Author's Note: It is my firm belief that I write better than R. A. Knaak. With that in mind, this thing has been in the works for way too long, and the story is far from finished. I've finally managed to kick off my writer's block, and I'm rather happy with the way this first chapter has turned out. (Updated 2/28 - Currently in the process of re-writing the whole story to bring it on par with the second book.)
Disclaimer: World of Warcraft is the sole property of Blizzard Entertainment. I make no claims of ownership whatsoever.
Also, in response to a private message I received... any similarities between my story and anything else published on this website or anywhere else (official WoW novels included) is coincidence and nothing more. I've been writing fanfiction for almost nine years now and I may be a lot of things, but an idea thief I am not. Thank you :)
"The Wildhammer dwarves and the orcs of Shadowmoon Village have taken over the far end of the valley. Our forces at Illidari Point are overwhelmed and even holding the Path of Conquest grows difficult. The Aldor and those damned Scryer traitors are harassing our troops day and night. We've already lost hundreds of our men - and for what? None of this makes sense! Whatever happened to the glorious future we were promised? I can't believe we left our home for - for any of this!"
The booming voice of Gathios, who was known as 'the Shatterer' among Sunfury soldiers, echoed off the crumbling stone walls. The Sunfury general was not pleased. Another skirmish had ended in utter defeat for the sin'dorei. Out of fifty men, barely three had made it back alive. Such occurrences were becoming far more common as of late, with the enemy growing bolder by the day.
It was Lady Malande, the self-appointed supreme cleric of Karabor, who spoke next. "Silence, fool!" she hissed. She lowered her voice even more, "Illidan has spies everywhere. Do you not value your life?"
From her hiding spot in one of the high alcoves, Vaala Dawnstrike allowed herself a little smile. She was no spy of Illidan's, but merely someone who traded in information. Being a Blood Elf herself, she'd had little trouble sneaking past the monstrous defenses Illidan had set in place at the gates and mingling with the Illidari inside. All that was needed had been a stolen tabard, an 'urgent missive', and some clever acting on her part. She had been shadowing Malande and Gathios for nearly two weeks now, and learned far more than any Scryer officer could have hoped.
The Illidari Council had gathered in supposed secrecy this time, not in their usual chambers, but in a deserted chapel on the eastern side of the temple. Things were not going well. Most of the Sunfury soldiers had no idea that the chain of command was on the verge of crumbling. As far as Vaala was concerned, they weren't entitled to the knowledge, either - not unless they were willing to part with a large sum of gold beforehand, of course.
"The advance points on this side of the valley are small and could be easily overtaken." High Nethermancer Zerevor smiled quizzically before continuing, "If our... benevolent lord and master were to give such an order, of course."
"I'll give the order myself, if that's what it takes!" Gathios slammed his fist on the stone table in front of him for emphasis. "Our forces are more than enough to rid ourselves of these pests!"
Vaala arched one eyebrow as she listened intently. This kind of talk was nothing short of treason. The Sunfury were to make no move unless the demon lord of Karabor commanded it. The Council knew as much. However, while Gathios knew little of subtlety or deceit, the nethermancer, Zerevor, would most likely find a suitable scapegoat if the attacks would fail. And, Vaala realized, any direct assault was likely doomed from the beginning. The Sunfury ranks were said to crawl with spies. The enemy would be prepared.
Vaala heard a small noise behind her as Zerevor began to speak once more. She ignored it for the time being, intent on hearing what else the nethermancer had to say.
"Perhaps what we need right now is more of a... surgical strike. Cut off the head of the beast, and the body is likely to crumble." As he spoke, Zerevor turned to Veras Darkshadow, who had kept silent so far. "We won't ask you to send your assassins all the way to Shattrath, of course, but both outposts are considerably less guarded, and their commanders would be easily drawn out."
The noise came again. Vaala hesitated for a brief moment, then turned, one of daggers already half-drawn. She saw a hint of movement at the back of the alcove, a swirl of fel energy, gone just as suddenly as it had appeared. Cautiously, she crept away from the edge and squinted in the darkness. Her senses were hardly attuned to the different schools of magic, but even she could tell that someone had just cast a spell.
The members of the Council had likely heard the noise as well. An ominous silence descended.
"We are not safe here," Malande whispered finally, standing up. "Come. We will finish this discussion another time."
Vaala held perfectly still as one by one, the four blood elves left the chapel. It was only when the echo of their footsteps had finally died out that she allowed herself a long, drawn sigh. Her mind was already sorting everything she'd heard into bits and pieces of information that could be traded later on. However, one thing was particularly concerning. Someone had been in the alcove moments before, and had most likely been listening in to most of the conversation as well. As she pondered the implications, Vaala reached again for her dagger. Whoever they were, they wouldn't live long enough to talk.
The noise came a third time. The air tingled with fel magic, so strong it made Vaala's hairs stand on end. She whirled around, dagger ready...
...and found herself staring deep into the eyes of the Betrayer.
For the first time in years, Vaala was at a complete loss of what to do. The dagger slipped away from her suddenly numb fingers and fell to the stone floor clatter that echoed loudly in the silence. There were plenty of rumors about the horrors that went on behind the walls of the Black Temple, and the supposed cruelty of Illidan Stormrage was legendary. Her chances of surviving this ill-fated encounter were laughably small.
In one swift motion, Vaala dropped to one knee and bowed her head in what she hoped would be seen as an appropriate gesture of reverence. "My lord."
"Who are you?"
The question had a dangerous edge to it. Vaala resisted the urge to turn back and flee, knowing full well she had nowhere to go. "My name is Vaala Dawnstrike," she replied, noting with fleeting satisfaction that her voice hardly gave away her fear. "You may not know me, but it hardly matters now. We are all at risk. The Council plans to-"
Illidan cut her off with a gesture. "So I've heard." His voice dipped to a low, menacing baritone as he continued, "I knew they could not be trusted... not for long, anyway. I should have you know, I trust no-one these days. And least of all, a spy."
'So... this is where it all ends for me', Vaala thought bitterly. 'Of all the ways to go, who would have thought I'd have the honor of being offed by the demon lord himself?' She stood up slowly, all traces of pretense gone. She felt oddly at peace, almost as if her body and her mind had become two separate entities. Soon enough, the pain would come. She could only hope that it would be over quickly.
The tremor caught both spy and demon by surprise. These quakes happened often enough, and up until now Vaala hadn't cared much for them. Now, however, she thanked whatever deities were listening as the slight distraction allowed her to turn and leap to the side and over the edge of the alcove, landing in a crouch on the hard rock below. A split second later, the alcove crumbled. The ground shook for a few moments still, then the tremor subsided just as suddenly as it had begun. Vaala straightened up and took a deep breath. 'Too close', she thought as she dusted herself off almost without knowing it. It was high time to leave the Black Temple and never return. Now, if only-
"I should kill you now."
The voice echoed around the chapel, followed by the unmistakable sound of heavy footsteps. Vaala felt her heart sink. Nonetheless, she stood up slowly and reached for her second dagger, which carried the most lethal poison she could find in the shadowy alleys of Shattrath. The smallest gash was sure to bring certain death to any opponent. Well... almost any opponent, Vaala corrected herself wearily. She had little doubt that it would prove useless against Illidan, even if she were to miraculously land a blow. However, now that the initial shock had passed, there was no harm in trying, at least. "You can, and you probably will," she said as she unsheathed her weapon and turned around to face him. "And I can't even say that it won't be it easy. But I refuse to simply sit down and die."
"So be it then."
Vaala said nothing. She didn't attack. Instead, she turned and ran. A moment later, she heard him charge, as she'd expected him to do. She jumped to the side barely in time to dodge the attack; then, she whirled around, aimed and hurled her dagger at Illidan's exposed back.
The plan was desperate at best, and Vaala knew that even a deep wound would be a minor bother for such a strong foe. Even before she saw her blade bounce harmlessly off Illidan's enchanted warglaives, she knew with sickening certainty that the end would come soon. Nevertheless, she dodged the incoming blow - and then another, and another. 'He's toying with me', she thought bitterly.
Vaala was taken aback at the booming sound of her own voice. The shout, however, had its desired effect. Illidan paused. Despite the blind terror that threatened to overcome her, she held her ground. "I'm more useful to you alive", she went on hastily. "Your enemies trust me. I can get you valuable information."
The tension stretched on, one unbearable moment at a time... until, finally, Illidan broke the silence. "And why", he drawled, "would you want to serve me?"
There was no point in lying, Vaala realized. "To save my own skin, of course", she said with a shrug. She paused for a moment, then added, "Besides, I always work for the highest bidder."
Illidan let loose a roaring pelt of laughter, and Vaala felt her hopes sink once more. "I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, you'd turn against me in a heartbeat," he said when he was finished. "Betrayal... is a concept I am all too familiar with, spy."
Vaala flinched at the bitterness of the words. For a fleeting moment, the demon had seemed almost frail, almost... in pain. Had that been a fancy? When he spoke again, there was no trace of whatever emotion he had shown before.
"However... you do seem both cunning and skilled with the blade. I suppose I could find some use for you. And," he added, his voice gaining a dangerous edge, "should you so much as think of turning against me... you will die by my hand long before you've had the chance."
Vaala said nothing. Things had gone horribly, horribly wrong... Or perhaps not, she thought as she kneeled once more, in a true display of submission this time. After all, the temple did offer better protection than whatever meager outposts the Horde had erected across the valley. Here, at least, she would be safe and free to gather more information until she could find an opportunity to return to her allies once more.
"Come with me," Illidan said at length. Then, not bothering to see if Vaala was following him or not, he stalked off.
To those attuned to the flow of the arcane, the many conflicting currents that coursed through the broken landmass of the Netherstorm were unsettling at best and nauseating otherwise. It was in this unwelcoming land that the blood elves had thought to harvest the primordial energies of the Twisting Nether and sate their ever-present thirst for magic, and their designs had even yielded some results. Under the watchful eye of the rulers in Tempest Keep, the mana forges had thrived...
...and then, inexplicably, one by one they had fallen to Aldor and Scryer raids. Many lives had been lost that way, and the few that remained from the once-mighty army had sought refuge within the enchanted walls of Tempest Keep. The former Naaru vessel had held out against the assaults for a while – yet, slowly but surely, its defenses had been breached one by one, until one day, a party of mercenaries had fought its way inside the fortress. The massacre had been absolute. It had been days before the conquerors had left, satisfied with their pillaging... and then, finally, the pathetically few survivors had emerged from their hiding.
There were a few dozen of them at best, lead by Sarannis, the former commander of a small detachment stationed on the Botanica. Sarannis had been one of the few officers to rise swiftly through the ranks after the capture of Tempest Keep. Quick-witted and fierce in battle, she was hardly one to flee from a confrontation. In the chaos of the final assault, her devoted guards had risked life and limb to drag her away from the fray.
Alongside Sarannis, High Botanist Freywinn had also survived the attack. Left for dead after the onslaught, he had pulled himself back from the brink of death with the strange new magics his research had uncovered. Freywinn kept to himself most of the time, and when he did speak, it was usually to mourn the loss of his 'specimens'.
The other survivors were men and women of many trades – warp-engineers, centurions, blood knights, magisters, and even a few pilgrims whose journey had put them in a place far worse than anyone could have predicted. Presently, the group had gathered in one of the many broken halls of the floating fortress. A few had previously carried the bodies of the fallen someplace else, out of necessity rather than respect or pity. Commander Sarannis surveyed the others. Most appeared to have yet to come to terms with their new predicament. Out of the former Sunfury army, only these few remained... too few. Somewhere among them, she caught Freywinn's eye. The botanist held her gaze for a few moments before pointedly looking away.
"We must leave this place."
Sarannis had spoken loud enough to be heard by all. A few faces turned towards her, regarding her with a mixture of apprehension and expectancy.
"And where are we to go?" someone asked. The question was echoed by several others.
Sarannis pushed a lock of fiery-red hair behind her ear. "I'm... not sure," she admitted finally. "But we cannot stay here, either. The raiders might return... and even if they do not, our provisions have all but run out. There is nothing left for us here but death-"
"We should return to the Black Temple at once." Freywinn had stood up and was surveying the others with a look of defiance on his delicate features. "Our brethren there will welcome us, offer us sanctuary and the time we need to gather our strength."
Sarannis arched an eyebrow at him. "We would have to cross this whole wretched world to even reach that place!" she said incredulously. "And even if we did, Illidan would never forgive our betrayal-"
Freywinn cut her off with a curt gesture. "It was Kael'thas who sided with the Burning Legion, and Kael'thas is dead."
Sarannis was taken aback at the harshness in his voice. Saying such a thing so bluntly was more than inappropriate under the circumstances. Morale was already low enough even without someone so callously mentioning the death of their prince, which had brought forth an added pain for many.
"We wouldn't be welcomed anywhere else," Freywinn continued in a slightly more subdued manner. "If we gather whatever provisions we have left and move out now, we may still have a chance to make the journey. The longer we wait-"
"What about Shattrath?"
Now it was Freywinn's turn to look around in puzzlement. The speaker was a haggard-looking man with rough features and a mane of unkempt silvery hair whose robes marked him as a priest. Tempest Keep had been housing a few of his calling, and he appeared to be the very last one left.
"Forgive me for speaking out of turn," the man continued, even though the apology was clearly not sincere, "but many of our kind have already found refuge in Shattrath, and more are known stop there before beginning the journey back to Silvermoon. I'm certain we could pass unnoticed and even gain some assistance from the Scryers if-"
"The Scryers?" Freywinn eyed the priest with unmasked contempt."We will never side with those traitors," he said slowly. His fierce gaze dared anyone to say otherwise. Satisfied, he continued, "If we remain loyal to lord Illidan, we may still have a chance at reclaiming this place someday. Some of the research we conducted here showed such promise that only a fool would let it go so easily."
"And what if Illidan won't have us?" came a shy voice from somewhere among the crowd.
Freywinn paused. "We will weigh our options when and if it comes to that."
"It is settled, then," Sarannis proclaimed in a booming voice. "Gather your belongings, but take only what you can carry by yourselves. We will use our mounts to carry the heavier supplies."
"And what about our fallen?" asked another voice.
Sarannis swallowed hard. "The dead won't be needing anything else," she said at length. "Be glad that you are not among them."
Some of the survivors bowed their heads in silence. Others shook with renewed grief. Somewhere at the back of the crowd, someone was crying with stiffled sobs. Sarannis herself felt her chest tighten. Her voice, however, was still strong when she spoke again. "The only way in which we can honor our kin is to not let their sacrifices be in vain," she said, and she was pleased to see that her words sent a wave of renewed determination through most. "We must endure. And some day... we will have justice."
Alone in her new chambers, Vaala was lost in thought. She had long since gone past the point where she would regret her decision. The dice had already been cast; now, it was time to consider whatever advantages this new situation could bring.
Aside from a few Sunfury who still clung to the fashions of old, the denizens of Karabor seemed to care little for aesthetics if these chambers were any indication. What little furnishings remained were dusty and crumbling. The walls were chipped, cracked, and stained with dried blood. Someone had died here, and it had not been of old age. A hardened rogue would not concern herself with gruesome deeds of the past, of course. Still, Vaala felt uneasy. The place was unsettling enough.
An Ashtongue servant had delivered a strange gift earlier that day – a massive pedant with an intricate silver setting and a jewel the likes of which Vaala had never seen before, hanging from a heavy chain made of the same material. The gem was hardly chiseled and felt warm and surprisingly soft to the touch. Even in the strong light of the magical globes drifting around the room, it gave off a faint glow and seemed to pulsate with a magic of its own. Vaala was smart enough to realize that the purpose of this unusual offering was not to sway her loyalties in any way; after all, Illidan had made it clear that he would not stand for anything less than absolute obedience.
Hesitating just slightly, Vaala slipped the chain around her neck. Almost instantly, she felt the fel energies trapped within the gem course through her body. The painful pangs of her race's ever-present magical addiction were gone in a matter of moments. Instead, Vaala felt like she could take on the world and emerge victorious. The sensation was intoxicating.
It took you long enough.
Vaala jumped at the voice and looked around in bewilderment. Predictably enough, she saw no trace of Illidan, even though she could hear him as clearly as though he were standing next to her.
That gem you carry is now bound to you. Through it, I will see what you see, hear what you hear. Your mind is now open to me. You cannot hide from me anymore than you can hide from yourself.
Vaala sighed. It only made sense that Illidan would take no chances with his newest servitor. Out loud, she said, "I have nothing to hide." It was a lie, of course, but it would serve to abate some suspicion for now.
As long as you serve me, you will have nothing to fear, the voice went on, ignoring this. My energy will empower you beyond your wildest dreams. You will be my eyes and, should the need arise, my blade as well.
This reminded Vaala that both her daggers had been lost before and she was unarmed and surrounded by people who would be more than eager to put her new loyalties to the test. "It's hard to be a blade when you don't have one to begin with, you know."
Then I suggest you find one. You of all people should know where to look.
Vaala rolled her eyes, although she hadn't expected any other reply. In truth, she didn't know much. The Sunfury had their own jealously-guarded cache of exotic weaponry and armor. The other factions seemed to prefer simpler weapons – spears, maces, javelins or crudely-fashioned swords. However, she had no idea where any of these were kept.
I will be watching your progress with great interest, my little spy. And remember... one false move-
"-And I'm history. I think you've made that point clear enough."
The voice went silent. Vaala guessed that he hadn't withdrawn completely, but only enough to make it seem like he was gone. And, sure enough, a quick inward search was all it took to find a small presence at the back of her mind, lurking in utter silence, but there nonetheless. She rolled her eyes. So be it, then.
On to more practical matters, walking the halls and promenades of the Black Temple, unarmed, seemed like the dictionary definition of suicide. Even though her most recent employer had done his best to provide her with a rough map of the temple layout, her knowledge was still lacking at best. On the other hand, however, doing nothing was obviously an even worse alternative. With one last sigh, Vaala straightened her back, dusted her armor off, and stepped out of the chambers and into the courtyard beyond.
It only took a few minutes of aimless wandering to learn that the Sunfury forces occupied most of the upper tier of the temple. The vast promenade that stretched around the living quarters and training grounds was laced with gardens and statues in a clumsy attempt to emulate Silvermoon City in its former glory. Still, whatever magic sustained the plants was undoubtedly tainted with the foul energies of this place. Some of the trees were already beginning to bend in strange shapes, while others were withering and dying. The carefully constructed geometry that the sin'dorei cherished was on the verge of crumbling... just like the rest of this wretched world.
The few Sunfury that Vaala saw appeared disheartened. They wandered about without any apparent purpose, and most didn't seem to notice her passing. She could even find it in her heart to pity them. Many had left Silvermoon City lured by the promise of a new and fulfilling life in a world that was brimming with magic ready for the taking. Instead, the blood elves had been thrown in the middle of a war that had brought no gain and more losses than any would have dared to imagine. Too, the conflict was far from over. If anything, all sides were biding their time before the next time they would clash, and if the earlier words from the Council were of any indication, that time could only come soon.
"I haven't seen you before...?"
The voice made Vaala start in surprise. She spun around, coming face-to-face with a woman clad in plate armor. Whoever she was, she seemed to spare no expense to look imposing. Every inch of her armor was polished so thoroughly it glowed even in the dim light of the Shadowmoon sky, as was the insignia on one shoulder that marked her as an officer. A silvery claymore rested in an elaborate scabbard. Vaala studied her closely, and saw that the armor bore some signs of combat: a scratch here, a small dent there... This woman was certainly no amateur.
"I know my soldiers, and I know their courtesans," the woman went on, one hand hovering close to the hilt of her claymore. "You seem to be neither. If you're a spy, then you're a really foolish one. Did you think you could sneak in here so easily?"
'Well, it was easy enough', Vaala thought with a small inward grin. Out loud, she said, "If I were a spy, then that would make your own men look bad for not catching me sooner, wouldn't it?" There. Let her chew on that for a while.
The officer didn't take the bait. "You might as well give up now," she said mockingly as she drew her claymore. "Your life ends here."
Vaala felt her heart skip a beat. Trying to make a stand against an obviously experienced enemy was troublesome enough, and the fact that she had no weapons only made things worse. Running away, however, would have been a dead giveaway. Somehow, she doubted that Illidan would swoop down from the skies to help her. In fact, she was sure that the bastard was watching and laughing even now, damn him.
The other woman swung her claymore with almost unbelievable speed for such a massive weapon. Vaala jumped to the side, barely dodging the blow. The next swing came quicker than Vaala had thought possible, and she felt a sharp sting as the blade sliced through her leather armor and grazed the flesh underneath. She took a few hasty steps back. This wasn't good. Her opponent was moving too quick, almost as if - of course! The woman was obviously drawing on some sort of demonic energy. After all, many blood elves were already addicted to fel magic; it wasn't a stretch to think that it also gave them strength. Vaala hesitated for a split second – and then, she herself drew on the power of the gem she wore around her neck.
The world became a blur. The blows came in quick succession now, but Vaala dodged them with surprising ease. She was dimly aware that she was still backing away. The other's frustration was becoming obvious, and a frustrated enemy was prone to make mistakes. As her back connected with something hard, Vaala had already formed a plan. The officer pulled back her claymore for one final assault. Vaala held perfectly still...
...and stepped out of the way just as the other thrust the massive sword past her and into the wall behind. The blade lodged itself between two stones, and Vaala thanked the Sun for her luck. The officer paused, gaping in shock. That brief moment was more than enough; Vaala lunged forward and kicked her opponent's midsection with enough force to send her staggering back, causing her to loose her grip on the hilt. Then, summoning all of her strength, Vaala yanked the blade free.
The whole ordeal had seemed to last for an eternity. As the world slowly came back into focus, Vaala realized that there were perhaps a dozen onlookers gathered around them now, many of them staring at her in disbelief, and some with open hostility. The other woman was getting up now, her features a mask of pure contempt.
This was the moment to clear all suspicions. And Vaala had the perfect story.
"My name is Vaala Dawnstrike," she said in a voice loud enough for all to hear. "I am a refugee from manaforge B'naar... and I am done fighting against my own kin."
And then, against all better judgment, Vaala tossed the claymore aside, turned and walked away. Normally, she wouldn't have gone for such a dramatic gesture, but such displays were necessary sometimes. This was also a show of confidence, even though she had little hope that she could use the same trick a second time. Sure enough, she heard a furious battle cry, followed by the sound of charging footsteps... and then, that of metal clattering against metal. She turned around slowly, finding that a new figure had entered the fray – a blood elf wielding the twin blades that marked a demon hunter that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. One of his blades had clashed with the officer's claymore and he was holding her at bay with no apparent effort on his part.
The one word had an immediate effect. The officer bowed her head, sheathed her blade and walked away without another word, her earlier fury replaced by a blank expression of absolute obedience. Then, as the newcomer turned towards her, Vaala instantly knew why.
Varedis... She had heard stories of this man, rumored to be the only blood elf to survive harsh training at the hands of Illidan himself and become a full-fledged demon hunter like his master before him. His name was known and dreaded even in Shattrath. The onlookers had all but scattered, and once again Vaala felt anxiety building up underneath her supposed confidence. Without her blades, she had no chance against an opponent such as him. But if he intended to attack, why help her in the first place?
"Thank you," Vaala said quietly, hoping that gratitude, at least, would buy her time if nothing else.
To her surprise, Varedis only gave her a small shrug in response. "There is no need," he added after a few moments. "I don't know who you are, but I know that pedant you wear. As long as lord Illidan trusts you, you are not my enemy. Be wary, though. If you are weak, its energies will consume you... and nothing will save you then."
Vaala nodded her head gravely. Apparently pleased with this, Varedis left without another word, leaving her to her thoughts once more. It seemed that everything here was dangerous in one way or another. How very typical of life: offer some hope, maybe even a faint glimpse of a future where one's greatest concern would be whether to have steak or ribs for second lunch, then take it all away.
Some time later, Vaala realized that, despite her doing her best to keep track of her surroundings, she was hopelessly lost. The Black Temple was a maze of stairs, chambers, courtyards and hallways. By the looks of things, she had long since left the upper tier. There were hardly any Sunfury around, and those she saw seemed to go about important business if their looks of purpose and confidence were anything to go by. She saw more of the Ashtongue draenei, walking in small groups or whispering among themselves. They were called the "Broken" for a reason, because whatever fire had sustained their race thus far appeared to be all but gone.
Vaala turned away from the courtyard she'd been pacing and descended a long flight of stairs almost without realizing it, deep in thought as she was. At the end of it was a smaller courtyard, with a long-since dried water well in the center. A lone, elderly Ashtongue was there, sitting atop a massive stone. Vaala decided to try her luck. If anything, this man probably knew how to get back to the top of the temple, and she could hopefully find her way back to her chambers from there.
"Hello?" Vaala said tentatively. When the Ashtongue gave no indication that he'd heard her, she pressed on, "I'm sorry to disturb you, elder, but I'm lost. I was looking for the armory, and-"
"Lost. Lost!" The Ashtongue turned towards her with a fierce stare. "We are all lost, child. The shadow has fallen, a terrible, terrible evil... We fade away along with this dying world... along with the evil... lost forever. Do you see the evil? It's everywhere!"
Vaala kept her expression carefully blank. A raving old man was the last thing she felt like dealing with right now. "I'm sure we'll drive away this... evil... eventually," she offered, even though she scarcely believed it.
The Ashtongue's gaze seemed to pierce right through to her soul as he replied, "I'm sure we will."
The conversation was over. As Vaala left the courtyard, she couldn't help but wonder at the cryptic words. Something was going on here, something that went beyond the ravings of a madman... who probably wasn't even mad.
Somewhere within the upper levels of Tempest Keep was a row of small, insignificant compartments. The Sunfury engineering crews had once used these to deposit spare parts, equipment and the occasional pilfered mana potion to be enjoyed later on. The raiders had searched each space thoroughly and appropriated anything that could be used or sold. Whatever they had left behind lay scattered, more or less intact, on the crystal floor.
Presently, a lone figure carefully made its way through the debris. It appeared to be made of nothing but shadow, and yet it did not shake or disperse in the flickering lights of the enchanted globes that lined the walls. Once or twice, the figure stopped to cast a furtive glance over its shoulder. No Sunfury had followed it here, that much was certain... but they were hardly a concern anymore. The siege had awoken things far more terrible than a handful of disillusioned sin'dorei.
The figure finally found its goal: one particular storage room, all but indistinguishable from the rest, littered with various remains. It reached out with steady fingers and touched a small crystal which made a musical sound and glowed a bright red. A moment later, a portion of the wall behind it slid open to reveal a hidden compartment. Inside was a dark orb that gave the faint but unmistakable aura of powerful enchantments at work... a scrying orb.
The figure scanned its surroundings once more. Then, seemingly satisfied, it muttered a quick incantation. Slowly, the shadows began to fade, giving way to the more mundane shapes and colors of a man clad in the silver-and-violet robes of the priesthood of the Light. The man combed a hand through his graying hair, then suddenly he reached for the orb. Almost immediately, bright runes began to skitter across the surface as a light mist began to swirl inside. Draenor held only a handful of such artifacts. The priest could only hope that the one who was currently in possession of this one's counterpart was still alive and ready to receive his long since overdue report.
Several minutes trickled by with no change whatsoever. The priest sighed. The world at large thought the siege on Tempest Keep had left no survivors. What point was there be in-
The mist thickened, then began to disperse into wisps of color. The colors arranged to shape the outlines of something... no, someone as the priest watched intently. The shape was familiar enough... now, if he could only-
"Andurien? Is that you?" said a barely discernible voice.
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the priest found himself smiling. "Reevan," he breathed with unconcealed relief. "It is good to see you."
"It is good to see you!" the other echoed. "When I didn't hear from you, I feared the worst. What happened?"
"Tempest Keep has fallen. They hit us hard, and they left nothing but death in their wake." Despite himself, Andurien felt a painful tightness in his chest. He pushed the sensation to the back of his mind. "The prince is gone. Dead... maybe. We haven't found a body, and likely never will. What few survivors remain will travel to Shattrath... and then to Shadowmoon."
There was a brief silence at the other end.
"Who leads them?"
"Sarannis and Freywinn. They managed to escape from the slaughter somehow... many did not." The tightness returned. Andurien took a deep breath. "They still cling to the hope that Illidan will forgive this transgression and somehow restore us to what we once were, but I-"
"He can't. He won't, at any rate."
"I know. I did my best to sway them, but-"
"Whatever you did, don't do it again."
Andurien blinked once, startled. "I don't understand."
"You cannot allow yourself to be discovered just yet. If they have any suspicions, do your best to clear them as soon as you can. Stay with them throughout the journey. Talk to them. Learn their plans. And tell me everything."
A pause, then, "What do you intend to do?"
"I will send word of your coming to Shattrath. If-" the image flickered briefly, and several words were lost "- then so be it. If not... the Scryers will be ready."
Andurien nodded curtly. "I must take my leave now. I will contact you again as soon as I am able to."
"Shorel'aran. And watch your back."
The orb darkened.
Andurien straightened up. He had been gone for quite some time now, and chances were either Sarannis or Freywinn were bound to ask questions. He looked around. In a corner, he saw a rather unimpressive staff that had somehow eluded the raiders. The staff was made of plain wood rather than mithril or gold, and its maker had clumsily carved a few magic runes on the side. They had clearly done it wrong, but it would take more than an initiate to tell the difference. He shrugged, then picked up the staff. It was as good a weapon as anything else for someone who didn't need one in the first place, and he could always just discard it somewhere along the way if it hindered him too much. He cast one last glance around, hid the orb in an inner pocket of his robes, then began to make his way back to where the rest of the survivors were preparing for their journey.
Time seemed to pass differently within the walls of the Black Temple. By now, Vaala was certain she'd wandered around for several hours at least. Still, she barely felt any fatigue. Of course, Illidan's 'gift' probably had a lot to do with this new-found vitality. Her thoughts kept going back to the unusual gem. As a rogue, she'd seen – and stolen – almost every kind of precious stone known to man, orc and elf, but she'd never seen anything like this one.
After some wandering, Vaala had found her way back to the Ashtongue and his well. From there, her steps had carried her further down, towards the vast courtyard that the temple overlooked. It only took a glance for her to realize that these parts housed a much less pleasurable host than the Sunfury and Broken she'd encountered before. Demons roamed freely here. She'd heard a number of rumors that some demons had willingly turned from the Burning Legion and joined Illidan's cause, and the strange, hellish creatures were truly a sight to behold. They towered over everyone else, even the massive orcs of the Fel Horde, and carried themselves with open arrogance. The fel orcs, on the other hand, looked hardly intimidated. They were at least twice as large as any other orcs Vaala had seen so far and, she guessed, twice as deadly, too. They lived to kill, and they were more than fit for the task. This Horde was definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Vaala was unarmed and had cheated death not once, but twice so far. She decided not to chance a third time. It was best to return here once she had a weapon and at least some sort of an idea of what these creatures could do. Fortunately, soon after she found her way back to the upper tier, using a series of connected staircases that led her to the large promenade where she'd encountered Varedis before. Once there, she sat down on a bench and rubbed her temples wearily. For all she'd seen, she couldn't shake off a nagging feeling that she had missed something crucial. Closing her eyes, she recalled the encounter with the blood elf officer, the sudden conversation with the demon hunter, then the raving elder down by the water well, the Ashtongue Broken, the fel orcs, the demons... Something wasn't right. For all their differences, all these strange denizens had one thing in common. No, it was not their cause; if anything, their respective loyalties were questionable at best. It was almost like they all knew, on some level, that-
Vaala had uttered the words out loud, but she didn't care. The answer was glaringly obvious. Everyone here, be it orc, draenei, demon or blood elf, knew that this war could not be won. The temple, perched as it was on the very edge of the world, could not hold out forever. They had no place to run, and the Ashtongue and the Sunfury, at least, looked like they'd lost their will to fight as well. And if, by some miracle, the Aldor, Scryers, Alliance and Horde raiders could all be repelled, the Burning Legion and their Shadow Council puppets could easily wipe out any survivors.
Illidan didn't seem to realize any of this. Rumors in Shattrath City and elsewhere said that the demon lord was too infatuated with his power and believed his stronghold was unbreakable. Vaala could only guess the fate of those who told him otherwise, and shudder at the thought. Common sense told her that she was best playing along until she found an opportunity to escape. Still, there were certainly benefits to be reaped from this strange new allegiance, and she needed time to prove her usefulness if she was to reap any. All in all, it was worth seeing what Illidan himself thought of it, at least.
Vaala stood up, her resolve made. She touched the gem and said, "I need to see you. Now."
The rush of magic came and went so suddenly that, for a second, Vaala felt like her very soul was being ripped apart. She had stepped through portals and used other translocation devices before, but nothing had felt so viral, so raw. When her senses returned enough for her to take in her surroundings, she was standing in a vast courtyard surrounded by towering walls. This had to be the very top of the temple... Illidan's private sanctum.
Illidan himself didn't look too pleased with the interruption. "You have news from me already! Well, what is it? Speak!"
Vaala took a deep breath. "My lord..." she began, then paused. What was the best way to say this? Damn it all to hell, the outcome was probably going to be the same. "Did you know that you are losing this war?"
Illidan said nothing at first, but merely glared at her in a way that made his earlier threats become far more present all of a sudden. Vaala summoned all her determination to keep herself from looking away. The moment stretched on.
"What ever do you mean?" Illidan replied at length. "I have the strongest army on this wretched world amassed within these walls! When the time is right, I will strike at my enemies, and they will be obliterated!"
Well, at least he hadn't lashed out at her just yet. "Your army is no good to you here," Vaala pressed on, emboldened by that fact. "They may be invincible as long as we stay within the walls, yes, but they are effectively cut off from the rest of your forces... and scattered as they are throughout the valley, those can be of little help in an assault. And trust me, there will be an assault... maybe even sooner than you think."
This, at least, seemed to finally pique Illidan's interest. "What? How do you know that?"
Vaala hesitated. It was best not to reveal exactly how she had happened across this information. She wasn't familiar with any details, other than the fact that the Scryers were indeed planning an attack on the Black Temple. Her previous employer had instructed her to infiltrate the ranks and search for any possible weakness in the temple's seemingly impenetrable defenses. Now that she had revealed what little she knew, she suddenly felt uneasy. What if the assault came... and failed? And, more importantly, what if Illidan somehow managed to divine the true connection between herself and-
"Wait... no matter. Let them come. They will fail... and they will die for their foolishness."
The last phrase made Vaala snap out of her concerns and cringe. At that moment, she began to realize the full implications of her new allegiance. She had never truly considered herself a 'Scryer', but had made a name working for the former disciples of Kael'thas nonetheless. They could all die, as far as she was concerned - tragic, seeing how there weren't that many sin'dorei left to begin with, but ultimately irrelevant. However, there was one man whose life was worth more to Vaala than all the other Scryers put together. It was at his request that she'd infiltrated the Black Temple, and he was probably thinking of her even now, wondering why she had yet to return from her ill-fated mission, or perhaps even-
"Is that all?"
Once more, Vaala snapped back to the current conversation. "Actually..." she began in a small voice, wondering how far she could push her luck this time. "Our enemy has been, and will always be, the Burning Legion... but lives are lost in pointless skirmishes every day. If your forces try to drive out the Aldor and the Scryers, they will come back with more men, and even more lives will be lost... which will only serve to weaken us as a whole. Wouldn't it be more prudent to seek allies rather than enemies? Some of the Scryers, at least, would welcome a second chance to join your cause. Surely, they are just as tired of slaughtering their own kin as your own Sunfury..."
Vaala trailed off. Illidan seemed taken aback, if such a thing was even possible. The silence was even more disturbing than any threat he could have made.
"The Scryers... have betrayed me," Illidan said eventually, his voice a low, dangerous growl. "And they will pay the price for their transgression. This world was supposed to belong to me - and, by the Nether, it will, if I have to find and kill every last gnat that dares to oppose me with my own hands. As for you..." Illidan inched closer, and Vaala fought the urge to back away. "Never speak of such nonsense in my presence again."
Prudently, Vaala said nothing. Pushing the matter any further would have likely resulted in pain.
"What a curious thing you are," Illidan continued, amusement mingling with resentment now. "You know full well that my patience is very limited with the likes of you. Do you want to die?"
Vaala had started wondering the same thing as well, and now she cursed herself for getting carried away after all. "If my thoughts are open to you as you say, then that should be no secret, either," she said lightly.
It was a hopeless bait and, sure enough, Illidan didn't rise to it. "It is painfully obvious that you don't fear me as much as you should," he said, but his voice had lost some of its earlier harshness.
Vaala wasn't nearly as confident as she let show, but she took a small comfort in the fact that Illidan didn't seem to be aware of her insecurity. This, in turns, meant that her mind wasn't as thoroughly exposed as she'd feared. "You don't seem as cruel as everyone else told me you'd be," she answered finally. "Before, I was fully expecting to die - but instead, you offered me sanctuary and a chance to prove myself. I suppose that's why."
Illidan didn't answer. Indeed, he seemed distracted all of a sudden, as if listening to another voice that only he could hear. "I have other, more important matters to deal with," he said at length. "In the meantime, you are to seek Veras Darkshadow or one of his acolytes and get yourself accustomed with the place. He has already been apprised of your situation, but I would still advise that you thread lightly."
Vaala knew the name, and now she cringed at the thought of being anywhere near the shadowy assassin of the Illidari Council. "Can he be trusted, my lord?"
Illidan cackled darkly. "That... is for you to find out, my little spy."
Before she could say anything else, Vaala felt the magical energies of another teleportation spell at work. She barely caught herself from doubling over as she materialized in her chambers, and it took a while before the world stopped spinning this time. Finally, she straightened up and cringed at the nausea brought on by the sudden movement. She felt like curling up on the floor and passing out for a day at least, but there was no time for that now. Veras Darkshadow was waiting.