“For what?” I cried, backing away from the girl. Questions whirled in my mind, and my side ached where she had stabbed me.
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “They didn’t tell us that.”
“Us?” I demanded.
“Of course,” she said, sitting up and rubbing her arm where I’d twisted it. “It’s not just me, they only sent me because I knew you, could identify you.”
I ground my teeth in fury at her betrayal. “You just believed them that I had to die, and they didn’t even tell you for what?”
“Of course!” she said. She looked up at me for a moment, and then relaxed, as though deciding that I wasn’t going to kill her after all. As the thought crossed my mind, so did the possibility that I could. “They’re going to tell me the third Question for it. Besides, the Abbots are powerful,” she added respectfully. They’d bribed her with access to another layer of the absurd Chaos Line. I know zombies that are less mindless than you, I thought caustically, and I wondered what the world would lose if this girl died here, cold and alone. I glanced down at the bloody dagger in my hand.
I sighed. “How did you find me here?” I said.
“I dunno,” she replied, looking off into the grassland. “They tracked you to Orcmar somehow, and we spread out to find you since then.” She looked back up at me, her eyes wide with wonder. “You turned into a bear! What was that about?”
“It’s what I do when people hit me over the head,” I growled. The Scarlet Resurrection was the last group of people I wanted to know I could shift shapes. I hefted the girl’s dagger, looking at her, and a shiver of fear flickered back across her face. But I relented: I didn’t have cold-blooded murder in me after all. I sighed.
“So the Scarlet Resurrection survived the burning of Storm City,” I said.
Penelope laughed. “We did a lot of the burning,” she said. “We control the City now.”
“All of it?” I said incredulously.
“You bet,” she replied proudly. So Tidus had been right.
“What about…” What about Goldshire, and the Panda Pub, and the North End – but I was sure I didn’t want to hear the answers. “What about the goblins?” I said.
“They’re working with us now,” she replied. “Making stuff like always. There’s all kind of new construction going on, new tall metal buildings. It’s amazing what’s happening to the city – they’ve torn down the Cathedral, they’re building a bigger one!”
“Seriously?” I said. “As if they needed it. Who’s doing all that work?”
“The people!” she said. “Everyone in Storm City works for us now. They have to, don’t they? No one else to work for.”
“Huh,” I grunted. So Storm City was a Scarlet playground now, and the Resurrection’s shadow was cast as far away as middle Kali. And, for some undisclosed reason, they wanted me dead. And Penelope, sitting disarmed in front of me, knew nothing at all. I sighed again, wishing that fate had sent me a more informed assassin.
Penelope glanced behind me, and on instinct I whirled around. A black-clad, red-banded man stood there. “You must be Horse,” he said simply. Then, faster than a fly, he slipped his dagger into me.
I inhaled sharply at the pain and collapsed to my knees.
A familiar-sounding whirring and a bellow of rage sounded from the tall grasses off to the right, and a bolt of green energy slammed into my attacker. He bowled over sideways, then scrambled to his feet and ran in terror. Penelope cried out as well, and as I collapsed to the ground and slipped into darkness, a shadow passed over me, after them, and away.
* * *
Familiar, quiet voices floated around me, like a dream.
“I told you he wasn’t ready to be on his own yet,” growled one.
“Oh c’mon,” hissed the second, “he’s got to make his own mistakes. And we’re still protecting him from whatever crazy people want to kill him – the Scarlets, even! I can’t believe their reach is already this long. Anyway, it’s not like the Law will want to be saving him yet.”
“But this is taking too long,” growled the first. “We would have been… there…” and the growling voice sighed. “We would have been farther along by now if he’d stayed with us. There’s a deadline, and a world at stake, remember?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” hissed the second voice. “I haven’t forgotten at all.”
There was silence. I was cold.
“Shh,” hissed the second, “he’s waking up. Let’s go.”
I opened my eyes and sat up. I was twenty feet from the road, lying in tall, brown grass. The horizon was empty.
I felt my chest, where the second assassin had stabbed me. There was a hole in my shirt, but beneath it, my skin was unbroken. My shoulder felt better as well. I was whole, and healed, and alone.
My head swam, but the wind had picked up, and it bit through my travel jerkin and quickly focused my mind. I shivered and got to my feet.
I looked down. A tight circle of heavily-trampled grass surrounded where I’d fallen, as though whoever had saved me had kept vigil until I’d awoken.
It had been the bull and the murloc, I thought certainly. The memory of their voices swimming about me as I slowly regained consciousness floated up like a dim dream, but the voices had been unmistakable. I ran away, I thought bitterly, but I can’t get away from them. I swore out loud.
Katy M’s prediction that I wouldn’t be safe anywhere came to mind. I had been expecting the Scourge Lord’s minions to come after me, though, not my old Storm City employers. What had I done to them that they wanted me dead? Surely mere deserters weren’t tracked down across the span of the known world. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and shook my head.
A trail of trampled grass, where my assassins had run off, led uphill to the west. Dully hoping for answers, I followed it.
I crested the shallow ridge. The path of trampled grass continued, albeit dimly, ahead of me, out onto Kali’s wide, barren brown grasslands. A few scraggly trees dotted the wide plains. To the south rose a line of thorn-infested hills, and to the north a few lonely buttes rose against the gray sky. I hadn’t seen this dull view, this land, in years. My flight from my homeland to Orcmar had been long and labored – I had spent months at a time wandering the barrens, and the cold, hungry, lonely nights I’d spent under the stars were a burden on my memory. I’d almost retuned home many times, but my pride, and my mentor Hokato’s parting words, had kept me wandering.
As I stepped out across the plain, my mind wandered to my cat, safely asleep in his carrier and tucked away in my pack. At least this time I wouldn’t be completely alone.
The trail dimmed and veered north, onto the cobblestone road, where it disappeared entirely. I swore again. I stood in the road for a moment, looking back over my shoulder and forward to where it turned and disappeared into the grass and the distance. Something was pulling me forward, west, and without a destination, I set hoof in front of hoof and hiked on.
Beginning with Varimathras and the Resurrection, the names of groups whose enmity I had earned began ticking themselves off in my head. The Black Dragons of Orcmar, for running away from my debts. Thrall’s Revenge, my old gang of misguided orcs. That group had last seen me leaving their hall with their leader and a sack of coins, and I could only imagine what they’d thought when they’d come across his body, coinless, at the top of the slum canyon cliffs. I could only imagine, because I hadn’t stuck around to find out.
The Forsaken, I thought. The Argent Dawn. I’d failed them, catastrophically. I wondered if they knew, though: Rhy’s city of the dead had been silent and defeated when I’d turned and run for the black book. I wondered idly what they had found when they awoke.
So many groups with reason to hate me, I thought miserably, and all I’d tried to do was live my life.
* * *
I hiked on, for hours. The chilled north wind came in gusts, and idle snowflakes continued to drift down from the dreary sky. It began to darken as I walked. I was hungry and weary, but I was hoping against dim, irrational hope to find a roof with a warm bed to spend the night.
But night fell slowly about me with no sign of civilization. The small farms which dotted the grasslands had either been destroyed by the marauders – terrifying in legend, though I had yet to see them myself – or were hiding their lights for fear of the same. The north wind picked up, whistling lonesomely across the plain. It drove the clouds ahead of it, and soon a few bright stars shown overhead and moonlight from the waxing moon streamed from behind me. I marched on, stoically.
Finally, on the horizon to the west and south, flickered faint firelight, appearing and disappearing as I walked. I veered recklessly off the road onto the night-fallen savannah, and marched towards it.
It was a house in the last stages of burning to the ground. It had been surrounded by other houses, but they too had been reduced to rubble and ash. They were the outskirts of Crossroads, a bustling trade town at the northern end of the north-south Kali Turnpike. The Turnpike was a toll road, blocked periodically by thick pikes which would be turned aside only after you paid your toll. All the traffic between the southern half of Kali and Orcmar, to the east, had passed through this town, which had been home to as many different sorts of folk as New Rocktusk was. Crossroads, though, seemed to bustle no longer. Amid the drifting embers, I despaired suddenly of finding a pillow for the night.
A sharp sound came from a building behind me and I jumped, but it was a fit of coughing. I crept towards it, and lying under a collapsed beam within the ruined walls of the gutted house, curled up like a wounded animal, lay a man, a human: wild-haired and unshaven, an animal skin wrapped around his shoulders over his tattered cloth shirt and trousers. He hastily stifled his coughing when he saw me, and he pushed himself backwards, putting the collapsed beam between him and myself. Glancing around at the fire-lit darkness, I stepped forward into the confines of the charred walls.
“Hi,” I said.
The wounded man looked out from behind the beam. He looked at me for a moment, and his eyes darted about fearfully, but he was alive and aware. Then the fear in his eyes eased, and for the second time in a day I felt that I’d been judged unthreatening.
“Hullo,” replied the man.
“Are you hurt?” I said.
“Can ye fix me if oy am?” said the man, his accent that of Ratchet, the goblin-run city to the south. This man was far from home.
I paused, wishing again for Allyndil’s healing power of song. “No,” I said regretfully.
“Then it doesn’t much metter if oy am or not,” said the man. “Oy kin walk with help, if ye’ll give it.”
“Sure,” I said, glad to be able to offer the wounded man something, and I stepped forward with my hand outstretched. “Walk to where, though?”
“Crossroads,” replied the man, accepting my hand and hauling himself up on his one good leg. “Its town square survived – it’s well-protected,” he continued, “and they have food there.”
I had passed through Crossroads on my laborious journey to Orcmar, stopping off for a few months of manual labor, and I remembered the town’s central square well: a wide plaza atop a shallow plateau, a cluster of sturdy buildings surrounded by a high wall of canvas, erected to protect the square from the harsh winter winds. It would be two or three hundred yards of burned and demolished buildings ahead of us. If it was still there and still welcoming of strangers, there might be food and beds available for us. “That’s great,” I said, cheerful again.
The man leaned on me like a crutch, hobbling along and dragging his broken leg. We set out, making slow progress along paths between charred houses. “Do you live near here?” I said by way of conversation. “I would have placed you south of here by your accent.”
“Ye’d’ve been right,” said the man. “Oy lived in Ratchet until it fell to pieces two months ago.”
“That sounds familiar,” I said.
“Yeh, seems everything a-been fallin’ apart in the late two months,” sighed the man. “The Big Boss disappeared and his spokesgoblin went with him, and all the goblins in town packed up on boats and went away, saying something about a big merger. Stop me when you get bored,” he added.
A goblin cartel owned and ran Ratchet as a minor shipping hub, I knew – and with what must have been the Law and its agent (one I hadn’t met yet, a goblin) out of the way, they must have sensed that the opportunities for profit would dwindle in the chaos. Maybe they merged with the Storm City cartel, I thought. I shook my head for him to go on.
“So when Ratchet fell apart,” continued the man huskily, “a group of us decided to set out fer the north. There was near a hundred-count of us. As we progressed, though, we discovered that the north was has devastated as Ratchet was, and there was no promised land for us to settle down in, start new lives as quiet as the ones we’d lost.
“We were attacked, as well – turns out we weren’t the only people who’d left cities and towns and banded together. It’s somethin’ else how quickly a few battles’ll turn your men into bloodthirsty warriors. Some of your women, too,” he added respectfully. “Oy lost good friends to those battles, and some loved ones, though,” and he paused for a staid moment, “let’s not speak of it. It hardens yer heart, so it do. Hardens it so’s you’ll do things you never would’ve, when there was family to mind,” he said quietly. I glanced uneasily down at him.
“So when we saw Crossroads on the horizon yesterday noon,” he continued, “we thought that our long struggle might-a be over. Most of the town was abandoned – like as not, most of them that lived there are dead or wanderers now – but the town square was bustling with people. We ransacked the abandoned houses, findin’ what food and supplies we could, but there wasn’t much, so we agreed to carefully approach the town square and ask nicely if they would trade hard work for good food. They’d seen us coming, though, and before we could get close enough to talk, two of our leaders fell to their arrows and spears. One of the spears struck my leg,” and he nodded down to it. “It wasn’t very sharp, but it was heavy and well-thrown. Shattered the bone.
“So we fell back and rallied, then attacked. We was desperate and hungry, you understand. And they beat us back. Killed a fair count of us, and the rest ran off. Left me for dead, like as not, and oy’ve no way to find them. It’s my sincere hope,” and he glanced up at me, “that Crossroads will be more welcoming to two strangers than to a marauding band of starvin’ wanderers.”
“Me too,” I said faintly.
As the man had described his journey, from a family in Ratchet to where I’d found him, alone with a broken leg in a burned-out town that wanted nothing to do with him, an uneasy feeling had crept over me. The tent city of New Rocktusk had been full of defenseless families who lived in fear of the armies of rampaging marauders – desperate, wild-eyed and uncivilized mobs with nothing left to lose. The stories, the troubled looks which had passed over the eyes of those that spoke of them, had left me fearing them almost as much as if I’d met them. But this man, this marauder – he’d used the very word!…
“You’re a marauder,” I muttered out loud, without quite meaning to, then added, “There are people that go to sleep terrified that people like you will come in the night and kill them all.”
“People like me!” laughed the man. “They’re all people like me,” he said sadly. “They’re not afraid of people like me, they’re afraid of death in this cold shell of a world – same as me, an’ same as you, if you’ve got sense. You’re lookin’ for the villains and the victims, the good folk an’ the bad. Oy’ve traveling the length of this godforsaken land for the better part of two months. There’s no good folk left any more, only those lucky enough to not need to steal for food. Take their walls and their family and their food away and see what they do.”
For a moment, my mind rejected this utterly, but as I tried to reconcile the idea of the innocent victims of New Rocktusk with the irreconcilable idea that this man, this marauder, wasn’t evil – not by any definition of the word I’d ever felt comfortable using – I suddenly couldn’t see it any other way. Stymied, I cursed the Law and the bull and the murloc, and all the misery that they had wreaked on these people.
“Strange days,” said the man.
“No kidding,” I said.
“My name’s John Caleb,” he added, nodding up at me.
“I’m Horse,” I replied quietly.
“Funny name for a bull,” mused John Caleb.
* * *
A flickering light appeared ahead of us in the darkness. It was a floating torch, which a moment later resolved itself into a guard, a thick-necked orc pacing along the outside of the square’s high canvas wall and inside a ring of thick, spiked logs set in the ground and pointing outwards. John halted us with a hiss, and we watched from the darkness as the orc guard paced off and out of sight. “Now,” hissed John.
We squeezed between a pair of spikes – I wouldn’t want to fight a battle around these, I thought – and slipped through an opening in the high canvas wall. Within stood four or five blocks square of solid, sturdy buildings, unbowed by the collapsing world beyond. A few people hastened hither and thither in the night, along narrow, cobbled alleys and wider cobbled streets, hunched against the night chill. They were studded with dead streetlamps and, periodically, live, sputtering torches. Guards paced, and we held to the shadows.
At the center of the tight compound was an open square, with a dead fountain in the middle and the dignified face of the town’s inn standing over it. It was a stylized wooden structure two stories tall. Its door and windows were adorned with finely inlaid wood and iron – testament to the town’s former prosperity. A big, hand-painted sign hung on a sheet out of the second-story windows: “NO FOOD,” it read, in Common. “Tha’s not a good sign,” muttered John.
In the square, flanking the stagnant fountain, stood a white tent, and in front of it, on tight rows of pads and blankets, lay fifteen or twenty wounded men. They were bandaged and healing, and even the few that had lost limbs seemed to have stopped bleeding from it. There was a healer about, and I smiled, feeling suddenly hopeful.
Out of the tent erupted sudden, muffled screaming, and I jumped. John paled, but his face hardened. “That might be me in a few minutes,” he said bravely. “If all goes well.” He glanced nervously about, and I remembered that he was on enemy territory. I held my breath.
The screaming stopped. After another moment, another human, tall and broad with black hair nearly as scruffy as John’s, stepped out of the tent. In his hand he held a bloody knife, its blade almost a foot long. He wiped it on his shirt, stepping over the men on the ground and approaching us.
“He’s lucky it wasn’t his main arm,” rumbled the man casually. “Those are the worst, watching pitiful one-armed folk learning to eat and dress themselves all over again. Who are you?”
“My name’s John,” said John, and his accent had become softer, less obviously foreign. “My leg’s broken.”
“You’re in the right place then,” said the other man. Then, “I don’t recognize you. You’re not from Crossroads, are you?”
“I’m not,” said the man, glancing up at me. “I’m from south a ways, and I came looking for work and safety. There seems to be precious little of it around these days.” He forced a laugh.
The big man with the big knife knelt in front of John and began inspecting his leg. “How’d you break it?” said the man.
“Took a nasty fall through the floor of one of the buildings out there,” replied John, “lookin’ about for food.”
“Hm,” said the man to himself, peering closely at it, then he nodded and stood back up. “Looks to me like more of a spear wound,” he rumbled.
John made to speak, but his words were cut off with a sharp hiss of pain – and I looked down, and the knife was protruding out of John’s chest. His face was rapidly draining of color. “No!” I yelled, and John collapsed against me.
“Might’ve thrown it myself,” rumbled the man. He pulled the knife out of John’s chest, and blood spurted out onto the man’s already-bloody shirt. “And I know a fake accent when I hear it.”
John’s voice whispered something, but it was too low to hear. His body went limp against mine and I eased it gently to the ground. He was dead.
“Are you one of them too?” rumbled the big man caustically. “Or just fooled by this one?”
I looked up at him, with my jaw clenched in rage, and shook my head. Only his foot-long dagger prevented me from grabbing him by the neck and squeezing.
The man smiled a humorless smile at the look on my face. “I just cut a man’s arm off because of this one and his barbaric kind,” he rumbled. “I knew men weren’t so lucky to just lose a limb. There are good folks that need the bed and the food this murderer would’ve taken up. My hands are clean.”
A red-headed, red-bearded dwarf stepped out of the tent, his skin wrinkled and nut-brown, although his eyes were young. He paused at the sight of us, looking from man with the knife to the dead man on the ground to the look of helpless fury on my face. His expression hardened to stone, and he moved quickly past us, muttering what might have been a prayer.
The man with the knife moved on without another word, and I numbly hefted John’s body into my arms. I wandered about the small enclave, drawing few curious glances: death was unremarkable, I thought.
As I headed towards the edge of town, my nose caught the sharp whiff of burning flesh on the breeze, and I followed it to a pyre, just outside the canvas walls in the night. It was surrounded by a small crowd of disparate mourners, and I heaved John’s body onto it without bothering to ask permission – he had been a friend, for all of an hour, and I’d be damned if these people wouldn’t let me give him a proper rite. I knelt for a moment as the flames lapped at him, and I muttered in Taurahe, a funeral incantation that came back to me now – from my father’s funeral pyre, I remembered. (And before the thought could overwhelm me, I forced myself back to the present.)
When I had finished my incanting and the flames had begun to turn him back into ashes, I stood, and wandered back into the remnant shell of Crossroads.
Hungry and desperately tired, I walked up to the town inn, under the “NO FOOD” sign, and through its door.
The sounds and smells of people in the orange light of a crackling fireplace overwhelmed me for a moment. The room into which I had stepped was filled with folk, sitting at tables and chatting noisily: orcs, trolls, a couple of cows and bulls, and a few humans. The bartender, a burly human was doing a rollicking business. A doorway at the back of the room stood open, and a narrow, wooden stairway ascended. And, in the opposite corner, sat the orange-bearded dwarf who had emerged from the healing tent earlier. He sat alone at a table, busily quaffing a pint of ale, a look of distant contemplation on his face.
At the front of the room, before me, stood a low, wooden desk, with a thick, yellowed guestbook and a stumpy, flickering candle. Behind it sat an old orc woman. She peered imperiously at me from behind a pair of rimmed spectacles. I stepped up.
“Room?” croaked the old woman.
“Yes, please,” I replied.
She peered down at the book in front of her. “How long?”
“Just the night,” I said.
“Comfortable, or just barely?” she croaked.
I put my hand in my pocket and felt my coin-purse, the one that Jonathan Trent had given me months ago for going to meet the Tooth of Storm City. It was slack, not quite empty: my eighty silver had nearly run out. I pulled my hand back out. “Just barely,” I said regretfully.
The old orc woman glanced up at me. The room had fallen suddenly quiet. She paused for a beat, and then, “Attack gnome, or no?” she croaked.
“What?” I said dully.
There came a terrific, high-pitched battle-yell from behind me, and I felt something land on my back. I whirled around uselessly, trying to reach it as it clambered about on my backpack. The room erupted in drunken laughter, and the old orc woman smirked.
I yanked the mace off my belt and began whacking at my back with it. I felt a tiny hand plunge into my pocket and pull back out, and then the weight dropped to the ground. I snorted in rage and whirled about – and a pert young gnome stood, with spiky blonde hair and a brown eye-patch, a cherubic smile pasted on her peachy face and a familiar small brown bag clutched in her tiny fist. “Got your purse!” squeaked the gnome, and then, to the laughter and applause of the room at large, she turned and dove under a table and out of sight.