with a deceivingly relaxed gait.
Large for an orc, Blonriht wore the leathers common to a hunter/trapper in the Barrens. On the top of his head, however, he wore a stylish hat native to the Sholazar Basin, a jungle far to the north. A quiver, bow and a large battle axe were slung over his back, ready for use if needed.
But today, the hunter was not after a fight. Reaching the inn, he politely, but firmly, moved some goblins aside as he entered. In contrast to the outside, the inn was dim and much cooler. Several patrons of various races sat at large, wooden tables and spoke animatedly with their friends. Letting his eyes adjust, Blonriht looked casually around the room. Then he spied his quarry.
In a dark corner, at a table by himself, sat a heavily-armed and armored orc, speaking in low whispers to an unknown audience. Blon’s face lit up. Smiling, he maneuvered around tables and benches to finally arrive next to the orc.
Instantly, the orc stopped whispering and reached for his axe. Eyes, bloodshot and fierce, rose to pin Blon with a challenging stare. Blon stood there and grinned. “I reckon it’s been a while, ya midget.”
Recognizing his older brother, Sten of the clan Riht relaxed. Releasing his axe, his eyes calmed and he nodded at Blon and absently reached out so that Sampson could smell his hand. “It has been. Sit, brother, have a drink. It’s goblin swill, but it has its benefits.”
Blon slipped into a chair that creaked alarmingly at his large bulk. “Much obliged, brother. By the way, I would be lying if I told you that you look good. In fact, you look like you’ve been run over by a kodo.”
Sten’s heavy plate armor was full of dents and dings that he had obviously tried to hammer out in a hurry. Scorch marks, acid pocks and various other blemishes crossed and overlapped each other throughout the metal. However, Blon noticed, Sten’s large great axes were as sharp and clean as ever.
Sten’s face was not the young, adventurous and carefree orc of just two years ago. Then, a young Sten was eagerly attempting prove himself. Now, he was a cold, hard veteran, coming back after the wars of Northrend. His haunted eyes contained unfathomable pain and sorrow, intermixed with a furnace of rage.
The younger brother smiled humorlessly at his brother’s observation. Running his index finger around the crude, clay cup that contained his ale, Sten spoke softly, almost as if he was addressing the cup itself. “The Horde is convinced that we won, Blon. Arthas is dead. Even the Ani Ayastigi is blind to what is coming.” Sten’s eyes lifted to meet that of his brother’s. “The Alliance is waiting to pounce.”
Blon sat back and chuckled. “I reckon you’re right, but I think Thrall will have something to say about that. He generally doesn’t cotton to such things, and there’s more of us now that the Mag’har and this Garrosh fellow are working with us. Anyway, let’s stop talking politics. I haven’t heard hide nor hair of you for ‘bout a year.”
Sten started to say something, but then sat back in his chair, visibly relaxing for the first time since Blon had entered the inn. Picking up a pitcher, the warrior poured another cup of ale and pushed it over to Blon. “You’re right, brother. Let us drink and talk of what matters.”
“Mind if I join you?”
The voice was raspy and old. The brothers looked up to see an aged orc, his skin dark green and gnarled much like an old oak that is survived well beyond most trees. Seeing who it was, Sten stood up quickly and saluted. Blon just chuckled and slid his cup over toward the old orc, “Looks like we’re in for a party. Sit down, Curan, we’re just about to share some lies with each other about the old days.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Curan, “And Sten, the days of saluting me have long passed. Why don’t you grab a pitcher and another couple of cups for your brother and my friend here.” Curan pointed behind him to reveal another orc shaman, younger than Curan and more muscular. “By the way, this here is Relikk, a good friend.”
As was custom in the family, Blon and Sten put their fists over their heart and nodded their heads. “A friend of one Riht is a friend to all.” said Blon, “You’re welcome at our fire.”
The powerfully-built orc nodded, “I am grateful. The Clan of Riht will always be a friend to Relikk.”
Sten motioned to one of the goblin waiters and retrieved the necessary beverages and containers. Turning to Curan, he asked, “So what brings you to Ratchet, shaman?”
Curan took a healthy swig of ale, with lines of the foam pouring out each side of the mug to run down his grizzled chin. Setting his mug down, he wiped his mouth with his leather sleeve. “Ah, that’s good- for goblin stuff anyway. His eyes focused on the veteran warrior. “I’m here to book passage to the Eastern Kingdoms. It seems that my damn-fool of a son managed to alienate both the Burning Blade and Thrall.”
The brothers looked at each other in puzzlement. Thrall despised the Burning Blade, outlawing them throughout the Horde. For their part, the Burning Blade was bent on the destruction of the Horde and bringing back the Burning Legion. To make enemies of both was quite the feat.
Seeing their confusion, Curan explained, “My son, Zaegen, possesses a fascination of the forbidden arts. He was quite disappointed with me when I followed Thrall’s direction in moving our race back to shamanistic ways. Zaegen believes that in order to defeat the Burning Legion, we must master their ways and use their tools against them. Unfortunately, he joined the Burning Blade to learn their methods.”
Blon whistled softly, “I reckon that didn’t go over well with the Warchief.”
“No,” Curan shook his head, “It did not. However, Zaegen redeemed himself when he collapsed the tunnels and caves of one of their covens, killing most of the cult within. While Thrall still isn’t happy with Zaegen’s methods, he has agreed to not pursue him as an outlaw. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that my son knows this. He left Kalimdor to travel to Tirisfal to learn from the Forsaken.”
“So you’re going to the Eastern Kingdoms to let Zaegen know?”
“Not exactly, Sten. While I may have squared it with Thrall, there’s a band of about 50 assorted bounty-hunting Burning Blade minions bent on bringing Zaegen’s hide back to Durotar. I’d prefer that they fail.”
Blon and Sten looked at each other and grinned wolfishly. Grabbing his jungle hat, Blon rested it firmly on his head and rose from the table. Looking over the table at Curan, Sten cocked his head sideways, “Tell me, shaman, how well-behaved is this son of yours?”
Confused, Curan looked at the young orc, “Why do you ask?”
“I’m just wondering: You don’t suppose that he would be rude enough to kill all 50 of them before we get there, do you?”
I’ve found a cave. It isn’t much- really more of a shallow depression in the bluff, but it does provide some shelter from the rain. The heavens opened up about an hour ago, and already fast, raging streams of water are rushing from the sky. The good news is that this rain should wash away any blood trail I might have left. The bad news is that I can’t see clearly for any distance.
Based upon the shouts I heard making my way here, there seems to be more of these orcs, but it is hard to tell. Thrall must really want me pretty badly, but I am at a loss as to why. Being declared an outlaw is one thing, but to be this wanted?
I sit back against the wall, looking at the rain and try hard to remember everything that has happened. Any clues potentially might be helpful.
Just a few hours ago, I had been walking through Tirisfal, enjoying the forest and practicing my skills on the various bats and darkhounds in the region. Then three orcs accosted me. Two were dressed in mail armor and wore the regalia of the Kor’kron- the elite soldiers of Thrall. The third wore official-looking robes and carried a scroll. While the two fighting-types were young, the scroll-carrier was much older. His face was filled with wrinkles and his scraggly hair was white with age. That one demanded my name.
Now, I was suspicious and didn’t answer right away. Instead, I called my voidwalker over. That didn’t seem to impress the old one at all. Instead, he made the assumption that I was, indeed, the person for whom he sought.
Opening the scroll, he read the following, “Zaegen of the clan Riht, you are hereby ordered by your Warchief to present yourself to Durotar under the custody of his loyal Kor’kron soldiers to face punishment for your crimes against the Horde.” He rolled up the scroll, looked me in the eye and with no further inflection in his voice, said, “Kor’kron, take him!”
The warriors launched themselves at me, and it was my voidwalker who blunted their attack. Now, I respect the Warchief, but getting myself executed for a misunderstanding is not in my future. Unfortunately, I did not count on the orcs bringing friends. That started the running battle that now has me holed up in a small cave with few options.
My best bet is to rest as much as possible, and let my body recharge itself. Then I’ll head east toward the Plaguelands. That’s rough territory there, and it’s pretty easy to get lost in the hills. Also, the current residents are not fond of interlopers. Being undead and part of the scourge, they love to get their hands on fresh meat. A band of soldiers is bound to be noticed and addressed.
I close my eyes, but I’m still fired up and restless. All-in-all, it’s one hell of a way to spend one’s 18th birthday.
Jarok Lavafist stared into the embers of the rapidly cooling fireplace lost in thought. A tall, imposing orc, Jarok sported more muscle than was the norm for a warlock of the Burning Blade. Bald on top, the warlock wore facial hair consisting of a neatly trimmed triangular beard ending in a sharp point below his chin. A mustache grew around his lips and dangled down to frame his beard. A deep abyssal blackness encircled his red eyes and drew one’s attention away from a short, pig-like snout. Jarok wore ornate, red velvet robes that mimicked the color and shape of fire as he moved. Soft, black slippers completed his ensemble.
Rousing himself, he shook his head and absently flicked his fingers toward the fire, reigniting it into a small inferno. He grimaced when he beheld his dusty bed filled with cobwebs and the crude small table and chairs in the corner. While the accommodations in Brill were less than satisfactory, they would have to do. One day, however, Jarok looked forward to seeing the forsaken burn along with the rest of the sentient races on Azeroth. But that was for the future. Now, he had to bring back a rebellious member of his order to stand trial and be executed.
A knock on the door interrupted his reverie. “Yes, what is it?”
Without any preamble, the creaky door opened to reveal an orc in full plate armor. The warrior was very large – even for an orc, standing over seven feet in height with very broad, shoulders of muscle that tapered down to a fighting-trim waist. Bulging biceps, freed from the confines of the armor, sprouted on each side ending in magically enhanced black gauntlets. Like many of his race, the orc preferred to use a massive two-handed axe in battle that now was safely strapped to his back. Through a black, metal helmet that adorned his head, the imposing figure said, “I’ve come to report.”
Jarok grunted and motioned toward one of the chairs in the corner. “Then by all means, sit down and tell me of the hunt. I assume you haven’t caught him yet, or else I would have heard more of a commotion.”
The large warrior removed his helmet to reveal an aged face. White hair dominated his scalp untamed by any comb. Hair seemed to fly in every direction, giving the orc a look of being in a hurricane. Wrinkles mapped his face, but his eyes were hard and cold. Setting the helmet almost carelessly on the table, the orc took a seat and almost immediately leaned back on two of its legs to ultimately rest his back against the wall.
“I don’t suppose you have anything to drink, do you Jarok?”
“You will address me as Grand Master, Captain Wildmane.” Jarok emphasized the titles sternly, but Wildmane merely shrugged.
“Whatever you like, Jarok. So nothing to drink then? Pity.”
“No there’s nothing to drink! Now report, Captain!”
Wildmane stretched, popping his vertebrae, and then yawned and sighed contentedly. “Feels good to be inside and out of the rain.” Looking up at Jarok, he grinned at the warlock’s tight, peevish demeanor.
“Relax, Jarok, we’ll get him. He’s managed to elude us for a bit, but we have him surrounded. Those mercenary groups are finally behaving themselves, and I think the kid is convinced that Thrall is out to get him- not that I understand the subterfuge, but whatever.” Wildmane shrugged again and started pulling off his gauntlets.
Jarok paused and stared at a wall thinking. Then, “How many groups responded to our writ?”
“I’d say about seven groups and a bunch of independents. We gave them the clothing you provided to make them look like Kor’kron.”
“So, Captain, how many total recruits are we going to have to pay before this is all over?”
Wildmane chuckled, “Don’t worry, there is about 50-60 mercs so far, but the kid is killing a few of them off. He’s actually pretty good,”
“Of course he’s ‘pretty good’! He was my apprentice. I don’t expect him to be subdued by a handful of axe-wielding gorillas.”
Wildmane looked pointedly at Jarok until the warlock sighed and said, “No offense to you and yours, of course, Captain.”
“None taken.” The warrior finished taking his gauntlets off and ran his fingers through his own hair in a vain attempt to smooth out the rebellious waves. “So why all the fuss, Jarok? Why not just kill the whelp and be done with it? Why the elaborate hoax?”
“None of your concern, Captain!” Jarok snapped, “You are to obey my commands, nothing more!”
Slowly the warrior leaned forward and gently set the front legs of his chair to the wooden floor. His eyes held Jarok’s until the warlock finally looked away, shoulders slumping. “I’m sorry, old friend. You do not deserve that.”
Looking up, Jarok saw that Wildmane nodded, and the warlock continued, “Zaegenriht insulted me. I taught him for over three years, giving him many of the closely-held secrets of the Burning Blade. Then, one day, he decided that he had learned enough.”
Jarok started pacing the room in agitation. “He stood in front of me, thanked me for my teachings, and told me that he had learned what he had come to learn. Just like that! I had taken him in, apprenticed him, shown him the dark secrets and rituals of my craft, honed him into a superb weapon for the Burning Blade, and then he decides that he can just leave!”
Stopping for a moment, the warlock looked up at the moldy ceiling, “By the gods, I was dumbfounded! Had he not been part of our rituals? Had he not seen that the only way to leave was by death? Yet the whelp stood there calmly and was thanking me and saying ‘goodbye’!”
Jarok looked at Wildmane, “Then you know what happened? When I finally laughed and told the orcling that he would be punished for his impudence, he simply shook his head and said, ‘I was afraid of that.’ And… and walked away from me like I was insignificant!”
“So why didn’t you kill him then and there? Would have saved a bunch of bother.”
Jarok looked at the floor uncomfortably, “I… tried, but the whelp pulled out a square goblin device and pressed it. Our entire underground tunnel complex exploded. I was thrown back from the blast and separated from him.”
The warlock resumed his pacing. “The Coven was furious with me. They threated to strip me of my rank and submit me as an offering to the Burning Legion. I have never been so humiliated in my life. Literally I had to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness. The result? I am to bring the whelp back for execution or stand in his stead.”
Wildmane whistled softly. “You are in the hot water then, eh? So why the costumes?”
“Because I can’t have the orcling running to the Horde for protection! Don’t be dense, “ Jarok snapped irritably, “If he thinks he’s an outlaw, we have the freedom to capture him and take him back without interference.”
Wildmane stood and grabbed his gauntlets and helmet. “As usual, Jarok, you are a cunning tactician. We will get him. He’s injured and alone in the wet and cold. He might be a fine warlock’s apprentice, but he is no match for the forces arrayed against him. I will have him for you within three days.”
Drained, Jarok nodded his appreciation and walked back to the fireplace. For his part, Wildmane shook his head and smiled secretly. Leverage against a Grand Master of the Coven was always valuable. Donning his armor, he made his way quickly to the door and let himself out. If that leverage was to be obtained effectively, this Zaegenriht had to be captured soon.
I wake up to the muted sounds of bats chirping. Here in the forest of Tirisfal, there are few birds, but an abundance of large bats which are on the constant prowl for blood-carrying mammals. The rain has stopped. Dense fog flows over the terrain lowering any visibility to just a few yards. Slowly I rise to my feet, trying to stretch the stiffness from my back and legs. The pain is good since it proves that I live.
But now I am hungry. My rations have been long lost, and if I am to make it to the Plaguelands, I will need to eat. Unfortunately, I am no hunter, and am a lousy cook. Furthermore, for all I know, Tirisfal is infested with people looking for my head. All in all, my fortunes seem somewhat bleak. Just the way I like them. It seems my entire life has consisted of one struggle or another.
Back in the internment camps, we didn’t have much growing up. My Mother died in the camps when I was young, giving birth to my brother, Draeglin. Conditions were filthy and food was scarce. A hierarchy, of sorts, was established within the camp. At the top were the stronger orcs that seemed less apathetic. They were the ones that tended to ensure they got the bulk of the food and supplies from the humans. The rest lived on what they could scrounge.
There were few fights for such resources, however, as most of the adult orcs were broken, disillusioned and waited for death. Me being young, I had not experienced Draenor, or the wars. The limited information I received about our history came from my father- when he was in the mood to talk. You would think that my father would have been near the top of the chain, but warlocks were not viewed kindly by the rest of the orcs and were largely blamed for the condition in which we found ourselves.
But one day sticks in my mind. I was an orcling of about seven seasons when I learned a crucial lesson. It was a rainy, miserable day in our internment camp located at the foot of the Alterac Mountains. It was feeding time. The humans entered the camp and laid out the troughs from which we were to eat. Then they poured the daily gruel into the troughs and watched as we orcs wandered up to feed.
My job was to gather whatever food I could and bring it back for my father and brother. Generally my father was asleep during these times, and my brother was a few seasons younger than I. On this day, I ventured toward the trough with my makeshift gourd (made from leather scraps and bound with cat gut) when I was accosted by one of the “toughs” of the camp. Crawn was barely an adult, but already large, strong and anxious to make a name for himself.
Without preamble, he seized the gourd and pushed me to the ground. “Good. I need something to hold my food,“ he said. Then he walked to the trough and pushing a couple of other adults out of his way, he proceeded to gather food. Now I was at a loss as to what to do. My fists clenched in impotent rage, but as young as I was, the odds of me successfully gaining back my gourd were slim.
So I went back to our hovel, and I told my father what happened. Curan listened to me quietly, and then asked me a simple question. “Where is our food, Zaegen?” I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t I just told him?
Seeing my expression, he said, “Food is never free, son. Nor shelter. Nor life itself. Everything we have or do comes with a price.” He walked toward the open door that looked out upon the troughs and the feeding orcs. “Some believe that the humans ‘care’ for us, ‘giving’ us sustenance and protecting us.”
He waved his hand dismissively, “Utter nonsense, of course. Look at our people. We have become curiosities, objects of study and ultimately mockery by the very humans that just a few short years ago feared our race.”
“We are orcs, Zaegen. We once conquered most of this world, and had we not been betrayed, our fortunes would have been reversed with that of the humans.” Curan then turned and looked at me in the eye, “But you, son, you are more than an orc. You are a Riht. By now, you know that if you want something, you take it. No one ‘gives’ you anything. Others may spout views of ‘kindness’, ‘generosity’ and ‘acceptance’. But not us! As a Riht, only loyalty to clan and honor matter. Nothing else. Now I ask you again, ‘Where is our food?’”
So I marched right back out and headed for an old pile of wood. Finding a suitable stick about three-foot in length, I peeled off some bark and runners to make it usable. Now, violence was strictly prohibited by the humans, and so fights of any type were generally kept hidden. I ventured toward the trough and waited for the humans to wander away with their other responsibilities . Then I approached Crawn.
There he was, propped against the wall of one of the barracks, still holding my gourd and eating. Seeing me, he grinned nastily. “So whelp, what do you plan to do with that st…urrrgh” I impaled the blunt stick into his throat. Choking, he started to rise, but I kicked him hard just above the knee cap and drove it towards the ground- just as my father taught me to do. Crawn fell to the ground. I then put my foot on his chest and poised the stick over one of his eyes which widened in pain and surprise.
“Crawn,” I said, “You have something that belongs to me. Now, unless you want to be able to see properly again, I suggest you hand it over.” With a growl, the orc picked up the gourd and handed it to me, whereby I leapt away from him. Surprisingly, he didn’t come after me. Instead, he grinned, and rubbed his knee. “Damn, whelp, you’ve got the makings of a fine warrior!”
Pride infused me as I filled the gourd and walked back towards our hovel. Father was there waiting for me and nodded approvingly. We never talked about the incident, but Curan and I became closer. He started talking more about our clan and continued my education in being a Riht. And while he is still disappointed that I didn’t follow the way of the warrior, I don’t think I had to prove anything more to him after that day.
Thinking of that gruel makes my stomach growl. Since it appears that food is not likely to wander to me, I will have to go get it. My best bet is to take food from my enemies before I leave Tirisfal. After all, if all goes well, they won’t need it.
My small cave sits up a small rise that eventually becomes a cliff. The slope leading to it is covered in grass and loose rock- probably as a result of a landslide once upon a time. The first trees are about 30 yards away, but due to the fog, I can’t make them out clearly yet. Starting down the slope slowly, I walk carefully to avoid kicking any rocks down the hill. No need to alert my pursuers.
Even though I take great care with foot placement and movement, every step seems to create an echo into the fog. Suddenly I slip, dislodging several rocks that bound their way downward into the mist. The noise seems deafening.
Holding back a curse, I move a bit more rapidly to get into the trees and find some cover. Reaching some pines, I crouch down behind one particularly large, wet trunk vainly listening for anything out of the ordinary.
All is still, and I slowly release my breath. The fog, if anything, is more thick here than up at the cave. The mist here crawls down one’s back, leaving a slime trail of damp cold. The forest itself is deathly still. Even the bats have gone silent. Not a good sign.
The safe bet would be to stay. I can’t see but a few feet down here, and I would hate to stumble upon something hostile. Quite frankly, I am lost and have absolutely no idea which way to go. However, I hate sitting still, so I start to move, keeping my hands lightly touching trees as I push myself inexorably forward.
“I can’t see a damn thing here, Chroman!”
I freeze, holding my breath instinctively. The voice sounds like it is only a few feet away to the left of me.
A growl. Then, “Follow orders, Frut! We hold the line. The prey will soon come into our net. Now shut it!”
That voice came from the other side of me. I have managed to wander right into my enemies! I start to gradually step backwards, when suddenly the light of a lantern blazes in front of me, chasing the nearby fog away with its brilliance. “Ah ha! I thought I heard something! He’s here, boys. Take him down!”
“I don’t like it,” The orc warrior grunted irritably, pointing to a chest filled with military uniforms next to the campfire, “Why do we have to wear these clothes?” Shifting his weight on his right foot, he pivoted slightly to his left to glare at the orc next to him.
Hrulfgrim’s glare was legendary. An older orc of the Warsong, he had served in many campaigns with Grom Hellscream, following the legend into Azeroth and fighting for survival. After Thrall rose to power, the warrior had served in the Plaguelands as an officer-liaison with the Argent Dawn. Two years ago, Hrulfgrim embarked upon another career- retirement. That failed miserably. So now, he was the commander of a strong, well-known and well-managed mercenary organization.
From spending so many years in the Alterac Mountains, Hrulfgrim’s skin was a pale green, but tough as kodo hide. Long, white hair, strictly braided on his head and on his chin connected to a well-wrinkled face. But that was the only sign of age. The warrior was bound with thick muscle and covered with plate and mail armor. Two broad axes adorned his back with the hafts above each shoulder- ready for deployment in the orc’s meaty fists.
Hrulfgrim brooked no nonsense, and was known to reduce all but the strongest orc to a quivering mass by his furious glare.
The object of his glare could not have been more opposite. Thin, and somewhat frail- especially for an orc, Sluthgar wore voluminous red robes and a thick, long cowl that covered his face. Seated uncomfortably on the ground with several fighters around the fire, the warlock was certainly out of place.
His robe was bright and captured the light from the flames of the camp fire and reflected them around the circled tents. Sometimes that light would bounce off an orc’s face forcing the fighter to avert his or her gaze. Sluthgar enjoyed that brief feeling of power. In his view, all of these mercenaries should show obeisance.
Unable to meet Hrulfgrim’s piercing glare, the warlock’s face turned away. From the recesses of his cowl, Sluthgar’s narrow face flashed anger before resuming its placid state.
In the voice of a parent patiently attempting to teach a child, the warlock answered calmly, “Because Captain, it is important to let the fugitive know that we are on the side of Thrall’s law.”
Hrulfgrim wouldn’t let it go. “But we are not Kor’kron. We are mercenaries. It is not right to pretend we are the Warchief’s soldiers! Furthermore, the Kor’kron are all orcs. What about Jdulijen here?”
“Ja, mon, “agreed the troll on the other side of the fire, “I not be da orc.”
Sluthgar rolled his eyes inside of his cowl. Why did these idiots have to ask so many questions? And why did he, Sluthgar, right hand to Jarok, have to be out here, in Silverpine, at a mercenary camp? He was sitting on dirt, for Mannoroth’s sake!
Sluthgar hated the outdoors. He hated trees, hated grass, hated people, and most of all, he hated dirt. But while Jarok was back in Brill in a nice, comfortable inn, his trusted assistant was playing nursemaid to a bunch of filthy sell-swords. Life simply wasn’t fair!
Composing himself, Sluthgar took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Attempting to smile, the robed orc looked at Hrulfgrim with, what he hoped was, a friendly expression. “I know, my friend, that this seems a bit unusual, but after all, you did take the money we offered. This clothing is simply part of the bargain. If you like, you could just return the money to me, and we could forget the entire matter.”
Hrulfgrim scowled at Sluthgar and looked at the chest again. He should not have left Hillsbrad. There was always someone willing to pay his band to fight the humans who infested that region. For the umpteenth time he wondered why he’d decided to take this commission. And for the umpteenth time, he answered himself- because the pay was simply amazing.
His was a tight group of a score of good fighters. Four were trolls and the rest orcs. All were veterans of battles in the Plaguelands who decided to sell their skills for money. And they all liked the money that Sluthgar offered. Except… there was something not quite right about all this. Hrulfgrim’s gut didn’t like the arrangement. And his ‘gut’ was something to which Hrulfgrim listened, because it had saved him and his band on several occasions. Right now it was telling him to go back to Hillsbrad.
“Hello the fire!”
Grateful for the interruption, Hrulfgrim returned, “Come closer, stranger, and let’s have a look at you.”
Into the light rode a brightly clothed orc wearing a dark top-hat. “Good evening, gentlemen, I come for camaraderie and sustenance, both for which, I am willing to pay handsomely.”
“Who djoo be?,” asked Jdulijen as he stood and placed his hand over his gun.
The brightly clothed orc chuckled and leapt lightly off his wolf. Swirling his bright red cape, he doffed his hat and bowed with a flourish, “The festivities may begin, my friends, for I am Auralon, traveler, storyteller and entertainer.”
Hrulfgrim stood and placed his fist on his chest. “Greetings, Auralon, and welcome to our fire. I am Hrulfgrim, lately of Hillsbrad, and Captain of my company, the Pale Windriders.” An audible clap interrupted him as one of Sluthgar’s servants hastily closed the chest of Kor’kron uniforms. For his part, Sluthgar remained silent and backed away from the fire.
Grabbing the robed orc’s forearm, the warrior smoothly but purposefully guided Sluthgar back into the light of the fire, taking pleasure at the warlock’s discomfort. “This here is Sluthgar, our latest employer.”
Auralon bowed once again, “I am honored to meet the Pale Windriders. Your campaigns against the Alliance in Hillsbrad have made you famous.”
With a twinkle in his eye, the newcomer pinned the robed orc with his gaze. “However, I am not too familiar with your employer. Sluthgar, is it? You have no idea how pleased I am to make your acquaintance.”
Sluthgar nodded stiffly. Turning to Hrulfgrim, the warlock lightly grabbed the warrior’s arm and leaned his head toward him. Speaking low in a conspiratorial tone, the warlock whispered, “Hrulfgrim, perhaps it would be best if we were to carry on this conversation in private?”
The Captain shook off the warlock and turned back to Auralon. “So, Auralon, what brings you into Silverpine?”
Spying a table of rapidly cooling roasted bear meat, Auralon jauntily sauntered over. Producing a knife from the folds of his robe, he cut a slice of meat and then stabbed it so that the meat hung down on either side of the blade. “Well, gentlemen, I will tell you, I am quite famished. Been riding hard for the past few days.”
Approaching the fire, Auralon sat cross-legged on the ground opposite Hrulfgrim and Sluthgar. “You see, I had heard of a band of mercenaries that were chasing a particular orc.” Lifting the knife above his head, he turned it sideways allowing part of the meat to dangle down. Then, almost delicately, he bit into the meat and lowered the knife, chewing contentedly.
“So I left Tarren Mill hoping I would catch them. And here I am.” Finishing his mastication, Auralon swallowed and grinned. “That is very good meat. My complements to the chef.”
Hrulfgrim looked at Auralon sharply. Some of his band stood and slowly moved their hands to weapons. “And what were you planning when you caught up to these mercenaries?”
The brightly clad orc took another bite from his dagger, and calmly looked around the camp as he chewed. Shrugging he said, “To be honest, I was not exactly sure. That’s why I infiltrated your camp and scouted it thoroughly before leaving and hailing your fire.”
At that, several of the Pale Windriders grabbed their weapons and started toward their new guest. For his part, Auralon stayed seated and calmly looked at Hrulfgrim.
“Cease!” Hrulfgrim barked. Growling, his soldiers obeyed. Turning towards Auralon, Hrulfgrim pointed at him with fury rising in his voice. “You dare to insult me in my camp?”
“Not an insult at all, Captain. I merely needed to ascertain whether I needed to kill you all, or” Auralon carelessly waved at the warlock and his bodyguards, “just this Sluthgar and his lackeys.”
Turning green with rage, Sluthgar clenched his fists, “Why, the insolence of this insect! Kill him, Captain. I order it!”
With an abrupt cutting motion with his left hand, Hrulfgrim barked, “Silence, warlock! That is not in our contract! He dies when I order it.” The Captain then glared at Auralon, but for once the glare had no effect.
“Look, Captain, “ Auralon said in a reasonable tone, “You have been hired to capture a fugitive from Thrall’s justice named Zaegenriht, correct?”
At Hrulfgrim’s nod, Auralon continued, “What if I was to tell you that Thrall has no interest in this venture, but instead you have been hired under false pretenses by the Burning Blade?”
At the mention of one of Thrall’s most hated enemies, the mercenary company started talking excitedly. Confused glances covered Hrulfgrim, Sluthgar and Auralon equally.
Practically frothing at the mouth, Sluthgar hissed, “Lies, Captain, these are lies.”
After a quick, sharp look at Sluthgar, Hrulfgrim focused back on Auralon. “You have proof, orc?”
“Of course. I told you I have scouted your camp. You will find documents from a Burning Blade leader named ‘Jarok’ in Sluthgar’s footlocker. They will confirm my story. And, incidentally, they allowed me to conclude that your company was not my enemy. “
Sluthgar started to speak again, but Hrulfgrim’s glare silenced him. Satisfied that the warlock was adequately controlled, the Captain pondered, slowly looking over the camp at his expectant soldiers.
What Auralon said rang of truth. Now Hrulfgrim understood why he had been uneasy all this time. He had been duped, and the old warrior hated being made to look foolish. Working for the Burning Blade was, at the very least, bad for business, and at the worst, traitorous to the Warchief. Somehow, he had to find a way out of this mess without compromising his honor or that of his company’s.
Finally, shoulders slumping slightly, Hrulfgrim turned to Auralon. “Unfortunately, it does not make any difference. We signed a contract to hunt down this Zaegenriht, and honor demands that we do so. The source of the contract was not specified as a condition of the contract, although”, he glanced at Sluthgar, “I will be more diligent about those types of clauses in the future.”
“But what happens when Sluthgar dies, Captain?”
“He is not likely to in this camp,” Hrulfgrim warned, “He is under my protection.”
Hrulfgrim shook his head, “Wouldn’t change anything. We took the money, and therefore are obligated to fulfill the contract. So, dead or not, we would have to deliver Zaegenriht to Sluthgar’s appointees.”
“And who would they be?”
Hrulfgrim scratched his head. He was a fighting orc, swift and deadly with almost any weapon. While any living, breathing being posed little concern, contracts and complex laws were an enemy he was ill-suited to fight. However, he had forced himself to learn over the years- at least enough to maintain his company. “I am not sure, really. The contract is not specific regarding that point. So assuming Sluthgar is dead…”
“I am very much alive, thank-you!” Sluthgar’s whiney voice interrupted Hrulfgrim’s train of thought. “And I would thank you to quit referring to me as deceased! Furthermore, Captain, I believe that this interloper has outstayed his welcome, and, at the very least, I demand that you either kill him or send him on his way!”
Ignoring Sluthgar’s outburst, Auralon stood and stretched, “It might be easier, Captain, if we take this discussion out of the realm of hypothetical.”
“Beware, orc, I have told you that he is under my protection.” Hrulfgrim growled, “Any violence and we will be forced to kill you.”
“I think not, Captain,” Auralon said matter-of-factly, “I invoke the right of shared blood to duel this… person.”
Hrulfgrim looked puzzled. The right of shared blood was old and ingrained in the very souls of the orcs from Draenor. Any wrong committed to a clansman could be rectified by a challenge from another member of the clan. Most challenges provided great sport among spectators and few were lethal, however, one look in Auralon’s eyes and it was clear that this challenge was most obviously to the death.
“By what do you assert your right to shared blood?”
“Auralon smiled, “Why Captain, my full name is Auralonriht, Auralon of the clan Riht. Your employer is keen to get his hands on my cousin. I am here to ensure that he, along with others of his ilk, fail.”
Now everything clicked. Unfortunately, as the leader of the company, Hrulfgrim was forced to make a choice between his employer and the ancient right of shared blood. Not for the first time, the old warrior wished he was a grunt again fighting alongside Grom Hellscream. Things had been much more simple back in the day.
Taking the decision out of the Captain’s hands, Sluthgar snarled, “Fine, cretin! You dare to challenge me?” Spitting, the warlock stepped towards Auralon and raised his hands, “I will sear your soul, worm! I will turn your body to ashes and urinate upon your..Acgh! Hands still raised, the corpse of Sluthgar toppled backwards, the hilt of a small throwing knife protruding from the warlock’s right eye socket.
The warlock’s servants drew their weapons, but before Hrulfgrim or his soldiers could move, Auralon sprang into action. Leaping between the two Burning Blade minions, the assassin slashed both throats before they had taken a step. The corpses flopped to the ground.
Hrulfgrim’s soldiers drew their weapons and moved towards Auralon until Hrulfgrim held up his hand. Looking glumly at the assassin, the warrior asked, “Now what? We honored your right, but now I have to put you in the context of aiding our target. That means, we have to remove you.”
Auralon, weapons once again hidden in the folds of his clothing, shrugged. “You certainly could, however, I have another proposition.”
Folding his arms, the old warrior growled. “I’m listening.”
“Well, Captain, I distinctly remember your employer offering you the opportunity to leave your contract since you were not too terribly eager to don the regalia of the Kor’kron. I did not hear him revoke that offer, and…” Auralon glanced at Sluthgar’s corpse, “he is not likely to rescind that offer now. Therefore, I suggest you place the money he paid you upon his person and return to Hillsbrad.”
Hrulfgrim frowned. “Hrumph! While I am certain you would be happy about that, I am not certain I wish to relinquish these funds.”
The mercenaries had been gradually surrounding Auralon, but the assassin did not seem concerned. “Indeed, Captain, I would also be loath to lose such wealth. That is why I will immediately hire your company for the same price to return to Hillsbrad once you have terminated your current contract.”
Now Hrulfgrim entered familiar territory, “Plus 20 percent.”
“What?” Auralon’s composure finally cracked at the unexpected haggle. “Now, my dear Captain, you could not possibly…”
“Look, orc, “Hrulfgrim interrupted, “We all know you will pick the sack of gold off the corpse and pay us with it. Therefore, I am assuming you would be willing to contribute a bit more- for our time and inconvenience of course.”
“Of… course. But Captain, I believe five percent would be…”
A pause. Then…“Done.”
Auralon looked glumly at the ground and softly whispered, “Damn, cousin, you are costing me a fortune…”
I know that voice. I see that scarred but beautiful face that is reflected from the light of the lantern. And now this entire situation makes sense. I have been an utter fool. Before me stands Zetzook, apprentice to Jarok, and up until a few weeks ago, my rival. With her here, the ruse that my former master has crafted finally unravels. Thrall would never work with the Burning Blade, so therefore it is Jarok who has brought forth the resources to ensure my capture.
I conjure a shadowbolt that knocks the lantern out of Zetzook’s hand, shattering it against the ground. With the light gone, fog again fills my sight, but I can hear at least two others coming towards me. Leaping backwards, I reach out blindly and touch someone. Quickly, I place a curse of affliction upon my adversary before stepping away. Unfortunately, it is a male voice that screams in pain, so the body was not Zetzook’s. With the fog, it is difficult to determine where my enemies are standing. Only Zetzook’s melodic voice, commanding her soldiers, allows me some semblance of orientation. Soon, however, she will summon a demonic minion who will easily navigate the fog. I have to find and kill her before then.
It was not always thus. Zetzook and I began our apprenticeship to Jarok in the same year. Both of us were young and both dreamt dreams of power. Jarok’s cruelty to his apprentices is legendary, but so is his purported skill in the forbidden arts. Of like mind, Zetzook and I elected to endure his brutality in order to learn. And he was certainly brutal.
Both of our bodies were burned repeatedly as we were forced to participate in experiments with minions of the Burning Legion for our Master’s studies. Many of our peers perished, but Zetzook and I persevered. Through those trials, we bonded tightly and even considered mating- although such a practice is strictly forbidden within the Burning Blade.
One day, however, Jarok seemed to notice his female apprentice in a way that was different. He began providing her ‘private’ lessons, which she eagerly attended. Zetzook became distant, both physically and emotionally from me. It took me some time before I realized what was happening. My mind could simply not reconcile Jarok, the old tyrant, as a viable lover and competitor for Zetzook’s affections. But when the truth dawned, I became angry and confronted her.
For her part, Zetzook laughed at me. “You are so naïve, Zaegen,” she said, “You are an interesting dalliance, but Jarok is a true orc and master! He promises to teach me things that the others, including you, may only dream about! I will be the most powerful of the coven someday, and will reap the fruits of my loyalty from the leaders of the Burning Legion!” Her eyes shone in the avarice of her foretold future, and I knew that I had lost her forever.
I would like to say that I proudly stood up to her and told her that she was a fool. I would like to say that I immediately challenged Jarok to a duel and defeated him. I would like to say a lot of things, but the truth is that I stood there gaping at her, trying to understand the transformation that had taken someone whom I thought I loved. All of the physical, mental and spiritual torture that I had experienced through the previous year paled in comparison to this one moment.
That was two years ago, and there is no love lost between us now.
Ever the wily sadist, Jarok used my feelings for Zetzook against me. He threw us in makeshift arenas to practice the dark arts against each other. At first, I attempted to hold back, to not harm this female who spurned my advances. But Zetzook did not. With practiced efficiency, she stripped me of my illusions, twisting my body and soul in unimaginable ways. Soon, I began to fight back.
We died battling countless times only to be brought back to life, our souls protected by powerful fel stones. Our fel magics destroyed and rebuilt us in the image that Jarok desired. But they also made us more powerful, allowing us to delve deeper into areas few dare venture.
Sometime during the tortuous process, my affection for Zetzook changed. Instead of wanting to hold her in my arms, I wanted to crush the life from her. Jarok instilled me with hatred, and I used it to finally defeat Zetzook and become Jarok’s chief apprentice. Then and only then did I bleed Jarok of his knowledge, pretending to be his confidant, his loyal subject.
But ultimately, Jarok turned out to possess little more than he had already taught. That is when I made the decision to leave in order to find a more suitable instructor. My ‘divorce’ from the Burning Blade was not amicable, and now Jarok has pursued me to Tirisfal.
As for Zetzook, she remembers how I sneered at her in our final battle. I could show no weakness, no falter in my goal of serving at Jarok’s right hand. She fought brilliantly, her demons under perfect control as they laced me with fire and shadow. But my counters were a bit faster, a bit more precise. My final jet of shadow cut into her face and forced her to her knees in defeat. I will never forget her look of despair as she realized that her dreams were shattered. She seemed to fold in on herself, and her keening wail echoed throughout the caverns of the coven. But then, she looked up at me, and the furnace of hatred lit behind her wet eyes.
No, there is no love lost between us.
Regardless of either of our feelings, Zetzook is a competent warlock- almost as good as me. She knows that the fog reduces the advantage she gains in numbers. Already I hear her commanding her soldiers to set up a search pattern. Getting to her will be difficult.
The fog is starting to thin a bit. I reach the large, mossy trunk of an old tree and place it between myself and Zetzook’s voice. She’s about 100 feet or so away in the fog, but I don’t have a feel as to where her allies are positioned. My first priority is to remove her support team. Clearing my mind, I carefully set out my mental wards and protections. Then I start the summoning process.
Now summoning a demon is not a quiet affair. It is a ceremony of lights, fire and sounds of thunder. Chances are, one of my enemies will hear the ceremony and follow the sound to me. It is a risk I have to take. I elect to summon Kongak, one of my most pliable minions. A voidwalker, Kongak possesses little imagination, but follows my orders to the letter. After expending one of my few soul shards, the summoning is complete. A deep rumbling vibrates the air around me as the dark blue amorphous blob of fel energy presents itself. Kongak floats over the ground, standing about nine feet tall. A small protrudence on top serves as his head while little appendages, appearing to be arms, sprout on either side of him.
Quickly, I provide the voidwalker his orders, and after a deep, “As you wish”, he disappears into the fog. Soon I hear the excited calls of my enemies. “He’s over here! I can hear him running. Quickly, or he will escape!” Kongak seems to be succeeding in drawing my pursuers away.
Now Zetzook could be playing a ruse. We know each other very well, and she knows that I am aggressive. However, the fog is lifting. If I am going to make my play, I have to do it now. Visibility is now about thirty feet and I can make out trees and brush. Using them as cover, I slowly approach where I believe my quarry is placed. Unfortunately, she is now silent, and I fear the worst.
Then she springs the trap. The fog lifts quickly, revealing a small clearing. Suddenly, a ten-foot ring of fire springs up around me. Just outside the ring with a bright, perfect smile stands Zetzook. Her power has grown. A dark, purple nimbus of fel energy projects from her, accentuating her natural beauty. Yes, her face possesses a scar that slashes across her left cheek. Yes her right ear is mangled, the victim of a bolt of fire from which it never entirely healed. Zetzook still is the most beautiful and desirable female I have ever known.
And I have to kill her quickly if I am to survive.
“So, Zaegen my love, you are still predictable as always. Before I have my subjects prepare you for proper presentation to our master, I want to thank you from the bottom of what used to be my heart for leaving the coven. Now I will sit at the right hand of Jarok, and my goals will once again be realized.”
I shake my head, “No, Zetzook, you will not. Don’t you see? Jarok never intended for you to be his chief apprentice. He desired your… cooperation, but that is all. Sluthgar is next in line.”
The Zetzook of a year ago would have been furious at such a statement. Instead, she still looks amused. “Ah, my love, Sluthgar is dead- killed by some uncooperative sell-sword I believe. Jarok really has no one else. Now, while I would enjoy spending time chatting with you, unfortunately I have some appointments to keep. Good-bye, my love. Guards, if you would, please.” Two orc fighters approach the edge of the fire ring. The flames die and they rush toward me.
Fortunately, they are under orders to capture me. Very foolish, because I have no compunction to show them any mercy. With a flick of my hand, I reach in their minds, draw up the stuff of their nightmares and assault them with it. Both of the orcs stop suddenly, staring out of widened eyes at the unspeakable horror that only they can behold. Then they run screaming from the clearing.
I turn back to Zetzook who still wears a secretive smile. “So predictable, my love," she laughs.
I barely dodge the ball of fire that comes from my right. Entering the clearing from beneath a small shrub comes an imp. Imps are awkward looking demons. Small of stature with gangly arms and pointed faces, imps are the easiest to summon but somewhat difficult to control. They spend their summoned time constantly whining and wheedling. But, they possess the capability to summon fire and hurl it over long distances, as it is quite aptly demonstrating now. Zetzook joins in and I find myself in a crossfire. Both of them hurl bolts of fire, and it occurs to me that perhaps Zetzook does not wish to capture me alive after all.
She is a sight to behold. Her cowl from her robe has fallen down behind her head, and her gleaming bald green head shines in the nimbus of her fel power. The flames from her fireballs accent her sharp lines, enhancing her natural beauty. I wish I possessed more time to admire the sight.
Instead, I am rolling on the ground, attempting to dodge the ever-increasing intensity and frequency of the blasts. I wish Kongak were here, but the mindless voidwalker is still probably leading the other Burning Blade minions away on a merry chase.
Attempting to get some cover, I roll and dodge my way to a tree, but the imp blasts it into twigs. Another shot glances off my shoulder and burns like hell. I have to find a way to fight back soon, or it’s all over. In desperation, I find a good, fist-sized rock. I pick it up, roll to my knees and hurl it at the imp. The orange-skinned demon simply hops to the side, but that gives me time to strike.
Reaching out, I lace the demon with my newly learned spells of affliction. I rip into its body, lacing it with fire, shadow and corruption. The little one’s eyes grow big, and it looks at its mistress. “This is not in my contract!” it wails as its body evaporates into sulfur.
“You have picked up some new skills, love. I am impressed.” Zetzook shoots off another ball of fire which narrowly misses me, and I jump to my feet and start towards her. But, another blast of fire knocks me down, burning my side and forcing me to roll on the ground yet again to put out the flames.
Tables turned, she now walks toward me. I have been hit several times, and she can see that I have started to falter. Pulling out a wand, she begins to methodically fire small bolts of shadow that begin to tear into the foundations of my spirit. It is all I can do to hold on to consciousness.
“I, too, have gained in power, love," she purrs, "While you sat at our master’s side, I redoubled my efforts at learning. I broke our coven’s own covenants and called members of the Burning Legion to teach me and add to my abilities. You will find, before you die, that I have surpassed you. In fact, I may have even surpassed Jarok. In any event, this fight will have a very different outcome than our last.”
In order to make her point, she pauses from shooting to gloat, and stands over me with a smile of triumph. This is the opening for which I have waited. I sit up and clenching my jaw from the pain, I inflict her with fel magics designed to burn and corrupt her soul. Eyes widening, she doubles over and gasps, and I quickly snatch the wand from her hand.
She straightens and starts to cast a spell, but I tackle her. We both fall on the ground, and I quickly pin her using the techniques taught to me by my father many years before. I am holding her face down in the soft grass, my arm around her neck, my knee upon her back and my face close to hers. It should be but a simple twist to break her neck, but….
The smell of her reminds me of those nights just a couple of short years ago. The dreams we shared, the comfort we held in each others’ presence that warded away the nightmares of our servitude. What I know of love is that it is confusing, painful, and often, fatal. It is undisciplined and irrational. Yet, I know that I bear such feelings for this orc, and I am unable to kill her.
In her ear, I softly growl, “Go away from here, Zetzook. Stay away from Jarok, for I am going to him. Chances are that I will probably have to kill him, and I’d rather not have to do the same to you.” Then I reach into her mind and fill it with shadow until she fades into unconsciousness.
Devon Callum felt confused. This was not really an odd occurrence. In fact, he reflected, confusion seemed to be an ordinary part of his existence. Upon further reflection, he should probably feel fear. For a normal, living, breathing human, that would be the appropriate response to being confronted by a savage orc who wielded an immense two-handed axe.
But emotion escaped Devon, as it escaped most of the undead Forsaken. Oh, it existed. Gentle emotions such as love, compassion and happiness tended to be muted, while anger, anguish and depression seemed a bit more potent. Not surprising really, seeing as how the Forsaken had been violently ripped from life to serve as mindless zombies in the games of Arthas. Once rescued by Sylvanas, the former citizens of Lordearon vainly attempted to remember how to live. Fragmented memories defied coherence making the task a difficult one.
Many of Devon’s friends succumbed to hopelessness, and a few successfully found a way to end their lives. That, in itself, was a challenge. How does one kill oneself when one doesn’t possess the many weaknesses of life? Drowning, hanging, poisons, etc. all seemed fruitless. Even throwing oneself off a cliff might only eliminate the use of an appendage or two without extinguishing existence.
Battle, as it turned out, became one of the more successful solutions. Therefore many of the depressed, suicidal Forskaen entered the ranks of Sylvanas’s army with rather mixed results to morale. Most armies charge into battle with adrenaline-filled rage or resolute determination. The armies of Sylvanas tend to shuffle into battle silent and grim. However, their effectiveness on the field of battle cannot be denied. There is something chilling about an army that silently shuffles up to kill or be killed.
Callum managed to parry the downswing of the orc’s axe and, with surprising nimbleness, leapt away from the maddened orc in order to get some distance in which to operate. Wearing mail armor and bearing shield and sword, Devon possessed ample equipment to protect himself. However, this orc’s attacks were relentless. Automatically, Devon scanned and marked his fallen companions for footing purposes and quickly devised his next attack.
Then it dawned on him why he was confused. He felt emotion. As he blocked the orcs next attack and quickly riposte in response, Devon realized that he felt… elated. This orc he was fighting was very good- almost certainly better than him, but the forsaken could almost feel sweat on his own body- just as it had been in the days of old.
Devon Callum had been an officer in King Terenas Menethil’s army. A noted swordsman, Sir Callum served for thirty years, fighting against the enemies of his King. He had fought in the second war against the orcs, and under his leadership, his soldiers had helped to stem the tide of the invasion. Unlike many of his noble counterparts, Sir Callum took great pleasure in leading from the front. And while that had resulted in numerous injuries, it had also cemented the loyalty of his soldiers.
For the first time since he had been converted to the Forsaken from the Scourge, Devon Callum remembered who he had been. It was like someone had opened up the doors of an abandoned cellar and let light into its dingy recesses. He was now whole- just in time to be killed by the same race he had spent decades defending against when he had been human. He laughed out loud at the irony.
Seeing his opponent suddenly laugh stopped the orc. Some of his rage seemed to leave him, and curiosity filled his features. Devon took that moment to pounce. Shield raised, he ducked underneath to thrust his sword at the orc’s abdomen.
These orcs had recently crossed into Tirisfal from the Plaguelands. Clearly veterans of several battles, both orcs sported heavy armor and large battleaxes. They wore light backpacks and traveled quickly along the road. Both orcs seemed to be identical in every way- faces, hair and clothing.
Since the Royal Apothecary Society under Varimathras had turned traitorous to the Horde necessitating Thrall’s influx of Kor’kron, more orcs could be seen in the forests surrounding the Undercity, but around the Bulwark, they were not nearly as common.
As swords for hire, Devon and six others had been hired to find a young orc going by the name of Zaegen or Zaegenriht. The pay was a gold apiece which, while incredibly generous, was not the reason that Devon had accepted. Bored with his un-life, Devon sought challenges and stimulation. The promise of scouting and finding an orc somewhere in the forest ordinarily was not much of a challenge, but there was something about the employer, the orc warlock, Jarok, that piqued his curiosity.
The warlock had sent out some fliers within the Undercity looking for bounty hunters. Such bounty hunters had been ordered to report to Brill. About a dozen forsaken had answered the flier and had appeared in the center of Brill to be addressed by the orc. The warlock’s speech had been short- if the gathered forsaken wished to earn the gold, they were to find an orc by the name of Zaegenriht and report his position to Jarok. Under no circumstances were they to attempt to apprehend him as he was considered dangerous.
So, Devon had raised his hand and asked what Jarok would do once he captured this Zaegenriht. At which point, the warlock had looked at Devon with ill-concealed contempt, “Zaegenriht has committed crimes against the Warchief. You know what happens when you betray the Warchief, do you not?” Oh yes, the gathered forsaken remembered. The invasion of the Undercity by Thrall’s forces still rang fresh in their minds. Nevermind that Sylvanas had also participated. To the Forsaken, that battle reminded them of the invasion of the orcs many years past. Jarok’s not-so-subtle threat had successfully cowed the bounty hunters as the warlock had intended.
For his part, Devon mimic’d what he once might have done back when he lived. He had scratched his head absently while he thought. It didn’t make sense. A warlock as an emissary of Thrall? Not likely. And that is what had prompted him to join in the hunt. He had wanted to see the outcome of this peculiar situation.
Seven forsaken had signed the contract and began the hunt, Callum among them. When they had neared the Bulwark, they had seen the two orcs and had approached them. Tyler Manton, a boisterous forsaken and self-proclaimed leader of the bounty hunters, drew his sword and challenged the orcs, “Halt! We are looking for one of your race named Zaegenriht. Do you have information on his whereabouts?”
The orcs had merely looked at each other and then back to Manton. The one on the right asked, “Why do you want to know?”
“That is none of your concern,” Manton stated, “You will answer us or pay the consequences!”
The orcs had calmly put down their packs, drew their axes and stood at the ready. The one on the left then had answered in a level tone with a dangerous undercurrent, “I believe it is our business, corpse. My name’s Meran and this here’s my brother Palan. We are of the clan Riht and it appears that you are looking for our cousin.”
“Ah ha!” Manton had screamed in triumph, “Then you do know where he is. We demand that information at once!”
The orcs had looked at each other again, and a feral smile had crept over their faces. Then, the one on the right turned back to Manton and had said, “No, Mister. My brother and me, we don’t think so.”
Then Manton, in his final glorious act, had screamed, “Then we will force you. Attack!” The last command had been to the bounty hunters, and all followed. The orcs quickly had put the axes to use and slaughtered six of the bounty hunters easily. Callum proved to be more difficult, and the battle between Palan and the former Knight of Lordearon had so far lasted several minutes.
For his part, Palan skipped to the side, barely dodging Callum’s thrust which left a shallow scratch in the mail over the orc’s stomach. A powerful swing of the axe bashed against Callum’s shield, driving the forsaken into the ground. Quickly rolling away, Callum sprang up and, once again, assumed a defensive posture.
The orc growled approvingly, “This one’s pretty good, Meran.”
Meran sat down on his haunches beside a tree and casually watched the contest. With a chuckle and a shake of his head, he replied, “Yep. Either that, or your getting slow- letting a dead human give you a work-out.”
Palan sprang at Callum, swinging his axe rapidly from different directions and velocities. Some of the swings turned out to be feints, while others crashed against his shield with staggering force. The forsaken gave ground under the onslaught.
But Callum, still invigorated by the return of his memories, patiently measured his opponent’s attacks. Palan seemed to follow a pattern with his powerful strikes- one of which drove him to the ground yet again. Knocked to his knees, the former knight blocked one more attack before taking advantage of a predictable feint. Palan’s eyes widened as Callum’s sword punctured his right side, forcing the orc to fall back. The cut was shallow, but still bled profusely.
His blood dripping to the ground, Palan laughed in delight. “Brother, this one is really, really good! It’s nice to have a challenge for once!”
Callum sprang to the attack, driving his shield in the orc’s face and following the attack up with a swing of his sword. Palan dodged the shield and parried the sword. Kicking out with his leg, the ball of the orc’s right foot thrust into Callum’s stomach. A breathing human would have doubled over. Callum just shrugged it off and leapt backwards.
But Palan proved to be faster. Charging into the forsaken, the orc knocked Callum down again, but this time swung his axe and shattered the former knight’s shield in two. Then, before Callum could get his sword raised, the orc caught the sword’s hilt on the backswing, sending the blade into the bushes several feet away.
Disarmed, Callum relaxed and waited for the deathblow. It never came. Stepping back, Palan set his enormous axe on the ground and leaned slightly upon it, his face bearing a wide smile. “Corpse, you put up a good fight, but it’s over. For your life…er…whatever, I want to know more about your search for our cousin.”
Callum shrugged. Feeling that he had nothing to lose, the forsaken told the twins about Jarok and his contract. They listened quietly, and at the end, Meran nodded. “Well, you might as well go back to this Jarok character and let him know that the brothers Riht are coming. We’ll give you a couple of gold for your trouble. Meanwhile, we’re going to go find our cousin and talk him into letting us help.”
As they rode away on their summoned wolves, Palan looked back over his shoulder. “By the way, Devon Callum, you should think about taking your skills into the Plaguelands. The Argent Dawn could use your sword arm!”
The fog has completely burned off, creating a vibrant, and very green forest. Muted sun stretches its rays to touch the ground in spots where holes in the trees’ canopies allow. For once, the natural moodiness of this haunted forest seems lifted, much as it might have been before the plague.
It’s been a few hours since my confrontation with Zetzook. Thanks to some satchels found among the bodies of her entourage, I have had something to eat and have regained my strength. With a full stomach and a beautiful morning, I can’t help but feel very positive about my day.
I am slowly heading north- back towards Brill where I suspect Jarok is residing. My former master always appreciated being comfortable, and I suspect that little has changed on that front. I know he will have many warlocks and fighters with him, and I will need to find a way to flush him out.
Looking back on it, I probably should have ensured that Jarok died when I collapsed the tunnels on the coven. He is a proud orc, and I made him look weak. Regardless that I gave him a chance to let me leave the Burning Blade peacefully, he stuck true to his nature and refused. He should have known there would be consequences. The explosives I purchased from the goblins worked as advertised, but Jarok survived, and Jarok wants revenge.
I smile to myself as I ford a stream that is babbling its way to the ocean in the west. The Burning Blade is ultimately a joke. Yes, they have some rudimentary skills in fire and can summon weak demons, but overall, the very reason that they have grown in power has also made them unable to progress in their knowledge and capability. They are rigid, lack creativity and mistake cruelty for power. I exceeded their teachings months before I left. If Jarok wants to find me, I’ll just naturally make myself available.
Lost in such thoughts, I crest a hill and abruptly run into a party of orcs who seem to be patiently waiting for me. To the right and left of me stand apprentices of Jarok’s coven. In front of me, axes at the ready are four warriors led by Commander Wildmane, himself. Behind him is Zetzook, her eyes meeting mine- challenging me to judge her actions.
I return her gaze, and my heart falls. I guess I am naïve and should certainly know better. My fantasies of believing that her feelings for me would overcome her training during our rivalry were and are completely childish. She did what any Burning Blade warlock would have done. She reported both my position and plans. Together with Wildmane, she established this ambush.
Wildmane. An old friend of Jarok’s, rumors of him run rampant within the Burning Blade. It is said that the old orc had once been a lieutenant of Kargath Bladefist, but fell out of favor with that warlord several years ago. He then was recruited to the coven by Jarok and played a substantial role in the development of the Burning Blade covens in Azeroth. He is feared by all but the highest-placed members of the coven due to his ferocity and unpredictability, and he is perhaps the largest orc I have ever met. Rippling with muscle punctuated by scars, his strength is legendary. If I am to survive this encounter, he is the one I have to overcome.
For his part, the Captain looks at me amused, almost dismissively. “So, the young whelp believes he is going to fight Jarok, eh Zetzook?” He shakes his head and, reaching over his shoulder with his right hand, lazily unstraps his massive two-handed axe and brings it to his front, setting the head of the axe on the ground. Hands placed on the hilt, Wildmane leans slightly with his eyes taunting me, daring me to attack.
“I don’t believe I have a choice in the matter, Captain. Since he wants me so badly, I don’t wish to disappoint him.”
At that, Wildmane chuckles. “Good, at least you have the heart of a warrior- unlike the timid scum Jarok usually takes on as apprentices.” The warlocks to my sides don’t seem happy with that comment, but they’re keeping silent.
Taking a couple of steps forward, I look Wildmane in the eye, “The question is, Captain, do I have to go through you to get to Jarok, or will you get out of my way?”
The Captain looks at me for a moment, weighing me. Then, a smile spreads over his wrinkled face. “Come, whelp, show us what you can do. Take him down!”
At that, the two warlocks on either side begin to cast. Quickly, I lace both with curses that interrupt their casting and cause them to double over. The fighters haven’t moved, and Wildmane continues to look at me smugly. We’ll see how confident he is when I shower him with fel magic.
Building up dark power, I form it into a devastating ball of shadow made from nightmares and evil itself. That power, carefully crafted in seconds, launches itself at Wildmane, pounding into his chest with its full force, lacing the Captain with horror unmentionable. But, the darkness fades quickly leaving the warrior unscathed as sunlight quickly returns to the glade. The Captain stretches slowly and yawns with exaggerated slowness, all the while still smiling at me, “Is that all you’ve got, whelp? I’m disappointed.”
His warriors still have not moved, and his warlocks are now on all fours, retching. For her part, Zetzook stares at her feet, looking… troubled? Quickly I shake my head and look back at Wildmane. I have to stay focused. For his part, the old orc’s smile has turned into a vicious grin. “Now, it is my turn, whelp!”
With insane speed, the huge warrior lifts his axe, roars and charges. Desperately, I attempt to leap out of the way, but I feel as if I am underwater, my movements slow, ungainly. He swings his massive axe, catching my temple with the flat. The last thing I see before losing consciousness is Zetzook’s face, her eyes filled with disappointment.
Voices rose within the tavern. Some were angry, others confused. Normally the Gallows End Tavern in Brill was a peaceful place, frequented by a few forsaken who stopped to share stories or partake in the local beverage. Brill, itself, tended to be a quiet town. Being small, with only one street, Brill served its few denizens in addition to the local military.
Today, the inn was filled with orcs, wearing assorted tabards representing many guilds. Some sat around the few tables within the structure, while others stood facing the figure who leaned against the counter of the bar.
The object of their dismay relaxed and took another swig from his tankard. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he deliberately set the mug down and held up a hand for quiet. The orc wore the clothing of a shaman. Dark facial hair grew from the sides of his face to end at his chin. His head, adorned with a jungle hat, hid the long, dark hair on his scalp.
The raucous crowd gradually quieted down, but one orc called out the question that had created the stir in the first place, “So, Shaman, you are certain that Jarok does not do Thrall’s bidding?”
“I am positive. It is but a ruse to capture his enemy.” The Shaman, Relikk, scanned the crowd.
“So what?” Another orc piped up, “The gold’s good”
“And I will increase the amount of the bounty!” Coming down the stairs, wearing his red, flowing robes, strutted Jarok- flanked by his large, orc bodyguards. Wearing a broad, fatherly smile, he purred, “This shaman is lying of course. Thrall has indeed approved this hunt. Perhaps, our Warchief would be interested in this orc as well?” Jarok lazily pointed towards Relikk.
For his part, the shaman merely raised his tankard in a mock toast. “So, you are the infamous Jarok Lavafist of the Burning Blade. I take it, then, that you have not found your quarry?”
At the mention of the Burning Blade, Thrall’s hated enemy, the babble of voices rose again. Raising his voice over that of the crowd, Relikk continued, “Know this, those of you who would continue the hunt for Zaegenriht. Members of his clan are gathering even now near the Zeppelins outside of the Undercity. They take a dim view of any of you that seek to capture and imprison one of theirs. Your ‘hunt’ will become a war. Is that worth the gold that this… warlock is paying you?”
“He is right, you know.” The voice came from a dark corner of the inn. Coming into the light stood a forsaken. Unlike most of his race, he stood tall, wearing plated armor and bearing both sword and shield. A tabard of the Argent Dawn shone from his chest. “Gentlemen, my name is Devon Callum. A few days ago, two of the clan Riht crossed over from the Plaguelands and demolished a group of us that were under Jarok’s employ. Furthermore, just yesterday, I met a traveling merchant who told me that the assassin, Auralonriht, successfully turned back a score of fighters coming from the Hillsbrad foothills. I would listen to this shaman if I were you.” With that, the proud forsaken bowed and then stiffly walked out of the inn.
Jarok stood on the stairs, masking his frustration at the turn of events. His grand entrance had been completely ruined by the appearance of Relikk. Now, he would have to fight to keep the loyalty of his ever-shrinking mercenary army. Suddenly, he chuckled, grabbing the patrons’ attention. “So, some members of the fugitive’s family want to come to his aid? Excellent! We are orcs! Fighting is in our blood. Let them come. It makes the hunt more interesting, yes?”
Several orcs nodded in agreement. Orcs generally enjoyed a fight-even if the sides were a bit murky. Before Jarok’s poison seed could be planted deeply, however, Relikk shook his head and spoke up, “Yes, Jarok, we are orcs of the Horde. We fear no fight and relish the opportunities to use our axes.” Many orcs banged their fists on the tables in agreement.
Relikk continued, “However, no matter what battles we fight, we still honor our Warchief. You, warlock of the Burning Blade, are an outcast who has now used Thrall’s name to commit your crimes.” Turning to the crowd, Relikk spread his arms, “For those of you that wish to stand against the Clan Riht, you will find them a willing opponent. You will stand not only against their warriors, but also against their shaman, Curan, who is my friend. Do you dare wager your honor and stand against a clan with its shaman? If so, we shall see you soon.”
Turning back to Jarok, Relikik stabbed the air with his finger. “Jarok, your days are numbered. The Clan Riht is a gathering storm and the elements favor them. You have attacked one of their own. Now the Burning Blade will reap the rewards of your foolishness.” With that, Relikk finished his tankard, set it on the counter and walked out into the daylight.
At first, the inn was quiet. Then one grizzled orc stood up from his table, “I served with Marrow of the Clan Riht back in the day. I have no reason to make an enemy of them. My guild rejects your contract, warlock.” With that, the old orc and his six fighters walked out. Another orc spoke, “I will not lift my axe under false pretenses.” Soon, others mumbled assent and left the inn until all that remained were Jarok’s own minions.
For his part, Jarok trembled in ill-concealed rage. Damn Zaegen, damn the Riht and damn that meddling shaman! He marched down the rest of the stairs, shoving the orc in front of him to the side.
Thoughts flashed quickly through warlock's head. Time was running out. Without the mercenaries, it would be very difficult to find Zaegen, so if Wildmane hadn’t yet found the young warlock, it might already be too late- especially with the Riht element coming into play. It wasn’t fair. How was Jarok supposed to know that Zaegen was part of a close-knit, homicidal family?
Turning to one of his guards, Jarok snarled, “Take me to Wildmane.”
The light sears my skull as I attempt to open my eyes. Only one responds. Barely. The other seems to be swollen shut. Attempting to reach them, I find that I can’t move my arms, and the reason soon becomes clear. My arms are chained above my head to a ring fastened to a rail that runs horizontally for a few feet before melding with a large, wooden pole set into the ground. Upon further examination, I discover that my legs are also bound- tied together by rope, leaving my toes barely able to touch the ground.
As my eye adjusts to the light, I see that it is late afternoon. I am held captive in the middle of an encampment consisting of six tents lined up in two neat rows. The pole from which I am bound lies dead center between the two middle tents. The “road” between the tents consists of churned up mud due to both heavy traffic and recent rains.
Turning a bit to the side, I see two fighters, wearing hauberks of worn ring mail. They are casually leaning against the pole behind me, soaking up the sun’s rays. Talking quietly with one another, they completely ignore me. Otherwise all I hear is the creaking of the chain as I slowly twist to one side and then the other.
Other than the guards behind me the camp seems empty. A small wind causes the tent flaps to flutter a bit, but otherwise all is still. Off in the distance, however, there seems to be a commotion. A small tendril of smoke rises from behind some trees, and some muted shouts and distant screams waft over the horizon.
As I strain to hear more, some quiet grunts followed by the smack of two bodies hitting the ground behind me breaks my concentration. Before I can turn, a strange, colorfully clothed orc casually saunters around to my front. I can honestly say that I have never seen an orc wearing the regalia commonly associated with elves. The color is marred, somewhat, by a dark tophat worn on his head.
He grins in response to my stare, “Well, cousin, I would imagine you’re rather uncomfortable. If you have no objection, I think it’s time to free you.”
“Cousin? You are... a Riht?”
He doffs his hat and bows low, his cape swung to the side with a flourish, “I am indeed. My name is Auralon, one of the Tranquillian Riht. And you are Zaegen, son of Curan.” Rising, he puts his hat back on his head and leans toward me, placing the palm of his hand to the side of his mouth as if to whisper to me privately- not that anyone is around. “Your father is very anxious to see you, cousin, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to disappoint him.” He winks.
“My... father?” I am having a difficult time concentrating, but Auralon doesn’t wait for comprehension. Quickly, he pulls out some needles and odd devices and within a minute, my arms are freed. Gratefully, I stretch my arms out and rub them to regain circulation. Looking around, I see that my two guards are quite dead, slumped against the pole.
Auralon motions to me- “Quickly, cousin, I am to take you to your father.” I untie my legs and take some hesitant steps to make sure they are functioning correctly. Then I rush after Auralon, who already is heading for the edge of the small encampment. Waving one arm at the empty tents, I ask, “Where is everyone?”
“Well, we kind of lured them out.” Auralon chuckles, “Your former Master, Jarok and a small entourage were coming up from Brill. So we grabbed them. Evidently, the Captain of this crew didn’t appreciate that, so he left with his minions to intercept us. We’ve broken them apart through some fun hit and run. Now there’s a nice set of skirmishes occurring as we speak.”
Remembering Wildmane and his soldiers, I become concerned, but pause at my kinsman’s knowing smile, “We heard about your little predicament, cousin, and have come from miles around. This is probably the most Riht in one place since Hyjal, and everyone is very glad to have an excuse. You’ve thrown quite the party, Zaegen! Now, let’s hurry and not miss it.”
My father had ingrained the value of family into me from a young age. He told stories of the clan gatherings, and its tenacity. We were never the size of the larger clans such as Blackrock, Bonechewer, Bleeding Hollow or Warsong, but we made up for the lack of size in sheer tenacity. If one fought a Riht, the saying went, one fought us all. But I have never witnessed this bond first hand. Although I met a few of the family when we were rescued from the Internment Camps, I was too young to fight at Hyjal, and have never had the honor of witnessing a gathering of the clan.
Today, this is changing. Today, members of the clan have congregated once again, this time to aid me against a force of Burning Blade. With some guilt, I realize that I caused this entire predicament. Looking into Auralon’s twinkling eyes, however, I am beginning to realize that my family doesn’t care about fault. They’re here to stand with me, because it is simply something a Riht does.
At Auralon’s insistence, we quickly leave the tents behind and climb up the small hill to the west. With the sun beginning its journey toward setting, we are blinded somewhat as we crest. Thus, we almost run into a small battle between a couple of Burning Blade warlocks and two warriors wearing the tabard of the Clan Riht- a red double-edged axe, handle down with the blades covering the chest over a red-trimmed black field.
They are in a small depression lined with bushes and filled with lush green grass that has been thoroughly trampled. Yellow powder, obviously the remains of the warlocks’ demons, coat the tops of the bushes. For their part, the demons’ masters are faring poorly. Driven back against another small copse of waist-high brush, they attempt to cast their final spells as the warriors charge into them. The axes of the two warriors make short work of the lightly armored warlocks. No sooner do the warlocks drop, when the two warriors turn to face us, weapons at the ready.
Auralon steps forward and puts his fist to his chest, “Lok’Tar and glory to the Riht!”
The two orcs are practically identical in every way- from their dark, green skin and their coiled long black hair to their plate and mail armor. “Lok’Tar,” the one on the right responds. Turning to me, he says, “Auralon, we have met, but you must be Zaegen. I am Meran and this is my brother, Palan. We are known as the brothers, Riht, and are pleased to meet you, cousin. Hope you don’t mind us taking liberties with your foes.”
I laugh and say, “Not at all, cousin. Feel free to kill any of them you wish. There’s enough for all of us. But Jarok? He is mine.”
Meran nods at me, “Good. Well we had better get a move on, Blon and his wolf have been leading Wildmane’s group in a futile chase all over the forest, but I expect that he’s ready to bring them to your father. Don’t think you want to miss that.”
The four of us move quickly, gradually turning north and making our way over an old deer trail. While the grass is a bit long, we don’t encounter any hindering brush, and therefore make good time. The light begins to wane as we enter a clearing about fifty yards long and about thirty yards wide. It is bordered on all sides by a combination of trees and leafy bushes.
The first thing I see when entering the clearing is my father. He stands in the center, an old, grizzled, muscle-bound orc with skin thicker and tougher than any kodo. I have not seen my father in over three years, but he hasn’t changed a bit. Beside him is a younger shaman that has been a friend of my father’s for years. His name is Relikk.
Curan nods at me with a casual air. “It’s good to see you, son.”
“Father.” I nod in reply, “I am honored that you and the family have come to aid me.”
At that I hear a loud snort from behind. Turning, I see a large, muscular orc walking into the clearing. He carries a bow made from enchanted bone and wears a jungle hat that covers much of his long, braided hair. Oh his right stands a smaller orc, easily dwarfed by the hunter. He wears well-worn plate and mail armor and carries two large battleaxes.
The hunter chuckles, “That bag of bones and hard leather couldn’t wait to come here and horn in on your fun. Come to think of it, I reckon the rest of us kind of are in the same boat.” A wolf suddenly rushes into the clearing from behind the hunter and stops short just a few feet away and stares at me intently. Before I can react, he suddenly turns around and lopes back to the hunter who chuckles again. “That there’s Sampson. You pass his muster. By the way, I’m Blon and this is my brother, Sten. We hail from the Durotar Riht.”
I step up and grab their arms in greeting. Blon seems easy-going and possesses a quiet confidence. I get the impression that little is able to ruffle this giant. His brother, on the other hand, is another matter. Sten’s gaze is piercing, challenging, and he always seems on the verge of exploding into action. There is nothing comfortable about Blon’s younger brother. But his grip is solid, and I know that he is there to fight at my side.
Blon turns to my father, “Curan, Wildmane and his cronies should be here any minute now. And I got to tell you, leading them tenderfoots is a pain. They kept losing our trail, and I had to keep going back to encourage them.”
Curan nods and then looks at me. “We captured Jarok earlier, but after failing to convince him to leave you alone, we figured we’d let him go get his friends.
“You let him go?”
Curan shrugs at me, “Sure. Why not? That way, he’ll gather all of his friends, including that Wildmane fellow. We’ll get them all in one place. Besides, I figure you want Jarok for yourself.” Curan pauses and looks toward the woods where Blon and Sten emerged. “Now it appears that Jarok, Wildmane and company are on their way.”
My father has always been a practical orc. I grin, “Well, then, I guess we had better not disappoint him.”
Curan nods again and then turns to Relikk, “Shaman, if you would assist?”
Relikk walks up to Curan and then both turn to face us. With the sound of a distant wind, totems of power spring up around us. “The elements have agreed to come to our aid,” Relikk intones, “Let no opponent take our cause lightly, for their opposition shall be dealt in the harshest of manners.” My father then steps in, “As it was in Draenor before the blood of Mannoroth and the deception of Gul’dan, the Riht join with the elements to protect the clan and honor the bond.” Both shamen then raise their voices with the pronouncement, “It is done!”
At first, I feel a rush of energy and warmth. Then I feel the bond. It’s as if earth, wind, fire and water swirl around me in an ever-expanding circle. As the circle increases in size, the consciousness of my family joins with mine, but the circle continues to grow. At first, I sense the spirit of my Mother, filling me with warmth and strength. Then the spirits of ancestors whom I never met- many of whom never entered Azeroth- join us. Legions of the souls of Riht infuse us with their support, their quiet strength and their dedication to the clan. “You are not alone, “ they seem to be saying, “You have never been alone and you never will be. You are Riht, and you shall carry the clan name with honor for the rest of your life. Lok’Tar Ogar!”
And then suddenly, the spirits are gone. But in their wake, the eight of us store a fury, barely contained. Power of family courses through our veins, and our ancestors stand with us this day.
As if on cue, our enemies enter the clearing. My eyes focus immediately on Jarok. My former master is a worse for wear. His normally immaculate robes are torn and dusty. There is dried blood on the side of his face, and his eyes seem haunted. Beside him walks Wildmane, the Captain in his full battle regalia. His plate armor literally shimmers with arcane power, and his gigantic axe rides easily in his massive hands. With those two come a score of warlocks and warriors of the Burning Blade. Jarok and Wildmane stop about twenty feet from us, and their minions file up and take positions on either side. Fortunately, Zetzook does not appear to be with them.
“So whelp,” Wildmane looks at me and chuckles, “I see you’ve brought some help from your litter mates. Just more of your pitiful clan to die this evening.”
Before I can reply, a rumbling growl erupts behind me. “That orc is MINE!!!” I turn to see Sten’s mouth frothing and his eyes flashing a wild red.
“Now, hold on, there, cousin,” Palan interjects reasonably, “We might want to try our axes against him. Why should you be the one…” Palan’s voice trails off when Sten’s glare stabs him fully in the eyes. Holding up his hands and chuckling, Palan withdraws. “OK, cousin, he’s all yours.”
Sten grabs his two greataxes that are crisscrossed behind his back and with practiced ease arms himself. “You, Captain,” he spits, “I’ll give you one chance. Report to Garrosh Hellscream in Northrend. He still can use bodies for the fight against the Alliance.”
For the first time I witness Wildmane looking less sure of himself under the much shorter orc’s scrutiny. But then he rallies, straightening his shoulders and pointing his axes at Sten. “Who are you to make demands of me, you...”
“Die!” Sten’s roar drowns out the last of Wildmane’s statement as he flies into the large warrior with unbelievable speed. Sten’s axes spin and weave around his body in an intricate dance of death. For his part, Wildmane desperately attempts to fend off the smaller orc, scoring a couple of small hits, but, if anything, Sten’s intensity only grows. Desperately, the Captain kicks Sten, sending him flying backwards into the dirt. But no sooner does the small orc hit the ground, then he springs up in a blur and shoots into Wildmane, burying both of his large axes into the Captain’s torso and literally ripping the entrails out of the large orc’s body, scattering the detritus among the Burning Blade minions.
Both sides pause as Wildmane’s eys glaze, his axe drops to the ground and he collapses onto the soft, grassy soil of Tirisfal. Then my father steps forward and shouts, “For the Riht!” With a roar, my family launches into the Burning Blade.
Immediately, my eyes lock with those of Jarok. Even disheveled, his eyes burn with fel power. Those eyes are Jarok’s most effective weapon. With them, he rules his coven through intimidation and the promise of either reward or damnation. Once, they even affected me. But no more. Powerful? Yes, Jarok still possesses great ability, but confronting him now, I realize that he is nothing more than a desperate, old orc.
As the shouts, screams and clanging of metal echo around us, I call out to my old master, “Jarok, leave this place. I will ensure your safe passage. I have no quarrel with you.”
“Oh, but Zaegen, I do have a quarrel with you!” His laugh is deep and his eyes flash. I barely jump out of the way in time as fire laces the area upon which I stood a second earlier. “You, whelp, spurned my teachings. And for what?”
I dodge a bolt of shadow, only to be singed by a rain of fire. Leaping away from that, I almost run into one of Jarok’s minions who raises his sword gleefully. One of Blon’s arrows appears in his throat, and the sword drops to the ground. I nod a quick thanks to Blon who is already lining up another target.
Jarok walks toward me, arms in the air, “You were my best apprentice and could have risen in the ranks of the Burning Blade. Instead, you leave. Why? Was it because of your little tryst with Zetzook? I have trouble believing that you are that weak.”
Another bolt of shadow leaves his hands and smacks me in the chest, knocking me out of the clearing, past a couple of trees and into a bush. I struggle to escape the confines of the bush while desperately attempting to regain my breath. Jarok’s shadow bolts are no joke.
“In any event, I’ve sent Zetzook back home to Durotar. I cannot trust her loyalty in this. As for you, you will stand trial and you will be executed!” Jarok stalks me into the woods. It is dark. The sun, being faint in the clearing, is non-existent here. As Jarok’s eyes start to acclimate, I strike.
Fire outlines my old Master, but as the flames attempt to lick his skin, he laughs. “What primitive nonsense, apprentice! You think that I’ve not made my peace with fire?” With a casual wave, he banishes the flames. But his laugh falters. His eyes open wide in shock, and he looks at me with disbelief. Ever so slowly he falls away, his arms seeming to reach out, beseeching me to help him deny his mortality before he fades into the darkness.
The problem with most Burning Blade warlocks is that they have been raised as warlocks. They have forgotten their warrior heritage. I cast fire on Jarok- not to harm him, but to blind him long enough to allow me to close. My blade did the rest.
The clearing has quieted. As I make my way out of the brush, fires spring up. Palan and Meran have lit some small bonfires, and the light allows us to assess the damage. All of the Burning Blade are dead. As for the Riht, there are a few nicks and cuts, but Relikk and my father are seeing to those.
We spend the night burning the bodies of our enemies before heading back to Brill. Our band is filled with laughter and fellowship. As the sun rises over Tirisfal, we enter the Inn and line up at the bar. Woken from his slumber, the forsaken bartender blearily serves us food and spirits.
As we raise our tankards to our ancestors, I feel the warmth and pride that marks our family. My eyes catch those of my father, and he grins. Now I understand what it means to be a Riht, and I will never be alone again.