I sort of panicked. Before I quite realized what I was doing, I had hurried upstairs and begun to pack. I threw a change of shirt and britches in my backpack, along with a few trinkets I was loath to leave without. I pulled my mace off its wall mount, and strapped it at my side.
Kneeling, I pulled my cat carrier out from under the bed. Ajax was curled up inside and sleeping. I shut the carrier and put it in the pack, on top of everything, closed it, and put it on my back under my cloak (where it was harder to steal, and harder to see). I ran breathlessly back down the stairs to the street.
I felt suddenly foolish. It was ten thirty in the morning. I stood there, staring around dumbly, feeling quite lost.
The numbing feeling of being swept up in something much larger than myself took over, and I wandered aimlessly around the city on foot. I headed south, for no reason, and, hours on, found myself in the Goldshire Village district.
The Village was the City’s cosmopolitus, the district where young people from all over the known world came to live their vibrant years, artistic bohemians congregated, and young, clever businesses thrived. It was also the home of the Panda Pub, owned and run by the only pandaren I had ever met, and home to the best beer in the City. I found myself outside it, so I ducked in.
The pub was bustling with midday traffic, and although I was head and shoulders above most of the crowd (and head, shoulders, chest, waist and knees above some of it), I felt claustrophobic.
There was a nervous energy in the room – I’d felt it in the streets as well – perfused, I thought, by The Tooth’s continued absence, by rumors of his death. Everyone was spooked. I flashed back to my days in Orcmar, across the Great Sea on the western continent of Kali, where brutal street wars were the norm. I prayed for a moment that Tidus was wrong, that a little nervous energy was the worst that the Tooth’s disappearance would cause.
I headed over to the bar and sat down. The pub’s owner was behind it, almost as large as me, wearing his graceful, curving sword strapped across his back. He swore it was ceremonial, but local legend had it that he had sheathed it in flesh more than once in living memory.
The panda made his way over to me by way of several other customers. “Can I get you a brew?” he said in a thick pandaren accent.
“I’ll take a two-pint of house stout,” I said, tossing a few coins too many on the table, “and any gossip you’ve got.” Might as well.
He brought me my glass of beer, and planted his furry elbows across the bar from me. “The gossip, you want. All they talk about this week is the Tooth. Now they say he’s dead!”
I nodded. “But no one found the body, right?”
“No,” he said, “they did, this morning! Washed up on the shores of Crystal Lake. Beaten to a bloody pulp, too, but it was definitely him.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “They’re sure?” Gossip, I reminded myself. It was just gossip.
“How many blue murlocs do you know in the City?” he asked, taping his nose knowingly. “Not many, I bet.”
“Murlocs, though,” I said, “don’t they breed like gnomes? How hard would it be to get a big blue murloc and drown him in the park?” The Tooth wants them to think he was dead, I thought. My job was to spread the rumor, not fight it. But spreading the rumor would just spook everybody more…
“Drown? I don’t think you know murlocs very well,” replied the panda, as though that settled the issue.
I sighed. “How much does it matter, though? Is this really as big a deal as everyone’s making it? What if it’s just Fang that’s gone, and the Law is still around?”
“There was some fighting between the goblins and the Twilight Hammer over in the East End last night,” he relied somberly, “openly in the streets.”
My heart sank. The Law didn’t allow such things. “I hadn’t heard,” I said.
“Fighting which had better not come in here,” growled the panda menacingly.
I nodded and finished my beer. It was soothing. “Another?” he said. I nodded fervently.
As he was filling my glass at the tap, there was a crash behind me. I leapt off my stool and turned around, mace in hand. Towards the middle of the room, a circle had cleared out, and a drunken, flushed blood elf stood opposite a drunken, flushed dwarf.
“Don’t dishparage my anceshtorsh, dwarf,” shouted the elf.
“Yer ancestors are dead or fled, you twig of a bastard breed, but ah’m right here!” The dwarf hiccoughed. “Don’t disparage me, you worthless half-pint drunk! …hic!” He had his hand on a great hammer that dangled at his side. The elf had his hand at his side too, on a tiny twig thing, which looked to be inlaid with runes.
“Barfight!” shouted someone. “NO MAGIC!” shouted the bartender. The dwarf laughed heartily, spitting theatrically into his beard. The elf curled his lip and stepped back, lowering his hand. The dwarf detached his hammer, raising it over his head and shouting, “Khaz Modan!” There were cheers. Blood elves were ornery, and not generally liked.
I put my mace back at my side and turned back to the bar. My beer was waiting for me. I set about to draining it.
The dwarf shuffled over to the bar, plopping up on the stool next to mine. “A beer for the victor,” he said. He seemed a good deal more sober than he had moments before. “Blood elves,” he said scornfully, and shook his head.
“Quite a fight you just avoided,” I replied. The bartender brought the dwarf a pint of stout.
The dwarf laughed, then tossed his head at the rest of the room. The mood had broken, and there was laughter again. “It’s good for ‘em, in these strange and tumultuous days,” he said pointedly.
I tilted my head quizzically at him. “These, like, less than two weeks since Fang disappeared? You’re talking like it’s a new epoch.”
The dwarf glanced up at me, then went back to his beer.
Whoever this dwarf was, he knew something, I was sure. “What do you think is going to happen?” I pressed.
“Ach, tellin’ ye that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the class, would it?” He winked. “You’ll find out.”
I sighed. “I guess we will,” I replied sullenly.
The dwarf took a long draught of his drink, and then looked keenly up at me. “You’re Horse the Bull, right? I spotted you when you came in.”
I stared. “Um,” I said.
The dwarf finished his drink and set it down on the bar. “When I said you’d find out,” he said quietly, “I was referring singularly to Horse the Bull.”
He chuckled again. “I’d better be off before the elf has another quarter-pint of lager and gets really drunk. I’ve got the work of a prince!” he declared.
“But,” I said.
“Yer beer’s on me,” he replied, winking, and he tossed coins to the bar. “Best of luck with your business, an’ wish me best of luck with mine!”
I stared at the back of his head as he faded into the crowd. There were no sudden noises, and I guessed that the blood elf had swallowed his pride, or, more likely, was broodingly plotting revenge somewhere in a corner.
I started down at my half-empty beer, wishing my life would go back to how it had been two days ago – no mysteries, no annoyances, no utterly inconvenient but burning curiosity to know what it all meant. I drained my glass.
“What do a dwarf, a bull and a murloc have in common?” I said casually to the bartender when he collected the glass.
“Legs,” he replied wisely, “and knowledge of self. What else?”
“Beats me,” I replied dolefully.
* * *
The Scarlet Cathedral rose in the distance ahead of me as I strolled back towards Old Town. To its right stood the few remaining spires of the Stormwind Keep, and off to the east rose the Old Abbey, over the Northshire Stream in the North End. The medieval city must have been a beautiful sight, I thought.
A sudden Crack! split the afternoon sky, followed by a deep rumble. I started, stopped dead in the street, and everyone that wasn’t facing north immediately turned. An inconceivably large plume of thick, black smoke rose in the distance, obscuring the Cathedral.
There was another, smaller, explosion, and then a third, near by. Someone ran outside into the daylight and cried, “The power’s gone out!”
People shouted, pointed, and soon were walking quickly or running back towards their homes to check on loved ones. My heart pounding and my hand wandering absent-mindedly towards the mace at my side, I strode purposefully on towards home.
I could hear a din in the distance now, growing as I walked towards the column of smoke. The din resolved itself slowly into shouts and clangs of metal upon metal, punctuated by the occasional crackle and blast of fire magic.
“The Scarlet Cathedral’s been attacked!” someone cried. I wondered apprehensively if they knew anything at all, or if they were just repeating what some other misinformed person had shouted.
“I know!” shouted someone else in reply. “The Scarlets are clearing the streets in Old Town, setting up checkpoints!”
I stopped, my stomachs knotty. If I went back there now, I’d be sent to Trent’s office and armed for a fight, my fact-finding mission be damned. I shook my head.
“It’s the same in the Industrial District,” yelled a third person, “the goblins are sending people home early and locking up!”
As rumors flew and panic grew, I turned hastily towards Rhy and Ti’s apartment, hoping against hope that they were home.
The windowless, metal stairwell was now pitch-black, and I picked my way hesitantly up to the second floor. At Number 28, I knocked. After a longer-than-usual silence, the dim peephole went dark, and, “Horse? Is that you?” came through in a husky, orcish voice. The locks clicked open and Tidus pulled open the door.
“Come in!” he said, and then shut the door behind me. The apartment was uncommonly dark. “Rhy,” he called, “It’s Horse!”
We walked into the living room, daylight seeping in through the picture-window. Rhy stood by it, looking intently out. “Hey, Horse,” she said absently.
“Hey,” I said back. I’d expected more of a reaction after our farewell the previous night, but she was in a brooding mood.
“She’s been like that since the explosion,” said Tidus. “What’re you doing here? Rhy told me you left, and then the Scarlets sent criers around a couple hours ago, calling all of their members in for service. Don’t you have to go when they do that?”
“Ah crap,” I said, “yeah, I do. They don’t like excuses, either, like how I was down in the Village all morning and didn’t hear.” I sighed. “They’d just yell at me if I went in now.” My stomachs twisted at so purposefully missing my first call-up, but I suppressed it.
“Cool,” grinned Tidus, “You can hang out with us instead!”
I sat heavily on the couch.
Tidus went into the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator. “What the hell’s going on out there?” he called back into the living room. “We heard explosions after the Scarlets came around, just before the power went out. People are saying the Cathedral’s been attacked.”
“That’s what I heard too,” I said, “and it’s where the smoke was coming from. It freaked everyone out. There were some more, all over the city – those ones were why the power died, I think.” I paused. “Everyone’s spooked,” I continued. “I heard there was a little fighting last night, even, in the East End.”
“Jeeze,” said Tidus. “The Law’s gone, isn’t it.” He sighed. “This is gonna get ugly.”
Rhy glanced at him from the window. “Probably,” she said simply.
“Only one thing to do!” he replied, and he tossed me a beer.
* * *
We spent the afternoon huddled in the apartment, listening to the distant sounds of fighting waxing and waning. Rhy kept her watch at the window.
“Here’s what I think,” said Tidus from the other end of the couch. “The Scarlets are the strongest group in the city, right, Horse? Now that Fang’s gone.”
“Maybe,” I said. “They’ve got the most people up here, but the goblins are pretty strong, people need them for their jobs.”
The orc waved off my words. “The Scarlets have people that’ll actually fight for them, though. That’s why it’s a cult instead of a company! So, if they’re the strongest, that means they have the most to gain from total chaos, right? Or at least, they’ll lose less than everyone else, which is like winning.”
I suppressed a laugh. The Scarlets certainly did like their chaos. “I dunno,” I said. “Seriously, they can’t even get a letter delivered across town without stern orders and pile of coins for some low-level nobody.”
“Maybe,” said Rhy, still standing by the window. I looked over at her. She’d barely moved since I’d arrived.
“Yeah,” said Tidus. “I don’t think they actually need you to do all that crap – they just have you guys do it so they have people that are loyal to them.”
I glanced at him, an eyebrow raised, intrigued by the theory.
“You know I’m right,” he said, grinning. “So,” he continued breathlessly. “The Scarlets sent their criers around before the explosions, right? And the first explosion, the big one, came from up by the Cathedral. And they started locking down Old Town like two minutes later. I think they knew it was coming,” he declared conspiratorially. “I think they’re using Fang’s disappearance as an opportunity. They got their army together, minus one deserter bull,” and he nodded at me, “then set off a bomb on their own turf to give them an excuse to start bringin’ the hurt.” He nodded. “That’s what I think.”
I grunted. “Glad you’ve got it all figured out,” I said. Something about the conversation I had overheard in Jonathan Trent’s office gave me pause, though. I shook my head and sighed.
We lapsed back into silence.
I sat miserably, wondering to myself if ignoring my first call-up was a good idea. Tidus had been joking when he’d said it, but it had twisted when he’d called me a deserter. But I had joined the Scarlets for work, not for a great love of the cult’s strange ideology. I’d experienced blind faith mixing with anger and death in Orcmar, and if there was going to be fighting and killing, I wanted to be as far away from the Chaos Line as I could get.
The murloc’s words came back to me. You won’t be working with them for much longer anyway, he’d said. The Tooth said so, I thought. That’s good enough for me.
“Seriously, Rhy, what are you looking at?” said Tidus.
“Nothing,” she replied. She glanced over at us. “People, so we have warning when they’re coming this way.”
“We should do something,” cried the orc, his latent frustration suddenly surfacing. “If there’s fighting, we should be out in it, or we should get away from it. Just sitting here and waiting for them to come to us, so that when they do we can just sit here and hope they go away… this is driving me crazy!” His hands crackled with lightning, for effect.
“I can’t leave the city,” said Rhy. I raised an eyebrow at her. “And if there’s fighting,” she continued, “we’re only three people. We can’t fight against anybody, because we really really don’t want to draw the attention of a scared, angry mob, and if we want to join a scared angry mob, we have no idea which one to join.”
“The strongest one,” muttered Tidus.
Rhy looked at Tidus, more commandingly than her usual self. “I’m staying here,” she said.
* * *
By dusk, fighting had broken out in the neighborhood. There was shouting in the street. Rhy had abandoned her spot by the window as too conspicuous, and we huddled together on the couch, away from the windows.
There was a magic-sounding whoosh from the street below, and a glowing blue bolt of ice shattered the living room window.
Rhy leapt to her feet with a look of fury, a pair of flames crackling to life in the palms of her hand.
“Stay down!” hissed Tidus. “Inconspicuous, remember?”
She grimaced and sunk back down to the couch. “Stupid ice mages,” she grumbled. “They should be happy charging us an arm and a leg to keep our refrigerator running, but now they go breaking windows?”
The air blowing in the window was acrid with the smoke of distant fires. As the sun’s light faded from the gathering clouds, a dim orange glow remained.
My stomachs started churning at Rhy’s mention of the refrigerator. I was starving. I stood and snuck over to the kitchen. In the darkness, I chanced a glance out the window. In the light of a fireball, I saw a mass of scarlet robes. I swore and pulled back. If any of them recognized me – I had passed through Cathedral Square daily for the past year, and was not inconspicuous – I was sure I would be killed on sight as a deserter.
The refrigerator’s light was out, of course, but cool mist still seeped down from the enclosed block of magical ice. I pulled out the pot of leftover stew, grabbed three bowls and spoons, and snuck back into the living room. Tidus flashed a grin, and Rhy took the pot to warm it up. I doled out the stew, and we ate quickly.
When we had finished and our bowls were piled on the end table, Rhy slid to the floor and began humming raspily. She held her hands out, palms facing down and half a foot off the ground, and, after a moment, a pure white light began glowing beneath them. It pulsed briefly and then held, illuminating the floor and casting dim shadows up across our faces. She angled her hands, keeping the light from reaching the window. She glanced up at me, smiling. I smiled back.
More shouting from the street below broke our reverie. “Guys,” said Tidus, “seriously, we need to get out of here. They could torch the building.”
A sudden, unfamiliar whirring sound cut through my words, and then a strange, negative, almost purple glow, and then something – something like a harshly glowing skull-shaped light – flew by the window.
Rhy’s magical light winked out. Her eyes had gone wide.
“Woah,” said Tidus.
“No kidding,” I echoed. “What was that?”
In reply, a guttural hiss came from Rhy. We looked sharply at her – it had been an unsettling sound. More of the unnatural whirring echoed up from the street, and the shouting and screaming crescendoed.
Rhy got slowly to her feet. She glanced back and forth between us, and then, without explanation, she turned and hurried into her bedroom.
“…the hell?” said Tidus.
She reemerged a moment later, her backpack on under her long robes, her cat carrier in one hand and Snowball clutched tightly to her breast with the other. The kitten looked around, its ears slicked back, a look of apprehension on its small face.
“Tidus,” she said.
“Rhy, what’s going on?”
“Listen,” she said hurriedly. “Listen, I know you don’t like Snowball very much.” It was an understatement. I’d never heard Tidus speak anything but vile hatred of the kitten in the few months since Rhy had bought him. “I know you don’t, but I have to go now, alone, and I can’t take him with me. Can you look after him?”
“Alone?” said the orc, bemused. “Why?”
Rhy stared at him for a moment, looking miserable. “A quest,” she said finally.
“Oh,” said the orc. “But, you have to go now? An hour ago you said you couldn’t!”
“I couldn’t, then,” she said. “Now I have to. Please, I’m sorry. I thought I wouldn’t, for a long time still, but…” She trailed off. She glanced between us, then back out the window. “Tidus, please!” she said.
The orc stood, and hesitantly accepted the offerings.
Rhy glanced fearfully back out the window, where the shouting was crescendoing again. Then, in the first hug I’d ever seen the standoffish human give anyone, she threw her bony arms around Tidus. Then she hugged me around the waist, and then she turned for the door and was gone.