I'm pleased to present the third and final book of the Demon Hunter series, Demon Hunter: Northrend.
I'd like to thank everyone who's read this far, and for the feedback you've given. It's been a great help to see where clarification is needed or how a certain plot twist will be received. I hope you'll continue on with me to the end, and that you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it :).
If you're new to the series I'd encourage you to begin with the first book, Demon Hunter, and continue with the second, Demon Hunter: Outland, before reading this. Why start the adventure at the end, right?
Fire and Ice
Someone had once told him that noise was like ripples in a pond, spreading through the air in expanding spheres. He'd thought that was a ridiculous notion at the time, even if it was true. But the fact that noise traveled through earth as well as air, translated to vibrations and distant rumbles, made it seem more likely.
That and the fact that with his enhanced second sight he could "see" the ripples, spheres just like that crazy human had claimed. Could, but didn't want to; there were far more sounds than he would ever have imagined, and seeing them as well as hearing them and trying to process the sensations simultaneously quickly gave him a splitting headache.
Somewhere up above, Tempest Keep and its satellites had arrived. The naga were long gone, returned to Azeroth and their watery home for reinforcements, and it seemed with the arrival of the Corona's Blaze regiment Stormrage's forces were preparing to move out. Noisily preparing, so much so that he could hear them even in the bowels of the Black Temple. Echoing through the armory from the ramps that lead up into more populous areas, shaking the earth beneath his feet and the roof overhead.
But that was all distant. All his focus was on the iron in his hand, the hammer. Every swing as precise as inexperienced muscles could manage. The deafening clang with each strike, bleeding one into another. Watching the soft metal slowly take shape.
It was the most peaceful he'd felt in a long, long time.
Sandiv was asleep in the small bunkroom off to one end of the hall. The smith had pushed himself hard, nearly as hard as Nex in his own way, but he had no magic to sustain his mortal shell. He was a simple elf who spent his days swinging a hammer, so other soldiers were better equipped to fight and die.
It had probably been hours that the noise and vibrations had remained at this fever pitch. Intense activity up above, action and excitement and most likely fear. A sane person would feel fear, knowing they were about to go to a land where cold reigned most of the year and the winters could kill. If you stayed long enough to die of cold, for Northrend was the realm of the undead. And the undead did not suffer the living.
His arms were strained, muscles fraying. He had not eaten, for all he'd intended to begin. And even magic could not protect flesh from unrelenting abuse, nor heal it effectively; his left leg had buckled twice as he walked from anvil to forge to pile of iron bars to stacks of finished torpedoes.
He'd never felt so much like a puppet, his flesh not even his own. And yet still it was satisfying.
Sandiv had probably been gone for nearly five hours when Nex paused in the hammering, his second sight warning him of the approach of something foreign. It was cold and loveless, with little to it of life or warmth. No demon, this, or even the hint of anything demonic. A different sort of power that was remote and empty and chill as the Great Dark Beyond. That power swept ever closer, until it entered the armory down the steep ramp and began walking across the cavernous chamber towards him.
A boy. Equal parts elf and human, so much so that one ear was small and round while the other was large and pointy. Pale green eyes, dirty blond hair, pale skin. Nex knew these features, though he was surprised to see them here. The boy seemed to catch sight of him, recognizing him as different from the elvish smiths working in their own group well away from him, and his feet took him to stand behind Nex. There was silence until Nex slammed his hammer down on the rod with a deafening clangor. It had cooled enough to do little, so he waited for the noise to die down and let the hammer lie.
"I'm surprised to see you, Montfere," he finally said when the boy continued to stay stubbornly silent.
Ilinar Montfere took a ragged breath, perhaps surprised that Nex knew he was there even though he'd never turned to look and the noise must have hid his approach. "You shouldn't be. I'm your squire, right?"
"At one point." Nex carried the bar over to the forge and shoved it into the coals, then began working the bellows. "You shouldn't be here. It's not safe."
For a moment Montfere's face went slack with disbelief, and then the boy cursed. "Safe? You left me alone in the middle of a battle, you and Saire both! You promised to protect me, but apparently that wasn't anything you cared about!"
"Saire promised, boy. I was merely so inclined."
The boy spat off to one side. "If Hardal hadn't been there I would've been right back where you left me weeks ago! Bastards driving me from camp with rocks and curses to die of thirst in a wasteland."
Nex paused at the bellows and turned to face Montfere. "And what do you expect from me, coming here?"
Sullen eyes stared at the ground, refusing to meet his. "You took me away from the refugee camp, once. You saved my life, once. Not much more than that, but it was more than my own people saw fit to do. I'm your squire, right?" His voice lowered to a near whisper, and though he tried to hide it Nex could see the anguish within the boy, bordering on despair. "I just want to be your squire."
A silence settled between them as Nex stood in thoughtful silence. Saved his life. Yes, that was something most warlocks did not do, by inclination or experimentation, and when they did attempt such preservation of souls it usually ended badly. Montfere had been dead in airless emptiness in a dimensional pocket of the Twisting Nether, his body still and cold for days. Did the chill of the grave ever leave a man? Perhaps the Light could wash such away in one of its rare resurrections, but the ritual he'd performed to revive Montfere couldn't be counted holy by any standard.
Something to keep an eye on, in any case. Montfere's latent power had changed, become like a frozen seed waiting to sprout. It might be worthwhile to watch the process. "You've misplaced your loyalty, boy."
Montfere's head lifted slowly, eyes raising. "Oh? Well I don't seem to have any better choice, do-" When his eyes reached Nex's face the boy broke off with a curse and stared at his empty sockets. "What happened to your eyes?"
Nex smiled thinly. "I tore them out so I could see better."
The youth's shock became confusion. "That doesn't make any sense."
He ignored that. "So you wish to make the arrangement between us formal. I suppose you'll be expecting some sort of oath from me that I'll do better about seeing to your needs."
"Sure, why not? Even though promises are stupid and you won't keep them."
Nex showed his teeth, drawing Montfere's eyes from his blind eyes to rest there. "Oh, I keep my promises, boy. The question is, what would I get from such an arrangement?"
Montfere scowled. "What did you get the first time you took me in? I can guarantee you I'm the only one around here who doesn't want to put a knife in your back. Anyway us humans need to stick together."
"Humans," Nex repeated flatly.
The boy jutted his chin out defiantly. "Couldn't be worse than my other heritage."
You'd be surprised. "Neither of us can truly claim humanity, by heritage or nurture. But you're right, we had best stick together. You have my word, you will never again find me heedless of your well-being." Nex pulled the bar from the forge and carried it back over to the anvil, continuing his attempts to shape it.
"So that's it?" Montfere demanded, putting his hands on his hips.
"For the moment, yes. I have a lot to do and little time to spare on distractions. Is that understood?" The boy nodded, even though Nex's back was to him, and that was that.
At first. Montfere was quiet for several minutes, watching him work. But once the novelty of it wore off he began shifting in boredom, as boys did, until even Nex's unspoken warning wasn't enough to keep him quiet. "I didn't know you worked metal."
Nex grimaced. "I don't. When the smith sleeps or otherwise rests I do the job as best I can, but my work is inferior." He pointed to the pile beside the smoothly tapered and razor-tipped torpedoes, where the round bars had blunted ridges and edges and the tips were ugly, the angle steep rather than tapering.
The boy glanced over, then winced slightly. "Well at least you'll be getting better at it."
"Will I? Working on these green weapons? I've hammered out ten or so before without seeing any notable increase in skill. It's actually quite irritating. In fact for the last thirty or so I've seen not the slightest sign my skill is improving."
"Oh." Montfere shifted slightly. "Well you've still got lots to do, right?"
"Three thousand two hundred and eighty-four," Nex said, tone flat.
"Oh. Well it's almost guaranteed you'll skill up doing so many."
Nex paused in his awkward hammering and turned an irritated gaze on the half-elf. "You want to serve? Take those tongs there and lift a bar into the forge, then put on more fuel and pump the bellows." Likely the boy would foul up the first few attempts, heating the metal too hot so it shattered, or not hot enough so it had to be reheated. But like with his own efforts, they had plenty more to practice on.
Plenty, plenty more. He might even be smithing as well as Sandiv himself by the end. Hell, even Montfere might be taking a turn, though the boy's arms were so scrawny he'd likely fail miserably.
His head was pounding, and the latent influx of power from the Illidari stone wasn't sufficient to his needs, requiring him to draw shadows as well. He'd already consumed the stone's reserves in a fit of impatience, using magic to do the work that coals and hammer and elvish hands did so slowly. For all that power he'd managed to create thirty or so, nearly as fine as Sandiv's but much, much more costly.
At this rate he'd probably have to rest himself before too long. But he ignored his body's cries for the regenerative trance and the frayed, sharp pains in his arms, shoulders, and back, continuing to strike one after the other, as Montfere worked the forge. True to his predictions it took the boy several tries to become even competent, and he continued to make mistakes and misjudge temperatures even after several hours.
Nex tensed, though he didn't slow his efforts. His second sight had warned him of the blood elf's approach, but he'd paid little attention, assuming it was someone about the business of Prince Kael'thas. Now he was aware that the man's clothing was finer, his features less coarse. A messenger, and one well-ranked. He set his hammer on the anvil beside the poorly worked excuse for a torpedo and turned to Montfere. "There is food and water in the bunkroom at the end of the armory. Bring some out and tend your needs. You have five minutes."
The look the boy gave him was almost absurdly grateful. Sweat was streaming down Montfere's face, soot and ash spotting his sun-darkened skin. He'd wisely removed his shirt to work the bellows, and the way his arms hung limp suggested how hard the work had been. Perhaps he was due more than a few minutes of rest; Nex would have to ask him what the limits of a mortal's strength were.
But before the boy could go for his deserved meal the messenger's eyes snagged on him, noted he was quite obviously serving Nex, and narrowed. "What is this?"
Nex fought a surge of irritation. Just like a blood elf to not give a rat's ass for something until it wasn't his place to do so, and suddenly it was worth his complete attention. "A boy. If you cannot identify one I shudder to think at what else you're ignorant of."
The elf's face remained smoothly contemptuous. "What is an elven child doing in your care, human? Who did you steal him from?"
Montfere stepped forward, the heat of his angry expression tempered by the cold power gathering within him. "Half-elf. And you people can't claim me anyway. You've left me to die once and tried to again!"
"And you think you'll fare better in the human's care?" The elf seemed amused, though none of that emotion showed in his face or words.
"Ilinar Montfere is my squire. He serves me well, and I'm bound to protect and care for him."
"You do not have the right to take any of elven blood as squire."
"Do you intend to claim him? Or at least strip him from me?" The elf made no reply. "What will you do once you've accomplished that? I doubt you'd be interested in caring for him yourself, or even seeing that he's cared for. You don't give a damn about the boy, only your elvish pride, and after you'd denied me him he'd probably spend his days starving among the Wretched, as he was before."
After a moment the messenger turned away. Once his back was turned he grimaced, face darkening with annoyance. Obviously he thought none would see the expression. Nex smiled at the elf's back. "I suggest you take your petition to Prince Kael'thas to make his squireship official, human," the messenger said, "lest you suffer this same argument from other lips. But in the meantime Lord Illidan calls for you, and you will come."
"Of course." Nex turned to Montfere. "Watch my weapons while I'm gone." He saw the boy's look of dismay. "While you're eating and resting, of course."
"All right." The boy hesitated. "What do I do if someone tries to take them?"
Fight for them to the death. Nex smiled with some amusement as he went and drew out four of the best of Sandiv's work, slipping them into loops he'd sewn into the inner lining of his cloak, up near the shoulders where they wouldn't swing as much. "Come and find me if that happens." What, did the boy expect to be asked to give his life defending a few lumps of fel iron? "And remember, you can touch the finished weapons but not the raw iron, for your own safety."
"You've told me that like twenty times already."
"That's nineteen more times than I told you not to disenchant the weapon I gave you and consume the energy. This is nineteen times more important than that."
As he walked away Montfere directed a rude gesture at his back, and he smiled further. If nothing else, his enhanced second sight let him know what people were doing when they thought he couldn't see. He couldn't begrudge the boy a bit of harmless rebellion, though; he'd never had the courage for such at that age.
It should've served to make him a better smith as well, but he supposed smithing was an art that required talent and experience, neither of which he seemed to possess.
The messenger was silent as he led him up out of the bowels of the Black Temple. "I know the way to Stormrage's hall," he said. The elf ignored him; he was obviously displeased at having to escort him, but just as obviously meant to see him directly to Stormrage's presence.
If that was his intention he was going to be disappointed. Nex had a task to complete before attending his master. Likely a simple one, but one never knew when it came to women. "I need to find a mage called Saire Firedge."
With his back to Nex the man obviously thought it safe to show his feelings, and he scowled deeply. "Lord Illidan wishes your presence."
"If you won't aid me in finding her I'll part ways with you and search on my own. I imagine that will take even longer."
The messenger spun, eyes narrowing. "Must I compel you in this?"
Nex smiled, showing his long canines. "Can you?"
. . . . .
The mages were practicing on the roof of the temple's right wing when he found them. The messenger had led him a merry chase searching for Saire. He'd assumed his onetime lover would be rotting in a cell somewhere, but to his surprise she'd been assigned to the Blood Prince's own mage cadre. Going to the rooms those mages held had found them mostly empty, and he'd been redirected here. Sometime during the goose chase the messenger had grown irritated and wandered off, probably to apologize to Stormrage for his wayward servant's tardiness.
For a moment he hung back, watching the apprentices tracing their spellforms in the air and speaking their focusing words. A few of the initiates and even adepts were doing the same; it was possible to cast entirely within the mind, but it took a great deal of mental effort. Many inexperienced or lazy spellcasters never graduated from the focusing aids of word and gesture, which was just as well for there were higher rituals where such were necessary even for archmages, as well as spells so dangerous that a mistake could spell disaster for the caster and everyone around them. It was easier to make mistakes in an undisciplined mind, while hand gestures kept spells rigidly in check.
But gods, it was noisy. All these mages shouting their spells, working their artist's traceries in the air in front of them. It would almost appear amusing if these shouting fools weren't loosing waves of devastation at chunks of stone hovering at the far end of the terrace. Fire, and ice, and arcane. The last was tricky, for often the casters showed no signs of what they were casting, the destructive energy simply gathering around their target. A man would have to be quick to protect himself from such spells.
On another top of the obsidian-floored rooftop mages dueled with less lethal spells. Contests at polymorph, to see who could get the spell off quickest. Arcane slowing, or summoning up their water elemental servants to bind their enemies in frost. Even work with wards to protect against cold and flame, testing their own strength and their resiliency against attacks. He saw one mage adept valiantly maintaining a mana shield, his reserves rapidly dwindling as a blizzard of ice shards fell around him, called by another adept's hands. He was struggling to free himself of the attack before his mana pool failed. In the end he was unsuccessful, and was forced to Blink away a moment before a shard of ice as big and wicked as one of Nex's torpedoes would have torn his head from his body.
That Blink took the man within ten feet of where Nex stood in shadows, and he sent a soothing tendril of power into the mage's mind, directing his attention away from where he stood. The man was so focused on the blizzard behind him that he'd narrowly escaped, and so drained mentally and in his mana pool, that he barely noticed the mental nudge. A few of the other, more experienced mages perked up, looking around for the source of unfamiliar power, but none caught sight of him.
Except one. Eyes narrowing, Saire Firedge halted her polymorph efforts and snapped off a counterspell instead, sending her opponent reeling backwards, stunned, then began looking around for him. Ignoring her opponent's curses she turned and stalked his way, eyes that glowed with fel energy searching until they found where he waited.
Nex was suddenly uncomfortably aware of the ruin of his eyes and the way they must look. He hurriedly tore a strip free of his already ragged shirt and tied it about his head in a crude blindfold. I'm becoming more like my master every day, he thought with bitter amusement.
Saire saw what he'd done, and as she stopped ten feet away she made a curt gesture. "So it's true, you put out your own eyes." A bitter laugh escaped her throat. "So much for going nobly to your own death."
"Nobility is a useless trait, particularly when one isn't alive to enjoy it."
"Your opinion on the matter explains why you were so willing to let me die alongside you," she spat. Nex could see how much difficulty she was having in controlling her emotions. "You son of a bitch. After you bent over backwards trying to save our enemies I thought you might not be a complete shit. I was certainly wrong."
Words were a useless artillery if one wanted to hurt a person. At least Nex had never been vulnerable to them. For others that probably wasn't the case. "Montfere sought me out. He'd been once again left to the mercies of those who drove him away to die."
The woman reeled back as if he'd slapped her, her anger gone in an instant as she paled. "Ilinar," she whispered. "Anasterian's grace, is he all right?"
Nex could have been cruel, but it would serve no point. "Dor'ane was there to look after him, thankfully. I wouldn't have liked to see him hurt again."
She looked away, expression bitter but also somewhat guilty. "What do you want? If you've come to apologize-"
"I need my possessions back. I trust you have them?"
Saire stiffened. "You haven't come to apologize? After all you've-" she cut herself off this time, grimacing. "Your equipment. The items you left behind, careless of their fate?"
"Yes, those. The gesture was born of impending martyrdom. Since I seem to still be here, I would like my possessions returned."
"What motivation do I have to do any such thing?" she snapped. "I was unwilling to betray you, and when it became a choice between my death and doing something you clearly wanted to do anyway, considering you're still alive, you chose to let me die!"
Nex smiled sadly. "You were unwilling to betray me, but you wished me to betray myself?"
"Don't try to play me with your logical absurdities, human!"
He sighed. "I am sorry you got involved. I did not wish the fate they threatened you with, and would have done something about it if I could."
She looked away, seeming more pained than angry. "Why should I give them back? You were careless enough in casting them aside. I almost considered them a gift."
"Maybe they were a gift," Nex admitted. "It was never my intention to give them to you and then reclaim them, but it was a foolish gesture when I thought I was going to my grave, and as I'm still alive I'd like my possessions back."
"It's been over a week, and you've waited this long."
"I had no need of them before. Now I do."
He thought she was going to explode, as fierce and deadly as the flames she wielded, but instead her anger seemed to melt away. She walked towards him, hips swaying seductively, and there was a curious expression on her narrow, delicate face. He could no longer appreciate its beauty, but with his second sight he did note that it was slightly asymmetrical; her nose pulled almost imperceptibly downward and to the left, and her mouth up and to the right. As she approached she reached into her robes and withdrew the box that held the pocket portal. Nex turned his bandaged eyes down to look at it, and when he did her arm darted up and around in a vicious slap.
He saw it, of course. He'd seen it coming when it was no more than a tensing of her muscles. He'd even seen it in the rigidity of her posture as she approached, the way her eyes watched him warily to see if she could catch him off guard. As her arm came around he slid his head back, not jerking it away but in a smooth, considered motion, and her fingertips barely brushed his cheek as the slap whooshed by. Saire had put so much force into it that she stumbled slightly when she missed, and he reached out and caught her shoulder to support her.
She shook him away angrily. "Let go of me!" she snapped. Her eyes blazed, even more than fel fires could account for. "You couldn't even give me one last gesture, after all you've done to me?"
He frowned. "I've done to you?"
She flung the box at his face, and he caught it easily. "You stood by and told Illidan he was welcome to kill me! I don't give a damn if you have no problem with throwing your own life away, but don't you dare think you can snuff me out with you!"
Nex opened the box and shook out the cloth, watching as it flattened in midair and became the portal's opening. It was a fascinating process viewed with his second sight. It only took him a moment to ensure that his armor, pack, bags of gold, and single heavy knife all remained. Through it all he was equally aware of Saire's growing rage as he deliberately ignored her.
He reached into the pocket of his pack that held the Ankh, palming it, then turned to face the elf woman as he snapped the cloth back into existence and tucked it into its box. "Wouldn't you say it's the vilest sort of creature that would take one of his own people, an innocent woman no less, and forfeit her life as leverage to control someone who cared about her?"
She blinked. "Well yes, but-"
Nex tossed the Ankh to her and tucked the box into his belt pouch, noting that she was much clumsier in catching than he'd been. She'd always gotten more use out of the healing trinket anyway. "It was harder than you'll believe to keep my resolve when a warglaive was pressed to your throat, although that's probably no consolation to you. But it was Kael'thas who conceived of the brilliant notion of using you as a hostage to my good behavior. And yet here you are, training alongside his mages as his faithful lapdog. And you're angry at me."
He turned to the stairs leading down off the terrace and walked away. Behind him he could sense Saire's power gathering for a particularly vicious spell, see her hands twitching and her lips mouthing words. But instead of loosing it she whirled around, leaving the spell to fade away uncast. With his back to her, and her back to him, she must have thought it safe to finally let the tears fall.
He was never more aware of the humanity he lacked than watching that first salty drop splash the smooth flat stones of the terrace. Perhaps there was a gentler way he could have handled that situation. Perhaps there was still some way to offer her comfort, but he couldn't see it. She owed him no loyalty, and he'd been willing to toss aside her life for his own ends. No better than her precious Blood Prince in that regard.
She'd come to his bed but once, and he'd humiliated her even in that. Better to have her hate him at their parting, let her take what comfort she could in that burning emotion, than try to offer empty apologies and remorse he couldn't feel. He had nothing to give her, and he'd warned her of that from the first.
He had less than nothing to give her.
. . . . .
In the antechamber leading to Stormrage's throne room, dozens of blood elves, naga, demons, and even a few Broken waited their lord's pleasure. Their entry into the throne room was blocked by an elite force of bodyguards, representatives picked from all Stormrage's disparate minions. He wondered if he should be among that group representing himself. At first he thought Akama's Deathsworn were out of favor, none of them in evidence, until he noticed that two waited halfway along the walls, skulking in the shadows drawn about them. Those shadows would hide them from normal eyes, but to his second sight their outlines were clear. Clear, although harder to focus on. He gave a salute to each of them in turn, and was gratified to see both jerk slightly in surprise.
"You come at last," the messenger who'd fetched him said. The elf was standing only a few feet from the doors with their bodyguards, impatience well hidden behind his icy calm. "I do not know if Lord Illidan is ready to receive you. One moment."
Nex toyed with the idea of simply walking in, but decided he'd been impertinent enough. Instead he waited a short distance from the bodyguards as the elf was admitted into his master's presence. A few moments later the messenger emerged and gave him a curt nod. Nex slipped past him into the room.
To his surprise Stormrage was alone, without his usual entourage of officers and cronies. Of course the naga were mostly gone, and the elves busy with their preparations for departure. The demonic night elf was leaning over the map table, and Nex was interested to see that a spellwrought topographical map of Northrend was upon it. He moved a bit closer, intrigued; aside from a few incomplete sketches he'd never seen a map of the continent they were to assault, and most of those maps had been mere outlines following an unexplored coast, with the interior of the continent blank.
But before he could take in many details Stormrage turned, frowning. "You are making prodigious use of the stores of raw materials in my armory, human."
Nex was somewhat surprised. He'd been called in for this? "Fel iron. I see none of your elves using it. And it's there in great supply."
Stormrage stretched out his hand, and Nex jerked forward slightly as a torpedo was torn from his cloak and crossed the distance to the demonic night elf's grip. Stormrage looked it over with a faint twist of his lips, then turned and flung it at a granite bench on the other side of the room. The thing flew quiet as a whisper until it struck with a loud clang, bouncing away. After a moment the bench groaned as it cracked in two and settled. "Crude and effective. A waste of material for a throwing weapon, however, considering a good dagger would use a quarter the fel iron."
"A good dagger wouldn't tear the head off an undead on impact." Nex levitated the torpedo back over to him and, since the loops that had held it were useless now, tucked it into his belt. "Do you wish me to pay you for the materials?"
Annoyance flickered across Stormrage's patrician features. "What possible use could I have for gold? No, human. You don't seem to realize how rare fel iron is. Even on worlds held by the Burning Legion the conditions are rarely right to infuse regular iron this way. Cataclysms such as the one which struck Draenor are rare, as are the elements created by them. Fel iron will only seem plentiful until it's gone."
Nex fought to conceal his own annoyance. Stormrage couldn't have told him this before he'd exhausted himself for over a week creating thousands of weapons? "Do you wish me to return what I've used?"
The demonic night elf flicked a hand at him dismissively. "Unlike ethereals with their haggling, I'm not of the opinion that scarcity equates to value. Fel iron is dangerous and takes a great deal of effort to render harmless, at which point you have iron weapons that are inferior to steel and possess only a few special properties. If you wish to go to the effort you're welcome to as much of it as you like. My smiths will be pleased to see part of the armory floor cleared of such dross."
"As you wish. I'm assuming you didn't summon me here to complain about something you obviously don't care about. How may I serve?"
For a short while Stormrage continued to stare at the map, brow creased in thought or perhaps anger. When he spoke it was sudden, showing no sign of shifting in place to turn. "You've tapped the stone recently." It was a statement that was in fact a question.
"Working fel iron requires an unexpected amount of power. I'd much prefer to not use it myself, simply set the smiths to working other materials. But they don't have any other materials to spare, even for themselves."
"My smiths, my material." Stormrage turned, and his eyes glowed brighter. "My power."
"Are we back to this, then?"
Stormrage bared his teeth. "Have you begun metamorphosing?"
Nex kept his features still and his body relaxed, relying on his second sight to help him show no sign of his surprise. He failed; he'd rarely been so shocked by anything. "What?"
"The demonic metamorphosis. The penultimate display of power in a demon hunter's arsenal."
This topic made him distinctly uncomfortable. He found himself wishing Stormrage was still hounding him about his theft of fel iron. "Penultimate. In other words there's an ultimate?"
The demonic night elf shrugged. "There's always a means to greater power. I've not found it yet." After ten thousand years Nex had a feeling it probably wasn't there to be found. At least not without taking extreme measures. He didn't reply immediately, trying to think of what to say. Did Stormrage know, and was simply testing him, or was he ignorant of the truth? Before he could decide one way or another his master continued. "Even possessing a great deal of power, metamorphosis is a singularly difficult thing to manage. At least in such a way that you can come back from it, and control yourself while in that form. Or for that matter reach the form in the first place. Most petty warlocks fail to even begin the process, and those who succeed usually end up forever corrupting themselves as often as not, devolving into mindless brutes of incredible destructive power until the chaos within them proves fatal. Useful servants to create, no doubt, but you're too clever to waste in such a way."
"Did you still wish me to answer the question?"
The answering smile was unpleasant, even for Stormrage. "The process comes much easier, of course, and is easier to control, if you already possess demonic heritage."
Nex's breath caught audibly in his throat, loud enough that Stormrage must have heard. His heritage. He had been beaten often in his early years, invoked the wrath of his mistress on just about every encounter. But the few times she had ever come close to killing him outright had been when he'd expressed even the slightest curiosity about his sire. "Perhaps you could elaborate?"
Stormrage raised and eyebrow. "Not going to bite? I believe, back when we first negotiated your servitude, I mentioned something of telling you of your heritage. You never rose to the bait, to accept or refuse my offer, but it remains all the same."
"My birthright is of little interest to me. I'd much rather hear of things which could be of use to me, such as this metamorphosis you speak of."
"Knowledge is power, human. Do you think knowing what manner of demon spawned you would not give you the means to know of your own power? Its limitations, its potential, even its very nature." Nex narrowed his eyes, and Stormrage laughed. Cold and harsh to his ears. "Oh yes, you've been naturally metamorphosing every time you draw my power. You've yet to even attempt a step down that dangerous path to deliberately metamorphosing and exploring the possibilities it entails, but the fact that it comes so easily to you is confirmation enough that what I say is true."
Nex realized he was shaking slightly. He'd never shown any interest in who his mistress's lover had been. It had always been in the back of his mind that he had some demonic heritage, and he'd certainly been treated that way by his mistress and her servants. But he'd never explored the question, and not only because of Lynda's wrath. Now, with the question there before him, and an answer possible, he realized that he didn't want to know. That in fact the answer terrified him.
"I wish to speak no more of this."
Cold green flames behind fine black cloth burned counterpoint to his invisible black behind dirty gray, a sinister echo to locking stares. "Is that so? Very well then. I will warn you, at the least. Make every effort to curb the metamorphosis process when next you draw my power. If you will not learn to control it then you should very much fear what it can do to you."
Nex took in the night elf's curving ebony horns, leathery wings folded about him like a cloak, and hooves burning with invisible demonic fire. Ostensibly these permanent changes had taken place when Stormrage consumed the Skull of Gul'dan, indicators of the vast power he'd taken in from the artifact. Or so he had heard from all the sources on Kalimdor who'd sent word of it. But what if it had been a careless use of metamorphosis instead?
He needed to be cautious, here. Stormrage spoke lies with every breath, and there may be some reason why his master wished him to believe these things. Another string tied about him to keep him pliant and always returning to his master's side?
"Very well. Anything else?"
A curt nod. "If you refuse my offers of payment, then let's get on to your side of things."
Another surprise. "I thought I wouldn't be beginning my recruitment efforts until we returned to Azeroth. Didn't you want me for my human heritage, so I could be your mouthpiece to humanity?"
"Yes indeed. But your assumption is incorrect, for there are humans to be found on Outland."
Nex blinked. "Remnants of High General Turalyon's expedition?"
"And a few ragged prisoners and refugees taken by the orcs in the First and Second wars, yes. Miserable wretches, little more than highwaymen and murderers. But they are veterans of countless battles, and so useful to our purposes."
If I can control them. The thought of leading an army of oathbreakers and backstabbers didn't please him. "Wretched or not, I'm surprised they survived all these years. They've been believed to be lost for over a decade."
"The cravens of the Alliance were too busy rebuilding to bother braving the Rift after the Dark Portal was destroyed a second time. They merely assumed Draenor was dead, as the few Sons of Lothar who managed to flee back through before its destruction claimed. This would not be the first time mankind has abandoned its heroes when they were no more use to them."
I'm sure these "heroes" will be pleased to hear that. "And how am I to gain the service of these men?"
Stormrage smiled thinly. "Need you ask? The same way you gained the service of your last army: save their lives."