More from Shaila and Hinote!
The next stop, somewhat predictably, turned out to be another altar; though not as large and oppressive an altar as the one they’d just fled. A single statue, hooded like the ones at the Altar of Storms, loomed over the scene. It was chained at the arms to a pair of broken obelisks that stood to either side of the elevated, inscribed slab of rock in the middle. Ritual markings covered the altar’s flat surface, and where there were no markings there were bloodstains, or unlit candles, or piles of skulls, or any combination thereof. A few braziers burned at the base of the altar, and a few more near the broken pillars next to it, casting a dull, eerie purple glow over their surroundings.
Hinote looked oddly wistful as she surveyed the scene. “Been a long time since I came here…” Her eyes went up to the towering statue, where a pair of orange pinpoints of light peered back at her underneath its hooded visage.
Shaila was looking at the altar itself, a more uncomfortable look on her face. “Were you a part of the forces that fought Kazzak?”
“Once or twice, before he reactivated the portal and ran.” She lowered her gaze to the altar. “More than that…an old warlock used to live here, and a lot of people came to him to learn the ritual to summon a doomguard.” Her tone grew a bit more musing as she continued on. “It was…sort of an archaic spell, and it’s been improved on since then, but for a while he was the only one on Azeroth who knew it. Or at least…the only one who was willing to teach it.”
Shaila glanced over to Hinote, unsure what to think of the musings. On the one hand they seemed to be…fond memories? On the other hand they were memories of someone learning how to summon a dangerous demon. So she said nothing, merely looking back to the altar and nodding subtly.
“How about our warlock? Anything on him here?”
Hinote looked at the soulstone again. It was glowing once more, though it was difficult to tell in the light cast by the nearby braziers. Still, she seemed to find whatever answers she was looking for in it. “Looks like he tried here too. It’s…clearer here than it was at the Altar of Storms.” She shook her head. “Didn’t work.”
“I guess we should keep following the trail then,” Shaila said, looking back to where they had come from. “Although there’s really only one other place he could have gone here. Think he was trying to avoid it?”
“Maybe.” Hinote thought about it for a moment. Aely had told her that Arrens was unusually careful, as warlocks went, and valued control above all else. If that was true – and she had no reason to believe it wasn’t – it would have made sense for him to try a site on Azeroth first. Outland was unstable before it was anything else, and not a place for the cautious-minded to attempt whatever high-level incantation Arrens had been seeking. “From what I heard about him, I think he would’ve tried for the path of least resistance. Someplace that would work with minimal risk involved.”
Shaila went back to Hinote’s dreadsteed, waiting for her to get on before doing so herself. “Can’t think of a place with less resistance to a summoning than a place already steeped in the Nether itself. Though ‘minimal risk’ is not a word I would associate with Outland.”
“Which is probably why he tried here first,” Hinote concluded.
Shaila nodded in agreement, and the two of them started off once more to their final destination. They rode past the Tainted Forest, that cursed patch of wooded land grown by a worgen druid who had bitten off more than he could chew. Hinote was used to dealing with this sort of thing already, and Shaila had grown reaccustomed to it in the course of their investigations in the Blasted Land. So the two paid little heed to the feeling of wrongness the forest emanated as they passed, the feeling of hatred, the feeling that it wanted no one to trespass within its borders and that there would be dire consequences for any who did. Familiar shapes stirred just beneath the trees as the two rode further away from the forest, and dull glowing eyes stared after them from beneath the thick, writhing vine and thorn bodies of the denizens within.
They finally came over the last rise at the hills that ringed the Dark Portal’s crater, avoiding the crags cutting through the ground glowing with a molten fel light. Shaila was careful not to breathe any of the fumes coming from the crags, and wondered as she did if Hinote had to worry over the same at all.
They rode down to the camp in front of the portal, glad at least to be among people that were neither cultists nor spirits nor demons. It was an odd mixture of troops, especially these days with how turbulent relations had been between the Horde and the Alliance. Orcs and dwarves and tauren and draenei mingled in the camp. The atmosphere currently seemed to be somewhat more relaxed than it had been, maybe due to the odd alliance that a portion of the Horde and Alliance had recently formed in Durotar, a relief to those who watched the Dark Portal after fighting had broken out between Stonemaul and Nethergarde Keep in the previous year.
They spared hardly a glance for the dreadsteed bearing the two women into the camp, the two members of the Rose being at least known in passing to them. Shaila hopped off the fel horse and looked up to Hinote inquisitively.
“Were we right?” She asked.
Hinote glanced at the portal, then the soulstone, then the path up to the looming, magical archways that towered over the camp. “I think so. The signal’s fainter here, which means he probably didn’t cast anything, but he was definitely here.”
Shaila walked up the ramp to the portal, until she was standing just before the eerie window into what lay beyond. She watched it for a few moments, the subtle movements of the portal itself always somewhat mesmerizing to her, before she shook her head and looked back to Hinote. “Can you tell if he went through?”
“It seems obvious to me,” Hinote replied offhandedly. “He certainly didn’t come back home.” She peered into the soulstone again, which had gone back to its dull, lightless purple color. “At the very least, he went to the portal. I’d assume he went through it after that.”
“Then I’d say we’ve cut out an entire world to search, at least,” Shaila said, smiling slightly to Hinote. “Will the signal persist through to the other side?”
“Let’s hope so.” The warlock pocketed the gem again, returning the look and smiling herself. “Otherwise we’re going to be stuck asking.”
Shaila nodded, and stepped through the portal without a moment’s hesitation. She felt the odd sense of displacement and disorientation; that strange feeling of, just for a moment, not really being anywhere. She was then standing in a broken, more corrupted version of the Blasted Lands with nothing above her but stars and other worlds and a long, wispy and beautiful strand of magic that was the Twisting Nether itself. They’d arrived to the other side, in Hellfire Peninsula.
Hinote looked at the sky – or rather, the lack thereof – for a moment. “Seems like it’s been a while…” She retrieved the soulstone from her pocket again, idly turning it in her hand as she continued nether-gazing. “Lot of places he could’ve gone here.”
“Are you getting any direction in particular?” Shaila looked at her hopefully.
The warlock hesitated for a moment, then held up the gem and looked into it. It had begun flickering wildly, alternating with varying frequency between the bright glow it had emanated previously and its usual inert state. She remained silent for a few seconds, peering at the soulstone with a mix of confusion and concern that didn’t stay hidden for very long. “I’m getting…all of them,” she said finally. Hinote stared more intently at the soulstone, but to no avail. “Something’s interfering with it. I didn’t expect it to be this bad out here, but…”
Shaila’s shoulders slumped, and she looked out helplessly to the landscape – and lack thereof – before them. She was silent for a few moments, trying to think of some way to keep up the trail. But magic was not her expertise, even if there had been a way.
“Well…I think we’ve cut down the list of possible places he could go by a fair amount,” she said. “We aren’t the only ones looking. We should go back and tell Aelflaed what we’ve found, so she can have everyone focus their efforts on Outland.”
“Yeah…” Hinote’s gaze lingered on the gem in her hand a bit longer, disappointment creeping into her expression just slightly. “I think I could get something if we were at someplace he performed another ritual, but…there’s no way I can track him from here.”
“We’ll find him. And Hino?” Shaila looked over at her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve done really well, in all this. I’m really proud of you. And I’m sure Aely is really thankful already for everything that you’ve done.”
Hinote didn’t respond immediately. With a heavy sigh, she slowly pocketed the soulstone again. “Yeah…let’s just hope this doesn’t end the way it’s probably going to.”
Shaila let out a brief sigh, squeezing Hino’s shoulder once before letting go. “I hope your pessimism isn’t justified. Come on. We’ve got a worried wife to update.” She turned, and stepped back through the portal.
Hinote’s eyes drifted back into space as Shaila left. “It’s…not pessimism,” she said to herself. With another exasperated sigh, she turned to the portal and stepped towards it. “It’s pattern recognition.”
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