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Authors: Richard A. Knaak

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BOOK: The Well of Eternity
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And in Kalimdor, on the steppes of the wild country, a grizzled, aged orc leaned close over a smoky fire. Mumbling words whose origins lay on another, long-lost world, the moss-green figure tossed some leaves upon the fire, increasing the already thick smoke. Fumes filled his humble wood and earth hut.

The bald, elderly orc leaned over and inhaled. His weary brown eyes were veined and his skin hung in sacks. His teeth were yellow, chipped, and one of his tusks had been broken off years before. He could scarcely rise without aid and when he walked, he did so stooped and slow.

Yet, even the hardiest warrior paid him fealty as shaman.

A bit of bone dust, a touch of tannar berries…all part of a tried and true tradition resurrected among the orcs. Kalthar’s father had taught him all even during the dark years of the Horde, just as Kalthar’s grandsire had taught his father before that.

And now, for the first time, the withered shaman found himself hoping he had been taught well.

Voices murmured in his head, the spirits of the world that the orcs now called home. Normally, they whispered little things, life things, but now they murmured anxiously, warning…warning…

But of what? He had to know more.

Kalthar reached into a pouch at his waist, removing three dried, black leaves. They were almost all of what remained from a single plant brought with him from the orcs’ ancient world. Kalthar had been warned not to use them unless he deemed it truly necessary. His father had never used them, nor his grandfather.

The shaman tossed them into the flames.

Instantly the smoke turned a thick, swirling blue. Not black, but blue. The orc’s brow furrowed at this change of color, then he leaned forward again and inhaled as much as possible.

The world transformed, and with it the orc. He had become a bird, a huge avian soaring over the landscape. He flew over mountains without a care. With his eyes he saw the tiniest animals, the most distant rivers. A sense of exhilaration not felt since his youth almost overwhelmed Kalthar, but he fought it. To give in would risk him losing his sense of self. He might fly forever as a bird, never knowing what he had once been.

Even as he thought that, Kalthar suddenly noted a wrongness in the nature of the world, possibly the reason for the voices’ concern. Something
was
that should not be. He veered in the direction that felt correct, growing more anxious as he drew nearer.

And just within the deepest part of the mountain range, the shaman discovered the source of his anxiety.

His learned mind knew that he envisioned a concept, not the actual thing. To Kalthar, it appeared as a water funnel—yet one that swallowed and disgorged simultaneously. But what emerged or sank into its depths were days and nights, months and years. The funnel seemed to be eating and emitting time itself.

The notion so staggered the shaman that he did not notice until almost too late that the funnel now sought to draw
him
in as well.

Immediately, Kalthar strained to free himself. He flapped his wings, pushed with his muscles. His mind reached out to his physical form, tugging hard at the gossamer link tying body to soul and trying to break the trance.

Still the funnel drew him forward.

In desperation, Kalthar called upon the spirit guides, prayed to them to strengthen him. They came as he knew they would, but at first they seemed to act too slow. The funnel filled his view, seemed ready to engulf him—

The world abruptly twisted around the shaman. The funnel, the mountains…everything turned about and about.

With a gasp, Kalthar awoke.

Exhausted beyond his years, he barely kept himself from falling face first into the fire. The voices that constantly murmured had faded away. The orc sat on the floor of his hut, trying to reassure himself that, yes, he now existed whole in the mortal world. The spirit guides had saved him, albeit barely in time.

But with that happy reassurance came the reminder of what he had witnessed in his vision…and what it meant.

“I must tell Thrall…” he muttered, forcing weary, aged legs up. “I must tell him quick…else we lose our home…our world…again…”

TWO

A
n ominous portent,
Rhonin decided, vivid green eyes gazing at the results of his divining.
Any wizard would recognize it as so.

“Are you certain?” Vereesa called from the other room. “Have you checked your reading?”

The red-haired mage nodded, then grimaced when he realized that of course the elf could not see him. He would have to tell her face to face. She deserved that.
I pray she is strong.

Clad in dark blue pants and jacket, both gold-trimmed, Rhonin looked more like a politician than a mage these days, but the past few years had demanded as much diplomacy from him as magic. Diplomacy had never been an easy thing for him, who preferred to go charging into a situation. With his thick mane of hair and his short beard, he had a distinct leonine appearance that so well matched his temper when forced to parlay with pampered, arrogant ambassadors. His nose, broken long ago and never—by his own choice—properly fixed, further added to his fiery reputation.

“Rhonin…is there something you have not told me?”

He could leave her waiting no longer. She had to know the truth, however terrible it might be. “I’m coming, Vereesa.”

Putting away his divining instruments, Rhonin took a deep breath, then rejoined the elf. Just within the entrance, though, he paused. All Rhonin could see was her face—a beautiful, perfect oval upon which had been artfully placed alluring, almond-shaped eyes of pure sky blue, a tiny, upturned nose, and an enticing mouth seemingly always halfway to a smile. Framing that face was a rich head of silver-white hair that, had she been standing, would have hung nearly to the small of her back. She could have passed yet for a human if not for the long, tapering ears jutting from the hair, pointed ears marking her race.

“Well?” she asked, patiently.

“It’s…it’s to be twins.”

Her face lit up, if anything becoming more perfect in his eyes. “Twins! How fortuitous! How wonderful! I was so certain!”

She adjusted her position on the wooden bed. The slim but curved elven ranger now lay several months pregnant. Gone were her breastplate and leather armor. Now she wore a silver gown that did not at all conceal the imminent birth.

They should have guessed from the quickness with which she had shown, but Rhonin had wanted to deny it. They had been wed only a few months when she had discovered her condition. Both were concerned then, for not only had their marriage been one so very rare in the annals of history, but no one had ever recorded a successful human-elven birth.

And now they expected not one child, but two.

“I don’t think you understand, Vereesa.
Twins!
Twins from a mage and an elf!”

But her face continued to radiate pleasure and wonder. “Elves seldom give birth and we very, very rarely give birth to twins, my love! They will be destined for great things!”

Rhonin could not hide his sour expression. “I know. That’s what worries me…”

He and Vereesa had lived through their own share of “great things.” Thrown together to penetrate the orc stronghold of Grim Batol during the last days of the war against the Horde, they had faced not just orcs, but dragons, goblins, trolls, and more. Afterward, they had journeyed from realm to realm, becoming ambassadors of sorts whose task it had been to remind the Alliance of the importance of remaining intact. That had not meant, however, that they had not risked their lives during that time, for the peace following that war had been unstable at best.

Then, without warning, had come the Burning Legion.

By that time, what had started as a partnership of two wary agents had become a binding of two unlikely souls. In the war against the murderous demons, the mage and the ranger had fought as much for each other as for their lands. More than once, they had thought one another dead and the pain felt had been unbearable to each.

Perhaps the pain of losing each other had seemed worse because of all those other loved ones who had already perished. Both Dalaran and Quel’Thalas had been razed by the Undead Scourge, thousands slaughtered by the decaying abominations serving the dread Lich King, who in turn served the cause of the Legion. Entire towns perished horribly and matters were made worse by the fact that many of the victims soon rose from the dead, their cursed mortal shells now added to the ranks of the Scourge.

What little that remained of Rhonin’s family had perished early in the war. His mother had been long dead, but his father, brother, and two cousins had all been slain in the fall of the city of Andorhal. Fortunately, the desperate defenders, seeing no hope of rescue, had set the city ablaze. Even the Scourge could not raise warriors from ash.

He had not seen any of them—not even his father—since entering the ranks of wizardry, but Rhonin had discovered an emptiness in his heart when the news had arrived. The rift between himself and his kin—caused in great part because of his chosen calling—had vanished in that instant. All that had mattered at the time was that he had become the last of his family. He was all alone.

Alone until he realized that the feelings he had developed for the brave elven ranger at his side were reciprocated.

When the terrible struggle had finally played out, there had been only one logical path for the two of them. Despite the horrified voices emanating from both Vereesa’s people and Rhonin’s wizardly masters, the two had chosen to never be parted again. They had sealed a pact of marriage and tried to begin as normal a life as two such as they could possibly have in a world torn asunder.

Naturally,
thought the mage bitterly,
peace for us wasn’t meant to be.

Vareesa pushed herself from the bed before he could help her. Even so near the time of birth, the elf moved with assured swiftness. The elf took hold of Rhonin by the shoulders.

“You wizards! Always seeing the dire! I thought my own people were so gloomy! My love, this will be a happy birth, a happy pair of children! We will make it so!”

He knew that she made sense. Neither would do anything that would risk the infants. When the two had realized her condition, they ceased their own efforts to help rebuild the shattered Alliance and settled in one of the most peaceful regions left, near enough to shattered Dalaran but not too near. They lived in a modest but not completely humble home and the people of the nearby town respected them.

Her confidence and hope still amazed him, considering her own losses. If Rhonin had felt a hole in his heart after losing family he had barely known anymore, Vereesa surely had felt a gaping chasm open in her own. Quel’Thalas, more leg endary and surely more secure than even the magic-ruled Dalaran, had been utterly ravaged. Elven strongholds untouched by centuries had fallen in mere days, their once-proud people added to the Scourge as easily as the mere humans. Among the latter had been included several of Vereesa’s own close-knit clan…and a few from her very family.

From her grandfather she had heard of his desperate battle to slay the ghoulish corpse of his own son, her uncle. From him she had also heard how her younger brother had been ripped apart by a hungering mob of undead led by their own elder brother, who later had been set afire and destroyed along with the rest of the Scourge by the surviving defenders. What had happened to her parents, no one yet knew, but they, too, were presumed dead.

And what Rhonin had not told her…might never dare tell her…was of the monstrous rumors he had heard concerning one of Vereesa’s two sisters, Sylvanas.

Vereesa’s other sister, the great Alleria, had been a hero during the Second War. But Sylvanas, she whom Rhonin’s wife had sought to emulate her entire life, had, as Ranger General, led the battle against the betrayer—Arthas, prince of Lordaeron. Once the shining hope of his land, now the twisted servant of the Legion and the Scourge, he had ravaged his own kingdom, then led the undead horde against the elven capital of Silvermoon. Sylvanas had blocked his path at every juncture and for a time, it had seemed that she would actually defeat him. But where the shambling corpses, sinister gargoyles, and gruesome abominations had failed, the dark necromancy granted the traitorous noble had succeeded.

The official version had Sylvanas dying valiantly as she prevented Arthas’s minions from slaying Silvermoon’s people. The elven leaders, even Vereesa’s grandfather, claimed that the Ranger General’s body had burned in the same fire that had devastated half the capital. Certainly there had been no trace left.

But while the story ended there for Vereesa, Rhonin, through sources in both the Kirin Tor and Quel’Thalas, had discovered word of Sylvanas that left him chilled. A surviving ranger, his mind half gone, had babbled of his general being captured, not killed. She had been horribly mutilated, then finally slain for the pleasure of Arthas. Finally, taking her body up in the dark temple he had raised in his madness, the prince had corrupted her soul and corpse, transforming her from heroic elf into a harbinger of evil…a haunting, mournful phantom called a banshee that still supposedly roamed the ruins of Quel’Thalas.

Rhonin had so far been unable to verify the rumors, but he felt certain that they had more than a grain of truth. He prayed that Vereesa would never hear the story.

So many tragedies…small wonder that Rhonin could not shake his uncertainty when it came to his new family.

He sighed. “Perhaps when they’re born, I’ll be better. I’m likely just nervous.”

“Which should be the sign of a caring parent.” Vereesa returned to the bed. “Besides, we are not alone in this. Jalia aids much.”

Jalia was an elder, full-bodied woman who had given birth to six children and midwifed several times that number. Rhonin had been certain that a human would be leery of dealing with an elf—let alone an elf with a wizard for a husband—but Jalia had taken one look at Vereesa and her maternal instincts had taken over. Even though Rhonin did pay her well for her time, he very much suspected that the townswoman would have volunteered anyway, so much had she taken to his wife.

“I suppose you’re right,” he began. “I’ve just been—”

A voice…a very familiar voice…suddenly filled his head.

A voice that could not be bringing him good tidings.

Rhonin…I have need of you.

“Krasus?” the mage blurted.

Vereesa sat up, all cheer vanishing. “Krasus? What about him?”

They both knew the master wizard, a member of the Kirin Tor. Krasus had been the one instrumental in bringing them together. He had also been the one who had not told them the entire truth about matters at the time, especially where he himself had been concerned.

Only through dire circumstance had they discovered that he was also the dragon Korialstrasz.

“It’s…it’s Krasus,” was all Rhonin could say at the moment.

Rhonin…I have need of you…

I won’t help you!
the mage instantly responded.
I’ve done my share! You know I can’t leave her now…

“What does he want?” Vereesa demanded. Like the wizard, she knew that Krasus would only contact them if some terrible trouble had arisen.

“It doesn’t matter! He’ll have to find someone else!”

Before you reject me, let me show you…
the voice declared.
Let me show both of you…

Before Rhonin could protest, images filled his head. He relived Krasus’s astonishment at being contacted by the Lord of Time, experienced the dragon mage’s shock when the Aspect’s desperation became evident. Everything Krasus had experienced, the wizard and his wife now shared.

Last of all, Krasus overwhelmed them with an image of the place the other believed the source of Nozdormu’s distress, a chill and forbidding chain of jagged mountains.

Kalimdor.

The entire vision lasted only a few seconds, but it left Rhonin exhausted. He heard a gasp from the bed. Turning, the wizard found Vereesa slumped back on the down pillow.

He started toward her, but she waved off his concern. “I am all right! Just…breathless. Give me a moment…”

For her Rhonin would give eternity, but for another he had not even a second to grant. Summoning the image of Krasus into his head, the wizard replied,
Take your quests to someone else! Those days are through for me! I’ve got far more important matters at stake!

Krasus said nothing and Rhonin wondered if his response had sent his former patron searching for another pawn. He respected Krasus, even liked him, but the Rhonin the dragon mage sought no longer existed. Only his family concerned him now.

But to his surprise, the one he expected most to stand by him instead suddenly muttered, “You will have to go immediately, of course.”

He stared at Vereesa. “I’m not going anywhere!”

She straightened again. “But you must. You saw what I saw. He does not summon you for some frivolous task! Krasus is extremely worried…and what worries
him
puts fear into
me.”

“But I can’t leave you now!” Rhonin fell down on one knee next to her. “I will not leave you, or them!”

A hint of her ranger past spread across Vareesa’s face. Eyes narrowing dangerously at whatever mysterious force would separate them, she answered, “And the last thing I would wish would be for you to thrust yourself into danger! I do not desire to sacrifice my children’s father, but what we have seen hints at a terrible threat to the world they will be born in! For that reason alone, it makes sense to go. Were I not in this condition, I would be right at your side, you know that.”

“Of course I do.”

“I tell myself that he is strong, Krasus is. Even stronger as Korialstrasz! I tell myself that I let you go only because you and he will be together. You know he would not ask if he did not think you capable.”

That was true. Dragons respected few mortal creatures. That Krasus in either form looked to him for aid meant a great deal…and as an ally of the leviathan, Rhonin would be better protected than anyone.

What could go wrong?

Defeated, Rhonin nodded. “All right. I’ll go. Can you handle matters until Jalia arrives?”

BOOK: The Well of Eternity
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