The Murloc is Lonely
Book One: The Frozen Tomb
I stared at her, lost for words. Allyndil was doing the same. Rhy paused for a moment, and then, in the same raspy voice she’d always had – how could I have mistaken it for human? – she said, “You’ve all been marked for death.”
“What?” said Allyndil dully.
“Marked for death,” she repeated. “The undead which your allies from Uther’s Tomb slaughtered three nights ago were part of a Forsaken caravan traveling north towards home.”
The elf stared at her, uncomprehendingly. Then, “Who controls you?” he challenged.
“I control me,” snapped Rhy. “I’m Forsaken, not some mindless plague zombie.”
“Forsaken?” said the elf, his challenge defeated and his tenuous grasp on the situation gone again.
Rhy sighed. “The Forsaken. We’re undead, we’re people who caught the plague and lost our minds and our lives, but were given our free will back. We’re plagued beings that have reclaimed our minds,” she said proudly.
Allyndil shook his head slowly. “Living undead?”
“Thinking, feeling undead,” she returned.
Allyndil stood silently for a moment. “They thought they were killing mindless zombies,” he said quietly.
“I know,” said Rhy. “That’s why I’m here, to warn you.” She glanced over at me.
“Horse, you knew about this, about her?” said the elf, turning to me. I shook my head dully, staring sightlessly at my old friend.
“Why not, why has no one ever heard of you?” said the elf to Rhy.
“We didn’t want to be heard of,” answered Rhy, shrugging. “We joined the Argent Dawn during the Scourge War, and then in thanks for our help, the Dawn helped us fade away. Our Lady Sylvanas tamed her necromantic ambitions, and we’ve been living quietly ever since.”
“Sylvanas!” cried Allyndil, his eyes flashing. “She died with her people, she was no necromancer!”
Rhy shook her head sadly. “Prince Arthas resurrected her, made her his queen and his slave. She rebelled, though, freed the first Forsaken, and founded our kingdom, our prison, beneath the ruins of Lordaeron.”
“Lordaeron!” exclaimed the elf, bewildered by the procession of surprises. “The cursed city? No living person has ever gone there and come back.”
“Yeah, well,” said Rhy, shrugging again, “we like our privacy. If people keep away, we don’t bother anyone. We save ones that are stupid enough to come up here and catch the plague, a couple a year. They join us and swear an oath to, among other things, keep our secret.”
“A secret organization,” breathed Allyndil, “made up of an entire race.”
Rhy nodded. “We worked hard to get that way, and we’ve worked hard to stay there ever since.”
Allyndil stared off into the darkness, as though trying to put pieces of the puzzle together and come to terms with it all at once.
Rhy turned back to me. I was still staring, still lost for words. “Horse,” she said, concerned, frightened for me, “what are you doing here?” But I didn’t respond.
Allyndil narrowed his eyes at her, sizing her up as a person, now. “We’re trying to keep a book from falling into the wrong hands,” he said.
“The book!” cried Rhy, and she glanced over her shoulder into the darkness. Then she looked back, a look of feigned innocence in her glowing eyes. “What book?” she said.
“A black book,” he replied, apparently sizing her up as trustworthy, “which we believe holds the key to releasing the Scourge Lord Varimathras back into the world.”
She exhaled. “It does,” she said simply.
“It’s in danger,” said the elf urgently. “There’s a group massing to the east of here, planning to move on it, possibly as early as tomorrow.”
Rhy swore. “Tomorrow?” she said. “You’re sure?”
“We captured one of them,” said Allyndil. “He said they knew where the book was and were planning to move on it tomorrow.”
Rhy looked down, blinking slowly. “We knew they were coming north, but we didn’t know they were here and ready to fight. How many are there?”
“Upwards of forty, we think,” said the elf.
Rhy swore again. She glanced at me, then back at the elf, then at the ground, as though thinking quickly.
She looked back up. “Your party is in danger,” she said firmly, “and so is my city. I need to talk to your leader, no one else.”
“A dwarf named Madoran and a man named Anduin,” replied the elf. He looked at me, but I remained impassive. He glanced back at Rhy. “Well, I’ll go wake them up,” he said. She nodded, and the elf vanished back into the dense underbrush.
Throughout the exchange, I’d stared blankly at Rhy, replaying scene after scene in my head, the little things about her that should have tipped me off: her peculiar clothes, never showing more than her face and her bony hands; her aversion to physical contact; that every time I had touched her, when I grasped her shoulder, I’d been struck by how bony she was. Looking at her face now, so pale and gaunt, I wondered how I had ever mistaken her for a human. And I realized suddenly that in the three years that I’d known her, I’d never actually seen her sleep. I felt sick.
She looked at me. “Horse,” she said, sounding concerned again, “what are you doing here?”
Myriad questions lurched into my mind – Why are you here? Why were you in Storm City? Do I even know you… – but none of them came out.
“Horse,” she said, plaintively, sadly, “say something.”
“Who are you?” I said at last.
“Oh, come on,” she said, spreading her arms, “I’m me, I’m Rhy. I’m the same person, it’s not like I changed just because you discovered my secret!”
I laughed, harshly, suddenly, and it all came pouring out. “You’re not the same as you always were, you’re a huge lie. You’re one of them!” I pointed accusatorily off into the darkness. “You’re a zombie, you’ve got the plague!” My stomachs turned with revulsion. Then my arm dropped back to my side. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Rhy sighed, looking down. “Well, for one thing, I swore an oath not to when I left Lordaeron. We’re trained from rebirth to keep who we are a secret – from everyone. Even from our best friends, if they’re not Forsaken.”
“You didn’t have a hard time walking up and telling a stranger elf just now,” I said irrationally.
“Damnit Horse,” she snapped, her yellow eyes flashing emerald green. “I’m trying to save your life here. I sneak out, risking my own life for you, I’m breaking every oath I’ve ever taken to my people, and I can probably never go back to them, and you throw this crap at me!”
“It’s not crap,” I snapped back. “You were plagued, that whole time you lived with – did Tidus know?”
She shook her head miserably.
“You were plagued that whole time. You could have infected us!”
“Oh, have more faith in me than that!” she exclaimed. “The plague doesn’t spread so easily, you have to have an open wound. I have to, like, bite you, or my blood has to get inside you. And it’s not like I wasn’t careful. We’re trained in this stuff, before they let us leave Lordaeron.”
I stared at her. No way, indeed – what if… but what if she were telling the truth? As I cycled through all the ways she could have infected me – What if she bled on me? What if her hand had fallen off in my soup? – each seemed less likely than the last. The seed of rationality at the base of my mind began to quietly reassert itself: Maybe Rhy really hadn’t put her best friends in mortal danger. And if she hadn’t done that, then maybe the rest of it wasn’t so bad either.
“Why are we marked for death?” I said after a moment. “Those things already destroyed the only unplagued refuge we had in this dead land,” I added heatedly.
“You’re lucky that’s all they did,” she replied, just as heatedly. “Horse, your friends slaughtered seven of my people, with no provocation at all, none.”
“They were damn zombies!” I ejected, loudly, without thinking. Then my face fell.
For a moment, I thought she would snap at me again. Instead, her face fell too. “See why I never told you?” she said sadly.
Of course I saw. I nodded. “I’m sorry,” I said.
There was a sound in the darkness, and I thought it was Allyndil returning with the others, but then there was a sudden sharp swish and the sound of something impacting in flesh.
Rhy clutched at her neck for a moment, and then collapsed to the ground, her body stiff as a board, her glowing eyes open and frozen in an expression of surprise.
Behind her, vacant expression intact on his thick face, stood Krull the orc. I pulled out my mace and stepped towards him.
“Drop it,” said a thin, smarmy voice from behind the orc. Grimble the goblin stepped out into the torchlight, holding a thin metal tube in one hand. “Drop it or your undead friend loses her prefix.” With his eyes on me, he knelt and pulled a small dart from Rhy’s neck. With his other hand, he pulled out a syringe full of glowing blue liquid, and jabbed it meaningfully in her direction.
“You’ve been after me this whole time,” I said, eyes narrowed, stalling for time.
“You’ve been you this whole time,” returned the goblin. “Drop it.”
“Allyndil will be back soon, with the others,” I said, glancing desperately about, wondering what was taking them so long.
“You’re killing her,” said the goblin easily, moving his syringe closer to Rhy’s neck.
I dropped the mace.
“Good,” he said, and suddenly he had lifted the thin tube to his lips and blown, and I felt a sharp sting in my chest. I looked down, and another feathered dart was sticking out, just below my sternum. My muscles stiffened, and I fell face-first to the ground.
Grimble ambled over to me. I stared at him, trying to glare, but my face was frozen, too.
“Krull?” said the goblin. “Mind rolling him over?”
The orc walked over to me, and, with a grunt, turned me face up. He returned to his position, guarding Rhy’s motionless body. Grimble jumped up onto my chest, straddling it and staring into my face, smiling at me. He waved the narrow metal tube under my nose. “Not particularly high-tech,” he said smoothly, “but it’s silent, endlessly adaptable, and boy is there a secondary market for this stuff.” He plucked the dart out of my chest. “Thanks for not bending it.” He leapt off me and began pacing in a circle around my head. My eyes, now the only mobile part of me, followed him coldly.
He halted. “So,” he said easily. “Grew up in Khaz Modan, did you? There couldn’t be more than one cow named Horse in all of Az, though. Good thing you got your dwarf friend to lie for you, though, or you woulda bit it days ago.” He glowered. “It’s not that I have anything against killing the innocent, but there are precious few friends in this land, and I didn’t want to squander that investment on the wrong bull.” He started pacing again.
“Three years ago you disappeared,” he continued, “disappeared from Orcmar with no forwarding address and a mountain of debt. Punishment for that, as I’m sure you’re aware, is death. I cut something off, then bring it back to Orcmar to prove I got you. Then I get lots of money, and your trophy goes up on the wall.” Inside my frozen body, I shivered: I’d seen the trophy wall. It was a gruesome collection of ears, scalps and entire heads – whatever the bounty hunters had felt like cutting off.
The goblin stared down at me for a moment. Then he started pacing again. “How you managed to disappear so completely, for so long, is beyond me, but you did, and we didn’t catch word of you again until the great Battle of Ironforge. Good job being the hero,” he smirked, “it’s gone and gotten you killed. My crew and I happened to be here in the east hunting down another worthless reprobate, so we went after you. Thought it would be an easy kill, but it wasn’t, was it?” He stopped pacing again. “There were four of us, originally. Along with me, the brains, we had two brutes – Krull, here, and a dear ogre whose name, near as we could tell, was Smash – and a human tracker named Mitchell. One of Mitchell’s hounds ate something plagued, and before we knew what was happening, it had infected the other one and bit half of Mitchell’s face off. Then, after escaping them, we ran into a clutch of those nasty wizards, and Smash took it in the chest. So did Krull.” He turned to the orc. “Show him, my half-wit friend,” he said.
Krull, sudden fear in his dull eyes, glanced over his shoulder at the dark woods. Then he pulled his shirt open. At the center of his chest was a familiar wound: a perfectly round, partly healed red burn-mark.
“They didn’t kill him like they did my ogre,” said the goblin, “but they broke him.” In the blink of an eye, the goblin’s easy demeanor evaporated. He glared down at me, shaking with sudden fury. “You left me with nothing for company but a half-wit orc,” he gritted. “I lost a good tracker and a bruiser and a half to this cursed land, all to get my hands on your filthy, flea-bitten, bovine neck!” A muscle at the corner of his eye twitched. My eyes darted around, and for the first time, the idea that we might not be rescued occurred to me.
“Now, since you’re a bull,” he muttered to himself, and he reached into his pack and produced a nasty-looking hacksaw, “I think I’ll take…” and he stared down at my horns. “Too cliché,” he grunted, and began pacing the length of my body, tapping his saw against his palm. “Now normally, I give my targets a choice as to whether they want to be already dead for this part or not. Normally, though, my targets don’t cost me my entire crew, so you, you don’t get a choice.” The goblin grimaced horribly at me. “You get to sit and watch and feel every stroke of my saw until instead of hooves,” and he leaned towards my ear, whispering, “you’ll have bloody stumps, a nice big pair of open wounds.” He stood back up, and his easy manner had returned, though his smile hadn’t. “Maybe I’ll soak them in some of your corpse friend’s icorish blood and see how you take to the life you gave my tracker and his hounds.”
Gripping the hacksaw with sudden ferocious intent, the goblin paced the length of my body. I struggled futilely against whatever force was holding my body hostage, fighting with all my will to move anything, just a little, and then I hissed harsh breath between my frozen lips as he drew the saw back and the teeth bit in.
From the dark woods, I heard what sounded like a thin voice hissing an incantation in the darkness. Grimble heard it too, and whirled around. Then the saw fell from his hands and thumped to the soft ground. Grimble glanced about, itching intensely at his scalp, and then there was a flash from the woods. “My face!” he screamed, clawing desperately at it, “it’s melting!” A shadowy fire leapt up from his shoulders, engulfing his head, and, screaming and cursing, he ran headlong off into the night forest. A minute later, the woods had returned to silence.
Krull shook his head sharply, as though clearing cobwebs. He strode heavily across to Grimble’s open pack, the same dull look on his face. He pulled a syringe out, knelt next to Rhy, and injected it into her arm. In a moment, she blinked, and then lifted her head. “Thanks,” she said, wiggling digits and slowly regaining the use of her limbs.
“Never liked him much,” muttered the orc.
He crossed to me with another syringe and injected it into my arm. A warmth flowed from it, slowly at first, up my arm and into my chest, and then suddenly from there to my whole body. I blinked, flexed my fingers into fists, and then with a great feat of will I sat up.
“I’m tired,” mumbled the orc. “Goin’ back to camp, gonna sleep.” He turned and shuffled off into the darkness. I stared after him.
Then I turned and squinted off into the darkness in the opposite direction, in the direction that I was sure I’d heard the muttering from. Someone out there had just saved my life and Rhy’s. “Thanks,” I whispered.
Rhy was staring at her hands, flexing them slowly, turning them and looking at them with a haunted look in her eyes.
“Rhy,” I said, “you okay?”
She shook her head slowly back and forth and looked up at me, looking sad, scared – forsaken, I thought.
“I died once,” she said, shivering. “This was a pretty stark reminder of what it felt like.” She looked back up, her glowing eyes full of sincerity. “I hope you never die and live to remember it,” she said. “It’s the worst feeling ever.”
I took an awkward step closer to her as she spoke, and extended an arm towards her shoulder. She looked at it and smiled. “Thanks,” she said, and slapped it good-naturedly away. I grinned and dropped it. We were friends again.
“Sorry about the—” I began, but she interrupted me. “I’m like a zombie,” she said. “The world hates zombies. I’m glad you got over it as quickly as you did. Who were those guys?” she continued, bright again. “They from the goblins you worked for in Orcmar?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Jerks.”
“Yeah!” she said.
“So what’s the deal with all of this?” I said, by way of conversation. “How long did you live in Storm City for? For that matter, how old are you?”
“Eighty-five,” she said nonchalantly.
“What!” I exclaimed. “You’re old.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, they woke me up eighty-five years ago. I was twenty-two when I died.”
“Woah,” I said. I paused. “I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that.”
She smiled. “It’s pretty crazy, yeah. You die, and it’s the worst thing ever and then it’s over, and then you’re a zombie for a little while – god, that’s horrible. I don’t remember much: just, once, looking up at a shape in the clouds and suddenly remembering my mother. And I remember shuffling around, and thinking about how horribly, twistedly sad it was, and then kind of fading back into a zombie, going back to just shuffling around and eating anything that moved.”
“Then the Forsaken got me and knocked me out, then you’re waking back up and your whole body hurts and there’s this weird taste in your mouth that never goes away ever, and you’re strapped into this weird chair with tubes and magic and there’s these creepy-looking guys standing in a circle around you, and when you sit up they start cheering, and only one of them can speak your language.”
“The language! Is that the horrible spitting grunting clicking thing?” I said, wrinkling my nose in disgust, but she didn’t notice.
“Yeah!” she said. “That’s Gutterspeak.” Then she broke into it, clicking and sucking at the air. My stomachs turned, and the look on my face stopped her. “Sorry,” she said, deflating. “I’m kind of used to it.”
“Why not just speak Common?” I said, a little unfairly.
“Some of us are pretty rotten by the time they bring us back,” she replied. “A bunch of us are missing jaws, so it’s not like we can all run around yelling at humans in Common. When Sylvanas reawoke the first Forsaken, they invented a language they could all speak.”
I nodded, bringing my visceral reactions back under control. After a moment of silence, I said, “Well, so what did you say just now?”
She smiled. “I said your name, and then I said that despite the fact that you were a total jerk when I found you just now, it’s nice to see you.”
The sound of crunching underbrush interrupted our reunion, and Allyndil reappeared at last. Anduin and Madoran were on his heels.
Anduin stopped short, staring at Rhy. “I didn’t believe you,” he said quietly to Allyndil, the sound of deep misgiving battling with uncertain revulsion in his voice.
Madoran rolled his eyes. “Hi,” he said loudly, at Rhy.
“Hi,” she replied uncertainly.
“You’re undead, but you got your soul back?” said Madoran.
“Something like that,” said Rhy.
“And you’re trying to help us?” said Madoran.
“Yeah,” said Rhy.
“And you know where the black book is?”
“Well, yeah, I do,” said Rhy.
“Good!” said the dwarf, and he glanced meaningfully up at Anduin.
“You’re wounded,” said the elf suddenly, looking at my ankle. I glanced down. Blood oozed from a shallow scrape where the goblin had taken his one stroke.
“Grimble,” I said. “Turns out he was after me after all.” Allyndil knelt in front of me and began tending the wound.
Madoran nodded. “We passed Krull on the way back here.”
“Yeah, he ended up saving us, actually. Him and somebody…” and I glanced uncertainly off into the darkness.
The dwarf smiled. “I thought that orc’d turn out okay,” he said.
“I’m sorry that the rules of hospitality prevented me from doing more about the goblin,” said Anduin, “but we couldn’t be sure he was who he turned out to have been.”
“I understand,” I said, then hissed in sharp, transient pain. Allyndil stood back up. My wound was healed.
Rhy looked nervously about at the now-eclectic group of people in front of her. If she was facing death or expulsion for breaking her oath to just me, I could imagine what she must be feeling faced with a bull, an elf, a human and a dwarf. She glanced at me, as though for support, and I nodded. She steeled herself, turning to Anduin.
“Well,” she started slowly. “Listen. You’re searching for a book. I believe you when you say that you don’t want to make use of it, and that you want to keep it away from those that do. Which makes me more comfortable telling you what I’m about to tell you.” She took a deep breath. “The book you’re looking for is held by the Forsaken, in Lordaeron’s Under City. It’s usually well-guarded, but we’re a small community and scattered. More of us are arriving from around the world, but there aren’t enough of us yet to mount an army in the field and one at home guarding us and the book. And,” and she sighed, “yesterday morning, when Lady Sylvannas received word that your little human enclave had turned malicious, she flew into a rage and sent most of our standing army east to destroy you all, leaving the book and the city unguarded.”
“What!” cried Anduin in shock.
“My battalion,” breathed Madoran.
“And Luke,” said Anduin, a look of despair on his face, “we’ve got to warn them.”
“She means to kill all of you,” said Rhy, “but you have some time: she didn’t realize that you’d left, and I didn’t tell anyone.”
“How did you know?” I said.
“More to the point,” Anduin interjected angrily as Rhy made to answer, “what are you expecting from us in exchange for telling us that your people have sentenced us to death?”
“I’m warning you!” exclaimed Rhy, her eyes flashing green at the old man’s injustice. “Listen, it was a misunderstanding, and one based on ignorance which we have worked hard to foster, but you did slaughter my people. You started it.” Anduin made to speak again, but Rhy cut him off again: “Listen! I thought, and many of my people agreed, that the Dark Lady acted rashly to send any force at all, much less a fairly large one, away from Under City when we knew that the threat from the shadow-wizards was growing daily. But none of us knew that the threat is as imminent as you say it is.” She nodded to Allyndil. “So,” she said, turning back to Anduin, “we have a common purpose: to warn my city that it may be in immediate danger, and to convince Lady Sylvanas to recall her army back home to protect it.” She glanced around. “And if you know the least bit about the Book of Arthas,” she said, “I believe it goes without saying that making sure it stays safe is a goal we all share.”
Anduin looked at her, struggling with emotions, some of which I recognized as ones I had struggled with not twenty minutes earlier. But the old man mastered them quickly, and when he spoke, he spoke evenly. “Thank you for warning us,” he began, “and I see no treachery in your doing so. And thank you for opening our eyes to the nature of the crime which we have committed against sentient beings. For those crimes, we are deeply remorseful.” He bowed.
“So we both want to keep the book safe,” he continued, “and we both want your queen to withdraw her troops back to your city. How? Can you just inform her?”
Rhy shook her head. “I’m nobody. We’re small, but not that small, and there is a rigid hierarchy that I have to get through – and by then it’ll be too late for your home, and for your dwarves or whoever, and possibly for the City. But if I arrive with the hostage you took, and you or one of your men to explain…”
Anduin narrowed his eyes. “I will not send one of my warriors into the Lordaeron ruins – no living being has ever returned.”
“Yes,” said Rhy impatiently, “because we killed them. And there’s a danger that when we arrive, we’ll all be slaughtered on sight. But our odds are better if we’ve got a hostage.”
For the second time in as many days, the words of Ordinn the dwarf floated into my mind: Your eventual goal is to get to the capital city of Lordaeron, he’d said. So, good luck with that.
“I’ll go,” I said.
Everyone turned to look at me in surprise, Rhy most of all. “Horse, no,” she said, “it’s too dangerous.”
“But not too dangerous for one of my own?” challenged Anduin.
“Horse is my friend, and your own slaughtered seven of my people,” snapped Rhy.
“I’ll go,” I repeated more firmly. “I mean, Rhy, you risked your life for me. You can’t not let me do the same.” I sounded more confident than I felt, but my confidence grew at the sound of it. Rhy smiled warmly and thankfully.
“Good lad,” said Madoran approvingly. “Ah’m comin’ too!” I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I don’t know…” said Rhy, trailing off.
Anduin began a brusque, “Sure you can’t expect—”, but I cut him off. “Rhy, please?” I said. “I’ll feel a lot safer with Madoran along.”
She grimaced. “Okay,” she said. “If we leave now, we can almost make it there by dawn.”
Anduin nodded. “It sounds as though our hope lies with uncertain allies, rather than our own strength. The rest of us will go back the way we came, and try to get to Luke and the dwarves before the Forsaken do. I’ll go secure the gnome.”
“Wait,” said Rhy, suppressing a grin, “the guy you captured is a gnome?”
Anduin nodded seriously. “A gnome wizard, wielding terrible powers of darkness. He is not to be underestimated.”
Rhy laughed, then stifled it, nodding. Anduin sighed and turned back towards camp.
“That was a brave thing you just did, lad,” said Madoran, turning to me.
“You too,” I said.
“Aye,” said the dwarf, his eyes sparkling, “but I’ve been brave for years. What’ve you been for years?”
“Curious!” said Rhy, grinning. I wrinkled my nose at her, and she wrinkled hers back.
Several minutes later, Anduin returned, leading the bedraggled gnome by a rope tied around his wrists behind his back. The gnome looked strangely serene, I thought, and he came along silently and not unwillingly. Rhy sidled over to me. “He’s really cute!” she whispered.
“He killed Rayn,” I muttered back. With some help from me, I thought, and ground my teeth.
“Oh,” said Rhy, looking chastened. “Who’s Rayn?”
Anduin turned to Madoran. “Are you sure about this, old friend?”
“Aye,” said the dwarf firmly. “It’s not as though yer headin’ off to a vacation in the land of stout and honey, is it?”
Anduin nodded. “You’re right about that,” he said. He turned to me. “You’re a brave bull,” he said, “and your heart is good. I hope, if we all survive and triumph, that you’ll come back here to Uther’s Tomb and break bread with us again. You’re always welcome there.”
I grinned, and put my right fist over my heart and bowed. Anduin smiled broadly and returned the salute.
He turned to Rhy. He inhaled, and then said, “The same to you, friend of the Hand.”
Rhy smiled widely, and then looked away, a look of relief, or contentment or something in her eyes. I wondered what Anduin’s acceptance had signified for her.
Allyndil and Madoran embraced, and the elf turned to me. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he said calmly, “and I’ll teach you to heal.”
I nodded and shook the stoic elf’s hand.
“Well,” said the old man. “We each of us go into great danger and uncertain fate.”
“An’ there’s a good chance we’ll all die!” said Madoran cheerfully.
“Yes, thank you,” said Anduin. “Horse, Madoran, Rhy, our hopes lie with you now. May the Light go with you.” He bowed. He turned back to Madoran. “Be well, old friend, do good work.”
Madorn grinned. “Keep in touch!” he rejoined.
The old man and the elf turned away from us and receded into the darkness.
We stood for a moment, in quiet uncertainty: a corpse, a dwarf, a bull, and a tightly-bound gnome. None of us had any illusion about what we were facing, and the gnome, his eyes closed and his face serene, looked the calmest of us all.
Madoran turned to Rhy. “Lead the way?” he said, and we headed off into the darkness.
* * *
We marched hard. The undergrowth which had covered the ground closer to the sea disappeared, and we walked on open, spongy-brown ground again.
Rhy, whose sight in the darkness was better than ours, led the way confidently south and west. I trailed her, and Madoran walked beside me, holding the gnome’s thick leash. The gnome trotted along in front of the dwarf, looking wholly unfazed by his predicament.
As we marched, the enormity of what we were doing began to sink in, and with it grew the feeling that there was no possible way we could succeed. What have I done? I thought. I could have broken away, I could have gone back with the others to less-certain death. Ordinn had instructed me to get to Lordaeron, that the end-point of this absurd, mysterious test I was taking lay there. The Law-dwarf’s assurance that he would be a little sad if I didn’t survive was of no comfort to me now.
But I’d been chosen: Fang the Tooth had chosen me and Katy M, and the Argent Dawn had entrusted us with the vital mission of ensuring that Varimathras stayed entombed. Now that M had fallen, it was on me, and, however badly I might fail, however powerless I felt in this dark and powerful land, I intended to see the thing through to the end.
I looked ahead at Rhy, leading us on through the darkness. My stomachs still churned every time I caught sight of her bone legs, fleshless from thigh to ankle. She had come to me, risking everything to warn me that I was in mortal danger. Gratitude swelled in me for a moment: That, of course, was why I’d come along, why I hadn’t let her talk me out of the mission. The rest of the world be damned: she was my friend, and she needed me.
Why, though? I wondered, and I stretched my stride to pull even with her. “Rhy,” I said, “why are you doing this? You’re risking your life, walking right back to the Forsaken with proof that you broke your oaths. You haven’t once suggested that you and me just run away to Kali and never look back.”
She smiled for a moment, but it was fleeting. “It’s not obvious?” she said. She shook her head. “The Scourge, it’s been gone for six hundred years, so no one but scholars and storytellers remember it. But it was the worst thing to ever happen to this world… it destroyed entire kingdoms, tore cities and families apart from the inside – your brother is fighting by your side one moment, and the next moment his eyes start glowing and he’s slathering at you with this hungry look on his face, and…” She trailed off, on the verge of tears. But she brought herself back under control. “Can you imagine it?” she said.
I shook my head.
“That’s why,” she continued. “That’s why we have to keep the book safe, keep it out of the hands of these evil wizards. If they get it, if they free Varimathras, he’ll sit on his throne at the top of the world and command a new Scourge. The plague zombies, which have been reduced to mindlessness, will have a guiding purpose again, a will – his will, Varimathras’s. And he’ll lead the most terrible army of darkness in living memory. That’s what’s worth risking my life for, and yours, and all of ours: to keep the world safe from that evil.”
I nodded, breathless. “Well, you sold me,” I said.
“So the book,” said Madoran, pulling even with us. “It’s in Lordaeron, right? We’re taking the word of an obscure map.”
“Oh, you found the map?” said Rhy, smiling. “Sylvanas always fretted that it wouldn’t be found in time. She wrote it up when the Dawn gave the Forsaken custody of the book, and had it sent south.”
“No kiddin’,” breathed the dwarf.
“No kidding,” she laughed. “She thought she was gonna have to have one of us dig it up and hand it to you.”
“One of who?” said Madoran.
“Rhy lived in Storm City, that’s how I know her,” I said. “That’s what you mean, right?”
Rhy smiled. “Kind of. We’re allowed to go into the outside world, as long as our bodies are together enough to be able to pass as living. We get trained heavily, to blend in and not infect anyone – I trained for a whole year before they let me go. There aren’t actually that many of us, not nearly as many as there are humans or dwarves or tauren, but that’s not what I meant: along with free Forsaken, Sylvanas also has proper agents, stationed in cities around the world, trained to keep their glowin’ eyes out for signs of shadow magic. Its users have been in hiding since the end of the Scourge War, but the Dark Lady knew that their reemergence was inevitable, and that when it happened, the first thing they’d do is make for the book.”
I looked down at her. “Glowing eyes…” I muttered. It was the second time she’d—
Madoran looked suddenly at her. “The eyes,” he said. “Your eyes glow.”
Rhy smiled. She nodded. “It was a great victory for the Forsaken when we convinced the world that some people just happen to have glowy eyes.”
We fell into shocked silence at this revelation. I thought back to my years in Storm City, and in Orcmar before that. Memories floated up – not many, but more than a few – of pale, skinny shop-keepers or men and women in the streets, with glowing yellow eyes. “All of them are Forsaken?” I said softly.
I shook my head. “You’re everywhere,” I said.
Madoran swore suddenly. “Andrew Underwood,” he said.
“Who?” I said. The name was familiar.
“The Underwood Manor in Storm City,” he said, “the leader of the Argent Dawn – good god, you people are everywhere.”
Rhy smiled. “Oh, I love Andrew. He’s the captain of our people in Storm City, and there were a lot of us there – we’d seen signs, things I don’t really understand, but I guess Storm City was somehow the epicenter of the whole shadow-wizards in hiding thing.”
“The flying skull!” I said, suddenly understanding. “You saw the flying skull and you left! Then the gnome threw one at me yesterday…”
“Ugh,” said Rhy, “I hear it’s horrible to be hit with one. Yeah, though, that’s why I left. Word’s spread, we all know now: the shadow wizards have declared themselves, and they’re trying for the book.”
Madoran sighed. “Why didn’t your queen just destroy the damn thing when she got it?” he grumbled.
Rhy shrugged. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “The foibles of a betrayed lover, I suppose.”
“Oh,” said Madoran. He paused. “Ew,” he said.
* * *
As the clouds in the east began to lighten from black to tepid brown, we broke suddenly out of the plaguewoods and into a wide band of open land. At its other side, a hundred yards or more away, rose a cliff. To the west, to our right, stood the crumbled foundation of another stone tower. The stony remnants of an old road ran along the empty land, winding away east before curving south where the cliff disappeared.
There, on the far side of the road, stood the high ruins of an ancient wall. Beyond it stood crumbling spires and church-towers. “The ruins of Lordaeron,” said Rhy reverently. “It’s full of traps and pitfalls, and we guard it jealously: our city is beneath it. Its main entrance, though,” and she pointed south, towards the cliff, “is there.”
With Rhy leading the way, the four of us ran quickly across the open land. “Hurry your short legs up,” growled Madoran at the gnome, who complied as well as he could. We passed the road, and the land inclined upwards towards the cliff. I saw our destination: a small, non-descript cave tucked into the cliff at the bottom, hidden behind an outcrop of natural rock. The ground was worn thin there, as with heavy foot traffic. A musty smell, like dry death, drifted out of it as we approached. I wrinkled my nose as Rhy led us in.
She began clicking and grunting, speaking loudly in Gutterspeak. The cave was a tunnel, deep and narrow, barely high enough for me to stand up straight, and its walls were jagged. We descended into the darkness, Rhy announcing our presence as we went.
Suddenly, she said, “Stop,” quietly. We halted.
After a moment of eerie silence, another voice began speaking from the darkness. Rhy responded, and a torch flickered to life. Holding it was the source of the second voice: another Forsaken, male, once human. His clothes were ragged, his arm and leg bones exposed like Rhy’s. A studded band of black metal ran across his face, apparently holding it together.
He spoke loudly over his shoulder, and several voices responded from deeper in the cave. I glanced uncertainly at Rhy.
She responded urgently to him, pointing at us. “Show him the gnome,” she hissed, and Madoran pushed him forward. Rhy pointed at him and clicked.
Four more guards, heavily armed and armored, appeared behind him, as though spawned by our very presence. Rhy turned to us. “They’re taking us in,” she said.
“Is that good?” I said.
“It means we’re not dead yet,” she replied.
A pair of guards flanked Rhy, and the other three surrounded us. They hissed and clicked, and Rhy glanced over her shoulder at us. “Stay together,” she said. “They’re not going to hurt us until Sylvanas passes judgment on us. On me,” she corrected herself nervously.
She forced a look of calm over her face. She turned back to our captors and nodded. Her two guards seized her bony wrists with their bony hands and marched forward. The rest of us followed them down the dark tunnel, feeling quite helpless.
Sickly green light began to glow ahead of us in the darkness. Around a bend, the tunnel widened suddenly into a small domed cave. Jutting into it ahead of us was a wide metal pipe, out of which dripped the green ichor of undeath, into a wide pool of the stuff. Where it drained to from there, I couldn’t tell.
The cavern was lit from below by the ichor pool’s otherworldly glow. For a moment I forgot that a single drop of it could plunge us all into the worst fate a living being could suffer, and it seemed beautiful.
To the right of the pipe, on the far side of the pool, a dim, orange light flickered out of a short, carved, sharply pointed stone archway. We maneuvered carefully around the pool, and passed through the ominous arch and into the tunnel beyond. This tunnel was no natural cave: its walls were smooth, and veins of some lighter-colored, foreign material ran through the rock, giving it the appearance of haphazardly-laid brick. The walls of the tunnel came to a point overhead, high enough that I could walk comfortably. Firelight flickered every fifteen paces from dim, square, artistically-crafted lanterns hanging from the walls by what looked like bones. “No electricity?” I whispered up to Rhy.
“The goblins don’t know about us either,” she whispered back.
We followed the stone passageway down through several more carved archways, winding down into the earth. The air here was cool, and bone-dry. The passage forked, and we wound right, then left, and then the passage squared out and leveled off. Our captors led us around the corner, and my breath caught in my throat.
Through the archway ahead of us was an enormous, green-glowing cavern. Lanterns, like the ones in the passageway but larger, hung mournfully at the end of long, dark-rusted chains. Beyond them, a pair of enormous fanged skulls, carved out of solid rock, faced each other within a huge, angular archway, their mouths stretched open as though laughing hatefully at some cruel joke, or at us, or at death itself. Flanking the archway were two enormous hanging drapes, one blue and one green, tattered and faded towards the bottom but solid higher up. We passed out of the tunnel and onto a narrow balcony with stairs leading down from either side. The walls rose, until they reached a point above us where they curved inward to become the cavern’s pointed ceiling. The cavern, more like a giant’s hallway, curved symmetrically away in either direction. It was segmented periodically by thin walls pierced with enormous, pointed arches. Each arch was capped with another huge, carved skull, jawless this time, staring accusingly down at us with enormous obsidian eyes. Hanging in each arch were more lanterns, each studded with more skulls. I couldn’t be sure at the distance, but these skulls looked real.
Down the center of the cavernous passageway’s wide stone floor, through each huge stone arch, flowed the source of the cavern’s green light: a river of glowing green ichor, flowing through a carved riverbed like some twisted parody of Storm City’s canals.
My stomachs clenched at the sight. This place was beautiful in its own way, I thought, but it had been designed to remind its inhabitants that death was a fact of life. I shivered.
“Welcome to Under City,” Rhy said proudly.
I looked nervously around. Somewhere in this place was the thing which I had been sent north to protect. But we were underground, surrounded by the icorish, contagious walking dead. If Lady Sylvanas judged Rhy unfavorably, there was no way we could get out alive, much less save the black book.