Now, you have to understand the effect that saying “Welcome to the Argent Dawn” has on someone. It would be sort of like closing your eyes, and then opening them, and having someone say “Welcome to the moon!” when you quite clearly hadn’t gone anywhere.
The Argent Dawn was an army of the light, formed more than six hundred years ago, to combat undead evil in the northlands. It had performed its duty, at first quietly, and then crescendoing, enlisting volunteers and mercenaries from every race and nation in the world. Evil couldn’t boast those kinds of numbers, and, after more than a decade of grueling conflict, the Dawn prevailed. I didn’t know the details – my Eastern history had never been sharp – but I did know that it hadn’t been quick, or easy, and the northern continent had paid a terrible price for the war. Even now, six hundred years later, there were rumors and rumors of evil things stirring in the northlands, always.
The idea of building an army of people from all the nations of the world, who all hated each other, was apparently too unstable to survive, and, its victory achieved, the Dawn had fragmented and faded from view. Since then, it had become a symbol of lost glory, used by politicians and demagogues to invoke the names of Good and Power, the ideals of cooperation towards a common goal. It was a powerful symbol, but it had been nothing but a dusty symbol for centuries.
In the intervening years, the racial tensions of the age had given way, and peace had reigned – but as Fang had suggested, it was an uneasy peace, born of darkness rather than enlightenment. Civilization had declined, here and in Kali: Kingdoms had given way to splintered kingdoms, then to city-states too lazy or busy, too concerned with survival or with local squabbles to be proud of their heritage. It might have been a good thing that a tauren walking around Storm City wasn’t given a second glance, but it certainly didn’t feel as glorious as the Glorious Old Days sounded in books.
But now here was the Argent Dawn, in the flesh, and so confident was Fang that they were working for good that questioning of loyalties was forbidden. Were they secure in their fine mansion, I wondered, uncaring or unaware of the greater misery? I suddenly remembered to resent the fine, intact, comfortable building through which we had passed.
The heavy doors swung open in front of Fang. On the other side of the stone archway, I could see a vast, red, round amphitheater-shaped room. The floor was flat and covered in thick red carpet, the same that covered the hallways. Sunlight fell on it from above. At its far edge, a curved wall rose up to my eye level. Above and behind the short wall was tiered seating, and the first two rows were filled: Women and men, humans, primarily, but orcs and gnomes and dwarves as well, all dressed elegantly.
Fang stepped forward into the center of the grand room, and I followed slowly. I looked up, squinting, and the ceiling was the great glass dome which I had seen from outside. The sun glared down at me, flooding harsh light over Fang and me and most of the seated aristocracy, or nobility, or whatever they were, sitting in a full circle around us. I felt like I’d been cast into a gladiatorial arena, and the absurd urge to summon Tidus and do battle with the Tooth overtook me for a moment.
I turned around to look at everyone. There were even a few trolls about, several pale elves, and a pair of naga. To my right, almost all the way around the seats to the door, sat a single man-sized, black, glittering spider.
“Fang, formerly the Tooth of Storm City, whom do you present to the Dawn?” said a voice behind me. I turned back around, and, opposite the door, just out of the blinding sunlight, stood a tall, thin human, wearing a black robe and black hood. The hood came down over his pale forehead, and ended just above his glowing yellow eyes. His face was bone white and gaunt. He held a simple, silver scepter, tipped with a silver star.
Fang glanced up at me. “This tauren’s name is Horse,” he said commandingly, formally, “and he calls nowhere his home.” That hit a little close to the nerve, and I clenched my jaw. “He lives in Storm City, and has shown his willingness to help me in my time of need.”
There was a snort to my left. “Ye did twist his arm a bit,” said a familiar voice. I looked over. The speaker was the dwarf who I had met the previous day at the Panda Pub. I tried to make eye contact, but the dwarf looked back towards the man in the black robe.
“Do you trust him?” said the man, to Fang.
“Well enough, for now,” replied the murloc. There was subdued muttering from around the hall. “He has not yet given me any reason to distrust him,” Fang continued. “I continue to test him, and I believe that he will be found trustworthy.”
The angry murmuring rose, and I heard a hissing behind me. I didn’t turn around to see whether it was the naga or the spider.
“You test him with the existence of our order,” said the man in black. “Quite a risk.”
“I know what I’m risking,” said the murloc coolly.
“You’d better,” said one of the orcs, but the man in black bowed his head to Fang and said, “Of course, you have never given this body reason to not trust your judgment.” There was no sarcasm in his voice. “Thank you for bringing Horse of No Kingdom before us.” He seated himself.
Fang bowed, then turned to me and said, with his voice lowered, “Stay here. Don’t speak until you are spoken to. Don’t go until you are dismissed.” He grabbed my arm again, with his clammy fin. “Don’t ask any questions,” he hissed. “I’ll explain everything later.” Then he walked back out the door, leaving me alone and defenseless in the arena. I glanced nervously around.
“So Fang the Tooth believes that this tauren is the man for the job,” said one of the blood elves, behind me. I turned. He was dressed in velvet green robes. “I have never before questioned his judgment, but perhaps in light of his recent and reckless abdication, we are right to question him about this decision?”
Yeah! I thought. Then I thought, What job?
“Not with Horse here,” said Fang, having come back in by a door above in the seating. He sat down. “I have discussed my recent actions with this body to the extent that I am able. If the elf would like to spill all his secrets in this public forum, perhaps we could arrange a trade?” He narrowed his red eyes and stared across the arena at the elf, who glowered, muttering something I didn’t catch. The elves seated around him muttered in reply.
“I can’t fully disclose my reasons for choosing Horse even when he leaves,” continued Fang, “but he is certainly the bull for the job.”
The mysteries were starting to wear on me. The orc who had spoken previously spoke my mind. “What have you told him about the task we’re about to ask him to perform?”
Nothing, I thought, peeved now at the murloc’s continued reticence. There was more going on here than I’d realized, and a little more preparation would have been nice.
“Only that it requires a journey,” said Fang simply. I snorted, quietly.
“He knows nothing?” cried the blood elf. “Are we to ask him sight unseen to cast himself off on a quest of such import?” Who says a quest of such import? I thought. Elves, that’s who.
“Precisely,” said Fang, smiling thinly. “Horse’s curiosity outpaces his bravery somewhat.” I glowered up at the murloc, but as he glanced down at me, he smiled – almost fondly, I thought. It was odd. “Although,” he continued, “if this body would like to give up all of its secrets before he has sworn to keep them, I won’t stand in the way.”
“He already knows we exist,” muttered one of the humans.
The man in the black robe rose to his feet again. He was still holding his silver scepter. “I’ll proceed, if there are no objections?” he said raspily.
“None that will be heard with the bull present,” said the blood elf sullenly, and his compatriots muttered in agreement.
“Very well,” said the man in black. “Horse,” and he turned and spoke directly to me for the first time. “You have been selected by Fang to serve an organization which you did not know existed. We would rather have a known quantity to work with, but most of us believe that Fang had good reasons to choose you. He is a trusted member of this order,” he said pointedly, at the elves, who had begun to mutter again.
He breathed for a moment. “There is a book,” he said, “which we believe to be somewhere within the cursed city of Lordaeron.” My nose grew cold at the word. “We believe—”
“We believe myths and rumors,” spoke one of the humans.
“We’ve been over this,” an orc growled back.
The man in black nodded. “We believe rumors,” he continued, “because the rumors demand respect: we believe that this book contains information which would be most dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“To put it mildly,” laughed the dwarf.
The man in black nodded again. “To put it mildly,” he agreed. “We have reason – firmer than rumors – to believe that this book is now being sought by agents of some evil. We need you,” and I held my breath, hoping that his next words weren’t, “to go to the northlands,” but they were. “The book must be kept safe, by whatever means are deemed necessary.”
“By all available means,” said another one of the other humans, who had not yet spoken. “If we believe myths and rumors, then protecting the book is certainly necessary.”
There was a chorus of agreement.
“Prince Madoran of Ironforge will accompany you as far north as his city,” continued the man in black, nodding to the dwarf, who nodded back. “I don’t know who else will follow with you to the north, but I trust Fang has assembled—”
The elves exploded. “The Dawn does not recognize Fang as its sole decision-maker!” cried one of them, to the right of the one in velvet, leaping to his feet and jabbing his finger at the murloc. “Is whoever is to accompany this tauren,” and the word was spoken with scorn, “to the northlands, on business of deadly importance to the Dawn and to the world, known to you?” he said at Fang. “Or were you planning to pick someone up off the streets of Storm City tonight on your way out?”
“Who I wish to send north with Horse is not a secret I intended to keep, nor was Andrew implying that it was,” replied Fang coolly, nodding to the man in black. “Pending the approval of this body, I am sending him with Katy M, who is well known to you all.”
There were murmurs from around the hall. “The Druid,” said the elf, with deep respect. He sat down.
“Ach, that’s great,” said Prince Madoran the dwarf, sounding genuinely happy.
Katy M, the Druid – who had yet shown no indication that she liked me. Do I have any say in this at all? I thought.
The bustle settled. “Horse,” said Andrew, the man in black, “we of course have to hear it from you and you alone. We will not pretend that this task will be easy, and you must keep it a secret from all but those in this room and their few confidants.”
I couldn’t help but think: Those jobs are always the most fun.
“Horse of No Kingdom,” said the man in black, “will you perform this service for the Argent Dawn and for the world?”
I sighed. There was a book, which if it fell into the wrong hands would – somehow – be bad for the world. What if I screwed it up? In my dreams I would one day be great, but I had failed so far to mirror those dreams in my life. But I had been chosen, and in the end it wasn’t something I could decline. I nodded.
“Having so sworn to keep our confidence, Prince Madoran and Fang the Tooth will explain the details of your journey and its importance to you later,” said the man in black. “Do you have any further questions for the Dawn?”
I looked up at Fang, who held my eyes. “No,” I said.
“Horse,” said Fang, “you are dismissed.”
* * *
Outside the arched doorway stood M. “Hello,” she growled. There was a faint smile on her hard face, and it seemed to me that she knew what I had just been through.
“Who?” I exploded. “Why? What book? We’re going alone, you who I barely know and me who I barely know, I mean who you barely know, and we’re going alone to the northern continent? Nobody lives there. Nobody goes there!” I quivered with bottled emotions.
“Keep your voice down in the hallways,” growled the bull, “and don’t shout about things which are secret. That, as a generally good idea.”
My nose burned, with fury at the condescension and with humiliation. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
With no further ceremony, or communication, she turned and walked off the way we’d come. With nothing to do but follow, I followed.
“Listen,” I said when we got back to the room, “I’m sorry I started yelling back there, but you don’t get to talk down to me like that just because you’re in the know, and because you’re a few years older than me.”
M smiled thinly at this, glancing at the bed. Ajax sat there, curled up on a pillow and watching us unconcernedly through half-closed eyes.
“I’m serious!” I cried.
“I believe you,” said the bull, looking sincerely back at me.
She strode purposefully over to the windows and threw the curtains open. Sunlight flooded in and blinded me for a moment. Ajax glanced up at his open window, then stretched luxuriously.
As my eyes adjusted, I looked outside. The view was magnificent: a thick forest began almost immediately, and immediately behind it, no more than a few hundred yards away, rose a cliff. It was craggy, with stubby trees and tufts of grass growing precariously out of it. It rose nearly straight up. Beyond it stood another line of peaks, and beyond that stood the mountains.
I shook my head. “Rich people have the best views,” I muttered.
M smiled. She moved to the corner, and with no apparent effort, hefted a pair of the comfy-looking chairs and set them down in the room’s center. She sat in one, and nodded me towards the other. I sat.
“So,” she said. “The Argent Dawn.”
I nodded, my curiosity piqued. “Was that the real Dawn?” I said.
“It was,” replied the other bull. “After the Scourge was defeated, many of its members thought that it had served its purpose, and its soldiers and the nations of the world were weary. The Dawn dissolved.
“The order’s leadership, though, knew that the magic of the Scourge was not something that could ever be destroyed: only dissipated. Having been created, the ichor of undeath on which scourged beings subsisted became an insoluble toxic waste that would continue to poison the lands where it had accumulated, essentially forever. Even with no guiding will behind it, the evil that was the Scourge has lived on, twisting everything that grows in the North, making it evil and unfit for life.” She grew sad as she said it, as though the loss of the land was as painful to her as the loss of nations.
I nodded slowly. “That’s why the northlands are dead. Forever, though?” I shook my head. “The world is going to have a big, dead, evil continent forever?”
“Two of them,” said M.
“Two continents?” I said, tilting my head. “The northlands and which?”
M shook her head and was silent for a moment, as though she had said too much. She glanced back at my orange tabby, who had fallen asleep.
“So,” I said hesitantly, urging her to continue, “that’s why the Argent Dawn is still around. Still fighting the same evil it was formed to defeat. It’s like it never quite won, and it never will.” That’s still inspiring, I thought, but certainly it was a different kind of symbol than the popular myth.
M narrowed her eyes at me. “Every night that Azeroth sleeps safe from evil is a victory for the Dawn.”
Oh. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to minimize your–”
She interrupted me with a wave of her hand. “Not mine,” she said. “Of course, we shouldn’t minimize the Dawn’s accomplishments in the Scourge War, either. Among other things, it united the whole world under one banner for a time, something that has only happened twice in written history. It also defeated the strongest will this world has ever seen.”
“And since then…” I was sitting, rapt, at the foot of my bed, just bleeding curiosity.
“Since then,” she said, “the Dawn has been fighting a different kind of war, a shadow war, against an enemy with no leadership or purpose. A secret organization, made of some of the most powerful people in the Eastern kingdoms, is perfectly able to do so.”
“And now,” I said, a little star-struck, “I’m working for that organization.”
“For now,” said M, “that organization is meant to think so.”
I grimaced at her again. “I don’t like all these double meanings,” I said.
M glanced at me again, and was silent for a moment.
The door opened, and Fang stepped in. “Where’s the beef?” he said cheerfully.
“Horse was just complaining about double meanings,” said M.
“Oh man,” said the murloc. “Get used to ‘em. You telling him about the quest?”
M shook her head. “The Dawn.”
“Ah,” said Fang. “A stand-up group of folks, even if they can’t agree on anything without the blood elves objecting ten ways from sundown.” He hauled his chair away from the desk and joined us in the middle of the room.
“So,” he said, sitting down, “you’re on a mighty quest now. No questions? I was certain you’d have questions.”
“Millions,” I muttered. “I just couldn’t decide which to ask first.”
“Good bull,” he grinned. “Well, the first thing you should know is that we weren’t kidding when we said that this is a really important mission. We don’t just send people to Lordaeron on a whim, you understand.”
I flinched as he said the word.
“How are we getting there?” I said. “Lakeshire Road?” I had no idea where it went after it reached Lakeshire, but I knew there were no roads leading north from Storm City.
“Certainly not,” said M.
“Yeh,” said Fang. “The traffic right now is unbelievable.”
“Traffic?” I said.
M and Fang glanced at each other. “Refugees,” said M after a moment. My breath caught in my throat. “Most of Storm City’s citizens, the ones that don’t have a cult to protect them, are fleeing.”
“Refugees,” I repeated.
“It’s safer for them on the road,” said M.
I glanced back and forth between the solemn bull and the uncaring murloc. “Is it really that bad out there?” I whispered.
“Yup,” Fang said casually. “Almost like a bunch of power-hungry hooligans are fighting in the streets and making everyone’s life miserable.”
I stared. I had slept my anger away before, when M had expressed her sorrow for Widget’s passing. Now it flared again, and her sorrow seemed like mockery. I glared at Fang. “You don’t even care,” I said accusingly. “She at least has the decency to say she cares,” and I pointed at M, “but not you, you just up and left, with no consideration for the consequences, with no consideration for the people!” For me, I meant.
“Oh good, we’re gonna do this again?” said Fang irritably. “I kept you people safe and happy for as long as I could.”
“And now you’re letting it all go to hell, why, just because the Law said it was time?”
“Yeah,” said Fang, shrugging helplessly. “You got it.”
His coolness raised my blood to the boiling point. “Who does the Law think it is?” I shouted. “My friends had to leave the city, my home burned down, that place was my home! For three years! My landlord is dead! The Panda Pub,” I cried, irrationally listing grievances, “and everyone’s jobs, the goblins shut down the factories and everyone turned into refugees over night—” I gasped for breath, tears of frustration blurring my vision. “You were in my friend’s mind!” I yelled.
“Huh?” said the murloc, looking genuinely confused. His eyes flitted about. Then, after a moment, he said, “Ah. I mean, I told you not to tell anyone about my note. That was your mistake.”
“Not my mistake!” I leapt to my feet. M got warily to hers. “That was you, you blindy-flashed his face and then he fell on the ground and started screaming and then he couldn’t remember what we’d been talking about! Stay out of my head, and stay the hell out of my friends’ heads,” I continued, furious. “You left Storm City, you let it burn, you destroy my home and then you run me around like I’m some kind of clown, you feed me no kind of information and you tear up my friend’s mind because I told him a little more than I was allowed to! My home….”
Fang stood slowly as well. “Keep your pants on, kid,” he hissed. “You’ll understand things soon enough.”
I snapped. I reached forward, grabbing the skinny little amphibian by his head and hauling him into the air. “No,” I gritted. “You don’t get to say, be patient, any more.”
There was a blinding flash of light, and I flew backwards, knocking my chair over. Transforming as I flew, I struck the wall as a thick-skinned, slathering, angry, horned brown bear. Fang leapt towards me, his hands glowing with white light. I leapt towards him as well, my enormous paws outstretched. Another brilliant flash smote me, stinging my face and side like a blade of fire. I staggered, then, gathering my wits, I bounded forward again, knocking the murloc over. He hit the ground beneath my paws with a sickening thud, and I pulled my body back into a bull.
I looked up. The room had gone dark. M stood in its center, her eyes on fire. A roar built in her chest and a whirling, glowing green mist began to swirl around her hands. I realized that I was staring at her in terror. The roar escaped, and it was bestial, filling the room and my head and my chest. The green mist in her hands condensed into a tiny bright point, too bright to look at, and then exploded out at me. It hit me as pure, elemental wrath, and flung me backwards to the floor.
“Attacking the Murloc angers the Tauren…” growled Katy M as my consciousness faded.
“Ow,” said the murloc dimly. “Heal him, get you both out of here, you know the drill.”