Thursday, August 25, 2011

HOW TO: Solo tank Baleroc as a Paladin

The first three bosses in Firelands are fairly simple in their current incarnation, though I do plan to write up brief strategies on how we do those anyway. The two challenging ones are Baleroc and Alysrazor, and both are heavily tank-dependent, so I'll do those first. I actually really love this tier as tanks have a lot to do in almost all the fights and solo-tanking Blaeroc is a good example of this.

We've been working on Baleroc for some time now and while our healers have figured out a rotation that works well for them, a couple of our DPS are struggling to meet the shard-tanking requirements while putting out the necessary DPS. We have come shavingly close to killing the boss, and our first kill was nearly 20 seconds past enrage with one healer and DPS remaining as DoTs finished him off.

42 million health in 6 minutes is a lot of damage you need to put out. It's just a pure gear and DPS check, and unfortunately not all of our raid is geared as well as it could be. So, even after we killed him, we kept coming excruciatingly close to Enrage for subsequent kill, and we decided to try and have me solo tank while the other tank went DPS just to eliminate Enrage as a factor in the fight. It worked out beautifully.

Using one tank on Baleroc lets you do a few things:

1. DPS can take only 9 stacks and stop there without having to worry about a person taking too much damage with 12 stacks or being short a person if someone clipped a shard accidentally and wound up with a debuff
2. It streamlines things for your healers who don't worry about taunts around Decimation Blade and being on the right tank
3. It lets you finish the fight sooner which will hopefully lead to one or two fewer blades and fewer stacks of Blaze

Glyphs and Gear:
I was at block-cap for this with 102.4% block + avoidance - double Mastery trinket, Mastery food, Mastery Elixir, the belt from Omnotron, the Thrall quest cloak, etc. You know what to do here, use your full-avoidance set. Once I get the Stay of Execution trinket I will probably sub it in and go with Stay of Execution/Mirror of Broken Images for this fight. Block capping is great for Inferno Blade and his normal melee which also comes hard and fast.

Prime Glyphs used were Word of Glory, Seal of Truth, and Shield of the Righteous. You want to push as much damage as you can.

Major Glyphs used were Focused Shield, Divine Protection (40% reduced Magic damage? Yes, please.), and Lay on Hands.

The default 0/31/10 spec was just fine for this. I suppose you could take the points out of Pursuit of Justice and put one into Reckoning and the other into, idunno, Arbiter I guess, for a tiny little bit more DPS but I doubt it would be significant. Stay with the default.

The Fight:
Almost the entire fight is about executing a good rotation of your abilities to maximize your damage while being very aware of your abilities and having a plan for using them at the right moment to survive whatever situation you are in. Put out some decent damage (I was ~11k DPS on our one-tank kill, but I could probably do better with some gear tweaks), don't get hit by shard (really shouldn't be an issue if your DPS is properly positioned behind the boss) and execute your plan to survive the blades - that's it. So let's have at it.

Pull with Divine Plea > Inquisition > Avenging Wrath > Avenger's Shield > Exorcism > Judgment > Crusader Strike to get a big lead so DPS can go all out right from the start, and from there it's just a matter of rotating survival abilities very, very carefully.

I was using Holy Shield exclusively between blades to soften damage when I got below 50% health from his melee swings. Word of Glory was only used to help top myself off if Holy Shield was on cool-down and I was still low on health otherwise all Holy Power went into Shield of the Righteous.

Inferno Blade is very easy to mitigate with Divine Protection (glyphed) and then the on-use Resist from Mirror of Broken Images if necessary after that should he land a few hits in a row (unlikely with block-cap). Keep 3 Holy Power banked for a Word of Glory in case things get wonky and it was almost too easy to deal with this.

I was also saving Guardian of Ancient Kings for the last two minutes of the fight if I got chains of Inferno Blade with my trinket and Divine Protection both on cool-down.

Decimation Blade is the tricky one. You must have two healers swap to you for this as the fight goes on - a single healer will struggle to top you off when they have to heal through 750k+ health. The third healer can easily keep up with the shards with DPS only stacking to 9 and having 2 healers on you to get you back up past 90% health before the second swing is a great security to have. Remember self-healing during Decimation Blade is pointless as you have a 90% reduction in healing every time the blade hits.

Hopefully he will not connect all 3 times - if he does, you are having some horrifically bad luck. Should you dodge even one, your healers will have enough time to top you off between swings. If he does hit one and the next one is coming and you don't see that heal incoming and you know you're going to die - you have to hit Ardent Defender. Survive that swing and you'll be okay.

If you are in this position with Ardent Defender already used up, you have to bubble taunt and then cancel immediately after the blow. I didn't have to do this as our healers kept up with the damage and I was able to mitigate a fair number of Decimation Blades but you do have that as a last-resort option to stay alive.

One last note - do not use Lay on Hands during Decimation Blade. It is a good cool-down to use once the healing debuff has dropped near the end of the fight, or during a very bad streak with Inferno Blade, but the 90% healing reduction from Decimation makes it useless there. Don't even touch it.

That's really all there is to it. This gives you six DPS to meet the enrage timer and we comfortably killed him with, I think 30 or 40 seconds to enrage.This is probably how we will do this fight from now on, and if I understand correctly, this is the preferred way to kill him on Heroic anyway, so might as well get used to it now.

This is a pretty fun fight and you grow bigger and bigger in size as the Blaze of Glory stacks rack up, so by the end of the fight you're a looming giant almost half the size of the boss with nearly a million and a half health - it gets pretty giddy near the end. Good luck out there!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Keeping Threat Stats Relevant For Tankadins

Can I ever stop talking about threat stats? I mean, seriously, even I'm getting tired of talking about threat stats, and yet Blizzard keeping throwing reasons at me to keep talking about threat stats.


So, last night's post was mostly a "where are we?" wrap up, today I'm going to try to see if we can make sense of what GC said, what he meant, and what it might mean for us as Paladins.

The pitch
We covered why Hit/Expertise are now pointless for threat. We explained that this leaves tanks to do all the other stuff tanks do (all tanks and most healers know we do a lot more than generate threat) and that this is a good thing. However, we're still left with tank gear with Hit and Expertise on it, and I don't imagine that will go away because it would absolutely and completely eliminate all choice for gearing - get what you get, reforge, enchant and gem as necessary for your choice of mitigation or mastery. And that would be horribly boring.

Besides, Blizzard has done well to make gear a bit more generic - Expertise and Mastery on that helm? Sure, it looks like DPS, but that's almost as good for a tank with that chunk of mastery. Overall, I think Blizzard should (and will) continue to make tank gear with hit/expertise on it.

But with threat a non-issue, why do we need these stats?
That's the rub, isn't it? And GC talks about it briefly in his article, and Matt Rossi went into a lot of detail in his article yesterday which you should read, but the big thought right now that I can see floating around is Active Mitigation.

Active Mitigation:
The word "Mitigation" there is a bit of a misnomer, but the phrase has stuck. Active Mitigation is basically the ability to reduce incoming damage somehow through offensive abilities. A very generic way to think of it would be that the more Expertise you have, the less the boss is able to hit you. Or something along those lines. But of course, a lateral translation like that is just more Dodge/Parry with another name.

Death Strike on the other hand is the text-book example of this. Death Knights have a very strong Mastery called Blood Shield which activates when they connect with a Death Strike. Death strike heals up 40% of the damage taken in the last 5 seconds, and then turns 50% of that damage into an absorb shield. That's active mitigation - and DKs are balanced around it. Good DKs know how to store runes, and when to use them so that they stay alive and are stable health wise rather than spiking damage and draining healers dry.

Their resource depletes and replenishes automatically, but connecting with strikes is important for them to self-heal and trigger Blood Shield. Thus, hit/expertise are good for them, in theory. Blood tanks (I don't raid tank on my DK so correct me here if I'm wrong) like Expertise and a bit of Hit, but don't go out of their way to hit caps. This solution seems to work - but only kind of. And it makes their decision easy - hit Death Strike. That's it. Which is kind of boring.

What about Tankadins?
We already have our own version of Death Strike - Word of Glory. It's dependent on Holy Power which we generate from melee hits, and the more we hit, the more HP we get, and the more WoGs we can cast on ourselves.

Except that WoG has a long cool-down and the amount of Crusader strikes you can get in during that cool-down are enough that even with low hit, you can still generate enough HP to cast it by the time it comes off cool-down.

On top of that, we have Divine Protection on a short cool-down that we can turn into either a small overall damage reduction or a big magical damage reduction pre-fight. We have Guardian of Ancient Kings, Lay on Hands on a very long cool-down, Holy Radiance for a bit of healing, and... Holy Shield.

None of the above abilities use Holy Power so we can be lazy about generating it, we can horde it, and always have it when we need it the most as long as WoG is off cooldown. That makes our "active mitigation" pretty much this:

while(BossHealth > 0)
    cast Crusader Strike
    if(HolyPower = 3 AND SelfHealth < 50%)
        Word of Glory

Word of Glory is Death Strike in reverse - we hit Crusader Strike to gain the resource and deplete it automatically to heal. And thanks to the length of the cool down, we don't really need the Hit/Expertise so we can afford the misses. We have it easy.

But what if Holy Shield consumed Holy Power and shared a cool-down with Word of Glory like Crusader Strike and Hammer of the Righteous?

You have a system where an actually sizable portion of your mitigation or self-heal, both of which you're balanced around, depend on your ability to generate the resource both need. And once you use one you can't use the other for a set period of time so you set out gathering more Holy Power.

And if both abilities had lowered cool-downs and lowered on-use affect so they stayed balanced overall? Now you do need to get those hits in and figure out what you're going to use it for.

You're actively mitigating and/or healing and making decisions on the fly.

You could turn Holy Shield into an aggressive anti-attack which goes off the hit-table.

Which is to say, you're attacking the incoming melee attack with your shield and need to "hit" with it. That would also make hit/expertise attractive, while contributing to active mitigation. Warriors have this, kind of, in Spell Reflect, except it just happens and doesn't depend on anything. With a shorter cool-down and reliable on hit, it could be an aggressive damage mitigation tool.

Do we need this kind of thing? I don't know. Tanking is going through a change, and the more we get towards 5.0 the more things seem to get more and more fluid - Blizzard is not afraid of slaughtering sacred cows.

I'm excited to see where it goes, and I do hope (and think) they will come up with ways to keep Hit/Expertise relevant for tanks. Because I like them and I'll miss my buddies if GC says I don't need them anymore. If you have any ideas for Active Mitigation, please leave comments, it would be fun to discuss them in a future post!

And lastly - because it always sounds so funny, it's not fun to miss. I've talked about it before. But missing is not fun. At the core of the thing, it's a game, I want to hit stuff, and see it take damage, not see because of some game mechanic. To the kid inside me killing dragons, that's not fun.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Threat Buffs Hot Patch

Seems like Ghostcrawler has been thinking about the same things I have been grumbling about for some time on this blog. There are two major components to the coming changes, and this is a huge topic as the initial post makes clear.

1. How does removing Threat as a factor affect fights?
2. How do you make Threat stats attractive to tanks?

And beneath all this is the question I keep asking - it might be efficient, but is it fun?

Spoiler Alert: I glyphed out of Glyph of Truth for the first time since it was introduced.

I spent three hours in Firelands last night, with the buffs, so I can talk about what tanking felt like. I was tanking with Death Knight with slightly less gear than me, but definitely Firelands capable, and we had a hunter for the occasional misdirect.

First, let's talk about building Threat.

There is a significant boost to threat generating abilities. Ghostcrawler says:

The threat generated by classes in their tanking mode has been increased from three times damage done to five times damage done

Straight up buff to threat-gen, fine, this is just a multiplier to existing threat, and by itself it provides an across the board quality of life increase. It makes snap agro easier, and threat a non-issue on single-target fights.

Vengeance no longer ramps up slowly at the beginning of a fight. Instead, the first melee attack taken generates Vengeance equal to one third of the damage dealt by that attack. As Vengeance updates during the fight, it is always set to at least a third of the damage taken in the last two seconds.

This is the game changer. What this is saying, is that one third of the sum total of damage taken in the most recent 2 second period is used to determine a minimum threshold for Vengeance - which means, two second in a fight, I should have a significant amount of threat already. Two seconds is the period of time it takes melee to get into boss range, or for casters to finish their first cast, or for DoTs to start racking up. It also means lucky streaks will not let you loose all your Vengeance stacks though they might decay still a bit.

In that time, you're also actually hitting the boss at least once or twice and building threat at a rate of five-times the output instead of three-times. Then you take a hit, maybe two, and suddenly your Vengeance bar is glowing and that red bar on Omen is as long as a tree's shadow at sunset (Wut?). On top of this are the documented changes for Vengeance to pass on absorbed damage from bubbles and now you don't have to grumble about Discipline priests in your raid.

When you're AoE pulling trash in heroics, this is going to make threat a complete non-issue. As long as you take the first hits from mobs, and land some kind of AoE on the adds, you should be fine.

This significantly improves a few things:
  • The ability to snap-agro adds mid-fight where DPS needs to put out heavy AoE with a single Hammer of the Righteous or Avenger's Shield
  • Initial agro on a boss - Paladins should be able to use the Divine Plea > Inquisition > Wings > Exorcism > Judgment > Avenger's Shield &> Crusader Strike opening for a huge lead now that all those abilities will generate much more threat
  • Enrage meters become less scary now that DPS don't have to wait for threat to establish, they can start nuking 3 to 5 seconds into the fight and the healers don't have to keep a twitchy finger on the Fury Warrior's raid frame
  • Lets classes without agro drop feel less throttled - when I'm on my Death Knights I'm always very careful about initial agro and don't get to ramp up till late in the fight, whereas on my Warlock and Paladin, I can immediately go all out as I have a Hand of Salvation or a Soul Shatter if the screen is glowing red
So, this is an overall raid quality-of-life improvement, but does it actually improve game play? In theory, having one less thing to be aware of is good, especially on fights where you're focusing on picking up a lot of adds (Rhyolith), or steering the adds in a direction (Bethtilac), or watching interrupts, (Maloriak) or moving out of fire (Shannox), or dealing with tons of positional issues (Alysrazor) or snap taunts (Baelroc) or whatever else it is you're doing (all of the above on Nefarian pre-nerf, and I think on Ragnaros as well, though I haven't seen that fight yet).

Could this change have been replaced by giving classes without threat dumps some way to drop it so that players are responsible for maintaining their own agro? Maybe. But I also know tanks who don't go into LFG because their agro issues are such that they can't hold agro on raid-geared DPS going all out one second into the pull and being blamed for not holding agro and getting kicked. This change, while at the top end or even the casually raiding end might seem like overkill, for the vast majority of LFG tanks, this will be a boon.

Overall, I'm a fan of this change so far - I've been super frustrated with my own ability to hold agro at times, as we're actively dropping threat stats for mitigation and DPS just ramps up higher and higher. It's not uncommon to see DPS hitting 20k+ numbers consistently now, and threat was sometimes getting wonky.

All that said - how was actually raiding with the buff last night?

Freaking awesome. The things I was able to worry about instead of agro: pulling efficiently, chain pulling trash because I didn't worry about adds scattering, being able to have DPS immediately go all out on fights without any consideration for threat right from the start (Baelroc, where the enrage meter is actually an issue), and we were finishing each fight at least 30 seconds faster than before.

The instance also just felt like it was more fun. Other than taunting stray adds, my tanking focused on speed and efficiency, not a harried tab-spam of madness to keep threat on everything. Back in ICC days, I used to keep a threat set where I was hit-capped and well past the expertise soft cap. I enjoyed my ability to put out threat that was competitive with the DPS and they didn't feel throttled.

Now, everyone can enjoy that - and it wasn't skill that made me do this, it was gearing, and a relatively obscure way of gearing to new tanks who don't pore over this stuff like I do. I don't think that's a bad thing. It will encourage new tanks to stick with tanking, as tanking is just plain more fun when threat isn't an issue.

I fully understand, appreciate, and empathize with tanks who feel this isn't good, and that the game is being simplified ("GG Blizz catering to casuals"). I'm not one of those tanks.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the other  half of this conversation - now that threat isn't an issue, why do tanks want Hit and Expertise?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's good to be king

Some days are better than others. Tanking can be a bit of a bore, a chore, as it were, and the nights bleed into one another.

And then you have days like this, when it all comes together into a glorious burst of awesomeness.

Friday, August 12, 2011

PuG Blues

Man, this is the longest gap I've taken from writing in some time. Mostly because I've been kind of glum in game as raids haven't been very engaging - not that I don't want to raid, but our raid group has been having some trouble gathering up and actually raiding and it's starting to wear on me.

I feel like we're just in this hanging phase, where all we need are a couple of good, solid, three-day weeks to push through to Ragnaros. This is exactly what it was like when we were on Nefarian - except that was one bsoss and here we have an entire raid to learn. Our core is kicking ass as usual, it's the last couple of slots that worry me. We've been picking up people, and if I look at the roster, there are 21 people who could conceivably raid... and yet I'm PuGing at least one slot every week.

There are a lot of things that happen when you have to bring in someone new.

1. You have to let your entire raid comp adjust to this new person, personality wise. We're a nerdy, smart, funny, laid-back group and we've had people join who immediately began poking, poking, poking at someone's performance, I think jokingly, and it got to be an issue. While I'm trying to figure out DPS distribution, I don't want us to be distracted by people management.

2. Things are just going to take longer. Even if they've done everything, they might not just gather up scorpions to AoE and then move out as stacks grow. Maybe they kill Shannox a completely different way, or they're used to being on the top with Beth'tilac and don't know how to manage adds on the bottom. Or worse, they don't know the fight at all and now the raid is sitting there for five minutes while you explain their role to them and suffer wipes while this person gets up to par. We're not to a point in Firelands where we can just cruise through a boss with a person down. And there is nothing worse - nothing worse - than explaining complicated things to one person while eight other people sit on their hands doing nothing.

3. The rest of your raid suffers from having to adjust around this person. Maybe you're moving people's roles around, maybe someone is playing an off-spec, and you go through all of the above with your own people. Admittedly this is less onerous, but it is still an issue where the alt-spec gear might not be up to par, or the person might be rusty or less adept with that spec, and you're wasting more time getting them used to the fight in a different role.

4. You have no reliability. The person might just have joined to get the sword from Shannox and then drops group right after the boss dies. Or they were in your raid because their own guild benched them, but suddenly asked them to swap in as one of their members left. Or maybe they forgot that they had another obligation and when you said "10 server" they thought you meant "10'o clock their time" which is an hour after you started. Sorry. And now you're stuck a boss or two in with no hope of finding someone to come into a locked instance.

5. The night is shorter because of it. You might have wasted time at the start of raid finding someone and by the time you zoned in it was 15 - 20 minutes past your start time. Now you're pulling, and explaining at the same time, and maybe someone gets confused typing or talking and half your raid just got punted off the ledge. Or you wiped. Or even if you get to the boss quickly, instead of just pulling, you're sitting there explaining again. Now it's 50 minutes after raid time was supposed to start and you do your first pull on Shannox. At this rate, you're looking at no progression work at all, and by the time Beth'tilac dies your raid is so shot and grumbly from relearning downed fights, that you might as well go see if your faction has BH just so you can come back in tomorrow with fresh brains. And you better hope like hell someone will show up tomorrow to fill that PuG slot because your odds are slim that they'll show up again.

6. You have absolutely no way to separate the good from bad. This is probably the worst problem. You can look at their armory, you can look at their gear, you can look at prior raid experience, you can even check the dates of their achievements on kills to make sure they killed Nefarian when he was far more difficult - but all of that won't guarantee a good player. Maybe they were carried through, maybe it's their girlfriend's account, maybe they're having a bad night or swapped spec because you needed a DPS and they went Shadow just to step in and haven't actually played Shadow in months. That vetting you did, checking their amazing gear, raid experience and availability for length of time just went to crap and you might not even realize it until you get to a boss.

All of that said, I'm just grateful to those who PuG with us for two things.

1. I've met some of my favorite raiders through PuGing. Three members of my core right now are people who responded to my "LF1M" calls on LFG. That's what keeps me PuGing - knowing that there are amazing people out there, looking for a chance to raid, and every time I PuG with someone, I don't know if they're going to be the next core member of my raid group.

2. I do get to go into Firelands and kill things. This is started to feel a lot like late summer from last year when we were literally begging for people to get a raid, any raid, off the ground. And other guilds are struggling far more than we are just to get started. So the fact that these PuGs let us raid and kill things is enough to make me very grateful for them.

What makes this worse is that I actually quite like Firelands and would love to get to work on it with a good, consistent team. I am enjoying these raids so much, both T11 and T12 have been fantastic raids to work on.

But. The patch is relatively young still and if our record is anything to go by, I think we'll clear the normal modes and at least a couple of hard modes before 4.3 drops, though our progression rate might move at the pace of our guild's namesake.

I hope you're having some luck out there! And if you're looking to raid, poke that link.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Atrocity Asylum (Fiction)

This is a bit stream-of-consciousness, and honestly, it was inspired in part by Plex of Jinxed Thoughts' latest post about the everyday activity of her characters in game. I liked the sentiment, and was more interested in the in-character voice that my warlock Merricat might have, as I've been playing her a lot more lately. This is what emerged. I enjoyed this and might write more in this vein, as she's a lot more fun to think about in-character than my paladin. I find it hard to write from a Draenei perspective.

Anyway - enjoy.


I remember who I am, and I realize I'm standing in Stormwind, in the Dwarf district. I had forgotten who and where I was. That happens often enough that this sudden confusion is not uncommon. Sometimes, the world vanishes when I focus on the voices in my head.

The city buzzes, are there more people now, or is it just an impression? I let the conversation drone drown out my thoughts and the voices among them. Passing the fountain, I catch a glimpse of myself, and suddenly, I don't know how I feel about my hair, so I go to call the drake rescued from Ulduar as a whelp to be raised to this beast, and it seems a travesty to use this beast for such a base purpose, to cross a city. To do the same by food would feel just as shameful - to draw forth a demon from a nether plane to ride a few streets.

Besides, neither of them are here, not here in the city where their horror would not be appreciated, no, they are far in distant lands though only a beck and call away. Instead, I walk the few blocks to the barber. Goblin hands turn and fold, snip and trim, color with strongly scented chemicals until I'm satisfied. The face in the mirror is less obvious, more plain and practical, which is how I feel lately. This modest dress, these slippers, these affections of a life that isn't mine.

The day passes in a blur, the city buzz ebbs, but doesn't die, under moonlight it's as potent as it was under the sun. Summer heat lingers in the stone streets, radiating into the starry sky. After dark the world is different, here in the borders of the ruin, where the city gives way to a crater, where years of civilization, hundreds of cultivated lives, delicately constructed moon-wells filled with waters from a distant land, all evaporated in a blaze of dragonfire, in the blink of an eye, in the beat of a heart.

Why do we cling to this fragile civilization so fiercely? A voice answers in my head, but I ignore the words.

All the world seems dim and perilous. Death at every corner and yet, this is where I come after dark to look into the hollow crater and see reflected back this fact - that there is a hole in the heart of creation, and it is ruin. To ignore it is to folly, yet to worship it is weakness.

The voice in my head turns, a broken language speaks in my ear, and I understand the sentiment, reply in kind, and there is green fire in the sky calling me. It's not really there, of course. I see things that aren't there, sometimes. Sense things happening in far and distant places.

In the mountains to the north, hunting among the crags, I hear the call of Razorscale's whelp, her metal bindings grating as she moves. If I was a kind woman, I would have killed her to spare her this hideous, painful existence. But appearances must be maintained. I have a reputation to keep, after all, and she is grateful for life, in the end. What else is there, but the darkness? And given a choice, wouldn't we all take pain over nothing?

My head is full of voices now, but I master them all, and they diminish. Their names are burned into my thoughts, seared and branded, and the agony of the process was great, but today I cannot imagine my identity without the brands. Bound together now through felfire and pain. We are lovers together, in nearly every sense except the most practical, and the most banal one.

At night, I sense the eyes of people on me. I wear this dress to hide my body, I make myself plain, as ugly as I can, and yet men stare - but perhaps I flatter myself. Perhaps the eyes are not full of desire, but fear. Or maybe pity. Do I seem different to others or do they seem different to me? Am I alone, or are they a community? Perhaps it is all of that.

Thirty years of voices in my head, twenty years since the first brand was pressed into me, burning hot, green fire, searing heat and singing wounds, the name sounded like a garbled sound but soon I learned there was more. And then, through the years, new names, new brands, until I suppose my eyes no longer look as they did. Or perhaps again, this is all in my head. Like the voices.

Lovers? The voices are as close as I can get. Thirty years of life, thirty years of horror and pain and insecurity - but not lonely years, no, never alone. There is something to that, at least. I see the mad, the babbling, the broken, and I wonder if they are truly sad, for they always seem to have company of their own, even if the company is invisible

As if on cue, something pricks my hand, a drop of blood rises on the palm, and I feel a breath on the back of my neck, hot and sulfurous, a growling, angry voice, and I shudder, willing it away.

Just my fantasy. The voices stay away until I call. I tell myself that it's true.

But not tonight. They won't be quiet, if they have begun to prick, then they are eager, have been denied their share of blood for too long. I return to my rooms. I have lived here since I cam back from the horror of Northrend. Does the toothless old woman who lends me this space gain something in return from voices of her own? I have never paid, guided here by my last contact, a guard who died shortly after I left him, body too mutilated for a proper burial so he was burned quietly. Coincidence, or part of a greater plan? Does the old woman know what happened to her predecessor? How long before I'm discarded myself in the same way? An unrecognizable mess of flesh to be burned in a nameless pyre. And yet she smiles and offers me food, treats me like her long-lost child, talks to me in a voice and language I know is not hers.

The rooms are bare. A closet for clothes, bed for us to sleep in, hard chairs to sit in, and a fireplace to burn things in. Only the kitchen seems like it might belong in an ordinary house. Full of spices that hang in bunches from the wall, a wood table laden with bowls of fruit and flowerse, and shelves filled with grains and bread. And always, the fresh, bloody meat. I have never traced the source of the bloody, quivering, warm flesh - the taste of it in my mouth warns me against knowledge I'd rather not know.

She's waiting for me, and in my room, I see she has already laid out my things, hidden among the boards - the clothes dancing with shadow energy, the weapons, amulets and trinkets, woven with black magic. The voices rise in my head, I shed my clothes, and she helps me dress. Each item feels like a clammy, dead hand for a second before my skin remembers the familiar touch of unholy things. The voices whisper, eager to be let out, each one hoping to escape its confines just for a short while, to burn, to mutilate, to rend, to consume... I shudder and look to the woman, who smiles back, a kindly tooth-less grandmother, but her mouth opens and a litany of horror escapes the black hollow.

The voices gibber madly, but there is something greater than them. I wonder if this woman is an avatar to dead and forgotten voices, not just the voices lost among the Nether. Voices that once had real power. Voices that once ruled the world.

I turn away and catch a glimpse of myself in the small mirror behind my door, an item left to serve what shreds of vanity remain. The woman in that mirror is not the woman I saw in the barber shop. That woman was plain, easily forgotten, banal and ordinary. What I see in the mirror is a dead face, masked and wreathed in doom. I see a slave to powers that are beyond her comprehension. And I see a little girl, screaming, screaming, screaming, as the first name is branded into her soul, in black and endless nightmares.

"Go, now."

The old woman smiles at me, a mother encouraging a daughter down the Cathedral aisle in wedding robes. The dagger in my hand shimmers white, but there is nothing holy about it, just the reflect light of a disengaged goddess.

Outside, the summer heat has finally passed, a slight chill descends from gathering clouds. I lift my hands up and shadows rise to fill me, I weave a pathway through space and time and dimensions. One of the voices rises from a pool of  black. It growls, arches its backs and lowers its maw to the ground, it goes on the hunt.

It blends in with the patchwork shadows filling this grassy back streets, a friend now for two decades, a trusted companion, a guardian in the most desolate and dangerous places, a terrible horror that would not be here if not for my intervention. An aberration that would end if I were simply to walk in the other direction, and throw myself into the ruin in the heart of the city.

I contemplate this for a second, and then, I follow in the demon's wake, ready to commit atrocity.