Somewhere, a clock struck midnight, and fatigue began to creep over me. If I hurry, I thought, maybe I can sneak back to my apartment and get a couple hours of sleep. I horsed up in a shadow and galloped off along the road.
Ahead along the wide street, I could hear another skirmish raging, and I cantered slower. There was what appeared to be a haphazard road-block, facing away from me, manned by tall, lurching bipedal monsters – which, as I drew closer, resolved themselves into steam-belching, mechanical beasts, each with a lever-pulling goblin perched precariously on top. I ducked down the first available side street.
The buildings changed swiftly from warehouses to former-warehouses-turned-artist-lofts, and I was in Goldshire Village. I ducked and weaved through narrow, nameless streets, avoiding the fights which were flaring every few blocks, until before long, I was lost.
I came to a street I half-recognized, and suddenly I was back in front of the Panda Pub. Its front door was open, sitting askew on its hinges. Curiosity, and a feeling of foreboding, pulled me towards it. I glanced around to make sure no one was looking, and de-horsed. I walked through the human-sized doorway, turning right along the short hallway that every pub and inn seemed to sport at the front door, and entered the dim room. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. The room was empty. Bar stools were upended, some hacked to bits. There were long gashes in the bar, and what looked like a burn mark from a fireball.
“Beer or death?” came a voice behind me with a thick pandaren accent. I whipped around. The fuzzy bartender was standing in the shadows along the pub’s front wall, legs planted in a battle stance, a look of wariness, and fury, on his face. His ceremonial sword was unsheathed and held over his head. There were dark splotches on the blade that did not look ceremonial. He was probably two short steps from ending me.
“Uh, beer please,” I said uncertainly.
The panda lowered his sword and moved sideways towards the bar. His eyes were on me, unblinking. I had only seen him maybe three or four times in my life, and he was well-known as a large and jovial presence. The shadow moving slowly away from me was shrunken: not with weakness, but like a coiled spring. There was nothing cheerful in his black pinprick eyes.
Nevertheless, it seemed that mere chaos didn’t stop business at the Panda Pub. He half-sheathed his sword across his back, pulled a two-pint glass out from under the bar. “You were here yesterday,” he said. “Stout?” I nodded, and he began pouring.
I moved carefully over to the bar. He set the lager down in front of me, and I threw some coins to the bar.
“You want gossip again, too?” said the panda darkly.
I grunted. “It’s not looking good,” I said. “The goblins have shut down the Shipping District and the Industrial one too, sent everyone home.”
“The Scarlets control Old Town,” he replied, “and the Hammer is fighting for the East End. There are fires in Newton and here in Goldshire. And two hours ago… they tried to fight in my pub.” He growled the last few words with fierce pride. “The yellow-clad ones bled red… ones that wore red, they bled the same color.” I smiled instinctively – the Panda was widely liked, and any battle in which he was the victor felt like justice.
This far south, the yellow-clad ones would be Twilight Hammer soldiers. The red-cloaked ones could have been the Scarlet Resurrection, but I wondered what they were doing down here in the Village.
“The murloc is dead,” he continued. “The Law is gone. His body confirmed it, and now there is war in the streets. Yesterday, this was my pub. Tonight I guard a fortress.”
I shook my head and took a sip of beer. No matter the danger, I thought. The prospect of being sent on a journey by the Tooth had been the thing I questioned most. Now, leaving the city seemed a foregone conclusion. All the bigger questions…
“What now?” I said. The bartender had seen so much of the city’s history pass through his bar. “What’s going to happen?”
“Who knows,” said the panda. “Never-ending battles in the street? Wars for land, street by street, like we haven’t seen before? Each cult had its own area before, but now, unless the Law returns, they will be barbarians, tyrants. We will all have to declare our loyalties to a cult or company, we will have to do as they say. I will not live that life, and neither will my pub.”
“Amen, brother,” I said. Screw the Scarlets.
I slugged back the rest of my beer and stood.
“Good luck,” said the panda.
I nodded. “Same to you and yours,” I said, nodding around. I left.
* * *
The night sky was lit a dull orange, with the great white moon peering periodically through the low-hanging clouds. A fine ash fell through the air like flurrying snow. There was fighting on the main streets, and on the side streets, families snuck south and east, their belongings strapped to their back. Doors were shut, and many ground-floor windows had boards over them or were shattered. This was not the vibrant culture which the Village had known days, and weeks, and for years before.
I galloped north, following streets whose layout I knew but whose appearance was alien. Occasionally, when the streets aligned properly and the three- and five-story buildings parted for a moment, I could see the Cathedral in the distance, glowing a dull red. It was a frightening sight.
The streets grew empty as I headed north. The desolation increased, with thicker layers of ash and more broken windows. A storefront had been blasted out, and there was a twisted human body lying across the dirty cobblestone street from it, too burnt to recognize gender. My hooves clip-clopped a bit slower for a moment, and I dropped my head at it.
The main roads had Scarlet-manned roadblocks – official-looking, premeditated-looking ones, not sideways tables and slapdash piles of furniture that had sufficed in other parts of town.
More problematically, the Scarlets had blocked the side roads as well. I shrunk my body from horse to cat, and, stilling my breath and every extraneous movement that I could, I became another shadow among the shadows.
I crept from recessed storefront doorway to recessed storefront doorway towards the checkpoint, easing through shadows and flitting across open spaces. The checkpoint was a waist-high wall set across the span of the narrow street, with a gap at the center barely wide enough for maybe a pair of people to walk abreast. A pair of guards – one armored and one robed – sat behind it on the left side, occasionally scanning the street and halting my approach, but mostly engrossed in what looked in the darkness to be a game of cards.
I paused in the last doorway, my body pressed against its near side, my heart pounding. I lowered my head as close to the ground as its accursed horns would let me, and peered around the corner. It was fifteen feet or so to the checkpoint, and I could make out the guards’ muttered conversation.
“Eighteen,” said the robed guard in a reedy voice. “I don’t like it, either – I should be at home with my wife, asleep in bed.”
“Or not asleep,” chuckled the armored guard. He held a card up to his face, squinting at it in the darkness, then laid it down. “Fourteen,” he said. I knew this game.
“Or not asleep,” said the other coolly. “I just wish the Tooth hadn’t died, is all. It’d make our lives a lot duller, yeh? Dull is good. Ten.” He laid down a card.
“Aye,” grunted the other in agreement.
Then silence, then the whisper of a card being laid on the table. I waited, ready, every muscle taut, for the thick-muscled guard to work the math out in his head, and then: “Seven.”
At first hiss of the word, my tightly-wound body sprung forward, dashing recklessly across the short span to the wall of the checkpoint. I eased myself against it and crouched low to the ground, out of sight.
There was silence. My hackles prickled.
“Did you see something?” said the reedy-voiced guard, shuffling his feet a scant few inches of thick wood away from my head. I halted my breathing.
“Thought so,” grunted the other.
Pregnant silence, and I pressed myself as tightly to the ground as I could. The robed guard stood – I was sure he could see me now – my heart pounding in my ears – and then, “Must’ve been a rat,” he said, and sat back down. I exhaled, wishing fervently for the familiar serenity of my apartment.
I inched silently forward, towards the checkpoint’s center gap. Behind the thick wooden wall, opposite the gap from the guards, lay a pair of backpacks and a small pile of supplies: some food and cooking utensils. The food held my eyes for a moment, but I shook hunger out of my head.
I eased another few inches into the gap, peering down the street. Another fifteen feet along was the next storefront doorway, too far to sneak and too close for comfort. I would have to make for it, but they would surely see me…
I reached a long paw forward towards the piled supplies, and, with a single claw, snagged the nearest thing I could reach – a small metal pot in a small drawstring bag. I pulled it towards me. I stared down at it, wishing for a moment that I could turn my paws alone back into tauren hands. I clawed awkwardly at the drawstring until it loosened, and then, claws sunk into the bag, I flung the pot. It flew out of its bag and sailed down the street, away from the checkpoint. I watched it traverse its arc, agonizingly slow, my eyes narrowed and muscles straining against tendons, and as it clattered noisily to the cobblestones I dashed madly for the doorway. I shrank into it and held my breath, my lungs aching.
The guards leapt to their feet, staring off towards the source of the noise. I breathed easy. Without a second thought, I left the guards and their mysterious flying pot and padded off into the night.
* * *
My apartment was gone. The whole building had been reduced to a heap of charred logs, lying twisted on top of each other. The building, structurally, was the same as it had been more than half a millennium ago, when it was built by human hands in the old Stormwind. Boards and beams had been swapped out as they grew old and brittle, but its pointed façade, its angular charm, was the same. Now, in a single night, it had been reduced to ash.
I stood on the street in front of the building, glad that I had taken Ajax and my mace when I’d left the night before. My most important possessions were hitched up in my backpack. Still, I missed my tiny apartment, and I’d been desperate for some rest. I felt suddenly lost again.
To my left, along the street, in front of the corner of the building, there was a small, black shape on the ground. It was a tiny burned body. It was missing an arm, but clutched in the other one was a tiny kitchen knife. It had been burned beyond recognition, but I didn’t need to see its features to recognize it. I choked up, suddenly, and knelt, saying a silent prayer. I guess that settles my rent debt, I thought.
Sudden anger overwhelmed me. My landlord had been good to me, had been a good person. And now he was dead, at the uncaring hands of the Scarlets. I wondered what he had done to deserve it – tried to defend his building, his home and mine?
Why has the Tooth abandoned us, I thought – why did he leave? No matter the danger, read the note, and I flashed back to the murloc in his office, calmly telling me to make peace with my friends. He knew it would come to this, I thought. He knew. I pulled the note out of my pocket and crumpled it in my fist. I threw it at the ground.
Then, with nothing else to do, I horsed up and, determined to either understand the Tooth’s motives or to exact Storm City’s vengeance upon him, I galloped off.
* * *
The bridge to the North End had been destroyed. Its substructure remained, jutting out over the quiet water, ending abruptly with a series of jagged hack marks. On the far side, it remained as well: not a bridge any more, but a short, horizontal wall keeping swimmers in the water and out of the North End. Spiked logs had been set in the bank to either side. The North End’s affluent had protected their own.
There was a small breech in the far bank’s fortifications some ways upstream, small enough for a scruffy, horned cat to slip through. I slipped into the water (the irony of a cat in water occurred to me, but I felt no feline distaste) and swam across. There might have been guards watching, but a skinny savannah cat didn’t attract any notice, and I made it up without incident.
I shook my fur free of water and turned back into a bull. I sat for a moment, wondering how I was supposed to find the Murloc’s agent with the bridge destroyed and under watch, when, from around a nearby corner, a lithe, low-to-the-ground shape streaked towards me. It stopped in front of me, and sat, purring. It was a large speckled cat, a cheetah, I thought, though I’d only ever seen pictures of them. It looked at me with intent in its eyes. “Agent?” I said, feeling a bit silly. How had it found me?
The cheetah wagged its head in what was clearly a nod.
“I’m early,” I said.
The cat unmistakably shrugged, then it turned, and as suddenly as it had arrived, it streaked off again.
I yelled after it, and then, with nothing else to do, I fell down on all fours, horsing up as I went, and galloped after it.
The waterfront was a maze of fortifications, but the cat streaked through them ahead of me, assured of its way. I thought I’d lost it several times, but it was always there, coming back into view a moment later, before disappearing around another bend.
Then, suddenly, we were out of the fortifications and into the North End. The streets were flat, well-kept cobblestone. The air was clear here, but for a light dusting of ash drifting peacefully in from the guttering slums to the west. Upscale shops stood quietly, their wide windows intact. A few early risers or late comers-home walked along as though nothing were out of the ordinary, and the district’s electric streetlamps glowed warmly.
We ran on, drawing occasional glances from passers-by. The shops and fine row-houses gave way to larger houses with back yards, and to mansions. The flat land gave way to sloping hills, which gave way suddenly to the mountains, cliffs of rock and grass.
The cobblestone road we were on ended abruptly in front of the last mansion. It was enormously long, five tall stories high, and on the roof, barely visible from the ground, stood a glowing crystal dome glittering toward the sky. Between us and it was a locked gate, and a long driveway ending in a cul-de-sac before the mansion’s columned portico. Off to the side was a line of horses tied to a rail.
A human ghost, dressed in a ghostly cummerbund, walked out from the gatehouse inside, and passed gracefully through the bars. “Hello, M,” he said with dignity to the cheetah, who made a noise in its throat in response. “The horse is here by your leave?”
The cat nodded.
“Very well,” said the ghost with dignity, and with a gesture the gate creaked open.
Still a horse, I followed M up the long driveway towards the mansion. I whinnied at the tied-up horses, and one of them tossed her head and whinnied back.
At the cul-de-sac, instead of going to the brightly lit front doorway, we went around to the east side of the house. Some light filtered in from the distant street, but my horse eyes were nearly blind in the dark. My narrow hooves sunk into the grass, moist with evening dew, and I shifted back into a bull. The cat stopped there, in the side yard shadows, and turned towards me.
Suddenly, its body began to swell, and its legs grew longer and thicker. Before my startled eyes, it rose up on its back legs, its paws turning into hands and hooves, its face lengthening and its forehead sprouting horns. Moments later, a tall, strong tauren stood before me, with a thick, spiked mace hanging at his side and a long, dark blue cloak and hood with holes for the horns. It was the bull from Widget’s pub.
“It’s you!” I said dumbly. “You’re a shape-shifter!”
“I’m a druid,” growled the other, “and you are too, even if you haven’t used the word since you left your homeland.”
“I’m not,” I said sullenly. Then, “And you have a name!”
“M is an honorarium, and it’s what you’ll call me when you honor me, which is always,” growled M dangerously.
Cowed, I nodded.
M turned and walked to a side door, hidden behind some bushes. It looked like the servant’s entrance: not hidden well, just well enough that the aristocracy could ignore it if it wished. M knocked heavily, three times. A moment later, the door creaked gently open.
The smells of roasting quail hit me hard, and I started salivating. We were in a stone kitchen, and some orcs were bustling around in aprons. One aproned orc was yelling at another, whose puffy white hat was somewhat shorter.
“It’s burned! It’s needed upstairs in two minutes and now it’s burned!”
“The word is burnt,” muttered the other orc sullenly, dabbing at a terribly burnt puff pastry of some kind, in a vain attempt to rescue it.
“You burned it!” said the first, his face twisting in what seemed to me to be unnecessary rage. “You burned it, it’s been burned, it’s burned!”
“Burnt,” said the other, sullenly.
The third orc was across the room from the others. He glanced at us sideways, and it seemed to me that he was checking me over. He glanced back down at what he was doing. “Both are acceptable,” he said quietly, to the others. We had passed inspection, I thought.
A narrow set of stone stairs stood in the corner, and we ascended it. They spiraled up, and doors opened periodically, into hallways and foyers and sometimes into solid brick walls. We ascended the stairs briskly, and I was out of breath. M wasn’t.
At the fourth door, we left the staircase, into a wide, high-ceilinged hallway, red-carpeted and lined with framed portraits of humans. Every few portraits stood a tall door, with white woodwork and golden knobs.
“Wow,” I said. M growled something which I decided was probably an injunction to silence.
M strode briskly off down the hallway and I followed, for what felt like minutes, until another hallway opened up to the left. We turned to follow it, then another, to the right. Then it ended at another tall, fancy door, and M knocked heavily. It sounded quite solid.
A familiar voice said, “Come in, quick-like.” M pushed the door open. I glanced up as we passed through the doorway: I didn’t have to duck to enter, and it felt good.
Fang the Tooth was sitting at a wooden desk in a padded high-backed chair, his back to us, his strange winged snake wrapped around his shoulders. The room’s walls were covered in fine tapestries, dark blues and reds, and between the tapestries the walls were white. The ceiling was covered in finely-sculpted plaster. The room’s two tall windows ran nearly to the ceiling, and down across each flowed white lace curtains with thick, velvet backings to keep the light out. Between the curtains, the first dim light of dawn seeped in.
In front of each window stood a bed, piled high with pillows and covered in a thick patterned quilt. The left one was blue; the right, green. A trio of comfortable-looking chairs sat in the corner.
Fang clutched a quill pen, scrawling away at a disheveled pile of papers. He glanced up and smiled toothily at us as we entered – a casual smile, as though a city weren’t burning.
“Hi Katy,” he said to the other bull. “Been out having fun?”
The other bull grunted in reply.
“Hello again, Horse,” continued Fang pleasantly. “Glad you made it – early even!”
“Yeah, well,” I said, “I was gonna grab a couple hours of shut-eye before dawn, but someone burned my apartment down.”
Fang nodded. “I’m glad you weren’t in it at the time,” he said, “although of course if you had been, I would have warned you.”
“I— not just me—” I sputtered, frustration growing.
Fang nodded. “I know,” he said, with something that seemed like sympathy. “So,” he continued brightly, “I understand you two have met, but I bet you’ve had a hell of a time getting any information out of Katy, right?” He smiled toothily and looked at the bull, who grunted unsmilingly.
“Right,” I grunted, my anger momentarily blunted. “Everyone knows me, but M or whoever,” and I jerked my head at the other bull, “won’t even tell me his name. I have to find out from the gatekeeper.”
There was a brief but uncomfortable pause. Fang inclined his head towards me slightly. “Katy M is a female,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, and my nose grew red. “Oh. Oops.” But, tauren females have udders. I gave up and moved on. “Okay, so…”
Moving on failed. I realized I was staring. The tauren standing opposite me, with broad, white horns and a fully-developed hump, was most definitely a male. And rather glaring at me. I moved on.
“So,” I continued, more confidently this time, “you sent me on a mission to spread a rumor which led directly to the complete upending of the peace in—”
“Peace,” laughed Fang, “is an overstatement. There was never peace in Storm City, only enforced détente.”
“Enforced by the Law,” I continued hotly, “until you left and let everything collapse. Which you knew would happen, you said I should come no matter the danger—”
Fang interrupted me with a hiss. “You’re angry at me for upsetting the status quo, right? The Law is the reason for the status quo. It’s the reason there was a nice calm city for you to live in for three happy years, and now it says that it’s time for a change. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
“Eggs!” I exclaimed. “They killed my landlord! He was a really good person…” I trailed off. Fatigue, and the enormity of the day, had finally begun to catch up with me. I bit the inside of my cheek, hard, to keep from breaking down entirely.
Fang sighed. “Katy,” he said, “you’re better at this stuff than I am…”
The other bull turned and looked me squarely in the eye. “Your landlord was a good gnome,” she growled gently, “and a good person. There are much bigger things going on here than you can possibly understand, bigger even than your good gnome. I’m sorry,” she said.
Sorry isn’t good enough, I thought. Despite my inner protests, though, sleep was rapidly overtaking me.
“You should get some rest,” she concluded, nodding towards the bed. “You’re going to need your wits about you this afternoon.”
I looked back and forth between them.
Fang nodded, satisfied, and turned back to his pile of paper. “Take the green bed,” he said over his shoulder. “The blue one’s mine. Not that I’ll be using it.”
“Where’s M sleeping?” I said blearily.
“You’re my guest here,” said Fang. “M, ostensibly, is here on other business than ours.”
“I should get back to that, in fact,” said M. She nodded to me, then, without further ado, she left.
Fang stood as well. He pulled the snake off his shoulders, coiled it up and tucked it gently into a small sack hanging at his side. He looked casual, friendly now – gone was the pretension, the aura of power with which he had talked down to me in his office, so long ago.
“Look, kid,” he said, “I know this is confusing.” He paused, putting words together in his head, and then gave up and sighed. “I’ll come get you in a few hours,” he finished.
I blinked heavily at him.
The murloc, the Tooth of Storm City, grabbed his pile of papers, then turned and left me alone.
I walked over to the green bed and set my backpack down on it. I pulled out my white cat-carrier and unlatched it.
Ajax jumped out onto the bed, looking around, a little spooked at first. He hopped cautiously off the bed and onto the stone floor. He trotted over to the door and sniffed around the crack at the bottom. Apparently satisfied, he returned to the bed, hopping up and demanding to be petted. I gripped him, with my thumb under one ear, a finger under the other and a finger wrapping almost around to his belly, and then began wiggling my digits in his short, orange fur. He purred madly. I smiled. “I still got you, right kiddo?” I said. He purred more.
I pushed some pillows around on the bed and lay down. The mattress was too short, but it was comfortable. Ajax walked from tip to toe of the bed a couple of times before settling down against my midsection, and, with his little patch of warmth to comfort me, I fell fast asleep.
* * *
The sound of the door clicking shut jarred me awake. I was still blearily tired, and to fatigue had been added a gnawing hunger. Something smelled delicious.
Ajax hopped off the bed and over to the desk, now clear of papers. He began munching on something. I sat up.
On the desk was a plate heaped high with something – quail, from the kitchen before, I thought. Ajax was helping himself. I leapt to my feet and dashed towards the food, swatting the cat away from it. He looked scandalized. I seized the accompanying fork and knife, and dug in.
Ajax stretched as high up the wall as he could. He unsheathed his claws against the hard plaster, and scraped them down. He glanced over his shoulder to see if I was wincing at the sound. I was.
As I finished eating, the door opened again, and I straightened up. Fang stepped in, smoking a cigarette.
“Glad to see you’re up,” he said casually. “Your presence is required at a meeting.” The friendliness had left him again: I was to do as I was told.
“Whose meeting?” I prickled.
“I’ll explain what you need to know on the way,” he said, and walked back out of the room. Grinding my teeth, I followed.
“Your former masters, the Scarlet Resurrection, believe that the end times are near, and that the end times will result in supremacy for the Scarlet Resurrection,” he began, his voice barely above a whisper as we walked rapidly down the red-carpeted hallway. “At best, they’re idiots. But surely you’d figured that out.” We turned right, down a new hallway. I was utterly lost.
“They’re right in some ways, though,” he continued. “Things are in motion now which will change many balances which have held for hundreds of years. Many people that had power will have it no longer, and some that do not will ascend.” He pulled hard on his cigarette, and the cherry blazed red. “Calling it the end times is a little dramatic. But it’s a pretty similar idea.”
I stayed silent. The feeling of not knowing what to say had intensified as the murloc spoke.
“Some of these changes are inevitable,” he said, “and some are necessary. Others, though, are what some would call,” and he looked intensely up at me, “evitable.” He wrinkled his forehead comically, and I laughed in spite of myself.
“For those of us that know which is which, our best hope is to make use of those that wish to prevent it all, and hope for the best. So, to answer your question very roughly, we are now going to a meeting with a group whose goal is to prevent the End of Times.” He exhaled smoke, and it made a ring around his blue head. It dissipated. He sounded quite serious.
“Preventing?” I said. “It sure feels like the end of times out there,” and I pointed off, in whichever direction I thought Storm City might lie.
Fang hissed to himself for a beat. “Well,” he said, “it’s not, so hush.” I furrowed my brow at him. “Lastly,” he continued, ignoring me, “you should know that you are about to see a group of powerful men and women, from many nations, who, utterly apart from political ties, are interested in the betterment of the world at large. Questioning of loyalties is forbidden in this place: there are no enemies here.”
The idea, as I understood it, sang suddenly in my mind, overwhelming my pique and anger for a moment. A union of powerful people bent on doing good….
“So who am I meeting?” I pressed. “The Law?”
He glanced up at me again, his brow wrinkled in earnest this time. “Don’t talk about such things in this place,” he said.
“You’re kidding,” I said, and my momentary good mood vanished.
“Patience,” hissed the murloc. “I’ve already told you more than you should know going into this room. I’m banking on your discretion, got it?”
I ground my teeth.
Fang halted in front of a pair of wide, ornate, arched wooden doors. They reached almost to the ceiling. He glanced up at me, and excitement flickered for a moment behind his red eyes. He turned, stepped boldly up to the doors, and, a fin against each, he pushed.
“Welcome,” he said, “to the Argent Dawn.”