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Authors: Richard A. Knaak

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BOOK: The Well of Eternity
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But in the future to which the mage belonged, any thought of emulating Neltharion would have gone beyond the point of madness. Neltharion had rejected his role, rejected the protection the Aspects gave the mortal realm. He had instead turned to the belief that the lesser races were the root of all that was wrong with the world, that they should be removed…and those who would aid them should be removed as well.

Neltharion had come to envision a world where only dragons—specifically his own flight—ruled all. That growing obsession had led him to countless acts of an increasingly dark design, acts so horrible that eventually Neltharion became as terrible a danger to the world as the demons of the Burning Legion. The other Aspects had finally banded together against him, but not before he had spilled much blood and caused wholesale destruction.

And in rejecting all he had once been, Neltharion had also rejected his own name. From his former counterparts had come the name by which he was known to
all
creatures, one that had become synonymous with evil itself.

Deathwing

There before Krasus loomed Deathwing, the Destroyer, the Black Scourge. Yet, the dragon mage could do nothing to warn the others. In fact, although he knew the danger that Neltharion would eventually become, Krasus could not recall when and where the tragedy had begun. To foment distrust among the Aspects at this critical juncture risked even more of a disaster than what the Earth Warder’s future held.

And yet…

“I was surprised when Ysera, not you, contacted me,” the black rumbled. “You are well, Alexstrasza?”

“I am, Neltharion.”

He eyed her companions. “And you, young Korialstrasz? You are not at your best, I think.”

“An illness passing,” the red male answered respectfully.

“It is an honor to see you again, Earth Warder.”

They conversed like friendly acquaintances and yet Krasus managed to recall that as Deathwing, Neltharion would barely recognize him. By the time of the orc wars, the black behemoth would have dwelled so long in his madness that past friendships would be forgotten. All that would matter would be whatever advanced his dark cause.

But here still was Neltharion the comrade. He peered over Korialstrasz’s neck, noting the tiny, cowled figure. “And you are the one. You have a name?”

“Krasus!” the mage snapped. “Krasus!”

“A defiant little one!” Neltharion said with amusement. “I believe that he is definitely a dragon, as Ysera hinted.”

“A dragon with a tale to tell,” Alexstrasza added. She gazed up at the ceiling, specifically the spot from which she and the others had entered. “But I would prefer to give Nozdormu more time before we begin.”

“Give the Timeless One more time?” Malygos laughed.

“How droll! I will not let dour Nozdormu leave without pressing him on
that
jest!”

“Yes and you will press him
time
and
time
again with it, will you not?” returned Neltharion, a vast, toothy smile spreading across his reptilian countenance.

Malygos laughed further. He and Neltharion shuffled to one side, already deep in some conversation.

“Brothers they may not be in blood,” commented Ysera, her closed eyes following the pair. “But they are truly brothers in nature.”

Alexstrasza agreed. “It is good that Neltharion has Malygos to turn to. He has been quiet with me of late.”

“I, too, sense a distance. He does not take the actions by these night elves with pleasure. He stated once that they have grandiose visions of becoming like the creators without the knowledge and wisdom of the latter.”

“There may be something to what he has said,” the Queen of Life returned, her eyes sweeping briefly over Krasus.

The mage grew increasingly uncomfortable under her study of him. Of them all, Alexstrasza deserved this other warning. It would be Deathwing’s doing that she would be turned into a slave of the orcs, whose warhounds readily sacrificed her children to their brutal cause. Deathwing would then use the chaos of the last days of the orc wars to seek what he truly desired…the eggs of the Queen of Life to recreate his own decimated flight, all but slain because of his past mad plots.

What limit do I set?
Krasus demanded of himself.
When must the line finally be crossed? I can say nothing about the orcs, nothing about the Earth Warder’s betrayals, nothing about the Burning Legion…all I can do is state enough facts to possibly exterminate myself and Rhonin!

In frustration, he glared at one of the causes of his dilemma. Neltharion spoke merrily with Malygos, the latter’s back turned to the other waiting dragons. The huge black stretched his wings and nodded at some remark by his gleaming counterpart. Had they been humans, dwarves, or some other mortal race, the pair would have looked quite at home drinking ale in a tavern. The lesser races saw the dragons as either monstrous beasts or dignified founts of wisdom, when in truth their characters were in some ways as earthy as the tiny creatures over which they watched.

Neltharion’s eyes flickered past Malygos, meeting, however briefly, Krasus’s.

And in that moment of contact, Krasus realized that all he and the others had seen so far of the black at this gathering had been a charade.

The darkness had already descended upon the Earth Warder.

Not possible, not possible!
Krasus insisted, barely able to keep his expression neutral.
Not now!
It was too soon, too delicate a point in time for the transformation of Neltharion to Deathwing to begin. The Aspects needed to be united, not only to join against the coming invasion, but to deal with the disruptions of time caused by Krasus and his former student. Surely he had been mistaken about the black leviathan. Surely Neltharion was still one of the fabled protectors of the mortal plane.

Krasus cursed his feeble memory. When
had
Neltharion turned to betrayal? When
had
he forever become the bane of all other living creatures? Was it meant to be now or had Neltharion worked with his comrades even though darkness had already claimed him?

The cowled mage could not help but stare at the Earth Warder. Despite his own oath, Krasus began to think that perhaps here he had to bend the rules. How could it do anything but good to unveil the villain in the Aspects’ midst? How—

Once more Neltharion glanced his way…but this time the eyes did not leave Krasus’s own.

And only then did Krasus discover that Neltharion in turn saw the recognition in him, only then did he realize that the black dragon understood that here was one who could reveal his terrible secret.

Krasus tried to look away, but his eyes were held fast. Too late he realized the cause of that. The Earth Warder, having seen that he had been found out, had acted quickly and decisively. He now held Krasus with his power as easily as he breathed.

I will not fall to him!
Yet, despite his determination to escape, his will did not prove strong enough. Had he been better prepared, Krasus could have battled Neltharion’s mind, but the unexpected discovery had left him wide open…and the black one had seized the opportunity.

You know me…but I do not know you.

The chilling voice filled his head. Krasus prayed that someone would notice what passed between the pair, but to all appearances, everything passed as normal. It astounded him that not even his beloved Alexstrasza recognized the terrible truth.

You would speak against me…make the others see me as you
do…you would have them distrust their comrade of old…their brother…

The Earth Warder’s words gave clear indication of how deep his madness had already become. Krasus sensed within Neltharion a raging paranoia and an adamant belief that no one but the black dragon understood what was good for the world. Anyone who seemed at all the slightest threat to him was, in Neltharion’s eyes, the true evil.

You will not be allowed to spread any of your malicious falsehoods…

Krasus expected to be struck down there and then, but, to his surprise, all Neltharion did was turn his gaze away and resume his conversation with Malygos.

What games does he play?
the dragon mage wondered.
First he threatens me, then seems to forget my presence!

He watched the black leviathan carefully, but Neltharion seemed entirely oblivious to him.

“He is not coming,” Ysera finally said.

“He may still appear,” suggested Alexstrasza.

Glancing at them, Krasus realized that they referred to Nozdormu.

“No, I have been contacted by the one with whom I spoke. He cannot locate his master. The Timeless One is somewhere beyond the mortal plane.”

Ysera’s news boded further ill. Knowing what he did of Nozdormu, Krasus suspected that the reason that even the Timeless One’s servants could not contact him was because of the anomaly. If, as Krasus believed, Nozdormu held Time together all by himself, he would have needed to summon every instant of his existence. Multiple Nozdormus would be battling Time…leaving no moment for this gathering.

Krasus’s hopes dwindled further. Nozdormu lost and Neltharion mad…

“I agree, then,” Alexstrasza said, responding to Ysera’s assessment. “We shall go on without the full Five. There is no rule that we cannot at least discuss the matter after the story is told, even if a course of action cannot yet be taken.”

Lowering his head, Korialstrasz allowed his rider to dismount. Keeping his expression guarded, Krasus stepped out among the gathered giants, trying not to look at the Earth Warder. Alexstrasza’s eyes encouraged him, enough so that the dragon mage knew what he had to do.

“I am one of you,” he announced in a voice as booming as any of the leviathans surrounding him. My true name is known to the Queen of Life, but for now I am simply Krasus!”

“He bellows well, this hatchling,” Malygos jested.

Krasus faced him. “This is not a time for humor, especially for you, Guardian of Magic! This is a time when a balance is nigh upset! A terrible mistake, a distortion of reality, threatens everything…absolutely everything!”

“How dramatic,” Neltharion commented almost absently.

It took everything in Krasus’s power not to blurt out the truth about the Earth Warder.
Not yet…

“You will hear my story,” insisted Krasus. “You will hear it and understand…for there is a worse danger on the horizon, one which touches us as well. You see—”

But as the first words of his tale ushered forth from his mouth, Krasus’s tongue seemed to catch everywhere. Instead of a coherent telling, babbled words of whimsy escaped him.

Most of the gathered dragons pulled their heads back, startled by his peculiar behavior. Krasus looked quickly to Alexstrasza, seeking her help, but her expression indicated an astonishment as strong as any.

The mage’s head spun. Vertigo worse than any he had suffered so far seized him, made him unable to keep his balance. Nonsense words continued to spew from his lips, but even Krasus no longer knew what he tried to convey.

And as his legs buckled and the vertigo took full hold of him, Krasus heard within his head the deathly calm voice of Neltharion.

I did warn you…

SEVENTEEN

D
arkness came and the world of the night elves awoke. Merchants opened their businesses while the faithful went to their prayers. The general populace lived their lives, feeling no different then on any other eve. The world was theirs to do with as they chose, whatever other, lesser races might believe.

But for some, tiny annoyances crept into their lives, minor deviations from their routines, their notions.

* * *

A senior master of the Moon Guard, his long silver hair bound behind him, absently raised one long, nailed finger toward a flask of wine at the opposite end of the room as he perused the star charts in preparation for a major casting by the order. Although he was among the eldest of the sorcerers, his skills had remained undiminished, a reason for his continued high position. Spellcasting was to him as much a part of his existence as breathing, a matter simply and naturally done, almost without thought.

The crash that jarred him from his plush chair and made him crumple the parchment nearly to shreds proved to be caused by the flask’s swift and fatal descent to the floor. Wine and glass spilled over the rich emerald and orange carpet the sorcerer had only recently purchased.

With a hiss of fury, the spellcaster snapped his fingers at the disastrous spill. Bits of glass suddenly rose into the air as the wine itself puddled together and formed into the shape of the container that had held it. The glass then began to mold together over the wine…

But a second later…everything again spilled all over the carpet, creating a worse mess than before.

The aged sorcerer stared. With a grim expression, he snapped his fingers again.

This time, the glass and the wine performed as he desired, even the slightest hint of stain removed. Yet, they did so with some sluggishness, taking far longer than the Moon Guard master would have expected.

The aged night elf returned to his parchment and tried once more to concentrate on the coming event, but his gaze constantly shifted back to the bottle and its contents. He pointed a finger at the flask again—then, with a frown, pulled the finger back and purposely turned his chair
away
from the cause of his annoyance.

 

At the edges of every major settlement, armed sentinels patrolled and guarded the night elves from any possible foe. Lord Ravencrest and those like him ever watched the areas beyond the main boundaries of the realm, their belief that the dwarves and other races constantly coveted the night elves’ rich world. They did not look inward—for who of their own people would ever threaten them?—but permitted every settlement to maintain its own security simply in order to comfort the general citizenry.

In Galhara, a great city some distance on the opposing side of the Well from Zin-Azshari, sorcerers began the nightly ritual of realigning the emerald crystals that lined its boundaries. In conjunction with each other, the crystals acted, among other things, as defense against general magical attack. They had not, to anyone’s recollection, ever been utilized, but the people took great comfort in their presence.

Despite there being hundreds, it was no troublesome feat to set the crystal arrays. All drew their power directly from the Well of Eternity and the sorcerers merely had to use the stars to adjust the lines of force that ran from one to another. In truth, this mostly required a simple twist of the crystal on the tall, obsidian pole upon which each had been placed. Thus, the local spellcasters were able to do several in the space of only a few minutes.

But with more than half already realigned, the crystals began to dim, even darkened completely. The sorcerers of Galhara, while not as proficient as the Moon Guard, knew their tasks well enough to understand that what happened now should
not
be happening. They immediately began checking and rechecking the arrays, but found nothing wrong.

“They are not drawing properly from the Well,” one younger spellcaster finally decided. “Something has tried to cut them off from its might!”

But no sooner had he said that than the crystals renewed their normal activities. His elder associates looked at him in bemusement, trying to recall if, when as new to their roles as he was, they had made such outrageous statements.

And life among the night elves went on…

 

“It hasss
failed!”
Hakkar roared. He nearly whipped the closest of the Highborne, but pulled his savage lash back at the last moment. Eyes deathly dark, he looked to Lord Xavius.
“We
have failed…”

The felbeasts at the Houndmaster’s flanks echoed their handler’s fury with sinister snarls.

Xavius was no less displeased. He eyed the work that both the Highborne and Hakkar had wrought and saw in it hours of futility…and yet both he and the Houndmaster had seen the merits of the queen’s suggestion.

They simply did not have the knowledge or power needed to make it happen.

That the efforts of the Highborne had still enabled more than a score of Fel Guard to join those already on the mortal plane did nothing to assuage them. Such numbers were only a slow dribble and did nothing to pave the way for the great one’s coming.

“What can we do?” asked the night elf.

For the first time, he read uncertainty in the Houndmaster’s haunting visage. The huge warrior turned his baleful gaze toward the portal, where others of the Highborne ever continued to try to make it stronger and larger. “We mussst asssk
him.”

The counselor swallowed, but before his monstrous counterpart could take the step, Lord Xavius pushed himself forward, falling down on one knee before the portal. He would not shirk from his failures, not to his god.

Yet, even before his knee touched the stone, Xavius heard the voice in his head.

Is the portal strengthened?

“Nay, great one…the work in that regard has not progressed as we hoped.”

For just the hint of a moment, what almost seemed an insane fury threatened to overwhelm the night elf…but then the sensation passed. Certain that he had imagined it, Xavius awaited the god’s next words.

You seek something…speak.

Lord Xavius explained the notion of sealing off the Well’s power from all but the palace and the failure to make that come to pass. He kept his head low, humble before the power that made the combined might of all night elves look no more terrible than that of an insect.

I have already considered this…
the god finally answered.
The one I sent first has failed in his duty…

Behind Xavius, the Houndmaster let out a brief sound bordering on dismay.

Another will be sent to you…you must make certain that the portal is made ready for him…

“Another, my lord?”

I now send you one of my…one of the commanders of my host. He will see to it that what is needed will come to pass…and quickly.

The voice departed Xavius’s head. He swayed for a moment, the departure as stunning to him as if someone had just cut off one of his arms. Another of the Highborne helped him to his feet.

Xavius looked at Hakkar, who did not seem at all happy despite what the counselor saw as the most wonderful of news. “He sends us one of his
commanders!
Do you know which one?”

The Houndmaster anxiously rolled up his whip. Beside him, the two felbeasts cringed. “Aye…I know which one, lord night elf.”

“We must make ready! He will be coming immediately!”

Despite whatever disturbed him, Hakkar joined Xavius as the latter inserted himself among the casting Highborne. The pair added their knowledge and skill, amplifying as best they could the framework of energy that kept the portal ever open.

The burning sphere swelled, sparks of multicolored forces constantly shooting out from it. It pulsated, almost breathing. The portal stretched, a savage, roaring sound accompanying the physical change.

Sweat already poured down Xavius’s face and body, but he did not care. The glory of what he sought gave him strength. Even more than the Houndmaster, he threw himself into making the spell not only hold, but expand to what was needed.

And as it grew to touch the ceiling, the portal suddenly disgorged a huge, dark figure at once so wonderful and terrible that it was all Xavius could do to keep from crying out in gratitude to the great one. Here now stood one of the celestial commanders, a figure before whom Hakkar seemed as unworthy as Xavius had felt before the Houndmaster.

“Elune save us!” one of the other sorcerers gasped. He pulled free, all but destroying the precious portal. Xavius barely seized control and, straining mightily, held it in place until the others could recover.

A huge, four-digited hand large enough to encompass the counselor’s head stretched forth, pointing a taloned finger toward the careless spellcaster. A voice that was both the roar of a crashing wave and the ominous rumble of an erupting volcano uttered a single, unrecognizable word.

The night elf who had stumbled away screamed as his body twisted like a piece of wet cloth being drained of water. A grotesque procession of cracking sounds matched the faltering scream. Most of the other Highborne immediately looked away and Hakkar’s felbeasts whined.

Black flames erupted all over the macabre sight, enveloping what was left of the unfortunate sorcerer. The flames ate away at him like a pack of starved wolves, swiftly devouring the victim until but seconds later only a slight pile of ash on the floor remained to mark his passing.

“There will be no more failure,” the thundering voice stated.

If the Houndmaster and the Fel Guard had not amazed Lord Xavius enough, surely only the god himself could have awed the counselor more than this new arrival. The fearsome figure moved forward on four thick, muscular limbs reminiscent of a dragon, save that these ended in blocky feet with three massive, clawed toes. A magnificent, scaled tail swept the floor over and over, the movement very likely a sign of the celestial one’s impatience. From the top of his head down his back to the very tip of his tail ran a wild mane of pure green flame. Huge leathery wings also stretched from his back but even despite their span, Xavius wondered if they could lift so gigantic and powerful a form.

His hide, where black armor did not cover it, was a dark gray-green. He stood twice as wide as Hakkar and at least sixteen feet high, if the counselor was any judge. The massive tusks sprouting from the sides of his upper jaw nearly scraped the ceiling and the other, daggerlike teeth measured as long as the night elf’s hand.

Under a thick brow ridge that almost completely obscured his burning orbs, the chosen of the great one stared down at the lord counselor…and the Houndmaster, especially.

“You have disappointed him…” was all the winged commander declared.

“I—” Hakkar paused in his protest, hanging his head. “I have no excussse, Mannoroth.”

Mannoroth tilted his head slightly, looking at the Houndmaster as if studying an unpleasant bit of refuse found on his dinner plate. “No…you do not.”

The felbeast on Hakkar’s right suddenly whined loudly. Black flames akin to those that had removed the negligent sorcerer enveloped the frightened hound. It rolled desperately on the floor, trying to douse flames that would not be doused. The fire spread over it, consuming it…

And when only a wisp of smoke marked where the felbeast had stood, Mannoroth said again to the Houndmaster. “There will be no more failure.”

Fear filled Xavius, but a wondrous, glorious fear. Here was power incarnate, a being that sat at the right hand of the great one. Here was one who would know how to turn their defeat into victory.

The dark gaze turned on him. Mannoroth gave a short sniff with his blunt nose…then nodded. “The great one approves of your efforts, lord night elf.”

He had been blessed! Xavius lowered himself further. “I give thanks!”

“The plan will be followed. We will cut off the place of power from the rest of this realm. Then the arrival of the host can begin in earnest.”

“And the great one? He will come then?”

Mannoroth gave him a wide smile, one with which he could have swallowed the counselor whole. “Oh, yes, lord night elf!
Sargeras
himself will want to be here when the world is cleansed…he will want to be here very, very much…”

 

Grass filled Rhonin’s mouth and nose.

At least, he assumed it was grass. It tasted like grass, although he had not had much experience in such dining. The smell reminded him of wild fields and more peaceful times…times with Vereesa.

With effort, he pushed himself up. Night had fallen and while the moon shone fairly brightly, it revealed little beyond the fact that he lay in a lightly wooded area. Rhonin listened, but heard no sound of civilization.

The sudden fear that he had been catapulted into yet another era briefly overwhelmed him, but then the wizard recalled just what had happened. His own spell had sent him here, his desperate attempt to escape the demon draining him of his magic—and in the process, his life.

But if in the same time, then
where
had he landed? His surroundings gave no hint. He could be a few miles away or on the other side of the world.

And if the latter…could he return to Kalimdor? He hoped Krasus still lived somewhere, and only with his former mentor’s aid did the wizard think that they might yet return home.

Staggering to his feet, Rhonin tried to decide which direction to go. Somehow he had to at least discover his whereabouts.

A noise in the woods behind him made the human whirl about. His hand came up in preparation for a spell.

A hulking figure emerged.

“No quarrel, wizard! Only Brox before you!”

Rhonin cautiously lowered his hand. The huge orc trudged forward, still clutching the ax Malfurion and the demigod had fashioned for him.

At the thought of the night elf, Rhonin looked around. “Are you alone?”

“Was until I saw you. You make a lot of noise, human. You move like a drunken infant.”

Ignoring the jibe, the wizard looked past the orc. “I was thinking of Malfurion. He was also nearby when I cast the spell. If you were drawn into it, he might’ve been.”

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