I was in darkness – not exactly…
I was in a void. I was in nothingness, in the shadow between the layers of reality. Then I felt a terrific tug, and without warning, I landed—
—atop a low hill. It was night, and the two moons hung above me in the night sky, each of them crescent, neither of them pinned to the northern sky. The stars were brighter than I’d ever seen them, and the air smelled sweet, as though a machine had never churned out fumes, as though the only fires that had ever darkened the skies had been started by lightning, and washed away by thunderstorms.
The hill, covered in soft grass and bushes, rose out of a pristine forest, so green that it shone emerald even in the moonlight. This place was wholly, utterly calming.
I turned, and, away to the south stood another hill, rising like the one on which I stood, and there in the moonlight, I could just barely make out the shape…
…of a woman, a pale-skinned elf, maybe – I couldn’t tell at the distance. She sat in meditation, her eyes shut against the cool night breeze. A gossamer gown fell from her shoulders down over her body, and her cascading hair was green as the trees and grass. I stared at her, peering through the darkness across the distance between us, and then her voice, soft but terrible, whispered in my ear—
I have brought you to here, it said, but your coming is as of the footsteps of doom, Tashunke Bloodhoof. You must remember this place and return to it: Time is short, and the world’s ancient designs hang now by a thread…
And then, without a moment’s warning—
—I was flung back across the void—
Off to the east, the sun had risen a few degrees above the distant wall of mist. The sky was an early-morning blue, and cloudless. Teldrassil’s canopy, so terrifyingly steep in the night’s darkness, sloped away gently to the south. I was still hungry.
“Horse,” whispered a familiar voice in my ear. “Horse, this is the voice of nature…”
I turned, and hovered just over my shoulder was the fierce, curved black beak of Tamilin the hippogryph.
“The voice of naaaaaature,” he repeated slyly, “liiiiisten for me!” I swatted grouchily at his beak, and he jerked his head up. “Hi,” he said cheerily. “Bad dream?”
I shook my head. “No…” I said, and trailed off. Not bad, exactly… just… unsettling. The world’s ancient designs hang now by a thread? I thought. That’s not even trying to make sense. And how was I supposed to return to a dream? Wish real hard? I shook my head again.
“What are you doing here?” I said to Tamilin, turning towards him. His stag horns and dark feathers looked magnificent in the morning light.
“I’m flying you east,” he said casually. “Katy M tells me you’re going to Lordaeron, and I haven’t got anything better to do right now than taxi your butt around, other than, you know, clean my horns, or eat gravel.”
I grinned and stood up. “When do we leave?” I said. “I need food.”
“Right now,” replied the hippogryph. He lifted his front claw, and dexterously extended a small brown sack to me. “M sends her regards, and enough food for the journey – for you, at least. I, of course, have to catch fish or something.” The hippogryph turned his wide, feathered flank towards me and gestured with his head. “Hop on and get comfortable,” he said. “You can eat once we’re in the air.”
I tied the sack to my belt. It was bulging. “Thanks,” I said. “I’m honored,” I added, unsure of hippogryph-mounting etiquette.
Tamilin smiled. “Yeah, no problem,” he said. “M says carry you safe across the Great Sea, and that’s what I’m gonna do.” He gestured with his head again, and I clambered aboard his broad back. “Hold on tight,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t have a proper runway, so this is going to be a little bumpy.”
“Oh good,” I grumbled, my pre-flight jitters suddenly returning full-force as I imagined what an ungainly leap off the top of a monstrous tree was going to feel like.
Then my ride bucked, took two steps and lunged off the edge of the small patch of green grass. We lurched out over empty space, and Tamilin’s wings pumped down with all their might. We rose for a moment, but as his wings pulled together and then up for another stroke, we dipped, and with a nasty jolt and a cry from me, he kicked his back hooves downwards at the branches of the rapidly-rising tree. Another wing-beat later and we were airborne – the tree rose behind us, the platform and its bush receding to a speck, and Tamilin’s wings bore us out over the ocean. I gulped.
Then we caught a thermal and rose high – I whooped, and Tamilin let loose a powerful eagle’s cry that echoed on the wind. He grinned at me over his shoulder. “It never gets old!” he yelled back at me.
We rose up over the treetop, and the Drassi stretched out below us, its fountains glittering in the morning light. The Archdruid’s uncorrupted tree rose at its center, green and beautiful, its white stairways wrapping its trunk like garlands. Dark-skinned figures pointed up from the avenues at us and waved. Tamilin let out another fierce cry and then banked, and we rose into the sky. Minutes later, as I watched the great twisted tree fade into the distance, we passed into the thick white mist which guarded Teldrassil. Another minute, and we passed out of the mist and back into the wide world.
I pulled open the bag that Tamilin had given me. It was full, brimming with flat breads and meats crusted in fruit-sugar. I pulled a leg bone out and took a bite. It was delicious, and I began eating it ravenously – too ravenously, it turned out, and I dropped it. It bounced off Tamilin’s feathered flank, and I watched in despair as it plummeted through the air towards the ocean far below.
“How bad do you want it?” called Tamilin over his shoulder.
“Bad!” I cried, watching my breakfast fall until it was almost too small to see.
Before the full implication of my response had dawned on me, Tamilin gleefully yelled, “Hang on!”, angled his wings, and dove. I screamed at the top of my lungs for what seemed like a minute (but was surely only seconds), clutching the hippogryph’s feathers in panic. The broad glittering ocean rose, slowly at first and then faster, and with Tamilin’s wingtips slicing expertly down through the thin air, the half-eaten chunk of meat drifted lazily into view. “NOT THIS BAD!” I yelled.
“Whatever you say,” said the hippogryph, and with a careless shift of his wings he snatched the meat out of mid-air and swallowed it.
We pulled up, and my stomachs dropped deep into my bowels. We leveled out, drifting east on the breeze, still a hundred feet above the gentle waves. One at a time, I unclenched my fingers from Tamilin’s sturdy feathers.
“That was delicious,” he said. “So worth it.”
“Can we do that again?” I breathed.
Tamilin screech-laughed. “You’ve caught the bug!” he exclaimed. “And, hell yeah we can do it again!”
The hippogryph flapped mightily, pulling us laboriously up through the sky, up a thousand, then thousands of feet to where the wind bit painfully. I looked down, and for a moment regretted my request. Only for a moment, though – and the fear turned naturally into exhilaration.
“Toss me another piece of meat!” called Tamilin.
I pulled a small slab of ham out of the brown sack, grasped it like a ball and threw it forward, over the hippogryph’s head. He turned a yellow eye towards me and grinned. “Sucker,” he said.
“Go!” I cried, motioning forward, “don’t lose it!”
And he tucked his wings, and I grabbed his feathers and inhaled as deep as I could, and we dove.
* * *
We winged east against the wind. Steep, rocky cliffs passed us slowly to the south, and I lazily finished breakfast. “So how far back do you and M go?” I asked, through the last mouthful of thick oat-bread.
“Way back,” he answered casually. “She saved my life when I was a kid. She does that, you know?”
“I guess,” I said. She’d never done anything with my life but complicate it. “What’d you do that you needed saving?”
“I don’t really like talking about it,” he responded. Oh, I thought. He paused for a beat, but as I cast about for a way to gracefully change the subject, he continued: “I was out over some water away far to the south one day, teaching myself to fish, and I saw a big boat belching black smoke out the top. Goblin fishing boat, as it turns out, but of course back then I had no idea what a goblin was. Anyway, behind the boat the water was writhing, like all the water had just up and turned into fish! And there’s seagulls flying over it, diving down and having a feast, and I decide I want some.
“So I swing down. It’s the easiest fishing I’ve ever done – they’re just flopping about on the surface, just waiting to be caught. The goblins start shouting at me, but then all of a sudden they go silent – I should have worried – and then there’s this terrific bang, and then a weighted net wraps around me and I fall into the water. It was freezing.” The hippogryph glanced over his shoulder to see if I was listening. I was.
“So they haul in their catch,” he continued, “and after they finish sorting it and throwing half of it back into the water like they do, they pull me up on deck, tie my wings down and start doing ridiculous things like laughing at me and hitting me with fish, like that’s supposed to hurt. I wasn’t scared or anything, though, until they started stabbing at me with harpoons,” he said darkly. “I was still learning Common, so I couldn’t tell half of what they were saying, and I’m hollering in Darnassian because they’re stabbing me and clearly about to eat me for lunch or something, and suddenly there’s this green flash and some of the goblins get knocked overboard, and there’s this bull I’ve never met in my life standing there looking pissed, and the goblins are panicking because they can’t figure out how he got on the boat. He fights his way over and unties me and puts his hands on me and heals all the stab-wounds, and I tell him to hop on my back and I’ll fly him to land. He says he’s honored, informs me curtly that he’s a she, and then hops on. She’s big because she’s a bull, and I’m small because I’m still a kid, but I manage to get us off the boat. M shoots some more green from her hands, and we fly off. It was awesome. The goblins were hopping mad, those that were still on their feet.” He grinned over his shoulder.
“Serves ‘em right,” I growled.
“Don’t like ‘em either?”
“One tried to saw my legs off once,” I answered. “Did you make it back to land with M on your back?”
“Nah,” he replied. “I started huffing and puffing, and she tells me not to worry. Then she jumps off my back, and as she’s falling, she turns into this enormous crow! And we fly around and have a grand old time, and we’ve been friends ever since. Plus, she saved my life, so I help her out whenever I can.” He nodded, signifying the end of his story.
“M can turn into a crow?” I said. Neat, I thought. Then I remembered the lone crow I’d seen winging off after M and her griffin had plummeted to what I’d thought had been her death, months earlier.
“You can turn into stuff too, right?” said Tamilin into my reverie. “I know you’re in training, that’s why I’m hauling you across the ocean.”
“I can, yeah,” I said. “I can’t turn into a crow, though. That rules. You have any idea where we’re going?” I added as an afterthought. “All I know is there’s a shipwreck somewhere off the coast of Lordaeron.”
“M gave me good directions,” said the hippogryph. “I can get you right to it. You gotta do the swimming yourself, though.”
I grinned. “You know all about this trip,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” replied Tamilin. “I know all about you druid types, running around and twisting life’s energies to do your bidding.”
“Woah,” I said defensively. “What’s that about? I spent all last night learning how important it was to let those energies guide me.”
“No you didn’t,” he said, his voice just a little hardened. “Listen, I don’t mean nothing by it, but you spent all night learning how to use that energy, to bend it to your will. Where I come from, we don’t use it – we protect it, and we try to do right by it. I’m grateful that Katy M saved my life with green nature-bolts, but if she shot that stuff at the good guys, it’d hurt them just as much.”
“Not if the good guys know their place in life, right?” I replied, hesitantly applying my new theology.
Tamilin nodded. “True,” he said. “I’m pretty centered, for example. Shoot that green lightning at me and you’ll get a green-tinted, well-lit hippogryph. Unless you shoot more than I can handle.”
“How much is that?”
“A lot,” grinned the hippogryph. “I was raised in Moonglade, remember. And the stuff only works against us sentients. If you shoot it at a grizzly bear, you’ll get a green-tinted, well-lit, very angry grizzly bear.”
I smiled, my faith in the elf’s teachings restored for the moment. Nature harms itself all the time – lion eats zhevra – but we can’t make nature do unnatural things to itself. “That’s good,” I said to myself.
“Unless you’re being attacked by a grizzly bear, I guess,” said the hippogryph.
The sun had been rising as we talked. I glanced up at it, then at the dim sliver of a white moon overhead. Elune, I thought, the moon-mother. The missing moon-mother.
“What’s life magic about?” I said thoughtfully. “How is it different than normal magic?”
“Normal magic?” said the hippogryph. “I don’t know much about it, but is there such a thing?”
“Huh,” I said. Magnetism, I thought, and the levitative and electrical powers the goblins could coax out of them. Fire, I thought, was the next most common. Ice next. Then I thought of the Light and its healing songs, and shadow magic and its terrible abyssal screams… What do they all have in common? I thought. Anything?
Around midday, I pulled out my brown sack again and ate lunch. I offered a slab of meat to Tamilin, but he declined. “No more,” he said. “You’ll need it for the journey.”
I looked in the bag. “There’s like a week’s worth of food in here!”
“Is that all?” said the hippogryph seriously. “You’ll want to stretch it, then. It’ll take us a week under the best conditions.”
“Ouch,” I said. “You can fly for a week with no rest?”
“Load me up and call me an albatross,” grinned the bird.
“Well, thanks again for the ride,” I grunted in reply.
This was the third time in my two and a half decades that I’d been crossed the Great Sea – more than most people would ever cross it in their lives, I thought. The first time, I’d stowed away in the dark gully of a goblin airship, terrified of discovery, and with no knowledge of our route, I’d had no sense of how long it had taken. The second time, I’d been in a state of enforced hibernation. I’d understood that the two continents were far apart, but somehow they’d seemed to be waiting just over the flat ocean horizon. The idea of a journey by air – to anywhere – taking longer than a day or two was stunning.
We alit on a rock outcropping on one of the impossibly high cliffs which formed the northern coast of Kali. Tamilin stretched gracefully, and advised me to do the same – “You won’t have a bull on your back,” he said, “but you will be sitting in the same position for a week or more.” Then I remounted, and we leapt off the cliff and banked right. He pointed his beak away from the afternoon sun, and we winged off over the Great Sea.
* * *
For eight long days we flew, from sunrise to sunset and back again. We flew in the wind, in the clouds, in the freezing rain: we flew so high that the wheeling seabirds turned to specks below. (“More favorable winds up here, for some reason,” said Tamilin. “Cuts a couple days off the trip, if you’re traveling east.”)
Several times a day, he dove down towards the ocean, plucking fish out of the water with his beak and claws (while I hung on for dear life). At first they were meager, but by the end of the first day, as land disappeared behind us and the dark ocean below became too deep to fathom, Tamilin began easily plucking great, struggling fish from great, writhing schools – albacore and tuna, and, once, to his delight, an enormous, glittering, pink-fleshed salmon.
We made easy conversation, chatting about our lives and times. He laughed when I explained my idea that pride in our ability to control our own destinies should be pride enough for we sentient beings. “I’m not saying it’s not a great idea,” he said, “but you’re gonna have a hell of a time convincing people.”
“I know,” I said, “but there are shortcuts, right? Like if there’s one bad guy for everyone to unite against.”
“A sentient bad guy?” said the bird keenly, glancing back at me. I frowned, and changed the subject.
“What’s gonna happen when we get there?” I said. “Once we get to the coast, how are you going to know whether to follow it north or south?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the hippogryph. “I’m navigating by the stars.”
“Oh, cool,” I said. “What if we get there during the day?”
“Then I’ll navigate by the sun,” said the hippogryph cheekily.
The task, the whole reason for the trip, hovered at the edge of my mind, and I worried that when the time came it would prove more than I could handle. M’s words came back to me from days earlier: It wouldn’t have been asked of you if you couldn’t do it, she’d said. I sighed and pushed it all back to the edge of my mind.
“You know what we’re doing after I do the thing?” I said out loud.
“I actually have no idea,” said Tamilin over his shoulder. “I’m supposed to stick around and help you out. I asked M what that meant, and she said not to worry about it.” He sighed. “She does love her mysteries.”
I laughed. “You have no idea,” I said.
By the middle of the second day, I was stiff and cold and miserable. As I complained, Tamilin sympathized for a while, and then told me to can it or he’d drop me off at two-thousand feet. I canned it.
I wondered idly if the fall would even hurt. I’m a member of the Law now, right? I thought. Not quite an agent, but in the Order. Fang had said that I was now, somehow, immortal. I didn’t feel any different, though. I pinched myself, hard. It hurt.
Tyrande had warned me that the task ahead of me, the sea lion task, was dangerous, that I could even drown. But I can’t die, I thought. Right? I’m pretty sure I can’t die. Kinda sure. I sighed.
When I slept, it was fitfully, and my dreams were labored. I would swim through murky caves in search of an object which it was absolutely imperative that I find, except that someone had forgotten to tell me what the object was, and I was running out of breath, and there was no surface – only endless caves – and they were collapsing, and I was trapped—
I jerked awake. Ugh, I thought.
“You alright back there?” said Tamilin over the dark night wind.
“Yeah,” I said. “Bad dream.” I shook it out of my mind.
* * *
Per Tamilin’s advice, I held back from eating my fill. I was never full, but never too hungry, and although it took a measure of willpower to not wolf down the whole bag at once, I managed to make the rations stretch.
By the morning of the fifth day, I had given up on feeling miserable, and set my mind to ignoring the pains in my legs and hips. Tamilin cheered my efforts when I casually announced them, and the exchange put us both in good cheer.
By noon on the seventh day, high clouds had gathered and were drizzling rain on us. Tamilin lifted us up above the clouds, and for a much-needed change of pace, we looped around their towering white spires. Tamilin ducked us back down for his afternoon meal, but we returned to the clear blue sky in time to see the sunset cast itself orange across the cloud tops.
The journey’s eighth day was overcast. We were nearing our destination, according to Tamilin, and he took us below the gray clouds. “Branch,” he said, pointing down towards the water with his beak. “We’re almost there.”
Then a dark smudge appeared on the gray horizon. Minutes later it resolved itself into dark mountains. The distant mountains sloped down to a distant beach and, dead ahead of us, listed in the shallows, lay the distant rotting hulk of an old wooden ship. “You got us right to it!” I cried. “The sun isn’t even out!”
“I told you,” he said, “I’m that good. What do you figure, take a breather down on the beach? Then I can fly you back out over the water so you don’t have to swim as far.”
We touched down on the pebble beach, and I dismounted stiffly. My legs seized up. For a moment I thought I would collapse, but then they remembered faintly how to move, and slowly and painfully I stretched them out.
Tamilin arched his wings straight up in the air and then let them collapse to the ground. He grinned wearily at me. “We did it,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, arching my back painfully, “I sure helped a lot.”
I sat down on the pebbles and pulled open M’s food bag. There was a whole load left, and I devoured it hungrily. It was filling, but not so filling that swimming would hurt.
Behind me, several tens of yards away, stood the gnarled edges of a plague-infested woodland, like the kind I had journeyed through with the ranger-elf Allyndil and the dwarf-king Madoran months before. Higher up the mountainside, the plague-infested trees gave way to the strange, surreal plaguewood mushrooms.
In front of me, gentle waves lapped the shoreline. I stared out past them and across the water. “Somewhere under there,” I said, “is a box, with a magic necklace in it. And because my next form is really hard, I have to go get that necklace, which is somehow going to teach me to turn into a sea lion just in time to keep from drowning.” I looked over at Tamilin, who was carefully grooming his wing-feathers. “I don’t even know what a sea-lion is. I know what a lion is, and I know about the sea, but I can’t for the life of me tell you how they go together.”
Tamilin grunted noncommittally into his wing.
I sighed and climbed to my feet. “I better just do it. You gonna hang out?”
“I was gonna scout around for food, actually,” said the hippogryph. “M warned me to be careful what I ate while I was here, something about undead plants. What’s that about?”
“You don’t know about Lordaeron?” I said incredulously. I’d heard fearful whispers of it all the way back in Orcmar.
“I mean, I know druids have to go east for training…” he said. “Lay off me,” he continued irritably. “Had you ever heard of Moonglade?”
Hmph, I thought. “Well,” I said, “the upshot of the place is, don’t eat anything ugly, or it’ll turn you into a zombie hippogryph. And almost everything is ugly.”
“Yech,” said Tamilin succinctly. “Zombies? I knew this place didn’t smell right. You gotta tell me what the deal is later – for now I guess I’ll just be careful.”
“You better be,” I grinned. “I need a ride back to wherever.”
I climbed back aboard the hippogryph, and he took a running leap at the sea and beat his wings back down. We peered down through the water, clear but dim, to the pebbly bottom below. Less than a quarter mile out, the bottom dropped off suddenly into unlit depths. “Here,” I said.
Tamilin wheeled back around, skipping just above the gentle waves. “The shipwreck’s due east,” he said. “Jump!” I slapped him appreciatively on the back, and then tipped myself overboard.
The cold water swallowed me whole, and it was all I could do for a moment to keep myself from inhaling seawater in shock. I floundered for a moment, then pushed my big nose back above the stiff waves. I snorted out, clearing my nostrils, then grabbed enough air to risk sinking again beneath the waves.
The murky daylight from above filtered down into the clear water. Behind me, the sea’s shallow, rocky bottom rose towards the shore. In front of me, the ocean’s floor plunged downward into dark, unplumbed depths. I surfaced again, filling my lungs as full as I could. Then I closed my eyes, clenched my jaw, and dove.
I kicked downward, the dim daylight receding behind me. The edge of the ocean floor’s plunge was less steep than it had seemed from above, the rocky ledges distending periodically. I looked across them, peering down, searching for the silver glimmer that would mark my quarry. I swam closer to the rocks, but there were no glimmers.
My lungs began to protest their abuse, and I glanced back at the distant surface. I focused my mind, concentrating on the task at hand, and turned back towards the rocks. I squinted, peering through the blurring water, but the silver box eluded me still.
My head began to pound, and, cursing myself, I turned to face upwards, and, with increasing urgency, kicked back to the surface.
I gasped sweet air, gulping it in, slowly salving my pounding headache. I bobbed above the surface for a few moments – long enough to see that I had drifted a hundred feet south of the boat. I cursed and swam back north. Tamilin was nowhere to be seen.
Then I inhaled again, as deeply as I could without bursting, and, keeping my eyes glued to the distant shipwreck until the last possible moment, dove.
It didn’t glint. The box, it turned out, had corroded until, though still strong, it was nearly the color of the dark rock cleft in which it sat. Its un-rocklike sharp edges betrayed it, and, the cry of my unhappy lungs quelled with sudden euphoria, I kicked towards it.
I pulled at the box’s lid, and what could have once been a latch disintegrated with a puff of gray powder. Inside the box was more powder, a thick layer of it, and I pawed it away into great obscuring clouds of murk. Beneath the powder, my fingers closed around something – a hard object, with pointy bits poking into my palm. I pulled it out.
The pendant, on a thin silvery chain, was half silvery-gray and half bronze. Each half was in the shape of a sea-serpent, its tail curled tightly in a spiral, and their bodies crossed. Their necks and heads arched and they peered at each other through finely-cut emeralds. I looked closely, and could make out a rough seam between the two metals, as though the pendant had been broken in two and repaired. Uncertain of what to expect, I slipped it around my neck.
Nothing happened. No knowledge flowed through me, no magical energy. I poked the pendant, shaking it, trying to make sure it knew that it had been donned. But there was nothing.
I closed my eyes, ignoring the growing burning in my chest. It had to work. Tyrande had said it would work! I thought desperately of the form of a sea lion – some kind of serpent, like the necklace? – of its place in the world, but I couldn’t focus on its form, and I had no idea what its place in the world was. My eyes flew open wide, and I looked up. I can’t die!, I thought forcefully. I’m in the Order of the don’t-ever-die…
But bare instinct to self-preservation overwhelmed reason (if reason it was), and in blind panic I clawed my way back towards the surface.
My head broke through, and I gulped air, coughing painfully. Damnit!, I thought. What went wrong?
A powerful, metallic, unworldly screech tore the air, and before I could look up to find its source, something hit the water around me, throwing up a terrifying splash about my head. A pair of strong hippogryph claws seized me, lifted me bodily out of the water, and flung me into the air. “Hold on!” cried Tamilin, and I belly-flopped onto his back. I grabbed at his feathers and held on for dear life as we sped through the salty sea air, inches above the waves.
“I didn’t complete the—” I called, righting myself, but Tamilin interrupted me. “We’ve got a bigger problem,” he yelled back, his glowing eyes narrowed in vital concentration, flying with all his might. “Could you keep an eye on the dragon that’s behind us and let me know when it’s getting close?”
“The what?” I said, and looked over my shoulder.
Following us, only a few hundred feet away and closing, bourn on skeleton wings strung with tendrils of glowing webbing, with wisps of glowing green mist trailing from its wings and empty eye-sockets and emanating from its skull’s fanged maw, flew an enormous, bone-white skeletal dragon, resurrected from ancient song and chasing us with clear, deadly intent. It opened its jaw and let loose another predatory screech.
My blood went cold. “It’s getting close,” I said querulously.
Tamilin yelled and we banked suddenly, turning about towards the beast, and I cried out. I stared, captivated, at the thing’s massive, hollow, body. It bellowed as we swept past, towards the land, and the dragon banked after us, just a bit wider and just a bit slower than Tamilin.
We hurtled over the beach and towards the edge of the plaguewoods, the bone dragon in hot pursuit. “Where did you find that thing?” I yelled as we hurtled up the mountainside.
“See for yourself,” gritted Tamilin, and we crested the peak.
Beyond it, spread out maybe a mile to the east and as far to the north as I could see, was an enormous camp, a tent city like New Rocktusk. But where New Rocktusk had been a ramshackle monument to a fierce will to live, this one was a perfectly regimented display of the awesome power of death. Black tents, aligned in stark grids, studded the valley. Between them stood, or lay, or marched, all manner of ghastly creations: an army of dead men and women in various stages of decay, from bleached skeletons to newly-dead zombies with pale skin and dark, patchy hair, their bodies resurrected and clad in formidable, blood-chillingly uniform black armor.
“Varimathras’s army,” I breathed, and it was here in the northlands, poised already to invade. My stomachs, already tense with fright, sank now with despair.
The skeletons marched stiffly, mechanically, as though guided by wills which were paying them only the most cursory of attention. The less-decayed zombies shuffled about, periodically looking about as though trying to understand what awful fate had befallen them. I recalled my undead friend Rhy’s description of what it was like to be a mindless plague-zombie, and a sudden, overpowering compassion swelled within me towards the poor, enslaved creatures.
Another fearsome cry split the air, wrenching me out of my split-second reverie, and I remembered the terrible bone wyrm was behind us still.
“We need a cave,” said Tamilin, “and we need it fast. That thing’ll kill us in an instant if it catches up where it can reach us.”
“I know a couple,” I said.
“Where?” cried the hippogryph.
My thoughts raced. The warlock cave, I thought – its entrance was a bit smaller than the wyrm. It was also easy to find: just follow the continent’s northern shoreline, just fly… north, I thought, and glanced that way, where the undead army’s camp receded to the horizon.
Under City’s tunnel entrance, I thought. It was much smaller than the bone dragon, and – assuming that the city had recovered from its invasion – it would be friendly to us. At least, to me. Maybe. If they didn’t think I’d helped steal the black book.
“Horse!” exclaimed Tamilin as the dragon let out another cry, nearly on top of us.
“I’m thinking,” I cried.
“Well, think faster!” he yelled back at me, and we dove and banked, maneuvering out of reach of the dragon’s fast-approaching bone claws.
“Go east,” I yelled, “due east and keep your eyes out for a line of cliffs facing north, with a big wide strip of land with no trees.”
Tamilin banked again, just a bit faster than the dragon could, and we pulled up steeply into the sky. He pointed his beak east, and began beating his wings as hard as he could. My heart had lifted into my throat and was pounding away at breakneck speed, as though trying to urge Tamilin’s wings on. I thought for a moment of looking behind us, to see where the dragon was: but I couldn’t force myself to. It didn’t matter, anyway – a moment later, the dragon’s searing cry tore through the air again.
“There!”, and I pointed out across the canopy of brown mushroom-tops. Ahead of us and a quarter mile to the north was a swath of treeless land. Tamilin turned and tucked his wings back, and we dove towards it as fast as we could. The wind began to tear my eyes, and my vision blurred.
Then, out of the north, came a fast-moving speck, dimly glowing green against the brown-gray sky. “Tamilin,” I said, as it grew closer, and realized with horror that it was another wyrm. “Tamilin,” I repeated, “there’s more than one of them.” I glanced around again. Our pursuer was a few short lengths behind.
We turned towards the second dragon. “Tamilin!” I yelled, and my voice cracked.
“I see it!” he yelled back, exasperated.
“Then why are you flying towards it?!” I cried.
We closed in on it, its green-glowing eyes and wings distinct against the sky, and then we were upon it. “Hang on!” yelled Tamilin, his eyes wide and his feathered face creased in intense concentration, and at the last possible moment, he brought his wings together and forward, wrenching us perpendicularly out of our flight. The other dragon, hot in pursuit, screeched and banked, and the two of them tumbled about each other, trying to avoid collision. Tamilin crowed in triumph and set off again towards the cliffs, but mere moments later, the dragons had righted themselves and were back in hot pursuit.
We dove down into the treeless span, the line of cliffs to the right and the line of mushroom trees to our left, and we raced along it. Ahead, silhouetted in the distance but drawing rapidly closer, stood the crumbled spires of the ancient capital city of Lordaeron.
“Where’s the cave?” called Tamilin.
“It’s just before those ruins,” I yelled through the rushing wind. The hippogryph tightened his wings, and we raced faster along the cliffs. I glanced behind us. The bone dragons, able to outpace us on the straightaway, were closing rapidly. I inhaled shakily and turned back around.
The cut of the cliffs was suddenly familiar, and I looked ahead of us. Around the entrance to the tunnel, on top of the crop of natural rock, a new semicircular stone wall had been built, high and thick, with a stiff metal gate in it. Atop the wall were four Forsaken guards, clad in haphazard armor and armed with long fearsome pikes. In the entrance to the tunnel itself, another gate had been installed. “There!” I yelled, pointing.
“There’s more zombies!” Tamilin cried.
“They’re good zombies,” I yelled, “GO!”
The Forsaken guards caught sight of us and shouted in fear. They dove off the walls and scuttled back into the tunnel. Its iron gate began closing.
“Wait!” I yelled futilely into the wind, and then we shot over the wall and into the tunnel, scattering the guards and tumbling to a stop against the far wall. Behind us, the gate slammed shut, and then, with a deafening crash and a blinding flash of ichor-green light, one of the dragons slammed full-force into it, shattering utterly. Its bones flew apart, and they landed, scattered, against the wall and around the ground outside. Above the cave and beyond, the other dragon let loose a last chilling cry. Then it wheeled off, back into the north.
I slid to the ground off Tamilin’s back and dusted myself off. My heart was racing, pounding against the inside of my chest.
Tamilin’s right wing was hanging crooked. “Ow,” he gritted under his breath. “I could use some Katy M love right about now.”
One of the Forsaken guards shuffled towards us from the cave’s gate. Tamilin shied away, hissing in pain and glancing uncertainly at me. “Good zombies?” he muttered. “Promise?”
The guard ignored the injured hippogryph, and stopped in front of me. He bowed from the neck. “Horse,” he said, in strained, imperfect Common, “You are expected.”