By Timothy Boyd
The swollen sun blazed a path of searing heat across the drab, rocky desert of Durotar, making even the scorpions flee to the scarce shade. Sandy dust clouds lingered in the air, stagnant from the lack of breeze. The days had been getting hotter, the people had become restless, and the ground under their feet trembled with strife.
Xander Lightsworn stood in a line of orcish citizens outside the front gates of Orgrimmar, the Horde capital city. Grateful to be standing in the shade provided from the great city’s towering front gates for fear his pale sin’dorei skin would burn, he shifted his weight back and forth uncomfortably, swapping his thick plate helm to his other arm, his long blonde hair hanging loosely behind him, tied back with two thin braids from the front.
His chiseled jaw was hardened, his brow furrowed, eyes glowing a soft fel-green. He felt uneasy, waiting to gain entrance into the City of Orcs. Perhaps it was the extreme contrast in environment, having just returned on the zeppelin from the snowy tundra of Northrend, where he had been on assignment for over a year finishing up the war efforts after the fall of the Lich King at the top of Icecrown Citadel.
Or perhaps he was simply nervous to reunite with old comrades.
Finally, Xander was next in line to speak with one of the armored orc guards. Having dealt mainly with lower class, green-skinned, hunched-shouldered citizens up to this point, the guard did a double take as the pale elf approached.
“Show papers,” the orc said in Common, broken and stilted from his obvious disuse of the language.
From a burgundy and gold velvet pouch attached to his armored belt, Xander pulled out a small scroll and handed it to the guard.
The orc eyed Xander suspiciously while examining the parchment, as if his documents might be falsified.
“No, I swear!” yelled a female orc to his left, talking to a guard that had begun to drag her into the city, restrained. “I’m just visiting my brother in the Valley of Honor! Please!”
The guard’s nearby superior barked an order, to which the he nodded and replied, “Dabu.”
The woman was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the great hall that led into the city.
“What’s going on?” Xander asked his guard.
Before he could be answered, a voice bellowed from the cavernous entrance hall. “Citizens of Orgrimmar! As you know, a dangerous cult has infiltrated our great city!” The body that belonged to the voice was anything but orcish – tall, slender, exquisite, supple in all the right places. Forgoing her usual light mail armor for more regal attire with a flowing cloak, she stood at the threshold, continuing to read from the large scroll in her hands.
“Until we have eradicated this threat,” she continued, “Warchief Garrosh Hellscream, our hero of Northrend…” To anyone that did not know this blood elf woman, they would not have caught the faint trace of sarcasm with which she spoke of Garrosh’s deeds, but Xander grinned. He knew this woman well.
Thaylla Sunwhisper was the snarkiest hunter beside whom he’d ever fought, and he would trust no other in her place.
He examined her slim jaw and crinkled brow; she always looked angry or devious, but her auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail gave strangers a false sense of innocence about her. Many had died to her vicious arrows. Her trust, as with most blood elves, needed to be earned.
“…all entering Orgrimmar will be searched and questioned,” she finished, rolling the scroll quickly and placing it in a small sack at her waist. Her glowing emerald eyes locked with Xander’s, and she smirked. “Kargan!” she called out.
The guard with Xander spun to face her.
“Let him pass. He’s with me.”
The guard grimaced at the armored paladin, handing the orders back, obviously displeased that Thaylla had been given the authority to order him around. Xander straightened his shoulders and pushed his way through the agitated and frightened crowd, a sense of unease permeating the dry desert heat.
As he approached his comrade, he bowed his head slightly, saying, “Thaylla. You look well.”
Her smirk remained as she replied, “You don’t.”
He glanced down at his battle-worn armor, scuffs from swords and blood from foes staining the once-polished metal.
“And you smell like scourge,” she added.
“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to shine my armor for you while on that derelict zeppelin,” he said flippantly.
Thaylla’s smirk grew into a full-blown smile.
Xander continued, “And not all of us fled from Northrend right after the storming of Icecrown Citadel.”
She shrugged. “You know me. Things to do; places to see.”
The two stared at each other a moment before Xander finally broke into a smile and wrapped his arms around the petite blood elf’s body, hugging her tightly. She pulled away, laughing and scrunching her face into a look of disgust.
“You really do smell awful, Xan.”
He laughed and replied, “It’s really good to see you too.”
She stepped back and held out her arm toward the massive hallway leading through the gates and into the rocky city. “Come with me.”
As they turned through the cavernous dark hall, illuminated only by burning torchlight from the walls, Xander asked the question that had been fluttering in his gut since the moment he read his letter of summons: “Thay, why am I here?”
She spoke quietly in the echoed hall of iron and stone. “We have a job to do, and Thrall would like it done quietly.”
“Thrall? But I was under the impression that Garrosh was…”
Thaylla held up her hand and interrupted. “That brute is only temporary. My allegiances remain with whom many of the Horde’s still lie.”
Xander shook his head. “I’d thought you mad when you accepted that stint in the Undercity, spying for him. But now I think you just enjoy being an errand girl.”
She spun on him, a dagger that he did not even know she possessed buried within the exposed chinks in his armor. “You would do well to watch your tongue in these walls right now, friend. Things aren’t as they used to be. Much has changed while you were away.”
“Thay,” Xander sighed. “I’ve been away for too long. I want so badly to go home, to hang up my armor and mace for a while. I’ve been buried knee-deep within the aftermath of battle, removing decaying bodies from bloody fields, rebuilding fallen cities…” He paused for a moment, a reflective sadness passing through his tormented eyes. “I’m so tired, Thay. Please… Just let me go home.”
Her clutch on him loosened, the dagger inching farther away from his flesh. Never having the urge to return home herself, she had never realized that others may yearn for such a thing. Sheathing her small dagger, she replied softly, “Accompany me on this quest, and afterward I’ll escort you home myself.”
He considered her request a moment before sighing, “Then let’s go.”
They rounded one final corner, and Xander immediately shielded his eyes from the searing bombardment of sun rays through the front gate of the sprawling orc city. He crossed the threshold into the bustling Valley of Strength, with a massive structure of stone, iron, and steel that served as the bank as its centerpiece.
It was a veritable goldmine for any greedy goblin looking to make a profit. Creatures of all Horde races scurried at a high pace, moving from shop to shop, some stopping briefly at the auction house. Trolls, tauren, blood elves, orcs, and even a few Forsaken contributed to the claustrophobic flurry of financial dealings.
Xander hated Orgrimmar. The dreary, unrefined, stone metropolis disgusted and depressed him. He would have given anything to return to his glorious home within the walls of the magical Silvermoon City in the kingdom of Quel’Thalas, seeing the smooth ivory spires reach into the sky, their golden and ruby accents gleaming with warmth. He imagined the white twisted tree trunks that jutted from the earth, bathed with leaves in colors of gold, crimson, and violet.
He had spent too long away from the comforts of his own abode that the last thing he had hoped for was a summons to return from Northrend and report straight to filthy Orgrimmar.
“So where are we headed?” Xander wanted to know, leaning in toward Thaylla but still having to raise his voice over the din of the metropolis around him.
She continued up the dusted rocky path leading around the bank and toward the shadowed Drag that granted access to the other Valleys of Orgrimmar. “We have to talk with Peace,” she answered, calling out over her shoulder.
He stopped, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. “Peace is here?”
She turned around, annoyed by Xander’s constant queries. “Yes. He’s had many meetings with Thrall about the current state of Azeroth, and he’ll tell you all you need to know.” She spun back around and continued on her way.
“But why is he…”
“Xander, you’re trying my patience!” and she continued, leaving the blood elf standing at the entrance to The Drag, full of questions with answers he was sure he did not want.
The deeply shadowed stretch of canyon that connected the Valleys of Strength and Wisdom felt as though it could be a quiet breeding ground for seedy dealings and violent misconduct. Beneath the animal skin canopies stretched tightly over the chasm that formed The Drag, torchlight glowed in the crude windows of myriad shops lining the darkened rocky walls, giving the false impression of permanent twilight.
Despite being the center of commerce for the city, things were quieter here, too. If one listened intently while traversing through, one could hear things. Whispers in the shadows. The hum of magic from the cave below. From that Cleft of Shadow, the occasional howl of a trogg echoed through the muggy air from deep within Ragefire Chasm beneath the city’s foundation.
Sitting at the side of the path, a group of goblins turned and stared at the blood elf, slowly puffing smoke from a thin roll of some kind of weed, the glowing ember on the tip eerily illuminating their distorted green faces and gnarled teeth.
Xander jogged briefly to catch up to the leading scout, placing a thin hand on her shoulder. She turned around and pointed up the path. “We’re almost there,” she spoke quietly, obviously accustomed to the strange acoustics of this shadowed chasm.
Ahead, the paladin heard shouting. Not of anger, but of passion. From this distance, he could make out a female orc, shrouded in simple indigo robes, standing on a stack of wooden crates, addressing a small gathering around her.
As they grew nearer, Thaylla fell back in step with Xander so that they were side by side. She spoke quietly under her breath, “Pay them no mind. Just keep walking.”
Xander did as instructed, listening quietly to the orc woman’s words:
“…but do not be afraid! Join our group and discover the truth! Abandon your lives of constant labor and conflict!”
He thought to himself that the self-proclaimed prophet’s offer sounded quite appealing. But his spine tingled when she continued.
“Let the elements bring you new life, and seize what is rightfully yours in this new world!”
Shaking off the chill from his body, he thought back to Thaylla’s proclamation at the city gates. Her talk of a dangerous cult had seemed insignificant to him at the time, but now he realized that things had gotten far worse while he had been away in Northrend.
“Should we do something?” he whispered.
“Do what? Another guy will just replace her later today. We can’t stop them from speaking out.”
“What is this cult?”
“The Twilight’s Hammer. They’ve been…”
Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet rumbled. Xander stumbled to retain his balance, dropping his helm and throwing his arms out, grasping Thaylla’s sleeve. She immediately fell into a crouch, keeping her stance wide for support. Rocks broke loose from the canyon walls and crashed to the path below, bouncing off the roofs of shops.
Screams erupted from all around, panicked citizens fleeing and covering their heads. The twilight cultist yelled loudly, “This is your proof, citizens! The elements will not tolerate our betrayal any longer!” She dropped to her knees on the crates, clasping her hands together and shutting her eyes. “Please, Master. Guide me. Give me strength to share your message. Show me the mer…” A large boulder slid from the taught canopy above, falling forty feet, crushing the cultist completely.
And then the earthquake ceased.
Dust settled back to the ground from the stagnant air, and Xander coughed, retrieving his helm from the ground.
“Are you all right?” his friend asked, placing a worried hand around his arm.
Dislodging a few specs of dirt from his throat, he coughed one final time and nodded. “Yes, I’m fine.” He noticed a few drops of blood dripping from her arm and then saw the gash. “Your hand.”
“I’m fine,” she spat, glancing down briefly at the wound.
“Give me your hand.”
“It’ll only take a few seconds,” he reasoned with her.
She rolled her eyes and sighed, reaching her hand out to him. She knew that healing wasn’t where his strength in the Light lay, but he was adept at minor wounds.
Tucking the helm under his arm, he lightly encased her wounded hand within his own, closed his eyes, and began quietly uttering the words of Light that had been taught to him. The hair on Thaylla’s neck stood on end as she felt the slight tingle of an intrusive force within her, snaking its way to her wounds and relieving her pain. She noticed a faint, warm glow form between Xander’s palms and then quickly recede again as the gash on her hand closed itself, leaving behind only sticky blood.
The paladin exhaled slowly and opened his eyes, examining her hand.
She withdrew herself from his grasp and impatiently said, “Can we go now?”
He smiled. “After you.”
Less than a minute more of walking through The Drag, and Thaylla approached a small stone hut with a creaky wooden door. Xander heard muffled laughter and boisterous conversation coming from within.
“We’re here,” the hunter declared.
She sighed. “Just go inside.”
He consider his friend hesitantly before pushing open the door and entering.
“Throm-Ka!” came the hearty orcish greeting from the bartender at the far end of the small hut. Many patrons turned toward the two blood elves and extended an echo of the salutation. There was much revelry in the small room, the giant bear skin rug in the center doused with many stains from booze.
A troll sat off to the side playing a crude musical instrument with many ivory slats, each producing a different tone. The most represented race within the small establishment was orc, but even the others were participating in the joyful and melodic lok’tra.
The stark contrast between the dismal Drag and the cheerful warmth of the tavern shocked Xander momentarily. He marveled at the partiers, as if they had not even felt the quake a moment ago. His smile quickly faded as he caught a glimpse of a figure sitting alone at a table in the back, an elegant violet robe draped over the thin frame of the body, hood pulled up cloaking the face in shadow with two slits cut into it to accommodate long ears.
Xander recognized the pale skin and the faint green blaze from the eyes as belonging to a fellow sin’dorei, but the way this blood elf’s glowing eyes of jade were fixated on him sent a tingle of unease through his bones. The stalker puffed slowly on an ornate black pipe with a gold inlay of a majestic hawk with wings spread – the crest of Silvermoon City.
The paladin turned his attentions away from the voyeur and pretended to be interested in the drunken revelry. He leaned toward Thaylla and whispered, “We’re being watched.”
She looked at him, alarmed. “By whom?”
“Sin’dorei. At the back table.”
The ranger’s ears flicked backward slightly, suddenly aware of unseen surroundings. She pretended to polish a smudge from Xander’s chest piece, trying to get a look at the follower’s reflection in the metal. When she spotted the pipe-smoking, cloaked elf, she glared up at Xander and shoved him away angrily. “Are you dense?”
She spun on her heels and proceeded back to the elf’s table, pulling up the wooden stool next to him. “Xan thought you were a spy,” she said to the shadowed smoker.
The figure carefully lifted the hood back so as not to mess up the golden-blonde high ponytail that seemed perfectly situated on his head. His brow was arched, his jaw thin. A small patch of hair grew under his bottom lip. Everything about his stature and expression oozed arrogance. He took one more puff from his pipe before saying, “Still not very bright, are you Xander?”
The paladin relaxed his tense shoulder muscles at the sight of his old comrade, pulling up another stool to join them. “Still have the personality of a Borean frog, eh Lumi?”
Luminash Dawnwing. Another more self-centered blood elf could not be found in all of Silvermoon – and that was saying something! Xander trusted him despite this flaw. He had been with Xander and Thaylla during the storming of Icecrown Citadel.
Xander smiled slyly. “It’s good to see you, Lumi.”
The robed elf sighed. “I suppose there are worse creatures in the world I could be spending my time with.”
“Thanks for waiting,” the hunter said to the mage.
Xander looked back and forth from Thaylla to Luminash, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He was very familiar with each of their roles in battle, and his stomach sank when he realized that all that was needed to form a formidable combat team would be a strong healer. And the best one he knew was…
“You’ve been watching her?” Thaylla asked Luminash.
He nodded his head in the direction of the bar at the other end of the tavern. “And keeping my distance so some drunkard doesn’t spill stout on my robes.”
Thaylla looked in the direction of the mage’s nod and shook her head. “What has she done to herself?”
Rang’oon Lightstrider, platinum blonde hair in a bun, danced wildly on top of the bar, drenched in sweat. A few times she nearly stumbled and fell, but the cheers from the drunken patrons renewed her energy. Her baggy, white linen shirt billowed around her, cinched at the waist of her tight black pants. Her slender blood elf figure twirled with magnificence as she raised her arms into the air and cast an arsenal of holy spells on herself, making her body a glistening beacon of light.
She nearly tumbled off the bar from dizziness as she bent down and took a giant swig of ale from her mug, but an orc reached up to steady her. When she did not fall, she pointed down at the orc that had kept her upright and smiled seductively. “Aka’Magosh,” she flirted, using the orcish blessing of good fortune. The crowd laughed and cheered, raising their drinks into the air.
Xander was paying no attention to his drunk friend, nor to the two at the table with him. Flashes of the gruesome battles he endured in Northrend invaded his mind, and he realized that as much as he longed to return home and hang up his armor, one more battle was on the near horizon.
The old group was getting back together.
“Well,” Thaylla said to Luminash lightly, slapping her hands on her thighs with readiness. “Shall we collect our healer?”
Xander looked out at the desolate plains peppered with bumps of scattered hills, hordes of vicious raptors and packs of wild quillboar scurrying on the ground below. Outside of Orgrimmar, the party had boarded the Zephyr, the zeppelin airship that would travel through the Barrens west of Durotar and into the luscious rolling hills of Mulgore, docking at the tauren capital of Thunder Bluff.
Now, the paladin stood at the bow of the wooden gondola, shaded by the enormous phlogiston-filled balloon above, its large fins working in tandem with the ship’s rotors, a goblin sky-captain at the helm. Xander had grown accustomed to the arid environment, yet he still breathed deeply and imagined himself strolling through the magnificent Bazaar in Silvermoon. Broomsticks that swept themselves across the smooth pavement, floating magic lanterns near ornate benches, the majestically domed auction house in the center of the court. The enchanting serenity of his home overwhelmed him in this moment, and tears threatened to roll down his cheeks.
Next to Xander, Rang’oon leaned over the side of the zeppelin and vomited. She moaned in defeat as she rested her body’s weight on the railing. Now clad in her usual plate armor, she slumped uncomfortably, clutching her stomach as the airship swayed to and fro in the open air.
“You all right, Rang?” he asked, his secret enjoyment of her situation poorly masked with false concern.
“I can’t do this right now,” she mumbled, taking deep breaths to calm her raging insides.
“Doesn’t really seem like any of us have a choice.”
Quick clatters from the claws of a charging beast rang out across the deck of the ship as Xander felt the heft of a gray and black wolf, Thaylla’s hunting companion, rub against his leg excitedly.
He reached down to pet the beast, greeting him. “Hey, Dirge.” He scratched the wolf behind the ear, making his back paw bounce happily on the wooden planks of the ship. He smiled at the wolf, which had been a Vilebranch raiding wolf in the Hinterlands many years ago. After Thaylla had rescued him and tamed his fury, he had become the most obedient companion.
Xander was jealous of the excitable wolf, most likely completely oblivious to the battle that lay ahead.
A sharp whistle rang out behind them, and Dirge immediately scampered to his master’s side at the entranceway to the zeppelin’s lower level. Thaylla and Luminash stood staring at the two paladins, the mage holding a small steaming mug.
“This is for our illustrious healer,” Luminash said with an air of smarminess.
Rang’oon shook her head, her face pale and sweaty. “I’m not drinking that.”
“Drink it,” Xander pleaded, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
She sighed and approached Luminash, accepting the warm mug and slowly sipping it. Xander reveled in the aroma of goldclover and icethorn emanating from the drink.
Within a moment, color had returned to her face, and she looked noticeably better and more alert. “What’s in it?” she marvelled.
“Xander made it. I just warmed it up,” Luminash answered.
Thaylla cleared her throat and announced, “He’s ready to see us below decks.”
The four blood elves stood, now fully armored, in a small dark room below decks of the Zephyr. An imposing, black-haired tauren towered before them, swathed in earth-toned, flowing shamanistic robes, a ring of colored beads around his neck, a large ornate staff strapped to his back. He had a thick, golden ring through the nostrils in his bull muzzle, and one of his black horns was broken in half, probably from a battle long ago, but the elves did not know. Nor did they ever ask. He was a highly-trusted shaman that wielded fierce power granted by the elements, and they did not even know his real name.
Ever since their first encounter together, he had called himself the Peace Killer.
The group waited in silence while the tauren meditated. But soon, the fluttering in Xander’s stomach could not be contained, and he blurted, “Peace. Why are we here?”
The tauren shuffled his dark hooves and opened his eyes to look at them. “There is a great imbalance among the elements,” his deep voice rumbled in the small room. “They are angry. The earth cries out, but we don’t know why.”
Xander shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the shaman to continue.
“Many of us have had horrible visions of a broken world beyond repair.” Peace Killer paused a moment and sighed. “Thrall believes these visions may soon come true.”
Rang’oon continued to sip her restorative concoction, asking, “So what are we supposed to do about this? It sounds like something the shamans need to address.”
The tauren rustled his shoulders, stretching and relaxing his muscles. “You have heard of the cult threatening our lands.”
“The Twilight’s Hammer,” clarified Luminash, displaying his knowledge of the situation.
“Yes, I’ve heard of them,” Xander shot an annoyed glance at the mage.
“They have a mysterious leader about whom we know nothing,” the tauren explained, careful not to make any personal assumptions. “And the Earthen Ring believes that he – or she – may be the cause of the elemental unrest.”
Xander nodded. “Ok, so find the leader, stop him…”
“…or her,” Luminash added.
The paladin ignored him and finished his thought, “…and save the world.”
Peace Killer continued his briefing. “One of the cult’s captains is operating from deep within the Thousand Needles. I have been tasked with putting together a small, trust-worthy team to quietly… take care of the situation, and attempt to retrieve any crucial information from this captain that we can.”
Xander turned to his hunter friend and asked her, “You knew about this?”
“Some of it,” Thaylla replied.
The paladin paused a moment, and then asked, “What aren’t you telling us, Peace? What’s in Thunder Bluff?”
Luminash scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it obvious, Xan?”
With one eyebrow raised in irritation, Xander replied, “Please, Lumi. Enlighten me.”
“We’re not going to Thunder Bluff,” Rang’oon chimed in, half asking and half already knowing.
The tauren huffed and answered, “No. We are not.”
Thaylla, adorned in her light mail armor, leaned against the wooden wall next to her. “We needed the Twilight’s Hammer to think we were headed to Thunder Bluff.”
“Because they have many eyes in Orgrimmar,” Luminash added.
“How’re we getting to the Thousand Needles then?” Rang’oon wanted to know.
Xander pointed at the mage. “This guy could get us there, assuming he’s any good at magic.” He grinned when he saw the look of shocked offense on Luminash’s face.
Luminash’s body swirled through his own portal, his feet lightly touching down onto the rocky sand of the canyon basin. He expressed a small level of disdain at his comrades, who were all doubled over, struggling to regain their breath from the instant molecular journey.
“Where to?” Xander asked, taking a deep breath to calm his twisted gut.
“Be right back,” was the hunter’s response as she crouched low to the ground, nearly blending in with the towering mesas as she scouted ahead, weaving in and out of the spires of delicate sandstone that had been shaped with curves from many years of rushing water, now dried up.
“And now we wait,” Xander said to the group.
The party spread out, resting against their own shaded areas at the base of the spires. Things remained quiet for many moments, but like always, Xander could bear it no longer.
“Rang,” he started quietly, careful not to allow his voice to echo through the canyon. “What happened to you?”
She looked up at him, a stunned look on her face, not expecting to engage in any heart-to-heart talks. “I…” she looked down at her feet to avoid eye contact with her friend.
“Rang…” he pressed softly, his own eyes pleading for her to confide in him.
She sighed, brushing a strand of her blonde bangs from her face. “I saw horrific things in Icecrown Citadel, Xan.”
“We all did,” Luminash chimed in uninvited.
She took a moment to inhale deeply before continuing. “Yes, but some of us can’t forget as easily as others.”
The group remained stoic, trying to ignore the silent yet impossibly strong bond among them. Their experiences had both drawn them together as a group yet also made each of their faces an unwelcome reminder of times long past.
Rang’oon dried her moistened eyes on the back of her hand. “I need to forget.”
Xander understood. It was the same reason he wanted to return home to Silvermoon City, to remove his armor for good – or at least for a while. It seemed that his former life had vanished, and now he knew of nothing but bloody battle.
Thaylla reappeared from behind a stone pinnacle. “There’s no sign of the cultist captain, but there’s a small area ahead emanating strong illusory magic,” the hunter explained.
Peace Killer, resting his weight on his staff, stood tall and exhaled deeply, preparing for action. “We must remain quiet. Try not to draw unwanted attention.”
Trying to stay out of sight in the squelching light of day, the group quietly circled closely to the rocky needles jutting into the sky, advancing farther down the dry river bed. Up ahead, a vicious centaur spotted them, his gaze menacing and his spear dangerous. He did not advance on them, as if he was keenly aware of their mission to destroy a common threat.
Quietly and hesitantly, Xander instructed, “Keep moving.”
The centaur held his post, but his eyes followed them as they past.
A minute later, Dirge crouched and let out a low growl. The group looked around but saw only rock and sand. “What is it, boy?” Thaylla asked her companion, crouching down to better communicate with him. His growl continued ominously.
Luminash stepped forward, his eyes focusing on something right in front of them yet on nothing at all. “I sense a great deal of magical energies around us.”
A flicker of warmth shocked Xander’s heart, and as he looked at the rest of the party, he knew they had felt it too. One look at Rang’oon told him that she had blessed them, preparing them for the inevitable battle.
He examined the area where Luminash and Dirge had come to rest, feeling something… off about the empty space before them. Closing his eyes a moment brought visions of fallen comrades and slain foes all over the snowy tundra of Northrend; the massive battering ram splintering the main gates of Icecrown Citadel; the terrifying, four-headed skeletal guard of the Lich King’s fortress, Marrowgar. He saw blood. So much blood.
“Guys,” Xander said quietly. When they all turned to face him, they saw that his intricately ornate shield was at-the-ready in his left hand, his vicious mace held firmly in his right. It glowed with intense holy power. “Get behind me,” he instructed coolly.
He brought the mace back behind him, charging forward, teeth bared, and he swung it swiftly and furiously over his head, bringing it down onto the loose ground before them. As the mace impacted the dirt, sparks ignited the air around them, and an invisible, domed force field disintegrated.
A human male stood in front of them, swathed in ebony and indigo robes, his black hair greasy and slicked back, his bushy black moustache shading a toothy grin that would sicken the faint of heart.
“You are too late,” his deep voice taunted. “My master is on his way.”
Xander’s mace was already swinging through the air toward the cultist, who gracefully ducked under it, quickly leaping to the side, sending a bolt of shadow energy soaring from his fingers toward the blood elf that had attacked him.
The paladin felt a singe in his arm as the evil energy collided with his armor, but he was quickly renewed with holy light. As he brought up his shield to deflect another shadow blast from the warlock, he heard Luminash’s battle cry from behind him: “For the glory of Quel’Thalas!”
A beam of icy magic erupted from the mage, soaring past Xander’s head, barely missing the man fighting him. He swung his mace once more, finally managing a blow to the cultist’s leg. The human staggered backward, quickly thrusting his arm in front of him, his palm aimed at Xander.
“Aaagh!” Xander froze, falling to one knee, clenching his teeth in horrid pain. He felt a continual searing ache spread throughout his body, corrupting his soul, magnifying as the seconds passed.
Behind him, he heard Rang’oon quickly mutter a few words of Light, and he rose to his feet once more, feeling cleansed from the terrible corruption. An arrow flew past his ear, headed for the cultist. Dirge growled with fury and lunged for the human, solidly biting into his calf.
The man cried out in pain, kicking the wolf away and sending a shadow bolt into the ground beside him, nearly ending the wolf’s life. Ignoring the tear in his sleeve from the arrow that barely missed him, he sidestepped again, avoiding Xander’s threatening mace swings.
As Peace Killer roared in blood lust, a crackle of electricity rang out despite the clear sunny sky, and a fierce bolt of lightning split the air between the man and the blood elf, connecting with the exposed skin of the warlock’s hand.
The atmosphere around them chilled as Luminash chanted feverishly, forcing a large, elemental being made entirely of water to materialize next to him, launching frost bolts at the cultist.
The human unsheathed a long, two-handed staff from his back, twirling it with dexterity, deflecting all of the magic bolts. Two more arrows pierced the battleground, one of them making contact with the man’s thigh. He howled in pain as he felt the poison temporarily slowing his movements.
Flames suddenly danced around his robes as the angry tauren fired another bolt of lightning into the fray.
Xander once again felt the rise of dark magic taking over his body, searing his nerve endings with torturous pain. Rang’oon cried out in terror, turning and fleeing from the group as if her mind had become overwhelmed with terrible images that crippled her.
“Rang’oon!” the tauren bellowed after her, his booming voice echoing through the deep canyon.
She stopped, desperately trying to catch her breath, sweat covering her face.
“Rang!” Thaylla cried out. “Xan’s dying!”
Xander had completely collapsed to the ground, screaming in terrible agony as the shadow curse enveloped him. Through eyes blurred with tears, he saw Luminash’s water elemental lose its mass and splash into a puddle in the dirt at the mage’s feet. He saw the heft of Peace Killer collapse onto his knees, a shadow blast colliding with his chest. Thaylla cried out as Dirge flew through the air and landed on his side with a howl. Through the blinding pain, a fleeting thought flickered through Xander’s mind: This is it. We have lost.
Rang’oon stared at the fallen paladin, the companionless hunter, the injured tauren, and the lone mage trying desperately to fend off bolts of shadow magic with his own of frost. Feeling an intense beam of holy power rising within her, she sprinted back into battle and came to rest in the center of the group, raising her hands into the air. With her head toward the heavens and her eyes closed, she whispered the fierce words of Light that she had learned, turning herself into an aura of holy radiance, sending wave after wave of Light into her surrounding comrades.
They slowly regained their stamina as she released her holy hold on the group, now focusing intensely on Xander. A blinding beam flickered brilliantly between her focused fingers, sending a fierce divine light into the fallen paladin’s cursed body.
She was feeling exhausted now, and the fight was not yet won. As Xander rose to his feet, she made a quiet plea to the Light.
Before Xander could get his bearings, the warlock had finished casting a summoning spell, and a viciously hideous felhound leapt next to his master, ready to do his bidding.
The demon charged toward the tauren, fangs ready to tear into his meaty body. Luminash thrust his arm toward the beast, but no spell would fire from his fingers. The mage tried to cry out and quickly realized his silence was magic-induced.
Peace Killer fired a lightning bolt into the demon hound, dodging to the side. With his staff, he swung at the beast, trying to keep it at bay. A moment later, Luminash was able to fire a quick blast of frost, forcing an icy nova to explode under the demon, freezing it in place.
Xander channeled every ounce of holy power he could manage into his body, and with a fierce battle cry, he launched his luminous shield toward the demon. As it made contact with the vicious beast, it effortlessly sliced through its flesh, severing the felhound in two.
Suddenly, Dirge leapt to the hunter’s feet, whimpering and nudging her leg with his muzzle. She was frozen in place, eyes wide, mouth open, yet no screamed emerged. She shook violently as the warlock continued to drain the soul from her body, seeing her ethereal self begin to detach from her corporeal form.
With a hefty swing, Xander circled his mace through the air, cracking into the warlock’s face and breaking his concentration on Thaylla. He stumbled away, turning to spit blood from his mouth as the hunter dropped to the ground, lifeless.
“Thaylla!” Xander yelled.
The human let out a guttural laugh, swinging his staff at the distraught paladin.
Xander, now shieldless, parried a blow from the human’s weapon. He swung his mace again and again, forcing the warlock to stumble backward. Finally, as the paladin’s mace made solid contact with the human’s chest, he heard bone crack, and the man fell backward, coughing up spots of blood and colliding with the ground.
After taking a moment to ensure the human wasn’t going to rise to his feet and continue fighting, Xander turned and stared at the body of Thaylla, heaped on the ground, her companion lying next to her, whimpering with sadness.
“Rang,” Xander said, pointing to his fallen friend, desperately trying to hold back tears. “Can you save her?”
She considered the hunter’s body, brushing sweaty hair from her face. “I don’t know,” her voice quavered. “I’m weak right now, but I can try.” She walked over and crouched next to Thaylla, placing her hands over the broken body. As she muttered her words of Light with quiet intensity, Thaylla’s body began to glow.
Xander crouched and grabbed the human’s robes in his hand, pulling him up to his face. “Who are you working for?” he spat.
The warlock coughed and grinned, his lips and teeth smothered in gooey blood. “You are too late.”
The paladin clutched more tightly to the robes, yanking the broken man closer to his face. “Who is your master?!”
Behind him, a gasp rang out, followed by a deep intake of air. He turned and saw Thaylla sit up from the ground slowly, coughing and catching her breath.
She was alive.
Peace Killer let out a piercing cry, falling to his knees as everyone ran to him.
“What, Peace?” Luminash asked.
The tauren knelt with wide eyes, focused on nothing, as if his mind were seeing things that were not there.
“Peace?!” Xander pressed.
He looked up at them. “The human is right.”
Sickening slopping sounds emerged from the man’s throat as he tried to cackle, but his lungs began collapsing. After a moment, he made no sound at all.
“The elements,” the shaman explained. “They… the Earthmother…” he struggled to finish his thought.
Suddenly, the earth beneath their feet trembled, pebbles dancing across the dirt.
“What’s that?” asked Rang’oon.
The ground shook more violently now, breaking loose a large chunk of rock from the top of the pinnacle next to them.
“Lumi, look out!” Thaylla cried to him.
He looked up and saw the huge boulder barreling toward him. In the blink of an eye, he was gone, reappearing a few yards away as the rock crashed into the ground where he had been a moment before.
More vicious than any earthquake they had experienced in Orgrimmar, the earth violently shook with anger, knocking the five adventurers to the ground. They scurried away as the spire next to them cracked and began falling toward them, a massive tower of death waiting to crush them in an instant.
After another few seconds of quaking, the earth finally came to rest, a dust cloud settling on top of them.
“Is everyone all right?” Xander’s voice echoed. Through the dust, he managed to make out all of his comrades, and he reunited with them, coughing from the haze.
“Peace, what’s going on?” Thaylla asked.
Hanging his head low, he said, “the world has been shattered.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Xander asked.
“Shh!” Thaylla held up her hand, listening intently. “Do you hear that?”
In the distance, a faint, rhythmic whoosh sound filled the air. It sounded very much like the persistent wings of a dragon in flight.
“It’s getting closer,” Rang’oon noticed.
Suddenly the sky turned black as a massive shadow engulfed them down at the bottom of the sandy gorge. Looking up at the beast causing the darkness, they saw large tattered wings and a gargantuan body seemingly bursting apart being held haphazardly together with large metal plates. This was far bigger than most dragons they had seen, and it left a horrible trail of fire in its wake, leaving the sky scorched. The roar that erupted from the maw of the beast sent shivers down Xander’s spine.
“Oh, ancestors!” Peace Killer gasped. “This cannot be!”
“Is that…?” Xander asked.
“Neltharion,” Luminash answered.
Rang’oon gasped, covering her mouth.
Xander stared at the fire cloud hovering over their heads. “Deathwing the Destroyer has returned.”
The ground rumbled once more.
Thaylla crouched, placing a hand delicately on the ground. “This isn’t an earthquake.”
“Then what?” Rang’oon asked.
The rumbling grew in intensity, and the shaman pointed, his eyes wide with terror. “There!”
At the other end of the gorge in the distance, no less than six stories high, a tremendous tidal wave crashed toward them, destroying everything in its path, very quickly rolling closer to them.
“We’re trapped!” Rang’oon exclaimed.
Xander thought quickly, his mind racing to come up with a way out.
Nearer and nearer the wall of water charged toward them.
“Lumi!” he yelled over the sound of crashing water. “Get us out of here!”
Luminash’s eyes popped opened wide, as if he was ashamed he hadn’t thought of a portal himself. He immediately began manipulating his hands in front of him, muttering arcane words of magic, attempting to warp the air to his will.
The tower of water churned and threatened to engulf them.
“Let him concentrate!” Peace Killer spat.
Swirling and swirling, magic flickered and flashed in front of them, the faint silhouette of Orgrimmar coming into focus.
Droplets of water from the dangerously close tidal wave splashed into them, taunting them with their inevitable drowning.
With the image of Orgrimmar in the portal in front of them not yet vivid, Xander grabbed his gear and yelled, “We’re out of time! Go now!” He pushed Thaylla and Rang’oon toward the portal as they both disappeared in a flourish of magic, Peace Killer going next.
Grabbing Luminash, Xander dove through, feeling the chill of freezing water lick at his feet.
As they collided with the ground on the other side of the portal, torrents of water cascaded down upon them, the tidal wave seeping through Luminash’s small portal.
And then it stopped.
The portal vanished, and the group lay sopping wet on the desert dirt. An explosion brought them all to their feet as they realized they weren’t in Orgrimmar. Luminash’s half-formed portal dropped them outside the gates of the city. To the west, they saw the large zeppelin airship twirl out of control and crash into the tower, sending flames into the sky. Screams ignited the air in the distance, and then they locked eyes on Orgrimmar.
It was engulfed in a fiery inferno.
What was once the image of strength within the Horde now crumbled in blazing defeat. Citizens poured from the entrance gates, hands loaded with whatever belongings they could carry.
The group was shocked into silence as they watched the fierce orcish city burn to the ground. The world had been broken, and they knew that it would never be the same.
Xander looked around at his four comrades – his friends – and he saw the look in all of their eyes. He closed his own and saw his magical home back in Quel’Thalas. A single tear rolled down his dirty face, and he sighed. Silvermoon City would have to wait.
They had a dragon to kill.