The sunset faded to twilight, which faded to night. Stars shimmered. Ajax, gorged and sated, lay curled up next to me on the warm rocks, sleeping contentedly. The blue moon rose above the red stone cliff behind me, and the plains shimmered in its surreal light.
Away to the south and west, at the very edge of my vision, a shadow shifted on the plain. I looked sharply at it, squinting, but I could see nothing. Then the shadow moved again, then again: Whatever it was was moving quickly, at a distance, and seemed to be headed towards me.
As the shadow moved closer, it resolved: first into a four-legged beast, then into a strange chimera – a lithe creature with a second, grotesque head jutting up from its back – and then into a murloc riding a cheetah. I smiled in spite of myself.
The cat slowed as it trotted up the ridge. When it arrived, Fang hopped off, and the cat arched its back and swelled rapidly into M. I stood. Ajax twitched awake, then climbed to his feet and meowed. I picked him up.
I looked at M. Knowing her name, her real one, knowing some grain of what she’d been through, knowing that she was my ancestor, and knowing – at least a little bit – why there was always a look of sadness hiding just under her expression, made me swell with respect for the quiet bull. “Suyeta,” I said deferentially.
“Oops,” hissed Fang, and M grimaced, as though catching an unexpected dagger in the gut. My face fell. She narrowed her eyes at me. “Tashunke,” she said simply.
It twisted to hear my calf-name spoken aloud, for the first time in so many years. “Oh,” I said.
“Right,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly. She nodded placidly. “Aunt,” I added, and it elicited a small smile.
“Nephew,” she growled.
“So, what’s the good word?” said Fang cheerily, as though asking whether I’d join him for a night of billiards.
I sighed. “I need to know some things first,” I said.
Fang grinned. “Good bull,” he said. “Have at it.”
“So…” I started, and I was suddenly overwhelmed with questions to ask. “What’s the deal with Varimathras? Now that he’s out, I mean. Is the Scourge back? Has he attacked yet? Is Madoran okay? What about Rhy?” I crescendoed without meaning to.
Fang hiss-laughed. “Easy, lad!” he said. “One at a time! Varimathras has begun to reassemble his undead army, and has established a beachhead in Lordaeron, and word has traveled around the East that all is not well in the north. Important people are in important meetings making important decisions, having all the fun while we’re out here following your mangy tail around.”
“Yeah, because I asked you to,” I replied, a little stung.
“Oh, I don’t blame you,” said the murloc charitably. “Madoran is alive and well. I don’t know about your friend…” He blinked, staring off across the nighttime plains for a moment. “Rhy is alive,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief, and suddenly a great burden that I hadn’t known was there lifted from my mind.
“Sort of,” growled M, faint amusement flickering across her stony face.
Fang laughed. “She’s Forsaken, right?” he said. “That’s good, that was clever. Reanimated corpse humor.”
I stared at them, bewildered by the ease with which they discussed such strange subjects.
Fang turned back to me. “What else?” he said casually. “Ask away. Anything you want.” He grinned toothily, clearly enjoying the fruits of his long labors.
“Anything?” I said, a little disbelievingly.
“Anything,” he nodded, “and we’ll answer.”
“As much as we can,” said M.
I looked sharply at her. “That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I said.
“That’s not what he wanted to hear!” exclaimed Fang, throwing up his arms at her.
“But it’s the truth,” she replied. “You have to understand that we can’t tell you everything, because we simply don’t know everything. We get enough information to do the present mission – take Horse north, send him after the Book of Arthas. Tell Hannathras to follow him.” My breath caught in my throat. “Sometimes we get a glimpse at design, and sometimes we can piece design together from what we’re given.” She sighed. “But usually, we’re pretty in the dark.”
Fang bobbed his head. “Makes for great rumor-mongering whenever we all get together, though,” said Fang. “Endless speculation!”
I was still staring at M, though. “You told Hannathras to follow me?” I said, my voice suddenly thick with renewed anger, and I suddenly doubted the decision which I’d been certain I’d made. Suddenly pieces began falling together, and I cried, “You were in the cave with the warlocks! I saw you – you were a bear, up on the cliff.” She nodded and made to reply, but I cut her off. “You were there when Rayn died,” I said hotly, accusingly. “You watched me let him die.”
She looked down, then closed her eyes for a moment, looking truly unhappy. “I saw him die,” she said quietly, “although his death wasn’t your fault. And yes, I advised and strategized Hannathras’s attack on Under City. I told him to send that miserable gnome to his death, and I told him that you would lead him to the book. The purpose, I knew, was to test you and to effect the release of Varimathras, and those goals, we achieved.” She sighed. “But why those goals, why release Varimathras? We can only guess.”
I stared at her numbly. Her agony, her guilt, they were the same as mine, except that she’d known what she was doing. “That’s it?” I replied heatedly. “The Law tells you what to do and you just unquestioningly obey, and then watch people die?” I yelled the last few words.
M frowned unhappily again, but Fang narrowed his red eyes and locked them on mine. “You’re damn right you do,” he said, “because when you do, then things work out the way they’re meant to.”
M nodded reluctantly. “He’s right. In the seven hundred years that I’ve been an agent of the Law, its orders have always turned out for the best. Sometimes it’s taken years, centuries, for me to see it, but the subtle wisdom of its actions, of its orders, hasn’t failed yet. It’s been right, about so much, and to all appearances, it knows what it’s doing. And it does what it’s doing, through us,” she finished firmly.
I suddenly trusted her. I believed that she believed, and as I looked at her, I saw a bull who had wrestled with the questions for centuries longer than I had been alive, and I trusted her, I believed in her conclusions. And I realized that as long as M trusted the Law, I would, too. She saw it in my face, and the faint shadow of a smile flitted across hers. She nodded, and I nodded back.
“Tales tell,” Fang was saying to no one, “that thousands of years ago, before there were agents, the Law manifested itself as a great black dragon, with powers to reweave the very fabric of the universe. Eventually, he got overwhelmed with how much work there was – couldn’t be everywhere at once – so he disappeared and hired the first agent.
“The ancient agent,” said M, and Fang laughed and nodded.
A sudden thought flashed into my mind, and I interrupted them: “If the Law hasn’t told you why Varimathras had to be released,” I said, looking down at Fang, “then why did you call it a mistake? You said, we were undoing a six-hundred year old mistake when we were on the, at the top of the crystal spike thing, when he got freed from the frozen tomb by his son or whoever.”
“Throne,” said M instinctively.
“Right,” I said. I looked at her. “What was it? Why was putting him in it a mistake?”
“The Frozen Throne,” she replied, and her tone shifted to that of a storyteller, “was the crystal cask that brought the Lich King to our world almost seven centuries ago. It was a chamber, an antenna, built to contain whatever was put inside, but to strengthen them as well – mentally, psychically. Locking Varimathras in a block of mysterious crystal which they did not understand, and which they did not seek to understand beyond what was needed to contain him, was the most foolish thing that the Argent Dawn could have done.”
“You can’t exactly blame them, of course,” said Fang. “It was a long and brutal war for the people of Az, and the Throne offered a them quick end to it.”
“Quick solutions are not good resolutions,” growled M.
“Hey, I’m not arguing,” shrugged Fang.
“And in this case,” continued the bull, “it proved disastrous: leaving Varimathras in the Frozen Throne for six hundred years has almost certainly strengthened him enormously.”
“Short term benefit,” said Fang, spreading his fins at me and smiling, “long term disaster!”
I blinked. Then, after a moment, I said, “Varimathras is more powerful than he was before?” It came out a little more querulous than I’d intended.
“Sure is,” said Fang. “Maybe as powerful as Arthas Menethil was at his peak. Might actually be able to run a decent Scourge this time.” M smiled thinly.
“But why didn’t the Law fix it?” I protested. “Why didn’t it have you kill him, or release him sooner, before he got so powerful?”
M and Fang were silent. Fang looked down. M glanced up at the moon for a moment, then back at me. “We’re not sure,” she sighed.
“Because the Law didn’t tell you to,” I said dully.
She nodded. “It could be that we weren’t strong enough at the time,” she continued. “The Nathrezim are nearly unkillable. Or our influence in the Dawn may not have been strong enough at the time to change its decision to end the war as it did.”
“Those things wouldn’t have stopped the Law if it was important,” Fang said crossly.
“Maybe,” sighed M, and it seemed to me that an entire conversation, a well-worn argument, passed between the two friends in the flicker of an eye. “It wouldn’t make sense anyway,” she continued. “The Law had us help with his entombing.” She sighed again. “We just don’t know.”
“We’ve got theories, of course,” said the murloc. “Maybe the world wasn’t ready to face him until now, maybe it didn’t need to be united against a common enemy until now. Maybe the Law wants him good and strong for some reason. And maybe, and this is my personal favorite,” and his red eyes glinted mischievously in the darkness, “maybe it was because you weren’t around yet.”
“Me?” I said.
Fang nodded. “They locked Varimathras in the chair, so that we could recruit you. So that you could help out with Varimathras. Or something.” Fang shrugged.
“That’s a bit circular of you,” growled M.
“Yeah yeah,” said Fang. “The Law works in mysterious ways.”
Ajax had been curled up asleep in my arms: now he climbed up on my shoulder, standing at attention and looking alertly out over the plains, staring off at what I assumed was nothing at all.
“So, then, if you don’t know why,” I said to Fang, “why did you have me tell Varimathras that I would be his downfall?” But as he opened his toothy mouth to respond, I knew the answer, and we said, “Because the Law said to,” together. I nodded.
“I assume, though,” continued Fang, “that it’s because you’re going to be his downfall.”
I shivered, and then the full weight of the words hit me. I had thought about it, I had suspected it, I had mulled it over in the world that’s between awake and asleep, but somehow, I had never believed it, never believed that it would come to that. I had – I realized with a shadow of shame – run away from it. “He flicked me off a cliff with his mind,” I said faintly. “You said he’s really, really, really powerful.”
Fang smiled. “Better believe it – he could kill you with one of those ugly, uncut fingernails, if he wanted.”
“Luckily,” said M, “you’re going to be much, much more powerful yourself before you have to confront him.”
Fang glanced sidelong up at his friend. “At least,” he said, “that’s the plan.”
M nodded. “We think.”
“Oh,” I said. I paused, looking from one to the other. Ajax had climbed back down into my arms. “You don’t know much, do you.”
Fang grinned. “And yet,” he said, “we know more than anyone else in the world.”
I grunted. That was what kept drawing me back, every time I thought of a reason to say no, to run away from this strange, enormous thing. But no more running away, I thought. No more running scared. “So,” I started slowly, “if I say yes, I’m inside, right? I’m an agent.”
“You’ll be an initiate in the Order of Sarvavidh, yes,” said Fang. “Not immediately an agent, though – you’ve got a long way to go before you’re ready for that.”
“The Order of whatsa-what?”
“Sarvavidh,” replied the murloc easily. “You don’t think the Law calls itself the Law, do you? That’s just what we call it because it’s less of a mouthful.”
“Sarvavidh,” rumbled M. “That which is all-knowing.”
“Wow,” I said. “Cool.”
“Or pretentious, depending on who you ask,” said Fang.
“Anyway,” said M, “there are more tests, there is training that you need before you can take on the duties of an agent. But now,” she said firmly, “you’ll be in on it.”
Fang nodded. “Honest,” he said. “This time I can save your ass without having to hide in the shadows in the woods and not tell anybody,” he added, glancing pointedly up at M.
“That was you!” I cried. “You saved me from Grimble, you melted his face!” I laughed as the memory of the relief flooded back to me.
“And how,” hissed the murloc. “I was hoping I’d get to be the one to bag that slimy little capitalist.”
“Well, thanks,” I said. “I guess… thanks.” I nodded.
Fang looked piercingly up at me. “Any more questions?” he said after a moment.
I paused for a beat. Then I looked piercingly back. “Just one,” I said. “Would you give it up? Would you take it back and say no, and not join the Law, and grow old and die with your family like murlocs are supposed to? Do you regret it, for all that?”
Fang smiled toothily. “For all that?” he said. “Not for a second.”
I nodded. “M?” I said, looking at the solemn bull. She looked back at me for a moment, some unreadable emotion playing in the depths of her dark eyes, but then she shook her head. “Not for a second,” she said. And then that was that, and I was sure.
“So that’s that?” said Fang.
I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with as much air as I could and then more, and I looked at the stoic bull, and the murloc whose face said that he already knew what I was going to say, and then down at the orange tabby-cat, asleep in my arms, my best friend in the world. Then I nodded. “I want in,” I said. Wow.
“Great!” said Fang cheerily. “Hundreds of years of careful planning not out the window.”
M smiled. Then she clapped me on the back. “I knew you would,” she growled. “I knew you would.”
I looked around. “Now what?” I said.
“Well,” said M, “Fang has a boat to catch, and we have a ride to catch, so we should each hurry along.”
“Wait, that’s it?” I said. “I say yes and then I’m in and everyone goes on about their business? Shouldn’t there be some kind of, like, initiation or something?” I thought back to when I’d joined the Scarlet Resurrection, and Thrall’s Revenge before it.
“Oh don’t you worry,” said Fang. “We’ll get to have our go at you eventually.”
“But first,” said M, “you need training, and lots of it.” She turned to Fang. “Have a good trip,” she said.
He nodded. “See ya ‘round,” he said, and then he and M embraced.
He turned to me, and saluted. “Welcome aboard,” he said solemnly. “Welcome to the Order, and boy do you have no idea what you just got yourself into!” He laughed and grinned at me again, and then, as I stared slack-jawed after him, he turned on his heel and set out across the night-fallen plains.
M turned to me. “Well,” she said simply. “Take up your things and follow me.” Without another word, she turned up the steep hill towards the red stone cliff above.
I looked at Ajax, then set him down on the ground. He blinked sleepily up at me, and then, as though he understood what was happening, he trotted after M.
I looked back out over the dark plains, shrouded in the mists in which I had wandered. Then I turned my back on it. I hefted my pack onto my shoulders, and marched off after M, towards whatever battles, whatever struggles, whatever greatness lay ahead.
END OF BOOK ONE