This post is brought to you by Shaila and Hinote, both of the Order of the Rose.
The red mountains that made up the perimeter of the Blasted Lands came into view as Shaila flew her proto-drake, Sharyz, to the demon infested plains. The winds were rough and warm here as always, a sign of the instability of the lands connected to the Dark Portal. This time it filled Shaila with confidence. Lands such as these were prime spots for Arrens to have carried out whatever he intended, and with Stormwind’s gryphon master having said he went south, this had to be the only place he could have headed.
She flew over the walls of Nethergarde Keep after letting the guards on the walls get a good look at her. Tensions at the fortress were always high, with demons and the Horde both in close proximity. Had she flown right down, she likely would have been filled with arrows for her presumptiveness. But fly down she finally did, landing safely on the tall wooden flight platform. It hadn’t really been built for proto-drakes, and shook slightly as Sharyz flopped down onto it. Shaila winced, and gave the flight master an apologetic look as she climbed off and led Sharyz down to get him settled.
She looked around for Hinote as she did, wondering if the warlock had already arrived.
She didn’t have to wonder long. “You’re late,” came a neutral voice from nearby, on the path leading away from the flight master’s platform. Hinote stood there, arms folded, looking only mildly impatient. In other words, a grade or two more pleasant than she usually looked.
Shaila smiled at Hinote, cheered by the apparent mildness of her impatience.”Sorry. Sharyz got hungry, I had to let him eat a deer on the way.” She finished getting the creature settled, and walked over to join the warlock.
Hinote reached into her pocket for a moment and withdrew a small, dark purple gem, holding it up for Shaila to see. “This should tell us if Arrens has been through here. Hopefully.” She looked at it herself for a moment, apparently skeptical. “It’s hard to say for sure with so many other residual magical signatures in the area, but the summoning circle Aely took me to had a fairly distinct signal.”
“Well he took a gryphon here, we know that,” Shaila said, folding her arms as she looked around. “Which means that unless he flew down to Surwich, he came through here first. Are you picking anything up yet?”
She stared at the gem for a moment longer. Nothing about it changed, which apparently meant something, because she stopped soon after. “It’s a little faint here, but there’s something. Might get stronger if we get closer to the portal, or the Tainted Scar. It works best in places he performed magic, and if he came here for a warlock ritual, he probably went to one of those two areas.”
“Well, let’s follow the signature,” Shaila said. “Could you summon your uh…” She hesitated, looking unsure. “…horse? Thing?”
Hinote looked at Shaila for a few seconds, slightly incredulous. “Dreadsteed?”
“Yeahhh,” Shaila said, nodding. “That thing.”
The warlock made a gesture with her free hand, and a patch of flames erupted from the ground next to her, growing in size over the course of a few moments until it reached about as high as Hinote herself. It dissipated just as abruptly as it came, leaving behind an indignant-looking horse – if you could call a thing with burning hooves, horns, and spikes a horse – that regarded its mistress with a mix of curiosity and disdain. Hinote, however, didn’t seem to mind its attitude, and promptly climbed up on its back.
Shaila approached the Dreadsteed after that, and tentatively patted its rump before pulling herself up and behind Hinote. She held onto the warlock, and leaned forward slightly.
“Alright, Hino. Take us away!”
Hinote urged the dreadsteed forward and it took off along the road, leaving behind a trail of slightly singed cobblestones and bewildered Nethergarde Keep inhabitants as they rode out the gate.
“So we didn’t get shot in the back as we left,” Shaila said. “That’s a good start.”
“They’re not exactly strangers to warlocks down here,” Hinote replied. “Things like this make most of them a little uncomfortable, but they’re used to it.” She looked at the soulstone again as they rode along. It still looked largely the same, which seemed to disappoint her slightly. “Nothing good yet.”
“So how do you read that, anyway?” Shaila asked, trying to peer over Hinote’s shoulder (largely unsuccessfully). “Follow whichever direction seems to make it glow more, or what?”
“Something like that. There’s more to it, but at the very least it’ll tell us if he’s been through here, assuming there’s nothing interfering with it. The trail’s just…not all that strong here.”
“Hm…alright,” Shaila said, nodding. She left Hinote to reading the soulstone after that, and the warlock could occasionally feel the small woman shift around slightly behind her as Shaila surveyed the passing landscape.
For the most part, Hinote kept to reading it in silence. As they neared the branch in the road leading south, though, something caught her attention, and she slowly urged the dreadsteed to a stop. “There’s something…” She trailed off for a moment, looking first at the soulstone, which was now glowing faintly, then at the surrounding area. Her eyes finally settled on a steep plateau just west of the road. “There, I think.”
“Isn’t that the Rise of the Defiler?” Shaila asked. “Makes sense…”
“Yeah,” Hinote affirmed. “Don’t think it’s seen any visitors in a while, but it can’t hurt to check. If nothing else, the signal should be clear.”
Climbing the rise would have been out of the question; the sides of the plateau were far too steep all around, and the top too high up. Fortunately, whoever had last used it – or perhaps whoever had originally used it – left teleportation runes for easy travel up and down the rise. The peak was as grim and dreary as anything else about the Blasted Lands: a char-black ritual circle of some sort was etched into the top of the rise, ringed by the skeletal remains of what were most likely its last victims. The sky seemed to darken just slightly as Hinote and Shaila arrived on the scene.
Shaila shifted uncomfortably, glancing around after arriving to the top. “I expected what this’d be like, but it doesn’t make it any better. Let’s finish up here before…something invisible pushes us off the edge or something.” She looked over to Hinote. “Any spellwork here?”
Hinote looked at the soulstone once again, which was now emitting a bright purple light. “I think so. He was definitely here, but…” She studied the gem intently for a moment. “It doesn’t look like he stayed long.” Her eyes turned to the faded ritual circle inscribed on the rise. “Might have been a good place for whatever he was hoping to do if he’d come here years ago, but the residual magic from whatever ritual took place here is…faded.”
“So this isn’t the place then,” Shaila concluded, looking over to her.
Hinote shook her head. “No. He stopped by, but whatever he was after, he couldn’t get it done here.” She pocketed the soulstone again.
Shaila exhaled a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s good,” Shaila said. “Because for a moment I was kind of scared he’d summoned himself away. Somehow. Does that happen?” She looked to Hinote, curious.
“Summoning yourself away is called teleporting, Shaila.” Hinote cracked a slight smile as she turned towards Shaila. “So no, it doesn’t really happen. Though I suppose it’s possible something else summoned him…but I don’t think it happened here, if it happened at all.”
“Right,” Shaila said. “Then let’s get out of here and go to the next extremely unsettling location we’re bound to be led to.”
“Yeah…” The warlock’s eyes drifted westward, where the enormous, ominous statues of an Altar of Storms could be seen in between the crags of the mountain. “Hope you’re ready for a few more, because this place is full of them.”
Hinote’s intuition proved accurate, the Altar of Storms being precisely the next place they were led. Caution was appropriate, as the Altar over the years had been occupied on and off by the local cultists and ogres, drawn to the magical and demonic potential the power of the old corrupted runestones of Caer Darrow held. The three ominous hooded statues stood vigil as always around the perimeter of the Altar, the altar itself scarred with old scorch marks from the lightning that tended to manifest during rituals that would take place there, hence the name.
The altar was also stained with dried blood, mostly in the center. There were however the odd bloodstain in the outer perimeter of the Altar, likely marking the few times that the cultists had been disrupted during a ritual. Violently. No one who had ever possessed the Altar seemed to have seen fit to clean the thing, perhaps believing that even old blood lent some power to the arcane device.
The two women felt the energy of the Altar as they stepped onto it. It was as if they were stepping through a physical barrier of some kind, an oppressive and uncomfortably hot feeling that they had to will themselves to proceed through. Occasionally they thought they could hear voices, moaning and panicked whispers that faded in and out. To the layman it would have seemed imagined, but the two seasoned adventurers knew that they were real. They were hearing the Altar’s past victims. And there were many.
“Please tell me he didn’t use this thing,” Shaila said, looking over to Hinote with her arms wrapped around herself.
Hinote was either unfazed by their surroundings or else doing a very good job of hiding it. She looked at the soulstone, which was glowing brightly again. “Maybe…” She stepped onto the altar proper, looking around at the massive, cowled statues before settling on the space in the middle. “There’s a bit more interference here, but I think I might be able to…” Her eyes turned to the soulstone again, as if willing it to divulge something new. “I think…he tried here. It’s hard to say. Either way, it didn’t work.”
Shaila glanced up to one of the hooded statues, narrowing her eyes at its faceless gaze. “I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do about this place.”
“The most we can do right now is keep people away from it. It’s going to take a lot more than just the two of us to clean this place up…and a lot of time.”
“Mmn,” Shaila responded, unsatisfied. “Let’s keep on the trail, then.”
As the two of them began to leave, they both suddenly felt as if a number of strong hands were gripping their shoulders, holding them back from leaving the Altar. Shaila gritted her teeth and struggled against the invisible hands as the pressure in the air around them seemed to increase. “Hinote!” She yelled, as the spirits holding them back seemed to gain a surge of strength and pulled Shaila through the air, slamming her against one of the statues and holding her there.
Hinote struggled vainly for a moment, watching as Shaila was lifted away like a feather on the wind. An indignant anger sparked in her eyes as she turned up to the statue where her friend was being held. “I don’t…have time for this.” A pair of pale green orbs shot out of her sleeves and began to orbit around her person, emitting a momentary flash of light as they emerged. The verdant spheres’ presence seemed to strengthen her, and with a powerful sweep of her arms she wrenched herself free of the oppressive spirits’ grasp.
Shaila meanwhile huffed, frustrated, and planted her hands and feet against the surface of the statue behind her. She set her jaw and glared at the air in front of her indignantly, before gathering her will and pushing herself away from the statue, tearing free from the spirits’ grip and falling through the air to land on her feet in a sprint, bolting over towards Hinote and the exit. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“Couldn’t agree more.” Hinote took off at a run as Shaila approached, careful to stay a little behind her in case something else happened.
They broke through the invisible barrier surrounding the altar with some effort, invisible fingertips brushing against their hair as the spirits attempted to grab hold once more, only to be foiled completely by the same barrier that seemed so insubstantial to the living women. There was the rumbling of a storm as the two of them continued to follow Arrens’ trail on to the next location.
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