Along the wide promenades on either side of the ichor canal, the undead citizens of Under City were going about their morning business. They walked with a universal slouch and shuffle; their clothes were tattered; and some of them were missing appendages, though no one seemed to mind. Bones were exposed anywhere. Not a smile could be seen on the lot of them, yet they went on, slumping along the city’s canal or walking towards us out of the laughing-skulls archway.
Armored guards stood about, as well: a pair stood at the bottom of each of the staircases off our balcony, and four stood across the canal from us, watching us with veiling dispassion. The high segmenting walls were also pierced, on either side of the central arch, by two smaller, person-sized archways, allowing passage. A guard stood at each of these, as well.
The smaller archway to our right, down the stairs on our side of the ichor canal, was blocked off by a wall of carefully laid and mortared stones. I pointed to it, and Rhy answered, “Security. The Royal Quarters are beyond it. Before we withdrew from the world, we suffered more than one attack which made it all the way into the queen’s chambers. It means,” she continued, “if we’re going to see the dark lady, we have to go around that way.” She pointed left.
“The Black Sanctum is down there, too,” she added quietly as an afterthought.
“The Black Sanctum?” I said.
“The library,” she said. “The book.”
“Ah,” I said. Why does everyone name their libraries Sanctums? I thought.
Our guards called down to the guards on the promenade below, exchanging words. Five of them ambled up the stairs towards us, armor clanking. One of them, wearing a dark red insignia, caught sight of Rhy and stopped, shocked. They conversed rapidly, and she spoke imploringly. After a minute, he nodded.
She turned to us, breathing a sigh of relief. “This is Jackson,” she said, “an old friend of mine. He’s going to take us to Sylvanas.”
A distant, Gutterspeak shout echoed from up the tunnel. The Forsaken that had brought us this far nodded sharply to Jackson and his guards, then turned back up the tunnel. I looked down at the bound gnome. He looked serene. It worried me.
Jackson led us down the stairs to our left, and immediately through another of the city’s pointed archways. Across the canal were what looked like vendor stalls, where corpses stood and gossiped and haggled over prices. The promenade extended on ahead of us, curving off to the right in the distance. Madoran asked Rhy about it.
“The whole city is laid out like a wheel,” she explained. “We’re on the outer rim. The hub is the Trade District, and it’s beautiful. We’re in the War District now,” she continued, “where we learn to fight.” As she spoke, the cavern’s wall to our left opened up into a wide, high chamber. At its center stood a huge ziggurat, surrounded by four menacing ivory spikes which curved upward. The thing was capped with a huge carved skull, and out of its gaping mouth poured more of the green ichor, flowing under the promenade and feeding the canal.
Nearer to us in the cavern stood three rows of battered practice dummies. A pair of trainees wielding wooden swords danced among them, practicing maneuvers on multiple enemies. A drill sergeant walked about, shouting at them.
He caught sight of us and his shouting trailed off. He stared, jaw slackened. The two trainees glanced at him and then at us, shock forming on their faces as well.
I looked about, uncomfortable. The inhabitants of City were all staring at us now. As Jackson and his guards (each one watching us distrustfully) moved us forward, past the skull ziggurat, the civilians moved hurriedly out of our way. There was fear in their eyes. I shook my head in wonder.
We arrived at a stone bridge, arcing up over the canal. Stairs led up to it from the side, with skulls carved in their stonework, and we mounted them, then turned right across the bridge. I looked nervously at the poison ichor flowing beneath us as we crossed. Back to our right, past the high wall and through the great archway, I could see the tunnel we’d entered the City through.
Suddenly, a distant crash echoed out of it. We halted, half way across the bridge, and our guards looked back towards the tunnel, glowing eyes narrowed, listening. Rhy glanced nervously back at me.
A moment later, from deep within the city, a great, sonorous bell toll rang out. The city’s civilians looked away from us at the noise, and, calmly but urgently, and began moving off. “The attack bells,” grimaced Rhy. “They signal the guard to form up, such as it is, and the rest of us to get to our quarters and hunker down. It could be a drill.”
I looked down at the gnome. His face was a mask of serenity. He glanced up at me, and in the moment that our eyes locked, I saw a moment of ill-contained triumph flicker across his face.
“It’s not a drill,” I said urgently, “it’s them.”
“Are you sure?” said Madoran.
I grimaced and nodded to the gnome, and said, “He’s sure.”
Rhy made a noise in the back of her throat, and it took me a moment to realize that she had sworn in her native tongue. She grabbed the gnome by the front of his shirt and hauled him up to her face. “What have you got to do with this?” she hissed violently.
The gnome smiled. “Well, we didn’t exactly know how to get in here, did we?”
Rhy swore again and threw the gnome to the ground.
Another crash, and another Gutterspeak shout, and Jackson clicked to our other four guards. They nodded, turned and ran back across the bridge towards the stone balcony. Rhy shook her head. “I led them in here…” she muttered.
A death scream echoed from the tunnel. Rhy swore. A nasty grin split the gnome’s face.
Jackson turned to Rhy. He pointed at us, moaning and grunting, gesturing for us to stay put. Still speaking he pointed at the gnome, then gestured off to our left, towards the War District. His face twisted cruelly, and I could imagine what foul methods of interrogation awaited the tiny wizard there.
Rhy shook her head and replied vehemently, pointing back the way we’d come. Jackson returned the gesture. “There isn’t enough time!” Rhy shouted loudly, in Common. She realized her mistake and shook her head sharply.
But Jackson grimaced, as though pulling long-disused knowledge up from the bowels of his mind. He formed his white lips carefully. “Fine,” he said. He unsheathed an evil-looking dagger from his leather belt, grabbed the gnome from Madoran, and coolly slit his throat.
I sucked air in shock, and choked back a surge of bile. Madoran grimaced. Rhy’s eyes flew wide and she stifled a reflexive scream. The gnome collapsed to the stone floor, a look of surprise frozen on his tiny face.
“Problem solved,” Jackson spat. He clicked parting words at Rhy, and ran back towards the tunnel’s crescendoing battle.
I stared down at the dead gnome, jaw slack. Madoran nudged me, and I shook my head clear. I nudged Rhy. “We have work to do,” I said. She nodded.
The four of us ran on, past a wooden dock jutting out into the ichor canal, through another short archway and onto the now-empty promenade beyond. Across the canal stood the stone balcony and its dark tunnel. The light of shadow magic flickered within it, and a moment later a dull, magic-sounding thump exploded outward, followed quickly by the flailing body of a Forsaken guard. He hurtled through the air, across the canal and landed, twisted like a rag doll, at our feet. Rhy cursed loudly.
Out of the tunnel came a human and an orc, draped in black robes and forming whirling balls of black light in their hands. A pair of guards yelled something in Gutterspeak, and charged up the stairs towards them, but the two wizards casually tossed the bolt of black lightning at them. The guards tumbled backwards down the stairs, unconscious or dead. “I don’t speak click-groan,” growled the orc thickly, summoning another shadowy bolt in his fist. Another pair of black-clad humans emerged from the tunnel, summoning the same magic.
I glanced at Rhy. Her face had lit up with fury, and fire flickered in the palms of her hands. The flames grew rapidly, lancing upwards and then collapsing back on themselves. Rhy wound one flaming hand back, and hurtled the fireball across the caverns, catching the orc wizard in the chest. He whirled around at her, furious, his robes aflame. “You speak that language?” she yelled in Common. “It says, get the HELL OUT OF MY CITY!” She hurtled the other fireball and caught the shocked orc in the face. He staggered back against the wall behind him and collapsed. Madoran pulled urgently at Rhy’s arm. “C’mon,” he said, but she stood, rooted to the spot.
Seizing on the distraction, the few Forsaken guards that had massed charged up the stairs. The wizards hurtled their magic, then fell back into the tunnel at the onslaught. But another deep, magical thump built and exploded outward as the Forsaken reached the balcony – they tumbled backwards, some unconscious, some merely dazed.
Out of the tunnel came a chill, a wisp, which trickled out and across the balcony. Out of the tunnel came something like fear: and behind it, on a cushion of the frozen mist, floated a thing, vaguely male, with spindly arms and long, spindly fingers. He was draped in billowing black robes, above which rose his pallid, angular face: it was gaunt, stretched against his skull, into which his black, lidless eyes were sunk. His hairless head was flanked by short, withered, pointed ears. His face was handsome, but if he had ever been a living creature, he had slept with the darkness for so long that all life had been twisted out of him.
Madoran shouted to us, then turned and ran, falling back into the dubious cover of the archway across from the balcony. I made to follow, but Rhy had stood her ground, glaring at the unliving thing which floated across from us, and summoning fire into her hands. The dark wizard saw her and laughed, lifting his hands, palms up. Above us, the great cloth drapes which flanked the archway exploded into flames. A great sheet of burning cloth broke loose, and as it fell towards Rhy, I leaped forward, knocking her out of its way. The cloth fell where she had been, and I felt the heat on my hooves. I hissed in pain, but hauled myself up, seized Rhy bodily, and dashed back towards the archway. I set her down, and she pulled away from me, pointing back towards the cavern. “We have to go that way,” she gasped, out of breath, “the Dark Lady is that way!”
“It’s too dangerous!” said Madoran, pointing to the balcony, where more black-clad wizards were swarming out of the tunnel. “Is there another way to her?”
I looked up. The laughing skulls were directly above us, and their fangs pointed down like daggers ready to fall. I felt a vague tickle at the back of my mind, and then suddenly a thin, warping, hissing voice broke into it: “Hide and go sssseek,” it hissed. I whirled around towards the cavern: the evil thing, the floating unliving wizard, was staring at me from about the balcony, black eyes narrowed.
Then, “Boo!” the voice said in my mind, and I screamed. Mindlessly, I turned away from the balcony, down the high hallway, and fled. “Horse!” Rhy and Madoran yelled simultaneously, but I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t answer them. The walls, the darkness ahead of me, the smallest sounds and shadows, filled my mind with irrational terror.
I came to the end of the hallway, where a pair of skulls pierced with arrows served as untranslatable signposts pointing towards the rounded passageways curving off in either direction. The terror began to subside, and I regained control of my breathing.
To the right, along the twilight passageway, a thick, four-legged creature turned and disappeared around the bend. I stared after it, winded.
Rhy and Madoran caught up to me. “Horse, are you alright?” said Rhy.
I nodded. “I don’t know what just happened,” I said, “but that floaty guy was in my head and it was terrifying.” The ceiling here, ornately carved with abstract, skullish patterns, was more than twice my height, but compared to the lofty cavern which we had left, it felt almost claustrophobic.
“The shade-banshee lookin’ thing?” grunted Madoran. “Never seen one like him before. Wonder what ‘ee is.”
“What’s down that way?” I said, pointing right to where I’d seen the shadowy creature disappear.
“Another way to the Royal Quarters, among other things,” said Rhy. “Let’s go.” She started off, and we followed. A doorway to the left opened up into a deep, round room. The short glance I got at it revealed wide stone staircases and streams of green ichor in sticky freefall from the high ceiling. I wrinkled my nose.
We reached another spoke of the wheel, identical to the one I’d panicked in before. We turned into it, and as the ceiling opened up into the cavern, another pair of evilly-laughing skulls stared down at us.
We hurried back to the right, along-side the ichor canal. We reached a bridge, arching up over the canal, and mounted it. Beyond it, another hundred paces along the canal, was another bridge, and beyond that was the great wall with its three archways, the far one bricked over, which had separated us from the Royal Quarters when we had entered the city. Somewhere beyond it, the sounds of battle echoed.
As we crested the bridge’s peak, Rhy halted, and I nearly bowled into her. She had fallen to her knees in a deep bow. I looked up.
Ahead of us, on the far side of the canal, stood a high, ornate archway, tipped with a carved skull frieze which was painted a deep, blood-red. Wide steps led up to it. Out of the archway burst a tall, deathly-pale elfin woman dressed in magnificent steel-gray armor and carrying an enormous, ornate black bow. A wide, curved sword was strapped to her back. Behind her streamed a dozen or more red-clad Forsaken, each bearing a red shield and wielding a curved knife as long as my forearm. It could only be Sylvanas, the Dark Lady, leading her troops into battle.
“Tha’s all she’s got?” said Madoran. “The enemy has more’n twice that!”
The Dark Lady and her small army ran towards the far bridge. “Oh,” Rhy moaned as her queen peaked it, “I think they’re leaving the book unguarded…” She scrambled to her feet.
“They’re what?” said Madoran incredulously.
“Go, tell her!” I said, pointing to Sylvanas as the pale she-elf cried for blood and disappeared through the archway into the battle beyond.
Rhy looked aghast at me. “You don’t simply run up to the Dark Lady and tell her things!” she said, scandalized.
“Then what the hell are we supposed to do?” growled the dwarf. Rhy paused for a beat, looking miserable.
I looked from her to the dwarf, then along the canal, through its high archway and beyond, where I could see the tunnel through which we had entered the city. The stone balcony had been secured, and black-robed wizards were streaming out of the tunnel, running down the far stairway.
“Listen,” I said. “The battle’s going to come this way, and we have to either stand and fight, or go in there,” and I pointed through the high archway, “grab the book, and get the hell out of here.”
“You’re crazy,” said Rhy. “We’re here to protect the book, not steal it. It’s safest with the Forsaken.”
“A real bang-up job you’ve been doing so far today,” snapped Madoran.
Rhy whirled on him, but I intervened: “Peace, Rhy. Madoran,” I said, flashing back to M’s civics lesson in the cave outside Storm City many many nights ago, “that’s not going to help get us anywhere.”
Rhy grimaced, but nodded. “Yer right,” said the dwarf, “ah’m sorry.”
Having a king apologize to me gave me a sudden surge of confidence, and I turned purposefully to survey the scene. “Rhy,” I said, and pointed to the small archway through which the Dark Lady had disappeared, “since the other little arch is blocked off and they can’t go through the ichor, they have to come through there to get to here, right?”
“Right,” she said, “unless they go the long way like we did.”
“In which case we’ll be able to see from there,” I responded. “That archway is a chokepoint. We should go there, and help hold it.”
The other two nodded, and I turned back across the bridge we were on and led the way. As we ran, I thought quickly. Ordinn’s words came back to me, for the third time: my role would unfold clearly, he’d said. It was clear as day: saving the book was the entire point of this journey. If things went badly, no matter what Rhy said, I had to go for it.
At the thought, I felt a sudden, familiar tickle at the back of my mind. I looked about, terrified for a moment, but neither the hissing voice nor the mindless terror returned.
We reached the archway. On its far side, the promenade was littered with a few Forsaken bodies, but otherwise empty. The sound of intense battle raged in the distance.
I poked my head through and looked up towards the stone balcony. The last of the black-clad men and elves and orcs had streamed out of the tunnel and were disappearing into the War Quarter. Five shadow wizards had remained on the balcony, and I pulled myself quickly back behind the wall.
“Rhy,” I said, “there are five wizards up by where we came in. If they’re still there when the battle pushes through to here, they’ll wreak havoc on our flank.”
Rhy nodded. She crept into the archway, back against the stone wall, and fire began to flicker in her palms. A moment later, she leaned out into the wide open space, took a moment of intense concentration to aim, and tossed a pair of fireballs across the gap. She ducked back, and another pair of flames leapt to life in her hands.
A pair of yells of pain were followed immediately by the whirring of four shadow bolts. They splashed harmlessly against the stone archway. Madoran and I watched in wonder as Rhy immediately leapt out again, tossing more flames across the cavern. She pulled back, and grinned as another pair of yells echoed from the warlocks.
“You’re good!” I exclaimed. In the nearly three years we’d been friends in Storm City, I’d seen her light stoves and heat food and send pocket-picking children running, but I’d never seen her in a battle.
“Well, I’ve had a long time to practice,” she replied, winking. “Two left. One of them two hits to catch fire, but he’s out of commission now.” As Madoran and I shook our heads in wonder, Rhy smiled glowingly. Then she turned and began summoning more fire.
On the other end of our promenade, a Forsaken guard stumbled backwards out of the War Quarter and fell to his back, dead. A moment later, the tall she-elf queen stepped backwards through the same archway, brushing the guard’s body aside with her foot and firing arrows back the way she’d come. A pair of shadow bolts leapt towards her from the balcony, but she brushed them off like gnats. Rhy leapt out again, firing two last fireballs at the wizards. A last pair of screams echoed, and she made a rude gesture at the balcony. We cheered. Lady Sylvanas glanced over her shoulder at Rhy, and smiled.
A swarm of red-clad guards retreated through the far archway, following their queen, and shadow magic and glowing shadow beams leapt towards them from the other side. Several of the guards were hurtling fire and ice at the advancing wizards, and the rest had their deadly-looking swords out. Sylvanas fired arrows as fast as she could, but in a moment she’d run out. She heaved her spiked bow like a spear as the last few warlocks appeared through the archway, and it pierced one of them through the chest. With a strangled cry, he fell to a sitting position, prevented from collapsing entirely by the bow. The others fell back, quaking. The Dark Lady drew her sword.
Then, across the promenade from us, beyond Sylvanas and her remaining guard, a dense, chilled wisp of mist snaked through the canal’s high archway. On it, hatred in his gaunt face and sunken eyes, floated the dark banshee wizard. His voice hissed above the fray, clicking and moaning at Sylvanas in Gutterspeak. Rhy gasped, and it took me a moment to catch the implication. “How does that thing know your language?” I said.
Sylvanas replied, commandingly. “What are they saying?” whispered Madoran.
Whatever it was, it hit Rhy like a battle-hammer. She slumped. “It’s Hannathras,” she moaned.
“Their leader?” said Madoran, but he was cut short: Sylvanas cried out in rage and hurtled her great sword at her enemy. It pierced him through the chest, pinning his billowing robes to whatever lay beneath.
The demon called Hannathras snarled, and pulled the sword slowly from his body. Calling out in a strange tongue, he held it high, and it burst into demonic, shadowy flames. He hurtled the sword back at Sylvanas. She cried out, and held her arm up like a shield, and the sword struck it and shattered. The dark queen stumbled back and fell against the cavern wall, her eyes closed.
“Horse,” said Rhy, staring at her unconscious queen. “Run.”
“The book!” I cried.
Rhy turned to me and spoke quickly and quietly. “It’s in the Black Sanctum,” she said, “through the tunnel to the Royal Quarters. There’s a fork in the tunnel – go left. There’s a passage in the Sanctum that you can use to escape. Go!” she cried. “We’ll slow him down, if we can.”
I nodded and turned. We charged up and over the bridge. Hannathras saw us and laughed, and floated gracefully towards us. The Forsaken guard had fled when their queen fell: we were alone.
With a gesture from Hannathras, the bridge began to crumble beneath us. We scrambled towards the far side, and Madoran and I vaulted onto the far promenade, but Rhy slipped and tumbled down with the stone rubble, splashing into the ichor. “Rhy!” I yelled.
“Go,” yelled Madoran, and I ran.
As I reached its shallow stairs, I heard the sound of Rhy’s voice, shouting something at the demon wizard. With a grin, I glanced over my shoulder. Madoran stood with his battle-hammer at the ready, and Rhy was hauling herself out of the canal, covered in the glowing green ichor, fury on her face, her glowing eyes the color of emeralds. Hannathras gestured at them, and, propelled by nothing more than the force of his mind, they flew into the air and landed with a crash. My grin vanished, and I froze. Madoran struggled to his feet and grabbed his hammer. Hannathras floated forward and pointed a thin finger at the dwarf, and a burning shadow-beam leapt from it into Madoran’s chest. He cried out and fell to his knees, steam curling upwards from the beam. Hannathras hissed at him.
Madoran cried out again and then yelled, “Not if I can help it!” at the top of his lungs. With a tremendous feat of willpower, he lifted his hammer and hurtled it at the demon wizard. Hannathras brushed it away, but the spell broke.
Madoran struggled back to his feet and turned towards me. “Horse!” he cried, “you’re leading—” and Hannathras floated forward behind him, lifting his arms over his head.
I unfroze. “Madoran!” I yelled, starting forward. “Behind you—”
A searing pain lanced through my head, and a terrible ringing pierced my ears. I fell to my knees, screaming and clutching my head. After a moment, the ringing stopped and I opened my eyes, and Hannathras brought his arms down and swept Madoran aside like a leaf. From the impact, a bright, glowing symbol leapt out at me, and I read it: “Remember,” it said. I remembered: There’s too much at stake for you to get distracted playing hero one person at a time. Madoran hit the stone floor, unconscious. I turned purposefully away.
The passageway was high, made of gray stone. It receded, curving to the left, and I fell to all fours and galloped into it as hard and as fast as I could. The passage continued curving, and another passageway, covered with a hanging curtain of obsidian beads, opened up to the right. I charged past it.
Finally, breathing hard, I stepped into an enormous, round, dark room. Its smell was calming, like old paper. As Rhy had promised, another passageway opened up to the right, covered in another curtain of obsidian beads. The domed ceiling was covered in hanging, black cloth, cascading down from its high center out towards the walls, and around the room’s walls stood ten wide, high bookshelves made of polished dark wood inlaid with patterns and filled with thick, dignified tomes. Atop each bookshelf was a human skull – a real one – with words carved into their foreheads in the old Lordaeron alphabet. Between each bookshelf stood carved stone friezes. At the back of my mind, I thought: It’s no coincidence that this place is named like the Silver Sanctum.
At the room’s center rose a wide stone dais, flanked by two stairways. And at the center of the dais, on a bone pedestal, illuminated by a column of white, sourceless light, stood the black Book of Arthas.
I felt the chill behind me, the cold of the dark demon wizard floating closer, and I sprinted around the dais through the darkened room and up its stairs, and towards the book, leather-bound and ancient, and I reached out for it—
Something barreled into me out of the darkness, knocking me across the dais and back down the stairs. I scrambled to my feet, winded, coming face to face with an enormous, slathering, tattooed black bear. And astride it was—
“Fang!” I gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“You passed,” he said. “Thought you’d like to know.”
“What?” I said, my breath returning, “not yet! Hannathras, the shade-banshee-wizard thing,” I babbled, “the book’s in danger – the book, it’s right there!” I could feel the evil presence drawing closer: he had almost reached the room. “Help me!” I cried.
“I’m sorry, Horse,” Fang said tensely. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
I shook my head, tried to shoulder past, but the murloc gestured and I flew backwards, smote to the ground. I boggled at him as he dismounted from the bear and stepped towards me.
And behind him, the bear began shrinking, pulling its paws into hands and hooves, standing upright, fur receding and skin paling, and I watched in stunned disbelief as it became, at long last—
“M?” I said, eyes wide. “Katy M! You’re alive!” She stared at me, tense and waiting.
The evil cold, the demon wizard, floated into the room, across the darkness, up the stairs in front of me, and entered the black book’s circle of light. I started forward, and it seemed that he threw me the most casual, the most condescending of glances. His thin voice hissed into my head: “Thanksssss,” it said, as he reached forward with thin fingers and grasped the book, lifting it from its pedestal. “Couldn’t have found it without you.”
Oh, no, I thought. “NO!” I yelled, filled with blind rage at the voice, at the bull and the murloc and at myself, and I charged forward.
“Sleep,” whispered Katy M, waving a gently-glowing hand at me. I struggled forward, my legs turning to molasses, falling to my knees as the wizard turned with the book and glided back out the way we’d come. I had failed.
And the cold stone floor rose gently to accept me, and the world faded, and I slept.