“Expected?” I cried at the guard. “I just made an unplanned hippogryph trip from over the mountains, which ended in us crash-landing in a cave which I randomly selected from two available to me, and I’m expected?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tamilin suppress a smile at my expense.
“Mr. Horse,” said the guard haltingly, bowing again from the neck, “I do not understand most of what words you say, but you are expected. Please follow me.”
“My friend is hurt,” I said hooves planted and pointing at Tamilin.
“I’m okay to walk for a little while,” muttered the hippogryph.
“Mr. Horse,” said the guard, “there is nothing here to do about it. Please follow me.”
The guard led us into the tunnel, down into the earth. We passed the great sewage pipe dripping its unliving ichor into its glowing green pool (Tamilin shied away from it, a look of dis-ease on his face), turned down the carved, torch-lit passageway, and then, my heart in my throat, we entered Under City.
I’d forgotten how high the cavern rose. The green ichor flowed still in the undead canals, and, instead of somber zombie-folk shuffling about their business, there was an urgent, harried bustle to their movements. Armored guards marched about or stood at attention. The two high curtains which had flanked the receding cavern ahead of us (a spoke, I remembered, in the wheel-shaped city) remained, but the green one was missing its lower half, and the rest of it hung, scorched black.
Between the drapes hung the ebony-eyed, fanged skull, laughing its same cruel laugh, and the memory of terror flooded back to me. I had stood beneath that skull as Hannathras the banshee-demon-wizard, son of Varimathras, rendered me a blithering idiot with a simple thought. I led him right to the book, I thought. He’d been in my mind, and I’d led him right to it – on Katy M’s orders. I sighed.
I glanced at Tamilin. He was staring up at the city’s lofted, carved ceilings. His look of discomfort had grown, and to it had been added sadness. “I gotta get healed and get out of here,” he said quietly, glancing at me.
I nodded sympathetically. “The people are nice, though,” I said. “I’m best friends with one of them, it turns out.”
Our guard called down from our stone balcony to a pair of guards at the foot of its steps. One of them hurried off through the archway and into the city. The other mounted the stairs. Our guard saluted him, and then hurried back up the tunnel towards his post.
I recognized our new guard – the one who had brought us into Under City, and who had killed the evil little gnome in cold blood. I looked warily at him, but he bowed to me. “Welcome back,” he said. “I am Jackson. We met.” His Common had improved.
“Listen,” I said, “first of all, my friend’s wing needs attention, and second of all, how the hell did you guys know to expect me?”
“They knew because I told them!” came a gruff voice from the bottom of the stairs. I turned, and, mounting them, flanked by a pair of Forsaken guards, was a familiar-looking, blue-clad dwarf, a cigarette sticking out of his fist as he climbed.
My stomachs clenched. “Hello, Ordinn,” I said stonily. It was the Law-dwarf, whose instructions had cleverly sent me off to do all the wrong things in the hunt for the Book of Arthas. Or the right things. I still wasn’t sure, but Katy M’s assurances that it had all been failure in the service of good couldn’t overcome the sting this dwarf had given me. I narrowed my eyes at him as he ascended the stairs.
“Hi, Horse,” he said, grinning lopsidedly at my expression. “I see you remember me.” He glanced at Tamilin.
“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t tear into him like I wanted to, not with so many outsiders around. Besides, my friend was hurt.
The dwarf turned to our guards and, to my surprise, began hissing and clicking their foul-sounding Gutterspeak to them. After a short exchange, Jackson turned to me. “I’ll see you,” he said. I nodded. He ran off, back down the stairs and off into the city, hurrying towards something.
I turned stiffly to Ordinn. “Tamilin’s wing was hurt getting me away from a pair of bone dragons, and he needs attention,” I said. I nodded to the hippogryph, who still stood, looking uncomfortable with the whole situation.
Ordinn nodded, unfazed by my declaration that we’d been chased by gigantic flying skeletons. “Hi,” he said courteously. “My name’s Ordinn. I’m a friend of Katy M, who I believe you know.”
Tamilin bowed his long neck. “Glad to meet a friend of M’s,” said Tamilin. “My wing…”
Ordinn bowed back courteously. “In a moment—”
“He needs help now,” I interrupted, my frustration at the dwarf’s inaction growing.
“Healers are in short supply here in Under City,” and the dwarf turned patiently towards me, “but—”
“The Forsaken don’t have any healers?” I cried. “How do they heal themselves?” Several pairs of glowing eyes swiveled towards us from the promenade below. I felt my nose go suddenly red.
“Healers for your friend are in short supply,” said Ordinn quietly. “Healers,” he said, “that know how to heal the living, are in short supply.”
“Oh,” I said, chastened. “How short?”
“Well,” said Ordinn mildly, “since M is traveling with Fang, and Allyndil the elf is off with the rest of the Silver Hand—”
“Oh, are they doing okay?” I said, happy for a moment.
Ordinn sighed, as though I had finally broken his patience. “I probably didn’t make it clear last time we met, when I told you not to interrupt me, but I really hate it,” he gritted, “when people interrupt me.”
My little spark of anger rekindled. “I might not have made it clear when we met,” I rejoined hotly, “but I don’t like being lied to!”
“Did you listen to anything M and Fang told you?” said Ordinn irritably. “You know damn well why I said what I said, and it all came out pretty well to plan. Hold a grudge as long as you feel like, but I’m sleeping fine tonight.”
“I’m not!” I yelled. “I didn’t sleep fine, that night, or for a long time after I listened to you. People died,” I gritted. I had hesitated, stood by and watched as a strong, good man had his soul ripped out of his chest. The miserable guilt which shadowed the memory held me in its grip for a moment.
“Ahh,” breathed Ordinn, glancing at Tamilin, who was listening curiously. “People tend to do that, often after they’ve lived good lives. On a related note,” he continued, glancing past me, back down the stairs, “your healer is here.”
Hurrying towards us was a figure – he walked slightly hunched now, and with a bit of a limp; his body was intact, almost wholly unrotted; his skin, that which showed, was still dark, although it had taken on an unhealthy bluish palor. His eyes, still sunken as they had been when I’d left his rain-soaked corpse to its sea burial, now glowed a dull yellow. He mounted the stairs, to the balcony on which we stood, and with a lurch I recognized him—
“Rayn!” I cried.
“Hello, Horse,” said the thick-limbed man, nodding warmly.
I stared. “They brought you back,” I said.
“Yes, they did,” he replied, his expression opaque. “Are you hurt? Jackson said to come, that there was an injury among the living.”
Jackson had said to come, I thought. Ordinn had sent him to get a healer the moment we’d arrived. I felt like an idiot. I pointed dumbly at Tamilin.
“Hi,” said the hippogryph, gesturing with his feathery head. “My wing got a little bent up when we crash-landed through your front door.”
Rayn nodded and approached him. He took his injured wing in his gloved hands, and probed gently. Tamilin hissed a moment in pain, then held it.
“You’re fine,” I said jocularly.
“Never been better,” he gritted back.
“The Light heals,” said Rayn, looking up, “but I do not have deep knowledge of those songs. I can set your wing and sing your bones together well enough until a better healer than me arrives.”
Tamilin nodded. “Thanks,” he said. He glanced sidelong at me. “Any idea how long that’s going to take?” he asked awkwardly.
“A few days, at most,” said Ordinn gruffly. “Horse,” he continued, “now that your friend is being seen to, would you come with me? We have a great deal to discuss.”
“But,” I said, and looked at Rayn, whose life I’d ended with a moment’s ill-timed hesitation, and at Tamilin, with his wing, and I wanted to help sing the healing songs.
“Go on,” said the hippogryph, “I’ll manage by myself.”
“Right,” I said. “Hey, thanks for the whole grabbing me out of the water and saving my ass thing.”
Tamilin grinned. “You owe me,” he said, and he winked.
* * *
Ordinn led me down the stairs, through an archway and into the city’s War District. It was crawling with activity. Forsaken civilians hustled hither and thither, wheeling wheelbarrows full of ore or blocks of steel or newly-crafted, deadly-looking swords and armor and – I looked twice – gears. The movement flowed over the ichor canal and along the cavern’s inner belt.
“May as well make our trip useful,” said Ordinn, gesturing over to a pile of armor that was being brought in from some forge deeper in the District. He grabbed a couple helmets, and I followed suit, hauling up a vast armload. We fell into the flow, crossing the ichor canal and turned back towards the way we’d come. A few of the Forsaken gave us looks of discomfort which they had given us – the still-living – on my last visit, but most of them simply nodded, or ignored us as though we were just another everyday pair of walking corpses.
“Rayn died because of me,” I said after a few silent paces, “because of what you told me.” I stared contemplatively down at the dwarf, who looked back. “I hesitated,” I continued, “because you told me not to save anyone, and then he died.”
Ordinn nodded. “And then he un-died,” he said. “And now, he’s providing a strong and vital diplomatic link between the Silver Hand and the Forsaken. It’s funny,” he finished quietly, glancing up at me again, “how things tend to work out for the best.”
I nodded pensively. “This is all so complicated.”
“No kidding,” replied the dwarf. “Always is.”
We passed under another archway. Ahead of us, the traffic turned left, inwards towards the hub of the city’s spokes. Across the canal, Rayn was still busy with Tamilin’s wing.
“Drop the stuff here,” said Ordinn when we’d reached the passageway.
“Just leave it here?” I said. “Nuh-uh, my mother didn’t raise me in a barn.”
“In a few minutes, someone else will happen to be heading the right way,” said the dwarf patiently, “and they’ll pick it up and bring it the rest of the way. Every step is useful, everyone pitches in where they can.” He set his helmets gently down. I shrugged and unloaded my pile of armor pieces as well.
I glanced down the passageway, the one down which I’d run screaming and seen Katy M’s bear in the darkness. Something large and dark skittered by at the passageway’s far end, and I cocked my head at it. Nerubian? I wondered. We moved on.
“So,” said the dwarf, as we passed through the next archway, the one out of which Rhy had fireballed a group of invading evil wizards. “Welcome aboard.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I laughed. “That’s not really what this job is about, is it?”
“Oh, you know,” he said, “depends what you think is fun. Fang loves diplomacy, for example – cutting back-room deals, figuring out who’s doing what why. Can’t get enough of it. Me, I like whiskey and messing with new recruits.”
I laughed in spite of myself.
“How’d your training go?” he continued.
“Alright,” I said. At least I’d learned how to lose my horns, I thought. Then, for the first time since being hauled bodily out of the foaming ocean, the knowledge of my failure settled fully into my mind. I grimaced. “I didn’t manage the last task,” I said. What went wrong?, I thought, for the second time. Why didn’t the stupid necklace work?
“Ah well,” said the dwarf. “Keep the pendant with you, though, right?”
I nodded. Having every agent of the Law know every detail of my life was a little unnerving.
We crossed the repaired stone bridge towards the Royal Quarters, back over the canal and past the walled-off archway to our right. I looked up to where Hannathras had floated in and shattered the bridge with a mere thought, where Madoran had fallen, where Hannathras had followed me through the red stone arch to the dark library, the Black Sanctum, where he had taken the black book that I had fought so hard to protect. Then the image of his body being torn to shreds by a shower of crystal shards came to mind. Good riddance, I thought caustically.
Ordinn led us through the archway and down the long, curving hallway. “Where are we going?” I said apprehensively.
“Somewhere where we can talk,” he replied.
To my relief, we took the right fork where the high stone passageway split, through the hanging curtain of obsidian beads and into a wide stone room. Passageways of different sizes and decorations branched out from it, and at each passageway stood a dour-looking undead guard. They looked up at our entrance, and then all but one of them snapped to attention, stepping formally to the center of their assigned passageways, their foot-long, curved knives barring our way.
Ordinn waved cheerily at them, and marched us towards the one unblocked passageway, one of the smaller ones. The passageway’s guard watched us approach. “Ordinn,” he said, nodding. “This is your friend?”
“This is Horse,” said the dwarf. He turned to me. “Now he knows you,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Thirty paces down the dim passageway, we turned right, into a high, dimly-lit room. There was a table at its center, lined with chairs, and a pair of high-backed, cushioned seats flanked a fireplace at the room’s far end. Several doors opened up off the central one.
“Welcome to the Living Quarters,” he said as I moved into the room. “It used to be for whatever royal guests Lady Sylvanas had, but now that the Forsaken have come out of the closet, they need a place to let us alive folks sleep where we won’t roll over into ichor.” He shut the door behind us.
At the click of the door, I whirled around. “We’re alone now, right?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Ordinn, grinning lopsidedly, “but I don’t think you’re—”
“I didn’t want to say anything out there,” I said, “in case of…” I paused. “I don’t know, in case of secrecy or something. But there—”
“There’s a giant army of undead massed to the west and north of here,” said Ordinn, speaking my mind, his eyes flitting about strangely as he walked casually towards the cold fireplace. “They have bone wyrms. Two of them chased you. One of them shattered itself against the cliff when you crash-landed under a rapidly-closing iron gate.” He glanced back up at me. “You might like to know that it’s pulled itself back together and flown off,” he said, smirking.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “For all that, we didn’t even kill one?”
“No!” laughed the dwarf. “It’s a testament to the strength and skill of your hippogryph friend that you escaped at all. You don’t kill bone wyrms. They kill you.”
“Oh,” I said. The chilling image of the creature’s bleached bones reaching out to each other by whatever twisted magic held them together flashed through my mind.
The dwarf turned to the small table which stood between the fireplace’s two seats. From it, he picked up a square bottle, half-full of a dark brown liquid. The bottle’s curling black label read, “No. 7 Sour Mash” in ornate letters. “I never leave home without it,” he said. “Want a glass?”
“Yeah, please,” I said, pulling off my backpack and flopping down in one of the chairs. The day’s labors – swimming to the bottom of the ocean, then flying from certain death – settled onto my shoulders. I wanted suddenly to see Rhy, to have a beer in her apartment and relax with her and Tidus, throw little balled-up pieces of paper for her little white kitten to chase, for none of this to have happened. I sighed and let Ajax out. He sniffed the air distastefully and began exploring the room, and I remembered why it was all going to be worth it. I smiled at him.
“Nice cat,” said Ordinn, handing me my glass and sitting down.
I sat down as well. “Thanks,” I said. “You got a pet too? Katy M has Screech, and Fang has his little blue… thing…” I took a sip from the glass. It stung the back of my throat.
Ordinn laughed. “Isn’t that the ugliest snake you’ve ever met? Its little wings give me the creeps. Yeah, I got one, we all do – it’s a little grey rock lizard named Izzard.”
“Izzard the lizard,” I said. “That’s funny.”
“Yeah,” grunted the dwarf, “that’s why I named him like that, see?”
I stared at him, trying to decide if he was making fun of me, then giving up. “Where is he?” I said. “You should let him out, maybe him and Ajax could make friends.”
“Matter of fact,” muttered the dwarf, poking his head around his chair’s high back and looking towards the center of the room. Ajax was crouched, staring with extreme concern at an unremarkable spot on the stone floor. Then the spot moved, and Ajax leapt back, tail twitching.
“Oh!” I said. “Hi, Izzard.”
Ordinn inhaled purposefully, bringing us back to the conversation. “We know about the army already,” he said. “Sylvanas will probably have you come brief the War Council about your encounter, but don’t expect anyone to gasp in shock when you tell your story. In fact,” he continued, “in all likelihood, you won’t even be asked to tell it, just answer some questions. Quick to the point and then leave, right?”
“The War Council?” I wanna be on the War Council, I added in my head.
“Yeah,” he replied. “The council which advises Sylvanas on how to conduct war.”
“And you get to sit on that council and I get to speak quickly and then leave.”
“Yeah,” he said, “because who the hell are you?”
I creased my forehead, my bile rising. “I’m inside now,” I said heatedly, “I’m in the Order! I’m almost an agent. M promised I’d be in on the jokes now, and instead I’m going to get shuffled out of meetings like I did back in Storm City?”
“You’re right that you’re not yet an agent,” answered the dwarf. “You’re now a junior member of the most secret club in the world, and you want to parade your membership card around to get to sit in on meetings? Do you ever think before you speak?”
I sat, chastened. “I didn’t mean…” Of course I couldn’t just waltz into the back rooms of power, not yet. Lady Sylvanas had no idea what it meant that I was an agent-in-training. Not to say that I really did, either. I sighed.
“Listen,” said Ordinn, relenting. “You aren’t anybody of consequence to the world yet, but you are to us. We got your back, and we’ll keep you up to date on everything we can. Okay? Promise.”
I should have felt a rush of relief at this, but instead, a nagging thought that had been growing on my mind ever since we’d arrived finally surfaced: The last time I’d been here, I’d witnessed the betrayal of the Argent Dawn, of the Silver Hand, and of the Forsaken. Since then, I’d been complicit in it. It might all be for the better, I thought, in ways that are too complicated for us to fathom, but the Dawn, the Hand, the Forsaken – would they understand that? “My first question,” I said quietly, “is how much they know about what happened with the black book.”
“They know exactly what happened,” said the dwarf gruffly. “You went in to try and save the book, and Katy and Fang followed you to try and save you from your fool’s errand, then Hannathras showed up and kicked everybody’s ass. Then, because you were hurt bad, they spirited you away before anyone woke up from the beating Hannathras had just given them. Remember?”
“Nah,” I sighed, sipping my whiskey thoughtfully. “I went down pretty fast, didn’t I.”
Ordinn laughed shortly, and pulled on his whiskey. “Sure did,” he said.
I nodded. “So,” I said, “fill me in. I got spirited off to Kali for like two months. What’d I miss?”
The dwarf nodded. “Meanwhile, back in Lordaeron, everyone woke up with splitting headaches, realized the book was gone, and sent out scouts to recall the Forsaken army, such as it was, back from its planned attack on Uther’s Tomb.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Rayn arrived on the scene about a week later,” continued Ordinn, “and as soon as he got over the whole thing how he’d become everything he’d always fought against, and so on, he started up an active and absolutely critical dialogue between the Forsaken and the Hand. They’re awful friendly these days – and thank the Light.”
“Or the Law,” I said, grinning.
“Good bull,” said Ordinn. “You’re catchin’ on.
“Acting on intelligence furnished them by their newly non-enemies the Silver Hand,” he continued, “the Forsaken attempted a full frontal assault on the cave where Hannathras’s wizards had been stationed, but it was empty.
“King Madoran’s battalion of soldiers arrived shortly thereafter, and stayed on to help Uther’s Tomb rebuild. They’ve expanded, turning the place into a proper fortress. We’re hoping that it’ll be a strong waypoint, for the armies of the living when they begin to arrive from the south, and a strong link in the supply line. Your friends are all there – Anduin, Allyndil the elf, and the rest of the Hand.”
“I want to see them!” I cried happily.
“I’m sure you will,” replied the dwarf, “they come and go often. Anduin Fordring is on the War Council. Luke Umberto is here at Under City as we speak, teaching the Forsaken magicians a spell for turning undead which he discovered in his monastery’s library, which, as it turns out, conveniently only works on the bad guys.
“Madoran himself went back to his city of Ironforge. He’s begun mobilizing the soft civilian city that I left him into a hard dwarven army. I understand that they’re doing quite well, although he’s been unexpectedly uncooperative with the Forsaken.
“The Forsaken army, meanwhile, was swelling with the influx of prodigal and vagabond Forsaken, trickling in from all over the world. Word’s gone out along their communications networks, and the mass exodus of the glow-eyes has begun, although few have noticed it.”
“What’s up with all that?” I said thoughtfully. “King Madoran has battalions of dwarves heading north, Anduin and Luke and people are here in Under City, they’re allies with the Hand – are the Forsaken still a secret?”
Ordinn nodded for a moment, pursing his lips beneath his black beard. “The secret’s out,” he said, “at the highest levels of governments, and there are those that aren’t taking it as well as Madoran did.”
I smiled as I remembered how casually he’d accepted Rhy upon meeting her.
“I’m sure it’ll filter down the ranks before long,” Ordinn was saying, “and surely some intelligent people will notice that all of their pale, bony, glowing-eyed friends are disappearing just as there’s rumors of trouble in the north. So we’ll see. Should be interesting.”
I nodded. “Go on,” I said.
“Well,” said the dwarf, “five or six weeks ago, Varimathras came back. You knew about that before anyone here did – we didn’t find out for sure until the Nerubians arrived a week later, telling their sad story. They’re a strong addition to our forces here, stationed above-ground in the ruins of Lordaeron for now.
“Everyone knew it was coming, of course,” said the dwarf. “As soon as the black book disappeared, everyone knew Varimathras’s return was inevitable. But once the Nerubians arrived, the Forsaken cranked into overdrive: The whole War District got rapidly retooled to fight an actual war, instead of just training guerilla run-around guards like it was before. Sylvanas sent scouts out through the plaguewoods to keeping their glowing eyes out for anything out of the ordinary, and before long there was plenty: anything that had once been alive and had caught the plague – dogs, badgers, field mice – began moving north and west, towards the ruins of an old Scarlet Crusade watchtower, and single-mindedly digging and pushing dirt, guided, we presume, by the distant will of Varimathras. I’m told that seeing a regiment of undead wild dogs mindlessly digging a trench is quite unsettling, and that coming from a guy that had already been dead for three hundred years when he saw it.
“Soon a steady stream of walking corpses began arriving, shambling in from who knows what ancient and befouled graveyard, and they began building buildings. We tried to break it up, to generally get in their way and set them back, but they would turn on our scouts, drive them off, and then return to work as though nothing had happened. Which, I suppose, it really hadn’t.” Ordinn heaved a sigh.
“Then, two weeks ago, Varimathras’s massive army arrived from the north-west, on hundreds of black-sailed ships. The speed with which he created a fleet from nothing is terrifying, and more than a little puzzling.
“His massive army steamrolled inland, easily overwhelming our unprepared squadrons and our weak, half-built outposts and turning our defenders into more mindless Scourge soldiers. It could have overwhelmed us here as well, but it stopped and set up camp: the Scourge is now as you saw it, encamped to the northwest, gaining strength daily and waiting for we have no idea what.
“So,” he concluded, “that’s where we’re at: sitting here, wondering why we’re not all dead yet. Diplomatic word has gone out all over the east, and those places that have armies are sending them north.”
I glanced at him over the rim of my glass. “Isn’t it the Law’s fault that no one has armies?” I said quietly.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Yeah, it is. The dwarves have a strong one, anyway – King Madoran’s first battalions should be arriving at Uther’s Tomb soon…” he said, trailing off for a moment. “The day after tomorrow,” he declared, as though having plucked the information out of thin air. “The first army of the living to occupy Lordaeron since the end of the first Scourge War.”
“The First Scourge War,” I said. “That’s what it’s called now?”
“Yeah,” said the dwarf, his eyes staring into the cold fireplace. “The second one has been nothing but skirmishes so far, but it’ll break upon us, soon enough …”
* * *
The next few days were filled with hasty, abbreviated reunions. Anduin arrived with Allyndil the next morning, the latter now clad in the white robes of the Silver Hand. After sending me bustling off to the kitchens for some esoteric ingredients, they salved and sang Tamilin’s wing back to full strength. Despite being something of a local celebrity for having outrun two bone dragons (and for being a mythological beast), the hippogryph had remained ill at ease among the undead. He’d spent a miserable night in the common room of the Living Quarters, and, reassuring me that he’d reappear to help at a moment’s notice, he took his leave from Under City. “Gonna find an all-the-way alive forest somewhere south to rest up in for a few days,” he said. I thanked him and clapped him heartily on his thick feathered neck, and then he turned and was gone.
Anduin greeted me warmly, expressing his sincere joy that I was alive and well, and then he hurried off to do whatever important work it was I couldn’t partake in. Allyndil and I dangled our legs off the edge of one of the city’s balconies for an hour, and he filled me in on the details of the Tomb’s resurrection. It was going mightily, he said – they were building a whole new ring to the compound, with housing for a small army, and with new walls against new enemies, higher and thicker. The stone was being quarried from the buried ruins of Andorhal. There was a new, larger herd of goats and a new flock of chickens, all provided by King Madoran, and their barns and paddocks were shaded and protected against attacks from the sky. The Silver Hand labored with a new vigor, a virtuous tenacity born of need. “We all know what’s coming,” Allyndil explained soberly. “We all know what’s at stake.”
After lunch, I was summoned before the War Council. The Council met in another wing of the Royal Quarters, in a square stone room with a long stone table. The table was covered with charts and maps, none of which I understood, and at the head sat the Dark Lady herself, clad in dark gray robes and wearing a golden circlet on her forehead. Anduin was there as well, as was Ordinn; ten or so Forsaken filled in the rest of the seats. It seemed that Ordinn had already briefed them on my harrowing escape the day before, though, and the interview consisted of one or another Forsaken asking me to confirm pertinent points, and me obliging. They concentrated particularly hard on the aerial maneuverability of the bone wyrms, while my staggering view of the vast Scourge Army elicited only one question: whether the ugliest thing I’d seen there had been humanoid. It had been. Then, with a nod and a thank-you, I was dismissed.
That evening, as promised, Ordinn filled me in on the rest of the day’s happenings. As it turned out, they’d been really boring: Anduin had presented a dry report on the progress at Uther’s Tomb, and delivered the well-received news that the first battalions of dwarves would be arriving thither the very next day; a scout had been summoned to report on the volume of zombie foot-traffic heading north towards the Scourge’s encampment (“It was light today,” reported Ordinn); and then there had been hours of staring at maps and drawing and redrawing potential defense scenarios – “They don’t look great,” said the dwarf.
The next day, having not yet seen her, I sought out Rhy. I found her in the Mage District, farther around the City’s wheel-shaped concourse than I’d yet been. She sat cross-legged on a round stone disk, draped in a tattered, lightly singed black robe, eyes squeezed shut. Her jaw was clenched in intense concentration. Her disk, I saw, was floating, and a faint purple light shimmered beneath it. As I warily approached the disk, the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stood up. It felt unpleasantly unnatural, and I shivered.
“Rhy,” I said uncertainly. “Rhy?”
Her eyes cracked open, and a faint purple mist trailed out of them. “Horse!” she cried joyfully, and the purple mist winked out, and the light under the platform sucked inward and upward, through the stone and into Rhy. The disk collapsed with a crash, and then the purple light exploded in a shockwave, out of her body, propelling me backward, down a shallow flight of stairs and onto the city’s main promenade.
Behind me, much too close for comfort, green ichor lapped at the edge of its stone canal. Across the canal stood a huge arachnid Nerubian, comically tilting its thick black head at me.
I rolled over and leapt to my feet. “Rhy!” I yelled, running back towards my friend. She was lying prone, her eyes closed, and her already-tattered robes were blown nearly to bits. “Rhy?” I said, and I poked her, fearing the worst.
Her eyes cracked back open. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Hi Horse,” she said groggily. “You distracted me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I wouldn’t have if I’d known it was going to blow you up!”
She smiled faintly. “It’s okay,” she said, and she gathered herself together, sitting up slowly on her now-grounded disk. “It’s not the first time that’s happened.”
“What were you doing?” I said. I reached down and helped her to her feet.
She looked up at me with her pale yellow eyes, and then, with a big grin, she threw her arms around my waist and hugged fiercely. I laughed, patting her awkwardly on the head. “Hi,” I said.
“You’re alive!” she said joyously. “When the book disappeared and you went with it, I cried and cried!” She hugged me again.
“You can cry?” I said cheekily.
She stuck her tongue out at me. “No tears,” she replied, “but it still feels right to go through the motions, you know? Oh, tell me everything!”
I made to speak, but I stopped. As I ran through my story in my head, it occurred to me that there was almost nothing that had happened to me since I’d last seen her that I could tell anyone outside the Order.
“Later,” I said casually, but she shot me a look anyway. I changed the subject. “What’s the deal with you blowing up just now?”
Rhy smiled sheepishly. “Lady Sylvanas – Oh, Horse, I’m a lieutenant in the Mage Corps now! She saw me kick ass at the Battle of the Book and remembered me!” Her smiled turned into a radiant grin.
“Go you!” I said, grinning back.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Lady Sylvanas wants to make sure our wizards are up to snuff and weaving the best spells when the invasion comes, so she’s having me research arcane energy. For some reason it’s been getting stronger since the moons went crazy last month – used to be you had to be really good to use arcane anywhere that wasn’t already steeped with the stuff.”
“Steeped?” I said.
“Yeah,” she replied, “like some places are just filthy with it, which is weird, because fire and ice you can do anywhere. Light magic, too, I’ve heard. But not arcane, it’s different somehow – like, there’s a big ruined tower in a mountain pass away to the east and south of Storm City that’s got it strong. I went there once fifty years ago and tried to use it, but I channeled too much and it almost ripped me apart.”
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “It was so easy to tap into, way easier than the elementals, so I just overwhelmed myself.”
A memory floated into my mind: Tidus the orc, the day he’d run from Storm City, passing out after channeling too much lightning. “What’s that mean?” I said. “The different kinds of magic you’re talking about?”
“Well,” replied Rhy, and then paused, collecting her thoughts. “Magic is just energy, right? It’s like invisible energy that’s all around us, that some people have figured out how to use. So I can use elemental fire energy to make magical fire, and ice mages use water and cold to make ice.”
I nodded. “And Life is life, and the Light is… prayer, or something…”
“Or something,” laughed Rhy.
“So what’s arcane energy? I’ve never heard of it. Those others make sense to me. But arcane? You were floating on glowy purple light just now. That’s crazy.”
She shrugged again. “Beats me,” she repeated. “I’m not sure anyone quite knows. A lot of the blood elves use it, with the help of wands – I’m sure you’ve seen them shoot glowing purple darts at each other, that’s arcane magic. It’s just another kind of energy that you can make do stuff for you, I guess. I can’t tell where it comes from, but like I said, it seems to like certain places better than others.
“I’m doing better this time,” she continued, “although there’s less energy here than there was by the old tower, so it’s easier to do cool stuff without killing myself.” Her eyes lit up and she smiled at me. “It feels really good,” she said conspiratorially.
I grinned. “Neat,” I said. “You should definitely try to not kill yourself, though, right?”
“Try not to break my concentration when I’m floating three feet off the ground,” she replied, winking. She settled back onto her disk.
I left her to her meditation with a promise to meet again for dinner, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the War District, carrying big armloads and wheelbarrow-loads of stuff from source to destination.
Rhy arrived at the Living Quarters with a plate of grubs – my stomachs turned – and, after she’d clapped and excitedly greeted Ajax, we sat and ate and chatted. I’d spent the afternoon going over what I could tell her in my head, and I described the devastation in Orcmar and Crossroads, and the refugee camp of New Rocktusk.
“That’s crazy,” she said of New Rocktusk. “The moons was Varimathras coming back, right? That’s what the Nerubians said. He’s ruining people’s lives without even attacking them,” she growled. “I hope we get him good.”
Me too, I thought.
She asked if I’d seen Tidus, and we discussed him for a minute. He had grown up in a village south of Orcmar, and I wondered whether it had been as devastated as the rest of the area had been. “I hope he’s okay,” said Rhy, and I agreed. “I hope we see him again,” I added.
“I went home, too,” I continued. “Not home-home, I just kind of passed through Mulgore, but still.”
“Wow,” said Rhy. “Did you see your mom?”
I sighed. I might as well not have, I thought. “No way I’m ready for that.”
“I’m sure you will be,” she said kindly.
Ordinn arrived and joined us for a drink. Then Rhy excused herself (“Have to go practice more!” she’d said, with a slightly overexcited glint in her eyes), and Ordinn filled me in on the War Counsel’s actions for the day. It had been another light day of zombie traffic, but a successful one for armor- and munitions-crafting. “Really,” said the dwarf emphatically, “you’re not missing anything.”
* * *
The next day, I was sitting facing the cold fireplace, reading an article on sea lions that Ordinn had been kind enough to procure for me from the Black Sanctum (“This stupid pendant looks nothing like them!” I cried irritably when I’d opened to the first photograph) when the door banged open and Fang and Katy M strode in, bickering about something food-related.
“Anyone gonna ask me how my trip was?” I said after a moment.
M looked sideways at me. “Hello, Horse,” she said. “Your trip was painful and you didn’t figure out the sea lion. Then there was a thing with bone dragons. You forget that we get selectively informed by that which knows all.” She set her pack down heavily and headed into the Quarters’ tiny kitchen. “Are you going to ask us how our trip was?”
“I figure if I need to know I’ll be informed,” I said curtly, but it was in good humor.
“It was great!” said Fang, striding purposefully over and hopping up into the other chair, settling himself in comfortably. “Ratchett is beautiful this time of year, and deliciously fascist now that Aesus bailed – I had to sneak around with a dark hood on, no kidding! How’s Ordinn? Been keeping you in the loop?”
“Yeah he has,” I said gratefully, “keeping me up to date on the War Council proceedings, which as it turns out are dull as dirt.”
“Yup,” said the murloc. “Welcome to the mystical halls of power - meetings are boring.
“Now,” he said, “no rest for the weary: we have somewhere on the order of two days to train you up for what I understand is going to be a most compelling mission, involving sneaking around and finding stuff out. Probably.”
I looked over at him. “That sounds exciting,” I said.
“Oh buddy,” he replied, and motioned me up out of my seat with his blunt blue nose. “Put your learning hat on, kid – we got work to do.”