We fell back in chaos to the compound’s meeting hall. Three sturdy humans and a dwarf gathered around the body of Jennoa, wounded and unconscious, and hefted her up onto the hall’s table. Allyndil stood over her, directing Jayksen Stonehammer, the dwarf who had dragged her home, to peel off her armor and mop her swelling face. The elf began humming a low tune over her, and I silently willed his magic to work.
The rest of us milled about in disarray, watching or muttering in pairs. We could hear the undead, throwing themselves against the gate and chanting in their guttural language.
Shouting broke out between John and the man called Rayn, and Rayn pulled off his helmet and threw it to the ground. His skin was as black as night, and his face was wide and furious. Silence fell, and we turned to watch.
“They were wearing armor!” growled Rayn. “They chased us, and not with base hunger, not like mindless plague zombies. Listen to them,” and he pointed. “They speak to us now. That is a language!”
“The Scourge acted with one mind under the thrall of the Lich King: Scourge zombies had no language,” replied John heatedly. “The Scourge has been gone for six hundred years, they can’t be.”
“Well, they are something,” said Rayn. His accent was one I’d heard before from large dark-skinned men in pubs, though I didn’t know where it was from. “If you have another explanation as to how a hundred intelligent plague zombies appeared in the forests where we’ve never before seen them in groups, and never seen any that could still think, tell me now.” He planted his bow on the hall’s floor and leaned on it, glaring at John.
“Enough,” said Anduin commandingly, stepping in from the courtyard. “Peace and Light on all of you: our fortifications hold firm. Grimble,” he said to the goblin, “go to your quarters. I will advise you and the orc to pack, but I will not order it yet. Rayn,” and he turned to the great dark-skinned man as Grimble nodded and shuffled off. “Tell me what happened.”
“We were on our way back from our mission,” began Rayn, “and camped last night a day’s journey west of here. An hour past sundown, we heard strange sounds from the darkness, and we saw frightening points of yellow light. This morning, we found numerous tracks, as though an army had passed through in the night, heading west. We began the journey home, but before long, we ran into a small group of zombies heading west along the same path. They were the Scourge which now lay siege at our doorstep.”
“Stop calling them Scourge,” muttered John, as though he could alter it by faith alone.
Rayn ignored him. “When we saw the walking dead, we stared at each other for a moment. They did not attack us on sight, as mere plague zombies would have. There were eight of them, and Jayksen attacked them single-handedly.”
“An’ I’d do it again,” growled the dwarf. “Filthy zombies. I need a beer,” he added.
“We slaughtered six of them, and two ran. I felled one with my bow, but the other disappeared into the woods. We are not very good at felling runners,” Rayn said regretfully. Anduin nodded for him to continue. “Soon, the one returned, with more. We fought, but there were too many. Not countless, but many.” He glanced sadly at Sacara, whose face was strained in anguish. “James fell to them,” he said. He bowed his head. A strangled cry escaped Sacara. “Jennoa took a deep wound to the face before we fled,” continued Rayn. “We hoped against hope that it wasn’t plagued, but she collapsed half an hour ago. She is now as you see her.” He gestured towards the table.
Allyndil looked up from her body. “There is no hope,” he said simply. Jayksen let out a hoarse yell and pounded his fist into the table.
“Can you ease her passing?” said Anduin to the elf.
“No!” yelled Jayksen huskily, “don’t ease her passing, make her better. Do it!” he shouted, at no one.
“You know that it’s not possible,” said Anduin gently. The elf bent to his pack and began selecting herbs.
The dwarf looked around at us, his eyes red. He closed them for a moment, and when he reopened them, he was calmer. “Thistle,” he said quietly, “in the name of compassion, will you get me a beer?” The other dwarf nodded and hurried out of the hall.
We were startled by a thump from outside. We hurried to push through the hall’s double doors, and looked to the gate. Those that saw first looked away, hopelessness in their faces. Jayksen cried out and made to charge down the hill, but Anduin restrained him bodily.
I stepped out last, and looked. At the base of the hill, in front of the barn, a large husk lay, hurtled over the wall by the chanting undead outside. Out of it flooded a thick green gas, covering the ground, seeping into the barn. At its touch, grass and plants and rose bushes withered to gray husks. One chicken, alone outside, pecked into it and came up choking and rasping for breath. It staggered for a moment, then fell to its side, eyes closed.
The guttural chanting culminated outside the walls, and another husk landed at the edge of the vegetable garden. It cracked open and gas began seeping across the plants, withering them as it went. Norin let out a low moan as the tomatoes turned to ash. Thistle, stepping out of the Hall with a foaming stein, saw it and cried out. Jayksen grabbed the stein from him and emptied it in desperation.
“Everyone, get inside the barracks, second floor,” said Anduin urgently, and we ran. We scrambled into the building, and everyone else made for the stairs. Madoran cried out after me, but I peeled off and dashed madly into my first-floor room and seized Ajax. Outside the window, the gas was playing eerily across the ground where we had stood a moment ago, withered grass in its wake. The cat clutched in my big hands, I dashed back into the hallway and up the stairs.
“Everyone to your rooms and make sure your windows are closed,” Anduin was ordering his wide-eyed flock. “Pack for a journey. No one is to go downstairs until the gas is dissipated, until I say so. Rayn, Madoran, Horse, come with me.”
He led us silently into his office. The chanting outside had faded to a disunited muttering, and we watched as the haphazard army of undead creatures turned and shambled off, apparently satisfied with their villainy.
“Are we safe up here?” I said querulously, as Anduin pulled his window tightly shut.
“It’s the highest place in the compound,” said the old man calmly, turning back around. “If not, then, no.” I swallowed hard and clutched Ajax a little tighter.
Anduin pushed his chair at Rayn. “You’ve run farther from more terrible foes today than have we,” he said simply. Rayn sat grateful down. “You said you completed your mission. Tell us.”
“We followed the black-robed men to their stronghold,” replied Rayn. “It is at Land’s Edge to the west and north, in a large, easily-defensible cave by the ocean, in the cliffs below the old Monastery of the Light. We saw at least forty of them, mostly humans and blood elves, some orcs, a few gnomes. There may be more, and their numbers are growing: the small group we tracked there had traveled far from the south, and they expected another group within days.”
“Did you discover their purpose?” said Anduin.
“You told us to listen for talk of a black tome,” the other man replied, “and there was some talk of a book, but we could find no more about it. They have a purpose, certainly, but were holding off, possibly for more of them to arrive.”
Anduin nodded, silent for a moment. “Thank you, Rayn,” he said. “Go get cleaned up and make yourself ready to set off again.”
Rayn nodded, stood, and left.
The question that had been needling at the back of my mind burst forth as he shut the door behind him. “Does the Scourge mean that Varimathras is already back?” I blurted.
Madoran looked at me, and was silent for a moment. “Possibly,” he sighed. “But I don’t think so. According to history books, the Scourge didn’t act as that group did: it spoke no language, and acted with an unshakable single-mindedness. If that was Varimathras’s Scourge, it would not have left until it battered the gate to the ground.”
“My scholarship of that age is limited to Lordaeron before its fall,” said Anduin. “Yours is more complete: what other explanation can there be?”
Madoran sighed again. “Something,” he said. “Maybe it’s possible for lesser wizards to control small numbers of the creatures, and they had to speak to act in coordination. But I don’t know,” he concluded. “They’re gone for now.”
“Let us hope they stay that way,” said the old man. He sat down in his chair, and looked out his window at the ruined barn. The evil gas was thinning, and I silently willed a great wind to come blow it away from us. As though in answer to my thoughts, a light breeze began swirling at the gas, driving it slowly towards the western walls and away.
Anduin squeezed his eyes shut for a moment in pain at the sight, but opened them again quickly. “We have paid a high price for not much information,” he said.
“More than not much,” said the dwarf heartily. “We know where they are, we know their number, and we know that they mean to hold off for a time: if we’re to stop them, it’s invaluable information.”
“Forty of them!” exclaimed Anduin. “I wish your murloc had sent us an army.” Me too, I thought.
“Aye,” said the dwarf, “but he didn’t. We have ourselves, and if they hold off for a week we have my dwarves. We will have to do with that.”
Anduin nodded heavily, then pursed his lips in thought. “We can’t attack them directly, of course,” said the old man. “We are too few and too weak.” He gestured out the window with his head. “We are well-trained warriors, but not great: this land has taught us to survive, not to win wars against armies of evil wizards. And all I have taught them is foolishness about respect and compassion which will be of no use to them now.” He slumped forward, head on his hands.
“Ah’d say it’s a poor time fer a crisis of faith, old friend,” said Madoran gruffly. “It’ll be a dark day indeed when the Holy Light doesn’t have somethin’ to offer us.”
Anduin grunted. “You’re right, of course,” he said. “Tenacity, at least, can serve us.” He stood and looked soberly at us. “We need to move and be ready, and we need to know more. It pains my heart, but I believe I know where our course lies, if we are to have any hope of protecting this damned book.”
Then he stood. “We have the Light’s work to do,” he declared soberly.
* * *
An hour later, the gas had cleared entirely: Anduin had stepped outside himself to be sure, and the ash-gray grass crunched beneath our feet. Twenty minutes after that and we all stood in a half circle around a shallow grave at the base of the dead compound’s barren cliff.
“We gather here to entomb Jennoa Goldsmith, and mourn the loss of James Matthews,” Anduin began. “They were members of the Order of the Silver Hand, sisters and brothers of Uther’s Tomb, and believers in the Light, true upholders of the Three Virtues. Truly the world is a better place for having bourn them.” Sacara was crying gently. What might have been a gasp of breath or a sob was turned hurriedly into thick coughing by Jayksen. “Jennoa is buried here, behind the tomb of the founder of her Order,” continued Anduin, his voice strong. “James lies here in spirit. Their souls will be with Uther in the Light. They died in combat, as none of our Order have in generations, and so, by ancient custom, we will plant two Tomb Roses on their grave in the spring, in memory of their sacrifice.” If any live, thought everyone. If anyone is here in the spring.
Anduin turned to Jayksen and Sacara and nodded. The two of them stepped forward, their eyes thick with tears. They knelt on the pile of dirt at the head of the grave, and began tossing handfuls of it onto her body. After a few ritual moments, the rest of us joined in, and then the Order of the Silver Hand broke out in a song of rejuvenation. A minute later we had buried her.
Jayksen stood and nodded firmly, dusting dirt from his hands. He sighed, and, although he was still sad, I could tell that the pain had lessened. Sacara remained kneeling as the rest of us moved back, and when she stood, the mournful look in her eyes cut into me. I felt for her, but there was nothing I could do.
We followed Anduin around the body of the marble temple and to its front steps, and stood, waiting. Anduin walked the length of the antechamber and knelt in prayer in front of Uther’s statue.
When he finished, he paused for a moment, running his fingers over the worn face of the ancient stone plaque that stood there. I wondered what words of hope or inspiration lay etched in its ancient language.
The old man stood, looking up at the ancient paladin, as though searching the statue’s stone face for guidance. Then, resolute, he turned and walked back towards us. All eyes watched him, intent.
He inhaled deeply. “I know,” he began slowly, “that this place has been home to all of you for years, some as few as three and some as long as forty. This fell day, we have lost it, and we can only pray to the Light, and work tenaciously to regain it.” He looked across the somber faces of his flock. “Whatever the nature of the undead creatures which have taken our home from us, have compassion for them, for they are creatures of the plague, and the sad remnants of thinking, feeling beings.” He bowed his head. Then he looked up again, and there was a terrible spark in his eyes. “But do not hesitate to strike them down,” he declared. “They are our enemies now, and the beings which we should have compassion for have long since ceased to be.
“The long work of rebuilding our monastery cannot begin today. Today we leave, on what is the most important mission the Order has faced since the end of the Scourge War, six hundred long years ago.” His voice evened. “You all know that men in black robes have been passing north through these lands for a month now, and we have heard whispers that they are searching for a book. Rayn, Jayksen, you risked and we lost much to learn where these shadowy men are camping. Though they are of unknown nationalities, their religion is now known to us, thanks to the observations of Horse, Madoran and Allyndil the elf: these men practice shadow magic, which has not been seen in this world in centuries. They are enemies of the Light, and we are bound by the Light to stand steadfast against them.”
A ripple of disbelief ran through the Order at this declaration. “What do they want?” said the bespectacled Luke. “Just some book? There are no libraries in the northlands, save here.”
“Not just some book,” replied Anduin. “Madoran traveled far to bring us information: that the book they seek, the legendary Northrend Tome, was written by Prince Arthas himself, and that it holds the secret to releasing Varimathras the Scourge Lord back upon the world.”
There was shocked muttering among the Order. “Impossible,” muttered John.
“We are not an army,” continued Anduin. “But we are warriors, and warriors of the Light. It is our sworn duty to defeat evil where we can, and today we are setting forth, for the first time in our lives and the first time in many generations, to fight evil.
“Sacrifice has always been part of our lives. You each sacrificed: comfort, wealth, much of your freedom, when you came here seeking to live by the Light. Today, we sacrificed more. The bricks and mortar of Uther’s Tomb are intact, but our home was lost to the very evil our Order was founded to fight. Now we leave on a mission to confront that evil, to contain it, to fight it with our hammers and our lives, and we will be victorious! Some of us may not return from this mission. Two have already fallen. But death is part of life, and the Light will not be quenched in this land.” His words rang out over the silent monastery.
* * *
The Order returned to their rooms to don their armor and packs. A few short minutes later, we had gathered in the compound’s courtyard. Madoran, Allyndil and I stood at the top of the hill. In front of us stood the whole of the Order: Sacara, Mark, Luke, John, Rayn, Jayksen, Norin, Thistle and Anduin, our leader in this land. They were helmless, but armed and ready, clad in glittering mail and draped in pristine white tabards of the Silver Hand. Luke bowed to each of his companions in turn – he was heading south, to intercept the dwarves as they marched and bring them along to where we would be camped.
Grimble and Krull had joined us as well: with Anduin’s permission and to my displeasure, they had decided to come along. “This wasn’t our original destination anyway,” said the goblin easily, although he would not reveal what his original destination had been. “We need all the help we can get,” Anduin had replied candidly.
The old man, looking sturdy and able in his armor, led the way to the gate, and we followed, passing the withered grass and withered vegetable garden, passing the barn with its piled carcasses of poisoned meat, and, in front of each of the doused torch pillars, the low rose-bushes, once green and blood-red, were now withered gray husks. Luke knelt at the last one before the gate, muttering something in a dead language, rubbing a dead leaf between his armored fingers. It crumbled to dust.
“The rose is perfect only in name,” he said simply. “Now its name is all that is left.” He stood, looking around at the ruin, up the hill at the compound’s locked doors and shuttered windows.
We passed through the gate, leaving the confines of the dead monastery and proceeding into the uncertain woods.