“So,” said Fang, from his perch on the comfortable seat. “Remember when I took control of you and walked you up a thousand steps to the top of a giant spike of ice?”
“Yeah…” I said apprehensively.
“Well,” he said, “if you’re going to be an agent of the Law, we can’t have you letting yourself get turned into a puppet by outsiders, by anyone not as benevolent as myself.” He motioned graciously towards himself with his fins. I smiled.
“I’m pretty damn good at puppetteering,” he continued, “which means I’m the perfect murloc to teach you to throw it off.” There was a tickle in my mind. “So let’s get started.”
And suddenly I was doing jumping jacks. M emerged from the kitchen with a tray of steaming teacups. She cracked a thin smile.
I stopped. “You fail,” said Fang.
“How the hell am I supposed—” I said, irritated.
“Tea?” said M mildly. She set the tray down on the end table, seated herself opposite Fang, and held out a cup.
“Okay,” I said, bemused, but as I made to reach for it, my outstretched hand turned into a fist, swinging back around and knocking me on my nose.
I whirled on the murloc. “You’re playing with me,” I growled.
“Sure am,” he replied. “You gonna complain, or are you gonna do something about it? And if you’re thinking about just hauling off and slugging me, keep in mind how well that went the last time you tried it.”
Bile rose at the humiliating memory of my battle with the two agents back at Underwood Manor in Storm City, but I mastered it. I sighed. “Can I at least get some pointers? And by any chance can we do this without me punching myself?”
“Sorry,” said Fang, shrugging helplessly as my fist reared up and hit me in the face again. “It’s the best way to learn, experts agree.”
“Here’s a pointer,” said M, holding out the teacup. “If you want it, take it.”
I gritted my teeth and reached for the cup.
My mind tingled and my hand deflected. I cried out, lurching forward, but my legs buckled and I landed painfully on my knees.
I closed my eyes, focusing. Somewhere in this mind of mine, I thought, there’s a puppet-master, pulling my strings and making me dance. I stood, slowly, and reached determinedly for the teacup. There, I thought, is the tickle – I felt it worm into my mind, then down my arm, and then I felt it pull. My hand deflected. I blinked.
M, looking bored, took a sip of my tea, then held it out again.
I reached forward again. Tickle, pull, deflect. Then again, and this time, I concentrated with all the strength in my arm on reaching the cup.
My hand deflected. I cursed.
“You’re doing good,” said Fang distantly. “You’ve got the wrong idea with trying to resist it, though – you need to throw it off entirely.”
I reached forward again, finding the string, following the tickle. My hand deflected.
And again. This time I traced it backwards, into my mind where the string pulled. I grunted, and then cried out, and then, with a wrenching pain, I severed the string.
I stumbled forward into M’s arm. The teacup flew out of her hand and smashed on the floor. Ajax, who had been sitting contentedly in the corner, leapt up and flew into the next room. M sighed, and picked up another steaming cup off the tray.
* * *
Fang kept pulling my strings for hours, and I became more and more adept at severing them. Soon I could do it without the pain, and before long I’d gotten my hand triumphantly around a cup of tea. As it turned out, the stuff tasted like swamp water, and I set it back on its tray with a delicate look of distaste on my face. Fang took it for himself, sipping it and hissing contentedly.
Keeping him from controlling my body, it turned out, was the easy part. “The important thing,” said Fang, “is actually to keep others from accessing your thoughts. You’ve experienced that before, with Hannathras. Our nightmare scenario is someone poking about and finding information that we don’t want them to find: You’re a member of a secret order,” he explained seriously, “and for a million and one reasons, the goals, methods, membership and existence of that Order need to stay secret.”
We spent the evening and the next day repeating exhausting exercises, training me to fend off the murloc’s attacks. I would think of a number, and then he would guess it. I soon discovered that the simplest way to keep my thoughts secret was to not think them: Once I had selected a number, I would think determinedly about Ordinn, or Tamilin, or pie, or anything but the number. If I could keep Fang from gaining entry to that one thought, I could keep him out of my mind entirely.
“When are you going to teach me to do the controlling?” I said at one point.
Fang shook his head. “Anyone can learn to keep minds out, but learning to read them takes years of focus and practice. It’s also an act of supreme manipulation: yours are skills of natural stuff. They better suit you, anyway.”
* * *
The next day, as Katy M sat reading a book on tropical island ecology in one of the Living Quarters’ high-backed chairs and I sat studying my sea-lion book in the other, Ordinn strolled purposefully in. I looked up. “Aren’t you supposed to be in meetings all day?” said M.
“One of the patrols suffered some losses yesterday, and on orders from above I offered to provision a pair of good scouts to bolster their numbers. They leave in twenty minutes. Horse, you feeling limber?”
“Me?” I said, surprised.
“Good,” replied the dwarf to my ungiven ascent, “so get a move-on.”
“Who’s the other one, me?” rumbled the bull from her chair next to me.
Ordinn shook his head. “Fang,” he said.
“I’ll be ready in a sec,” called the murloc in from the kitchen. He sounded excited.
“Patrol?” I said.
“Go!” cried Ordinn, then he turned on his heel and vanished.
“Patrol?” I said to M.
She sighed. “Orders from above,” she said patiently, “is generally code for, the Law said so. So get a move-on, and Fang will fill you in on the way.”
I changed quickly into my travel pants, donned my travel cloak, strapped my blunt mace to my belt, scratched Ajax and waved at Izzard the lizard, and joined Fang, his travel belt now buckled about him, in the living room. “Let’s go!” he said, and, unceremoniously, we went.
Gathered at the foot of the stone steps which led up to Under City’s entrance was a haphazardly-dressed assortment of Forsaken, their armor ranging from light leather to absent. They chatted amongst themselves, hissing and clicking, or stood silently. Fang and I approached them, but to my relief, we stopped a few yards away.
Another Forsaken, dressed all in black with a pair of white bands affixed to his breast, mounted the stairs and spoke in Gutterspeak. The soldiers below instantly formed up, clicking their heels together. A few, the volunteer join-ups like Fang and me, stood uncomfortably at the back. Among them I noticed a face I recognized – Rhy was coming with us. I smiled and made to step forward, but Fang but a fin on my arm.
The Forsaken commander began speaking again, and everyone listened in silence. Fang motioned me towards him, and I leaned down. “We lost comrades yesterday,” he translated. “We have been over why, and I trust that mistakes will not repeat themselves. To those of you that are joining us for the first time, welcome to the Patrol Corps. Get it?” Fang added, grinning toothily up at me. I shook my head, bemused. He shrugged and continued, “Our mission is to keep the Dark Lady as informed as possible about the movements and actions of the Scourge that is arrayed against us. You all met the hippogryph or heard his story; you are aware that the Scourge controls the sky: even if the dwarves would loan us their griffins, the skeleton dragons would keep them grounded. That means that in order to do our job, we have to walk there and look for ourselves.
“Our home and way of life is threatened by a force commanded by pure, malevolent evil,” he finished simply. “The Dark Lady thanks you for doing everything that you can for the war effort.” Even through his hissing and clicking, I could tell that the man was uncomfortable with inspiring language. We were heading into some nasty danger, as I understood it – and suddenly I wanted a Madoran or an Anduin giving us a rousing speech instead.
He had stopped talking, and the other volunteers who had not formed up at the beginning now shuffled into less precise lines. I moved forward – glancing down at Fang to make sure it was allowed – and fell into line next to Rhy, who did a double-take and then stifled a hello. I nodded mock-somberly back, and she smiled.
The commander hissed another order, and the company turned to the right (and the volunteers followed in poorer form). Then, with another command, we marched rank by rank up the stone stairs, through the stone tunnel and out into the plaguelands.
We marched east for hours, through lands that I recognized in passing from my harried flight over them a few days earlier: past the ruined tower; over land that grew hillier until it became mountainous; past an ancient, ruined stone road running across our path. Rhy and I passed the time by talking quietly – she had joined up to fill in the temporary gaps in the Patrol Corps as well. “Corps, get it?” she said, echoing Fang. “Spelled like corpse.” She grinned. Ah, I thought.
“See the murloc?” I said, gesturing over my shoulder, where Fang walked half a dozen places in line behind us.
She nodded. “I saw you come in with him. You guys know each other?”
I smiled. “That’s the Tooth,” I said.
She gasped. “You’re kidding,” she said. “You left Storm City with Fang the Tooth?”
“You can’t tell anyone, of course, but yeah,” I replied, and I grinned suddenly at my casual association with such famous and powerful folks as Fang the Tooth. I’d lost that feeling, somewhat.
“It gets even better,” I added, reveling in it now. “Remember when that goblin was about to kill us, and some kind of magic caught his head on fire or something and he ran off screaming into the woods?”
She nodded. I nodded back over my shoulder. “You’re kidding,” she said. “The Tooth saved us.”
I smiled. “Pretty cool, huh?”
But Rhy frowned. “We’ve always had secrets from each other,” she said quietly, “you and me and Tidus too a little – but you could barely tell me anything about where you’d been all this time, and now you’re consorting with Fang the Tooth and who knows who else. Just when you find out my biggest secret ever, I’m not gonna be able to hear most of yours, am I?” She looked sadly up at me.
It wrenched me a bit inside, and for a moment I regretted everything. It passed, though, and I nodded. “Look, Rhy,” I replied, “I’m in some big stuff here, way way over my head.” It was true. “But you’re my best friend, and I’ll try to tell you everything I can, okay?” I suddenly realized that that was true, too.
She smiled back up at me, then we fell into silence.
* * *
As the dim sun stretched towards the horizon, our company halted. Orders – a full minute of them – were relayed from the front, passed to the back, then Rhy translated an abridged version: “We’re to split up into teams of two or three and spread out, staying close enough so we can shout warnings but far enough that we can be silent and spy over a long ways.” I nodded, and she waved me off into the woods. “If you stick with me,” she added conspiratorially, “you can be a cat.”
“I finally learned how to get rid of my horns!” I whispered excitedly back. “Check it out—” and, glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I turned my mind, then my body, into a proud, hornless lion.
Rhy clapped. “Good job,” she whispered back, running a cold hand over my smooth head. “C’mon, let’s go.”
We crept forward – east, away from the setting sun – through the thick mushroom forest. Twice we ran into other patrol groups, two or three Forsaken shuffling along nearly parallel to us. I’d ducked out of sight when they approached, and they’d expressed concern at Rhy going it alone. She’d reassured them that she was fine, and I’d reappeared as they shuffled off.
Then, in the gathering dusk, we climbed up over a steep embankment, and came suddenly to the edge of the forest. Rhy gasped and pointed.
Ahead of us, the great mushroom-trees had been hacked to the ground, their carcasses tossed like twigs into great burn-piles. A wet, acrid smoke rose from one into the evening sky. And in the cleared ground, between stumps, stood ranks and ranks of the uniform, black tents which had so shocked me when I’d flown over them.
“I’ve never seen it before,” she whispered. “It really is awful.”
I nodded my cat head in agreement, then shifted back into a bull. “Think all those tents are empty?” I said.
Rhy nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I hear – they always are, this far east. It’s like they’re waiting to be filled. So creepy.”
“What are we supposed to be watching for?” I asked quietly.
Rhy glanced up at me, then back out into the surreal camp. “Anything out of the ordinary,” she whispered, “although none of this is ordinary to me. I guess, we need to report back if we see things happen, or get counts of tents or something…” She shrugged. “The more information the better.”
I nodded, staring out across the camp, surreal in the dusking light. “Not that there’s anything happening to report on,” I muttered.
Rhy nodded, peering off. “It’s creepy how there’s no movement,” she whispered. Then she grabbed my arm and pointed.
Maybe a hundred yards away, something was shuffling south. Rhy, whose eyesight was better than mine in the half-darkness, whispered, “It’s a zombie, I think, but it’s in thick black armor…”
Then it stopped, and disappeared.
“Did it just go into a tent?” I whispered.
Rhy nodded, and she looked up at me.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I whispered.
Gritting my teeth against a rising sense of fear, I stepped forward. “Horse!” hissed Rhy, and I fell back to all fours and became a cat. I crept forward, silent as the night, and approached the nearest tent. Its flaps hung limp, and I eased my head painstakingly in.
Inside, six corpses, clad in the same dull black armor, lay side by side like sardines in a can, their legs laid perfectly next to each other, their arms crossed over their chests, their eyes open, staring dull and dark at the ceiling. I swore silently.
I pulled my nose out and crept to the next tent. Inside it were another six armored zombies, staring sightlessly upward, and in the next tent, and the next. I swallowed hard.
Then, like a dissipating shockwave, a feeling – like Fang trying to read my mind, writ large – echoed from the north, and I stilled my mind against it, and then it was past.
In the depths of the zombies’ dark, lidless eyes, a dim yellow glow sprung to life.
I jerked back, pulling my head from the tent. The quiet sound of movement came from within it, and then from the other tents, and I dashed headlong back towards Rhy.
“What happened?” she hissed. “What was the—”
“The tents are full,” I said, shifting back into a bull, gasping for breath. “Six zombies in each one, all outfitted with identical black armor, and that mind-blast wave thing woke them up, we have to go—”
A shout echoed from along the tree line to the south. “That’s one of ours,” hissed Rhy. “Come on!”
I didn’t argue. We leapt back down the embankment and tore off through the mushroom-tree forest, back the way we’d come, not looking back but sure that a massive army of darkness was rolling and roiling after us.
Then I tripped, as though on a branch that wasn’t there, and Rhy – a few steps ahead of me still – didn’t notice, and kept running, and in a moment I was alone.
Something padded towards me in the darkness, and I rolled over gasping still for breath, scrambling backward, until my back met with one of the plague trees – and I jerked away from it, suddenly more afraid of the plague than of whatever was coming towards me.
“Hey,” hissed a familiar voice.
“Fang!” I gasped. “We’re not safe, the things, the zombies came to life—”
“Sort of,” hissed the murloc, and a note of humor played about his voice. “We’re safe here. Your friend Rhy’s safe too, although she’s despondent that she lost you. I believe,” and he paused, “that everyone else will be safe as well. Pretty sure. It’s a good thing you saw what you saw, or you might not have gotten away in time.”
“We’re safe here?” I cried, then silenced myself in terror. “We’re safe here?” I whispered. “The zombies!”
“They’re not headed this way,” replied Fang casually. “Strange as it may sound, what you felt before was nothing more than a test, it was Varimathras flexing his mind’s muscles and seeing what he could achieve. I believe what he found was that raising a dozen square miles of corpses into an army of the undead in a matter of seconds is child’s play.”
“Yikes,” I said.
“Yeah, terrifying, huh?” He was smiling again.
“So what the hell are we doing here?” I hissed.
“Secret mission,” said Fang easily. “Remember? The thing with keeping people out of your mind?” And he flicked a finger at me, and there was a knock at my mind’s door, and my thoughts instantly shut down. “Good bull,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied. The blue moon was beginning to rise in the east. “So what’s the mission?”
“Well,” said Fang. “We know for certain that Varimathras has a gigantic unstoppable army stationed within striking distance of Under City, and we also know for certain that we’re all still alive. What we don’t know is why, right? Why Varimathras has seen fit to let us live this long. Who knows that?”
“Varimathras,” I replied impertinently.
“Right,” said Fang, to my surprise. “So what’s the best way to find out?”
“Walk up and ask him?” I said. “What kind of stupid secret mission is this? We’re going to walk up to Varimathras and ask him what’s keeping him from killing us all?”
“Well, you are,” replied the murloc.
“You’re not gonna help?” I cried.
Fang laughed shortly. “So,” he continued, “let’s say that in order to get anywhere near Varimathras alive, it’ll have to somehow seem to be in his interest to not squish you with his mind. And in order to convince him of that, you’ll need something – say, a valuable hostage, incapacitated and all tied up, to offer.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Eeeexactly,” replied Fang, and this time he grimaced. He reached into his little brown pouch and pulled out a length of rough-looking rope. He inhaled, his body swelling. “You’re going to beat me up,” he said. “And once I’m properly beaten up and knocked out, you’re going to tie me up and haul me north and talk your way into Varimathras’s trust, all without letting him or anyone else into your mind. Simple!”
I stared open-mouthed at him.
“What,” he said, “you think it’s gonna be any more fun for me? Look, if the Law says get beat up, throw yourself into the maw of the beast, go running headlong into the worst danger you can imagine, then that’s what you damn well do. Oh c’mon,” he added, grinning half-heartedly. “You get to get me back for all the mind-games I played on you.”
I shook my head. The idea that I should beat Fang up was strange enough, but there was another, nameless misgiving…
One of the great, reverberant carrion-grub thrums echoed from off in the depths of the forest. I tensed up. “You’re sure we’re safe here?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” said Fang full-voiced. “The Law would tell me if something were coming.”
I peered at him in the darkness. The Law would tell him, I thought. That’s it. “The Law,” I said, putting my misgivings into words, “is sending us on a dangerous, terrifying, impossible mission. According to you. And out of faith in the Law, you’re ready to throw yourself into the beast’s maw, like you said. But I need to know…” I paused. “The Law’s in your daily life, it tells you stuff and sends you off on crazy missions, but how? If the Law wants me to do this thing, I need it to hear it in its own voice.”
Fang nodded. “Fair enough,” he said. He hesitated. “If you need to squeeze my hand or anything…” and he carefully extended a fin.
I stared at it. “What the hell—” I said, and then a searing, blinding pain lanced through my head. I cried out and collapsed to my knees, squeezing my eyes shut against the now-familiar pain, my hands clamped over my ears, against the ringing in them. The pain, the head-ache, like something was tearing my mind apart and sewing it back together again, had come upon me twice before, on the road to Lordaeron and again in Under City, and each time they had presaged –
The symbols! Of course! The symbols that appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly, sometimes glowing, sometimes hidden patterns in bark and leaves—
I collapsed to the hard-packed ground, writhing with the ordeal, unable to open my eyes, or hear, only able to—
And then it was over. The pain disappeared and the ringing ceased and I opened my eyes and Fang stood over me, a look of deep sympathy on his face. “Learning new ones always sucks,” he said, and offered his fin to me.
“The symbols,” I gasped, accepting it and getting unsteadily to my hooves.
Fang nodded. “The Law request that you look down,” he said quietly.
I looked down. Hello, Horse, read the dimly moonlit ground.
I gasped, suddenly overwhelmed, and looked back at Fang. He smiled.
I looked back at the ground. Look up, it said now. I did so.
Before my very eyes, the stars shimmered out, glowing powerfully through the sky’s brown haze. They shifted out of their steadfast heavenly homes and aligned themselves like constellations into new symbols: Welcome, they read, and they shifted slowly, forming new words as I watched, like a great celestial marquee… Sarvavidh is your guide now, your sword and your shield, your master and your protector. You are safe.
I breathed. “There is no voice. The Law tells you what to do by flashing symbols at you in the stars.”
“Yeah,” said Fang easily, “or in, like, fish scales or whatever crazy thing it wants to hide symbols in. We all tell stories about the weirdest place the Law has ever spoken to us from. One time I caught an important clue to something in a spoon-full of soup just as I was about to swallow it.”
I laughed. “Okay, Law,” I said, looking around, “what am I supposed to do now?”
What Fang said, said the stars.
“Damn,” I said.
“What,” said Fang, “you were hoping I was lying?”
“A little,” I said.
Fang grinned, his white teeth glinting in the smoggy moonlight. “You ready for this?” he said, half to himself. He steeled himself, planting his webbed feet and shifting his weight back and forth between them. He inhaled, bouncing up and down, and then looked me in the eyes.
“Ooooookay…” he hissed. “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”