It was morning, and I was in bed. I felt groggy, as though I hadn’t used my mind properly in a long time. My belly was stirring, as though I’d had quite enough for dinner last night, thank you very much, but could very much go for a big blood sausage breakfast now.
The air was warm and dry, and smelled like citrus and firewood. Beneath it was another smell: something fainter, more acrid, more unsettling.
There were twin, warm lumps atop the sheets, pressing against me, on either side of my chest. One of the warm lumps was purring.
I opened my eyes, squinting. The ceiling glowed the bright orange of aged, sunlit timber. The light streamed in through translucent curtains, across the room, and I turned my head away from the light, pressing a horn into the soft mattress.
The purring lump stirred and stretched luxuriously, walking up into sight to nuzzle my big nose. He stepped up on my face, reaching my other horn and biting it happily. I sneezed, and he leapt off, offended. I sat up, wondering where I was and why I wasn’t at home.
The other warm lump, lifting its head and blinking sleepily at me, was a tiny, emerald, familiar-looking dragon whelp. He crawled to his tiny feet, shook his wings, and let out a tiny, groggy screech.
“Hi, Screech,” I said, without thinking. I looked at him and tilted my head. “Your name is Screech,” I said. I’d met him… in a field, by a fire. “You belong to M.” Katy M. She had died. But—
The bedroom’s door opened and Katy M walked in, smiling, calmly, gently, but warily. “Hello, Horse,” she said, walking to the foot of the bed. “Welcome back.” Why warily? Did she not trust me?
And her griffin pitched backwards off the edge of the Ironforge Mountains and fell away, into the green abyss: she’d died, and then returned, when I’d least—
I shook my head.
There had been a meeting, ages and ages ago… with a dead man leading it. I shook my head again.
And Storm City had burned—Widget was dead. My landlord!, I thought, choking up. I guess that settles my rent debt.
And there was a cheetah in the North End, and the mansion… and the dead man at the meeting had pointed at me and said, “Go save the world!” and I’d run away north to find a book.
And Rhy… I’d met Rhy, in the northlands, and she—she was dead, too. She’d seen a shadow skull fly by the window and left us in the burning city, and she’d gone north too!, to find her home. Oh, god, she’s a zombie, I thought, she’s undead. But that was okay, wasn’t it? Because she was careful, and because we all have secrets.
And the Dwarf King Madoran had been there too: I’d made him king. That wasn’t right… but I’d helped. I’d fought—and the whole battle of Ironforge came back to me, and the library – the Silver Sanctum, with its silver ceiling and silver stories on the walls, the story of the evil Dread Lord Varimathras, defeated by the Argent Dawn six hundred years ago and trapped in the Frozen Tomb at the top of the world, with only a black book standing between him and freedom. A black book and—
And Rayn was dead, and Sacara’s brother was dead. And Sacara, her smile was dead, and Uther’s Tomb was plagued and Madoran – had Madoran and Rhy, had they died too? And Allyndil and Anduin and Jayksen and the others, their home destroyed, if they were still alive, and the Dark Lady had fallen: all to protect the book, from him—
I’d seen the book. I’d nearly touched it, but the black-eyed evil floating banshee demon-wizard had taken it instead, and then he’d used it, he’d freed the Dread Lord, the Scourge Lord, and all of the terrible things that Rhy had said, would now happen.
And all because of—
“Katy M,” I whispered.
She nodded. “You’ve been asleep for some time,” she said. “What do you remember?”
I closed my eyes, and Varimathras’s tomb shattered in the light of the blue moon, and he flicked me off of a thousand-foot crystal spike with his mind.
“Everything,” I said quietly. My jaw was clenched, and I shook with controlled rage. Katy M was looking sad, sympathetic, compassionate, all the things I didn’t want to see on the face of my tormentor.
“Horse,” she said, “please understand—”
“You lied to me,” I gritted.
M narrowed her eyes. “Point of fact, we didn’t,” she said, bristling. “We tend to choose our words very carefully.”
“You lied!” I cried. “You send me north to protect a book! You lied about the book, about the Argent Dawn, and the frozen tomb, and everything!”
“Throne,” she said. I stared dumbly. “It was never intended to be a tomb.”
“What?” I said dully.
“We never got around to telling you about the book, or the Dawn,” she continued, still bristling, “in part because of your own actions, if you recall.”
I creased my head, irritated. “You mean when I blew up at Fang when he was about to tell me? It also helped that you conveniently died half way through the trip,” I spat. “And leaving me with a dwarf who believed in me! He thought I was there to do the right thing…” I trailed off, choking on sudden guilt.
“Horse,” said M, quietly, sadly, “I didn’t think it would happen that way.”
“Ha,” I grunted. “Who did, then? The Law?”
M blinked slowly, and was silent for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said quietly.
Fang had appeared in the room’s doorway, his pet snake wrapped around his wrist. My stomachs clenched at the sight of him, as a memory’s echo of mental violation returned. “Don’t know what?” he said cheerily.
“Nothing,” muttered M. “We have to leave this place now,” she said to me.
“Then leave,” I gritted.
M sighed. “You have to come with us,” she said patiently. “We’re no longer safe here, and you’re not safe anywhere.”
I grimaced. I’d faced the Scourge Lord and my voice had proclaimed myself his downfall. I was sure he would be after me, with his entire army of the dead behind him. For a moment I accepted the implication, that I would only be safe with the bull and the murloc. Then I remembered whose will had been driving me, whose words had been spoken with my voice. How convenient.
I had to escape, to get away from these two – they were manipulative question marks at best, and apocalyptic maniacs at worst. My curiosity had been sated, finally, beaten to death by bald, unapologetic mind control and by a thousand-foot fall from a crystalline spike. I was tired of their ever more dangerous, ever less sensical games. I wanted out.
I thought fast. I could feel the blanket against the bristles on my legs: I wasn’t wearing any pants. I looked down. No shirt, either. “I need to get dressed,” I said sullenly.
M, with Screech perched atop her shoulder, cleared out respectfully. Fang eyed me suspiciously, or knowingly, but he followed her.
I stood. My clothes were at the foot of the bed, washed and folded neatly. I shook them out and hurriedly pulled them on. Ajax peeked out from under the bed, and I scooped him up. He clambered up onto my shoulder, seeming to sense the urgency. My pack was at the foot of the bed: I hefted it onto the bed, crated Ajax, and hefted the thing onto my back.
The window curtains were thin and white, and sunlight filtered through them. I pulled them aside, and squinted. The sun was off the horizon but not high in the sky, and it blinded me as I hauled with all my strength at the bottom pane. My captors had locked it. I cursed.
As my eyes adjusted to the bright light and the scene beyond my prison swam into view, I gasped. Beyond the window – I was on the second floor – stood the blackened and twisted remains of buildings, of homes, burned to the ground. Acrid smoke trickled into the sky from distant ruins. They reminded me starkly of Storm City as it burned, but, more concretely, more forebodingly, and just at the edge of my consciousness, they reminded me of something else as well.
Setting my jaw in firm determination, I turned back to the room, scanning it, looking for something with which to escape. My eyes rested on the bed-side table, a sturdy-looking wooden stand. I hefted it, and it felt solid. I turned, aiming the legs forward like a four-pronged battering ram, braced the table against my shoulder, and charged at the window. With a crash it exploded outward, glass falling away.
“Horse!” bellowed M’s commanding voice from the next room, and I fell to all fours. I inhaled as deeply as I could, swelled my body, lowered my head and charged towards the light as a heavy, thick-skinned bear. “Horse!” cried M again, throwing the door open behind me. I crashed through the window’s wooden frame, bellowing in pain and freedom as I sailed out of the window and away from the house.
I landed heavily on scorched grass. My foot-pads stung and my legs buckled, and I tasted ash for a moment. As I struggled to regain my footing, I felt the ground begin to buckle and writhe beneath me. Thin, smooth roots emerged and wrapped around my paws and legs, and then thicker ones burst forth and wrapped around my body. I squeezed my bear-eyes shut and bellowed, and my body shrank, my ears stood upright and my bear teeth elongated into enormous, protruding fangs. My bellow turned into a growling hiss. I extended my claws, flexed my spine and wiggled out of the entangling roots as a cat. I concentrating again, allowing my body to slide into the shape of a horse, and I galloped off.
“Horse!” bellowed M after me. “It’s not safe!”
“He’ll be fine!” shouted Fang, laughing. “He’s following his own will for once!”
Fang’s parting jab stung for a moment, but it was quickly replaced with more urgent thoughts. The blackened ruins around me were coming into focus, and I suddenly thought I knew what they had reminded me of—
And I looked up, and ahead of me loomed a too-familiar cliff wall, broken by a great gash of a canyon, carved out of sandstone by ancient winds and rains. It was the north wall of the slum canyon, and the blackened twisted scenery through which I galloped was the charred remains of Rocktusk. I was in Orcmar, the old capital of the orcs, founded by Thrall the Fair on a foundation of shadow. I tossed my long equine neck about, glancing over my shoulder: behind me rose the great, eternal gate to Old Orcmar. The Drag, and the evil Cleft from which the Shadow Council – the creation of the Whelp, Orcmar’s ruling agent of the Law – had ruled. Its rule had kept Orcmar’s warring factions barely in line, and its evaporation had surely cast the city into inevitable, irrevocable chaos. The abandoned ruins of the Rocktusk District bore it grim testament.
At the base of the cliff, I cantered to a stop. I was running from the bull and the murloc, but ahead of me, within the canyons, were the slums, and I had made enemies there in my brief stay six years prior. Whether they lived or not, I had no interest in discovering. I turned west, away from the sun, towards the great river which formed Orcmar’s western border, and galloped along the cliff.
* * *
It was nearly noon when I reached the river. The crisp – though not yet cold – Orcmar air bit into my long, dry equine throat. The cliff had leveled out half a mile back. I crossed the dirt road which ran along the river and approached its shore. It was low and muddy this time of year – the water which would feed it in spring was now locked in snow atop Kali’s dark, impenetrable mountains to the north. I gazed towards them, past Orcmar’s foothills to where they stood, a smudge on the horizon.
I bent down to the water, sipping at the surface, trying to get a mouthful, but it was too silty. I pawed plaintively at the river’s edge, but the river gods did not hear me, and no deluge of fresh water cascaded downstream to slake my thirst.
I looked over my shoulder, back at what had once been a bustling metropolis. Since leaving the murloc and the bull, I hadn’t seen a living being. I had passed several unidentified corpses, days or weeks old, and I had heard a few noises which might or might not have been made by civilized or once-civilized things. Rocktusk had been almost entirely destroyed: only a few houses, like the one I’d woken up in, remained intact. I wondered where the people, the thousands of middle-class Rocktusk residents, had disappeared to. Into the slum canyons, maybe, but as I looked, I saw trickles of black smoke rising from them as well.
I suddenly noticed something that I’d missed before: hanging in the sky to the north and east was the smallest fingernail sliver of white. It looked like the moon, I thought, but most of it had disappeared. I stared, my mind casting about for an explanation. I had witnessed the moon cease its ceaseless journey across the sky, battered into submission by a barrage of demon-fire. Now it seemed to have lost most of itself. I wondered if Hannathras’s fireballs had shattered the moon entirely, if it had been slowly breaking up while I slept. The remnant’s edge wasn’t jagged, though: it was soft, like the edge of a distant shadow.
I shook my head and turned, galloping south along the river.
I had no particular destination: only, away. I was south and east of where I had begun, and that seemed to be as good a direction as any. A better direction, I thought suddenly, though I couldn’t think of why.
I passed slowly out of the desolate, ruined city. Here and there, I spotted evidence of life: recently-worn footpaths, occasional fire-rings.
The sun sank over the river to the west, turning the tall brown grasses orange and lending a dull glow to the already-orange rocks to the east. The sun sank below the horizon, and in the gathering dusk, I saw something on the ground: my own shadow. I turned, to the north and east, where the slivered remnant of the moon had hung at midday, and I gasped. It hung there still, but it had waxed: fully half of the great white moon I had known all my life hung against the darkening blue sky. I shook my head in wonder.
Then a moment later my eyes caught a blue glow from the eastern horizon, and the blue moon, which I had seen only once before from the top of the world, peeked over the horizon. What are you? I thought at it. What do you mean? I didn’t like to believe in omens, but moons were not born from moons every day, and the light from this moon had somehow served to shatter the bonds of –
I shook my head. The blue moon stared across the rocky wastes at me, answering none of my questions. I felt suddenly lonely.
Across the river and far out across the night-fallen grasslands, campfires began to spring up. I gazed across at them, flickering cheerfully in the darkness, and I longed to be sitting around them, roasting boar meat and chatting amicably with whoever. I stared down at the river, wishing myself a boat, but none appeared, and the settling night chill discouraged me from setting hoof in the river’s muddy water. I cantered on.
My hooves clattered suddenly on cobblestone: I had come to a road. There’s only one paved road in these lands, I thought: the one west to the Crossroads. I’d passed this way once, years ago, on my first journey to Orcmar, but I remembered it clearly: there was a bridge here, over the river, which had stuck in my memory. It had been ancient but solid, arched and covered in painted canvas.
I turned towards the river. The shadow of a structure stood, dark in the waxing moonlight. I moved towards it.
The bridge was still there, but it was shattered and charred. Blackened remnants of its proud awnings flapped listlessly in the night breeze. I stared up at it, despairing of reaching the campfires while they still burned.
“Oh, there’s meat,” hissed a voice in the darkness. “You think we can catch it?” I whipped around, but there was no one.
“Not if it knows you’re here, numbtusks,” hissed another. My heart began pounding.
“Let’s flank it,” said a third, and then there was rustling.
I turned to run, and suddenly a tall, blue troll with massive tusks and sunken, hungry eyes stood before me. He wore rags and held a long, sharpened stick like a spear, and was waving it towards me. I reared up, threatening him with my sharp hooves, and whinnied.
An expertly-thrown noose landed about my neck and tightened. My head jerked back, and I caught a glimpse of what was holding the other end of the noose: it was a bull, as big as me and with a fully-formed hump. He wore rags like the troll, and shared the other’s lean and hungry look.
Struggling to breathe, I forced my body quickly into the shape of a bear. My captors shouted in surprise, and the force on the end of my leash slackened. I pulled it out of the startled hands of the bull, and charged him. I bowled him over before he could move, and turned to face the troll.
A third creature, another bull, had appeared behind him, wielding another sharpened spear. He hurtled it at me and it struck my shoulder, burying itself painfully into my flesh. With a growl, I pulled myself back into my natural shape. With less flesh to be buried in, the spear clattered to the hard ground. “I’m not a beast,” I yelled, pulling the rope noose off with my good arm and throwing it away. “You can’t eat me!”
“Sure we can,” snarled the troll, and he licked his lips. A shiver of disgust and sudden fear went down my spine.
“Whatever you are,” growled the bull behind me, on his feet again, “you should know not to be out at night. Night-time is our time.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, trying to back away, but I was surrounded.
“Not the brightest bull,” said one of the others, the one whose spear had wounded me. The troll jabbed at me with his, and I swatted away at it, but the bull who had noosed me had picked his rope back up, and he slipped it over my head again. This time he held on, and in a moment, he had pulled me to the ground. The troll stood over me and hefted his spear—
There was a loud crack, like a melon splitting open, and without a word the troll collapsed. The bulls turned to face some new threat, and I hauled myself to my feet. There were six of them, running up from the river, hurtling pebbles with slings. My captors turned and ran off into the darkness.
“You okay?” said the first of my saviors, a short, scruffy little man.
“Yeah,” I said, then, “they got my shoulder.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t get the rest of you,” growled the second, another troll. “Come on.”
They turned back towards the river, and I followed hesitantly. There were two other men, an orc and another troll. We approached the river, and bobbing in the muddy shallows was a wide wooden raft, empty but for a coil of rope attached to it at one end. “Hop on,” said the short scruffy man, and he joined me. One of the other men, a taller, less scruffy one, stepped on as well, and we pushed off. “Have fun,” called the taller man to his friends on the shore, and the orc, the man, the two trolls waved as we moved into the lazily-flowing river.
We bumped against the far bank – a steeper, less muddy one, beneath the ruins of the old bridge. The taller man hopped up easily, and the shorter man threw the free end of the coiled rope ashore with a grunted “Here comes.” The other caught it and wrapped it around the charred structure. I clambered up onto the bank.
“Thanks for the rescue,” I said.
“C’mon,” said the taller man, and they turned away from the river, hiking up the road and away from the river.
“You one of us already?” said the shorter man.
“No,” I said hesitantly, “I don’t think so.”
“That explains what you were doing out at night,” he replied. “You shouldn’t be out at night, it’s dangerous.”
“I guess so,” I said. “Thanks again.”
The men glanced uncomfortably at each other, and I felt suddenly that I was thanking them for something which only the cruelest or uncaring people would fail to give.
“It’s not them that you’ve got to be scared of, mostly,” said the shorter man. “Spineless thugs and drifters. The real danger is the marauders – bands of folk, well-armed like, but hardly folk any more.”
“Aye,” said the taller man. “They get hungry, same as us, but instead of workin’ together for their food, they take it by force from them that’s already done the work. Given up on civilization.”
“Though you can’t blame them for that,” muttered the shorter man.
“You can blame ‘em for the marauding, though,” growled the taller man, and the shorter one assented.
“Given up on civilization,” I said quietly, and then, “What happened to Orcmar?”
The men looked sharply at me. “Where are you from?” said the shorter one.
I paused, suddenly aware that I had given away my suspicious ignorance. “East of here,” I said vaguely. “Traveling west.”
“And you don’t know what happened to Orcmar? Where do you live that you don’t know when a new moon appears and cities burn?”
I glanced at him. Surely Orcmar had burned weeks before the blue moon was born?
The campfires in the night grew closer, dozens of them, then hundreds, then thousands, and tents stood thickly about them.
“Who’s there?” growled a deep voice from the darkness as we approached the nearest tents.
“Friends,” called the taller man back. The source of the growl approached – a bipedal bear-looking creature. “We found a drifter about to get eaten by some thugs,” continued the man. “We’re bringing him in. You think Statton is still awake?”
“I’m sure he is,” growled the bear. Up close I recognized his race: he was a furbolg – a primitive, shamanistic race that lived in Kali’s dark, impassable northern mountains. Few of them ever emerged, but those that did often made names for themselves as expert craftsmen or businessmen.
The furbolg turned and went back to his guard duty. The two men motioned me to follow with their heads, and headed into the forest of tents.
“It’s not much,” said the shorter man. “It’s what we have left.”
“It’s what we have built,” said the other firmly. “It’s our home, now. Welcome, stranger” he said, glancing up at me and smiling ruefully, his arms spread wide, “to New Rocktusk.”