I spent the night, back against the rocks, staring out over the cliff. The wind continued unabated; eventually, it faded to background noise, a hum against my consciousness. The seabirds had gone to sleep in their cliff roosts, and, across the sea, the southlands glittered in the moonlight. That was miles away. This side of the inky water felt like it hadn’t seen moonlight in centuries.
Allyndil had found me, still kneeling in the clearing, my eyes squeezed shut, trying to think and failing. He led me gently back to camp, settled me in and gave me some warm tea to drink. In my pained frenzy I hadn’t been aware of scents, but coming out of the evil woods and into the cliff’s stiff sea breeze was like stepping into a refrigerator on a hot smelly Storm City day.
I’d come back to the fire, silent, disoriented, slowly trying to process what had happened. Madoran had watched me warily, perhaps unsure if I was still myself, or unsure if my silence portended some deeper betrayal. Then he went to bed. The elf stayed awake, back against a rock a few paces away from mine, watching the same dark ocean.
My years of destructive abandon in Orcmar were catching up to me. Agents of the Law were still watching me, testing me now! And, without having asked me if I minded, they were now apparently risking my life.
I bristled and fumed. What had the dwarf meant that I couldn’t try to save anybody? Who was I going to lose? Madoran, the dwarven king, whom I liked very much and to whom I felt a great deal of loyalty, was lying with his back to the fire and the sea, breathing shallowly. The pale elf, whose song magic had healed me twice now, sat, stoic as always, staring unblinkingly into the distance. If they died, who would I have in this strange land? The sea wind whistled lonesomely up our cliff.
I stood up from my spot and crossed to my backpack. I pulled out the cat carrier and unlatched it. Ajax blinked sleepily out at me, and I reached in and pulled him out. I returned to my spot at the edge of the campfire’s shrinking ring of light, with a sleepy cat snuggled into my shoulder.
“Keep an eye on what he eats in this land,” said Allyndil. “Eating the twisting plague poisons your body and mind in ways that I can’t heal.”
I glanced over at him. He hadn’t moved to speak: he was still staring unblinking at the distance.
“What are we going to eat, then?” I said. “And why were the rabbits safe?”
“There are things that are untouched, especially here, far from the plaguesprings. The plague spreads slowly, by being eaten, and there are webs of plants and creatures that have avoided it. Luckily, plagued creatures are easy to spot. Unluckily, our supply of healthy food will dwindle as we head into the north.”
I nodded, closing my eyes for a moment, and then without warning it was the next day. I was stiff, but immediately and easily awake. The previous night had faded to accessible memories, and whatever disorientation that the scarring headache had left me with had gone.
Ajax trotted up from somewhere with a skinny tail dangling from his mouth. I leapt at him in a panic, prying whatever it was away from him. I held it up to Allyndil, who laughed.
“It’s clean,” he said.
“How do you know?” I said, peering suspiciously at the dead field mouse.
“Because it looks clean,” he replied easily. “When you see your first plagued creature, you’ll know. And you won’t forget it.”
I stared at the mouse for another moment, then shrugged and dangled it back in front of Ajax. He snagged it with a claw and put it back in his mouth, looking scandalized.
Once we were packed, Madoran turned to me. “What happened last night?” he said plainly.
I paused. Ordinn the Law-dwarf had asked me to not reveal him to my companions, but Allyndil had healed me, and Madoran had led me into battle. All Ordinn had done was blow smoke in my face, and I was poorly disposed to do him any favors.
But the conversation worked itself out quickly in my head: How does Ordinn know or care about you? Madoran had already hinted that he suspected that the Law and the Stone King had been connected, and I was sure that I would only confirm it. If he knew that I knew about it, I would have to give up its secret, and that – because of Katy M’s parting injunction to me – I was not yet willing to do.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “It was horrible, though. I felt like my head was going to explode. It was so sudden.”
Madoran glanced at Allyndil, who shrugged. “What was the piece of paper you had?” he continued.
I sighed. “When we were in the conference room in Ironforge, I went through Ordinn the Dwarf’s desk and found it. It had a strange symbol on it, so I took it. I don’t know why I pulled it out last night.” That much was true.
Madoran furrowed his brow at me. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?” he demanded.
I tilted my head at him. “It wasn’t your desk,” I said defensively. “I’m sorry, I would have if I’d known you’d wanted me to.”
Madoran relented. “And I’m not your king, after all. Could I see it?”
I shook my head. “I left it,” I said, “I lost it in the woods.”
The dwarf sighed. He looked at me. “Yesterday,” he said delicately, “we passed into a land well-known for its nocturnal and supernatural horrors, and as its first sun set upon us, you ran screaming into the darkness as though possessed. The nature and purpose of our destination is not a thing which any of us,” and he nodded around, “wish to be widely known. I hope that you’ll understand, then, if we withhold further information about our quest from you until we’re certain, well,” and he shrugged, “until we’re certain that you’re still yourself.”
It was a stern side of the dwarf which I hadn’t seen before. I grimaced, but it was fair: even if I’d been telling the whole truth about my encounter in the woods, it would be hard to trust me. I nodded miserably, and silently cursed Ordinn for the position he’d left me in. Some test, I thought.
We shouldered our packs, and, bidding the free air goodbye, we slumped into the twisted forest. This time, fully in my head and aware of my surroundings, I felt the air close immediately in about us. The air was wet, and smelled distinctly of death. I wrinkled my nose. The trees were uniformly twisted: their trunks grew straight and proud to nearly my eye level, at which point they warped horribly, putting out brown and scabbed leaves and oozing dark green sap through the sores in their bark. “They catch the plague at that age,” said Allyndil. “Their roots hit the water table. Smaller plants, drinking the rain, have a chance to stay clean.”
We passed a tree which on the previous night had been etched with one of the strange symbols. I stared at it as we passed, brow creased. The bark was now blank.
As we made our way further north, the trees and dank underbrush twisted together tighter and tighter, slowing our progress steadily until we were making almost none at all. Allyndil, in front, had unsheathed a dagger from somewhere and was cutting through the underbrush; Madoran had a short-sword out and was aiding the process. I trailed, bashing away with my mace at low-hanging branches which the others walked under with ease. Our journey carried us on in silence: the strange forest quelled our desire to converse.
Allyndil led us steadily on. Time crawled by with no reference to the sun, which stayed hidden behind the gray-brown clouds. Several hours on, towards what felt like noon, we stopped for a hasty, cold lunch.
“There is a spring ahead and to the west,” said Allyndil between bites of cold, salted boar-meat. Our water supplies were getting stagnant, and I perked up. “It’s a plague spring,” he continued at my look. “They are all there are in this land.”
I wilted. “At least I get to see what one looks like,” I said.
“We’re going as far around it as we can,” said Allyndil shortly.
“Best to steer clear of ‘em,” said Madoran with an air of obviousness.
By midafternoon, the branches overhead had begun to twist together tighter and more and more of the shrubs we passed seeped their own green pussy sap. Suddenly, a creature skittered beneath my hooves. I jumped in fright: not because it had passed, but at the half-glimpse I’d gotten of it before it disappeared back into the thick undergrowth. It had been a field mouse, I was sure, a darker, scrawnier cousin of the one digesting in Ajax’s stomach. But I was certain I’d seen glowing eyes on the thing, and in place of a tail, I had definitely seen a dark stump.
Allyndil glanced over his shoulder at me. “Whatever it was,” he said, “don’t feed it to your cat.”
True to the elf’s prediction the previous night, there was no sunset that night: just a slow deepening of the gray pall overhead, until it was too dark to cut our way forward any further.
We backtracked to an area which Allyndil had spotted a few minutes earlier, where no roots broke the flat earth for a few feet in each direction. Allyndil and Madoran sat down, leaning against trees and unpacking supplies. Madoran tossed me another flat-topped loaf of bread.
“No cooking?” I said, taken aback.
“Campfires attract unwanted attention,” said the dwarf, nodding ominously off into the darkness.
Allyndil finished his meal quickly and lay down to sleep. I munched on the loaf of bread, then pulled some lean boar jerky from my pack and munched on that. Then, feeling wholly unsatisfied, I lay down on my blanket and closed my eyes.
Night fell about us, quieting for a few minutes. Then, slowly but unmistakably, a nocturnal orchestra awakened, full of inhuman shrieking and snarling – at first at a distance, then crescendoing and closing in around we three diurnal invaders until the very trees around us were abuzz with the sounds of the northern night. I shifted uncomfortably.
“Get used to it,” muttered Allyndil. Madoran humphed. A moment later, he swung his hammer at something, which squelched unpleasantly and scampered back into the darkness.
* * *
I rolled over the next morning, still tired and bleary. Allyndil had traded places with Madoran. He fiddled with his long dagger, which was covered to the hilt in a vague, noxious, pale-green goo.
I shook my head clear and struggled to my feet. Madoran rolled over and muttered something unpleasant. Allyndil stood up as well, casually packing his backpack. “We’re being followed,” he said quietly.
Madoran sat bold upright, and I swore. Allyndil shook his head imperceptibly, and we set out as though nothing were wrong.
The ground became steadily rockier as we progressed: what had at first been periodic boulders now popped up regularly out of the undergrowth. They looked non-native, and when I questioned Allyndil, he confirmed it.
“What are they from?” I pressed.
“Wait and see,” he said, smiling.
A few minutes more, and I had my answer: the forest’s oppressive ceiling of plagued branches suddenly broke and we could see beyond it again. And immediately ahead of us rose a great, towering stone wall, standing proudly above the woodlands, its ramparts jagged and crumbling. The thirty feet between us and the wall was treeless and littered with the huge boulders, and I glanced up, worried that another might cascade down upon us at any moment.
“Thoradin’s Wall,” said Allyndil grimly. “A testament to the fallen strength of Man, if there ever was one.”
We picked our way through the boulder field towards a solid stone archway off to the right. The wall was thick, and despite the evidence littered about outside, seemed to have withstood the ages.
The wall’s far side revealed, depressingly, a thirty-foot stretch of boulders and another wall of twisting trees and undergrowth. We plunged into it, but within a minute, Allyndil held up his hand. We halted.
“Walk backwards and hard to the left,” he ordered quietly, and we obeyed. We reemerged from the woods at a distance from where we had reentered them, and even with a staircase which had been carved haphazardly into the wall, clearly not by the original architects. At the elf’s behest, we ran quickly up it. It crested the wide wall, and we crossed between jagged gaps where boulders had once been. At the wall’s far side, Allyndil motioned us to lie flat. We peeked out over the dark, endlessly brown-green forest. I hardly dared breathe at the elf’s urgency.
Then, back to the left where we had first come upon the wall, four figures emerged from the forest. They were too far to see clearly, but one was short; two, leading a pair of what appeared to be bloodhounds, were human-sized and stocky; and one was enormous. “That’s an ogre,” whispered Madoran. “Why the hell are they following us through this Light-forsaken land?”
I closed my eyes for a moment, torn. Then I whispered, “They’re following me.”
“What?” hissed Madoran sharply. Allyndil, watching the progress of the distant foursome, shushed him.
“I owe them money from a long time ago,” I continued quietly. “I’d lost them years ago, but I guess they’ve picked up my trail again.”
Madoran narrowed his eyes at me, but mercifully spared me another lecture. Instead, he sighed. “I hope whatever demons you carry don’t hinder our quest,” he said simply.
“Me too,” I said honestly.
The part of trackers had passed through the archway and disappeared into the far woods, following our trail. “What happens when they find our backtrack and follow us here?” I said querulously.
“We fight,” said Allyndil, “and pray.”
There was no need. A few minutes later, Allyndil closed his eyes, concentrated on the land ahead, and declared, “They’ve moved on.” We descended the great stone wall and set off again into the forest. Allyndil, with keener eyes than mine, watched the tracks of our trackers until they faded in the underbrush. “They may be behind us again,” he said, “or they may have gone on to other destinations.”
* * *
The next day, about noon by my reckoning, we broke out of the woods and back under the low, dry clouds. Ahead of was a wide stretch of rocky, dead, open land. Through the middle of it ran a deep gulch. Filling the ancient rocky stream bed at the gulch’s bottom was not water, but a creeping, gelatinous green slime.
“The ichor of undeath,” said Madoran with distaste, “the evil blood of this place. It’s draining south from the Plaguelands proper, and it’s thick enough to kill any plant life that’s living or merely plagued.”
“Don’t drink it,” said Allyndil lightly.
“These aren’t plaguelands already?” I said incredulously. Allyndil began picking his way upstream, to the north, and we followed.
Madoran laughed. “Hardly,” he said. “The Plaguelands were the seat of power for the Scourge for years before it took the rest of Lordaeron, and its army was driven back before long. Too late to save the place, of course. But no,” he finished, “you have not yet experienced the Plaguelands.”
A few hours and miles passed beneath us. Ahead and to the right, a lonely mountain rose over the forests and into the clouds. It was choked with the same brownish-green forests that covered the rest of the land. Madoran gazed up at it, a look of pain and nostalgia on his face.
“Aerie Peak,” he said quietly. “The homeland of the griffins. We trained them there, grew them up from chicks to be great fighters and fliers, and they flew between every city and outpost in the eastern world.”
“What happened?” I said.
Madoran was silent for a moment. Then he began singing, filling the dead land with his sonorous baritone voice. The melody was sad, and the words were in Dwarvish. After a pair of verses, Allyndil leapt in with a tenor refrain, and Madoran continued on the counterpoint: it was strong, still sad but frenetic as well, terrified, then bitter. I felt the song’s keen loss without needing to understand its words.
The song ended.
“It was overrun, of course,” said Madoran after a moment. “An evil blow, and the first loss of the last Scourge offensive.” He paused, then continued, translating and reciting the song. “Out of the clear morning sky flew a wing of skeleton dragons, the most twisted creation of the Lich King Ner’zul. They breathed fire and plague, and our griffins and fighters fell before they’d even awoken and broken their fast. No army was needed to conquer Aerie Peak: our dead brothers arose from the spots where they fell and began battling us from within. In terror we fled to the south, bringing tidings of death, and begging forgiveness from the souls of our birds and our fallen companions.” He breathed. “The Scourge took us by storm, and glory and honor died with the land.” He fell silent again.
“Not as many griffins these days,” said Allyndil sadly.
“The undead destroy beauty, and can do nothing else,” said Madoran coldly, staring up at the mountain with narrowed eyes and clenched jaw.
A hatred burned in his eyes that chilled me. Though no one alive had ever seen them – there was nothing left of them but rumors – everyone knew about zombies, the Scourge, the undead. They were the shadow of the terror of Lordaeron, the most wretched and hateful things that had ever walked the earth: infecting their fallen enemies with their disease, with their hatred of life itself. Every living, thinking being in the world knew to at least vaguely fear them, but I had never seen it burn in the eyes of someone whose ancestors had lost so much to them. I wondered if it was the price to pay for pride: Madoran knew his people’s triumphs, but he felt the pain of their losses just as keenly. The rest of the world had been spared from that, maybe.
I glanced at the stoic elf, remembering the pained look that had passed over his face when Madoran had told the story of the fall of the Thandol Span. The elf had lost something, too, in that war, and I wondered what it was.
We made faster progress across the open ground than we had in the thick forest, and had covered many miles by the time the low-slung sky began fading to black.
Allyndil turned back towards the twisting forest. “We don’t want to be out in the open tonight,” he explained. “Evil things come to drink at the stream.”
I glanced back at it, and did a double take. “Is it—” I started. The stream’s thick green ichor, which looked unpleasant enough during the day, was glowing dimly in the dusk, casting a sick green pallor over its gulch.
“Sure is,” said Madoran.
I shook my head. “What kind of evil glows green?” I muttered.
“Unnatural evil,” said Allyndil. “Evil which, by all rights, shouldn’t exist, but it does, and it has shown no signs of dissipating in six hundred long years.”
* * *
The sky was still dim the next morning when Allyndil poked me with his foot. I rolled over and grunted.
“We can make our destination tonight if we push on,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll be sleeping in the Plaguelands tonight.” I got up.
Despite dragging fatigue, we made good time all morning. The walk stretched out my stiff legs and back, and woke us up to the point where, by noon, we were singing jauntily (but quietly) – rebelling against the dreary sky and the dead forest and the creeping glowing green stream.
As we carried on, the land about us began to change subtly. Plants began to spring up in the dead land between the forest and the stream: plants which looked like nothing which I had ever seen before. They were low and round and speckled green, but few of them displayed anything like a leaf. The ground between the rocks was becoming progressively spongier.
The forest was creeping slowly inward towards the gulch, slowing our progress again, and it was changing as well. The twisted trees were dying off, as was the relatively healthy undergrowth, being displaced by strange things: they had bulbous rings rising up their barkless trunks, ugly growths coming out at odd angles. They looked less like trees and more and more like surreal mushrooms.
A creature scurried out of the forest a hundred yards ahead of us. It looked like a bloodhound at a distance, but something was wrong about its head. I squinted, then shuddered with revulsion. Half its face was missing, exposing its jaw and teeth, and its black tongue lolled listlessly out between them. The thing’s eyes glowed. As we approached, it skulked back into the woods.
We stopped for lunch, and Allyndil turned to me before sitting. “We are nearing the Plaguelands,” he began.
“I figured,” I said.
“From this point forward, we can eat and drink nothing that has not been sealed in our backpacks since yesterday or fallen, untouched, from the sky. Although they are not aggressive yet, we must avoid contact with beasts at all costs, and if you cut your skin, stay away from plants as well.”
“From this point forward,” he continued, “the plants, the animals, the soil and the very air around us are contaminated with the plague. If you or Madoran become infected with it, I will not hesitate to kill you, and I expect the same mercy in return. Is that clear?”
I nodded bravely, or at least more bravely than I felt. Allyndil dug into his food with vigor. I nibbled on mine, my appetite gone. The mood had dulled as we began marching north again, and we marched in silence.
Suddenly, Allyndil held up his hand and halted. Madoran brought himself up short in front of me. “What is it?” he said to the elf.
“Two tracks,” he said, pointing at the spongiform ground. I could make out the faint shadow of footfalls. “Bipeds, coming out of the woods. They were running.”
“From what?” wondered Madoran aloud.
“We’d do well to know,” said the elf, turning into the woods and taking off at a jog. We followed. He stopped short a minute later, and pointed ahead of us. Between the surreal trees, I could make out a form lying on the bare, spongy ground. We approached it warily.
It was the ogre that had been tracking us, that we’d seen from atop Thoradin’s Wall two days before. He was lying on his back, and he was dead. His face was frozen in a twisted grimace, his eyelids held wide in pain. Beneath them, his eyes had sunken sickeningly into his skull, as though sucked inward by something vacating the space behind them. He wore a crude woolen shirt, and at the center of his chest, it was burned away in a perfectly round circle. The flesh beneath it was pressed unpleasantly inward, and it too was scorched. My stomachs turned at the sight, and I turned away.
Madoran had stopped short, staring at the body. A ghostly look passed over his face. “Madoran?” I said.
The dwarf shook his head and stepped forward, kneeling to examine the body. He peeled away at the edges of the burned fabric, and held his fingers to his nose. “Shadow magic?” he muttered disbelievingly to himself.
Allyndil inhaled sharply. “You’re kidding,” I said.
Shadow magic was the awful, otherworldly, twisting magic that had torn Az apart six hundred years ago. Its use had been banned and its users slaughtered at the end of the Scourge War, but words like “soul shards” and “demon slaves” still struck fear in our hearts. None but scholars, though – including, apparently, Madoran the dwarf king – knew any more what such things actually looked like. I looked down, queasy but curious, at the horrifyingly dead ogre.
“It’s the smell,” said the dwarf. “Like water tastes that’s been sitting in tin too long. I’d bet my kingdom.”
“What do you think that means?” said the elf.
“Ah’ve got no idea,” he said gruffly. “It’s the northlands, there could be anything hiding up here.”
He stood, looking nervously around the strange woods. “We have to hurry,” he said. He turned and hurried back the way we’d come, and the elf and I hurried after him.
We forged on ahead along the stream, more urgently than before. The land began rising faster and the strange forest closed in about us, and an hour later the forest ended suddenly at the shore of the stream’s source: a lake of the foul-smelling green goo. Far out across its surface, there was a sickening splash as some ichor-dwelling creature came up for air and then resubmerged.
The lake’s ichor flowed around a line of boulders at the stream’s head. Allyndil pointed us across them, and lithely led the way. Madoran followed, less gracefully, and I nervously brought up the rear. Safely across, we struck off into the strange forest again, farther away now from anything that I knew to call civilization. I prayed that our destination, whatever it was, would include a roof and some cooked food.
Darkness fell about us, and the night noises began again. The inhuman screeching returned, and beneath it, periodically, sounded a deep, reverberant thrum, like air being expelled from a great sack. Nearer at hand, for a minute or more, came the sound of scuffling and dragging, and guttural clicks and groans which sounded terrifyingly human before fading back into the night. Somewhere, off in the dark distance, came what sounded like the baying of bloodhounds. We clutched our weapons nervously.
“Madoran,” I whispered, “can’t you light the way?”
“Better to not be seen,” the dwarf whispered tensely back.
A full hour past dusk, a light flickered between the thick trees ahead of us for just a moment. I stopped as it disappeared, staring at where it had been. “Hurry up,” hissed Madoran from the darkness ahead of me. I hurried after him.
The light reappeared again, showing for a moment between the trees, and then there was another, and soon there were flickering shadows falling across the ground, and real firelight streaming past us from two square stone lanterns. They stood at the base of a hill, in front of a tall, white stone wall which flanked a sturdy-looking, blank-faced wooden gate. I breathed, relieved to be in the light again.
Madoran strode boldly up to the gate and knocked. There was the grunt of someone jerking awake on the other side, and then an uncertain, “Who’s there? Jayksen?”
“Friends,” said Madoran simply.
There was a pause. “There are no friends in the northlands,” replied the voice inside.
“There won’t be if you don’t let us in out of the northlands night,” said the dwarf crossly. Allyndil smiled. I glanced nervously over my shoulder into the darkness.
There was an uncertain pause, then a click and the sound of wood scraping against metal. The gate cracked open. A short man wearing white robes, his skin a light brown and his head balding, peeked out warily. His face broke into a relieved smile when he saw the dwarf and the elf, and he pushed the door open. He was thickly-muscled beneath his thin robes, and he hefted a battle-hammer, like Madoran’s but plainer. “Come in,” he said, “and follow me.”