The Demon Hunter
Thank you to all of you who have read and reviewed my story. It's always heartening to see my work appreciated.
The Demon Hunter begins just previous to the events of Warcraft III, The Frozen Throne, and runs concurrent to them. These events play heavily in the story, though the story touches only lightly on the events seen in the campaign.
This story is intended to be novel length, and I've already completed a sizable portion of it. While I planned it to be a stand-alone novel, it now seems it's going to be the first of at least two books, possibly three depending on how the second goes. I intend to update fairly frequently, depending on whether I have the material already written and feel it's ready to be posted.
This is a work of fan fiction. While this story is my own creation, and most of its characters are original, it is set in Blizzard's Warcraft world. Events, places, history, and many characters are taken from that world.
No mortal had ever been to a demonic realm. Even those who had spent their entire lifetime learning of demons and how to combat the Burning Legion knew nothing of where its minions sallied from. Of course there was no doubt demonic realms were not pleasant places, but to suppose and to see were two very different things.
But if the demons could call any place on Azeroth their home away from home, it would be the Plaguelands. The location of the Plague's first outbreak and the staging area for the unexpected but devastating Scourge attack on humanity. No life in the area remained untainted: smaller plants had simply withered and died, while larger ones had mutated into diseased fungi or sagged away as their insides liquified. Of the animals those that remained had been turned by the plague into monstrosities, eaters of the plentiful carrion the massive numbers of death had produced. The ground was diseased and yellow, each step raising clouds of toxic dust.
In the Plaguelands, even the sun looked diseased.
The dreadlord Rachondimus strode arrogantly across the tainted land, ignoring the cloud of dust his taloned feet kicked up. The twisted denizens that roamed the area searching for carrion to feed on gave him a wide berth, wisely fearing to attack a dreadlord. Rachondimus was pleased with this land, the creation of which his brothers had overseen. It was a land worthy of ruling, and he was eager to find one of this brothers and steal away his armies, his position of power, and his life.
An odd animal cry turned his attention to a possible threat. From a sickly ravine from which spewed malodorous ichor a figure appeared, clad in armor which shone bright in spite of the wan sun. At first he thought it was all one creature, but then he realized it was a human riding some beast. The human held a massive warhammer in one hand, while with the other he expertly guided his mount.
Rachondimus smiled, feeling his blood rise at the thought of carnage to come. One human would be little fun, but until he was in a secure place of power he was happy to take what he could get. "You are arrogant to face me alone, human," he said. The common tongue of this world had not been difficult to learn, and it was surprising how many of the varied races spoke it.
"It is you who is arrogant, demon," the human replied. "To come out from your fortifications and walk this land alone. It is not wholly a domain of the Scourge, not while those with the strength to fight will not abandon it."
Rachondimus laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "You are one of those red crusaders, then? I slaughtered a war party of your kindred not two hours ago. Ah, how they screamed as I fed!"
"No. I am a paladin of the Order of Turalyon, from lands far to the south. On your journey north the path of your destruction did not go unnoticed, and I was dispatched to find and destroy you."
Rachondimus gave a roar of rage and charged at the paladin. He despised servants of the Light with a passion exceeded only by his desire to see all life destroyed. It would bring him great pleasure when this fool was pulped flesh beneath his talons, but for now his bloodlust whipped him into a blind frenzy.
The paladin booted his mount into motion and ducked low in the saddle, shifting to grip his great hammer with both hands as he prepared for a mighty swing. Just before they clashed the paladin leapt from his mount, hammer held high overhead and beginning a powerful downward swing. Rachondimus slipped away from the blow with unholy speed and lashed out with a taloned fist, not at the staggering paladin but at the human's mount. His claws caught the beast along the shoulder and neck, rending the flesh deep, and the animal gave a scream and fled.
When he turned back to the paladin the human had a great tome in one hand, reading from it, and a moment later a painfully bright seal inscribed itself in the air above the human's head. With a low murmur the human tucked the book away and gripped the hammer in both hands once more. "Come, demon."
Rachondimus was more than happy to oblige. "The Light will not save you," he snarled as he leapt forward and lashed out with a clawed hand.
As holy and unholy energies clashed the Paladin's cries to the Light could be heard even from the hilltop which overlooked the scene. It was a tall hill that peaked in a ten foot cliff, at the edge of which another human stood aloof, leaning against a diseased tree and looking down at the battle darkly.
The watching human was young by human standards, with less than two decades of life in his experience. His face and body were thin, almost skeletal, ravaged by who knew what terrible forces. His sunken eyes were shadowed, pools of blackness even though directly exposed to the tainted sun of the Plaguelands. In one hand he held a dagger which pulsed with chromatic light that gave no radiance, and he watched the battle between demon and plate-clad human with utter detachment.
The demon gave a cry, and to his hand from the abyss was summoned a spectral whip, glowing translucent with reddish energy. The whip moved of its own volition to wrap around the paladin's throat, finding its search for skin to sear foiled by the gorget there.
The gorget smoked as the reddish flames licked at it, but the paladin seemed unscathed by the attack. He swung his mighty hammer, its thorium head gleaming purely in the tainted light, and it struck the demon in the side with a crunch that could not be heard so much as felt.
The demon gave a cry of rage and leapt back, giving the whip a violent pull. The paladin staggered, and with another tug the demon pulled him to the ground and rested its great clawed foot atop the Paladin's armored chest. Then the demon reached down with a vile hand to pull the helmet off the human's head, or perhaps simply to rip the head itself from the human's shoulders. The paladin struggled mightily, his gauntleted hands scrabbling on the horny skin of the demon's leg to try to dislodge it, but his efforts were to no avail.
It was at this moment that the young human on the hill flipped his chromatic dagger in his hand to hold it by the tip, and with two quick steps forward to the very edge of the cliff flung the weapon at the demon's exposed back. The dagger seemed to grow as it flew across the hundreds of feet that separated the hilltop and the fierce battle below. Or perhaps the chromatic light radiating from it merely gave that illusion. But by the time it reached the demon it appeared to be a ball of rainbow light that struck the mane of darkness that flowed down the demon's back and passed through.
The demon gave a great roar of pain and staggered, and in that moment the paladin succeeded in throwing the enormous weight of the demon's leg off his chest. He rolled twice onto his hands and knees and with a great heave pushed himself to his feet. His hammer still rested below the demon's talons, and though the creature roared in agony and clawed at its back the Paladin dared not come near without his weapon.
Atop the hill the young human had leapt off the cliff and was now rushing down the slope with astonishing speed, maneuvering over and between the stones and boulders of the rocky slope with ease. As he ran he drew darkness into his hands, focal point for a magic that would drain the demon of its demonic energy. He would have vastly preferred to have simply destroyed the magic, thus harming the demon in the process, but he would need the demon's own strength in this battle, even if the paladin did manage to be of some use.
He had the murder of Lynda the Demonologist, the person he hated most in the world, to avenge.
Twenty yards away from Rachondimus he skidded to a halt and let his spell lance out, striking the demon in the chest and creating a conduit between them through which the demon's power surged into him. The conduit manifested as a ribbon of energy, blacker than black, and the young human gritted his teeth at the nauseating feel of that tainted power within him. He was draining the powerful creature's magic fast, but not fast enough.
The nathrezim gave a roar of rage and whirled on him, forgetting the paladin. The massive leathery wings fanned out and with a hop the demon was gliding towards him smoothly, eyes burning in a pale face. The human broke off the spell and drew another dagger from his pocket, which he held before him in a mad, or impossibly brave, charge straight towards the dreadlord.
Rachondimus gave a bellow of amusement an instant before they struck, its huge wings wrapping around the nimble human to trap him in. the human ignored the wings, dodged around the tearing claws, and planted the dagger deep into the dreadlord's chest. The demon gave a cry of pain and rage and its clawed hands closed around the human's shoulders, preparing to literally rip it apart. Before it could the human placed both hands against the demon's chest, to either side of the enchanted dagger that was already smoking and hissing its way through the foul skin. Through those hands he unleashed much of the power he had stolen in a devastating spell to seek out the magic which remained within the demon and burn it away.
If the dagger caused the demon some minor pain and irritation, this solid blow made the demon roar out. For just an instant it was stunned by the pain, and then its gripping fingers dug into the human's flesh and it heaved with all its might.
Its clawed hands slipped away, as did its teeth when the Nathrezim tried to bite its prey. For a moment the demon stood confused, and then it slowly turned towards the paladin. Sure enough the paladin had called upon the Light to wrap an impermeable shield around the young human, and he had retrieved his hammer and was charging to attack.
Within the bubble the human's face was a grimace of animal ferocity. He did not look at all relieved by the timely aid the paladin had given. If anything the divine protection which surrounded him made him mad with rage. He was tearing at it with his fingers, launching spells at it desperately. But a paladin's shield was one of the greatest defenses in his holy arsenal, protecting the person within against all harm until the strength of the paladin's prayer, dependent on his faith, gave way and the shield faded. It was said that Uther the Lightbringer had once held such a shield for nearly an hour, protecting the body of Lothar from the orcish hordes until aid could arrive. But perhaps that was simply a legend.
All the human knew was that he did not mean to be trapped in this holy prison for an hour. If such was even possible. The demonlord was once again using its whip to great effect, the flickering tongue of flame slowing the paladin's charge and frustrating his efforts to call upon the light to direct holy attacks against his enemy.
Finally the human within the shield focused all his power into the point of another enchanted dagger and drove the weapon forward into the shield. The protective Light burst like a bubble, sending him sprawling. He landed like a cat and immediately charged the demon, giving a terrifying howl. He had faced many demons despite his young years. Had been hunted by them, tormented by them, wounded in both body and soul. Now he was the hunter.
The demon became aware of him and turned to direct a swarm of carrion insects his way, a swarm that would have scoured the flesh off a cow within minutes, but the young human ducked mid-charge and struck the ground with one fist. A wave of fiery energy rippled out from his hand, consuming the approaching swarm, and then the human was back on his feet. By this time the paladin had come in range to strike with his hammer, and the demon's concentration was for moments wholly on the plate-clad man. In this time the young human stretched out his hand and sent out a ribbon of razor energy at the demon's head. Though much of the attack was resisted by the powerful demon some of the magic broke through, flaying at Rachondimus's mind like a many-pronged whip. It slowed the demon just enough that the paladin could land a blow that knocked it sprawling.
The paladin leapt forward and smashed the hammer down on the struggling demon's chest, crushing it back into the ground. A moment later the younger human darted in and drove his enchanted dagger deep into the demon's throat. Rachondimus gave a ghastly roar, all the more horrifying for the tortured pain within it, and the young human withdrew the rapidly dissolving dagger and buried it in again at a different spot in the demon's flesh. A moment later the paladin's hammer smashed down on the demon's head, and with that last mighty blow the dreadlord went still.
The paladin gave a sigh and sank to his knees, clutching the hammer in both hands as much for support as in caution. The young human's breath was coming in sharp, ragged pants, and though he remained on his feet he swayed as if at any moment he would fall flat on his face.
Now that the battle was over the paladin got a good look at the lad's face, and was surprised that his unexpected ally had had the strength to fight with such ferocity. The boy before him was emaciated, skeletal even, his face drawn and haggard. His skin was as pale and papery as if it had not seen the sun in all his lifetime, and the veins which showed through that ragged flesh were red rather than blue. His hair was black as coal with a hint of red in it, and his eyes were black as coal as well, though the red in them had nothing natural to it.
He took a step back from the boy, recalling uneasily just what powers the youngster had brought to bear in the battle. The powers of a priest turned to darkness, and the powers of a warlock. He hissed in a breath and tightened his grip on his warhammer, on the verge of leaping up to attack the sickly youth, when sudden disgust filled him at his own thoughts. Whatever the boy's nature, the fact remained that his intervention had turned the tide of the battle. Without it, the paladin would likely be dead right now.
So he straightened wearily and extended a hand. "I owe you my thanks, friend. Your aid came right at the perfect time."
The boy looked at the proffered gauntlet with a mixture of distaste and wariness, like one would gaze at a viper. Then his eyes raised to meet the paladin's and in spite of himself the paladin felt his flesh crawl. Looking into them so directly, he saw a lifetime of pain crammed into the body of a young man coming into his prime. There was a disconcerting deadness to them, as if that pain had stolen away his soul and left nothing in its place.
"I considered letting the demon have you, but decided I could not defeat it without an ally. I have seen the power of the Dreadlord Rachondimus before." That gaze continued to bore into him as the boy continued, his words flat and emotionless. "If you had died before the battle ended I would have been just as pleased."
The paladin gritted his teeth, but all the same he could not take back his thanks now that it was given. "All the same you did aid me." He looked at the boy's shoulders, which had been deeply gouged by the demon's claws and now sent spidery trails of blood down his arms to drip off his hands into the plagued ground they stood on. "At least let me heal your wounds before we part ways."
The boy flinched as if threatened with physical harm and a hand went into his cloak, likely for another of his enchanted daggers. The black in his eyes started to burn to a dull crimson, like coals fanned to flame. "Keep your Light away from me," he said flatly. "You'll wound me worse than the demon ever did." The paladin gaped at him with horror, unable to think of what corruption could fill the boy's flesh that the cleansing Light would harm him. Even the Forsaken undead found healing by the Light. The boy seemed to realize he had said too much and closed his mouth tight, lips pressed into a pale line in his haggard face.
With another distrustful glance at the paladin he dropped into a cross-legged sitting position right where he'd been standing, reached into his cloak and pulled out rolls of bandages and a bottle of some sort of healing cream, and began to tend his wounds. When next he spoke his voice was almost offhand. "You're bleeding from your right arm, paladin. Do you need bandaging?"
The paladin looked at his arm with surprise, seeing the blood dripping from the joins in his gauntlet. "Thank you, no." He called upon the Light and felt its gentle touch start to slide over his wounded arm, then abruptly stop. It was shock as much as weariness that made him stagger, and he found himself once more on his knees. The fight had taken more out of him than he thought. He gave a low laugh and nodded. "Perhaps I do, after all." He pulled off his gauntlet and bracer to reveal the cut, which was festering as if with acid, or disease.
He heard a light footfall and lifted his head to see the boy approaching. The boy looked at his arm with a frown, then hovered a hand over it. The paladin felt jolting pain spasm his muscles, almost to the point of cramps, but where the boy's hand passed the festering faded. He looked at the boy in surprise. "I didn't think you the type to know healing magic," he said frankly.
The boy shrugged and began bandaging his wounds. "I don't. I know demons, and Dreadlords give nasty diseases when their claws rend flesh." Yet despite what he said his own wounds showed no sign of festering.
The paladin looked at him for a moment in quiet appraisal, then cleared his throat. "I'm Puros Lightfinder, Paladin of the Order of Turalyon."
"I am Nex'thanarak. If you do not know the origin language it is demonic, and the closest translation would be "all-encompassing nothingness". You may call me Nex, or nothing. I hunt demons."
Puros at first thought the boy was giving him a choice between using the name Nex, or no name at all, then realized that Nothing would be a shortened form of the name he had given, translatable from Nex. "A grim name."
Nex finished binding his wounds and used a dagger to cut the remainder of the bandaging off, which he threw offhandedly to Puros. "Take care, paladin. The Plaguelands are perilous enough without going hunting for demons."
Puros pushed to his feet and called for him to stop. "You need rest, Nex. You look as if you'll fall over from exhaustion at any moment. Perhaps we can travel together in these dangerous lands, share protection."
Nex turned his head to glance back at him and smiled, and for the first time Puros saw that the boy's upper canines were the longest he had ever seen on a human. "Your Light may not have properly sustained you through the battle, paladin. But I've just fed well on demonic magic."
He turned and trotted away, ducking around a rotted mushroom that was easily twelve feet tall and disappearing. Puros glanced after the boy, troubled in spite of himself. He had long fought evil, seeking the Light to grow strong enough to protect his people from all danger, be it undead, orcish, demonic, or any other. Yet that boy of scarce a score of years was likely near his equal, and wielded dark magics that reeked of demonic taint. He counted his duty to purge such from the world, and yet Nex had claimed he hunted demons, and surely backed up his claim by taking a great part in killing the Dreadlord Rachondimus. What was more he had, while professing indifference, shown true concern for the disease tainting Puros's own wound, and by some means had drawn the power to cleanse it from the tainted pool of stolen demonic magic residing within him.
It was a mystery, and a troubling one. Puros could not think how to judge the boy. Such was the stewardship of the Archbishop Benedictus, within the Cathedral in Stormwind.
With a weary sigh he straightened and slung his warhammer over one shoulder, looking around for any sign of Honor, his war charger. Had the battle not been so fierce he would have sought a way to aid his faithful steed, but he feared that by now the wounded stallion would have fallen victim to the carrion eaters of this foul land. Still, dead or alive he couldn't leave the faithful beast to be mauled by plagued monstrosities.
But before he could begin his grim search another unpleasant task awaited him. With a sigh he made his way over to the demon's foul corpse. Its stench had been foul while alive, and now that it was dead rot was quickly spreading across its tainted flesh. With a grimace he began poking around for any dangerous objects he should take away with him to be cleansed, lest they fall into the wrong hands. As he did so he realized to his dismay that the Dreadlord's weapon, that great fiery whip which fairly blazed with demonic power, was no longer on the corpse.
Of course the weapon had been summoned, so the death of its master might have released it back to the twisting nether. He very much hoped that was the case, and that the boy had not been foolish enough to take a demon's weapon. Such a cursed item was as likely to turn on its new wielder as not.
. . . . .
In fact Nex had done just that, and was at that moment dealing with that very problem. Though he had dealt with demonic artifacts before, they had all been mere trinkets compared to the whip wielded by the Dreadlord Rachondimus. It showed a feral sentience, no less frightening for being mute, and a great power.
It was currently trying to wrap around his throat and sear his flesh to the bone. His demon skin protected him from a portion of the heat, so he could grab the flaming lash without burning his hand off, but still it was taking all his concentration and strength and both hands to keep the thing at bay. It wriggled and struggled like an iron snake in his hands, coiling and audibly hissing, yet even the physical struggle could not match the battle in his mind.
It was as if a portion of Rachondimus's malignant will remained within the whip. With all his mind turned to the task of keeping it at bay he could hold it down, but to keep up such a struggle would make it impossible to use the whip as a weapon in battle. If he could not subdue its rebellion it would be more a danger than a useful weapon in any future conflit.
Yet he knew its nature well enough. As with all demonic artifacts, and all demonkind, its will was to destroy, pure and simple. If he could but show he was too strong for it to overpower, and at the same time make it aware of the carnage he would wreak with it, it would never again pose a true danger to him.
Although with a demonlord's weapon, he would pose a true danger to any enemies he met.
Easy as it sounded, it took him several hours to subdue the thing, and by the end of it he almost wished he could have faced Rachondimus again. He was finally forced to kneel on either end of the whip and hold the middle with both hands, while he turned all his thoughts towards showing the whip the demons he had already killed, as well as numerous undead and plagued creatures of the surrounding area, and would-be highwaymen and thugs in the lands he had hunted the Dreadlord through. Then he had to show the demonic thing how, with it in his hands, he would wreak an even greater devastation. The whip had no qualms about being used primarily against demons; it was Nex's strength it questioned.
Finally, Nex was forced to show it just how much strength he truly possessed. It was a move he was hesitant to take, lest the whip should ever be reclaimed by a demon he would then have to fight. But the gain outweighed the risk, and after he'd revealed the roiling chaos within himself the battle lasted only a few more exhausting seconds before the whip relented. He sensed the sentient weapon was even more spent than he, which was a relief. For although he had little need of physical rest and almost no need for sleep, after such battles as the ones he had just fought he needed a period of trance-like "rest" to recover his power.
He did not relish the hour or so he would be forced to endure as his mind regained balance and his body restored its strength. Such was the curse, if not of his heritage than of his upbringing, yet curse it he did. With weary steps he made for the hills, finding a crevice within a cliff which would shelter him somewhat. He lit a fire at its mouth, found a heavy rock to put on top of his fel whip, and then slumped to the ground and stared at the fire.
Finally, it was done. He had put off thinking of everything but his hunt for a long, long while, but the nature of his memories did not lend themselves to anything so kind as forgetfulness.
He had heard a human deep in his cups say something once. A veteran of the Second Orcish War, grizzled and brutal, the man had led an assault against the vile Twilight's Hammer clan, the orcs which formed the bulk of the Horde's warlocks and necrolytes. Whatever the man had seen in that assault, it had been vile enough to drive him to constant drink. But nothing except for oblivion could dull his memories.
He had told the room at large that some memories were so terrible that the mind patched over them like a bandage, allowing blessed forgetfulness. But there were memories, more terrible still, that burned themselves too deeply to be blocked out or forgotten. Nex hadn't been certain what the old man was saying at first, because all of his memories seemed too terrible to block out or forget. An entire lifetime of such memories.
And when he was forced to rest to regain his strength, those memories came upon him like waking life, forcing him to endure living through them again and again. Small wonder he did not rest unless it was absolutely necessary.
But now he was greatly spent, and the purpose that had driven away his inner demons was done. The demon lord which had slain Lynda the Demonologist and chased him from his home was destroyed, and he could think of no compelling purpose to replace it with. Only a horrifying past to hold at bay.
He fought the trance that teased at him, the waking dreams which would torment him while his demonic powers recuperated. For a time he was able to focus completely on the fire before him, watching the flames in a different kind of trance. But at the last his gaze fell deep enough within the burning that he could see the point where the hot blue flames at the base faded to red, saw the process take place in great detail as time seemed to slow...