Everything Has a Price
- - by Sigmar
The storm flickered overhead. It was not, however, an ordinary storm. This storm made little sound, and flashed in colors alien to natural phenomenon. There was no wind. The air crackled lightly, and the flashes that came were blue, purple, and occasionally green. The thin and numerous bolts of lightning never touched the ground, but only arced between the clouds. No, it was no ordinary storm.
It was a felstorm.
The skies over the Blasted Lands had seen such squalls ever since the Dark Portal had been opened, but never with such frequency and ferocity. Neither had they ever reached as far as they did now. Indeed, the current storm stretched and licked the fringes of the Swamp of Sorrows and the eastern mountains of Stranglethorn, and with each passing week they bloated further. The land was as cursed and barren as any other in the known world, perhaps more so. Even Desolace’s foul soil harbored some form of plant life. Here was the domain of deserts, demons, and madness… with a few exceptions.
A shadow moved slowly down the beaten road from the Swamp. The road turned slowly from mud to dirt, to caked earth, to solid rock, and the shadow continued. Eventually, it came out from under the canopy of trees that was the Swamp and became two different figures, both humanoid, and both mounted. As they entered the edges of the Blasted Lands, they slowed from their trot and stopped, one dismounting, then the other.
The first was a human, of average height and slightly muscular build. He looked old, as evident by his bald head, and his only facial hair was a thick, light brown mustache that held the occasional grey streak. His face was marked, scarred, and pitted, perhaps evidence of a man who had seen much in his lifetime. His dark brown eyes and their solid gaze held little information.
The man’s armor was similar to his physique, in that it was worn and old. It consisted of overlapping yellow and gold plates that had seen better years, obviously military issue. Upon each piece was inscribed the faded seal of Lordaeron, and each seal was identical except in size. Despite the beating they had taken, however, they still looked like they could hold their own. Just below the right pauldron was a red, silk raven, tied to the man’s arm with a similar strip of black cloth, and across his back he held a shining steel war hammer of decent size that seemed to emit a soft glow.
The other was a night elf woman, who was every bit the man’s opposite. She was lean and taller than the man by nearly a half-foot. Her figure was slim, her skin a pale purple and smooth, her gaze surveying her surroundings with both curiosity and intent. Her white hair fell to her waist, and it had a silken consistency. A black mask concealed the elf’s features.
She wore simple leather armor of dark colors that matched both the shadows and her own skin color, nothing inscribed or outstanding on them. It would have been obvious to an onlooker that she preferred – and could – remain unseen in most situations. Strapped to either side of her waist were menacing daggers, nearly a foot long. When she moved, they glinted from the light of the man’s weapon. She, too, wore a red silk raven on her right arm.
They were entirely contradictory. One a human, the other an elf. One an avid devotee of the Light, the other a calculating individual. One a veteran, the other a deadly assassin. And yet, here they were, comrades-in-arms, facing one of the greatest blights the world had ever known.
The man stepped forward and surveyed the scene. The felbolts continued to flash overhead, and as they did they lit his face. His eyes narrowed as they came to look upon the Dark Portal, far off in the distance. He turned to the elf, “We are here.”
Niain Bloodraven glanced at Sigmar Vaughan and nodded, but did not respond. She instead knelt, running a finger over the ground, and then running the silt between two gloved fingers. Niain stood, sniffed the air, and shook her head. “A foul place. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, and it’s only grown worse.”
Sigmar nodded grimly. “A long while for me too. The last time I was here, the very ground we stand on was dirt and not rock.” He spat before continuing, “I see no signs of my quarry.”
“Our quarry, Sigmar. I agreed to help you, and I will. We’ll track them.”
Sigmar studied the night elf. Even though he only met her a month past, she had proved her trust time and time again, and he had returned the favor. Yet, still, there seemed to be something concealed about the woman. Sigmar wasn’t even remotely sure what it was… perhaps it was simply his age getting to him. Years of combat experience taught the paladin to be wary at all times.
“Yes, yes.” He paused, then added quietly, “You did not have to. This is my vendetta.”
Niain cocked her head. “We are members of the Circle, Sigmar. We may as well be siblings minus the blood relation. Of course I will help.”
The paladin may have offered a rare smile at her statement, but the situation bogged down any show of cheerfulness. He was here for the Scarlet Crusade. He was here for revenge.
The paladin turned and stepped on his charger’s stirrup, heaving his weighted form over the steed. Niain did the same with her own warsaber, but with much more grace and without the aid of a footrest. Sigmar pointed off to the east, where a stone citadel stood, dark and foreboding.
“We go to Netherguard Keep. Ride, Caelius,” he said as he urged his steed forward. The horse broke into a half-gallop, with Niain’s saber close behind.
The rocky terrain lengthened the journey to an hour, but even so the sky neither brightened nor darkened, and there existed no way of knowing what time of day, or night, it was. As they approached the walls of the fortress, a guard on the ramparts glanced down at them, studying their advance. Sigmar noticed the guard, and called up to him.
“Sir! We are travelers, and we require a place of rest. Will the Keep accept us?”
The guard looked at them oddly, as if he was unsure. He then called to someone behind the walls, and a few moments later, a small door built into the massive wooden gates opened, and another guard stepped outside. They dismounted; Sigmar studied the man, and the man Sigmar. His eyes widened when he saw the captain’s insignia hanging from Sigmar’s pauldron, and stood straight, saluting the paladin. Sigmar returned the salute, noting the guard’s own rank of sergeant; the man relaxed
“Good to see the Keep is still manned vigilantly,” Sigmar commented.
“Aye, sir, we need to be in these isolated lands. Between the demons and the Horde, we don’t get a moment’s rest.”
Sigmar nodded and began, “I asked about a place for us to stay… any available?”
The guard thought for a moment, then returned the nod. “We do, sir, but it’s not much. There’s two empty cabins, both belonging to dead men. Commander Stephenson and Commander Bjarn were both killed last week while on patrol. As long as it doesn’t bother either of y’ to sleep in a ghost’s presence…” the guard seemed very serious about this last statement.
Sigmar glanced to Niain, who shrugged. “That will do, sergeant. Thank you. And I will pray for the men if you feel it will help.”
The sergeant thanked Sigmar and saluted him once more, and then held the door open for the two, who entered the gates, mounts trailing. Sigmar noted that it hadn’t changed since his visit years ago: the interior was very bland, with only a few stone walkways. The entire place was grey and brown, ragged Alliance banners perched here and there, old pieces of artillery and weapons abandoned in various places. It wasn’t dirty, just aged. The sergeant spoke with another man, who motioned for Niain and Sigmar to follow. As they walked, both Sigmar and Niain noticed the small number of people at Netherguard, and that all of them wore grim expressions. It was hardly a surprise: any man stationed mere miles from the Dark Portal itself would inevitably become stressed.
Their steeds they placed in an old stable, and then the three entered the central citadel and walked through a maze of torch-lit corridors, going up and up. At one hallway, the man stopped, pointed to a set of doors and spoke to the pair. He also saluted Sigmar and bowed to Niain before returning the way they came.
“Will this work?” he asked, already knowing her answer.
“Yes,” she responded casually.
Sigmar didn’t see her enter her own room as he walked and opened the farther door, peering in and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim, candle-given light. Only personal items, belonging to one of the two deceased officers, differentiated the room from the rest of the Keep. Several pictures resided on a bench, next to a tome of the Light and several thick novels. The candleholders about the room were ornate and spaced relatively symmetrically. Sigmar opened the top drawer to a crude dresser and within was another tome and a stack of clothing. He closed the drawer, turned to the bench, and picked up one of the paintings. It was small, no more than a foot square, but was remarkably realistic. It showed a young man, a young woman, and a small toddler. Undoubtedly the Commander and his family, Sigmar thought. Perhaps the family lived in Stormwind… or perhaps they were dead, like Sigmar’s own. He set down the memory.
The paladin removed his armor and weaponry, setting it all against the far wall. He then retrieved his own tome, set it next to the Commander’s, and knelt before the bench, closing his eyes and beginning his prayers…
* * * * *
Time passed. Sigmar didn’t know how much had passed when he finished and his senses returned to the room. The first thing he noticed was the distant crackling sound caused by the felstorm. It apparently penetrated even the thick walls of the Keep. He stood, walked quietly to the door, and opened it, glancing left and right. Niain’s door was closed. He walked past it and past the stairway, instead making a path for what he hoped was one of the southern ramparts. His hopes were rewarded when he opened a door and found himself on such a rampart. Sigmar made his way towards the center and leaned on the stone, gazing south.
It was dark now, and presumably late at night. The air smelt lightly of ozone, but more importantly, it just didn’t feel right, and the paladin was aware of the dark taint that permeated the area. Wind ran across his skin. It was far from cold, but the eerie warmth sent chills through his spine that his linen shirt and tabard couldn’t prevent. He spat over the edge of the wall and continued to gaze. Off, very far in the distance, where the land dipped to conceal the terrain, the center of the felstorm resided. It was no more severe there, simply darker. It was the resting place of the Dark Portal.
Sigmar thought of his first sight of the Dark Portal, so many years past. He was enlisted to go with the Alliance expedition to Draenor, but the Dalaran wizard Khadgar pulled him aside mere days before it set off and informed him that he must stay. Sigmar remembered the wizard’s words…
“I know not why, but the winds of magic decree that you will not go to Draenor, and that you will not join this expedition. The world holds another purpose for you, Sigmar Vaughan. Your destiny is not here.”
The words rang through Sigmar’s head. Despite Khadgar’s message, to this day the paladin felt guilt for living while his allies died on Draenor…
Something jerked Sigmar back to reality. He detected a presence not two feet behind him, but he knew exactly who it was. He sighed, “Good evening, Niain.”
“You should be asleep,” she answered, and stepped forward to stand next to the man.
Sigmar glanced to her, “I should say the same about you.” She no longer wore her leather armor, but instead a simple black robe and belt. The mask was also gone, and Sigmar could see that she too wore a rather blank expression.
Niain shrugged. “I don’t sleep much, and apparently, you do not either.” The woman did a one-eighty and leaned against the rampart.
Sigmar regarded her nonchalantly, “Is it an elf thing?”
She smiled slightly, “No. I just trained myself to require as little sleep as possible. One is defenseless while one is slumbering. The idea… unnerves me.”
The paladin turned back to the Portal. He, too, did not rest much, but it wasn’t his choice. He rarely slept a full night, and often awoke to voices. Not the voices that came to someone insane, but the voices that called from their graves at Sigmar. His allies on Draenor, his friends, his family…
His brother, Alaric. Damn the Scarlet Crusade. He had thought Alaric dead from the Scourge, but it turned out he survived and was fighting in Silverpine. Then the Scarlet Crusade had ambushed his regiment… and taken Sigmar’s brother from him a second time. Now, the man responsible was here in the Blasted Lands, which was why Sigmar had followed. To claim revenge, to kill Josef Ackland. The bastard.
He felt a light tapping on the back of his hand, and once again Sigmar returned to conscious thought. Niain gently removed his hand from the rampart, where Sigmar had apparently squeezed the rough stone so hard it bled.
“The Scarlets?” she asked as if psychic.
“The Scarlets.” The paladin muttered a word, summoning a nimbus of light that played about the wounded hand. The bleeding scrapes disappeared in a few moments. “Tomorrow,” he started, still looking at his clenched hand, “we will find them. And I will kill Ackland.”
Niain grinned, “Today, actually. It’s one hour after midnight.”
“Then today it will be.”