The Burning Steppes was no place for the weak.
To the north, the Blackrock Spire stabbed into the sky to an impossible height. The volcanic mountain was forged by the birth of a god, and later shaped by dwarven craftsmen and dragon magic. On the days when you could see the sun, the mountain's shadow was cast across almost the entire region. That shadow was a constant reminder to everyone that the dark masters of Blackrock considered everything to be their domain.
To the south, the Redridge Mountains formed an impassable wall. The lands beyond cherished this blessing, as it held back the monsterous denizens of the Steppes. The single pass thru the mountains was constantly patrolled by both the humans who's homes would be threatened by said intruders. Raids by the Blackrock Clan orcs or the Firegut Orges were a weekly occurrence.
In addition to orcs and ogres, the gorge was hunting ground for dragons and their kin. Tiny whelps and adolescent drakes roamed and killed as they pleased. However, even the dragons avoided the ruins. Long ago the dwarven nations had waged war here, and their ancient living war machines still patrolled long-abandoned cities, searching for enemies from a forgotten war.
Outsiders could find nothing of value in Burning Steppes. Its only offering to them was a vast selection of ways to die.
So when, on this particular day, a band of riders could be seen in the southwestern most corner of the gorge, it was unusual indeed. The band, consisting of some twenty souls, was heavily armed. Nearly two thirds were warriors and battle-trained wizards. They in turn protected a core unit of five men and one woman. That unit had directed them to their current location, and now they waited.
"Bah, this is useless." One of the core members, a dwarf with charcoal grey skin and growled. "No one could survive out here alone. Our query has certainly perished. One of the dragons is probably sucking the marrow from her bones as we speak."
"I concur." One of his companions replied, perhaps a little too quickly. This one was an elf of Quel'Thalas, with pale skin and hollow cheeks. "I'm sure the orges have crushed her body and are tossing her head back and forth as a game. We should leave."
"You're both wrong." A tall human with dark hair and thick armor smirked. "The barriers to the elemental planes are weak here. Sometime the stones themselves will come alive and move, filed with malice and hatred of all natural life. I'll put ten gold to say she was attacked by one such construct, and her corpse lies buried beneath a landslide.
"Silence! the lot of you are cowards." The lone woman shouted. Her voice echoed erriely off the nearby cliffs. "The thief has the charm, and we are not leaving without it. I don't care what fate that fowl creature has met, we'll not return to the Depths empty handed."
One of the sentries signaled. "The hounds return!"
Moving in from the south at incredible speed, a pack of three enormous blood-red dogs raced towards the group. Skidding to a halt before the woman , they stopped and stood at perfect attention. Not moving. Not even breathing.
"My faithful, loyal servents." The woman placed her hand upon the first creature's forehead and closed her eyes. "Let us see what my bloodhounds have discovered."
The team huddled in nervous silence as the woman communicated telepathically with the unnatural creature. After a moment she gasped and removed her hand.
"They tracked her to the base of those cliffs." The woman pointed southwest. "There her trail disappears. She must have scaled upwards, to that pass"
The dwarf barked a laugh. "Pass my fanny! That's Draco'dar! A nest and breeding ground for the dragons of the black flight. She's dead, and we'll not be finding her corpse!"
"Nonsense. Our prey ascended those cliffs, so shall we."
"Are you daft woman? The only way to ascend those cliffs is if a drake swoops down and takes you in his claws. We cannot get up there, and no prize would be worth it if we could."
The woman spun on her heel and threw out her hand towards the dwarf. There was a crack like thunder and the dwarf screamed in pain. He fell forward onto his knees and vomited blood, but no wound blemished his skin.
"Fool! You could never comprehend the power of our prize!"
"Stop Onessa." The tall human moved to stand between the woman and the dwarf. "Sootshaft is a coward, but he is correct. This expedition is not equipped to scale to those heights."
"The secret of the Dark Portal is within my grasp Crassius. I will not abandon our quest."
"Nor shall I." the man turned the warriors. "Half of you set up camp here, and station sentries to make certain our prey does not double back. The rest of you come with us. We travel east, to Flame Crest, and we have a great distance to cover if we are to arrive by nightfall."
"The goblin camp?" The elf sneered. "Why not return to the Twilight Hammer?"
"The goblins have ways to cross the mountains. If we are in luck, we can get to the far side of that chasm before our prey does.
The woman raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. "You know where Draco'dar leads?"
"I do. It has been a long time, but it will be good to go home again."