The Murloc is Lonely
Book One: The Frozen Tomb
Madoran whispered urgently to each dwarven sergeant, something about reconnaissance. He signaled to the gnomish engineer, who scooted back behind the high broken door to begin laying precision charges along its lock and hinges. Madoran stood for a moment in the chamber’s doorway, checking for enemies one last time.
I looked over his head, finally taking a moment to absorb the view. The enormous cavern’s ceiling domed high overhead, carved with too much ornate detail to see from such a distance, and there were two deep, dully-glowing pits on either side of the chamber’s center aisle. Twin pillars stood from floor to ceiling, one at the inner edge of each pit, black and organic as though they had poured there out of liquid rock and cooled. At the very center of the cavern was a great anvil, glowing dully with internal heat. The whole place was deserted.
Madoran smiled proudly at me over his shoulder for a moment: this was his, or would be again soon.
Across the cavern from us was an enormous arched hallway, falling back into the mountain. Within, in dim, flickering torchlight, I could barely make out what appeared to be an enormous bird skeleton hanging from the ceiling. “That’s our destination,” said Madoran quietly, pointing. “I don’t know how much distraction my cousin has afforded us, so we will have to be careful.”
We crept quietly out into the cavern past our red-clad guards, towards the anvil at the center. I ran as quietly as I could, but hooves on stone make a distinct, insuppressible noise.
We ducked behind the far side of the glowing anvil. Heat emanated from it. Madoran looked at me with some perplexity. “Horse,” he said, “our aim is stealth. Though I don’t know why, I know you keep it a secret, and I respect that, but now would be the perfect time to turn into something a little bit quieter!” he concluded with exasperation.
I raised my eyebrows at him.
“You were a wildcat when you leapt off our griffin. I haven’t told anyone.”
I had kept my shape-shifting abilities a secret in the decade which had passed since I’d left my homeland of Mulgore. It had started out as one part paranoia, and one part resentful distaste of the life I had fled. I had kept it, though, with the feeling that it was better to be mysteriously good at something, like sneaking around, than to be well-known as a cat and a horse and lose all anonymity. I’d told barely anyone during my time in Orcmar; and in Storm City, I had trusted only Rhy and Tidus. M, too, I thought, when she had met me as a cheetah.
I had a flash of emotion. It hurt from a depth in my soul that I hadn’t felt since my father had died when I was a calf. Why? I thought. I met her like a week ago.
“Horse!” whispered Madoran sharply. Dwarven shouts echoed suddenly through the caves from somewhere behind us, growling slowly louder. “Cat! Now!” He spoke urgently but with command, and, obeying it, I squeezed my eyes shut and shifted. The dwarf and I sprinted across the great cavern, past some shops that had been locked up for the night, down the high hallway, across another narrow hallway running parallel to the cavern, and under the enormous hanging bird skeleton.
We were in a museum now: to our left and right stood a series of cluttered exhibits, pottery and skeletons and stone artifacts, encased in high glass cases.
We ducked behind a column, and I pulled myself back together. The voices behind us had gotten louder, and suddenly became clear. They had entered the great cavern, somewhere in the direction of the throne room. I prayed that our squad’s presence wouldn’t be detected.
The noise grew closer – they were coming across the great cavern towards us, shouting and bantering in a language which I vaguely recognized as Dwarvish. “Why have all your dwarves spoken in Common?” I whispered to Madoran.
“Because you were there, of course,” he whispered back, shushing me. The dwarves were coming towards us, shouting boisterously to each other. Madoran tensed up. My hand was on my mace, and my muscles were taut. I suddenly heard the sound of my breath, loud in my ears, and I held it. I realized that I was sweating. It was suddenly occurring to me that we were alone, in enemy territory.
The dwarves approached, tossing jumbles of guttural syllables back and forth, closer and closer, but then they continued, down the narrow hallway which curved away from us and out of sight in the mountain. I let my breath out.
“What were they talking about?” I said quietly to Madoran.
“They were makin’ fun of the Imperial Guards,” he answered, “saying that they stand around the throne room all day doin’ nothing, and are ranked higher an’ paid better than the lads that fight and die. They have a point.” He paused.
“They were makin’ fer their homes,” he continued. “Sounds like Beren’s air assault is over. It did what we needed it to.”
We stood, carefully, and Madoran led the way through the museum’s back archway into a tall, dim, deep room whose high walls were lined with books. The near end of the room was rounded off, and its bookshelves were ancient. Farther along, the shelves were built of newer wood.
A balding dwarf with a gray beard sat at a table a few yards down the long room, in a pool of electric light from the table’s reading lamp. His head was pillowed on his arms and he snored quietly. Madoran looked at me, putting his thick fingers to his lips, and strode quietly over to the table. I followed quietly across the mercifully carpeted floor.
Madoran sat down opposite the sleeping dwarf, and smiled fondly. “Rothfus,” he said gently, “ye’ve fallen asleep on the job again.”
The old dwarf grunted, rolling his head gently, and muttered something about using the damn card catalogue.
“Rothfus,” said Madoran more firmly. “The books I’m looking for aren’t in the card catalogue.”
The old dwarf shook his head foggily, picking it up as though his neck were too weak for its weight. He looked at Madoran and blinked, looking for a moment as if he were unsure if he were awake. Then his eyes widened and he scrambled to his feet, knocking his chair over with a carpet-muffled thump. He bowed low. “My Lord,” he said simply.
“Hello, Rothfus,” said Madoran. “How are my people?”
Rothfus bowed low again. “They’re scared, my Lord,” he said, “but they keep faith. Those who were silent when your family was banished, they were choosing their homes and their lives, not abandoning you for the rebels.”
“I’ll never blame them for that choice,” said Madoran quietly, regally. “Will they fight, if they think they can win?”
“Aye, most of ‘em,” said Rothfus. “There’s little love for the traitors.” Madoran glanced up at me with a brief, clandestine smile. It must have been a relief to hear the word finally applied to his enemies. “They rule cruelly, like children afraid of the dark.”
“Of course they do,” muttered Madoran thoughtfully. “It takes less effort to rule the nurtured than the subjugated, but it takes less skill to subjugate than to nurture. Any jackass can knock down a barn.”
Rothfus smiled. “Ye allas surprise me when ye quote yer old schoolbooks, lad. I swore to yer father that you never once cracked ‘em.”
Madoran laughed. “I never had to,” he said. “I had the best teacher in the land.” He smiled at the old dwarf for a moment.
When he continued, he was a prince again: “I need to read, Rothfus.”
Rothfus bowed, looking uncertainly at me.
“He needs to read too,” said Madoran impatiently. Rothfus bowed again, turned, and began walking the length of the library. Madoran followed the older dwarf, and I, curious, followed Madoran.
At the room’s far end, a ladder stood between bookshelves, attached to a track and roller some fifteen feet above us. The elder dwarf pushed the ladder over to a shelf near the room’s rounded end, and climbed slowly up it. He scanned slowly across a row of books, selected one and removed it. He reached into the gap for a moment. There was a sharp click and a dull grinding noise in front of us. Beneath the ladder, the bottom four rows of books were receding mechanically into the wall. With another click, they slid to the side, revealing a dwarf-sized hole in the library’s high wall.
“Welcome to the worst-kept royal secret in Ironforge,” said Madoran, looking up at me and winking.
Rothfus replaced the book and climbed slowly back down the ladder, and, with an upward glance, led the way into the gap. I ducked low, almost to my knees, and squeezed in after Madoran. It was dark for a moment, and then there was a click and lights across the new room’s walls flickered on. It was a wide, round room, a dozen paces or more across. Around its edge it was low and cramped – there was barely enough room for me to stand upright – but at the middle it tiered down, opening up widely. Each tier was lined with small desks, and the lowest sported a long, plain wooden table with chairs around it. There was a set of shallow stairs immediately in front of us, leading down into the room. Opposite us on the top tier stood a larger desk, looking down on the room like a seat of judgment.
“The royal conference room,” said Madoran distastefully. “That desk belonged to Ordinn, before he disappeared.”
“Aye,” replied Madoran, “Ordinn the Dwarf, emissary to the Stone King. I’m told he locked himself in here three weeks ago, and simply stopped issuing edicts.”
Rothfus, who had descended the stairs ahead of us, nodded. “Three days later, I entered this chamber unasked – forgive me, my Lord – and found it abandoned. He must have snuck out.”
“And then everything went to hell, right?” said Madoran.
“Aye,” said the older dwarf.
“Just like Storm City,” said Madoran darkly, to himself. I wrinkled my forehead noncommittally and didn’t respond.
Madoran followed Rothfus down the stairway towards the center of the room. I walked heavily around its circumference to the desk of Ordinn the Dwarf, Agent of the Law. The desk’s surface was clean. Behind it stood a high-backed leather chair, and I sat down. It was comfortable.
Rothfus and Madoran were kneeling on opposite sides of the second tier, each feeling about under desks for something. I absently pulled open the desk’s drawers, one at a time. They were empty, except – in the last one, there was a small scrap of parchment. On it was drawn a single character: a wavy line, with half an arrow at one tip, bisecting a circle at an angle. I’d never seen it before, but the style looked strangely familiar…
“Find something?” said Madoran.
“No,” I said, and stuffed the piece of parchment into my pocket.
There was a pair of clicks, followed by another grinding noise. “Gotchya,” said Madoran. At the center of the room, beside the table, a circle of stone had begun to recede into the floor. A wedge broke away and ceased its recession, then another: a spiral staircase began to form. I hopped down the tiers towards it.
“This one,” said Madoran, “is the best-kept secret,” and his eyes sparkled. “Rothfus,” he said to the old dwarf, “my thanks, as always.”
“Now, go wake those you trust,” commanded Prince Madoran. “Tell them to ready themselves and their families for battle. Then return to your table upstairs – there will be no fighting in your library, if I can prevent it.”
“Fighting with what army, my Lord?” replied Rothfus.
“The Throne Room is ours,” said Madoran. “We took it from below less than half an hour ago.”
“Old Ironforge,” muttered Rothfus, his eyes widening. Then he bowed again, turned, and walked back up the stairs towards the room’s low doorway.
At it, he paused and turned back around. “We’re glad you’re back, Prince,” he said, smiling.
“I’ll be glad when my people are mine again,” muttered Madoran.
* * *
We descended the stone stairs down into a long, low hallway, lit periodically with dangling light-bulbs. The tunnel ended at a door on which hung a thick, deep purple banner with a silver starburst at the center. Madoran held his battle-hammer to it for a moment and muttered some guttural syllables in a language which I didn’t recognize, and the door swung silently open.
Beyond was dark. Madoran stepped through, gestured me in after him, and shut the door. A moment later he flicked a switch, and the darkness was swallowed up by dazzling, brilliant white light. I gasped.
The room in which we now stood was beautiful. It was perfectly round, at least thirty feet high and twice as wide. Above us, the domed ceiling gleamed with silver leaf, or cloth of some kind, cascading down from the dome’s high center out towards the walls in vertical waves. The light came from a crystal chandelier hanging at the apex, and it reflected off a thousand folds of cloth and crystal before it fell on us, below.
Spaced evenly around the room were eleven wide, high bookshelves made of polished dark wood inlaid with patterns and filled with thick, dignified tomes. Atop each bookshelf stood a finely-carved wooden placard with a label: “The World” – “The People of the World” – “Secrets” – “Tactics” – and so on. The floor was made of a deep, unworn, majestic purple stone. At its center, a shimmering white starburst, identical to the one outside the door behind us, was inlaid in what looked like mother of pearl. At the center of the room stood a pair of thick tables made of the same polished dark wood as the bookshelves. I stared about in wonder.
“The central repository for the collected knowledge and wisdom of the Argent Dawn,” said Madoran. “The pretentious among us call it the Silver Sanctum. It was built here more than five hundred years ago as the Dawn removed itself from the popular consciousness. Ironforge was the farthest north of the capital cities which survived the Scourge War, and the closest to the dead lands with which the Dawn concerns itself.
“As for the room’s grandeur, well…” He sighed. “The Dawn has included some very wealthy members over its years, who thought that their money was better spent beautifying a secret library than beautifying the world at large.” He spoke as though unsure whether to love the place or resent it.
He stood in reverie for a moment, and then strode purposefully across the wide floor to the “World” shelf.
Between each bookshelf, the wall was covered with polished silver, and as I looked closer, they resolved into finely-carved friezes. The first showed a beautiful mountain, with towers and turrets and dwarves and griffins. Below, the same mountain was under attack by dragons, and dwarves and griffins were dying. Undead dwarves stood and began attacking their neighbors, and, at the bottom, the mountain was ruined, its turrets cast down. I shivered.
The next displayed a battle on a bridge: at the frieze’s bottom, the bridge was in ruins, undead bodies cast into the sea, and a great starburst flag, the banner of the Argent Dawn, billowed.
The next, and several after that, around the room to where Madoran was thumbing through great tomes and muttering irritably to himself, depicted other scenes of battle and diplomacy, and I suddenly saw the story which the dwarf had told on our griffin-ride north unfolding before me in silver relief. Humans and dwarves and orcs and trolls and elves and gnomes and (I was happy to see) a few tauren fought tides of zombies and spiders and demons. The zombies were suitably horrific, with decaying limbs and guts falling out of their rotting bowels. Nearly every frieze included the starburst banner flying triumphant over a battlefield.
Farther around the room, another frieze showed the spiders sitting around a starburst-inlaid table with the other races. Those must be the Nerubians, I thought.
I continued on around the room, piecing together the rest of Madoran’s story: here was the Lich King defeated by a towering, winged demon; here was the demon lord ascendant as the new commander of the Scourge. Here was a vast fleet of ships, each flying the starburst flag of the Argent Dawn, arriving on a vast, dead, rocky shore. The battle raged, around the room, until in the last frieze, next to the door, there was the unconscious demon lord being sealed in a translucent block of crystal.
The last panel of this last frieze was strangely lacking in victorious imagery, and there was no starburst to be seen. A lonely tower stood, desolate on a desolate tundra, impossibly thin and twisting up into the sky.
“The frozen tomb I told you about,” said Madoran, standing next to me. I jumped. “Varimathras himself is imprisoned at its peak.”
The dwarf clutched a thick brown-leather book. The word “ATLAS” was printed on its spine in big, heavily-worn golden letters. Pages and folded sheets of paper and parchment were stuffed in haphazardly, threatening to spill out at any moment. “Over here,” said Madoran, and he strode towards the room’s nearest table. He thumped the atlas down and pulled out a pair of seats.
I took a last look at the frozen tomb. It looked so sad, so barren, compared to the others. I could see no victory there. I pulled away and walked to the table.
“My intention,” said the dwarf as he flipped open to the back of the atlas, “was to have these maps copied by scribes before you set out north. Circumstances have changed, of course, and if we should fail in our battle for Ironforge – perish the thought – we will at least have what we need to proceed north. I believe I can trust myself with the originals.” He looked up at me. “If I lose ‘em, though, I’m gonna have to put myself on half-rations for a month. Just so’s we’re clear.”
I nodded. “Clear as day, General.”
“Good soldier,” said the dwarf absently, and he paused, busying himself in the book’s enormous, chaotic index.
“So, once we’ve won the battle here,” I said carefully, “what’s the plan? Are you still going to bring a battalion of dwarves like you said?”
“If the battle is won and a battalion is available that’s not needed for securing Khaz Modan, then yes,” said Madoran, thumbing through loose-leaf pages. “They’ll march to Menethil Harbor, north of here, and set sail for the northlands from there. You an’ me an’ the elf Allyndil—”
“The one that healed me?” I said.
“Aye,” said Madoran. “The three of us will go by a faster way. Speed is of the essence, and we have already lost two days to this cursed conflict. Ah,” he said, and pulled a loose-sheet map out of the atlas. He spread it out on the table.
“This is the map you told us about?” I said.
“No,” said the dwarf. “This is an older one, but more useful for navigation: the dead continent of Lordaeron,” and I shivered at the word, “as it looked centuries ago, before the Scourge. Most of the old imperial roads,” and he traced them with a thick finger, “have long since disappeared. Brill,” he continued, pointing to a city. “Crumbled to dust and lost in the plague forest. This map has it here, to the west of the capital city, while other older ones have it here, to the east. Records are inconclusive, and the ruins, if they still exist, are not intent on being found. Stratholm,” he said, pointing farther north and east, “the site of Prince Arthas’ turn to darkness. Flames took ten years to consume it – no one knows what that was about. Southshore and Tarren Mill,” and he pointed at a pair of adjacent settlements to the south, “overrun after decades of ceaseless fighting. And there’s the city of Lordaeron itself,” and he pointed to the kingdom’s proud capital, at the northern tip of a great lake. Its spires were drawn intricately, and ramparts, and mighty iron gate that could withstand the mightiest of enemies. “Armies couldn’t bring it down,” said Madoran somberly, “so it rotted from within. The Lich King Arthas was its prince.”
I nodded. I knew those stories. “That’s our destination, then?” I said, pointing to the city.
Madoran paled a little and shook his head. “While we of course have reason to believe that that’s where the book lies,” he said, glancing sidelong up at me, “we would much rather let it lie than venture in to secure it ourselves.” He paused. “No one has ever gone into that city and come out alive, not in the long centuries since its fall. I can only imagine what manner of curses Arthas Frostmourn laid upon his ruined home, and I will die happy if I live the rest of my days only imagining.” He glanced back down at the map. “It’s possible that the whole thing is a misunderstanding,” he said brightly, “and that where our various sources of information refer to the city of Lordaeron, they meant to refer more generally to the continent of Lordaeron! So confusing, that little issue.”
“No kidding,” I grinned. “Or, like, how the continent we’re on right now doesn’t have any name at all? What’s with that?”
“Oh, I can tell you!” said the dwarf excitedly. “Centuries ago, before the dwarves and humans did any exploring, this continent was called Azeroth and the northern one was called Lordaeron. Then, once they discovered Kali and Northrend, they decided to refer to the whole world as Azeroth – later, Az – and started referring to here as the Eastern Kingdoms. Then that fell into disuse, because it’s a crap name, and now nobody calls it anything.”
“Well, somebody should get naming,” I said.
“Agreed. Now,” he said, and the brief moment of levity had passed. He pointed soberly to the map. “This is Andorhal. A few foundations still peak through the undergrowth, and one of its legendary towers still stands. If we follow the ancient road-signs towards it,” and he looked up at me, “we’ll find our first destination.”
He folded the map and placed it gently in his backpack. He turned back to the atlas, and, after thumbing through it for a moment more, pulled out another. It showed few cities and no roads, and its drawing of the city of Lordaeron showed fallen turrets and crumbled walls. “A somewhat more modern version,” muttered the dwarf, staring intensely down at it.
His finger traced around the ruined city, and then to its center. He peered closer, and, at the center of the city, I saw a tiny ink drawing of a book, sitting open on a bone pedestal.
Madoran picked up the map and turned it over. Its back was covered in tiny, spidery handwriting in a language which I couldn’t read. “I should have brought this north years ago,” he muttered to himself, and then, without further explanation, he folded it carefully and slipped it into his pack with the other. He shut the atlas with a thump.
* * *
We retraced our steps, down the low hallway, up the spiral stairs and out of the conference rooms, shutting secret door after secret door behind us. Back out in Ironforge’s public library, Rothfus sat at his table, alert this time.
“The call has gone out among your people, my Lord,” he said proudly. “They await your command.”
“Thank you, my good librarian,” said Madoran. “You’ve done more for this battle than all your librarian fathers ever did for battles before.” Rothfus smiled widely and bowed from his waist.
We walked out of the library and through the museum. Ironforge was silent. Far off, down the huge hallway and across the great cavern sat our small army: our imposter guards stood, still at attention, and barely anything could be seen beyond.
Madoran turned to me. “Horse,” he said, “get back to our beachhead. If our army has arrived, proceed with securing it, and, if possible, the flanking tunnels. I’m going to rally my people.”
Madoran turned and trotted quietly off to the right, pausing to carefully check each corner, moving rapidly and silently off into the mountain.
In the silence of the early-morning city, I snuck back to the great glowing anvil on velvet paws. There, I pulled myself together, and, with a quick check over my shoulder, I clip-clopped quickly towards the throne room.
Not quickly enough. “Hey, you! Halt!”
Damnit. I froze, almost there, between our red-clad faux-imperial guards, who had stiffened noticeably. I glanced at the source of the voice. A lone dwarf in red was coming towards me.
I parted my lips just enough to let sound out. “Has our army arrived?” I intoned, through a motionless jaw.
“All set, sir,” whispered one of the guards.
“Good,” I said. I turned towards the approaching dwarf. “Is there a problem?” I said.
“Aye,” said the other, loosening his axe as he approached. I loomed over him. “No tauren live in Ironforge, which makes you an outsider, sneakin’ around, after an attack, approachin’ the High Seat alone!” He was almost upon us, and his axe was in his hand now.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught some green movement from within the throne room. I was covered. “What, exactly, are you expecting to do to me by yourself?” I said.
He stopped, just out of reach, looking at the throne room’s two guards. They stared straight ahead, looking suddenly awkward. I cursed my mouth: until I’d shot it off, the enemy dwarf had thought he had me three to one.
“Guards!” he called, loudly. It echoed in the cavernous silence.
Then all at once, he turned, I pulled my mace from my belt and sprung after him, both our red-clad guards charged, and a bolt of ice whirred past us, striking the dwarf on the back of the skull. He cried out and buckled, and I landed on him, mace at the ready. We all froze, watching and listening.