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A Cautionary Tale is a multipart story following events in the life of Nathan Carveggio and many other characters in the time following up to the beginning of the Third War. The story particularly spans Dalaran, the Scholomance, and Stratholme, and touches on the nature of magic, necromancy and demonic pacts.

Original Link: Moon Guard Realm Forums

Additionally, Satterly did not write this, omg, he's not that aweseome you people.

It's a Start Edit

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"Magic corrupts."

Dalaran's latest class of students shifted awkwardly in their seats. It was not the graduation speech they had expected.

"This is not a polite warning. This is not sage advice. This is cold, hard fact."

Administrators grew distressed, throwing nervous glances among themselves. 'Someone ought to stop him,' a few thought. 'Someone ought to stop him. Someone other than me.'

"The history of magic is one of tragedy and hubris. The best a magician can hope for is an early death, after we have accomplished some good but before our addiction devours us whole. Take heed, lest the story of your life become naught but another cautionary tale."

The university's halls were enveloped in thunderous silence. Nigel Carveggio stepped back from the podium, walking away. Scorch marks in the shape of hand-prints smoldered where his palms had lain.

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A long stretch of arcane scrawl followed the paper's border, providing a bulwark against the magics that seethed at the central dot. It was this dot that the red-headed boy concentrated on.

"I can't believe you've done this, Nigel. The Kirin Tor have put up with your shenanigans before, but this--"

"I merely told the truth, Kalem. Something you were once interested in."

Concentrate, the boy thought. Concentrate on the dot. Pour yourself into it, then control it. Always control it. Never let it free.

"--the truth?! Half those students are now scared to death to cast so much as a cantrip! You've frightened them out of their wits!"

"The truth has a habit of doing that"

The dot smoldered, unraveling into threads of fragrant smoke. The boy narrowed his eyes, drawing deep from the well of his mind and coaxing forth an eager flame from a place he did not know.

"I'm not having this argument with you again. Not every magician is fated to be dragged down kicking and screaming into the Twisting Nether by--"

"We are thieves, Kalem, stealing an ancient fire in the night. We have forgotten whom its true keepers are. It is time to remember, before our hubris dooms us all."

A spout of flame erupted from the dot. The boy's eyebrows grinded together as he tried to bend the fire to his will. For a moment, the crawling ridge spluttered and slowed, smothered into a sluggish obedience by the force of his awkward commands.

"For Fel's sake! We've had enough trouble trying to restore Lordaeron's faith in us after the entire Dark Portal debacle--and now you're undermining our faith in each other! Why can't you just let this go? We've all ready thrown out mavericks like Kel'Thuzad--"

"Which further demonstrates how foolish the Kirin Tor has grown. Men like him should not be 'removed'. They must be executed."

But then the embers started to die. Fearing he would lose the heat, the boy relaxed his grip, allowing the flames to burn...

"Listen to yourself, Nigel. Executed?! We are not barbarians. We don't kill our own."

"He revoked his right to life from the very moment his obsession with power overtook whatever sense remained. And now he has a school, where he teaches--"

The oxygen-rich fire flared back to life, hungrily gnawing away at the scorch mark's ridges. And then, in an eager rush, it swelled across the sheet and devoured the protective runes.

"Please, Nigel. The council has heard your rumor-mongering. What you're suggesting is impossible. And even if it is true, he lacks the resources to conduct any proper research. Don't be a fool."

"The only fools are the ponderous beard-stroking idiots of the Kirin Tor who obstinately refuse to face reality for fear of damaging their ever-precious standing among the citizens of Lordaeron."

The sheet exploded. Ravenous flame reached out for the boy, crawling its way across his palms and singing his eyebrows. Yelping, he sprang back--and the flame spread. Tongues of it licked at the ceiling and floors, slithering its way through the room and searching for more fuel. It soon found the source, descending upon the spellbook on the floor and swallowing it a single fiery gulp.

"What do you think you are doing?"

Stern and implacable, the voice sliced through the boy's panic like a razorblade. Despite the scalding pain on his hands, he at once straightened and turned about to face the man at the door. "I was just--"

Nigel snapped his fingers. The living flame was instantly snuffed, dying with a snarl of impotent thirst. "I told you to not attempt this exercise outside of my presence."

The boy's hands were stinging, left raw and red by the sentient fire's touch. He held them out in front of them to try and soothe the pain, but the slightest brush of air was like a scrape of steel wool. "I wanted to learn it on my own, sir. To surprise you--"

"If you wish to surprise me, you may start by following my instructions."

He blinked back wetness. "I didn't mean to--I mean, I'm sorr--"

"Bandage yourself, Nathan. I have work to do." Nigel slipped past.

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The shining towers of Dalaran speared their way through the sky, held aloft by sheer force of command alone; beneath them, all manners of creatures stirred. Everywhere beneath the fluttering violet banners were clean streets and well-dressed citizens--everywhere, that is, except for the Market Square.

It was always the smell of the Market that hit Nathan first--like a freight train filled with flaming manure that had just ploughed through a field of stinkweed. It stabbed its way to the back of the brain, signing its signature at the top of the spine. It was a smell you could always recognize but never quite pin down.

The Market Square was several hundred tight knots of vendors, carts, and houses tied along a crooked and winding length of road. The looming brick walls drew so close in some places that no more than two people could pass at a time--and the way they tilted toward the street implied an imminent avalanche of mortar and wood.

An immense mechanical spider picked its way up and over the crowd, its delicate bronze legs scraped across cobblestone while thick ribbons of steam and soot were belched out of its smokestack. A gondola containing a mobile smithy sat on top, filled to the brim with goblins wearing grins like platters of steakknives, all of them diligently reinforcing any buildings that showed signs of wear and potential collapse. Valves along the machine's belly hissed and released great clouds of vapor, thoroughly drenching any unfortunate below it; meanwhile, street urchins in war paint dashed in between the pincer-like feet to snatch up pieces of metal that tumbled down from the workers' hands. Sometimes, a coveted fire mote essence would fall, inciting the children into a frantic scrabble.

Restaurants kept afloat by sheepskin balloons inflated with hot air or gas catered to the whims of those on rooftops and airships, who would soar over the heads of the Market denizens and enjoy their lunch while people-watching from a lofty perch. A few of the nastier customers dumped their finished meals onto the people below, or even relieved themselves on some poor sod's head. Nathan had brought an umbrella with him for this explicit reason.

Horseless carts hissed by, belching out clouds of steam and magic. Stalls sold every type of product imaginable: Real and fictitious, tangible and intangible--from bottled puppy-love to bliss-in-a-box. One vendor specialized in faerie sandwiches, snagging the hapless things with nets as they buzzed by and shoving them between two slices of rye (along with lettuce and a brushstroke of mayonaise).

Holding his stinging hands, Nathan slipped under the spider-smith and pushed on to the heart of the market.

Here, merchants peddled experience (which was hard to get), innocence (which was easy to lose), and wisdom (which was never a wise buy to begin with). He shoved his way past several high-elves curiously peeking into a boiling cauldron labeled 'True-Love' ("False advertising," the tallest among them lamented) and arrived at a tent that was at nearly the center of it all.

Snapping his umbrella closed, Nathan slipped inside. Here in the dim light was a mad-man's alchemy set; a tangled maze of beakers and tubes crowded the tables, while open books with circled passages littered the floor. A pudgy human-sized frog with a scrap of white hair on his balding head sat over a boiling flask filled with bubbling foam.

"Mr. Croaksfield," Nathan cleared his throat.

"I am quite busy with some-thing fizzy," the frogman croaked. His eyes were buggy and sat on opposite sides of his head. They moved independently of one another, rolling about like ball-bearings in a funnel as they searched for the source of Nathan's voice.

"I wanted to buy some salve. For my hands. And, uh--I lost the spell-book you lent me." Nathan tried not to make his voice squeak.

"Inside are twenty-five lives of pleasure-seeking concubines," Croaksfield ribbited, gesturing to the beaker of boiling green foam. "They must be prepared with care, so the pleasures they may bare will rise to the very top and come to a complete stop--while consequences and pain are to be poured down the drain. No one likes the consequences," he added, as if this matter truly perplexed him

"I kind of--that is, I finished the last book, and I tried to use some of it on those exercises my father has me do, but--uh, it didn't work and I burned my hands and the book went up too."

Croaksfield turned the flame off. With a single leap, he was in Nathan's face, inspecting him with one rolling eye. Nathan sucked in a breath, doing his very best not to scream.

Croaksfield had been a human mage, once, long ago. That was before he went on an ill-fated voyage to the Hinterlands to investigate the troll ruins contained there. One of the troll hexes interacted in an unexpected way with one of his spells. Once he returned, it was discovered that there was no feasible way to reverse the transformation.

This had driven him more than a little mad.

"Dangerous magic, Nathan," Croaksfield ribbited, giving the boy's coppery hair a tap with his webby palm. Then: "Hold out hands."

Nathan did as he was instructed. Croaksfield opened his mouth and spat out his tongue in a long, wet coil. It slapped wetly across both palms with a sickening *SCHLPOP*.

Despite all his best efforts, Nathan proceeded to squeal like a little girl.

"Augh! Augh! That's gross! Augh! What did you do?! Getitoffgetitoffgetit--" While busily flailing and wiping his hands off on the side of the tent, Nathan noticed the pain had subsided. "Ugh! Mister Croaksfield, did you have to--"

"Magic is by no means a trifle," Croaksfield said, hopping back to his chair. The tongue darted out once more to snag a book by the spine, reeling it back to his hands. "Though your education I do not wish to stifle. I sold you that book on the pretense you would not try it; I had one rule, and you went ahead and defied it."

"I know. I didn't--I wasn't thinking. I won't study any more books, not until my father lets me."

"Good. I will show you more magic when you are older--and have grown slightly less bolder." Croaksfield opened the book up, shoving one eye down atop of the page. The other proceeded to dangle and roll listlessly.

"I, uh--came for something else, too," Nathan admitted. "Um--Mr. Croaksfield?"

"WHAT." The frog's left eye popped up, staring at Nathan.

"How much for one of your pocket-watches?"

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Nathan touched the ornate watch that had taken the place of his savings. It would be his father's birthday soon, and Nathan knew that he adored watches for their complex clarity; in one way it would be a bribe for forgiveness, but in another it was a simple act of contrition.

He and his father lived alone in one of the more stately rooms of a sprawling tower. It was considerably beneath their means, but his father had always had a fondness for a simple lifestyle.

Nathan slid the watch out of his pocket. It would be best to hide it in his room, probably in the same spot he had hidden the strictly forbidden spellbook--behind one of the loose bricks in the floor near the foot of his bed. But as he stepped into the living room, he gave a jump--his father was sitting at the dining table, patiently awaiting his arrival.

Nigel fit the profile of a wizard in every way--with a face as implacable as stone and eyes that could somehow seize you by the throat. His fingers were steepled atop of the table into a carefully aligned pyramid.

At once, Nathan hid the pocketwatch behind his back.

"Now, then. Praytell. Where have you been?"

"Ah, um. Out, sir. Getting my hands taken care of."

"Oh?" Nigel's eyebrow slid up. "Is that so."

"Yes, sir."

"You've been visiting Master Croaksfield, have you?"

Nathan swallowed. "Uh--"

"Out of harmless curiousity, I inspected the pile of ash at your feet after the 'incident'," Nigel said. "I could not help but notice that amidst them was what appeared to be the scorched remains of a book."

"I--I mean, I'm sorry, I--"

"An apology is not good enough, Nathan. I have strictly forbidden you from reading spellbooks until you have proven yourself capable of handling magical forces. And now I discover that you have gone around my back--attained a spellbook and studied magic on your own initiative."

Nathan's heart began to pound. A flush crawled its way through his face.

Nigel's eyes narrowed. "And now you've returned--no doubt from the market once again. With what, may I ask?"

"It's--" Something boiled and frothed in Nathan's chest, roaring to be released--only to be bottled and sealed in his throat. "--nothing."

Slowly and with calculated grace, Nigel rose to his feet. "Don't lie to me, Nathan. I know you've purchased another spellbook. I noticed the conspicious absence of your savings from your desk."

In Nathan's mind, the contents of the bottle started to shake, the pressure growing unbearable. The cork trembled, its snug fit loosening. "I didn't--"

"Stop lying." Nigel held out his hand expectantly, a lingering spark of flame coalescing into his palm. "Give it to me."

The cork popped.

"Take it!" Nathan spat, throwing the pocketwatch at him. It struck Nigel's chest, tumbling down in a flash of copper before striking the floor with surprising force; at once, its glass case shattered, the fragile labyrinth of gears spilling across the stone. For the first time in his life, Nathan saw his father rendered speechless with surprise.

Ecstatic with rage and indignation, Nathan turned on his heel and left him behind.

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He would have to go back, of course. Eventually.

There would be no apologies, no forgiveness, no lecture. Nathan knew his father well enough to understand that. Once he returned to the house, his sudden outburst would be perceived as merely a harmless tantrum and no more would be said on the subject. Any attempt to bring it up would be shut down.

That was just how his father was. So impossibly stern, so unrelatably obtuse.

It was growing dark. Nathan naturally strayed away from the near-obsessively clean streets of Dalaran, wandering along the fringes of the market. Most of the vendors and booths were closing up for the night--even the spider-smith was no where to be seen.

Absorbed in thoughts concerning how he would return to his father, Nathan nearly tripped over the small circle of people.

Without thinking, he had wandered off into one of the shadier alleyways--very little light penetrated the canopy of clotheslines, wards, charms, and perches. Instead, most of the illumination was produced by a nauseous green glow that emerged from the staff of a woman located at the center of the crowd--a pretty stretch of pale skin wrapped in silk robes of black, wheatgold locks of hair tied in a tangled bun.

"For too long," she told the small crowd, "you have toiled beneath the tyranny of the Kirin Tor."

Several people stirred uncomfortably at the words. At least one left, shuffling off into the darkness while shaking their head. Curious, Nathan clambored atop of a crate to peek over a high-elf's shoulders.

"One of the first spells an aspiring magician learns is to create food and drink," she said, speaking in an alluring soubrette. "Were you aware of this? With only the simplest training, it is possible for all of you to be without hunger or thirst; indeed, all the world could benefit from this spell. And yet neither Dalaran nor the Kirin Tor will share these secrets with the rest of the world. Why?"

"Why must we buy their books or pay to attend their schools? Why must we study their texts and no one else's? Why are we not free to learn magic on our own, in a manner of our own choosing?" Several more people parted from the crowd, leaving the woman with a small but interested audience. All of them but Nathan seemed transfixed. "Because they are afraid," she said, smiling.

"Come with me. For no money at all--indeed, for merely your name--my Master will teach you everything you wish to know about magic. We will ask for nothing from you, except that you vow to help teach spread his teachings throughout all of Azeroth."

Nathan's mind was racing. Gears grinded like spinning cogs.

"Who is this master?" Someone to Nathan's side piped up.

"He is a brilliant wizard who was once a member of the Kirin Tor--cast aside by his peers out of envy for his genius and out of fear for his power to bring knowledge to the people," she said, the sweet musical timber of her voice never missing a note. "He has sent me to you to bring a message of peace, prosperity, and equality--and his name is Kel'Thuzad."

Nathan's heart nearly sprang into his throat.

He had to run back--had to tell him immediately. His father would--

An image of his father's stern and disbelieving face rose from the back of Nathan's mind.

Nathan's hands balled up into fists.

Upon hearing Kel'Thuzad's name, two more people had left the crowd. The woman seemed suddenly eager to move along, as if her time had suddenly grown short. "If you are interested in learning more, then come with me--and I will show you the secrets the Kirin Tor do not want you to see. For we have built ourselves a school to teach you the secrets of the universe..."

"And it is called the Scholomance."

She turned, slipping down the alleyway. Many of those who had been listening moved to follow them.

Realizing what he must do, Nathan nodded his head and silently joined them.

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"Let's go over what happened one more time."

The ragged prisoner clutched at the tattered corners of his hat. "I've told them everything--"

"One more time," he said. "Just to be thorough."

"We set out a week ago--"

"You and three others," he said, leaning forward with a creak of the chair to peer down at the documents. He all ready knew their names by heart, but he made a show of searching for them. "Brennigan, Korin, and...?"

"Terrence," the man said, licking his lips. "Fishing. We went out fishing--"

"Far up north," he said. "Why would you go that far?"

"Better catches. Other fishermen--they were spooked. Stories about seeing things."

"Trolls?"

"Other things." He swallowed. "We thought it was all just talk. Laughed about it. But then we brought in the catch."

"You found something."

"Yes, sir."

"Something worth money?"

"No, sir. Fish were--odd. Something wrong with 'em. Nothing natural about 'em, so I says. Something sick about 'em. But Terrence, he says, nothing wrong with 'em. Says I'm worse than his wife. Guts the fish, fries it right there on the spot."

"Did that make you angry? When he told you that you were just a worrier?"

"A little, sir, but that didn't make a spot of difference in th' end."

"Oh, yes. You said that he became..." Here, he adjusted his glasses and searched the document once more, maintaining the illusion of distance. "Sick?"

"Sick as a dog, yes sir."

"And then he died."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm afraid I'm a bit confused about the next part, though. According to the report you gave before, Terrence died first. Yet immediately after, you mentioned him attacking and killing Brennigan--have you merely gotten the order confused? Did he kill Brennigan first, then die?" The grizzled soldier looked up over the frame of his glasses, watching the prisoner's reaction carefully.

The prisoner swallowed. "No, sir. It happened just like that."

"Terrence killed Brennigan, and then Brennigan killed Korin."

"Yes, sir."

"That doesn't strike you as a little--ah, odd?"

"Yes, sir. It certainly does."

"Perhaps you can explain...?"

"They didn't stay dead."

The room was engulfed in thunderous silence.

Sergeant Sullivan rose from his seat. "Thank you for your time."

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He sighed. "So what do you think?"

"Something is amiss, Sergeant."

Sullivan scoffed, giving his glasses another wipe. "You hiked all the way up here from Stratholme to tell me that? Here I am, stretched razor-thin between blackrock orcs, internment camps, and wiping every aristocrat's arse from Lordaeron down to Booty Bay, and now they've got me playing detective with a bunch of fishermen out in the middle of no where. Don't tell me something is amiss, Marshal For'thirrel."

"It is important that we investigate the prisoner's claims, Sergeant. If what he is saying is true--"

"With all due respect--he's a bloody murderer, sir. Probably found out one of his blokes was having a bit of a merry time with the missus and ended up offing him in a fit of rage. Ended up killing the rest to hide the crime, and concocting this absurd story to cover it up."

Osril For'Thirrel turned to peer into the sleeping prisoner's cell. "Perhaps."

Sullivan grunted. The high-elf was maddeningly thorough; he wouldn't take a crap without filing the correct paperwork. Not only that, but the man had to be the grimmest elf he had ever seen--the priest wore a constant scowl so deep that Sullivan wouldn't be surprized to learn it had been carved into his face. But he had direct orders to comply with any and all of the high-elf's requests, no matter how pointless or pedantic. Sighing, he pursued one last avenue of potential relief--flattery.

"Listen, Marshal. I asked around about you when I heard you were coming. I know you've got a history, and a damn fine one at that. You gave your all in both wars. Fel, some of my men even served with you. But--"

"I would like to inspect the ship, Sergeant."

"The war is over, sir. The Horde is gone. The orcs are a joke. It's a new world, now. A pretty boring one at that. Men like us, we've got to adjust. Not every shadow has a death knight hiding in it."

The high-elf turned to Sullivan and stared. For a moment, the sergeant was sure that expression was carved into flesh and bone--long after his corpse had rotted, his skull would still bare that scowl. It was the face of a man who had met death with tireless diligence, patiently plucking soul after soul from its ravenous jaws. It was the face of a man who regularly had stared down the grim reaper--and won. And just for that moment, Sullivan felt like a child.

"I will require an escort."

Sullivan shook off the feeling and turned to the troops. "Satterly!"

One of the soldiers looked up from rewrapping the hilt of his warhammer in leather strips. "Hm?"

"You've got kids in Stratholme, right?"

"Uh, yes sir. Three. Two daughters and--"

"Fantastic! This is Marshal Osril For'thirrel, retired battle medic. He works in the cathedral back in Stratholme. I'm sure you'll get along smashingly."

Waving them both off, Sullivan turned away and marched back to his quarters. "Bloody elves," he mumbled, slamming the door.

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The paladin huffed as he jogged to keep up with Osril's long and patient strides.

"So," North said, managing to finally strap his hammer over his back. "What exactly are we looking for?"

"Evidence." Osril stepped across the dock and onto the planks of the ship, appraising his surroundings with a stern and careful eye.

"Of what?"

"Of a possibility many would rather not consider," Osril replied.

"Huh. Okay." North stopped and looked around. "What possibility would that be?"

Osril reached down and seized the hatch to the cargo bay, dragging it open with a creak. "That there may still be active disciples of Gul'dan."

"Oh, yes. Death knights. Creepy fellows," North said. "Gave me the shivers." After a second of thought, he reached back and unslung the hammer he had just finished tying on. "Uh. Should I go first--"

Osril had all ready descended into the darkness of the hatch, leaving North alone on the fishing ship's deck.

"Okay, great," North mumbled, clamboring after the high-elf.

The ship was a claustrophobic labyrinth of walls, nets, and crates; the stench of fish permeated every pore of wood. North grimaced at the smell and shoved aside a pile of trash with the butt of his hammer.

"So, you think there might be some Death Knight hiding on this ship--"

"I believe that the fishermen may have had an unwitting encounter with a Death Knight," Osril explained, his voice as cold and distant as the shores of Northrend. "One who, for one reason or another, slew all but one and raised them as the undead. As for whether the Death Knight would actually be onboard... I find that possibility highly unlikely."

"Oh. Okay. Because, you know, I'm ready to go against a Death Knight and all, but it's been a while--"

Osril slipped his way past the paladin and plunged deeper into the cargo hold. Sighing, North darted after.

"--listen, maybe we got off on the wrong foot here. Let's start over. I mean--augh, what's that smell?!" North nearly stumbled back out of the room. The stench hit him like a physical wall; it was as if someone had boiled a pot of vomit and threw in a side of rotten eggs.

Osril seemed to be scarcely affected. The high-elf picked his way through the room, stepping towards something in the corner. At first, North thought it might be a dead rat--that would explain the smell, at least--but then he caught sight of movement. A living rat, maybe?

North crept closer, peering past Osril's shoulder. No, this wasn't a rat--it was shaped all wrong. It was much larger and sleeker, with something that looked like scales, and--

"Sweet merciful Light," North murmured, stepping back and hefting his hammer in front of him.

The fish had been dead for days, perhaps weeks; portions of its scales had rotted through clear to the bone, with a thick soup of black ichor creeping from the holes. Its mouth was nothing but a maze of teeth on top of teeth, each a razor-sharp scythe; it looked like some unearthly horror dredged up from the deepest pits of the sea.

But as North watched, the blind corpse jerked--its jaws opened and it breathed, gills flexing and spilling more of the vile slime. It flopped, its tail lashing and its teeth snapping at unseen prey.

North didn't think. He only reacted, bringing the hammer down in a single savage stroke. At once, there was a flash of crackling, burning light, and then the sound of crunching bones. He brought the hammer down again, and again, and would have continued until the fish was nothing but a smoldering scorch mark on the floor if it were not for Osril's hand darting out to seize his wrist.

"Stop," the high-elf said, and North surprised himself with his obedience. It was something in the elf's eyes; all that icy detachment was gone, replaced instead with intensity.

"I--Lights, what was that thing?!" North sputtered, hammer dangling in his hands. "That--that wasn't something a Death Knight would make."

Osril released North's wrist. "No. No, it was not."

"Then what the Fel was it?!"

"A possibility I would rather not consider."

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The magic growled under his palms, fighting to break free. Nathan held it back, smothering it beneath his will. But each time he seized control, it would dwindle and die.'

Frustrated by his failure, he drew out as much of it as he dared and urged it toward the target, flinging it with all the might he could muster. As the tendrils of stolen essence at last found itself free, it ignited into a hungry, flaming wreathe--nearly scorching Nathan's face off in the process.

Landing on his rear, the boy blinked owlishly at the scarecrow. All about it was scorched earth, but the target remained pristine and untouched.

"What was your mistake?"

Nathan looked back to his father, then down to his hands. He clenched them in frustration. "I couldn't control it," he said. "When I tried too hard, it would go out. When I try too little, it breaks free. I'm not powerful enough."

"Is that what you think you need? More power?"

Nathan turned his eyes back to his father, wide-eyed and confused. "Isn't it--I mean, isn't that what magic is all about?"

Nigel gave his son a rare smile.

"No, Nathan. Magic is not about power."

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"Magic is about power."

Far away from the tranquil halls of Dalaran, a fresh crop of students listened intently to their headmaster's opening address. They sat upon tombstones and ancient stone plinths nestled deep within the warmth of the Barov crypts, surrounded by over a century's worth of dust and bones.

"Dalaran and the Kirin Tor wish to withhold this power from you. Their reasons are obvious; for with magic comes strength, and with strength comes freedom. Freedom from the shackles of tyranny; freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from persecution and inequality. Indeed, in time," and here the near-mummified headmaster produced a long-toothed smile, "Freedom from Death itself."

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"Do you realize who that is?"

"Yes."

"Do you realize who you have allowed into our Master's house? That is Nigel Carveggio's brat!"

"I am aware."

"Have you lost your mind? You'll bring Dalaran down upon--"

"The boy has run away from home. They have no way of tracking him here. And consider! If we can turn him..."

"What if we can? One more lamb to the slaughter, no more valuable than the rest. The risk is too great."

"Have some vision. Nigel Carveggio is not a threat as long as his son is under our power. And you forget just how powerful Nigel is. Imagine if his son had half that potential..."

"If."

"And let us not forget that the Carveggio family is particularly... well-off."

"I see your point. But at the first twitch of insubordination--at the slightest sign of danger--"

"Of course. I'll personally feed him to the Ravenian."

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"You're Nigel Carveggio's son, aren't you?"

Nathan looked up from the book with a start. "How--who told you that?!"

The girl bit into the cradle of her lower lip. "One of the instructors mentioned it."

How would they possibly know? How could they possibly know? Did they suspect him of--

"My name's Rosalyn." She shoved her hand out to him. He took it, giving it a meek shake and hiding his blush behind the book. "You're kind of a celebrity here, you know."

"Huh?"

"Everyone who came from Dalaran knows Nigel Carveggio's name. The fire mage! In the second war, he--" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "They say he fought at the battle of the Dark Portal, right alongside Khadgar and the others. That he held off half a garrison of orcs on his own...!"

"Just stories." Nathan said, still fending off the intruding flush of color. She was pretty, especially in those black robes. The sudden burst of attention made him uncomfortable. "He didn't--"

"I came here because my family wasn't rich enough to buy books or send me to the Dalaran academy. But you--your father's famous! You could probably have gotten in for free. Why did you run away?"

The scalding warmth of those curious, sincere eyes left Nathan fumbling for an answer. But before he could stir up a half-convincing lie, something else sprang from his lips.

"I wanted to do something for myself."

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"When do we learn how to make bread and water?"

The question was answered by a deadly glare as the instructor stalked the room like a ravenous bird-of-prey, sending students scuttling whenever he approached. The pale man had a mechanical awkwardness about him, like an animated scarecrow that was only now becoming acquainted with the proper manner of movement and speech; his fingers twined together like knots of webs and Nathan could have sworn he saw spiders crawling about in his ice-blonde hair

"Who asked that?" Mordant Frostweave asked, eyes settling on Nathan. The boy was poised over his book, eyes scouring the text for some deeply buried secret. "You."

Nathan blinked, looking up. "Hm?"

"You said it."

Confusion struggled with surprise and was finally slain by indignance.

"No, sir. I didn't."

Mordant's finger stabbed down to Nathan's open book. The page stiffened and cracked beneath a crawling sprawl of frost. "Don't get clever with me, boy. You may think you're special just because you came from Dalaran, but we do not tolerate disobedience here in the Scholomance."

"I didn't say anything!"

"Another word out of you and I'll throw you into the bone-pit, understand?"

Nathan locked his mouth shut. Mordant smiled.

"Better. Now, where were we? Oh, yes--discussing the fundamentals of magic. I'm sure that the fools at Dalaran filled our dear Master Carveggio's mind with many ridiculous notions concerning magic," Mordant walked among the students as they struggled to write down his every word. "But here at Scholomance, we practice true magic--powerful magic. Not absurd cantrips."

Magic isn't about power.

"Open your books to page 57."

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"You mentioned fighting Death Knights in the second war."

North sighed, repacking the bell of the old wood pipe and giving it a tap to loosen the ash. "Yes. It was a long time ago."

"Did you encounter any--"

"Yes," North cut Osril off. "One of the old batallions I served in. They were slaughtered. By the time we arrived--"

"You had to put them down."

North turned to the smoldering hearth. "I knew some of them. Fought side-by-side with them. I even knew some of their families, back from Stratholme. I had to--"

"You did the right thing." Perhaps it was North's imagination, but he thought he heard the slightest hint of sympathy in Osril's tone. "They were all ready dead."

"I reported what we found in the ship to Sullivan. He said they'll report it back to Lordaeron and the Kirin Tor, but it's probably nothing to worry about."

"He does not believe you. He does not believe we saw what we did."

"What did we see, Osril?"

"I am not all together sure, Master Satterly. But I intend to find out."

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Lambs to the Slaughter Edit

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With an urgent tug of fingers, Nigel drew forth ribbons of living flame from the restless air. An errant gesture sent them lashing forward, scalding the rancid flesh of the undead - drawing long stretches of charred meat across them.

One after the other, each creature was lavished with the touch of fire - until each in turn bore Nigel's blackened mark. Undeterred, they continued to shamble forward.

Calmly, he spoke a word. The freshly-burned symbols glowed a bright scarlet, then exploded - one after the other bursting like over-ripe kernels of corn, erupting in flashes of disintegrating heat.

Nathan peeked out from behind Nigel's leg. To the little boy - who had only recently learned how to speak - the fire mage seemed to tower as high as the heavens.

"Are you all right, Nathan?"

Nathan nodded his head, then looked back at the house. "Mom?"

"Gather your things. We're leaving for Dalaran."

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"The undead are without sickness or pain."

Trembling, the skeleton drew itself to its feet. It was a spiny unnatural thing that hunched low, it's crude form stapled together with metal slots.

"They feel no thirst, no hunger, no age."

The thing made a low, guttural hiss, it's hollow sockets giving an uneven pulse.

"Imagine, children! A society without disease or famine, without death or war. A society where all are equal. This is what the Lich-King offers you..."

The skeleton twisted and writhed beneath the flow of magics, suddenly clutching at it's bleached skull with long, crawling nails.

"...no wonder Lordaeron is terrified! They fear our righteousness, our-"

It released an ear-shattering shriek and lunged towards the students, hungry claws reaching for eyes.

It was swallowed in a ball of flame and shadow and belched out as dust.

Mordant sniffed. "Of course, some mistakes are expected. You have your home-work, children..."

The class shuffled quietly out of the room.

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"I think being undead sounds awful," Rosalyn mused. "What do you think, Nathan?"

"I don't know." Nathan was scratching notes into his journal, skimming through an open book.

"You seem awfully intent on studying all those demonology books," Rosalyn noted, eyeing the dangerous binding. "Demons are a lot more dangerous than the undead. At least with the undead, you know where you stand."

"It's just very interesting," Nathan mentioned distractedly. "And Master Mordant said we should take from a broad spectrum of studies."

"Just don't forget what you're here to learn," Rosalyn added, leaning forward to peer at the particular chapter Nathan was focusing on.

Nathan snapped the book shut. "I won't."

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Three key ingredients are required for the summoning of a demon: Will, patience, and sacrifice.

Nathan's finger paused beneath that last word. Sacrifice.

Nathan bit his lip, glancing around the room. Several students were sleeping, their school-issued grimoires clutched desperately to their chests.

The boy rose to his feet and drew his dagger. He snuck his way to the corner of the room where his eyes caught the sight of something moving.

"I'm sorry," He whispered, then closed his eyes and slammed the dagger down.

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The first thing Rupmat did was spit out a wad of foul-tasting phlegm.

"Rat's blood? You used a rat to summon me?" The impling was stricken with disbelief. "I've never worked for so little! I'd have even settled for orc's blood, or maybe a dead elf, but a rat?!"

Nathan sniffled, blinking back tears. He was too awe-struck by the shriveled little thing in front of him to offer any sort of comment--instead, he just stared, his chin perched atop of his folded knees and his arms wrapped around his shins.

"Despicable!" Rupmat stomped furiously, before pausing to stare up at the silent boy. He folded his arms across his chest, wicked little flames whorling above him in a mockery of a halo. "Well?"

"Well what?" Nathan sniffed.

"Are you going to let me go, or what?"

"You have to do what I tell you," Nathan mumbled, rubbing at one of his wet puffy eyes.

"Huff! You think you're pretty clever, don't you? Little bratling. You aren't the boss of--"

"I know you have to do what I tell you, and if you don't stop being a pest, I'll tell you to bite off your own fingers," Nathan snapped.

Rupmat harumphed. "Fine. Be that way. So what did you summon me for anyway, boss?"

"I need your help." Nathan glanced around the room, making sure none of the sleeping students were within ear-shot. "You're going to be evidence."

"Evidence of what?"

"To prove my father was right. That there is a school for warlocks and necromancers in Caer Darrow. I'm going to take you to the Kirin Tor..."

"The Kirin Tor?! They'll EAT me!" it shrieked.

"Be quiet!" Nathan hissed, shoving his hand roughly around the impling's head. Once the creature had quieted down, he drew his arms back and returned to sitting. "They won't hurt you. I won't let them. After I show you to them, I'll... I'll just send you back."

"What's your rush to leave, anyway? Joint looks pretty nice, actually," Rupmat mentioned, giving the crypt a once-over. "Kind of homey."

"I hate this place. It's awful. I want to go home."

"Maybe you should give it a chance," The impling offered slyly. "Listen. It's pretty bad here, yes, but you're learning things, right? You learned how to summon me, right?"

"Yes, and I had to kill a rat to do it." Nathan sniffled some more. "And you're evil."

"Hey, now. You don't even know me yet." The imp put on his most charming grin, which was somewhere between a grimace and a snarl. "Besides, now that you've got me, things get easier."

"Easier?"

"Didn't they telling you this all ready? By Sargeras' eye, what are they teaching you kids these days?! I'm your door into the serious magic, boss. I can teach you things. Big things. Great things. But only if you feed me."

"Feed... you?"

"Yeah. I eat grimoires." The imp licked his chops. "And I'm feelin' a serious case of munchies coming on."

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Araj -

The boy's training is coming along splendidly. Initially he showed a great deal of reluctance, but recently he has grown a voracious appetite for books. Infact, perhaps a little too voracious - several key tomes have gone missing.

His power is considerable. I believe he will make an excellent asset for the operation to come. However, his loyalty is questionable. I have it from good sources that he may have originally arrived here with the intent to spy on us.

Ah, the whims of children, yes?

I await your further instruction.

-Headmaster Gandling

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Lord Gandling,

I must humbly protest against your decision to grant Nathan Carveggio access to our restricted books. Not only is he unready (the boy lacks any sense of discipline, control, or respect for authority), but I have reason to believe he is guilty of theft.

I would recommend that you place him directly underneath my tutelage. I am confidant in my ability to whip him into shape.

Your Most Humble Servant,

Mordant Frost

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Master Carveggio:

We regret to inform you that as of the time-stamped date of this letter, the bulk of your estate has been liquidated in an attempt to reimburse our company. If you are able to find means to pay your outstanding debts towards us within two weeks, please immediately come to our offices in southern Stormwind.

You will find a receipt disclosing the full details of what you owe on the loans and mortgages included with this letter.

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Nigel:

Your son has been missing for several months. You must come to terms with the fact that he is very likely dead. Stop this fruitless search and return to Dalaran - your people need you. Lordaeron has all ready sent out a formal request for aid.

I have allowed you your quest out of both professional respect for you as well as experience in how it feels to lose a child, but my patience has reached its limits. Either return to your official duties or turn in your resignation.

Landazar

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In the back of the tavern, a woman started to sing a bawdy off-key drinking song. Near its front, Nigel crumpled a letter in his fist and threw it into the hearth, watching as it crumpled inwards to the flame.

"This was not my decision, Nigel--"

"Be at ease, Kalem. My quarrel is not with you. You are merely their errand boy."

The mageling bristled beneath this insult, but quickly pushed his irritation aside. "Along with the letter, I was told to bring another message to you. One of vindication."

"Oh?" There was scarcely a shred of interest in Nigel's tone.

"There are murmurs that the Horde may be making a return. And on top of this, whispers of a plague..."

Nigel did not turn from the fire. "How fascinating."

"We have reason to believe that your concern with Kel'Thuzzad's research may not have been unfounded. Our spies tell us Kel'Thuzzad has created a school, where he teaches students--"

"Really, now. You don't say."

Kalem grimaced, sighed, and turned to distract himself from his sense of indignation by tracing the lines of a nearby barmaid. "Instead of offering you an apology, we're prepared to give you something better."

"The Kirin Tor have nothing of interest to me."

Kalem turned back to Nigel and allowed himself a knowing smile. "Command of your own unit."

The singing stopped. Nigel turned to Kalem, staring intently.

"No orders from the Kirin Tor to slow you down. No magician's bureaucracy to pander to. Our only concern is that you pursue the matter of this plague--and its architects--with all your vast and considerable talents."

"Those who have been infected?"

"Quarantine them. Study them. If they can be cured--do so. If they cannot--"

"Kel'Thuzzad?"

"Bring him back. Dead or alive."

"Will my unit be functioning independently?"

"No. You'll be part of a military attachment to Lordaeron's forces. As far as they're concerned, this is a matter of blackrock orcs. The plague is a secondary concern to them. However, we have reason to believe that the orcs and Kel'Thuzzad are working together."

"Ah. So I'll be taking orders from a spoonfed Lordaeron aristocrat."

"No. You'll be the commanding officer's liason to Dalaran, working beneath him--but you'll function independently so long as you supply him with adequate support. Your agenda is monitoring, controlling, and learning about the plague, as well as finding out Kel'Thuzzad's current whereabouts." Kalem paused, before adding: "The commander is still young, perhaps a bit brash, but I think you two will get along splendidly."

"What is his name?"

"Prince Arthas Menethil."

The woman started singing again, this time twice as loud. Nigel turned back to the fire, watching patiently as it spat and crackled.

"Very well. For Dalaran's sake, I accept."

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Huff, huff, huff...

"Uuuunnnh..."

"Yeah," Nathan panted, "I know I'm late, but-"

"Nnnrrrrrgh..."

"There was an accident in the alchemy lab, and-"

"Nnnnnggh..."

"C'mon, are you going to let me in or what?"

The glowering corpse finally gave a relenting grunt and shuffled to the side. Nathan grinned. "Thanks. I owe you some fresh stitches." He bolted into the room.

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The viewing room was alive with pitch and flame.

Nathan coaxed forth streaks of scarlet from the reluctant air, lashing tongues of fire upwards to catch Rosalyn's errant spells. Attack after attack was gobbled up by bursts of heat, burning enchantments away.

"That's cheating," Rosalyn frowned. She snatched a shadow from the air and threw it at Nathan.

Nathan grinned, igniting it with a wave of his hand. "That's magic."

"How did you get so good so fast?"

"It's a secret."

Rosalyn drew up another spell into her fingers, letting the shadows dance between her knuckles before sending them racing towards Nathan's feet. Nathan visibly blanched as the curse settled over him, stumbling back.

"Humph! And now I'll turn you into a frog." Rosalyn darted forward, fingers wiggling with playful menace.

Twisting under the weight of the curse, Nathan dropped to his knees and drew a symbol on the dust of the floor. Just as Rosalyn was about to reach him, the symbol grew bright - and the floor began to glow.

"AUGH!" Rosalyn yelped, springing back and out of Nathan's radius. The earth around him grew blackened and charred. "Nathan! What are you doing?" Panic edged into Rosalyn's voice.

Nathan grimaced, wiping the symbol away. The glow immediately abated - but when he rose, he looked a bit more pale with small trails of smoke rising up from his shoulders. He smelled slightly of sulphur. "I don't think I'm ready for that one."

"What kind of spell was that? It burned you, too."

"It's a spell I'm researching. My father used to do something like it. I think I got it wrong, though..."

Rosalyn yelped as Nathan's fingers suddenly lashed out, rousing a sleeping shadow at her feet to awaken and clutch at her legs and waist. The girl struggled for a moment against the murky bindings, then found herself face-to-face with a suddenly very-close Nathan.

"Hum, I win. Do I get a kiss?"

Rosalyn blinked and blushed furiously, squirming. "No."

"You're no fun." Nathan waved to the shadows. "Off with you. Scoot! Shoo!" Reluctantly, they obeyed.

"You've gotten a lot less shy..."

"Yes. It's been a good year, I think. I didn't know magic could be this..."

"Interesting?"

"Yes. It was always abysmally boring books and theories. My dad didn't like it if I had fun."

"Well..."

"Sorry to interrupt your 'conversation'," Both students could feel Mordant's chilling presence before they saw him. "But Nathan and I have business. Rosalyn, be a dear and return to your studies."

Rosalyn peeked out from behind Nathan's shoulder, quickly nodded, and darted off to do just that. Nathan quietly prepared himself as Mordant approached, fingers wiggling. He didn't trust Frost - not one bit.

"I bet you think you're special, don't you?"

"No, sir."

"Learning all those spells so quickly isn't natural. Who's helping you?"

"No one, sir."

"I'm quite sure." Mordant clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "Despite my request to the contrary, Gandling has decided to allow you the oppurtunity to work on one of this school's most important operations. It will be your graduation project."

"Operation, sir?"

"You will be aiding in the research of a very important spell. An alchemical reagent, actually. Several members of our school - including myself - have all ready contributed. I doubt you will add much of interest, but it might provide excellent experience for you."

"I understand, sir."

"I will have the pertinent research documents delivered to you shortly. Review them immediately and submit a paper detailing your thoughts. Due tonight. Before light's out."

"Yes, sir."

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Stratholme is burning Edit

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Stratholme was burning.

There was a flash of flame, and then the elf was on the ground screaming.

"I trust you can attend to your own injuries." Nigel carefully stepped over the writhing, gasping priest. His eyes sought out the contents of the cathedral, slowly looking over the few remaining refugees who had gathered here.

All huddling, fearful peasants - not a usable soldier among them.

Nigel waited as the dwarven gunsmen slipped him behind him, their dreadful weapons clanking and clattering. Once they were in position, he turned away.

"Open fire."

The priest's plea for mercy was swallowed up by the roar of dwarven-made blunderbusses, belching forth fire and pitch. The elf's hand found purchase upon Nigel's boot, and the mage gave a moment's pause to stare down at the burnt healer. The wounded man's voice was dry and hoarse, filled with desperation.

"What--what are you doing?!"

Nigel brought his foot down atop of the elf's melting ear. Then he twisted his heel.

"My job."

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"What in the Light's name is going on!?" North's fingers hooked down into the guardsman's collar, pulling him close.

The man was gasping for air, his soot-covered face baring a gaping sort of terror. "We're under attack! The--The--"

"Who? Where? Where are our troops?!" Everything was painted in red - the color of flames. Somewhere in the distance, a building was collapsing. North could hear a woman screaming over the blaze.

"They're the ones attacking."

"What are you talking about?" His wife's face shined freshly in his mind. "Where are the women and children?"

"The--The hospice," The man croaked, twisting and writhing to get out of the paladin's grip - as if his fingers burned. "The cathedral. I have to--I have to get out of here."

But North was no longer listening. The paladin had let go of the soldier and leapt atop of his steed, and was now riding into the heart of the blaze - towards the cathedral.

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Every available wagon, cart, box, and barrel was used to erect a barricade at the front of the cathedral. A narrow entrance was left and the dwarven gun-men were stationed along the sides. Their rifles poked out from between the slots of wood like menacing daggers, bristling with ill intent.

"There will be more refugees," Nigel explained calmly to the recently promoted sergeant. The dwarf's previous superiors had either been killed by the Scourge or dismissed because of their inability to do what was necessary. "They will no doubt come here hoping to find sanctuary. Do not fire immediately on sight. Wait until they have gathered to pass through the barricade, when their suspicions have been quelled."

The dwarf swallowed, nodding as he listened. Today, he had all ready seen things - done things - that would haunt him for the rest of his life. A few more atrocities wouldn't make much of a difference.

Nigel seemed to sense some sort of hesitancy from his second-in-command. "Compassion and sentimentality are luxuries we can not afford, Sergeant. This is war. If we do not kill them, the plague will. We are saving their souls."

"Sir!" One of the dwarves barked. Nigel's gaze swept towards the city's streets. Beyond the barricade, tired and weary citizens were rapidly making their way towards the looming comfort of the cathedral.

"Ready your men, Sargeant."

It was a small group - no more than 8. Most of them were men and women, but through the smoke and haze of flame they could make out several smaller figures.

"...Sir?"

"No one passes this barricade."

"Sir. They're-"

"No one."

"For the love of rock, they're just-"

"Open fire, Sargeant."

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At last, North thought, someone who knows what they're doing. The sight of the barricade just before the looming comfort of the cathedral was welcome respite from the chaos that reigned throughout the city. He could only pray his wife had taken the children there - if not...

Daffodil whickered nervously beneath him as he rode forward, raising his hammer in greeting. Ahead, there was another group of refugees - just a small group of men, women, and children. After he had seen that they safely got in, he would-

At first, North thought that the dwarven muskets were firing at pursuers behind them - attackers that he had not seen. It was only a few moments later - after the first barrage, as the dwarves moved to reload - that he realized with a monstrous horror that it was the refugees they, armed Alliance riflemen under the banner of Lordaeron, were firing at.

Arthas.

Rage and fear clutched his heart all at once. He dropped low atop of Daffodil, ushering her towards an alley as stray bullets cracked against the walls on either side of him. Up ahead, the bulk of the refugees were down - and a second volley of bullets would be soon in coming.

Breathing raggedly, North dismounted and pressed his back against the wall. He reached for the hammer slung over Daffodil's back, tested its reassuring weight, and gritted his teeth.

Before the next volley was slung, the paladin let out a bellowing roar and leapt out into the street - charging straight for the barricade.

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"Reload. Fire again."

"Sir, I think there's a soldi-"

A disoriented and furious paladin. It must have been one of Uther's devotees, one of those flockless starlings, only now returning to roost. What a waste.

"I know. He's not one of ours. Fire again, Sergeant."

Nigel's command was as chilling as the slashing rain. Lowering his head and reloading, the dwarf and his men started to take aim.

And that's when they heard the battle-cry.

Nigel frowned. "Aim for the soldier. Everyone."

6 musket-shots rang out in the freezing rain.

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Hammer in hand - drenched in rain - and washed in the crimson glow of his burning home - North Satterly roared and charged.

As the muskets exploded with flares of fire and smoke, North prayed for strength and received it. Bullets pinged harmlessly against his skin and bone, glancing off him like rain-drops. By the time the dwarves were starting to reload, North had all ready reached the barricade.

He channeled his rage - forced it - into the hammer. It crackled with a bright, blinding light, and as he brought it down across one of the carts in front of him, he felt it swell and burst out of the weapon, shredding everything before him. For a moment, there was resistance - and then he was behind the barricade, face to face with what could only be a mad-man.

In that moment, Nigel Carveggio - calm, handsome, and immaculately dressed in black and gold - was to North the embodiment of the evils he witnessed.

The hammer pulsed in North's hand. He brought it about to broadside Nigel's head - and missed as the mage ducked beneath the blow, weaving skillfully backwards.

Nigel's wrist twisted, his fingers curling into the air. Suddenly, rain-soaked oxygen flared and blossomed before him in a roaring wall of heat and flame, crashing across North's side and sending him reeling back into one of the dwarven musketeers. Tumbling away and rolling to his feet, North ignored the ache of burns that had stripped across his side and charged a second time.

As he stepped close towards Nigel, he barely perceived the increase in temperature around them - or the way rain boiled around them, sheathing the mage in a constant column of steam. He didn't feel the bite of scorch marks spreading along his waist and chest as he brought the hammer down again and again, forcing Nigel to weave and dodge back towards the cathedral wall. The only sensation he was familiar with was rage - boundless and uncontrollable rage at this petty, stupid little man who had just gunned down innocent women and children.

And then there was a rising burst of fire, and all of North's senses were overwhelmed.

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"Sir! The undead!"

"Fire. FIRE!"

The burnt and unconscious paladin was forgotten in a roar of gun-shots as lurching, hungry ghouls clambered up eagerly to snatch what remained of the refugees outside of the barricade. Dwarven muskets launched volley after volley into the approaching creatures, but they only swelled in number.

A cloud of steam surrounded Nigel Carveggio as he stepped outside of the barricade, lifting his hands. Monsterous walls of glowing heat rushed forth to greet the undead, swallowing them up in flashes of popping scarlet and fire. Over the roar of crackling magic and flame, Nigel called back to the dwarves to make a full retreat - the tide of undead was too strong. He would hold them back for as long as he could.

"Look upon me, mageling, and despair."

Rising before the cathedral like a looming antithesis, the Dreadlord Mal'Ganis stepped forth from the gibbering hordes of the Scourge, hungry blade in hand. Wordlessly, Nigel released an unrelenting stream of heat and flame upon the approaching demon, but it was to no avail.

"Stolen fire, little flames against me? Idiot. Begone."

As his troops fled with the unconscious North in tow, Nigel Carveggio was grasped in the clutches of Mal'Ganis - and then unceremoniously flung into one of the buildings he had helped to burn.

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"This one's dead."

The sounds of boots cracking and crunching against stone. The smell of fire, of brimstone, of smoke, but most of all the smell of burnt flesh. Burning flesh.

"This one too. Don't think anyone's left alive in here, boss."

"Keep looking."

The sounds were closer, now, and accompanied by the noise of rocks being lifted and wood being broken.

"Something under here. Oh, crickey, look at this. This one's deader than dead. Seriously dead."

The voices were just above him. He felt something - vague pressure, nothing more - against the side of his neck.

"Oh... oh sweet merciful Light... This one's..." This voice spoke with trembling horror. "The sorry bastard is still alive!"

"Hold my torch." Hands were pressed against his chest, now. He felt a faint warmth pulse through him, flowing like heat through his veins - and it was only then that he suddenly felt the pain.

Indescribable. Excruciating. Beyond words. Incomprehensible.

Dimly, Nigel Carveggio realized he was trying to scream. All he could make was a dry, hoarse croak.

"It's... I think it's the mage, boss. Look, he's even got the... The mantle, and everything!"

Nigel could see, but only in blurry colors. Some strange yellow blob was hovering over him, with a smaller darker blob somewhere behind it. When he concentrated - he was thankful for anything to take his mind off of the unspeakable, impossible pain - he could make out what looked like a long, slender ear poking out of the first blob's head.

Just one.

Damn it.

"Indeed," The elf Nigel had mutilated spoke, his one good eye watching closely. "It is. Master... Carveggio, was it?"

Nigel only croaked.

"Lay still."

The elf's hands gave another pulse, and again warmth spread through Nigel. He shivered, struggling to form words with a disobedient tongue - and finally managed to make them.

"What... are you... doing?"

"My job." The elf's voice was impenetrably stern.

"It... hurts..."

"Your wounds are too extensive to heal beyond this point, Master Carveggio." The priest was rising, moving to walk away. Nigel realized he was going to be left here to die alone.

"...wa... wait..."

"I am obligated to heal you, but nothing more," The elf explained. "I have done that to the best of my ability. Good bye, Master Carveggio."

"...de... deal..." Nigel swallowed, his throat gurgling.

The elf's stern face stared down at Nigel. "I am uninterested in your money."

"...n... not money..."

"Then what could you possibly offer me that would make me interested in helping something as wretched as you?"

Trying to lick his lips, Nigel soon gave up at this futile pursuit (he had no more lips to lick) and worked to force the words from his throat.

"...ah... atoe... ah.."

"What's he trying to say, boss?" The gnome asked.

"...ah... atoe... men..."

In a rare moment of expression, the elf's eyes narrowed just slightly. "Atonement?"

Nigel slowly nodded.

"Now that, Master Carveggio," said Osril For'thirrel, "is intriguing."

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

Rupmat gnawed hungrily on the skull of the very same rat he had been summoned with so long ago. "Hey, boss."

"Hm?" Nathan was pouring over his tomes, scribbling away notes.

"When are we splittin' this joint? It's been a while, now."

"Soon. Graduation is in a few weeks, maybe a month."

"I thought you were supposed to report these guys to the Kirin Tor, or something?"

"Yes," Nathan nodded, chewing thoughtfully at the tip of the feather. "But... I'm learning a lot more here than I ever learned back at Dalaran. Why not finish my education, first?"

"It's boring here. You got another book?"

"Here, fresh from the library." Nathan threw the grimoire down before Rupmat, who immediately dropped the rat's skull and sprang upon the binding. Sniffing the book carefully, the imp proceeded to give it an indepth inspection, eyeing it for any imperfections.

"Hmm... Excellent year, exquisite binding... Yes, I think this will do perfectly!"

Rupmat's jaw suddenly cracked wide open, dislocating. He roughly shoved the book downwards into his mandibles, momentarily distorting his throat with the bulging shape of the manual, then swallowed it whole. The book's shape immediately disappeared - and Rupmat expelled a belch.

"Delicious."

"Now shush. I need to finish this by tonight, or old man Frost will freeze me into a statue and use me as a coat-rack."

"Maybe I can help with-"

"Thanks but no thanks. I'm just about done. Why don't you gnaw on your rat skull s'more?"

"Hmph."

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

Mordant Frost pursed his lips, eyes scouring the paper for mistakes. It was only after a whole minute had passed before he gazed at Nathan.

"Your solution is clumsy, but... adequate."

It almost hurts him to admit that, Nathan secretly gloated.

"I shall add your equation to the formula." Mordant slid the paper aside. "Be honored. Your meager contribution shall sit besides some of the most brilliant minds Azeroth has to offer."

"What is it exactly I've been helping to make?" Nathan blurted his question out with the direct sincerity only children could manage.

Mordant scowled. "That's not your place to ask, bratling. Be thankful for my generosity and return to your quarters. Somehow, you have managed to get this far without a fatal mistake. But you still have one more day left."

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

Shortly after, a letter arrived at Gandling's desk. It was as it always was: Simple, brutal, and written with elegance:

Gandling:

I have concerns over some of the more recent changes. Test the new product. Considering we all ready have ample flock in the fields, your lambs will make adequate subjects.

Spare those you deem to be an asset.

-K

Head-master Gandling pondered over the letter briefly before committing it to the candle-flame.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

The solution to Mordant's final equation had been the most troublesome. Nathan had only arrived at it after much pondering and a strange dream.

Silently, he traced the answer he had provided upon the floor. It was the same sigil he saw his father use to dispatch the dead, by scrawling it upon their chests with flame.

"Hey, what are you doing messing with that stuff?" Rupmat's grating voice drilled into Nathan's ear from his shoulder. The boy grimaced, throwing a angry stare.

"Shush. I'm studying this symbol."

"That symbol?" Rupmat sniffed. "That's heavy stuff, boss."

"You know this symbol? Tell me about it," Nathan instantly commanded.

Rupmat sniffed some more. "Demonic stuff, boss. Strong mojo. Some of the strongest. It's a contract, see," he explained, shuffling off Nathan's shoulder to land at the foot of the mark. Tracing a wickedly curved claw down it's surface, he tapped where it ended. "Basically, you make a trade."

"A trade?" Nathan frowned. His father had used a demonic sigil?

"Yeah, a trade. Something for now, and payment later. Like I said, dangerous mojo. Cosmic debt and that sort of stuff. I don't know all about it, but..."

"My father used this a lot. He'd scrawl it on enemies with lashes of fire..."

"Ooh, your dad was a 'Lock?"

Nathan instantly boxed Rupmat's ears. The imp shrieked, dancing in a frantic fury.

"What was that for?!"

"My dad isn't a Warlock," Nathan scowled.

"But he used that symbol, didn't he?"

Nathan frowned, then erased the symbol from the ground.

Clumsy, but... adequate.

Something didn't feel right.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

"The Lich-King wishes you all to partake in the bounty of his love. Behold, children - your graduation dinner."

None of them - not even Nathan - had ever seen a feast so lavishly decadent. The table groaned beneath the weight of meats, breads, and cheeses of every type - with bottles of wine set at every seat.

"You have justly earned this," Head-master Gandling explained, standing at the end of the table. "Now feast to your heart's content."

Everyone rushed forward in a daze, drawn by the intoxicating smell. They had been fed nothing but bread and water for over a year, and the sight of so much delicious food was too much for them. But as Nathan and Rosalyn moved, a set of cold hands seized their shoulders.

"Not you two," Mordant Frost hissed, his eyes laced with frigid displeasure. "You don't get to eat. Not a bite."

Nathan positively fumed. He was one step away from frying Mordant like a stuck pig, but a glance to Rosalyn quieted him up. He sulked while the other students eagerly tore into freshly prepared roast boar and lamb chops.

"My dear, dear children," Head-master Gandling began with a crooked smile. "Allow me to say that it has been an absolute pleasure to teach every single one of you. However, as you may or may not know, our Master has asked us to limit the output of our school this year. With this in mind, I am saddened to announce only a select few of you will be graduating."

Some of the students glanced over to Nathan and Rosalyn and instantly assumed that they were the ones who were to be left out. Although a rare few gave them sympathic glances, the vast majority gloated between bites of succulent meat and soft, warm bread.

"However, to those who have not made the cut, fear not. In His infinite love, the Lich-King has found a use for you..." Gandling's smile was blissfully sweet as he watched the students stuff themselves full of the fine, exquisite food. "You will serve him in another capacity."

Several of the students were rubbing their bellies, looking mildly troubled. The meal seemed to be giving them indigestion. One or two of them looked as if they had eaten too much, and were on the verge of vomitting.

Nathan, who was positively squirming underneath Mordant's icy touch, noticed something was going horribly wrong.

"They're getting pale. What's... What's going on?"

"Shut up. You have been given an honor, boy," Mordant growled. "You get to see the fruits of your labor in action."

"Oh. Oh..." Rosalyn blinked, hands darting up to her cheeks.

Many of the students were groaning now, clutching at their bellies or squirming in their seats in pain. One or two had collapsed to the floor and showed no signs of moving beyond an occasional twitch. Some were trying to escape, stumbling to their feet and clumsily making their way to the door.

"What's wrong, my dear, sweet children? Do you not enjoy our delightful repast? Our chefs toiled hard for you," Gandling jeered, stepping in front of one of the escapees. He shoved him back towards the table, grinning.

Like Death at a carnival, Nathan thought, and shivered. "They need help! Let go!" He shouted up at Mordant, who only tightened his grip.

It was then that Nathan did a very foolish thing. With a thought and a gesture of his fingers, he pulled out a handful of flame and pressed it close against Mordant's knuckles.

"Augh! You little bastard!" Mordant shrieked, drawing back at the scent of his own flesh burning. Nathan darted forward, charging towards the table of groaning children. The first one he found had fallen back to the floor with bread-crumbs still clinging to his chin.

"Hey! Are you all ri-"

The boy fell to the floor, spasming and kicking.

Several of the students who had stopped moving now began to draw themselves up to their feet. There was a slowness about them, as if every action had to be carefully calculated... And when they opened their eyes, there was nothing but a milky white stare, absent of anything.

Nathan stepped back. He recognized the blankness on their faces. He had seen it countless times as a child: the face of the undead.

"Nathan. Calm yourself," Gandling purred, making his way between the rising undead. Most of the students had all ready made the transition, and were now obediently shuffling behind the teacher. "Mmmm... This version of the plague works much more quickly, Mordant..."

Mordant was still eyeing the burns on his hand, spitting out a series of curses. "That little--Why the Fel is he still alive, Gandling?!" The mage pointed at Nathan, fuming with rage.

"Because he has promise. Don't you, Nathan...?" Gandling smiled.

Nathan was staring at the boy with bread crumbs smeared across his chin, who had only just now entered the final stages of death. His eyes fluttered open, pupils obscured beneath a misty layer of pearl white.

"Now be a good boy and apologize to Mordant for burning him. Our Master is pleased with your progress, Nathan, as he is with Rosalyn's. He would like it very much if--What in the world is that?" Gandling frowned, staring at Marcus' temple.

A single sigil had appeared, glowing a brilliant scarlet. It seemed to burn up from under the crown of Marcus' brow, bulging into a small burst of smoke. Nathan had used his father's mark in the formula, a contract with the Burning Legion.

Demonic stuff, boss. Strong mojo. Some of the strongest. It's a contract, see. Basically, you make a trade.

Realization seized Nathan's mind. His solution hadn't merely been a clumsy equation, but an unwitting request for aid. And now the contract was rising to the surface, waiting only for a word before the daemons could take part of their due.

Nathan looked up from Marcus, his hand extending out to the rest of the class. Slowly, the very same symbol began to appear upon each of their heads - the sigil buried in Nathan's final equation, hidden within the poisoned spell that had killed them.

"Nathan. What's going on?" Gandling's eyes narrowed for only a moment, trying to read the boy. When he realized he could not, he moved to kill him.

Nathan remembered his father's blackened mark, etched upon the flesh of the damned. He remembered how his father drew it in fire, scribing a contract upon each of the undead. And he remembered, most importantly of all, how his father fulfilled the contract.

He whispered a single word.

All but two of Scholomance's graduating class burst into flames.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

If there was a limit as to how many stupid things a person was allowed to do in a life-time, Nathan was sure he had not only surpassed it, but killed it, burned it, and spread its ashes to the four winds.

Rosalyn's weight was unbearable. So was the pain - Nathan had not been aware until this point that a person could feel this much pain and still be alive. Every part of him ached. His eyebrows were in a state of perpetual agony.

Covered in burns and with the unconscious girl slung over his back, the young boy clumsily made his way out of Caer Darrow. Behind him, he left only smoldering wreckage and the scent of burning corpses.

A lot of burning corpses.

His boots sloshed through the water as he struggled to the far shore. Behind him, he heard yells and shouts. The other instructors were being rallied to attend to the blaze. It would provide enough cover for him to get as much distance between him and that awful school as possible.

It was then and only then that Nathan heard the thing he dreaded most:

"Hello, Master Carveggio," Mordant icily hissed. "Going somewhere?"

Nathan only had a shred of a second to throw Rosalyn to shore before the icy blast lashed across his back, sending pain crawling up his shoulders.

He threw a spear of flame and shadow towards Mordant, who only sniffed disdainfully as it was snuffed out a foot in front of him. "Please. Don't insult me with your paltry cantrips." He waved, and the water beneath Nathan was nothing but ice - ice that swallowed him up to his knees.

Nathan's fingers wriggled over the surface of the ice, seeking purchase to draw his father's symbol. But as it melted, the mark became illegible.

"How absolutely predictable. Relying on the same old tricks, are we? You can't write a contract born of fire into ice, pratling." Mordant grinned as ribbons of distant flame reached for him before peetering out. "And my wards won't let you scribe that same mark on me. It looks like you're out of tricks, aren't you?"

Nathan wracked his brain for some spell that would work against the mage, but he could find nothing. As Mordant's hands wrapped around his throat, he felt a collar of frost slowly forming over him. Choking, he clutched at Mordant's wrists.

"Don't worry. I won't kill you, not yet. Oh, I won't do it today, maybe not tommorow... A death like yours needs to be splendid. It needs to be artistic, you see..."

Nathan's mouth opened, but no sound came out. Mordant's stare bore down through his skull, grinding deeper.

"You'll never be powerful, Nathan. You'll always be the second-rate son of a washed up little twit."

We aren't powerful. We are merely necessary.

In the haze of ensuing unconsciousness, Nathan's hands relinquished their grip upon Mordant's wrists. A small twitter of flame flared at his fingertips.

"What...? Are you going to try and mark me? It won't work. You can't write your little contract on me, pratling."

Magic isn't about power.

Nathan's finger moved to his opposite hand. For a moment, it was agony - but after that it wasn't so bad.

Magic is about sacrifice.

The mark stretched it's shape across Nathan's palm, bursting into life. With the only breath Nathan could manage to muster, he whispered a word.

Then he brought the marked hand up to Mordant's face.

Mordant blinked. Puzzlement gave way to horror. "You wrote the contract on your own fles-?!"

These were the last words of Mordant Frost.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|


Whispered rumours of a growing plague throughout Lordaeron had made many of the farmers wary, which may have explained why Samuel Parker answered the knock at his door with a club close by.

His grim stoicism instantly gave way to shock when he saw who was waiting for him.

"Rosalyn?!"

The girl was unconscious - stretched out across the arms of a pale red-headed boy who looked as if he had been through three layers of Hell and back again. His eyes were sunken, and his left hand was completely covered up in bandages.

"Listen to me. Take your girl," he told him. "Take her and everything you own. And get out of here. Go to the south, to Stormwind. Do it now. Tonight. If you don't, you will die."

"Why?"

"Plague's coming," the boy said. "It's going to be nasty business."

"Where has she b-"

"No more questions. If you care for your family, take them far away from here. Tonight."

Leaving the farmer only to dumbly stare, the boy limped his way back to the road.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

"Where we going, boss?"

Nathan grimaced as he unwrapped his hand, exposing the freshly burned sigil to the air. "Back to Lordaeron."

The recently resummoned Rupmat scowled, munching on a bit of hay he found in the back of the farmer's wagon. "Lordaeron? That place? Shouldn't we go straight to the Kirin Tor?"

"They won't listen to a word I have to say with this mark on me," Nathan numbly mumbled. He flexed his fingers, wincing at the way the burn painfully stretched. "Our only bet is to find my father, and my father will be wherever the plague hits hardest."

"And you think it's going to hit Lordaeron hard?"

"Yeah," Nathan sighed, rewrapping his hand. "Probably."

"You know, boss, you got bad mojo now. You're gonna have to pay up," Rupmat idly noted, swallowing back a clump of hay. "Your hand belongs to the Twisting Nether."

"These sorts of things happen," Nathan smiled whimsically. "Can't be helped." The bandages were wrapped tight.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|

"Rosalyn? Are you awake, dear...?"

"Where's Nathan?"

"Oh, thank goodness you're awa-"

"Where's Nathan?"

"Who is that? Is that the boy who brought you here...? He left, we don't know where he is. Oh Samuel, she's awake, she's finally-"

Mrs. Parker's words were cut off by the sound of whispering shadow and a strangled choke.

"Rosalyn?" Samuel stepped into the room only a moment later, and was promptly dispatched with a bolt of shadow to the face.

Rosalyn shuffled out of her bed, gesturing to the shadows. Reaching forward, she plucked out the closest, extending her mind outwards to the Scholomance.

Sir, she thought.

Is Nathan alive? Gandling's voice was the picture of carefully controlled rage.

Yes, sir. He brought me back to my house.

Kill your parents. He might have told them something.

I've all ready thought of that, sir. What shall I do now?

Find Nathan. Kill him.

Yes, sir.

|=~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~==~-=-~=|



fin

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