Our journey didn’t begin again until nearly midnight. I felt better, fully healed and fully rested. We walked north, through the darkened swamplands, the peepers singing and the frogs croaking and occasionally, an unidentified, chillingly predatory screech echoed in the distance.
Dawn came, blank and dreary, and brought with it no change in our surroundings. “Do these swamplands go on forever?” I said petulantly.
“We’re two hours from the edge of the swamps, and another hour from the cliffs,” replied the elf stoically.
Madoran’s faith in the elf’s knowledge of the land turned out to be well-placed, and two hours later, we emerged from the feted land into some low, rolling hills. The ground reminded us what it felt like to not sink into it with a squelch, and the air smelled fresh again. The morning sun shone clearly above us. We moved into the hills, towards a point on the horizon of which the elf was perfectly sure, and, an hour later, we quite suddenly reached the edge of the world.
Ahead of us was a pair of ancient stone pillars with rubble between them, as though the pillars had once been an arch. We clambered over the rubble. Beyond it was the first hundred feet of what was once a mighty bridge, ending jaggedly and abruptly. Beyond that was nothing.
Below us was a high cliff, and below the cliff was an ocean. Seagulls soared about below us, preening or diving to catch fish for lunch.
“The Thandol Span,” said Madoran. “Once the greatest bridge in the world, fully half a mile between supporting pillars: built by my fathers in ancient times, and destroyed by my fathers in less ancient times, during the Scourge war.” He pointed. Far in the distance, across the shallow sea, another cliff rose from the ocean: that land was Lordaeron, and a thick pall hung over it. I shivered.
“How do we get there?” I said quietly, hoping the answer was, We can’t, let’s go home.
“Dive!” said Madoran.
“Are you nuts?” I said, looking at him in alarm. Allyndil laughed at me.
“Aye,” said the dwarf sadly, as though disappointed that cliff-diving a thousand feet into uncertain waters was a bad idea.
He gestured us forward, and as we reached the end of the bridge, he clambered over the side. There, out of sight from the mainland, were the ruins of an enclosed spiral staircase, long exposed to the weather and sprouting grass in its cracks. The enclosure clung precariously to the edge of the bridge, which was much thicker than I’d supposed it to be – thick enough to house substructure, I thought. Madoran was running down into the stairwell, which twisted him quickly out of sight. Allyndil, who looked as confused as I was, glanced over at me and shrugged. He vaulted down after the dwarf.
I looked down, past the weeds growing out of cracks, past the crumbled stone and mortar which held the stairwell, to the thousand-foot drop below. Swallowing my fear of heights, squeezing my eyes shut, I forced one leg over the edge of the bridge. Hoof met stone, and I pressed down: it felt stable. I lowered my other leg, and opened my eyes: I was down.
True to my hunch, the staircase led to a warren of rooms built into the underside of the bridge. Stacked high against the walls were dust-covered barrels, full of explosives, of all things. Madoran reassured me that they had long since been rendered inert. We walked down an open stairway to another room below, and I forced myself to not think of the unknown strength of the stone that hung between me and a thousand feet of seagulls.
We stood in front of the chamber’s back wall, the one nearest the cliff. “The day the bridge blew is the stuff of legend now,” said Madoran, feeling across the wall in what I by now recognized as a search for secret passages. “They tell stories of a tide of zombies, and worse, washing across the Span, and a few heroic engineers on suicide missions to set precision charges and set them off before the Scourge could reach our side of the bridge. They succeeded, of course, which is why we’re all here today. The Shallow Sea’s floor is littered with rubble and the bones of the Scourge, blown to their doom.” With a click, he found what he was looking for, and a stone in the wall slid inward. “The Scourge was eventually defeated, of course,” he continued. “This bridge was not the greatest loss in that war.”
The elf closed his eyes for a moment, in pain at some private thought.
“Luckily for us,” continued the dwarf, feeling about within the stone recess, “the holy soldiers who fought that fight – the Argent Dawn, before it fell apart,” and he glanced pointedly at me, “found it necessary to build a new, less visible, less accessible route to the northlands.” The wall swung open. Madoran clapped in triumph, and strode purposefully into the darkness beyond.
“After you,” said the elf.
We had moved from the bridge’s substructure into the cliff, and it was pitch black. “Built in secrecy,” explained Madoran as he held his lit hammer aloft, “even from the goblins and their electricity.”
The staircase ahead of us was wide, and its stairs were shallow. It ran straight, heading (what I was fairly certain was) west. We descended for an eternity.
I had fallen completely into the rhythm of our three different footfalls echoing in the silence – light elf, heavy dwarf, and my own thick hooves – when the staircase ended abruptly in a short, blank corridor. I looked around, confused, but Madoran knelt in place and set his hammer down. It winked out, and we were back in blackness.
There was the sound of stone grinding against stone, and then the darkness tore open, split by a slice of bright light – daylight? – coming from the floor. As Madoran pulled the stone cover off, it expanded into a square hole with a dwarf-shaped shadow across it. He gestured us forward. The elf dropped through the trap door first, dangling for a moment and swinging back and forth before letting go with a grunt.
I squeezed myself through the hole, dangling by my hands in a wide, round, metallic tunnel. Running along the tunnel’s floor was a single thick, metal track. Twin platforms ran along each wall of the tunnel, narrow and lined with twin guardrails, and studded with rusty pipes and old, broken gauges. The bright light which had blinded me moments before came from behind me, casting long and lengthening shadows down the tunnel and into indistinct darkness.
“Just drop,” called the elf from behind me. “You’re big enough.”
With a grunt, I obeyed, landing gracelessly on the tunnel’s tiled floor. I turned around.
The source of light in the tunnel turned out to be the sun itself: a few dozen paces along the tunnel, and for the hundreds of paces beyond that which I could see before the tunnel bent gently to the left and out of sight, its dull metal walls turned to brilliant, shimmering glass, beyond which was beautiful, shimmering, sunlit water. We were out of the cliff and under the ocean. I stared in wonder.
Allyndil stood there, in the sunlight, the shadow of a rare smile on his face. He motioned me along, and with Madoran, who had slid the stone trap door shut and dropped down beside me, we set off.
We walked out into the ocean, staring up and out in awe. The bottom of the glass was even with the ocean floor, and rocks and sand mixed with seaweed waving gently in the currents. Sunlight lanced down past the wind-whipped surface, landing in playfully modulating patterns on anything and everything. A hammerhead shark swam lazily past, and off to our left sat the aging hulk of a sunken ship.
Madoran recited the tunnel’s history for us as we walked: “In the early days of the Scourge War, before the races stopped fighting among themselves to unite against the greater threat, the necessity of quickly moving troops between fronts presented the dwarven-human Alliance with a challenge.”
“Elven, too,” interjected Allyndil.
“Aye, there were still some elves left,” replied Madoran.
“Night-elves, too,” countered Allyndil easily. Outside, the hammerhead darted suddenly into a forest of seaweed, emerging a moment later looking pleased with itself.
“Aye, and the night-elves,” said Madoran, “whom no one has seen hide or hair of in half a millennium. Some heroes they.” Allyndil grunted in what sounded like agreement. I’d heard of the night-elves before: they were a race of dark-skinned, graceful beings which had disappeared from Az centuries before. I wondered how it had happened, but neither the dwarf nor the pale elf seemed to know.
“Anyway,” huffed the dwarf. “The gnomes, as it turned out, were the ones to rise to this challenge, by way of thanks to the dwarves for taking them in. They built a tram, entirely underground, from what was then Stormwind all the way north to Ironforge. It was the first project that used electricity on such a scale.” He paused for a beat.
“During design and construction, though,” he continued, “the gnomes screwed up a calculation, and the tunnel they built overshot to here, miles and miles off-course. They didn’t realize it until the tunnel broke through into ocean and flooded, drowning a fair few of their best crew. The gnome president at the time, a white-haired little man with an eye for flare, decided that the tunnel would proceed from that point, bending slowly back around to Ironforge, out under the water, as a living monument to the engineers who worked and died. It also made for an amazing spectacle along the otherwise boring trip, and gave people the eternal question of how a tunnel that ran between two landlocked cities went under water for a mile.”
“An effective monument,” said Allyndil, gazing up into the ocean above.
“Why didn’t we just take the tunnel here from Ironforge?” I asked, memories of being shot at fresh in my mind.
“It’s collapsed along most of its length,” Madoran replied. “This stretch was built stronger, as having the entire tunnel flood with seawater is more of a problem than having a small length of it fall in and fill with rock. It was also maintained longer, as it is part of this route to Lordaeron.” I shivered, wishing he’d stop saying the word.
Before long, Madoran halted. He had been counting out loud, slowly for the last five minutes. Now he stared intently at the tiled floor. “Yup!” he said after a moment, and, instead of explaining, he crouched down. Scanning its small square tiles, he located a dark purple one and pressed it. It receded, and he rotated it. There was another faint click, and in a moment he had lifted a trap door open, revealing another dark hole, and gestured us down. With a last glance at the sun-lit ocean above, I squeezed in.
We were in another tunnel now, danker than the last, and heading (I assumed) north. It was lower than the last one as well, and I had to walk stooped. With the dwarf leading and lighting the way, we moved quickly and silently along.
An hour on, we stopped for food. There was nothing to sit on, so we crouched on the tunnel’s wet floor, munching at cold bread. Then we finished, repacked our packs, and headed off down the tunnel in silence again.
Another endless stretch of darkness later, Madoran announced, “Staircase goin’ up.” These stairs wound eratically through the mountain, not turning back on themselves or running straight, but bending here and there as though feeling their way haltingly to the surface. Eventually, as I was certain that I would go mad from the climbing, Madoran called a halt, and, after a moment of feeling around on a wall, he clicked open what I hoped would be the last secret door I would ever see.
The door opened up onto the cliff face, and a narrow path wound away and up. Thick, unhappy clouds hung heavy above us, and a stiff wind whipped up from the ocean below. I picked my way carefully along in the dwarf’s wake, in terror that one slip on the slick rock would send me plunging to certain death, but I made it, and soon the land of Lordaeron opened up before us. (If we’re here, I thought heavily, I may as well get used to the word. Somehow, standing there, the terror which the word had held seemed silly.) It was barren land, covered in jagged rocks and bristly, wind-beaten grasses. Thirty paces inland stood the beginnings of a thick, dark, twisted-looking forest, stretching as far in either direction as I could see. It looked wholly unpleasant.
I gazed out over the ocean. The cliff where we had stood that morning was barely visible on the southern horizon, and the northern terminus of the ruined Span stood proudly off to the east. To the south, over the ocean, stood the clear sky of the southlands, beyond the reach of the northland pall, burning red with the setting sun. “Enjoy it,” said Allyndil grimly. “It’s the last sunset you’ll see in these lands.”
Madoran declared the spot where we stood “Good enough” for camping and Allyndil assented. In a flat nook between two rocks, I set stones in a circle for a campfire while Madoran searched out fuel. Between us, we built a magnificently cheery fire, a rousing vote in favor of the sunset and against the darkness that lay ahead of us.
Allyndil had disappeared into the woods and returned as the sun sank onto the horizon. He carried a pair of lean rabbits. The fire was now roaring, and we skinned them, spit them and roasted them slowly. “Helps with the toughness,” said Allyndil. “What game we’ll find up here will be tough at best, and deadly at worst.”
The slow roasting had limited effect, and the sparse meat we managed to peel off the rabbit bones was by no means tender. The food did the job, though, and I lay back against a rock, feeling at least satisfied enough to drift into sleep.
Suddenly, a searing pain lanced through my head. I cried out, clutching it in my hands. Madoran and Allyndil leapt to their feet.
“Horse,” said the elf distantly, through the intense ringing in my ears. “Are you alright?”
For some reason, I put my hand in my pocket. It closed around a piece of parchment, and I pulled it out: it was the one I had taken from the desk in Ironforge. It hadn’t changed: the one large symbol in black ink, a wavy line, with half an arrow at one tip, bisecting a circle at an angle – similar to the strange symbols which had splashed themselves across the sky on my flight north, I thought suddenly.
The pain intensified, as though something were tearing apart my mind and stitching it back together. Madoran and Allyndil gathered around me, but my eyes were locked on the parchment.
“Find me,” it read.
I did a double-take. The symbol, which moments before had been perfectly meaningless to me, now very clearly said “Find me” in its alien language.
I leapt to my feet and pushed past Allyndil, clutching the parchment. I ran headlong for the evil-looking forest and plunged in, head pounding, ears ringing.
Another symbol leapt out at me, scratched into a tree trunk. “Warmer,” it read. Another, a depression in moss, the same symbol. My head felt ready to explode. Another tree-trunk flashed a new symbol at me: “Colder,” and I veered through the forest, following the symbols flashing at me from trees and stones and patterns in leaves. The ringing in my ears crescendoed as I entered a small glade, and I tripped on nothing and fell to my hands and knees and the ringing ceased—
“Hello, Horse,” said a voice in the silence.
I looked up. Standing in the dusky clearing was a dwarf. His face was covered in a thick black beard and an impossibly long, droopy black moustache, and he wore thick denim pants and a dark blue shirt, with a dark blue travel cloak over it all. Perched ungainly atop his head was an old, tarnished horned helm. He was smoking a cigarette.
“What were the—” I started, but the dwarf interrupted.
“My name’s Ordinn,” he said down at me, “I know you’ve heard of me. We don’t have long, so shut up and listen up.”
Ironforge’s ex-administrator, I thought, and another agent of the Law. I wondered if he knew that Katy M was dead. He spoke with rapid and flippant authority, though, and as ordered, I kept silent.
“You’re terrified of this place,” he said, “and rightly so, but you have no actual idea what you’re getting into. You’re walking into extreme danger, and we want to make sure that you don’t walk in entirely blind.”
“We?” I interrupted.
Ordinn pulled hard on his cigarette, then blew out, his forehead creased in annoyance. “What did I just say about shutting up?” He pulled again.
“We can’t help out directly with this stage of your journey,” he continued, “for a bunch of reasons which you won’t figure out for a while, which is fine, one of which is that Madoran probably isn’t very happy with me right now. Anyway, we’ll be helping out behind the scenes where we can, but it’s not much.” He pulled on his cigarette again before continuing. “Your role in this stage of the game is going to unfold pretty clearly, so all you have to do is follow it successfully. As long as you do that, and aren’t an idiot, we’re fairly certain you’ll make it. An unfortunate part of the plan, and it sucks, but stick to it.” He paused for a pull. “An unfortunate part of the plan is that even given the opportunity, you can’t try to save anyone, got it?” He jabbed his finger at me, emphasizing each word. “There’s too much at stake for you to get distracted playing hero one person at a time. Keep in mind that your eventual goal is to get to the capital city of Lordaeron, so, good luck with that.” He smiled humorlessly, then pulled on his cigarette. “That’s all. Oh, one more thing: you’re being followed. That big brilliant ‘Look at me!’ bear move you pulled in Ironforge got you noticed, and while you’re lucky that there are very few people who can identify you by your little shape-changing trick, you’re unlucky in that among the people that can are some that want you dead.”
He could only be referring to my Orcmar creditors, and to Fang’s promise to shield me from them as long as he could. My eyes widened and my nose grew cold.
“Your trip through the Argent Dawn tunnel brought you some time, but there’s only so many places a big, alive bull could be heading in the northlands. You won’t stay hidden for long. Again, we’ll do what we can, but you keep your head on straight. Got it?”
I nodded dumbly.
“Good,” he said, “because we really do want you to pass this test.”
“Pass?” I said.
“Survive,” he responded. He pulled on his cigarette.
Behind me in the woods, towards the cliff, Madoran and Allyndil were shouting my name.
“Whelp, gotta go,” said Ordinn shortly. “Do me a favor and don’t tell them,” and he jerked his head towards the shouting, “about me.”
“What should I tell them?” I said desperately.
He shrugged. “Think quick. It’s a skill you’ll have to develop one of these days. Sorry about the no time for questions thing, I’ve heard how curious you are. You won’t see me again, not for a long time.” He stepped over to me and snatched the parchment out of my hand. “I’ll take that back,” he said, and extinguished his cigarette on it. “Good luck,” he said again, sounding finalistic. “You’re sure as hell gonna need it.” He turned and walked to the edge of the clearing.
“Katy M is dead!” I cried after him.
He paused for a moment, facing away. Then he turned back around, and his face wore the humorless smile again. “I’m sure she’s in a better place now,” he said. Then he turned away again and disappeared into the evil, twisted, night-fallen forest.