We passed through the thick gate, which the man swung shut and locked behind us. There was a low wooden guardhouse to the left, and a path ran up the hill in front of us, flanked by more of the stone column lanterns. At the base of each was a small green bush covered in red roses – the first color I’d seen in days. On either side of the path was what appeared in the firelight to be green, healthy, neatly-trimmed grass. To the left, beyond the guardhouse, where the wall turned up the hill, a low barn was built into the bent wall’s elbow. The smells and night-sounds of healthy, wholly living livestock drifted out of it. To our right was a vegetable garden and what looked like a broad cistern for catching rainwater. The wall climbed the hill to our right as well, beyond the garden.
The man, taller than he’d seemed at first but stooped, led us up the path. Half way up the hill there was another pair of wooden buildings, one to either side of us. The left one was two floors of what looked like a barracks; the one on the right had a pair of high windows flanking an arched double door, and a bell hung on a rope out front. A path ran between the buildings, across ours, and was lit by cruder wooden torches. Our silent guide turned left, towards the barracks.
As we turned to follow, I glanced up the hill. It rose to the bottom of a jagged cliff, and against the cliff, at the path’s terminus, stood a simple, marble building. Marble columns held up a shallow pointed marble roof over an open marble hallway, receding from the torchlight to a dark, round room. In the flickering light from outside, I thought I could make out a pedestal and statue of a man, kneeling and raising his hand and face to the heavens.
We reached the wooden barrack’s front door, and the man turned around. “Wait here,” he said. He opened the door and entered the building, closing the door behind him.
A minute later, it opened again, and our escort reemerged, bowed, and walked back down the hill to his guard post. An old man, pale and wrinkled but not at all frail, with short-cropped white hair and a short-cropped white beard, stepped out after him into the night air. He wore white robes like the guard had, but his had thin gold trim.
Madoran stepped forward. “We traveled hard to reach you, Anduin.”
The old man put his right fist over his heart and bowed from his waist, and Madoran returned the salute. As the old man lowered his hand, I caught the glimmer of a silver ring on his middle finger: its seal was a deep purple amethyst surrounding a silver starburst.
“Hello, Prince,” said the old man. He bent down, and they embraced.
“King, now,” said Madoran.
“Then we have much to talk about,” replied the old man. He turned to Allyndil. “Welcome back, friend of the Hand.” The elf smiled and nodded. Then the old man turned to me. “My name is Anduin Fordring,” he said. “Welcome to the tomb of Uther Lightbringer, and the monastery of the Order of the Silver Hand, followers of the True Light.” He bowed to me, and I returned it.
He turned back to Madoran. “Where are the rest?” he said.
“A week away, at least,” replied the dwarf, “and it is a single battalion of dwarves. If our mission proves more urgent than that, then we three are it.”
The old man glanced inscrutably at us. “Then we indeed have much to talk about,” he said grimly. Madoran nodded.
The old man led us inside. He led Allyndil and I to adjacent, ground-floor rooms. “This place is safe,” he said to me, “so sleep well.” He and Madoran walked back down the floor’s sparse hallway and ascended the stairs at its far end, already locked in quiet conversation.
The room was sparse as well. A bed with white sheets stood across from the door, beneath a window facing the compound’s courtyard. The torches outside cast dancing shadows on the wall and ceiling. There were no curtains, and the only source of light in the room was an unlit candle sitting on a plain wooden nightstand.
I latched the door and hefted my backpack onto the bed. I let Ajax out to stretch, and pulled off my travel clothes. I chewed on some tough boar jerky, the last of my supply, and lay down on the human-sized bed, which was unexpectedly soft. Ajax took a moment to explore the room to his satisfaction, and then hopped up on the bed next to me. He curled up and was asleep in seconds. Minutes later, so was I.
* * *
The other building, across the main path from the barracks, turned out to be the compound’s meeting hall. The three of us pushed open the hall’s door for breakfast the next dreary morning, and eight of the room’s nine heads swiveled to examine us: Anduin we had already met, sitting at the head of the room’s single, long, half-full table. I also recognized the man who had let us in the previous night, sitting closer to us, among his comrades: three other humans and a pair of dwarves, all dressed in the white robes of the Silver Hand. Several of them waved greetings to Madoran or the elf.
Sitting across from each other at the nearest end of the table was a smarmy-looking green goblin with a long, pointy nose and long pointy ears, and a muscular orc, wearing simple brown clothes. The orc alone hadn’t looked up at our entrance: he continued staring distantly at his plate, a haunted look on his thick face.
Anduin stood slowly. “Good morning,” he said. “Guests on their first day sit at the head of the table,” and he gestured us to the three empty place-settings which flanked him. “That is all the hospitality which we can offer in this harsh land: after today, you must pull your load to the best of your ability, or leave.” He spoke formally, and there were silent nods from the other six Hands.
We walked to our settings and sat down. The others resumed eating silently. Each of our plates was heaped high with scrambled eggs and sausage links. A basket of sliced brown bread sat between us, and Madoran stretched over to help himself. I followed suit, and began eating ravenously.
When we’d all finished, the younger of the two dwarves, clean-shaven and short-haired, got up and began stacking plates. Anduin stood up, closed his eyes and bowed his head. The others did as well, and I joined them. Anduin’s voice rang out, strong in the silence: “Thank you, Lightbringer, for blessing us with health and safety in this dark land. Give us the strength this day to carry out the will of the Light, and give us grace to serve you again tomorrow.” The table echoed with a unified “Amen.”
The young dwarf returned to his seat. Anduin sat down and prompted for introductions. The humans were Mark Andrews, the man who had escorted us in the previous night; Lucas Umberto, a short man who wore spectacles; Sacara Matthews, who smiled pleasantly as she introduced herself; and John Jacobs, a dour-looking man who merely nodded and recited his name. The younger dwarf was named Norin Ironbottom, and the older one, also wearing spectacles, introduced himself as Thistle Stoutlager. “And four more of our number are out on reconnaissance,” finished Anduin: “the dwarves Jenna Goldsmith and Jayksen Stonehammer, and the humans Bounro Rayn and James Matthews, who is Sacara’s brother.”
“My name’s Grimble Bassbait,” said the goblin easily. “Arrived yesterday. This is my orcservant Krull.”
“Who doesn’t speak, apparently,” said Madoran.
“Nope,” said the goblin, glancing unsmilingly at the dwarf.
Madoran narrowed his eyes, looking from the goblin to me, but whatever was on his mind stayed there.
“The Silver Hand is well-acquainted with Allyndil the elf,” continued Anduin, nodding to him, “who brings us good health and better cheer every few years when he makes it this far north,” and everyone smiled and nodded in appreciation. “And of course we are eternally indebted to the generosity of Prince Madoran, who would surely be a warrior of the Light were he not fully occupied as the new King of Ironforge.” There were admiring murmurs from around the table at this declaration.
“But I am a warrior of the Light, although I wear other vestments and don’t pray thrice daily,” said Madoran to generally appreciative laughter.
“Which leaves us the young tauren,” finished Anduin.
I nodded and made to introduce myself, but Madoran interrupted me: “This is Horse,” he said, “a long-time resident of Khaz Modan and a friend of my family. He has come north at my request to help us with our current quest.”
I nodded around and smiled, hiding my confusion. Then I glanced at the end of the table, where the goblin had looked down, eyes narrowed, looking confused himself. It clicked: had my Orcmar bounty hunters gotten ahead of us, minus two members? I wondered if an ogre with his eyes sucked in had been what had rendered Krull the orc speechless. If these were indeed them, then Madoran had just deftly seeded confusion which might save me long enough for us to be sure.
* * *
I spent the morning avoiding the goblin and aiding Allyndil. The elf toured the small compound, visiting each member of the Hand as they worked, hearing whatever ailments they had recently developed and prescribing treatments. I helped mash together ingredients from his pack, and watched carefully whenever he laid hands and song upon someone. “You’ve got a healer’s ear,” he said to me after I began humming one of his spells to myself. I smiled broadly.
Despite being surrounded by high walls, a barren cliff and the thick, brown clouds which covered the sky here as everywhere, the Order of the Silver Hand bustled about its business with a refreshing verve for life. The two dwarves, Norin and Thistle, worked opposite each other in the vegetable garden at the base of the hill, plucking peas and tomatoes from the dark earth. Mark and Sacara walked buckets back and forth from the rainwater cisterns to the gardeners, pausing at each of the small red rose bushes that dotted the monastery yard, pouring just enough water over their roots to sustain them. (“Tomb Roses,” Sacara called them, smiling down at the small bush in front of her. “They sprouted where the blood of Uther touched the ground when he fell. We wouldn’t waste precious water on anything decorative, of course, but these are sacred.”) The two humans were aided cheerily by Grimble.
Lucas Umberto (“Call me Luke,” he’d said) had disappeared with John Jacobs into the barracks, and we found them upstairs in what turned out to be the Order’s surprisingly large library. Luke read aloud over his spectacles from a sacred text, while John, still looking dour, scribed commentary into a new, empty volume. The pair erupted frequently into heated discussion over the layers of meaning in this or that verse: in fact, the only thing that they seemed to agree about was that Uther had in fact founded their religion.
Chickens pecked about at the bottom of the hill, foraging for grubs and grass. Four young pigs rooted about within the small barn, and a small herd of milking goats bleated in untrained harmony. Indeed, the only sign that we were on anything like a vital, dangerous mission was the absence of Madoran and Anduin: they had cloistered themselves in another room upstairs in the barracks after breakfast, and did not emerge until lunch. “Don’t worry about them,” advised Allyndil. “They’ve got enough worry without your help.”
We didn’t sit down for the midday meal. Instead, round about noon, Norin stepped jovially out of the meeting hall with a basket of bread and a jug of warm goat’s milk. He seized the hall’s bell’s rope and clanged it back and forth, and within minutes the whole of the monastery had dropped what they were doing and lined up for handouts of small loaves and a mug each of milk. I waited my turn in line, received my handout, and munched and drank as we filed up the path towards the hill’s marble temple, which had remained empty throughout the morning.
We filed through the temple’s columned antechamber and into its single, round marble room. It was filled almost entirely with the statue I had caught sight of the previous night: A bearded man, knelt on one knee, holding a hammer aloft in his right hand and clutching a great holy book in his left, looking powerfully to the north. He knelt on a square pedestal, engraved on each face with a flowering “L” with a sword through it. At its front, facing the entrance, stood a short, square stone topped with a small plaque, engraved with writing in an old language and worn to near illegibility.
The temple’s roof was a dome, and the dome’s peak was a pentagonal glass skylight. I looked up through it to the dreary brown sky above, almost wishing that it had been solid marble.
Around the statue ran a low banister, and around the banister, on the stone floor, lay red, velvet kneeling pads. Each of us settled onto one. I knelt between Norin and Luke, nearest the entrance, following example and setting my empty mug on the stone floor.
Anduin alone stood, out of sight on the far side of the statue. He began muttering an incantation in a language which I didn’t understand. It echoed around me, muttered in time by the other members of the Order. I glanced at Madoran, several places to my left, and was surprised to see him speaking it as well. Norin, to my right, stumbled on a few of the words, and glanced nervously about to catch up. The incantation ended, and there was a moment of peace.
Then, in the silence, Anduin’s strong voice burst forth with a single, wordless note. He was joined a moment later by John, then Thistle and the other humans joined in on different notes, crafting a concordant harmony, and then Allyndil and Madoran joined in. I felt the whisper of a wind begin to blow.
Norin leaned over towards me. “Help us out,” he said excitedly, “just pick one!” Then he, too, began intoning, and I joined him on his note.
Anduin had stopped singing, and across the sounding temple space I heard him begin to mutter a spell. The wind picked up, feeding from outside and rushing inward and upward, through the solid glass skylight and up into the sky, and a moment later a spear of white light stabbed down from the clouds, through the skylight and bathing the blindingly white marble statue. It so shocked my eyes and my mind that my voice dropped for a moment. Norin elbowed me to keep singing.
I hadn’t seen it in days, and so it took me a moment to realize that the holy white light which cascaded down about us from the heavens was nothing more mystical than the noonday sun. It lit the temple, and spread on the power of the wind of our voices and Anduin’s spell and began flooding in from the marble entrance behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, and in a few moments more, the entire monastery was flooded and cleansed with white sunlight: the grass shown green, and the low rose bushes shown red, and the white marble temple glowed. The brown world beyond – dull, dead – held no dominion here.
The singing stopped, but the sunlight stayed on us, warm and life-giving. Norin was breathless and grinning. “Once a day,” he said to me. “Helps the tomatoes,” he added, whispering. John, at his other side, shushed him.
Anduin repeated the simple prayer which he had recited at breakfast, and we all let loose with a hearty “Amen!” Then we all stood up, our spirits immeasurably lifted, and returned to the now-sunlit grounds of the monastery.
The sunlight lasted for almost an hour into the afternoon. Each member of the Order swapped partners and duties for their afternoon chores. Grimble continued to haul water.
I realized that we hadn’t seen the orc Krull since breakfast, and mentioned it to Allyndil. He paused at the mention, then looked at me with concern. “Horse,” he said, as though preparing to break difficult news. “While we’re not certain, and there is more traffic through these lands than you might think, Madoran and I have confronted the possibility that Grimble and Krull are the remains of the group of bounty hunters that were tracking you three days ago.”
I nodded. “I thought so too,” I said. “I’ve been working on my life’s story in Sunny Khaz Modan in case anyone asked.” I’d been born in Storm City, I’d decided, and moved north with my family to pursue manual labor when I was five.
The elf smiled. “Good bull,” he said approvingly. “Madoran tells me that he has talked to Anduin about the situation, but Anduin refuses to act against hospitality until we’re sure.”
I sighed. “Fair enough,” I said. “It wouldn’t be right to kick a good-hearted goblin out into the plaguelands on a hunch.”
“Right,” said the elf, and then we both laughed at the idea of a good-hearted goblin.
“What about the orc?” I said.
“Let’s go find him,” replied the elf.
We found him lying on his bed in the barracks, face up, eyes wide. His door was open, and we entered.
“Hello,” said the elf.
The orc didn’t respond.
“Do you like it here?” said the elf.
The orc’s wide eyes twitched over to Allyndil, but he didn’t respond.
Grimble popped his head in, having apparently followed us. “Nothing to see here,” he said. “Let my orc rest, if you don’t mind.” He glared at us until we left, and he shut the door behind us.
Madoran was in the hallway. “Horse,” he said, “Anduin and I would like a word with you.”
* * *
The room upstairs where the dwarf had cloistered himself with Anduin turned out to be the latter’s office. It was a narrow, dusty room, with untidy bookshelves and a desk piled high with papers and books, with an unlit candle and a great white feather pen in ink perched atop the mess. Above the desk was a single narrow window, facing north, where the monastery’s barn and gate stood to the left and the brown lands with their strange mushroom trees outside the compound’s high walls stood to the right. The monastery had seemed tight and secure from within, but looking down from above its thick walls, it seemed precarious, perched atop a small hill in the midst of a sea of death. Our island of sunlight had begun to fade.
Anduin sat at the desk, staring at a map which I recognized as one of the two which Madoran had taken from the Argent Dawn’s secret library in Ironforge, the one with Lordaeron as it was now.
The old man looked up from the map and turned around. “Horse,” he said, “welcome to the Plaguelands. We have discussed your strange behavior three nights past, and Madoran and I agree that whatever it was, you remain trustworthy. As such, we would like to bring you into our deliberations, such as they are.”
“Cool,” I said, then I silently cursed my ineloquence. C’mon, I thought, these are important people.
“Madoran tells me he’s informed you of the vague outlines of your mission here,” said the old man.
I nodded. “There’s a book which might be in the city of Lordaeron, which might have the secret to unlocking the last Scourge King from his tomb at the top of the world,” I said. “Some bad guys are looking for it and we need to stop them.”
Anduin nodded. “In a nutshell,” he said. “Madoran has told you the history of the book as well, at least the history as we understood it. Until recently, we had little reason to believe that the Tome existed, less firm knowledge of what was in it, and no reason at all to believe that it was a danger to us,” said Anduin. “Given how much we knew about it, it never greatly concerned us.”
“Now we know more,” said Madoran, nodding to the map spread out on Anduin’s desk. “I came across this map in the Silver Sanctum years ago, back when the Northrend Tome was nothin’ but a myth or a historical curiosity. I’d always intended to have it translated, but never quite got around to it. Let that be a lesson to yeh, lad,” he added gruffly.
I smiled and nodded.
“The map,” continued the dwarf, “has a tiny drawing of a book on a pedestal in the midst of the ruins of Lordaeron. The writing on the back, which I was right to believe could be read by Anduin here, has convincingly filled in many of the details we’ve been missing.”
Anduin nodded, picking up the map and gingerly turning it over. The thin, spidery, tightly-spaced calligraphy which covered its back looked to be in the same ancient language as the worn plaque in the marble temple outside.
“According to the date at the top,” began the old man, “this map was drawn and its words written more than five hundred years ago, and according to its story, its author was present at the entombing of the Dread Lord Varimathras. Whoever he was, he bore some personal ill will towards the Dread Lord, judging by its descriptions of him.” Anduin smiled thinly.
“It says that the tome, which it refers to as the Book of Arthas, exists,” he continued, tracing his finger across the words, “that it was written by Prince Arthas himself, during his time as a Death Knight of the Scourge before his ascension as its Lich King. The book contains demonic knowledge, descriptions of the workings of evil in the world, and unholy magics which make use of that knowledge.
“Included therein is a description of the crystal cask which brought his master Ner’zul to our world – am I saying that name right?” Anduin glanced at Madoran, who nodded. “I can read the dead language of this kingdom, but I can’t, of course, speak it reliably,” he explained to me.
“Tha’s the way with dead languages,” said Madoran, nodding wisely and tapping his nose.
“The map’s author claims to have moved the book into Lordaeron for safekeeping – that would be less than a century after Varimathras’s defeat – and,” and the old man began quoting directly off the page, “Cold and unending death awaits any that seek to disturb it.” He glanced up. “So the book exists.”
“You’re sure, though?” I said. “I mean, the map claims it’s five hundred years old, and it’s written in a dead language, but couldn’t it all be made up?”
“Possible but doubtful,” said Madoran. “None but my family have access to the Silver Sanctum, and none but the Argent Dawn have ever been allowed in. This is the second source saying what it says, and I believe it’s independent of the first. And Anduin, who is a greater scholar of ancient Lordaeron than I, has judged it authentic.” The old man nodded.
At the mention, finally, of the Dawn, I glanced back and forth between the two, my eyes settling finally on Anduin’s silver starburst ring. “Is… the Silver Hand part of the Dawn?” I said. “Like, is everyone here a member?”
“No,” said Madoran seriously, “no more than every dwarf in Khaz Modan is a member because its king is.” I nodded. “However, having a close relationship with a monastic order which is dedicated to keeping the Light alive in the northlands has served the purposes of the Dawn more than once in its history.”
“And vice versa,” said Anduin to Madoran, bowing. “And presently, their purposes are one and the same.”
“Right,” I said, “Varimathras. So the map says some stuff that we already knew. How can we be sure that it has anything to do with our quest, or that this isn’t all a big mix-up?”
Madoran and Anduin glanced at each other. “There’s more,” said Anduin, glancing back at the map, scanning down a few lines with his finger from where he’d read before. “There are those who would seek to use the Book’s spells to free the despicable demon lord,” he read. “You will know them by their shadow arts, which are banned on pain of death by all civil societies.” He glanced back up at me. “Madoran has told me that you witnessed such art on your journey north.”
“The dead ogre,” I breathed.
“Aye,” said Madoran. “Dead by the shadow arts. The black-robed men which our spy in Loch Modan reported to us are in league with an evil which hasn’t shown its face in centuries, and they’re after the book.”
“I hope you give your secret spy a secret medal,” said Anduin. “We have watched the men in black robes move north for a month now, but we are not in the business of guarding these lands from outsiders. We would not have alerted the Dawn, and it would not have mounted a response.”
“It’s not much of a response as it is,” replied the dwarf. “Fang the murloc, who has never failed us before and whom I have no reason yet to believe has failed us now, sent us Horse the bull.” He turned to me. “The druid Katy M, as you know too well, was supposed to be at your side. Myself and Allyndil are poor replacements, but we will have to do.”
Anduin bowed his head in a moment of silence: apparently he, too, had known Katy M. Apparently everyone had.
“So we have the Silver Hand, yourselves, and a small battalion of dwarves more than a week’s march away,” said the old man. “We don’t know the strength or number of our enemies – though we’ll know more, when our reconnaissance team returns – but we do know that they use terrible magics. Our mission is absolute: although the book itself is beyond our reach, we cannot fail to protect it. Doing so would undo the work of centuries of blood and sacrifice by the Dawn and the Hand, and it would risk the release of the last Scourge Lord back upon the world. We can hope that he has weakened in the past six centuries, but we can’t be sure.”
“And we’d certainly rather not find out,” finished Madoran lightly.
I nodded. “That about sums it up,” I said. “So what—”
Suddenly, a shout from outside the window drew our attention. We looked out, and Mark and John were running to the front gate. Anduin squinted into the plaguewoods beyond the monastery’s walls, and then turned and hurried out of the room. We followed.
The shouting crescendoed into panicked yells, and when we emerged from the barracks, Mark and John had thrown the gates wide. A short, stocky, black-bearded dwarf in full plate armor stumbled in, hauling behind him the unconscious body of another armored dwarf, a red-haired woman with a swollen, greenish wound across her face. A tall, fully-armored man brought up the rear, firing thick barbed arrows from an enormous bow back into the plaguewoods.
And behind him, coming towards us out of the surreal woods, scuffing and dragging legs and limbs and uttering urgent and hateful guttural grunts, dressed in an indiscriminate, chaotic assembly of clothing and armor, and running at us faster than their hunched forms should have been able to, was a few, then a dozen, then a fast-approaching wall of living dead.
“Rayn, come on,” shouted the armored dwarf, “come on!” The tall man fired a last arrow into the midst of the oncoming creatures, and then they were inside the walls and Mark and Sacara were pushing the gates shut.
“What happened?” shouted Anduin. “Where’s James?” shouted Sacara, sounding panicked. “What in the Holy Light are those things?” shouted someone, echoing all of our thoughts.
“Look at them – they are the Scourge,” said Rayn, his deep, accented voice carrying sonorously from within his helm.
“Impossible,” muttered John.
And as he said it, the gate shook as bodies threw themselves against it from beyond. “The gate will hold. Back to the hall!” cried Anduin commandingly. In our panicked confusion, we obeyed.