We marched in double file, singing quietly, a song of hope. Anduin and Madoran took the lead, talking quietly to each other. Behind them marched Allyndil and John. Long a wanderer of wild places, the elf had developed an ear and a sense for tracking the sounds of things too far to see. He broke off singing from time to time, delivering hushed reports to the dwarf and the old man in front of him. There were no shuffling armies, though – no guttural clicks and moans.
The back of our line was brought up by Krull and Grimble. I glanced back at the goblin occasionally: it could have been paranoia, but I was sure he was watching me.
I walked next to Jayksen, glancing down at him occasionally. He was breathing easier: the burial rites had done him good.
“How’re you doing?” I said casually, when there was a lull in the singing.
“Fine,” he grunted shortly.
I nodded, and cast about for a way to change the subject.
“Look,” he said, relenting, “Ah’m okay, or I will be. Ah’ jes don’ wanna think on it yet.” He looked back down.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No problem!” he said cheerily, and then secretively snuck a thick flask to his lips. He took a strong pull.
He glanced back at me. “Brandy,” he whispered, grinning into his beard. “Grimble sold it to me fer a song. Tells me, ‘Finest brandy in the world, brought it all the way from the western lands – you’ll have a sip and never want anything else,’” said the dwarf in a fair imitation of the smarmy goblin. “Seemed in an awful hurry to be rid of the stuff, so I made him let me sip it afore I bought it. ‘Ee was lyin’ ‘is face off, of course, an’ it tasted like floor cleaner. But it does the trick, yeh? So I bought all he had for a handful o’ copper. It’s no beer, though. Want some?” He glanced conspiratorially about, then thrust the flask up at me.
With that kind of introduction? “Sure,” I said. Why not.
“Don’t let the captain see it,” nodding forward to Anduin. I nodded, took the flask and drank from it. He hadn’t been exaggerating, and it took all my willpower to swallow it, but a moment later I felt a welcome warmth flow into my nose and hooves. “Thanks,” I whispered, handing it back.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” he grunted, and took another hefty swig.
We skirted the cliff against which the monastery was built for nearly an hour. Then, after a water break and a short consultation between Allyndil, Rayn and Anduin, we struck off to the north. Twenty minutes later there was another plague-ichor stream, this one narrower and spanned by an ancient, crumbling stone bridge. We picked our way carefully across it, one at a time, holding our collective breath and praying that the old thing didn’t collapse and plunge one of us into certain undeath. It held, though, and we formed up again on the other side.
Before long, the even plaguewood ground became uneven, broken periodically by angular, weathered white stones. Some had split and some had crumbled, but they were clearly the remnants of ancient masonry. Then, up a short hill was a clearing where the spongy ground gave way entirely to white boulders and shale bedrock. There stood the proud husk of an ancient round tower. Half of it had fallen away, and what had been the thickness of the wall was now an accidental stairway carved into it, running up and around to the last few wide feet of the tower’s original parapet.
At its base, Anduin called a break. We all unshouldered our packs and sat down on the boulders that littered the ground. Allyndil ran lightly up the tower’s side to the parapet and looked off to the west.
“Still solid?” called Madoran up to him. The elf shouted down a “Yes,” and Anduin began ascending. Madoran motioned me over.
“Do you remember the map I had you memorize?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “This is the tower of Andorhal.”
“North tower,” he nodded. “The rest of the city has crumbled. Yeh ‘fraid of heights?”
“A little,” I said, honestly.
“Well, ye didn’t choke me to death on the griffin,” he said cheerily, “so ye’ll be fine here.” He motioned me up the tower after him.
The tower’s wall had been thick, and the free-form stairway was stable as I climbed. The steps were well-worn and moss-free: we were not the first to use the tower as a lookout.
From the top, we could see far into the distance over the mushroom forest. To the darkening east, it grew thicker, the treetops knitting together until, in the distance, the plaguewood appeared to form a contiguous roof over the forest floor. I wondered what it looked like within, if it was an endless chamber of plagued mushroom stalks, the dimmest of sickly light filtering down from above.
To the south, closer at hand, stood the cliff against which Uther’s Tomb was built. It rose slate-gray out of the mushroom forest, jagged and barren above the plagued lands. Its peak was as barren as its face, except for a small bush, scrubby but healthy-looking, jutting out against the brown sky. No ichor up there, I thought.
Anduin and Madoran and Allyndil consulted as I looked out over the forest’s speckled mushroom-cap canopy under the fading daylight. Our way led west, through a ridge of mountains that could be barely seen on the horizon.
Allyndil and Anduin climbed back down. Madoran paused for a moment. He turned to me.
“Horse,” he said, “you can turn into a stealthy cat with horns and a big brown bear with horns. Anything else?”
I sighed. “Yeah, a horse,” I said.
He laughed shortly. “Ah’ guess that makes sense. Anything else?”
I shook my head.
“What about magic? History books say that those who could shift shapes could control nature’s energies in other ways, and I saw Katy M make some powerful light shows in her day.”
She’d hit me with nature’s wrath once, back in Storm City. And Hokato, my mentor before I’d run, had showed me other tricks which he had hoped to some day teach me: calling storms out of clear skies, and bringing entangling roots up from earth. “I never learned,” I said, just a touch defensively.
The dwarf grunted.
“Why?” I said.
“Listing our assets,” he replied, then turned and stumped back down the tower.
We formed up again and marched off. Before long, we came across a worn path, and turned west to follow it. The rusted husks of ancient streetlamps lay periodically alongside it.
As darkness fell, Anduin and Madoran risked a pair of small torches to better find our way. They threw flickering shadows out a few feet between the strange trees, casting an otherworldliness over the scene and creating the impression that we were walking through a low, brown, endlessly-pillared room. It was eerie, and I cast nervous looks out at shifting shadows, but it made for better walking than the pitch blackness.
Camp that night was a cold, fireless affair, ten minutes’ walk south of the path. We gathered in a circle around the two small torches, sputtering at the end of their fuel, and bowed our head as the Order recited its prayer to Uther. I drew the last shift of the night, with Norin, and, tired from the march and eager to get what sleep I could, I lay down on my blanket and fell quickly asleep.
* * *
Rayn nudged me awake with his armored toe an hour and a half before dawn, and I stood blearily up. The great dark-skinned man disappeared into the night, and I heard him pulling his armor off quietly across camp.
“Hi, Horse,” said a voice not far above my knees.
“Hi Norin,” I whispered back. “How’d you sleep?”
“Great!” he piped.
We paced the perimeter of the camp in the darkness, listening to the distant screeches and thrums of the night. There was a sudden noise and I jumped, but it was just a loud snore from Jayksen. Norin laughed at me.
Another thrum boomed in the distance. “What are those?” I asked quietly.
“Grubs,” replied Norin, “great sightless carrion grubs. They crawl through these lands and eat anything dead. They eat live meat too, if it’s dumb or asleep enough to sit still for it.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Ick,” I said.
“Yeah, no kidding,” said the young dwarf. “These lands are the perfect place to challenge you to keep believing in the Light, you know?”
“No kidding,” I echoed.
We chatted quietly until Rayn’s voice drifted up from the ground near our feet. “Turn your ears to the darkness and your mouths to silence,” he growled groggily. We complied.
Dawn came, grudgingly, and we roused everyone. The day’s march was hard but not grueling, and it was blessedly uneventful. The scenery did not change much as we progressed: the same nearly flat, brown, spongy ground, and the same speckled mushroom-trees spaced widely apart. Where the tangled, plagued woods in which we had begun our journey on this continent had been claustrophobic and terrifying, these felt open and ethereal in their own dark way. It was as though they had lived with the evil of the plague so long that it was no longer a dead land, no longer evil: just, different.
The ground began sloping up in late morning, rising rocky on either side of us, and shortly before noon we traversed a narrow pass between two high, rocky cliffs. The far side of the spine of low mountains brought with them no change in scenery.
* * *
We set up camp that night in the shadow of a round, crumbling stone edifice. “Windmill,” Allyndil declared. A patch of lighter clouds against the darkness – the white moon hid behind them, high above. We sat and chatted in pairs and threes.
Norin walked over from a close-headed meeting with Grimble. He came over and sat down on the ground next to me. “What was that about?” I said, trying to sound merely curious.
“Jayksen’s almost out of brandy,” Norin said, “and we’re trying to convince Grimble to sell us the rest of his.”
“The rest?” I said. “Jayksen said he’d bought it all.”
“Yeh, well,” said Norin. “Grimble’s a goblin isn’t he?” I grinned. “We’re all pitching in a few coppers, ‘cept for Anduin, of course. Wanna help?”
“Sure,” I said, reaching into my coin-purse for some coppers. I hefted the sack: I had more than half of my last quest’s reward still in it. Traveling with well-stocked companions is cheap, I thought.
Rayn and Jayksen were across the camp, sitting next to each other, passing the flask back and forth and talking. “Comfort in shared loss,” said Norin, nodding at them. “James and Rayn were good friends.”
“What about Sacara?” I said. She was sitting alone, staring off into the woods.”
“I don’t know,” said Norin sadly. “She and James arrived together, and they were inseparable. Best friends, like. She’s inconsolable. Anduin says she needs our compassion, that it’s an easy lesson for me in it.”
“Lesson?” I said, genuinely curious this time.
“Yeah,” replied the young dwarf. “Compassion is the third of the Three Virtues. The first one is Respect – Anduin says you have to start off with that, that nothing but a good upbringing can teach you anything but fear. The second is Tenacity, that’s what I’m on now. Anduin says this mission will be a good lesson for me in that, too.” He grinned, and I returned it.
I had no watch that night, and slept soundly. The next day, after consulting a map with Madoran and Rayn, Anduin announced that we would reach our destination within a few hours’ march. Rayn and Jayksen, having been to our destination more recently than the others, moved to the head of the line behind the leaders, and Norin fell in beside me. We chatted on as we marched, though at an injunction from John we did so quietly.
The sky cleared and the land got rockier as we progressed. We were now heading due north. The temperature dropped and a wind began to rise ahead of us, whispering at first and then gusting – it smelled salty and fresh, washing away the fungal stench of the plaguewood. Here and there, a few low shrubs began to reappear, twisted and plagued to be sure, but looking at least vaguely as plants ought to.
The sky to the north faded from brown clouds to thin brown haze, and we began to cast distinct shadows on the ground. Behind us, I could make out the ghostly shape of the noonday sun.
We came, at last, to Land’s Edge: the world dropped away, down hundreds of feet into the slate-gray ocean below. The salty wind whipped up the cliff, stinging our faces with sea spray. I felt alive.
Far out over the ocean was a massive wall of black clouds, rain pouring out of them, lashing the ocean and whipping up great waves which crashed against our cliff. It was the first real weather I’d seen in a week, and it seemed to be inching ominously closer to us.
Anduin, Allyndil, Rayn and Madoran stood at the edge of the cliff, their heads close together. After a minute of deliberation, Anduin turned to the rest of us, sitting on our packs and munching lunch. “The cave which is our destination is an hour’s walk to the east,” he said, and pointed. “We need to know more about what we are facing. Sacara, Horse, Jayksen, you will join Rayn, Allyndil, Madoran and I, and we will head that way. John, take Norin and Mark half an hour west and set up camp. Grimble, go with them.”
We finished lunch and packed, then the camp group split off and marched off to the west. I suddenly realized that I’d been on edge the entire time that the goblin had been marching behind me, and I let out a sigh of relief.
The seven of us marched east along the cliff in a group. Anduin spoke as we went: “We need to know more,” he began. “We need to know who their leaders are, what their goal is, and anything we can find out about what their plans are. If we can capture a prisoner, then the Light will have been kind to us indeed, but if we cannot, then we must watch and listen. We must not be discovered,” he emphasized, “or we will immediately face a fight which we cannot win. Rayn, Jayksen, you have been here recently and we have not: how should we proceed?”
“The cave is at the ocean’s edge, high up on a cliff,” rumbled Rayn. “It is accessed by way of a narrow ledge, a path which rises up to it from deeper in the woods, but you can hear them speak from the base of the cliff below the cave itself, and if they speak loudly you can understand them.” Anduin nodded, and we marched on.
Jayksen’s brandy supply had apparently been restored, and he snuck me a sip of it. It warded off the chill of the ocean wind, and I handed the flask back to him gratefully.
As we trekked eastward, we chatted amicably among ourselves. The good cheer of the Order astounded me, and I mentioned it to Allyndil. “It’s the nature of their creed,” he replied. “Tragedy is inevitable, and one can only strive to minimize it. Mourning is useful: despondency is not.” I glanced over my shoulder at Sacara, who walked alone.
Anduin and Madoran walked at the head of the group, in close conversation. I caught the word “scarlet” from the dwarf, and, suddenly curious, I strode even with them. Allyndil, his ears sharper than mine, did too. “What’re you guys talking about?” I said.
“We’re heading towards the old Monastery of the Light,” said Anduin. “It’s just beyond the cave.”
“It’s been abandoned for centuries, of course, but it strikes me as a strange coincidence that these men have chosen this particular cave as their fortress,” said Madoran keenly.
“The Monastery is a cursed place, like Lordaeron,” said Anduin earnestly. “None that have gone in have come out, in the centuries since the Scarlet Crusade polluted it with their evil lies. Unless these black-robed men are the ghosts of the Crusaders, then I’m not worried about the Monastery.”
I looked at him with guarded interest. “The Scarlet Crusade?” I said. I wasn’t familiar with the name, but the idea of a Scarlet Monastery triggered something in my mind…
“It was an old splinter group of the Silver Hand,” said the old man simply. “It was formed in the lead-up to the Scourge War, by those members of the Hand who had lost family to the Scourge thought that that organization’s methods were too, let’s say, gentle.”
“Yeh mean not wild-eyed and zealous enough,” said Madoran dryly.
Anduin nodded. “The Monastery of the Light had been abandoned in wake of the Scourge’s conquest of the northlands, and the Scarlets took it over as their base of operations. During the course of the War, though, it was discovered that the Scarlet Crusade was in fact a zealous front for evil.”
“For the Burning Legion, of all things!” said Madoran. “If yer gonna sell yer soul to evil, it may as well be the worst evil in the whole universe.”
The Burning Legion I’d heard of: it was a terrible army of fiery demons which had invaded Az just before the Scourge War. I knew that it had been beaten back, but I didn’t know anything more about it than that.
“The Legion, of course,” continued Madoran, “was intent on eradicating all life from this world, and so, the people of this world, not liking the idea too much, decided that the Scarlet Crusade had to go. That was when shadow magic was banned as well,” he added.
“So, any relation to the Scarlet Resurrection?” I said casually.
“The Resurrection thinks so,” replied the dwarf, laughing derisively. “It’s quite a bold statement to claim the lineage of an ancient, evil, universally-hated cult bent on the destruction of Az, don’t you think?”
I guess so, I thought. But the thought which had occurred to me remained: the Resurrection had its secret Monastery, somewhere outside of Storm City, where the Cardinals hid. And here was a Monastery which had been Scarlet for a time. But there’s no way, I thought, that a little cult in Storm City sets up its headquarters hundreds of miles away, in the plaguelands of all places, right? I sighed and put the notion out of my head.
As we marched on the land began to fall, until we were no longer walking at the top of a cliff, but along the edge of a hundred-foot tidal plain. The tide was out, but the waves crashed menacingly, and the storm clouds had moved unmistakably closer. We had moved just deep enough into the undergrowth to avoid watchful eyes.
A cliff rose into view ahead of us, from the beach to our left and the dense forest to our right. A narrow path ran up its side from the woods to the right, ending at the cave itself, almost a hundred feet up. Torchlight flickered red inside, and smoke trickled out of it and up into the sky. I could hear the distant sounds of people, talking, living, though none were visible.
The tidal plain stretched out around the base of the cliff, here, narrowing until, in the distance, the cliff rose straight out of the ocean, rocky and absolute. Above it, at that distant point, stood a dark, crumbling tower silhouetted against the sky. “The Monastery’s easternmost edifice,” said Allyndil, pointing. “The tower is crumbling, but the Monastery itself is intact and unweathered.”
On Rayn’s advice and Anduin’s orders, we spread out in a wide semicircle around the base of the cliff. Jayksen, now visibly intoxicated, slumped into the bushes towards the ocean, and Rayn and I followed. The dwarf hid in some bushes. Rayn continued on to the edge of the plain, and hid behind a tree.
I crept quietly across the rocky flood-plain itself, kneeling on seaweed and pebbles behind a large triangular stone formation, my back to the crashing waves, staring up at the cave. A thick raindrop splashed against my shoulder, and I looked up. The sky had gone nearly black.
High above, at the edge of the cave’s ledge, I suddenly saw a thick, four-legged figure – a bear? A demon? – standing against the darkening sky. It could have been nerves or paranoia, but the bristles at the back of my neck stood on end, and I shivered, flashing back for a moment to the first time I had seen Fang, staring down at me from his window, high above my hiding place. I ducked behind the rocks, forcing myself to breathe quietly.
Whatever it was, it had disappeared by the time I looked back. I held my breath, but there was only the sound of the crashing waves.
Then, suddenly, from around the rock formation, a glowing green orb popped up in front of me. Behind it trailed a phosphorescent tail, and staring right at me was what appeared to be—
A pupil. In panic, I bashed at the thing with my mace, and it puffed into whisps of thin, metallic-smelling smoke. I leapt up and ran, falling to all fours and pounding up the tidal plain through the now-intense rain, into the underbrush past Rayn and Jayksen, and coming to a stop in front of Anduin and Allyndil. “They know we’re here,” I gasped.
“How?” said Anduin evenly.
“There was an eye,” I stammered, “a green eyeball and it floated over and looked at me…” It sounded stupid now that I said it, but Anduin nodded and Allyndil swore.
“We have to fall back,” said the old man. “Tell Rayn and Jayksen to head west. We’ll meet up farther along,” and he set off into the woods to get Sacara and Madoran.
As I turned back towards Jayksen’s position, a blood-curdling scream came from the direction he had run off in. I charged off in the direction of the sound, past Jayksen’s abandoned post and onto the tidal plain. Jayksen was at its edge, bleeding from his head and on all fours. He had vomited. His eyes were closed, face drooping towards the ground, rain streaming off it. Half his jerkin was burned off, and his battle-hammer lay beside him.
And across the plain, half way to the rocks behind which I had hidden, Rayn was on his knees. Three figures in billowing black cloaks stood at the edge of the plain, by the cliff: a man, a pale elf, and a gnome. From their hands leapt three beams of negative, almost purple light, stabbing into the center of Rayn’s chest, from which a ribbon of smoke and steam snaked upwards towards his flared nostrils. He moaned, this huge man whom I was certain had shrugged off every pain he’d ever felt, and as the three warlocks grimaced and intensified their magic, he let out another scream. The blood elf stared into Rayn’s eyes, as though trying to read his mind. “I don’t know,” Rayn sobbed, “please, I don’t know…”
I stood, rooted to the spot, horrified. Thoughts flashed chaotically through my head – that the beams of shadow magic were the color, almost, of the skull-spell which I had seen fly by the window the moment before Rhy had left Storm City without explanation – that the wind blowing off the ocean and past the dark wizards now smelled faintly like water that had been let sit in tin for too long – and the words of Ordinn the Law-dwarf: An unfortunate part of the plan is that even given the opportunity, you can’t try to save anyone. There’s too much at stake for you to get distracted playing hero one person at a time. – and the thought, But why?
The black-robed man gritted his teeth and yanked suddenly on his stream of negative light. Rayn choked, his body arching backward and his great face turned sightless to the sky. A rippling sucking sound emitted from his throat.
Three perfect, exquisite slices of beauty, glowing with a perfect, dazzling white light in the pouring rain, emerged from his chest. They were wrenched free, and each floated along a stream of the strange light back towards each dark wizard. The shards grew darker, uglier, and by the time they reached the wizards’ hands, they were glowing the same negative light. The shards flashed blindingly for a moment, then dissolved into the fingertips of each of the three wizards. The twisted looks on their faces spoke of delicious, evil power.
The shadow beams winked out, and with a sickening squelch, Rayn’s breathing ceased. His body collapsed backwards into the drenched seaweed. His eyes stared sightlessly up into the sky, sunk deep into their sockets, sucked inward by the force of his soul vacating the space behind them.
Jayksen shook his head at the sound of Rayn’s body collapsing. He looked up, pain in his eyes. “No,” he slurred, “not you too…” and he seized his hammer from the ground and rose unsteadily to his feet. The gnome turned towards him, and the same shadowy light leapt from his hands and stabbed at the dwarf. He cried out and fell back to his knees, and, finally shaking myself free of my terror, I stepped forward and heaved the dwarf aside. Where the beam grazed me, it burned, but as it lost contact with its victim, it winked out. The gnome turned towards me with hatred, and in a moment he had hurtled a glowing skull-bolt at me. It hit me square in the chest, and a sudden terrible abyssal howling tore through my mind. I had been thrown to the ground, and I lay, clawing at my chest and gasping for breath. “Wait your turn,” squeaked the gnome through gritted teeth, and in a moment he had fired another beam of light at the dwarf, who writhed on the ground.
Allyndil and Sacara burst out of the underbrush behind us, and the evil human and the evil blood elf whirled to face their counterparts, more of the negative light whirling about their hands. Sacara ran at the human, her yellow hair streaming behind her in the rain, the Light ablaze in her eyes and fury in her face. “Blood traitor!” cried Allyndil, a hunting knife was in his hand, and a moment later it was sticking out of the blood elf’s neck. Sacara leaped at the human, her hammer swinging. He ducked wildly, the light in his hands suddenly dissipating. He stumbled backwards, landing hard on the wet ground, and stared dumbly up at her. He scrambled away, his eyes still locked on her face, a look of shock in his. Then he stumbled to his feet, turned and fled. She watched him go, her eyes narrowed in hatred.
Jayksen moaned in pain for a moment more, and then struggled gamely to his feet, trying to speak through gritted teeth and managing only a strangled vowel, and with an enormous burst of will-power he wrenched himself free of the shadow spell. “I,” he began, “HATE,” and he was running full-tilt, “GNOMES!” he bellowed, and he threw himself at the tiny wizard. The gnome, terrified, turned and ran.
Jayksen hefted his hammer, and, with a battle-cry of wrath, hurled it through the pouring rain. It struck the gnome at the base of his skull with a crack, and he collapsed, unconscious.
“Runner felled,” spat the dwarf, and he stumbled over the gnome’s body to retrieve his hammer.
I looked up. On the cliff’s high ledge, against the darkening sky, the four-legged figure had returned, and beside it floated something: its face was hidden under a black hood, and it seemed to bob gently as it stood. For a moment, there was a strange tickle in my mind, and then the thing turned and disappeared back into the cave. The four-legged figure turned as well.
In their place appeared other wizards, drawn by the shouts of our battle: humans and elves and orcs, and they pointed down to us and yelled, summoning reinforcements, and then they were running along the cave’s narrow ledge into the forest. They would be upon us in moments.
Anduin and Madoran burst onto the tidal plain. Anduin glanced quickly about. “We have to get out of here,” he said urgently. “Horse, can you carry the gnome?” I nodded and hefted him onto my shoulders.
Jayksen had turned towards his fallen friend. The huge, dark-skinned man’s eye sockets had filled with rainwater, giving the impression that he had mirrors for eyes and that great freshwater tears were washing down his face, washing away the dust of his long journey.
“Jayksen,” said Anduin commandingly, urgently, “run. Leave him: the sea will give him a better burial than can we.”
We turned and ran, our boots and hooves pounding against the pebbled ground, throwing up great splashes of rain-water, and a mass of dark-robed wizards burst onto the tidal plain behind us. They shouted and gave chase, but we ran faster: a shadow skull-bolt flew by us, fizzling out at the end of its range, and then the wizards gave up their pursuit, and we were safe.
We traveled silently, lost in our thoughts. Jayksen had abandoned all pretense and was now sobbing openly. Sacara’s eyes were still narrowed in simmering hatred, and the intensity of it chilled me. As the storm moved inland and the sky lightened ahead of us to the west, Anduin moved to talk with her quietly. Her face softened, somewhat.
For myself, I wallowed in miserable guilt. I had frozen in the heat of battle, stood and stared as a man I barely knew but immensely respected had his soul ripped from his chest. Rayn might have held his own against one or two of the wizards, I thought: could I have saved him?
And would I have, if Ordinn hadn’t forbade it? Why not? I thought again. What the hell good does it do the Law that I had not saved Rayn’s life? “Why!” I yelled at the ocean’s calming breeze.
“He died in service of the Light,” said Anduin, answering a different question. “You carry the results. I pray that it’s what we need.”
An hour later, as the ghost of the sun set ahead of us, we arrived at camp. It was in a shallow dell, just inland of the cliff, surrounded by mushroom trees and stands of thick, twisted undergrowth. Mark and Norin, Grimble and Krull stood around a merry fire, and the smell of savory stew drifted from a small, steaming, cast-iron pot. The four of them looked up at us as we approached.
“Rayn is dead,” declared Anduin simply. “We have a prisoner.”
Madoran tied the gnome hurriedly to one of the plague trees at the edge of camp. Allyndil, Anduin and I gathered around as the others talked quietly among themselves. Madoran slapped the gnome awake.
He shook his head groggily, then looked around. His eyes focused on us, and he glared.
“What is your purpose in these lands?” said Anduin commandingly.
“None of your bees wax,” spat the gnome.
“Where is the book?” growled Madoran.
“Why, don’t you know?” replied the gnome mockingly. “We don’t have it yet, if that’s what you mean, but we will, soon.”
“How soon?” said Anduin.
“Tomorrow, they say,” replied the gnome, grinning nastily.
“Who’s they?” said Anduin evenly.
“The commanders,” said the gnome, as evenly, “and our leader.”
“Who is your leader?”
“His name?” said the gnome. “Hannathras, if that helps you out at all.”
Madoran glanced up at Anduin, who shrugged. The gnome grinned again.
“You know where the book is, then,” said Anduin after a moment.
“Of course,” replied the gnome.
“Like I’d tell you,” said the gnome, a look of disdain on his face.
I stepped forward menacingly, my hand on my mace. The gnome flinched away and cried, “I don’t know!” instinctively. Then, “They don’t tell us all the details.”
Madoran stared hard at the gnome. “He’s telling the truth about that, at least,” he said after a beat. Go me, I thought faintly.
The sun sank below the horizon, and the rain fell off to a light drizzle. By the light of the fire, we drew lots for watch. I drew the midnight watch, with Allyndil. We prayed the Order’s thrice-daily prayer, sang a mournful dirge for Rayn, and then we went to sleep.
Jayksen nudged me awake for guard duty, then disappeared into the dark camp to sleep. It was still drizzling. I stood, and Allyndil was already awake, sitting on a stump and staring inscrutably at the sleeping gnome.
I paced the perimeter of the camp once. I could hear nothing in the darkness but distant, crashing waves, and I paused back at Allyndil’s post.
“Where are you from?” I said to him conversationally, after a few moments more of uneventful silence.
He glanced up at me. “My homeland,” he said simply. “It’s to the north and east of here. We lived there for centuries before the Scourge destroyed us.” He spoke bitterly, and I realized what he’d lost to that war. “We retook a small enclave of our twice-destroyed city from the plague when the war was finally over, and rebuilt there. It’s not large enough to support even our small numbers, but a few, the leaders and the elderly, live there. We wander the world, and return, if we can, once every ten years and when our children are ready to be born. The Scourge destroyed our home and scattered us to the winds, but we have reclaimed that, at least.”
I nodded, inspired. “I didn’t know the blood-elves had a homeland,” I said.
Allyndil’s eyes flashed. “Do not mistake me for those blood traitors,” he said with sudden chill.
“I’m sorry,” I said, confused at the elf’s sudden change. “I didn’t know—”
“I am Highborne of Quel’Thalas,” he continued. “When our home and our sources of magic were destroyed by the Scourge, the blood elves chose their addiction to magic over their honor and their people, and by that choice they severed their ties to us forever.”
Oh, I thought. “So that elf wizard you killed back there?”
“Deserved it,” he replied coldly.
He sat in silence, and, having intruded into his thoughts enough, I shuffled back off around the camp, feeling cold and miserable.
When I returned, he had cocked his ear towards the forest, and there was an urgent look on his face. He put a finger to his lips.
“Something’s coming,” he whispered. “Undead, by its footfalls.” He stood and crept silently into the darkness, motioning me to follow. We loosened our weapons.
We walked in silence for several minutes. Then the elf pointed me behind a tree and hid behind an adjacent one and we stood, holding our breath and waiting.
For a minute, I could hear nothing but the soft rainfall on the undergrowth. Then, unmistakably, the sound of soft footfalls drifted in from beyond us in the close darkness: they were moving closer, and whatever it was, was nearly upon us.
As it drew even with us it paused for a moment, as though it sensed something. Allyndil tensed, and then, as one, we leapt from our hiding spots, our weapons held high and ready, but I looked at the creature and my cry died on my lips –
“Rhy?” I said. Allyndil froze. Oh god, I thought.
“Horse!” she said urgently, looking relieved.
It was my best friend, the skinny mage girl I’d known for years, who I’d never seen less than fully covered in robes but who now wore rags. Her familiar, unchanged, gaunt face perched above impossibly skinny shoulders, and her arms and legs were exposed bone, white in the darkness. “Oh god,” I breathed, and a flood of revulsion washed over me. “What are you?”
“I am forsaken,” she croaked.