The stairway at the back of the bar room was old, oaken and dark: a couple of dead electric lights lined the walls as I made my way up. The upstairs hallway was long and dark as well; a single stubby wilted candle sat burning on a table at the far end, beneath a mirror and another pair of dead lights. I walked towards it. My reflection bobbed and warped, horribly distorted but growing less so as I neared it.
I stared at myself. My beard was unbraided, and a tiny bit longer than it had been when I’d last had a mirror to look in. There was a smudge of ash on my right horn, and I licked my thumb and wiped it off. I looked surprisingly together, all things considered. Certainly more together than I felt.
I turned and put my hand on the knob of the door whose number (8) matched that on my key. I moved to put the key in the lock, but the door eased open on its hinges.
The room was small. I glanced about it suspiciously. There was a small closet behind a small door in the corner, and a bed which would be too short for me. There was an unlit candle and a pack of matches on a small table next to it. I fumbled with the matches for a moment before striking one and lighting the candle.
I poked my head suspiciously into the closet. It was empty, but for a few wooden hangers.
I walked to the window and looked out. The canvas windbreak stood a few blocks off, a darker smudge against the darkness. A flickering torch caught my eye as its bearer passed on his beat. Nearer were tightly-packed, sturdy-looking buildings.
The cold night air bit into my nose, but it cleared my head of the stuffy air from the bar below. I inhaled deeply, and felt refreshed.
I left the window open and sat down on the bed, setting my pack down between my hooves. I pulled it open, removing the white cat carrier and setting it next to me. I peered inside, and Ajax blinked his golden eyes sleepily at me. He stretched luxuriously and strolled out onto the bed.
“Hey buddy,” I said. He glanced around the room, then stepped gingerly up onto my lap. He sat down and looked expectantly up at me, and I scritched him behind the ears. He purred. “You’re not hiding anything, right kiddo?” I said. “You’re not plotting against me or making sweeping plans for my life without asking, right? You’re just a cat.” I smiled at him, and my desperate fatigue eased into a more comfortable sleepiness. Ajax purred louder.
How had my life so fallen apart that the only constant friend, the only one without secrets and agendas, the only one that I was even sure was a friend, was sitting on my lap and purring? I sighed heavily. I wondered idly where Tidus was, whether he had made it back to Orcmar, and where he had been when it burned. Through no fault of mine!, I thought faintly. Then I sighed and shook my head.
I had stopped petting Ajax, and he meowed, staring up at me. “Sorry,” I said, and recommenced scritching. “You don’t mind,” I said – you don’t mind anything, so long as I’m scratching you behind your ears. I sighed again. This is too big for me, I thought. Right or wrong, it’s too big.
“Hi!” said a gnome.
“Gah!” I exclaimed. Ajax leapt off my lap, looking scandalized.
The gnome, black-haired, black-bearded and black-mustached, was standing by the door to the closet. I checked that closet! I thought petulantly. The gnome’s thumbs were hooked through a pair of black suspenders, and he was grinning widely.
“Who are you?” I cried. “What are you doing here?”
“Translating for him,” replied the gnome, pointing over my shoulder.
I turned. Sitting on the windowsill, framed in the open window, was a familiar-looking tiny red dragon. It screeched in what I assumed was a greeting, then flapped rambunctiously past me and landed atop the open closet door.
“I know you!” I exclaimed. I looked back at the gnome. “Is that the Whelp? From Orcmar. I know you too!” I added. “You’re his gnome! I met you once, you used to be famous!” He beamed, and snapped his suspenders.
The whelp screeched. I glanced at him.
“He says Matt the Gnome will always be famous, and don’t you forget it,” said the gnome.
“Sorry,” I said. “Does he have a name?” Orcmar had always simply referred to him as The Whelp.
The Whelp screeched shortly.
I stared at the gnome, who stared blankly back at me.
“That’s his name?” I said.
“Yup,” said the gnome. He screeched in imitation.
“Eynyx?” I repeated.
The whelp bobbed his head and screeched. “Close enough,” laughed the gnome.
The whelp screeched again.
“Eynyx,” screeched the gnome, “would like to know whether you are a fan of continuing to be alive, or whether you would prefer a sudden and painful death.”
“You’re on the run from some fairly dangerous enemies,” continued the gnome, translating as the whelp spoke, “and you’re only not on the run from other, far more dangerous ones because they haven’t tracked you down yet. I’m certain you’re aware of your danger, and the need for circumspection, and yet you go and sit down in a strange bar in a strange town and spill your guts to a couple of complete strangers!” cried the gnome in channeled exasperation. “Lucky for you, they’re upstanding folk.”
“I didn’t spill my guts!” I protested. “I didn’t tell them… everything….” About my shape shifting, I thought.
“Yeah, real circumspect,” said the gnome sardonically. “You said you were at the battle of Ironforge. Did you see a lot of tauren at the battle of Ironforge? What about bears?” he finished keenly.
I frowned. He was right.
“That’s the kind of thing you need to work on not telling everyone you meet,” said the gnome. “Assuming everything goes to plan, you’re going to start popping up in all sorts of unexpected places. And until you’re a little bit more powerful, the fewer dots you give the bad guys to connect, the better off you are.”
“Everyone knows M,” I said crossly.
The whelp snuffed and shook his small head, peering down at me. He began speaking again. “M can kick major ass,” translated the gnome. “You couldn’t kick a can if it were tied to your hoof.”
I glowered at the whelp, and considered punting the gnome just to prove I could. I inhaled and stayed the urge.
Eynyx screeched. “You can’t stay here,” said the gnome. “You can’t sleep in well-traveled places, not for a long time to come.”
“What?” I said. “No!” I was tired, and here was a bed which I had paid for. I hadn’t said a proper goodbye to the dwarf and the gnome, either. “I didn’t ask for this,” I said accusingly, pointing up at the whelp.
He peered unblinkingly down at me. I grimaced. I didn’t suppose that bad guys would ask if I had any objections before they killed me.
“Can’t I stay just the night?” I said petulantly.
The whelp flew back over to the window and perched on the sill. He glanced over at me. “Go have a look,” he said through the gnome.
Puzzled, I walked to the windows. I looked out into the darkness, following the whelp’s gaze.
He screeched shortly. “Watch,” said the gnome.
The whelp inhaled deeply. There was an unsettling rasp, and then what sounded like flames crackling to life. The back of the whelp’s sharp teeth, his tongue, the entire inside of his mouth lit up with orange light, and with a powerful battlescreech he spat a gob of fire into the darkness. I followed it with my widened eyes: and a split second before it impacted, I saw a pair of eyes in the darkness, and then there was a stifled cry of surprise and pain as the fire landed home on a black-clad figure that had been hiding in the shadows. He hastily extinguished the flames and then disappeared, away from the inn and into the shadows.
They’d tracked me here, I thought. Without any apparent effort at all. I had gone to the window and thrown it wide, stuck my head out into the night – they knew what room I was in.
I turned. The gnome was holding up my pack, open. “I took the liberty of packing your cat,” he said.
The whelp screeched. “Oh right,” said the gnome. He pulled a hefty loaf of bread out of a pocket and dropped it into the bag. “Eynyx requests that you kindly stop giving away your food.”
“Where am I supposed to go?” I said, dejectedly.
Eynyx hopped about on the windowsill, staring up at me, blinking his film eyelids slowly across his black pinprick eyes. He screeched. “Where you were already heading,” said the gnome.
I looked at him dumbly. Then, Home, I thought. This whole time, I’ve been heading home.
The gnome closed my bag and held it up to me. I took it.
“May we suggest the window?” said the gnome, smiling and gesturing like a host offering a seat to his guest. “The front door is being watched.”
* * *
Guards marched on through the night, keeping vigilant watch out over the plains, watching for armies and enemies from without while a nearly-silent shadow slipped past them, out of Crossroads’ town square and out into the abandoned city. I prowled through its barren streets, until I reached the Turnpike. It ran away south here, across the wide, cold, brown grasslands.
The gnome had been right. Since I’d run from Orcmar, I’d felt Mulgore pulling me onward, step by step, towards the south and west where the brown barren plains turned to the green grasslands of my childhood. It was nearly winter, and they would be lush: winter was Mulgore’s rainy season. My heart swelled with a sudden longing for the smell of the great plain, the feel of the sod springing beneath my hooves after a rainstorm. I inhaled, stretched out my legs and neck and galloped off, on down the road.
Miles of road flashed by beneath me, and the dry, cold night wind whipped through my gray mane and tail, biting my eyes and sharpening my tired mind. The white moon, waning now, shone through the whispering clouds, behind me and to the east – hanging still, I imagined, above a tall crystal tower in the icy north. The blue moon, still full, shone in the sky to the west.
The dry barren plains stretched off far into the moonlit darkness on either side of the road. From time to time, great layered hills and mountains rose up from the silver-lit grasslands: silver hills in the moonlight against the gray-black sky.
The wind shifted for a moment, gusting in from the west. It carried with it a low and constant moaning, and I knew I was near the Cavern of False Hopes. The gust smelled fresher as well, just a bit alive, a bit wetter, less barren. I tossed my head and inhaled it, staring off into the darkness. A stream, clear and cool, issued from the mouth of the moaning cavern, beneath the Ridge of the Fallen Warrior, and fed the Last Oasis. I shook my head and whinnied as the names and their stories came back to me from dusty unused corners of my mind.
The barrens, so said the locals, had once been lush and green – greener even than Mulgore, they would add for my benefit. Lush and green had faded to grasslands, which in turn had faded to barren grasslands, with only small, scattered oases left of the land’s former beauty. Eventually, only this one had survived.
A prophecy, remembered fervently and bitterly by the locals, spoke of a disturbance, some evil deep within the Caverns which was causing the slow death of the land. If the evil were to be defeated, it promised, the land would return to its former fertility. Countless adventurers heard the prophecy, said the locals, and countless ventured into the caverns to do battle with whatever beasts and fiends made their quiet lives below. Some returned victorious, it was told, but no curse was ever broken, and the land stayed barren. Eventually, the adventurers gave up and the caverns were renamed.
I didn’t much believe in prophecies. You make your own, I thought, and then you go and fulfill them, if you can.
The words, “Your downfall,” floated into my mind. Others can make them for you too, I thought.
The wind shifted again, and the cold winter air returned. I galloped on.
The petulant self-pity and anger to which I had clung since reawakening two days earlier – two days! I thought – had been replaced with miserable guilt. To the guilt had been added fear, and then, without dissipating in the slightest, it had all been overlaid with a burning curiosity, more powerful even than I had felt in Fang’s dark Storm City office so many long weeks before. I had to know if I was right, if I’d finally put all the pieces together, with the help of a hyperactive, eyepatched gnome.
But first… I had to go home. The pull was wordless and inexorable. I ran on.
Fatigue returned, slowly, replacing everything. The whelp’s injunction against sleeping in obvious places weighed on my mind, and I reluctantly passed several sturdy abandoned huts along the road. Finally, as I was sure my slender legs would buckle beneath me if I took another step, I turned off the road and cantered into the cold grasslands. A quarter of a mile off, I spotted the shadow of a tree, one of the alien, wide-trunked and scraggly-branched ones that dotted the land. I trotted towards it.
When I reached it, I let my body slip back into its natural shape and sat down, let Ajax out of his carrier to prowl, lay my head on my pack and went to sleep.
When I awoke, the half-hidden sun was climbing the sky. I devoured half of the loaf of bread that Matt the Gnome had given me, and then I stood. I was stiff, and there was a painful crick in my thick neck that would pain me even more as a horse, but I felt rejuvenated, ready to pound the earth with my hooves until I reached my destination.
In the daylight, I could see a puff of dust on the horizon, to the south along the road. Something large was moving there: a herd or an army. I glanced north, and a trickle of smoke rose from some abandoned farm or village. Otherwise, the world looked the same as it had, from a distance.
I decided to avoid the road and whatever was moving along it. I horsed up and turned south across the grasslands, galloping as fast as the dry uneven ground would let me.
It was a long and uneventful day. The puff of dust grew as I drew parallel with it, and I could see a band thirty or forty strong marching north along the horizon. I was sure that a distant, lone horse would draw little attention, but I veered away just to be safe.
I stopped for water at a small spring – maybe the remnants of one of the old oases – and took another bite out of the loaf of bread. It was a large loaf, but making it last made me hungry again. I sighed and put it away. A giraffe wandered by.
The land grew drier and the air harsher as I traveled: the grass grew crisp, and then disappeared entirely for great stretches at a time. The hurrying clouds had disappeared from the sky as well, and although it was still chilly, the sun was harsh. The south of Kali was made up of vast, impassable deserts, I knew, although there were few explorers these days to report back on what wonders might be hidden within them.
There were no more trees here, and I slept against a rock, warm from the sun in the cold night. Ajax curled up against me as I drifted off.
The next morning, I came to the hard dirt road which led west from the Turnpike towards Mulgore, and I turned down it. By noon, the hills to the west rose to either side of me, and then suddenly the road ran between a pair of shallow ridges and over a shallow crest of land, and misty clouds drifted by beyond it, and the hard-packed earth sprouted lush, green grass, and before me spread the wild green plains of my youth. My breath caught in my throat. I cantered to a stop, and turned back into a bull.
Sudden doubt lashed through me. What was I expecting to find here? I had been barely out of calfhood when I’d left; no one here knew me as “Horse”. Maybe no one would remember me at all.
Except my mother, I thought despondently. Except my poor mother, who I had left alone ten years ago. We’d grown apart, after my father had died, and then I – her only child – had left her alone. Why? I thought. Why did I run? Hokato made me, I thought, but that wasn’t true, not really. For no good damn reason, came the answer to my question. I looked down in shame.
Unsure of where I was heading, or of what I was doing, I inhaled deeply, and stepped forward into Mulgore.
* * *
A heavy mist fell over the green waves of grass. The road was narrower here and less well-maintained. I stood at a fork – to the left, a mile down the road, was Bloodhoof, the village I’d grown up in. To the right, miles and miles to the north, stood Thunder Bluff, a ring of high plateaus which rose up out of the wide plains. Camps dotted the top of the bluffs, and for a time it had been the tauren capital.
I stood at the fork, staring west along the left fork, towards the place I’d called home, willing myself to step forward but unable to.
Shuffling footfalls came out of the mist from ahead. I started, ready to run, afraid that whoever it was was after me, or would remember me, or, worse, wouldn’t.
But instead of a black-clad assassin, or a calfhood playmate, or a dread lord or a dread lord’s minion, a short, cerulean figure emerged from the mist. It was Fang. I stared at him as he approached.
He stopped a few paces from me, staring back, his round body growing and subsiding as he breathed. We stood, silent for a moment, and then, “Follow me,” he said simply.
He turned, northwest, between the two forks, and walked off into the tall grass. I watched him for a moment, recessing into the mist, and then I followed.