The sky above Aerie Peak beckoned Kurdran Wildhammer like the distant glow of a campfire on a frigid winter night. After twenty long years trapped on the hellish world now known as Outland, he was home. Never once had he regretted joining the Alliance expedition to battle the orcish Horde on its homeworld, but over the harsh years there the longing to see this sky had burned in his heart.
His gryphon, Sky’ree, glided above him with three of her kin, as vibrant as she had ever been over the last two decades. He craved to be up there with her and feel the mountain air rushing against his face. Fate had ordained that he would walk the earth on two legs, but the sky was where he felt free. That was Sky’ree’s greatest gift to him. More than her ferocity during war or her friendship during peace, it was flight. For now, though, he would let her soar in the sky on her own.
Kurdran took a deep breath and surveyed his home: verdant forests stretched out in all directions; Wildhammer dwarves milled about in shops and homes along the mountain’s slopes; and the colossal aviary, a stone enclosure sculpted in the image of one of the noble gryphons, towered atop Aerie Peak. Everything was just as he had left it.
He drew a small iron scepter from his side, wrapped in strands of grass and adorned with gryphon feathers. It wasn’t a weapon—his battle-worn stormhammer was hanging on his back—it was a reminder. On Outland, the scepter had become almost mystical in nature, a symbol of who he was and the home he was fighting to protect. Many times he had held it close and felt hope surge through him, driving him forward. Yet now that he was home, the scepter’s potency seemed—
A shrill cry pierced the air. Kurdran looked up, and a pang of fear stabbed him. Sky’ree was spiraling toward the ground, her wings twisted in unnatural ways.
“Sky’ree!” Kurdran bellowed.
Download high-resolution The gryphon slammed into the ground with a sickening thud. Jagged bones protruded from her shattered hind legs, and blood spurted from a vicious crack in her skull. Sky’ree attempted to rise, but she crumpled from the pain. She opened her beak, and a frail cry escaped from it.
“Dinna move, lass!” Kurdran yelled. He was charging toward his fallen companion, heart pounding, when suddenly his hand went stiff.
The scepter he held was bubbling and transforming into something chillingly familiar… crystal… diamond. Glittering tendrils shot from it and slithered up his arm, freezing his limb as solid as stone. The viscous substance reached his chest and expanded downward until it fused his legs to the ground.
Kurdran struggled for the stormhammer on his back, but diamond encased his arm before he could pull the weapon free. Frozen in place, he could only watch in helpless despair as the gryphon who had saved his life countless times, who had become an extension of his own being, slowly bled out before him.
The diamond prison continued up Kurdran’s neck, icy and heavy, until it poured down his throat and filled his lungs. At last it covered his eyes and ears, and Sky’ree and the inviting blue sky were gone.
But Kurdran was denied the freedom of death. He existed in a void while dread burned through his mind like liquid metal in a forge. Eventually, he heard a faint rhythmic thud, louder and louder.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
Each blow sent dull vibrations through his body, as though someone were slamming a blunt object against his crystal death shroud, trying to liberate him.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
The rigidness in his body faded. Feeling returned to his limbs. Then the sound took on another tone.
CLANG. CLANG. CLANG.
The familiar noise was all he needed to know where he was and realize that he had merely been awakened from one nightmare into another. It was the metallic twang of hammer striking anvil that went on day and night, grating in Kurdran’s ears. The pulse of a city not his own, built so deep within the heart of a mountain that it would never know the joy of open skies.
It was Ironforge.
The city of Kurdran’s ancestors was a simmering cauldron of old prejudice. It churned endlessly, its toxic fumes dissolving whatever logic and reason remained within the Bronzebeard, Wildhammer, and Dark Iron dwarves living together in Ironforge for the first time in over two centuries. And Kurdran was standing at the edge of it all, gazing into its fiery heart with confusion as it grew closer and closer to erupting.
In an unsettling way he felt as if he were still at war with the blood-cursed Horde and trapped on Outland. Yet there were no clear enemies in Ironforge. No crazed demons. No rampaging orcs bent on decimating all life on his world. There were only words.
When Kurdran had arrived in Ironforge mere weeks before, he had been treated as somewhat of a hero for his sacrifices in Outland. It was different now. Baseless rumors targeting the Wildhammer clan had emerged from the city’s shadowy halls like vengeful ghosts from the bloody War of the Three Hammers that had shattered the unity of the dwarf clans so many years ago. They ranged from stories of ritual sacrifice performed in Aerie Peak to tales that Kurdran had executed a dozen other Alliance fighters on Outland for retreating from battle. A week ago, the dwarves’ attention had turned to a new topic of interest.
“The council is expectin’ ye, Thane Kurdran.”
Kurdran ignored the Ironforge guard and clutched the Wildhammer scepter tight in his hand. From his vantage point in the city’s gryphon roost, Kurdran peered at the cavernous Great Forge—the aptly named heart of Ironforge. Streams of molten metal cascaded from the ceiling into scalding orange-yellow pools. Beyond the churning liquid-metal vats, dwarven smiths swung hammers down on anvils. The heat, especially so near the forge, was oppressive in an unnatural way, like being trapped in an opaque glass bottle and left to suffocate under a blazing sun.
Sky’ree was lying atop a bed of straw at his side, her legs tucked under her massive body. Kurdran ran his callused fingers through her feathery mane and contemplated his fate.
“Why did I ever choose tae come here?” Kurdran muttered to himself under his breath.
“Because ye didna want tae see the bloody past repeat itself,” a calm voice replied. Eli Thunderstrike stepped near Kurdran, raking stray clumps of straw into neat piles. “Because King Magni, despite bein’ a Bronzebeard, was an honorable dwarf. And because, as ye said yerself tae Falstad, ye’re the only dwarf fit fer the job,” Sky’ree’s tender continued.
Eli’s words brought stinging memories to Kurdran’s mind. Upon returning from Outland, Kurdran had shown great disrespect to his close friend Falstad, who had ruled over the Wildhammer clan in Kurdran’s absence. Dwelling on Falstad now, though, would only add to Kurdran’s woes, and so he forced away the thoughts concerning his friend.
A low coo rumbled from Sky’ree’s throat, and she nudged Kurdran with her beak as if to punctuate Eli’s words.
“I wasn’t talkin’ tae ye.” Kurdran waved his hand dismissively at Eli and then turned to Sky’ree. “Or ye.”
Sky’ree simply repositioned herself atop the straw nest, briefly revealing three cream-colored eggs dotted with blue that she had laid shortly after arriving in Ironforge. Kurdran had wanted her to return to Aerie Peak with the clutch rather than stay in the city, but she wouldn’t leave him. She wasn’t a pet. She was a free spirit, free to choose her destiny just as Kurdran was free to choose his.
Sky’ree’s decision to stay filled Kurdran with a mixture of joy and anger. Immediately after laying her eggs, she had become so weak and frail that she could no longer fly. The numerous priests, gryphon masters, and alchemists who had examined her had all drawn the same conclusion. Sky’ree’s condition wasn’t due to some strange malady contracted on Outland or in Ironforge. It was an ailment for which there was no cure: time.
“I’m comin’!” Kurdran snapped, glaring at the Ironforge guard.
“Ye canna very well do that when ye’re sittin’ on the ground, now can ye?” Eli chided as he continued his work.
Kurdran grunted and rose to his feet. The plated Bronzebeard guard abruptly turned and then clumsily threaded his way through the mounds of gryphon nests that stretched into the walkway encircling the Great Forge. The roost had more than doubled in size since the Wildhammers had arrived in the city with their own gryphons. In a way the area had become a reminder of Aerie Peak, a home away from home.
With the scepter at his side, Kurdran followed the guard, nodding to Wildhammer gryphon riders who sat among the piles of straw. As forlorn as Kurdran was, the expression on the other dwarves’ faces was as if they were watching him go off to meet his death.
In a way, he was.
Kurdran followed the guard around the walkway until he reached the High Seat. A boisterous crowd of dwarves stood outside the chamber, their faces awash in a combination of shadow and light from the fiery iron braziers that burned throughout the city. Members of each clan were present: Bronzebeards in polished silver plate; tattooed Wildhammers adorned with gryphon feathers; and ashen-skinned Dark Irons clad in work aprons and smudged with soot. The gathering provided a miniature glimpse of Ironforge as a whole, with a small number of Wildhammers and Dark Irons sprinkled among the city’s Bronzebeard majority.
As Kurdran pushed his way through the crowd, he caught fragments of the heated conversations taking place among the dwarves.
“The Bronzebeards kept our piece o’ Modimus’s hammer as it was, as it should be!”
“Ye kept it stuffed away in yer library, gatherin’ dust. The Wildhammers made somethin’ new out o’ our piece.”
“Och, lad, no use arguin’ wi’ a Bronzebeard about this. Every good piece o’ wares that comes outta Ironforge is just somethin’ they pilfered from an ancient vault,” a nearby gryphon rider yelled.
Someone among the throng shoved the speaker into Kurdran, and the crowd shifted, closing in around him.
“Make way!” Kurdran shouted.
A few of the dwarves nearest to him made a path. Others glared, their faces contorted in anger.
“Make way fer Kurdran, representative o’ the butterflies!” a voice roared sarcastically, using a derogatory term for Kurdran’s clan.
“A round o’ ale on me if Kurdran agrees tae give up his piece o’ the Modimus hammer!”