The dry desert air of Silithus was no more forgiving at night. As the heat of the sun died down, frigid winds would blow that could freeze a man to the bone. Of course, while Fÿnn and Aremadiel shivered in the front, Dhespair walked behind them with no issue.
They had scouted the desert for two full days now and discovered nothing of interest. Most of the Horde camps in the area had picked the ground clean of any azurite nodes and then moved on. They were nothing more than abandoned tents or rudimentary guard towers.
All the while, they would still come across deep crevasses in the ground, which pulsed with the glow of titanic blood deep beneath the surface of the world.
As they walked, Dhespair glanced over at the Remnants’ newest “recruit”.
The Stormwind guards had called him Balorius. They said a scouting party had found him near the old ruins of Lordaeron. He had a storied past, of that Dhespair was confident, but so far the death knight hadn’t said more than a few words. As far as any records, Dhespair had already checked Acherus’ logs and found nothing about anyone named Balorius, so that was a wash.
“So, do you know where you come from?” Dhespair asked as they walked, fairly confident that he wouldn’t get an answer. “I’m going to keep asking over and over, so you might as well speak up.”
“Icecrown,” Balorius replied. “That’s where I woke up.”
“And you don’t remember how long ago you have been awake?”
Balorius shrugged. “I don’t. I just… I woke up and came to Lordaeron. Then I got captured and next thing I knew you were pulling me around.”
Dhespair nodded quietly. He had been in Stormwind when they brought Balorius into the stockades. A death knight, no doubt, but one that claimed no allegiance to the Lich King, the Horde, or the Alliance. Everyone approached that with great skepticism. Any rogue death knights were considered enemies of all. Dhespair should have executed this new arrival on sight, but curiosity had driven him to learn more.
Balorius had told Dhespair of waking in the citadel in Northrend and his trip to Lordaeron, but he offered little other than that.
No history. No memories.
There were questions about this individual that Dhespair wanted to know. So, instead of turning him over to the other death knights, Dhespair had decided to take custody of the prisoner until he could learn more. From all accounts it sounded like Balorius had woken recently, which was unsettling. A new death knight could be of grave significance. Many of the denizens of Azeroth did not know that the Lich King yet lived on in Northrend, but Dhespair knew the truth. The threat in the north loomed over this world and Balorius could be the harbinger of something… more.
“Did the Lich King speak to you when you woke?” he asked.
Balorius didn’t respond.
“You must work with me here. I’m trying to help.”
“If you want to help me,” Balorius said, his voice particularly icy. “You could give me a weapon to defend myself out here.”
Dhespair frowned. “That’s not happening. Not until I know more about you and where—”
The voice was quiet, but authoritative. Dhespair knelt and pulled Balorius down with him. He saw Fÿnn a short distance ahead, crawling across the sand to the top of a large dune. He signaled to Aethelwolfe, who came to his side, and then he left Balorius in the Paladin’s care and moved to join Fÿnn at the dune’s crest.
Just over the peak, the dune dropped and there was a large pit that had been carved into the sand. Wooden beams and walls had been put into place to house an encampment and Horde banners were proudly flown from nearby poles.
This was easily one of the largest sites that they had come across and, more importantly, this one was still very much active.
Forsaken guards were busy hustling crates of cargo from a large trailer while other undead scurried about gathering smaller supplies. There were a few Tauren posted at the pit’s entryway ramp, but aside from that pair Dhespair couldn’t make out any other horde races at the camp.
That was not entirely uncommon. Many times the races acted independently of one another, but this was the first encampment they’d seen in Silithus with such a heavy population of Forsaken.
“Are you seeing this?” he asked.
Fÿnn nodded and then pointed toward a light off to the east. “There’s another camp over there from the looks of those lights. This place is no small outpost or mining site. They’re backed right up against the sword too, like they’re studying it.”
Dhespair looked down into the pit and saw that they had indeed carved a path up to the very blade of the massive titan weapon that was lodged in the planet. At least two forsaken were standing down there now, seemingly just talking with one another.
“What can they possibly be doing down there?” Fÿnn asked.
“I don’t know,” Dhespair replied. “We’ll need to get a closer look.”
Fÿnn leapt the crest of the dune without hesitation, sliding down the steep side of the sand and right into the middle of the large pit area. Dhespair, initially shocked, followed suit, but not before gesturing for the others to wait. He saw his brother’s concerned expression just as he disappeared over the side.
They came to a stop at the base of the dune and Fÿnn quickly squirmed over to one of the many tents constructed within the pit walls. He stayed on the outside for a moment, carefully listening, then lifted the canvas edge and slipped inside.
Dhespair, trying not to think about the absurdity of this situation, followed him inside.
There were two tables, beakers, a still, burners, and all kinds of other pieces of equipment that seemed better suited in an Alchemy lab than here in the desert. Fÿnn was already rifling through a pile of papers and looked back at Dhespair with a grin.
“Good thing they still write in our language,” he said, waving a document in the air. “I don’t speak a word of elven or orcish.”
Dhespair ignored him for a moment and stepped over to one of the tables covered with equipment. There wasn’t anything of particular interest, as far as he could tell, but he noticed one beaker sitting over a small flame, which contained a bubbling green goop. He leaned closer to it and gently wafted his hand over the container’s opening.
The smell that hit his nose nearly sent him to the floor.
He knew that smell.
That day, at the Wrathgate, that very smell had overwhelmed his senses as it had choked away his life essence.
This was the Forsaken plague.
The last time he’d heard of the plague being used as a weapon was the battle of Gilneas. At that time, Sylvanas Windrunner had gone against the orders of the Horde and deployed this monstrous blight on innocent civilians, much as her undead filth had done at the Wrathgate. A lot had changed since those days, and while the Horde had continued to assure the Alliance that the plague would not be used in honorable combat… well, Sylvanas was never one to be trusted. Now it seemed the research continued.
“This is not what I expected to find,” he said, picking up the blight and showing it to Fÿnn.
“What’s that? Like… the stuff that killed you?”
Dhespair sighed. “Yes.”
“Well you’re really not going to like this.”
The paladin showed him a few pages, most of them were actually sketches, very detailed sketches, that showed several examples of azurite nodes.
“I don’t understand,” Dhespair admitted. “Everyone is here for the azurite. Why is this special?”
“The footnote. It says sample collection for blight enhancement.”
The death knight looked at the drawing again and saw the scribbles that Fÿnn was referencing. Sure enough, the notes did read as such. So this encampment was here to test azurite and see if it could improve the blight. The effectiveness? The destructive quality? What could possibly have them driving toward such a goal?
“We need to destroy this camp,” Dhespair said firmly.
“What?” Fÿnn asked. “No! We need to gather up this evidence, take it back to Iliera, and let her convince the Alliance to handle this situation.”
“The Alliance won’t do anything,” Dhespair said, his voice rising. At his feet, the ground began to crack and freeze. His power was building along with his rage. “I’ve watched this escalation before, Fÿnn. The Horde will grow in power and the Alliance will sit idly by like they did last time. It’ll be Putriss all over again, but this time the Dark Lady is openly running the show.”
Fÿnn reached out to stop Dhespair, but he ripped his hand back when he touched the frozen armor of the death knight. “Hey! Calm down. Listen to me. I am with you on this. We have to stop whatever is happening here, but there’s like, five of us. We don’t have the manpower. We need to regroup. If Iliera won’t help us, then I promise you we can come back here, and finish this ourselves.”
There was a long moment of silence between the two, then Dhespair seemed to relax.
Fine,” he muttered. “We regroup. We tell Iliera, and then we go from there.”
Fÿnn was about to sigh with relief, but before he could breathe, an alarm sounded. They heard the guards shouting. The others had been spotted up on the hill.
Then, the tent was suddenly ripped open leaving Fÿnn and Dhespair standing there in the desert with at least ten undead guards standing around them. They had known they were there, and had completely surrounded them.
None of the guards moved to attack. Up on the hill, Fÿnn heard swords clashing. He looked up, but he couldn’t see anything. He felt Aethelwolfe’s power in the Light burning with righteousness. They weren’t overwhelmed, but time was running out.
“Let’s be about it,” Dhespair said, lifting his blades. “I can take down most of them. You handle the stragglers.”
“Alright,” Fÿnn replied, pulling his own weapon. “No need to get mean.”
“Gentlemen,” a rickety and empty voice said. “There’s no need for that.”
The guards parted and revealed an undead figure. His body was decrepit and worn, like most of the Forsaken these days, and Fÿnn was thankful for the downwind of the desert for this brief moment. The undead wore a mask, covering his face, and a robe that hid most of his emaciated torso.
“I call him too,” Dhespair said, tightening his grip.
Fÿnn didn’t say anything. He waited for the death knight to make his move, and as soon as he did, the paladin flanked hard right, throwing all of his weight into one of the smaller guards. His holy weapon pierced the toppled foe and the guard squirmed for a moment before the Light silenced him once and for all. Fÿnn looked up just in time to see Dhespair reach his target and as his mighty blades came crashing down on the undead… they were suddenly stopped.
They had collided with metal plating beneath the undead’s robes.
The undead just shook his head, then made a hard jab with a small glowing dagger that punched straight through Dhespair’s armor. Fÿnn heard Dhespair groan through clenched teeth. Then, the undead lifted his free hand and blasted the death knight in the chest with a felfire spell that sent him reeling backward into the sand.
“Poor fool,” the undead said, rather casually.
“So you’re a warlock,” Fÿnn said, waving his blade back and forth to ward off the other guards that had circled him once more. Meanwhile, Dhespair lay in the sand, unmoving.
“I prefer to be called master of the dark arts, but sure, warlock will have to do here.”
“The Horde will never get away with this,” Fÿnn said angrily. “We know what you’re up to!”
“You have no clue what I’m doing,” the warlock replied. “You have nothing.”
Fÿnn decided to wing it. “Why do you think we’re here? We came to stop your azurite experiments. We know all about the plague and your plans.”
The warlock was unmoving. His mask hid any hopes of reading an expression. Fÿnn had no idea if he was on the right track, but he knew he had to double down on his plan.
“Right now there are dozens of Alliance soldiers getting into place. They’re going—”
“Enough,” the warlock said. “You have nothing. You brought no one. You will die here.”
Fÿnn hadn’t considered that. He was going to die here. That was a possibility he hadn’t given any consideration.
“Alright,” he said, if that’s the case…
He hurled his sword through the air without warning. The warlock, though Fÿnn could see now expression, knew all too well the body language of panic. The weapon just missed cleaving the undead’s head from his body and the hilt hammered him in the temple as he attempted to dodge. He rolled along the sand as the weapon continued its trajectory, cutting down one of the guards on the far side of the circle.
Fÿnn then called a holy hammer out of thin air. It sparked with the electrical power of the Light, and he immediately took a swing at the closest guard. The hammer crushed the attacker’s helm and when Fÿnn pulled the weapon back, a spark arched across the circle taking down three more of the undead.
The warlock was starting to stand up, so Fÿnn quickly twisted and threw his hammer to the ground between the foe and Dhespair. The electrical energy exploded, knowing both individuals back through the air. Fÿnn darted across the opening, took up his blade and then cut down two more guards as he cut his way to Dhespair.
“You okay, buddy?” he asked, leaning down over the death knight.
“Still alive, or unalive, or whatever. That’s good.”
Fÿnn spun around, but he missed the attacker. The guard caught his wrist and the weapon fell away as his arm exploded in pain.
The guard caught Fÿnn’s leg with his foot and the paladin collapsed to his knees.
“A valiant effort,” the voice of the warlock echoed in the air. He stepped into view from behind another handful of armed guards and Fÿnn got his first look at his enemy’s face. The mask had broken in half, exposing just a portion of the decayed face beneath.
Fÿnn scanned the situation, looking for an opening or a moment where he could heal his broken arm and try to tackle the guard holding a dagger to his throat. He was going to die. Fine. He had to make sure it was in a blaze of glory. He deserved that much.
Then, as if the Light itself had heard him, he saw it.
The wind was blowing a piece of canvas, no more than twenty feet away. A large chunk of azurite was underneath.
This time he saw the expression of confusion from the warlock.
“What are you smiling about?” he asked. “You’re defeated. You are about to die at my command.”
“The Light is with me,” Fÿnn replied.
“You foolhardy little—”
Fÿnn threw his good arm forward and a crackled of Holy energy arched out, straight across the sand, and then collided with the azurite.
Fÿnn had closed his eyes when he threw the spell. He had expected to feel his throat being sliced open, but instead, the world went white. Bright white.
The explosion should have decimated his body, but instead he felt Holy radiance flowing all around him. His arm’s pain faded and he felt suddenly rejuvenated.
The white light faded away and Fÿnn was left standing in a small crater. Behind him, he heard Dhespair standing, the small dagger that had been lodged in his chest was now free, the death knight holding it in his palm.
“Good timing,” he said, gesturing up the sand hill.
Fÿnn looked up and saw Aethelwolfe and Aremadiel standing there, their hands holding the protective spells together around them both.
“Excellent timing,” Fÿnn replied.
“There’s more forces coming,” Athelwolfe yelled. “We need to go. Now.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice!”
“Where’s the warlock?” Dhespair asked, kicking over a few charred bodies.
“Hopefully dead. For real.”
“I don’t see him.”
“So he got away. Oh well. Come on.”
“I don’t think—”
Fÿnn saw the felfire streaking through the air just as Dhespair did. The two paladins at the top of the hill fell back just as the blast erupted where they had been standing moments before. Their protective spells snapped away and the two were exposed. Fÿnn rushed toward his sword on the ground, but just before he touched the blade an icy agony ripped through his entire body, paralyzing him with fear.
In his mind’s eye he saw Theramore… burning. His mother stood in the flames, calling to him as he skin blistered and burned. She was screaming for help, but as he rushed to her he couldn’t get any closer. He ran harder, faster, his muscles ached, and she screamed again. This was a nightmare. He was trapped within the horror!
Dhespair saw the voidwalker swipe at Fÿnn and the paladin fell to the ground. He scooped up one of the guardsmen’s discarded weapons and threw it through the air, filling it with dark energy. The voidwalker was so bent on torturing Fÿnn that it didn’t even see the attack. A dark explosion of negative energy ripped through the monstrosity and it released its grip on Fÿnn.
“Always the hero,” the warlock’s voice whispered.
He landed next to the death knight and grabbed his arm. Dhespair immediately felt the demonic warlock pulling at his soul. No matter how twisted and corrupted it might be, it was still tied to Dhespair’s very essence, and the warlock delighted in draining the death knight’s life.
Just as he began to lose hope, the warlock cried out in pain, falling back from him. Dhespair snapped back, his soul his own again, and saw the the warlock’s forearm still gripped his gauntlet. The bloody stub oozed dark red and greenish fluid and the fingers soon released him.
Standing between the two, with Dhespair’s runeblade in his hands, stood Balorius.
“Nice blades,” the death knight said to Dhespair, handing him one of the weapons before turning to face the warlock. “I told you I needed a weapon.”
The warlock rested on the ground, his eyes locked on his missing arm.
Balorius stepped forward, lifting his weapon to finish the job.
The warlock lurched, his remaining arm shooting forward. A chaos bolt ripped through the air, catching Balorius across at the shoulder and spinning him around. His helmet fell away and he spun back to face the warlock. “You missed.”
The warlock’s face twisted. Not because of Balorius’ comment. Clearly something else was forcing the expression.
“You!?” the warlock said, his remaining fist clenching. “It’s not possible!”
Balorius was stunned. Someone knew him?
His blade halted. His mind was suddenly filled with questions.
The pause was all the warlock needed. A pulse of fel energy hurled Dhespair and Balorius backward. They landed with a hard crash and quickly scrambled to regain their footing, weapons ready, but the warlock had no intention of fighting. He disappeared through a demonic gateway just as Balorius charged.
There was a moment of silence and then Dhespair ran to Fÿnn’s side as the paladin was struggling to stand again.
“You okay, bud?” he asked.
Fÿnn nodded. “Been better.”
“Ah, so you’re still alive,” the death knight replied slyly. “That’s good.”
“You two done with your jokes?” Balorius asked. “If you haven’t noticed we still have more incoming. We need to go. Now.”
Dhespair nodded and helped Fÿnn to his feet. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Balorius lowered the blade in his hand and extended the weapon’s hilt to Dhespair. “Thanks for letting me borrow the sword, by the way. It’s a nice weapon.”
A battle horn blew in the distance and they could see the growing light from what was no doubt a large number of torches in the night air. At the top of the hill, Aethelwolfe and Aremadiel reappeared, gesturing toward the ramp in the distance. “We’ll meet you there!”
Balorius turned and headed that way while Dhespair grabbed Fÿnn and wrapped one of his arms over his shoulder. “Come on, bud. Let’s get you out of here.”
As they made their way to the others, Dhespair couldn’t help but keep his eyes locked on Balorius. He had seen the brief exchange between the warlock and the new recruit. It had to be more than coincidence that the warlock had known Balorius. Their paths crossing had to be more than chance.
Dhespair wanted to know the truth. He would find out who this Balorius was and that meant he first needed to figure out who that warlock was. He had a lead and he intended to follow it until he had what he wanted.
“Hey Balorius, hold up,” the death knight called.
The recruit slowed. “We really should keep moving.”
“I know,” Dhespair replied, extending one of his blades back toward the fellow death knight. “I just thought you should be armed.”
Balorius stopped. He looked at the blade and then up at Dhespair. He slowly extended his hand and took the weapon. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ll give it back when we’re safe.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Dhespair replied. “Now let’s get out of this mess.”