The sod sprung beneath my hooves. I had forded the Bloodhoof River, climbed out the far side and flew off again across the green plains. My hooves pounded against the ground, pushing me forward, their sounds muffled by the sod and the rain. Silent mist swirled around me, and I flew through it. Saliva flecked at my mouth. My nostrils flared and I sucked air in, through my long nose, filling my lungs. It smelled like home, like my childhood, like dirt and grass and mist. I shook rainwater out of my eyes.
Home, I thought – if it’s anywhere, it’s here… but it certainly wasn’t here. The day I’d run away, my last confrontation with my old mentor, burned in my mind. I couldn’t face my mother. Not yet.
Fang had asked me to join them, to become an Agent. To work for the Law. What is the Law even, I thought, that I should want to join it? What has it done for me? For the world?
The gaunt faces of the homeless masses of New Rocktusk floated through my mind, men and women and children, orcs and humans and trolls. The face of the old woman to whom I had given my food, and her look of desperate, utterly misplaced gratitude. The terrible cool hatred that had flared in the eyes of the Crossroads saw-bones as he coolly slipped a dagger into the belly of a total stranger. I’m sorry, I thought, to them, and to Jessica, and to all the rest. Maybe the Law would help me repay my unrepayable debt to them.
Not my debt, thought another part of my mind angrily. Those people set their own dumb houses on fire. And ran away. And turned the world to madness.
And the Law, the murloc and the bull, they’d fooled me with eyes open, and I owed them no loyalty. Wrong or right, I owed them nothing now.
And they’d had the nerve to ask me to join them! They had tricked me and lied to me, moving me into place like one of so many chess pieces. Those people had died because of the Law.
To unite the world, though! They had died, but, maybe for a greater good?
I shook my long head violently. People’s lives had ended, and others had become worse-off for it all. Knowing or no, I had signed their death warrants. Justifying it made it as good as knowing – justifying it said, if I could do it over, I’d do it all again. Their lives were not mine to end for any good or reason: it felt wrong, horribly and twistedly wrong.
The sod sprung beneath my hooves. The mist swirled thicker, and the rain soaked me to the skin. Steam rose off my heaving flanks. I sucked in air through my flared nostrils. It smelled like home. I wanted to go home, to lie down in my long-enough bed and fall asleep, and wake up to the smell of my mother making waffles. But I couldn’t.
The deep voice of my teacher, the wise old bull Hokato, came back to me, speaking the last words I’d ever heard him say. “You are bringing shame to your family… If you run, if you leave,” he’d said, “don’t come back until you’ve undone that. Don’t come back until you bring great honor with you.”
Not yet, I thought. I have no glory to bring back to my mother. I can’t face her yet. She thinks I’m dead. She thinks I slipped off and died, not that I ran away foolishly, stupidly, and brought shame upon my family. I couldn’t just reappear. Not yet.
The sod sprung beneath my hooves, and I pounded on through the misting rain. The night that I’d run away, the day I’d had my last confrontation with Hokato, burned in my mind. I hadn’t let myself think of it properly for ten long years, but now I couldn’t keep it out of my mind, replaying itself over, and over:
I snuck downstairs, peeking my head over the banister and into the kitchen, I remembered. I’d heard someone enter and begin speaking to my mother, later in the evening than she usually had visitors.
Hokato sat across the table from her. They were drinking tea.
“He failed the cat test,” said the old bull. It was true, and I gritted my teeth in shame.
“He didn’t tell me,” replied my mother quietly.
Of course I didn’t, Mom, I thought. What would you do, scold me to do better? And then run off to the graveyard and talk to Dad for the rest of the day?
“He’s been having a lot of trouble lately,” continued the old bull. “He refuses to focus.” I don’t want to focus on your stupid religion, I thought.
“He’s young and stubborn,” said my mother kindly. “Remember the student he was a few years ago. Give him time?”
“I intend to,” said the old bull gently, “but he has to come back to us some day. I can only teach the willing.”
“You can lead Horse to water,” nodded my mother, smiling. Hokato laughed.
I whirled about and snuck back up the stairs, breathing heavily. I closed the door to my bedroom as quietly as I could and lay down, shaking violently.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed a strange dream. “The gods of your ancestors have fallen silent,” said a voice, thin but powerful. “The father-wind blows for you no longer.” I saw the great green grasses of Mulgore, waving gently. “These are not things in which you can place your faith,” continued the voice, and the grass wilted in the fierce sun, which was my eye. “The wind and the moon are not your gods. Your teacher fails to teach you!” Rain clouds blew past, obscuring my view of the cracked ground below, but it did not rain. “You have come to an impasse, and he will guide you no further.
“You feel shame,” continued the voice, and I felt shame. I was outside, lying in the dead, rocky land, staring up at the dark gray sky through my own eyes, which I could not shut. “You feel anger,” said the voice, and I felt anger. Lightning flickered behind the clouds. “You feel injustice, burning!” Thunder rumbled, and rain splashed down into my eyes. “You feel that you have lost your way, and no one here will help you find it.”
Then a figure was standing above me, facing away, up towards the angry sky. Black feathers lined his hood and cloak, and he leaned on a silver staff. A bolt of lightning arced across the sky behind him and rain poured down and he turned, suddenly, urgently, angrily, pointing down at me. “Run,” he said, and there was no argument. “Your path is laid out before you.”
I gasped awake, sitting bolt upright in bed. My bedroom window had blown open in the pouring rain. A black raven sat in it, staring down at me out of one narrowed, golden eye, and then it turned and flapped off, into the dark night.
I grabbed my backpack and stuffed a change of clothes into it. I snuck downstairs into the dark house, grabbed what food I could lay my skinny hands on, and left. Everything the voice in the dream had said had been true: I felt irrationally hurt, irrationally angry and uncertain. The failed test – shapeshifting into a cat, which I had never been able to quite perfect – had only served to confirm it.
A piercing keen echoed from the night sky, and a moment later a great blue heron landed in front of me.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I said.
The heron, the wisest of birds, tipped its long, narrow head at me. It began growing, its wings turning into arms and its long, thin legs swelling and claws turning to hooves. Hokato stood before me, blocking my path.
“You were watching from the stairs last night,” he said.
I stared sullenly at him, unwilling to talk, unwilling to let my mind be changed.
“It took me years,” he said gently, “to get my cat right. Years. You’ve been trying for three months.”
I stared at him. Years? “I don’t care about that,” I lied. “I don’t care about the stupid cat form.” I inhaled, and then frustration built to a head inside me, and I hurtled every spiteful, hurtful thought I’d concocted about the old bull and his nature-worship. “I’m sick of the training,” I gritted, “I’m sick of the tests. I’m sick of sitting in the middle of the night in the middle of the plains waiting for the, father wind, spirit moon mother to talk to me!” I was breathing heavily. Behind me, the house I’d grown up in was silent.
Hokato shook his head. “You’re rash and proud,” he said sternly, “like your father was. You expect mastery in months, you want to move the world tomorrow! Have patience,” he continued, gently, kindly. “These things take time. There is greatness in you, but it needs to be nurtured.”
I stared at him. I’ll make myself great, I almost said. I narrowed my eyes. “I’m leaving,” I declared. “I’m going east.”
The old bull’s face fell. The sad look in his eyes twisted in me like a knife, but I steeled myself against it.
He stared at me through those eyes, silent, watching me. I looked away, but then I looked back. “I’m leaving,” I repeated. “Please… don’t tell anyone.” Why did I care?
“If you run,” said the old bull sternly, “you abdicate your responsibility to your herd, to your people, to your name. You are doing nothing more than wallowing in selfish cowardice if you let your own foolish fears and prides sweep you into the Nether.” I was silent, but he watched my eyes. “If you run,” he growled, “you are bringing shame to your family, to your mother, to your father.” I burned with anger at the bull for invoking my dead father. “If you run,” he said, “if you leave, don’t come back until you’ve undone that. Don’t come back until you bring great honor with you. I will not be the one to break your dishonor to your mother,” he finished, eyes narrowed in fury, or sadness, or both.
I set my jaw and turned, then let my body slip into the shape of a horse. I galloped off, but as I ran, I looked back longingly over my shoulder, watching as my home faded into the distance and the night. Hokato stood, watching me go – then a great blue heron stood – and then it was gone.
He had kept his promise, it seemed. He must have lied, told everyone I was dead – in my mind, a funeral procession bore my carved stone north out of town and into the graveyard, setting it at the bottom of my family tree, next to my father’s. A vivid image of my mother, clad in black, unnecessarily mourning my false death, flashed across my mind, and with it came a wave of bitter enmity towards my old mentor.
But I’d asked him to. It hadn’t been his fault: it had been mine. Déjà vu.
And my thought, my spectacularly adolescent thought that I would go and make myself great: how had I done? I hadn’t done a thing, not a damn thing on my own other than run away, for ten long lonely years.
And in return, my mother thought I was dead.
I tripped, lost my footing in the mist-soaked grass, shifting instinctively back into a bull lest my thin horse-legs break, and I tumbled to a stop. I lay in the mud, in the rain, and the enormous, tragic folly of it all came pouring out, and I vacillated between self-pity and self-flagellation, and I sobbed uncontrollably.
* * *
Minutes, or hours, or ages later, my sorrow had drained and a new and unfamiliar calm settled over my mind. I looked up at the gray sky, and rain cascaded down into my eyes, over my head and shoulders, washing away the tears and the mud. I breathed in deeply, as deeply as I could, then breathed out and let my shoulders drop.
I had hot-headedly banished myself from my homeland, from my people, and the price of returning had been set at greatness. And now, Fang the Tooth, the murloc of Storm City, was here in Mulgore, offering greatness to me: but at the price of never returning.
But he hadn’t said I couldn’t return, had he? Only that I first had to hear what he had to say.
And what it was he had to say… that I had been born to join the Law, fated into aiding in the return of the Dread Lord, the Scourge Lord, Varimathras. To unite the world.
Of course, that’s just the first step, Fang had said. There’s more to it than just that.
But however much more, it was certain to unite the world against him, and what could the might of the whole world do but defeat him? It had once, six hundred years ago. This time, it might do it right.
I could pay my debt to the people of New Rocktusk, and Crossroads, and Ratchet, and I could become great. I could bring honor to my family. I could stand to face my mother again.
I pulled myself up to my hooves. I stared off into the infinite plains which stretched away in every direction. Memories came flooding back, ones that I hadn’t allowed myself to enjoy for years, of stalking after plainstriders to thin their herds, of skirting great herds of kodo, of dances and drums and more food than I could stuff my face with… and of running. Of discovering at a young age that if I got down on all fours, I could charge across the land faster than the wind.
I dropped to a sprinter’s crouch, planting my hands in the mud, and snorted. I scraped my hooves backwards, setting them, and I inhaled again. Fang’s parting words rung in my mind, and I silently vowed to myself, to my mother, that I was done running away. Only towards, now – whatever path I took, would be towards something.
And without another thought, I tore off across the great green mist-shrouded plains.
* * *
In the end, it was Ajax that finally convinced me.
The land had risen and the mist had subsided behind me. I’d come out of it, finally, at the base of the Red Rocks: a spine of rusty limestone that jutted up out of the eastern edge of Mulgore. At its base was one of the old migratory graveyards, a spot of holy ground: a few splintered staves still stuck out of the ground at unnaturally even intervals.
I sat calmly on the rocks above, feeling at peace, but lonely, looking out across the shaded green plains to where they disappeared in the thickening mist. The sun sank over them, behind the clouds to the west.
I pulled off my muddy pack and opened it. The last few bites of Matt the Gnome’s bread was on top, and I finished it hungrily. Then I pulled Ajax’s white crate out and set it on the ground.
He climbed out, orange against the orange rocks, and looked up at me, ears twitching.
“Hey kiddo,” I said. “You wanna live forever?”
He meowed in response, then jerked his head around over his shoulder at some sound, tense as though ready to pounce, and then he strolled casually off. I leaned against my pack and watched him.
He wouldn’t be lonely, I thought – as long as there were mice and bugs to chase. He wouldn’t mind. Cats only live to be 15, I thought. That’s a lot sooner than forever.
I sighed. The sun sank slowly below the cloudy horizon. Ajax trotted out from behind a rock with a mouse dangling from his teeth.
“You won’t run out of those any time soon,” I murmured to him as he settled down next to me to feast. “There’ll always be mice.” He purred, and I felt a little less lonely.