The Demon Hunter: Outland
I'm pleased to present here the second book of the Demon Hunter series. For those of you stumbling on this story for the first time I strongly urge you to begin with my first completed novel, Demon Hunter, which can be found on this site as well.
A note on my update schedule for this story. With my first book I would estimate I had roughly a quarter of it already written, and was producing material fast enough to put up a chapter a couple times a week, if not even more frequently. I'm afraid I'm not quite up to that pace this time around, so rather than have readers wondering when my updates will be coming out I'll make it simple. Barring unexpected conflicts with my schedule, I'll be updating with a new chapter every week on Friday. If I happen to have more material and feel like updating I might do it twice a week, but rest assured a chapter will be up every Friday like clockwork.
Thank you to all the readers who have followed the story and given feedback. I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy,
Islands in the Nether
The first thing that struck Puros upon exiting the portal was the immense heat. To be exact, it struck him like opening the doors of a blast furnace, 120 degrees at a low estimate. In his heavy armor, with thick double-quilted tunic and leather jerkin underneath, he was immediately broiling.
Heavy armor was not meant for warm places. Full plate with all its undergarments had first been developed in the northlands, Lordaeron and the surrounding areas, where cold was more prevalent. Wearing armor in frigid temperatures was a torment, certainly, but in such temperatures as the one he'd just entered it was possibly fatal. He would have to shed much of it, and soon, or find some way to draw upon the Light to protect him.
But he couldn't worry about heat now. Shrugging aside discomfort he straightened, tightly gripping the finely made and enchanted poleaxe he'd looted from an undead commander in Dalaran, and strode away from the portal, making room for the rearguard to pass through. The bloodred sand beneath his feet soaked up the sunlight well, but somehow it was still so bright that his eyes squinted. He looked up towards this world's sun, and with a cry was forced to look away immediately. On Azeroth staring into the sun could blind a man if he did so for a few moments, but here the sun was so painfully bright he couldn't even glance at it for more than a split second. As his eyes shied away he saw what appeared to be a moon that filled the horizon ahead, so large that he almost thought it must be another world. He tore his eyes away from the sky with a shudder, fearing to take in too much strangeness so soon after setting foot on this searing world. Instead he finally allowed himself a look of the world they'd traveled to.
It was, he had to reluctantly admit, what he imagined the hell set aside for the truly evil must look like.
The portal the murderer Nex-thanarak had created opened out atop a low rise, and with those few steps away from the portal he stood at the edge of that rise, looking out at a vast flatlands below. It was a land of red, tortured rock, and equally red sand and grit blown in a breeze hot enough to sear the sweat from his brow. As if that wasn't unpleasant enough, the wasteland was dotted by deep, terrible fissures that spewed fel green lava, attesting to the demonic corruption this tortured landscape had suffered.
Considering the vile, nearly unlivable nature of this place, he wasn't surprised that off in the distance to his right he saw a structure that looked suspiciously like the infamous Dark Portal, whose appearance had first flung Azeroth into the spiraling cycle of chaos and war decades ago.
If that was the Dark Portal, however, then the Burning Legion must have overwhelmed Azeroth some time in the not so distant past, for dark flecks swarmed from its sickly green center, most by foot but many flying overhead on bat wings. The demons issuing from the portal spread out across the red wasteland, but its size was so vast that even their daunting numbers vanished into it without anything but the slightest trace.
Beside him Maiev hissed. It wasn't at the portal she gazed, but in the other direction. Puros looked to see another portal at the extreme edge of his vision on that horizon as well, similarly allowing the passage of demons into this hellish land. His supposition that it was the portal that had drawn her reaction was quickly dispelled, however, when she spoke. "I feel him!" the Warden said in a low hiss, crouching atop the low ledge beside him as if she feared being seen. "His foul presence permeates the area. He is not far, and in this desolation must be alone. Come, sisters, prepare yourselves!"
Puros suddenly stiffened, glancing back at where the portal had abruptly closed. "Wait!" he called softly. "Where is Nex?"
The leader of the Telratha shot him an impatient glance. "Who cares? Our prey is near, the target of years of hunting. The human demon hunter is nothing more than a petty nuisance, and will cease to be even that when the Betrayer is ours."
Puros straightened, struggling to look impressive in the sweltering heat. "I care, Lady, and greatly. My part in all this was specifically to garner your aid in his capture and bringing him to his final justice."
Maiev hissed in impatience, ducking lower and continuing to speak in that urgent whisper. "I have no time for these games, human! The Betrayer is no easy quarry, and your bellowing risks alerting him to our presence. We will worry about this when he is in our grasp."
"Damn the Betrayer and damn you, woman! I've lost too many good men to bring this bastard to justice, and-" he cut off as Mistress Fadingstar caught his arm.
The night elf Watcher spoke to him calmly, and a moment later Emaille translated. "My mistress urges you to consider this rationally. If the human demon servant failed to pass through the portal, he will be taken or killed by our sisters and your own men left behind. Did you not order them to do just that if he failed to follow us?"
Puros hesitated, then nodded grudgingly. "You are right, of course. Still every moment he is out of my sight galls me. He's a slippery bastard, and he's managed to slide his way out of cleft sticks before." Puros glanced around the desolate wasteland angrily, as if the dark figure of his quarry would appear out of thin air. "I want to know where the hell he is!"
. . . . .
His exit from the altered portal wasn't gentle, and he found himself falling a dozen feet to smash into an unforgiving surface. For a few moments Nex blinked and lay groggily, waiting for his senses to return. It was only after that that he realized he was laying with his left arm and shoulder hanging over thin air, and he lowered bleary eyes to look downwards, and downwards, and downwards, to one of the most horrifying sights he'd ever seen.
"False gods damn the world!" Nex said in a strangled voice, scrabbling backwards away from the sheer drop before him and fighting true panic. He was unable to go more than a few inches before his back and right shoulder connected with the wall, and he realized that the ledge he was sprawled on could barely be called that. For a moment he felt himself teetering terrifyingly, sure he would fall even though his balance was stable, and he closed his eyes and focused on turning his panting gasps into slow, steady breathing.
Heights had no terror for a man who'd mastered levitation. Even as a boy he'd been little concerned with them. It was deeply unmanning to be feeling real fear and vertigo for the first time in his life, especially so soon after completely draining all his power and stepping through a portal from solid ground to thin air.
What lay beneath him was nothing he wanted to slowfall down to. In truth, what lay beneath him was nothing.
Taking a few calming breaths, he focused on drawing shadows. To his surprise and pleasure he realized that the shadows here were far more potent than he had found anywhere on Azeroth. Perhaps even a better source of power than passively tapping the Illidari stone, although of course draining the stone's reserves remained far beyond any latent power he could imagine.
Then again, it stood to reason the shadows would provide a better source of magic here, considering he was less than three inches from dropping into the Twisting Nether.
By supreme force of will he managed to get his fears under control, and after a few more moments of concentration he surged into motion, coming lightly and easily to his feet in a low crouch on the ledge, leaning back into the cliff face as far as he could. Then he began coolly appraising his surroundings, and his own situation.
His initial impression of teetering on a ledge on a cliff face proved to be surprisingly accurate. Downwards, upwards, and to either side pale red stone stretched into the far distance. At the extreme edge of sight it seemed to curve away, not just to either side but in every direction, as if he was standing on the top of a crude sphere. There was air here, although it was thinner than he was accustomed to, and colder. Perhaps he should count it deeply fortuitous that the environment he'd portaled into was livable at all.
Directly in front of him he could look out into the Twisting Nether and see another world that filled most of his view in that direction, indescribably massive and completely covered in dense cloud, with a ring of dust and stone circling both it and the cliff he leaned against, so it filled half the skyline as it passed out of sight behind him. Looking up he could see a spherical object, another world like Azeroth's moon but bigger, that also appeared to be circling the cloudy world. Only half of it was visible, the rest obscured by the top of the cliff. In every other direction there was nothing but emptiness studded by stars and manastorms. If these worlds circled a sun, he couldn't see it.
Finally, taking a calming breath, he looked downward again.
Even prepared for the sight this time it was still terrifying, and for the second time he felt a surge of vertigo that he had to physically fight against. Rocks ranging from the size of a house to several miles or even several hundreds of miles in diameter drifted below him. Some, especially those not too far below, remained fairly still, and a few of the larger ones even had vegetation growing on them. But the farther down he looked the faster the chunks of stone moved, swirling in a haphazard dance of breathtaking speed and chaos; carooming off one another, shattering against each other with truly impressive explosions, whipping past to soar out into the Twisting Nether, or simply rotating around the center of the chaos.
The center. Now that was a sight none of his education or intellect was prepared for. It had to have been at least a thousand miles below. There the rocks were so tightly clumped that they constantly ground against one another, and through the cracks came the sullen red glow of molten stone. If he had to guess, he would say that the sheer force of all those stones rubbing against each other was melting everything beneath, like a man without magic forced to light a fire by striking rocks together. Occasionally the clumped rocks parted for some reason or another, and plumes of superheated magma shot thousands of feet, or even miles, into the air. It wasn't until one of those plumes rose up past the cliff he was on, hundreds of miles in front of him but still disconcertingly close, that he realized they could possibly be a threat.
Looking through that maelstrom of pounding rocks, not directly downwards at the core but a bit outside of it and past, he could see the rocks thin out once more, some of them as huge as the cliff he leaned against, he guessed. Continent-sized or greater. So there was a sphere of rocks, the bigger ones on the outside, bigger and smaller ones between, and in the extreme center a core of molten stone. Beyond even those continent-sized rocks on the other side of the core he saw nothing but more stars as the Twisting Nether resumed.
He'd had too much, his confused mind couldn't take any more of the bizarre place he'd come to. With a shuddering breath he leaned back against the stone once more and closed his eyes, then snapped them open in the fear that without constantly watching his feet he'd somehow lose his balance and fall into that roiling chaos below and be crushed to a pulp. His weight was pulling him straight down into it, the way on Azeroth it pulled him directly down towards the ground. The pull was not as great as on Azeroth, but it was great enough.
How had he come to be here? The alterations he'd made to the portal spell taking him to Stormrage's location-Draenor as he supposed-had been so minute that even taking into account the great distance it couldn't have put him more than a mile or so away. Of course he could have miscalculated, never having to work with such vast numbers as the distance between worlds. Had he been flung to some place other than Draenor, and by sheer luck alone come to this ledge on this cliff which had air and heat enough to support his life, with the Twisting Nether in every direction? Could he as easily have left the portal in the midst of those pounding stones below, or in an emptiness where it was so cold and airless that he perished instantly?
His mind was in no condition to ponder such bizarre and horrifying eventualities. What he did know was that there was a down here, and that meant that there was an up as well. If he was on one of the continent-sized rocks then climbing this cliff to its top would put him on the top of that rock, where he could at least stand without having to worry about falling to a grisly death.
Taking a few more shuddering breaths and managing to not look downwards with supreme force of will, he gripped a likely handhold above him and began to climb.
. . . . .
They'd left the greater portion of the night elf army behind, at the base of the portal rise where a bit of shadow alleviated the relentless heat. The bulk of the force of female night elves were doing their best to raise fortifications and make some sort of livable camp in that meager shade, while some twoscore of Maiev's personal bodyguard and her best huntresses and warriors moved out towards where Maiev was sure the Betrayer waited unsuspecting.
Puros, stripped down to his just his boiled leather and underclothes, struggled to keep pace with the night elves and yet remain hidden. To add insult to injury, Emaille had been specifically assigned to all but hold his hand as she led him from one ideal hiding spot to the next. He had to admit, though, that without her help he would have quickly been left behind, and likely would have given himself away to the Betrayer by stumbling around like a fool; night elf Sentinels were renowned for their stealthiness, particularly in the dark.
Even knowing how well they could hide and track, he would never have believed they could disappear into a landscape as desolate as this without seeing it with his own eyes, particularly since they preferred to work within the forests when possible. And yet aside from Emaille at his side, cautiously guiding him forward at the rear of the group, he saw not even a hint of the others.
Soon enough, however, he caught sight of a figure that seemed to care nothing about stealth.
Brazenly out in the open, seeming to care little that he was alone in a strange and hostile land populated by demons, Illidan Stormrage stood looking away from them atop a much, much larger rise. That rise ended in a cliff at his feet, while between his location and where Puros and Emaille crouched the ground rose in an easy slope, utterly devoid of cover.
Puros ducked down on the off chance the demon hunter might glance back at him. Forty soldiers had seemed like overkill before, but then he'd forgotten just who they were hunting. Tapping into but a portion of this creature's power the murderer Nex-thanarak had laid waste to dozens if not hundreds of undead within the walls of Dalaran. Wielding the power of a demon lord, this creature had wielded enough power to shatter the earth in Northrend with such force that Puros had felt the earth quake in Loch Modan, thousands of miles away.
Puros clutched his poleaxe a bit tighter. "Do you think we should bring the rest of the army for this?" he whispered.
Emaille looked back at him, lips pulled back in an amused smile. "You doubt the Warden's strength only because you have yet to see it, paladin. The Betrayer has always fled before her."
Yes, but because he feared her or because he was loathe to spill her blood? Puros didn't speak those doubts, however, instead cautiously poking his head up to glance at the still figure before them once more. "When are they going to attack?"
The beautiful young night elf looked at him with surprise. "Why, they've already begun moving into position. Can you not see them?"
Puros could not. Neither, it seemed, could Illidan. For many more tense moments the demon hunter stood looking down at whatever sight lay below, unaware of the danger which crept up on him. Then with a surge of arcane energy Maiev appeared ten yards behind him, blinking to his position so expertly that only her toes touched lightly on the ground under her foot. Even as she appeared she pushed off, a dagger springing from her hand towards Illidan's back. The Betrayer began to spin, but before he'd moved more than a fraction a shadowy shape rose up behind him, pinning his arms to his sides and pressing them so tightly that the demon hunter's impressive muscles were forced to bulge simply to keep from being crushed. While he was thus pinned the dagger struck his shoulder, and as if it had been coated with potent poison moment by moment Illidan's struggles ceased.
"The Lady Shadowsong's Avatar of Vengeance," Emaille whispered. "Her hatred of the Betrayer is so strong that it has taken the form of her shadow, and in her just cause it fights beside her." The night elf stood. "Come, the fight is over."
It certainly seemed to be. Even as the darkly shadowed Avatar wrestled Illidan to his knees Maiev strode up to him, placing the razored edge of her chakram to his throat so two of its wicked tips pressed to either side of his larynx, against the vein to one side and the artery to the other. With but a tightening of her muscles she could have his life's blood spilling to the ground in a torrent. Puros and Emaille came within earshot just in time to hear her speak. "At last the hunt is finished, Illidan!" she said with extreme satisfaction.
From his knees Illidan looked around at the night elves surrounding him. The green, blindfolded glow of his demonic eyes even fell upon Puros, and Puros shuddered at the sheer force of that gaze. "What is this, Shadowsong?" he finally demanded, not seeming to fear the weapon at his throat. If he was concerned by the fact that he was helpless and twoscore warriors all had ranged weapons trained on him he didn't show it.
"This is justice, Betrayer!" Maiev declared, standing triumphantly over him.
"Justice?" Illidan laughed in stark disbelief. "Again I am betrayed, and you dare call it justice? I acted to save all of Azeroth from the Lich King, and you attacked me. Afterwards I put aside my grievances with the man I hate most to save your priestess, and again he called me monster and exiled me. He told me he would spare me if again I left the night elf lands and troubled them no more. Even though we were nowhere near Kaldorei sovereignty!" Stormrage struggled against the poison the dagger had introduced into his system, and apparently failed, for when he finally ceased his efforts he was pale, and his previously calm voice was strained. "I did as he commanded! Me, after all I have suffered, all the times I swallowed my pride for the good of our people, did it yet again. I left Azeroth, by Bitch Elune's sake!"
Maiev's lip curled with contempt. "Yes, I'm sure you left Azeroth because Malfurion Stormrage told you to. More likely you feared the wrath of your demon masters after you failed them, and fled here for sanctuary." She turned to survey the surrounding landscape and shuddered, a surprisingly delicate gesture. "Wherever here is. But you cannot escape justice, not if you flee to the ends of the Great Dark Beyond."
Illidan's lip curled in equal contempt. "This isn't justice. Not even an overzealous fool such as yourself can call it so, when you alone of all our people continue to hunt me. The Archdruid and the High Priestess both bid me leave in peace and not return."
"I don't care!" Maiev shrieked, and for the first time since Puros had met her the facade of her icy composure vanished, and he saw the endless rage and loathing within her. Even ten thousand years didn't seem long enough for such bile to ferment within a person. She continued, still nearly shouting the words at her prostrate prisoner as her chakram trembled dangerously at his throat. "The Archdruid's senses are dulled by ten thousand years of sleep, and that bitch Whisperwind has been wet for you behind your brother's back all that time. Small wonder that when she was conveniently in the Barrow Dens waking her lover she paused to take a detour to murder my sisters and set you free."
The Betrayer's only response to her rage was a small smile. "Are you sure it was Tyrande that's been wet for me all this time?" he taunted.
Maiev's rage vanished once more into icy calm. With almost contemptuous ease the tall, bulky female leaned down and picked up the Betrayer by the throat, lifting him off his knees and into the air. "Attraction is the furthest thing from what I feel for you, monster," she hissed. "Call it justice, call it vengeance, call it petty spite if you have to. But I have you again, and the next ten thousand years will make the last seem a Lunar Festival frolic." She looked around, lips curling into a satisfied smile. "This world Draenor resembles purgatory. I'll see it becomes your own private hell."
Puros fought to keep his breath. Did she truly mean to stay here, then? The thought of being stuck in this burning, desolate wasteland for the rest of his life filled him with horror. He hadn't followed her to this place only to be trapped here, his bones scoured by red sand for the next ten thousand years.
Before he could ponder that grim scenario for long Illidan laughed in her face. Not a swift storm of amusement, either, but a long, drawn out noise straight from his belly that seemed all the more sinister for its genuine mirth. "World, Shadowsong? Oh, no. we're not on Draenor, and this certainly isn't a world."
Maiev's expression sharpened, and she flung the laughing creature away. "What foolishness are you spouting, Betrayer?"
Obviously still struggling with the poison, Illidan pointed to the direction Puros assumed was south, based on the movement of this world's sun. "Travel swiftly for a day in that direction, and you will see."
The razor tip of Maiev's circular chakram brushed up against his throat again almost teasingly. Illidan didn't flinch away from it. "I've no time for your games, Illidan. If you have something you wish to tell me, then say it."
"Why?" The Betrayer's lips curled back to reveal unnaturally long canines, disconcertingly similar to Nex's. "I have ten thousand years to look forward to in which to converse with you. You'll have plenty of time to tease all my secrets from me with your loving ministrations." His green gaze flickered suddenly to rest on Puros, and Puros recoiled. "Although the human is not so fortunate. For his sake I'll tell you."
He paused, and then his gaze turned southwards again. "If you travel to the edge of this continent, you'll not find an ocean, Shadowsong. You'll find a two thousand mile drop into a core of grinding stone and molten lava. You stand on an island in a sea of air, surrounding only by other islands on all sides. And beyond them is the Twisting Nether. Standing on some islands you can even reach out and grasp the netherstorms, and feel their raging power."
Maiev's expression showed clear disbelief. "You expect me to believe this fantasy, Betrayer? Your own servant claimed you were going to Draenor."
Illidan smiled cruelly. "Oh, this is Draenor. Or at least it was a decade ago, before Ner'zhul's reckless use of magics beyond his control ripped it apart. Now it is a shattered waypoint in the Twisting Nether, with half a dozen portals leading from it to worlds controlled by the Burning Legion. On an island connected to this one a pit lord rules all that you see. I was planning to take his throne from him and rule this place, but since you've taken me prisoner I suppose you'll have to do it for me." He glanced at the small army of night elves around him and chuckled with derision. "I wish you the best of luck."
Maiev snorted and turned away, but Puros could see the way her eyes darted here and there, as if trying to verify Illidan's claim. Though he couldn't see her doing so, Illidan seemed to guess her actions. "Oh, don't worry, Shadowsong. You'll see I'm right soon enough." His voice became almost triumphant. "Welcome to Outland."