Maybe a dozen zombie soldiers hurried after me – then two dozen – and then hundreds. They still shuffled, and were weighed down by their thick, uniform, spiked black armor – but instead of falling behind as my hooves pounded at the spongy ground, they just shuffled faster, their limbs moving with unnatural speed and precision. Here and there a leg cracked and buckled from the unnatural stress, and the unthinking, unfeeling remains of a sentient being collapsed to the ground, left behind by the Scourge Lord’s mind like so many discarded eyelashes. And on they shuffled, and on I ran.
The Law had flashed a symbol at me – not a subtle hint playing across the rough edges of a loaf of bread, but a bright, glowing one out of the darkness of the corridor that I was not intended to miss. Flee, it had said, and I’d complied. More symbols – the familiar warmer and colder – led me out into the courtyard, past where the headless bone dragon was feeling about for its monstrous skull, and up over the rubble of the collapsed Monastery wall. I bounded up it, my cat paws sure against the jagged mortar. Then I pushed away with all my hind legs’ might, and sailed out over the ravine through which Fang and I had entered the Monastery. My stomachs dropped precariously, not from the height – but from the sight, across the ravine, of the yellow-eyed army of the dead, amassed across the steep, rocky slope and beyond.
Bull, flashed the Law, and without thinking I shifted back into my natural form. I landed heavily – my hooves stung – and the sea of yellow eyes stared impassively on. The Law led me here, I thought, quelling rising panic. This is where I’m supposed to be.
One of the soldiers, in the first rank, turned its glowing eyes towards me, and then stepped menacingly forward. I stared at it for a sec, frozen in the moment in anticipation of some fresh instructions from my protector and guide, but none came, and the unliving thing was marching purposefully closer, so I turned and dropped to all fours and ran.
The Scourge army flashed by me – unaware for a few merciful seconds that a single soldier was not going to bring me in – but, as I reached the end of their ranks, their heads turned. I dug my hooves and fingers into the ground and ran a bit harder, my legs and my hammering heart and my rising terror not quite believing me that death was an acceptable outcome.
More and more of the spike-armored soldiers peeled off from their ranks and began shuffling after me – and soon there was a tidal wave of undeath surging after me. My nostrils flared, and I ground my teeth at the Law’s strange insistence that I go bull for them when I’d go faster as a horse. “I’m gonna change,” I gasped, and then, seeing no protest from the Law, I rearranged my stride – getting my limbs up off the ground just long enough to turn gracefully into a horse. I tossed my long head and glanced behind me. The wave of glowing-eyed soldiers was locked in hot pursuit.
But even their supernatural shuffling was still bipedal, and my four hooves began to slowly outpace them. Euphoria filled me as the ravine along which I barreled opened out into the plague forest proper. I dashed off through the plagued underbrush, and as the underbrush slowly gave way to the open, alien mushroom tree forest, their glowing eyes faded behind me.
I pulled myself back into a bull. My lungs and my limbs ached, and I slowed from a run to a jog, and then to a walk. There was no sound of an army in pursuit behind me.
The pounding of my equine heart slowed, and my rasping breath eased, and as the adrenaline rush of terror subsided, it was replaced with a dragging fatigue, and before long, I was seriously contemplating a plaguelands catnap. The distant thrum of a carrion grub across the dark and eerie plaguelands night made me consider for a moment the gruesome implications of resting my eyes unguarded in these woods, but in my fatigue, the argument that the Law would protect me held more sway than it had in my panic before. I quickly checked myself for open wounds – miraculously, there were none – and settled my back, pack and all, against a mushroom tree. I nodded my head to my chest, thinking, I’m only going to rest for a minute…
Something strong and otherworldly was pulling on my mind, and the crack between layers of reality opened before me again. I shook my head for a moment, struggling against the powerful sleep which reached out for me, and then plummeting in—
The air smelled sweet.
I cracked open my eyes. Looming over my face, perked up on his haunches and peering at me, was a familiar-looking red squirrel. I jumped and scrambled backwards.
Then I sighed. He was tiny, of course, and I was not. “Hi,” I said irritably.
The squirrel turned, implacable, bounced a few feet away, then turned back and waited. Something, some worrisome thought, sounded at the far edge of my consciousness, but the squirrel tilted his head at me, and I got to my hooves and followed him.
I glanced about as we walked. The peace which permeated this place settled on me now, and I marveled at the graceful shadows cast against the night sky by the giant ferns which loomed over us.
There was a whirling of feathers, and I jumped as something landed on my shoulder. I craned my neck and turned an eye towards it – and a pair of huge owl eyes stared back at me. The bird tilted its head at me and hooted hello. The squirrel had stopped, but as soon as I made eye contact, he bounded off again.
A shallow, bare hill rose ahead of us, and the squirrel bounded up to its peak. The sky opened up above me, and the moons hung in their natural orbits.
A shadow passed over the white moon, then, with a gentle rush of air and a nearly silent thump, the dark-haired elf woman who had welcomed me to the Dream on my last visit, landed next to me. I jumped, and the owl leapt off my shoulder and winged into the night.
“Welcome back,” said the elf coolly.
“You flew!” I cried. “I’ve never seen anything without wings fly before. Or, without mist to float on, I guess,” I faltered. Hannathras didn’t quite fly, exactly, but he wasn’t tethered to the ground, either.
“The Emerald Dream,” she replied stonily, “is an echo of the physical world, and it’s a realm where those who have particular control over their place in Nature’s web can wield its power in ways that transcend the rules of the physical realm.” I nodded, pretending to understand. “Here,” she continued, speaking precisely, her glowing eyes narrowed, “if you want to fly, simply shake off the ground and join the air.”
Oh. “How?” I said.
Without the courtesy of warning, the elf woman seized my arm. A warmth flowed from her hand, up my arm and into my body. It flowed easily up my neck, and as it settled in behind my eyes, I closed them and felt it – and as it crept over me, it dawned on me that through this elf, this being who felt suddenly much greater than her slender frame suggested, I was connected, albeit tenuously, to the whole of the natural world. The warmth of it filled my whole body, and for a long minute, I felt immeasurably at peace.
I opened my eyes, and with a (vague, distant) shock, I saw that the ground, which moments before had been firmly beneath me, was now hundreds of feet below, spread out dark in the moonlight. It wasn’t the highest I’d ever been, but it was the highest I’d ever been without a surefire hippogryph beneath me.
The shock intensified for a moment, and whatever worrisome thought had been nipping at my consciousness before returned for a moment – but the intense calm of the place returned, and it felt for a moment as thought it had been forced on me by my guide, the dark-haired night-elf woman who floated beside me in the sky, whose hand rested on my arm and held me aloft. I looked in wonder up at the white moon, hanging enormous above me.
From beyond the elf woman came an overwhelming voice, a sudden deluge of chaotic thought, as though something were waking up from a long sleep to discover everything it had worked for in sudden, unexpected peril. Your pride and fear are blinding you, it cried, and Let him go! it commanded, and then the elf woman, her eyes squeezed shut in pain, cried out and let go.
I plummeted. “Shake off the ground and join the air,” the elf had said, but the air tore at my bristles and my beard and my eyes, and the peace and calm had vanished from my mind, and the great fern forest rushed up at me—
—I gasped and sat bolt upright off the mushroom tree, suddenly awake, suddenly terrified, and the Law was flashing desperate symbols at me – be still, don’t breathe – and I obeyed. At first I couldn’t hear anything over the rushing of blood in my ears, but then, in the woods behind me, came a distant scritch-scritching, which resolved themselves into careful, almost silent footfalls. Cat form, commanded the Law, and I slipped into it and up onto my paws. I crept around the tree’s broad stalk, one paw silently in front of the other, and then gingerly peered around it.
Mere yards away from my tree stood an armored, decayed corpse, its blackened tongue hanging from the bottom of its jawless, flesh-encrusted skull, its glowing eyes pointed vacantly at the ground between us. Behind it was another, and off through the trees were a few – dozens – hundreds? – more, and I realized with a shock that the woods beyond me were filled with searching Scourge soldiers. I jerked back behind the mushroom’s stalk, my feline eyes wide, my feline heart beating in my throat.
Thoughts flashed through my mind – I was being tracked, of course, by the ill-concealed prints my hooffalls had made in the brown, spongiform ground – the Scourge knew I had witnessed its attack – maybe even knew I had witnessed Varimathras’ secret pact with Dathrohan – and of course they wanted me dead. I had been a lord’s fool to take a nap, and I’d woken up mere moments before I would have been discovered – and with that thought and the silent prayer that I was a too-dim shadow in the night, I streaked through the dimness, across the yawning chasm between me and the next mushroom tree away from the approaching front.
I glanced out from behind my new refuge. The pinpricks of yellow light advanced, but slowly still: I hadn’t been seen.
(Some part of my mind which had managed to avoid the panic which was consuming the rest of me mused with some interest on how intensely unpleasant the sight of the zombie had been. I’d never seen a rotten, mindless corpse standing upright at such close proximity before, and even in the night it had seemed far more repulsive than Rhy and her brand of undeath. I wondered vaguely at what a difference her presence of mind, her self-sentience, seemed to make.)
I’d woken up from my strange dream, just in the nick of time, but – the elf woman had tried to hold me there, even against the wishes of the voice – the powerful, so powerful voice that had echoed through her mind into mine out of the Dream’s dark night sky. The panic subsided for a moment as a feeling of profound misgiving took over.
I shook my head. Survival first. The panic returned with full force, and after a moment’s hesitation I streaked to another tree, then another, then another, and then I horsed up and galloped off as fast as my four thin legs would take me, away from the Scourge, advancing towards the civilized world which had nothing but me to warn it.
* * *
Ordinn was hurrying up the stone stairs towards me as I stepped blearily out onto Under City’s stone balcony, as though the dwarf had known the exact moment of my arrival. He probably had, I thought. He was carrying – mercifully – a skin full of water, and he handed it to me when he reached the top.
“The Scourge is coming,” I said quietly to him as I accepted it.
“We know,” he replied brusquely, and I deflated. I’d run hard. “Come on,” he said. “Emergency secret meeting, and you're needed.” He turned on his booted heel as I drained the water skin and started descending the stairs.
I creased my brow at him. “I just galloped half way across a continent for no good reason and I don't get to rest?” Plus I wanted to find Rhy – I hadn’t seen her since I’d disappeared with no warning some four days earlier.
Ordinn whirled about. Then he checked himself, glancing quickly around. There were people in view. He stumped back over to me. “You kidding?” he whispered, his bushy eyebrows half-way up his wrinkly forehead. “Emergency. Secret. Meeting. This should be the happiest day of your life.”
I grimaced down at him. One of these days, I thought as he turned and marched hurriedly off, I'm gonna accidentally step on you.
In the Living Quarters, Fang and Katy M sat in the two brown high-backed chairs, arranged in a circle with two others that had been produced since I'd left. “Grab a seat,” growled M. I collapsed gratefully into one of the empty chairs. “Hey, Fang,” I said, with the sudden strange feeling of giving a casual hullo to a being whose death I had so recently witnessed.
Ordinn entered behind me and settled onto the broad seat of the fourth chair. “Back to business,” he said brusquely. “There’s a massive army of corpses approaching.”
Fang turned to me and began, “I've been telling Katy and Ordinn about our—”, but I interrupted: “Varimathras has the book.”
“What's in it?” said M to Fang, with an edge of exasperation in her voice, as though even as the Scourge approached he’d been telling the story in the order in which it was exciting rather than the order in which it was important.
“It's a spell,” said Fang, his blue forehead creased in frustration, “with some pages ripped out, like what the hell it's for. One of its reagents is Nordrassil, though.” The world tree, I thought - the Crown of the Heavens.
“Nordrassil, you're kidding,” muttered M.
“Didn't you say its power was tapped?” I asked her. “Something about demon lords trying to destroy it.”
“I said I didn't know the whole story,” said the bull crossly. “If Varimathras is still trying to destroy it, then clearly he doesn't believe that his predecessors succeeded.”
“Varimathras has the book!” cried Fang. “How?”
I looked at him. “Dathrohan gave it to him,” I said simply. “Shook his big hand and told him all about it.”
Fang stared back at me, his jaw slack. M swore. Then she swore again. “So he's not a fake,” she sighed. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Fang shook his blue head. “A fake what?”
“Aiden Dathrohan,” began M, “was one of the founding members of the Scarlet Crusade. As the Crusade went off the brink of zealotry and became an enemy of Good, the Argent Dawn sent a massive raid against one of their bases. In the course of that battle - the Second Battle of Stratholm - Dathrohan revealed himself to be a Dread Lord in disguise, one of Varimathras’ ilk.”
“They kept calling each other 'brother',” I supplied. “And, I guess Varimathras tried to kill Dathrohan a long time ago.”
M grunted. “I don't know anything about that,” she said. “I guess it doesn't much matter, though: The Scarlet Resurrection is in league with the Scourge, and their aim is apparently the destruction of Nordrassil.”
At a sudden thought, I whirled on Fang. “You didn't know this? Weren't you and the Resurrection best friends in Storm City?”
“Oh sure,” shrugged Fang. “Dathrohan came over for tea and pajama parties, whenever his mom said it was okay.”
“They have Storm City,” muttered M, and she swore again.
“I'm serious!” I cried at Fang.
He shook his head. “I knew that their leadership operated out of the Monastery up here, and I’d even been there once, but not on any sort of deep, important business. The highest official I'd ever interacted with in the City was its High Abbot. Never had any reason to go higher - they were model citizens, far as I was concerned.”
Model citizens my ass, I thought sourly. “And now they control the place. And have enough reach to try to assassinate me over in Kali.”
M looked over at this. “Did you find anything out about that?”
I shook my head. “Dathrohan had heard of me, though - said something about a bull named Horse sounding familiar.” Wow, I thought suddenly - important people know me. In spite of the situation, I cracked a small smile. Then I remembered the deadly circumstances of that acquaintance, and my smile vanished.
“How did you come up?” said Fang, looking suddenly, piercingly up at me.
I faltered. I had come up because the Law had come up, but for whatever reason the Law had told me not to discuss that fact. A pattern played about in the scales on Fang's forehead, and I squinted at them. It was a familiar symbol: Remember, it said.
I thought fast. “Varimathras thought he'd killed you,” I replied, “so when Dathrohan said you'd showed up, he wanted to know if I had too.” True story, I thought.
“They didn't see you, though, right?” pressed Fang, his eyes narrowed suspiciously at me.
“Nope,” I said. Then with a sudden chill, I thought, what about the Scourge soldiers? Did the Scourge Lord really see out of their eyes, all of their eyes at once? They had seen me well enough to chase me, to track me across miles and miles of plaguewood.
“Whew!” said the murloc. “Disaster averted.”
I furrowed my brow and wondered.
M spoke up again. “Did you find anything else out about the spell?”
“The moons, and the scepter,” I prompted.
“Right,” nodded Fang. “Its casting requires waiting until the moons come into alignment - which is pretty easy to do these days - and it requires the use of a scepter, a jeweled scepter called... the Giant's Scepter, or something?”
M shrugged, and glanced at me. I suddenly remembered some words that had passed in the round, red room at the end of the library: “It's been lost but not destroyed,” I blurted. Then I glanced around. “That's what Dathrohan told Varimathras about it.”
“Did he tell him what it was for?”
I furrowed my brow and wracked my memory, but he hadn't. I shook my head.
Then, at the center of our circle, a bright white symbol flashed up from the ground, then another. Everybody get packing, they read. No one spoke for a moment, but everyone was looking at the same spot - “You all get that?” said Ordinn.
“Yup,” said Fang, and he hopped down off the chair. “What do you guys figure, we're evacuating before the Scourge gets here?”
“Good gracious I hope so,” said Ordinn, and he hopped down off of his. “Looks like the meeting's over,” he added to me. “Hope you enjoyed it.”
* * *
A Forsaken guard arrived the instant we’d finished packing. “We’ve begun sealing the gates,” he said stonily. Ordinn nodded his thanks, assured the guard that we’d be out in time, and then, with a glance over his shoulder at the rest of us, he shouldered his pack and left.
“Wait, sealing the gates?” I said to M as we hurried out of the Living Quarters. “Why are they sealing the gates?”
M glanced sidelong at me. “The Scourge is coming,” she replied. “The War Council has…” She paused as we swept through the curtain of obsidian beads and into the long black hallway through which Hannathras had chased me so long ago. “Sylvanas has decided that the future of her people is more important than joining the larger fight against evil. Under City is self-sufficient; the Forsaken are sealing themselves in for a siege.”
Oh no, I thought. “Rhy!”
“No time to find your girlfriend,” said Ordinn, “unless you want to get sealed in this coffin yourself. Under City is only self-sufficient for the dead.”
“Where are Allyndil and Anduin and Madoran, or whoever’s around?”
“We’re the last living beings in Under City,” answered Fang. “Anduin left yesterday, and Madoran hasn’t been here since the Battle of the Book.”
Huh, I thought. Ordinn had told me, days ago when I’d arrived, that the dwarf king had been less cooperative than expected, and I again wondered why.
We hurried briskly along the promenades of Under City, up over the ichor on the stone bridge which had collapsed out from under me the last time I’d crossed it, and through the archway out of which Rhy had fireballed Hannathras’ evil orcs – all of whom had been unknowingly working for the Scarlet Resurrection, I thought. Then we crossed into the War Quarter. Its massive stock-piles of armor and weaponry had disappeared. I realized now what I’d only vaguely noticed before: that every single Forsaken we passed was armored and armed to the teeth. It wasn’t as though the civilians had retreated, as they had as the Battle of the Book broke over them – there were no more civilians here, I thought. The whole of the Forsaken nation was here, and armed, and ready to defend their home. It was inspiring for a moment, and for a moment my old desire to see the races regain their old prides flickered to life again. But Under City was being sealed, and we were losing these soldiers. The ranks of whatever army we could muster against the ceaseless Scourge were being split before the army had even formed. The red-bearded dwarf and his gnome friend Cherubim whom I’d met in Crossroads came to mind.
We passed over the ichor and back out of the War Quarter. We had mounted the stone steps up towards the city’s stone balcony exit when a shout rang out behind me – “Horse!” – and I stopped short and whirled around. Rhy was hurrying after us, her Lieutenant’s robes billowing and a glint of purple in her yellow eyes. “Horse!” she shouted again, and I ran back down the stairs as fast as my hooves would carry me, and then she was upon me, her eyes sparking furious green. “Stop–” she yelled, “dis–” and she was pummeling my chest with her fists, “–appearing! Stop dying on me!”
I grabbed her arms, harder than I meant to. “You’re sealing yourself in your stupid city,” I replied shakily. “I don’t even get to see you again until the end of this war, if we even survive?”
She wrenched her arms out of my hands in a fury. “Careful there, Breather,” she spat derisively, “you don’t want to catch the Cold.” She stopped, looking miserably up at me, and sudden regret overwhelmed me – “I’m sorry,” I said, and, “Of course we’ll survive,” she said, and then we were staring at each other miserably again.
I spoke first, still shakily. “What do you mean, of course we’ll survive? Have you seen the Scourge, this new one? You think you can survive by just shutting the doors and hoping they’ll go away?”
“Yes, Horse, I do,” she replied, her pale forehead creased. “We eat mushrooms and ichor, we live underground! We were always going to end up hunkering down and waiting it out.”
“You knew it would come to this and you didn’t tell me?” I cried irrationally.
“Horse,” and she was staring up at me with her big glowing eyes wide, “what kind of battle did you think we were preparing to fight? We’re not going to fight to stop the Scourge – I’m not even sure that’s possible any more. We’re going to do what we have to to protect our home.”
“So you’re sure you’ll survive, is what you mean. You’re abandoning the rest of the world is what you’re doing,” I gritted, sure for the moment that the Forsaken army was the lynchpin in some unformed plan for success.
Rhy shook her head. Then, “The rest of the world abandoned us a long time ago. Maybe if the world weren’t on the brink of war we could all go and make friends. I’d really hoped,” she added quietly. “But the black book is gone and the Scourge Lord is free, and we have to hold onto our home. It’s all we have.”
I was on the verge of tears – with guilt, with frustration, with a vague sense of betrayal, and with an overwhelming sense of finality. She stared up at me and saw it. She squeezed her eyes shut, and then turned away.
An illusory shape moved through her coarse, black hair – Try, it read, and then it blended with another, convince her to come.
“Rhy!” I cried, sudden hope welling up in me. “Come with us!” I heard Ordinn curse behind me.
She whirled back around, a broad, almost tearful smile on her pale face, and she rushed back at me and threw her bony arms around me. She grinned up at me. “Of course you’ll survive. You’re Horse!”
“Horse,” boomed Ordinn’s voice from the top of the stone stairs, “the time for leaving is now!”
“Come with us,” I pleaded. “We need you. You’re awesome, you shoot fireballs and do crazy stuff with purple light.”
Rhy’s eyes lit up for a moment, but they dimmed again – “I’m sorry,” she said. “I still can’t. They don’t need me, though – they’ve got you. I’m serious,” she said as I snorted. “And I’m gonna miss you like crazy. Again, you big towering jerk.”
“Horse!” shouted Ordinn.
“Get out of here,” smiled Rhy. “There’s no water down here, and I hear the mushrooms we eat taste awful if you’re still alive.”
“Bye,” I said numbly. “See you.”
“See you, Horse. Kick ass for me.” Then she turned and was gone.
The tunnel was lined with Forsaken soldiers, fully armored and wielding massive blades, and a stream of armored workers was coming to and fro, carrying massive stones or metalwork pieces over their shoulders or on sledges between them. We reached the mouth of the tunnel, but it barely existed any more: it had been nearly completely walled off since I’d arrived. A narrow porthole remained, and an impatient-looking foreman stood beside it. “You’re late,” he hissed through rotten, nearly-absent lips.
“Sorry,” said Ordinn gruffly, but to my relief he didn’t single me out. M boosted him up to the hole, and he climbed out of Under City. She boosted Fang next, then waved me through.
The outer wall’s gate stood open. Where guards had stood before, now there was no one. We stepped through and out into the oppressive plaguelands.
“Ordinn,” I said dully, “did you know they were going to end up just sealing themselves in?”
“No,” said Ordinn, “not for sure. I’d love to keep chatting, but I’ve got a date.”
“Oh, where?” said M beside me.
“Ironforge. South by sea. I didn’t make many friends there, but I certainly know all the important people.”
“Good luck,” said M.
“Have fun!” said Fang.
“Bye,” I muttered.
“Don’t forget to write,” replied the dwarf in kind, and then he turned and set out along the cliff’s face.
M turned to me and Fang. “East and quickly,” she said. “The eastern prong of the Scourge is going to cut off your retreat in an hour or so.”
“Yikes,” I said, and meant it. The sealing of Under City and my failure to convince Rhy to leave with us had left me with nagging, unsettling questions to put to words, but this drove them from my mind – and my stomachs clenched at the reality, the inevitability, of the army we faced. Then, “So where are you going?” I said faintly.
“Same place,” replied M. “Just, faster.”
She gathered her legs under her, then, with a leap and a rush of feathers, a black storm-crow flapped about us for a moment, gathering air under its wings. It arced off gracefully into the brown sky.
“Cool,” I breathed, staring after her. “I wanna be able to do that.”
“Hey Horse,” said Fang, looking impatiently up at me.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“Horse!” He made a little running motion with his fingers.
“Oh!” I said, embarrassed.
I hesitated a moment longer – it had always been a mark of pride that I’d never bourn any but my closest friends. But, somewhere off in the alien trees, the Scourge was hurtling towards us, and we had miles to cover in a terrifyingly short period of time. I filled my lungs with the plagueland’s ill-smelling air, and in the blink of an eye I had four slender hooves and a gray mane. I knelt onto my front knees – a painful prospect on anything but the plagueland’s spongy ground – and Fang clambered up.
We set out along the open scar of land between the cliff and the plaguewoods. The cliff broke and we crossed the ancient road leading south, past the ruins of Lordaeron’s ancient capital – a crumbled wall and a few crumbling spires off to our right.
Beyond, I caught the green gleam of another lake of ichor. A steep, snow-covered range of mountains rose from its distant shore. Another, lower and snowless, rose on the horizon ahead of us – I remembered that the ancient road east ran through an easy pass, but the Law was guiding me south of it, flashing the familiar Warmer and Colder symbols at me as I ran. Then the plaguewoods closed in around us, and the widely-spaced mushroom trees streaked by as my hooves pounded at the soft ground.
I thought back to the previous day’s journey along the land’s northern shore – it seemed like a stroll on the beach now, and I longed for it. I’d run all night and much of the morning on almost no sleep and no restful sleep whatsoever, and now I was doing it again.
Warmer, said the Law. I pounded on.
The thick brown northlands pall closed in overhead, and the sun – dimly visible before – faded from view. The land rose, becoming rocky, and the mushroom trees shrank to mushroom bushes, and we were in the mountains. The afternoon had faded to evening, which brightened for a few moments as the sun shone through the thinner clouds behind us. I turned for a moment to look at it. There was Lordaeron’s capital city to the west, with its great ichor lake, and beyond I could make out the cliffs which stood above Under City. I sighed.
The ancient imperial road which snaked through the plaguelands was visible to the north as a break in the treetops – and as I peered at it, I suddenly caught movement. It was a mass of moving bodies, of marching soldiers – and with a jolt I recognized the black-clad soldiers of the Scourge. I peered closer – behind and below us, across miles and miles of plaguewoods, the spaces between the mushroom tree caps writhed the same slithering movement. My nose grew cold.
“C’mon, kid,” said Fang, touching the side of my neck. “We’re not safe yet.” With one last look at the cliffs beyond the crumbled city, I turned and galloped off.
As the night settled about us, the mountains grew steeper and my footing less sure. The incline rapidly sapped what strength I had left. Flickers of light like glowing eyes appeared at the edge of my vision, certainly invented by my fatigued mind, and fear kept me running for a time. But soon I had slowed to a canter, then to a trot, and then, in the blackness, the Law flashed, You are safe. Relief flooded through me, and I came to a stop. Fang slid down off my back, and I shifted back into a bull.
“The Law says we’re safe now,” I said.
Fang nodded. “I figured. Gonna get some sleep?”
“Oh god yes,” I breathed, and, fatigue overpowering hunger, I collapsed to the ground.
“I’m keeping watch,” declared Fang.
“But the Law told me we’re safe!” I said drowsily.
“The Law told me to keep watch,” replied Fang, and he settled down onto a rock.
I wished for a moment that I could sleep as a bear, whose extra padding would make for a more comfortable night, but sleeping in shape-shifted form had always left me feeling fuzzy and unfocused the next morning. Then I wondered if that had been another side-effect, another problem with being half-shifted, with the shape of a bear but the body and the mind of a bull – and I hauled myself up to my hands and knees, and with the ease and grace which the golden-eyed elf had taught me, I slipped into the form of a bear. I breathed in, my broad, brown frame swelling, then I settled comfortably onto the ground and closed my eyes.
In moments, I had been pulled through the fissure between layers of reality. I opened my eyes apprehensively – the night-fallen fern forest arched over me, but I was alone. I shuffled to my feet – still a bear, here in this strange dream of a world – and looked around, expecting the routine greeting from the tiny red squirrel. My narrow clearing was empty.
Shifting shapes here was even easier than in the waking world, so easy that I barely had to think it before the power of the place washed over me and reformed my body and mind. With effortless concentration, I turned lion’s ears to the wilderness. There was the chirp of some insect – not quite a cricket, but perhaps related – and little else. Then my ears grew accustomed to the silence, and it filled with animal rustles and far-off padding footfalls and the whispering wind in the fern-boughs high above me. I realized with a start that I hadn’t paid mind to this place since my first visit, weeks ago. I sat back on my haunches, closed my cat eyes, and just listened.
I had been terrified of my next meeting in this dreaming place – it had at least seemed like my guide had knowingly held me in the dream almost to my death – but how do you ask a flying elf-woman whether she had tried to kill you, or whether it was maybe all just a misunderstanding?
But, instead, I was alone. I felt suddenly helpless.
I don’t need her, I thought impulsively – she tried to kill me, didn’t she? Or so the voice in the sky seemed to think. What had that terrible voice said… something about blinding pride and fear. Who knows.
You’re here for a reason, I thought more firmly, and then in a blink I was a bull, and climbed to my hooves. “I’m here for a reason,” I cried at the fern trees, suddenly tired of helplessness. “You can’t argue with that. You’re here because the Dreamer wants to see you,” I continued to myself, “because the world’s ancient designs hang by a thread.” Whatever that means. I sighed and sat back down, cross-legged, absent-mindedly brushing dirt off the edge of my hoof.
In this place, the elf woman had said, if you want to fly, simply shake off the ground and join the air. Worrying wasn’t going to get me any closer to returning to the Dreamer, the mysterious green-haired woman on the hill. So instead of worrying I breathed in the night wind and closed my eyes.
And for the first time in years, I thought, nothing.
My mind settled into patterns that it hadn’t been able to settle into since I’d fled Mulgore, since even a year or more before then. The voice of Hokato Runetotem floated over the night noises, instructing me, and I followed, breathing out myself and breathing in the world.
* * *
Hours later, I awoke gently from my meditation. Fang was nudging me with a toe in the darkness. I rolled over: I had shifted back into a bull in my sleep, and my neck was cramped. I felt as though I’d slept quite well for half the night and would very much like to go on sleeping well for the rest of it. “Break’s over,” hissed Fang quietly. I grumbled and hauled myself to my hooves.
We picked our way higher across the increasingly rocky terrain, Fang hissing in pain periodically as he stubbed his soft toes. I silently thanked my hooves for being hard.
The sun rose ahead of us as we crested the mountains and began picking our way carefully down the far side. The Law continued flashing its guidance at me, though Fang was blind to it. “It spreads the love,” the murloc had explained when I’d wondered at this. “You’re one of us now – if the Law feels like having you guide us for a while, then so be it.”
“But couldn’t you just say, like, give me your dessert, the Law says so?”
“Sure,” laughed Fang, “and I fully intend to next time we’re sitting down to dessert. If the Law doesn’t want you to be fooled, it’ll let you know. If it doesn’t let you know, then you damn well better give me your dessert.”
I laughed in return. Fair enough, I thought.
Before noon we had reached flat land again, and Fang again told me to horse up. I hesitated another moment, but the little blue murloc was a friend after all, and as good a friend as I had in this land… now that Rhy was locked in her tomb city, now that I’d failed to convince her to come along. I horsed up, knelt down, and thought firmly about other things.
The Law led me on, and before long a dim, ancient pathway appeared beneath my horse hooves – the ancient imperial road which Anduin and Madoran had led us along from Uther’s Tomb toward our ill-fated confrontation with Hannathras’ shadow wizards. I realized that in my fervor to escape the clutches of the approaching Scourge, I hadn’t bothered to wonder where the Law was leading me, and as the ancient road flew by beneath me, I hoped fervently that it was Uther’s Tomb.
Hours on, Fang halted me with a touch to the neck. He slid to the ground, and, Bull, flashed the Law. I shifted. “What’s up? Danger?” I whispered.
“Nah. People ahead, though, who might want to be able to recognize you when they see you.”
“People in the plaguelands?” I began to ask, but Fang was already marching onward. I shrugged and followed.
Before long, rhythmic sounds echoed from ahead in the afternoon gloom, like hammer falls, and then I could hear baritone voices singing rhythmic songs, and then the forest on either side of the road opened up. I stared, eyes wide, at the remnants of the plaguewoods – the mushroom trees and spongy ground had been converted wholesale into an acres-wide strip mine. In it, dwarves, wearing thick gloves and boots and goggles, swung mallets at wedges, driving them beneath great white marble blocks – the same stone of which the ruined tower of Andorhal had been carved.
“Allyndil told me that they were mining Andorhal,” I murmured to Fang, eyes wide.
“Cool, huh?” replied the murloc. “Mining ruins is easy, especially if you like the same shape rocks as the ruin’s architects did.”
An earthen ramp descended the several feet down into the stripped scar, and we descended and began threading our way across it.
A strange thing began happening: Dwarves, seeing us pass, stopped singing and stared. They elbowed each other, eyes wide, whispering hurriedly and nodding fervently. Soon they were dropping their mallets and hurrying after us, shouting to each other in their native tongue, and then, “Stop here,” said Fang. We stopped. “Turn around,” he said. I turned around. He did not.
The army of dwarven miners had stopped as well, and they stared up at me, eager, excited. My nose burned suddenly, brightly, red.
“Smile,” said Fang, and I forced a smile. “Wave.” I did. “What the hell is going on?” I hissed at him out of the side of my mouth.
The dwarves began chanting, scattered at first, then with growing certainty – “Show us the bear!” they chanted, and they cheered. The Battle of Ironforge, I thought with a jolt. They remember me from the battle, and from Madoran’s speech afterwards. My mouth went dry.
“Raise your hand,” hissed Fang, his back to them.
I raised my hand, and the mass of dwarves fell instantly silent. A thrill ran through me.
“I will show the enemy the bear when the enemy comes,” whispered Fang.
“I will show the enemy the bear when the enemy comes,” I cried.
“And not before.”
“And not before!” The dwarves cheered.
I made to turn back around, but Fang stayed me with a fin. “I have traveled far since we liberated Ironforge,” he hissed.
“I have to keep talking?” I hissed back.
“They’re expecting a rousing speech and the Law has one written for you, so speak!” he hissed irritably.
I paused. Then, “I have traveled far since we liberated Ironforge,” I cried to the crowd.
“I have seen many things,” hissed Fang hurriedly, and I repeated it loudly: “I have seen many things… I have seen for myself what you have all certainly heard: The evil which your work fortifies us against is grave, the gravest evil that the world has faced in any of our lifetimes. Now it is on the move!” I crescendoed, falling into the rhythm of the speech. “It has already attacked the Forsaken city to the west, and although the city still stands, we can expect no more help from that nation – and it cannot be long before the Scourge turns its attention to us! So work hard and work well. The world may depend on it.”
The dwarves nodded somberly to each other, and chorus of husky “hear hear!”s rang out. In spite of myself, and in spite of the gravity of the situation, I grinned. “Stop grinning,” hissed Fang, elbowing me in the knee. “Now wave again,” he said, “and turn back around.” I did so. “And now,” he finished, “we go.”
“Woah,” I said, as we marched purposefully away.
“Good job back there, kid. You’re a natural.”
I smiled breathlessly, my heart hammering against the inside of my ribs. “That was something. I wish I could do that kind of thing without you and the Law prompting me.”
“Ah, don’t sweat it,” shrugged Fang, waving a fin, “you just got training wheels on for now.”
The crumbled stone bridge over the ichor stream had been rebuilt, broad and sturdy, and teams of dwarves were chanting and hauling blocks across it, thick logs beneath them as bearings. They glanced up, and some of them muttered among themselves as the others had done. “Give ‘em a wave, you big national hero,” said Fang jocularly, and I waved.
“The Law could tell me some of this stuff itself, you know.”
“The Law didn’t tell me that last one,” he winked. I frowned down at him. “Besides, you don’t speak its language very well yet – there’s only so much it can tell you itself before your next big headache. Which I’d expect next time you’re safe, incidentally,” he added.
“Great,” I muttered. “Let’s keep to danger.”
We marched for another hour, within sight of the low cliff to the south. “Glad you’re paying attention,” replied the murloc when I asked if we were in fact heading to Anduin’s monastery.
Far ahead in the gloom, an unnaturally straight line caught my eye through the trees, and then another. Whatever we were approaching disappeared again in the trees, but then the trees vanished – and across a wide stretch of cleared land stood half-built battlements, rising white and mightily against the thick brown sky. It was Uther’s Tomb, but the small, self-sufficient monastery was a massive fortress now. The stretch of wall which had been completed bristled with military machinery: trebuchets and catapults and great, man-sized crossbows, and slots for archers were inset every few dozen feet into the towering white walls. Dwarves clambered up and down great rope ladders, expertly shaping the huge stone blocks as they hung from massive pulleys, then guiding them into place.
I gawped at it, amazed. “I thought this kind of thing took years to build.”
“Not if you’re building it with the collective gittup-and-go of the entire dwarven nation,” said Fang. “They as good as learn architecture from birth, and there are stacks a mile high in Ironforge of theoretical blueprints for any kind of building you could want. I guess they were chomping at the bit to have a go at actually putting one up – all their king had to do was release the funds and set his people loose.”
We followed the wall around, skirting the wide work zone, to the thick gate. It stood open, its beams and steel reinforcements thicker than me, and it stood almost twice my height. The walls loomed over us. Dwarves hastened in and out, carrying rolled-up papers and broken tools and great buckets of bolts. “Where did they get all this stuff?” I marveled.
“A lot of it is from Ironforge, and a bunch of it the Forsaken provided.”
“That’s nice of them,” I said, with a slight and unintentional edge.
We slipped into the bustling stream of dwarves and passed through the high gate. Inside was a covered pathway, its sturdy, sloped roof broader than the path itself. It split immediately in three, running off in either direction and on inward. On either side, stretches of open land served as staging areas for building supplies and blustering foremen. More dwarves hurried about, hauling smaller stones and buckets of mortar, putting the finishing touches on great slit-windowed barracks which stood against the great battlements’ inner wall. Atop the completed battlements, I saw more war machines – these ones facing menacingly inward. I tilted my head at them.
Ahead of us stood the monastery’s old, frail, wooden gate, set in the now frail-looking wisp of a wall which had been the monastery’s only defense when its only enemy had been the unminded plague. Its top was studded with machinery as well, though nothing more solid than a trebuchet. We passed through the open gate and into the familiar monastery.
But even the inner sanctum had changed: the covered walkways led to the barracks and the dining hall, whose windows had been boarded over. The barns had been expanded, but they were made of stone now, and the multitude of goats – I could hear and smell them – were locked inside.
The transformation through which this place had gone was profound: Uther’s Tomb had become Uther’s Fortress, and it had become strong. The prospect of doing battle from within this solid edifice thrilled through me with the winter wind, but beneath it there lingered in me a sadness that this fragile island of good will had been so hardened by the necessities of war. Only the marble tomb was untouched: its ancient hero’s marble visage peered out of his chapel’s shadows, wondering faintly why a white wall had been erected across his dutiful northward watch.
The door to the barracks banged open, and, the barest of gold circlets perched off-kilter on his forehead, King Madoran hurried out of it and towards us with a booming “Uther’s beard, you survived after all!”
“You did too!” I said, and although I’d heard time and again that he had survived, relief flooded through me at the sight of him. “Um, sir,” I added.
“Kings are ‘Your Majesty,’” returned the dwarf, “but Madoran will do fine, s’long as no one’s in earshot. Fang, your resurrected friend the druid is inside, as is Anduin and some others. I understand that you escaped the Scourge by the hair of Horse’s mane,” and he nodded at me.
“Yeah,” replied Fang. “Under City is on lock-down now.”
“So I heard,” grunted the dwarf, his eyes narrowing.
We hurried inside and down the dim hall to the right. Madoran stopped in front of a door, but as he reached out to open it, the handle turned on its own and the door swung inward. M stepped out.
“Fang,” she nodded, and then she looked up at me. Madoran and Fang pushed past her into the room.
“You made it,” I said. “The bone dragons didn’t get you.”
“That’s not funny,” she growled back. “Good job saving yourself and Fang from certain death out there.” She blinked. “Now go get some sleep. The room which you slept in last time you were here has been made up for you.”
“But,” I said, and felt annoyed for a moment at being locked out of yet another meeting.
“It’s yet another boring meeting,” she said sympathetically, “and you need your rest. The Law says go get some sleep.”
“I’ll bet it does,” I muttered, and turned back towards my old guest room.
I shut the door and let Ajax out of his carrier. He stretched luxuriantly. I sat down on the bed, not at all tired for a moment. I glanced at my pillow.
You are safe, said its wrinkles and folds, said the Law like a broken record, like a foreigner trying concertedly to communicate something in the few words he had learned. “I know,” I sighed. “Flight’s over. For now.”
It wasn’t the Law that didn’t speak the language, of course, I thought – it was me that hadn’t learned enough yet.
I glanced back at the pillow. You are safe, it said. “I know!” I replied, creasing my forehead at it. Fang’s words from the hike came back to me, that the Law would speak more to me when it could, that it would teach me more as soon as we were…
…safe. “Oh,” I moaned, and then the familiar headache seared through my mind like a white-hot blade, stitching knowledge in where there had been none before. I moaned and gripped my head, scraping my fingernails across my horns, squeezed my eyes shut, prayed for it to be over, but it didn’t stop, wouldn’t ever stop… symbols flashed through my mind, through my memory, new ones, new twists and curls of meaning on old ones, and I could see them shimmering in the blinding pain— and then, with a gasp in the ringing silence, it was over. I was suddenly exhausted.
Ajax was perched on the edge of the bed, his ears slicked back, looking concerned.
Sorry about that, said the Law, flashing in the air behind him.
“Right,” I muttered. “Necessary evil, right?”
“Can I go to sleep, then?”
Instead of answering, the far wall across burst bright with the strange hallucinatory light: Trust the actions of the Emerald Queen, said the Law, but you are ill news to her and her world: Do not trust her intentions.
I stared. Ajax glanced over his shoulder to see what was more important than himself.
Hurry, concluded the symbols. Dark is coming. And then they fell silent.
I sighed. It was early afternoon – dark was hours away. The Law seemed in no more of a mood to feed me anything but riddles than it had been before.
Without the help of the other elf-woman, the one who had nearly gotten me killed, I couldn’t hurry – I was bound to the ground, even in that dream-world. Hurry, echoed the pillow, and I sighed again and lay my head down on it.
The distances I’d fled since I’d last slept well weighed suddenly on me. From the Scarlet Monastery to Under City, and then from there to here. And then the Law had torn my mind up, taught me more of its language, and now I was lying in a comfortable bed. Without any more urging from the Law, I closed my eyes and slept.
I opened them again. I lay on a bed of vines. Great fern-trees waved in the afternoon breeze, and the sunlight filtered down through their fronds, patterns playing across the viney ground. I smiled – it was the first time I’d seen this place in daylight, and the smells and the warmth soothed me.
I climbed to my hooves, hoping for a moment that the red squirrel would show himself this time, leading me back to my guide, but he didn’t, and without his guidance there was nowhere useful to go. I sat back down.
The Emerald Queen had told me to return to her twin hills, though of course she hadn’t told me why. The Law had told me to hurry, but it hadn’t told me why. In order to hurry, I had to fly – and in order to fly, I thought, I have to shake off the ground and join the sky.
I closed my eyes, settling my mind as Hokato had taught me years before, first on the sounds and smells of the forest – distant birds, nearer insects, the warm breeze in the treetops and on my face…
Then stories that the old bull had told me when I was a calf began floating through my mind… Long ago, he’d told me, the earth-mother – the sun and the white moon are her eyes – brought the world into being out of the golden mists of the dawn of time. She brought the Shu’halo – we the Tauren, the children of the earth – out of the black soil. We had sworn to follow the loving ways of our loving mother, but we strayed… voices of evil whispered to us from the deep places of the world, and we listened to them, and they taught us spite, and jealousy, and fear. By the time the mists of dawn had faded and the ages of memory had begun, the voices had quieted (conveniently, I’d always thought, but now I saw the story’s meanings and forgave it its conveniences). The voices had quieted, but we had retained our love of the open sky, like the open plains, and we mistrusted the dark worlds below.
Life makes its way at the boundary between the two, though, I thought – where earth meets sky, that’s where we live our lives. And where the sun’s light mixes with the soil – the sun feeds the grass, which feeds the black loam, living soil that was deeper than a bull on the plains of Mulgore – that union feeds life. But the living places in the world were shallow. Of the two… to rise up, I thought, as our living spirits do when we die – to rise up is to live truly. Only our dead, empty bodies sink into the ground.
Something brushed my face, and I cracked an eye open. It was a frond, from the fern-trees which arched high overhead… and I wondered for a vague moment why one would have stooped so far to brush my face.
I looked down, and caught my breath: The fronds had not bent to me; I had risen to them. I had shaken off the ground. I expected it to reassert its ownership of me, I expected to plummet now that I’d broken the spell, but whatever force it was that held things to the ground in this dream world had abandoned me entirely. That’s all there is to it? I thought.
Then I shivered with sudden anticipation – I was in the treetops now, and with a flick of my mind, I propelled myself higher, above the trees, into the sunshine. The blue sky arched overhead now, and white puffs of cloud flitted across the horizons. With a thrill I thought myself higher, and then lower, and then back and forth a bit, and then just for fun I did a loop – I flipped head over hooves, my chin-braid flopping down across my face and then back.
Flight had always seemed to mean freedom to me, but this didn’t quite feel like I’d imagined it would. I floated above the ground, but I was held in place, still, by my mind – although I was pulling my own puppet-strings, I could manage none of the swooping, easy acrobatics that the youngest birds could perform.
Damnit, I thought, be happy for once. You’re flying. Sort of.
And, exhilaration rising in me, I picked a point – a nearby ridge of fern-trees, over which I couldn’t see – and with a moment’s focused preparation, I sped off towards it. The wind lashed at my face, and I hollered at the top of my lungs. In a moment, I was above the ridge. The fern forest fell away as a short cliff, and beyond was paradise. Green plains stretched for miles, and a river meandered lazily across it. Herds of great grazing beasts, like kodo but leaner and hairier, dotted the shallow valley, and flocks of birds passed overhead. I hovered above the ridge for a moment, and then decided, with another surge of excitement, that I wanted to be above that river. I thought myself concertedly towards it, and before I knew it I was flying down over the green grass, my dangling hooves skimming through it. I lifted myself up over a herd of the grazers – great, shaggy, primitive-looking beasts, their black eyes turning up towards me with lazy curiosity. Then the river, broad and silty, opened up below me, and I stopped.
I hovered in the air, my hooves dangling, my arms dangling if I let them. I looked down at myself – a bull, still, and an ungainly encroacher on the realm of air. I felt out of place, vaguely unwelcome.
I shook the feeling off, and with another shout of joy, I rocketed up into the air, hovering high above the valley. Hurry, the Law had said, but I had no intention of losing this feeling to mere questing.
Joy and practicality aligned, though, and I suddenly desired to test the limits of my new power of flight – even as surreal as it felt, to be a bull still, hovering unnaturally in this paradise dream world.
Which way, then? I looked around, but the horizon gave me no answers, and there were no symbols in the clouds.
The elf woman, my untrustworthy guide, she had said that this world was a mirror of the real one, how it would have looked if we the thinking beings of the world had never arisen. (I looked around at the herds grazing peacefully and felt even more out of place.) I had awoken in a different clearing every time I had come here, but the time of day had matched – before, it had been night, and now it was midafternoon – and I wondered how closely if the Living Dream of Creation mirrored the waking world. If I had been at Teldrassil when I’d seen the hills that were my destination, and I was now at Uther’s Tomb, I had to fly… west. Very far.
I rose up into the sky, and then, like a stone from a sling, like a spear from a hunter’s throw, I shot myself west.
Pastures flew by below me, then more fern woods, then high mountains with great conifer forests, and then valleys and ferns again. My hooves and tail trailed behind me, and I squinted my eyes against the overpowering wind. Suddenly the wind was too much, and in a blink I had flown wildly out of control. The wind had turned from a stream to chaos, and it tore at me – and my mind couldn’t keep up, and suddenly the ground had reasserted its ownership of me and the wind was tossing me about and the fern forest was rushing up…
A great winged shape rose out of the greenery below me – I couldn’t right myself in the wind to get a bead on it – and then it was on me, and then, with a jerk and a wrenching snap of my neck, whatever it was snatched me out of the air. I saw stars, and then I saw black.