Tidus and I stood in the dim room, staring at the dark hallway down which she had exited. I glanced down at my orc friend. He looked completely lost. Snowball clambered up onto his shoulder and mewed at me.
“So, uh, bye,” said the orc.
“Tidus,” I said, “we should go.”
He looked up at me, then back at the hallway.
“Tidus,” I said after another moment.
The orc shook his head, clearing it. “What the hell,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I know, but we should go.” The shouting outside the window had faded, but the sounds of battle still came from nearby streets.
He looked around at his apartment, his home for longer than I’d had mine. He steeled his face, then he nodded. He handed Snowball and the carrier to me. “You know how to work these things,” he said absently. Then he hurried off to his room to pack. I scratched the frightened white kitten behind his ears, then slipped him into his carrier. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said soothingly to him. “Definitely gonna be okay.” Then I picked up the bowls and the stew pot and took them back into the kitchen sink. Normally I’d take care of washing them, but that seemed like sweeping the halls in Azshara’s palace now.
Tidus returned with his backpack. I handed him the carrier, which he took hesitantly and stowed in his bag.
“Where are we going?” he said.
I paused. No matter the danger, meet my agent at the North End Bridge tomorrow morning at sun-up, said the note in my pocket. The North End, the city’s upper-class neighborhood nestled into the mountains east of Old Town, was not on the way to anywhere. Although, I thought, now I know what danger the note was talking about.
“Let’s get you out of town,” I mumbled evasively.
Tidus nodded. “There’s no way we’re gonna be able to catch an airship,” he said pensively. “Maybe if we get down to Westfall Road we can take that to Stranglethorn? Head for Booty Bay. I think I want to catch a ship back to Ratchet, back to Kali.”
I smiled. “Going home?” I said. Tidus had grown up outside of Orcmar.
“Something,” said Tidus. “Let’s go.”
We picked our way down the pitch black stairwell. The apartment’s front door was shattered inward and charred. I pushed its splinters open with my shoulder and stepped into the quiet street, Tidus behind me.
Across the street, against the building, lay a man, eyes wide open and limbs askew. He had been laid out with an axe wound to the chest. My heart leapt up and caught in my throat, and Tidus narrowed his eyes at the corpse.
“C’mon,” he said. “Dead people are bad luck.”
We headed south, away from the distant sounds of battle to the east and north.
Around a bend, we came suddenly face to face with a trio of heavily-armed Scarlet soldiers. “Halt!” said one, the leader.
We halted. My heart began pounding against the inside of my chest.
“State your names and your business,” growled the leader.
“I’m Tidus,” said the orc. He glanced up at me, mindful of my predicament. “This is my friend Clydesdale,” he added. His eyes sparkled, and I could tell that inside he was proud of his joke. I snorted, just loud enough for him to hear. “We’re heading south, making for Westfall Road,” he said.
It was the wrong answer. “Leaving town?” snarled the leader, the other two nodding behind their stiff helmets. “There’s a curfew on. The Scarlet Resurrection controls this area now. Get on home and stay there. Go on!” he yelled, shooing us back the way we’d come. We stepped backwards, and I began to breathe easy.
“Wait a tick,” said one of the other two. “I know the tall knacker.”
My heart stopped.
“Halt!” commanded the leader. Stupidly, I halted. “The bull?”
“Yeh!” said the other dimly. “I seen ‘im goin’ into the Cathedral. I think we caught ourselves a deserter!”
“Let’s have ‘im fer dessert,” said the third soldier, chuckling thickly into his helmet.
The leader unsheathed his sword, staring me down. I flinched. He glowered. “So,” he said swaggeringly. “Thought you’d skip town instead of honoring your debt to the Resurrection? Penalty for that’s death, and, just for fun, I think we’ll dish it out to your friend as well.” He stepped forward, his two hooligans in step behind him.
“Tidus?” I said out of the corner of my mouth.
“Clyde?” said Tidus.
“Run,” I said.
We turned, hooves and boots pounding the cobblestones. “We need an alley!” he yelled to me. He pointed, and we veered down a side-road. For a moment we were out of sight of our slower pursuers, and we ducked down the alley he’d spotted. It was dark, and we halted at its brick wall terminus. “How’s the weather in there?” I said, heaving for breath.
He held an arm up, and it crackled with energy. “Stormy!” he grinned. “Fight or flight?” he continued, glancing up at me. “You going bear or horse?” We’d never actually been in a battle together, but we’d enjoyed hashing out all scenarios.
I closed my eyes and let my name, its idea, wash over me. My hooves grew smaller, my legs skinnier; my arms reached down towards the ground, muscle stretching against bone; the hair on the back of my neck grew into a mane and I could feel my face growing long and slender. I stamped a hoof and whinnied, naked now, a gray stallion. Tidus cheered and, for only the third time since we’d been friends, boosted himself up onto my back.
The soldiers halted at the open end of our alley, swords drawn.
“I bet they didn’t see this coming,” laughed Tidus from my back, and I reared up on my hind legs. Tidus raised his arms over his head (his legs shaking as they dug fearfully into my sides) and electricity began to crackle up them. The hairs of my mane stood on end.
I planted my front feet, and then, snorting, I galloped towards the soldiers. Their eyes wide behind their helmets, the two thugs stepped backwards. Their leader stood his ground, and, in a twist that had never found its way into our self-amusing fight-planning, his sword was pointing straight at the base of my rapidly-approaching neck. Tidus, I thought, all you have to do is startle him a little…
And with a powerful yell and a deafening crackle of thunder, the orc brought his arms together and fired. A white-hot flash leapt at the Scarlet. It crackled down his outstretched sword and shot him backwards, through his two thugs and across the street. He landed, his blackened sword askew, a bit of steam rising from within his helmet. Aw, sweet, I thought.
As I pounded the rough cobblestones around bends and away from our enemies, Tidus slumped forward on my back, breathing shallowly. His weight shifted precariously, and, after a glance over my shoulder at the empty street behind us, I ducked down another side street. I knelt as the orc slipped off my back and landed heavily on the ground. He lay supine, breathing heavily as I pulled my body hurriedly back into the shape of a bull.
“Tidus?” I said, nudging him with my hoof. “You okay?”
He groaned and rolled over. “We rocked ‘em,” he said faintly.
“You rocked ‘em!” I exclaimed. “What happened to you back there? Too much lightning?”
“Yeah, something,” said the orc, climbing unsteadily to his feet. “I’ve never had that much… lightning energy, or whatever, go through me before,” he continued uncertainly. “I never had to mean it so bad, you know? You were gonna get a sword in the face if I didn’t do something. It’s like, it gave me the kick to make the whatever energy. I guess it was more than I knew how to handle,” he finished, grinning ruefully.
I grinned back at him. “It was a hell of a show, though,” I said. “You shocked that guy right across the street, knocked his two goons over too.”
“Heh,” said Tidus. “Those guys were total clichés.”
* * *
We walked south, through the rest of western Newton and passing into the northern reaches of the Shipping District. It was normally a surreal area, nothing but stark warehouses for miles, streets packed day and night with endless lines of monstrous, ponderous freight wagons, some pulled by horses and others by terrifying goblin steam engines. Tons and tons of food, nearly the city’s whole supply, passed through each day, on its way to markets from the goblins’ huge, mechanized farms in Westfall. Other things flowed the other direction, from the Industrial District to the north: swords, axes, pots, pans, gears and trusses, some of it bound for local markets, some for Lakeshire to the east, and some – the enormous gears and myriad other objects with less-obvious designations – were loaded on great wagons and sent west and then south, to the goblin-controlled port city of Booty Bay, where they were loaded on ships and sent off to no one quite knew where.
Now the wide warehouse gates were locked shut and the dark streets were empty. Eyes, some living and some mechanical, peered out from warehouse windows and dark alleys. None of them were welcoming.
“Creepy,” said Tidus.
“Sure is,” I replied quietly, and we hurried on.
Westfall Road ran the full width of southern Storm City, from the East End, where it was called Lakeshire Road as it ran off into Elwynn Forest, through Goldshire where it was lined with shops and called Broadway, to the Shipping District, where it became Westfall Road before passing off into the dark woods between Storm City and Westfall. I loved the road, or, more accurately, I loved the feeling of standing on something which I knew to be continuous across miles and miles of forest, city and farmland. It made me feel, somehow, like I was part of something larger.
The massive freight wagons were absent here, as well, replaced with a few late-night travelers, some haggard-looking families, their backs loaded high, pulling rickety hand-carts full of personal belongings, refugees, fleeing. I shook my head.
Tidus stepped confidently into the street and turned west. A quarter mile in that direction was the stream which marked city’s edge, where it turned rapidly from warehouses to thick, unsettled forest. I wanted to run, to get away from whatever was going on here, away from the Tooth and whatever sinister plans he had for me, but sheer curiosity held me back.
“Horse?” said Tidus. “C’mon!”
I stood, then glanced over my shoulder. “I’m not coming,” I said. “I have something I need to go do.”
“Seriously?” he said, creasing his forehead at me.
“Yeah,” I said. The Murloc’s injunction to not tell anyone anything held for a moment, but then, grimacing and shaking my head, I pulled the note out of my pocket. “I’m not supposed to show anyone this,” I said. It wasn’t the first time I’d said that. Tidus nodded dumbly.
I handed him the note. He read over it quickly. “The bite mark at the bottom,” he said, “that’s how Fang signs his edicts, right?”
I nodded. “Clever, right?”
Tidus laughed. “I guess.” He glanced from the note up to me. “You’re supposed to meet his agent at dawn. Dawn, as in, when the sun comes up later?”
“So you got this yesterday.”
“So…” and Tidus trailed off. “So Fang isn’t really dead.”
“Yeah,” I said. I inhaled, and then, “He was in his office when I snuck in,” I confessed, “he was waiting for me. Told me to tell everyone what I told you guys, said he’d been the ones keeping all the Orcmar stuff from catching up with me.”
“You’re kidding,” said Tidus, and for a moment I thought he would be angry. But then he handed the note back to me and said, “Fang was protecting you? And now he wants you— The Tooth himself wants you to go meet him. D’you know why?”
“A journey,” I replied, holding up the note. “That’s all I know.”
“Wow,” said Tidus again.
I laughed at my friend’s consternation. “That’s kinda been my reaction this whole time, like, complete confusion. It’s big and it’s crazy and I gotta go see where it—”
Something bright and glowing, a hallucinatory pattern or symbol, leapt out of Tidus’s face at me. I flinched, stepping instinctively backwards, but whatever it was dissipated.
Tidus cocked his head at me. “Horse?” he said. “What’s up?”
And then, with no warning, he grabbed his head and cried out in pain.
“Tidus!” I yelled, stepping forward. My friend collapsed to his knees, moaning, gritting his teeth, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “Tidus!” I repeated, but he didn’t respond.
Then he stopped. He opened his watering eyes and looked up at me. “Ow,” he said faintly.
“You okay?” I offered him a hand.
“What the hell was that?” he said, climbing slowly back to his feet. “A headache and there was ringing in my ears, like really high-pitched, and, ow. Oh, man.” He glanced at me. “So we should get out of here before that happens again, yeah?” he smiled faintly.
I nodded. “You sure you don’t wanna rest up a bit before you head out?” I said.
“Nah,” he said, “I’m okay. Let’s go.”
I tilted my head. “I’m going back into the city, remember?” I said slowly.
He laughed. “Dude, seriously? This place is gonna go to hell now that the Tooth is dead.”
I stared. It was as though we hadn’t talked. I glanced down at the note, about which I was supposed to tell no one. I shook my head in confusion. Had Fang just enforced his injunction to secrecy?
“What’s that?” said Tidus, pointing at the note.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said, and stuffed it hurriedly back in my pocket. “Er, Tidus,” I said, “I can’t go with you. I have something I gotta do.”
“What?” he said crossly.
I felt terrible – I was his second friend to run off without explanation in a night, but I didn’t want to risk him another searing pain episode. “I…” I stopped. “A quest,” I said.
The orc nodded heavily. “Fair enough,” he said. “Good luck, dude.”
“You too,” I said, and we shook hands awkwardly.
“See you,” he said.
I nodded. “Yeah definitely, I hope so,” I replied.
And Tidus turned and walked off down the road. Not for the first time, I sighed.