As it turned out, the process of savagely beating someone while holding a straightforward conversation with them – Fang went over instructions for the mission, and tested my mental barriers a few more times – was the most stomach-turning thing I’d ever done. Fang would brace himself and egg me on, and then, my fists balled, I’d hurl them at his soft head. They’d hit home with a sickening thud, and the murloc, for whom all remnants of my enmity had evaporated in the face of this nauseating brutality, would stumble to the side, shake himself off and tell me to hit him again, “and not like a gnome this time!”
“I think if I ever had violent tendencies,” I said at one point, “this is curing me of them.” We both laughed, but I’d meant it. By the time my unwilling fists had knocked the murloc into unconsciousness, I’d made up my mind to never hit anyone again as long as I lived.
I took the length of rope, bound the murloc’s limp fins, and hefted him up into my arms. Then I struck off into the cold, moonlit forest.
My instructions were simple: walk west, returning to the easternmost reaches of the Scourge camp. Then, assuming that I wasn’t killed on sight (Fang had said cheerily), I would be brought in as a prisoner. I would offer the murloc up as proof of my betrayal, and then, if everything went right, I would be taken to Varimathras himself. “From there,” Fang had said, “you’re on your own. Good luck. Don’t let anyone in your head.” When I’d hit him that time, I’d kinda meant it.
I’d asked him how he was going to escape whatever horrors his Scourge captors had in store for him. “Don’t you worry about me,” he’d replied. “I’ve been getting out of this kind of thing for a couple centuries longer than you’ve been alive.”
* * *
The cold, moonlit night wrapped oppressively about me as I made my way along the wide gash of tent-studded land. The tents had settled down again – I didn’t muster the courage to look inside and see if they were empty, or if the zombies had settled back into corpses, ready to be reawakened at a moment’s notice. I shivered and hoped desperately that I would never, ever, ever have to find out.
There was a whisper of movement in the distance. It was a bleached-bone skeleton, clad in a more terrifying, spiked-shouldered edition of the Scourge’s black armor, as though it were an unthinking, unfeeling lieutenant. It marched thoughtlessly down the rows of tents. Steeling myself, I headed towards it.
The skeleton marched rigidly towards me, and then, without so much as a nod, it passed me by.
It turned its bare white skull back to look at me. Its eyes had begun to glow. It shuffled back towards me, clicking its jaw eerily, peering at me. It cocked its head.
“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “I’m defecting,” I added stupidly. I offered the murloc to it, but it stood still, unfazed by the offer.
Its glowing eyes winked out.
I inhaled uncertainly and made to turn away, but the skeleton mechanically reached out and gripped my arm with a fierce and bruising strength.
For long minutes it held me there, tightening its grip whenever I made to move. My arm began to numb under the pressure.
Without warning, the thing released me. I shifted my weight uncertainly, and then, just at the farthest reaches of my mind, I felt a familiar tickle. I instinctually shut down my thoughts, keeping the prying at bay, and I whirled around.
In the distance, a green light floated against the few stars that shone through the thin clouds, drawing closer. My stomachs sank as I recognized its color, and then its shape: it was one of the bone dragons. With a rush of wind that smelled like water that had sat in tin too long, it landed, thirty feet along between the tents.
Then my heart leapt into my throat, and the dragon’s rider glided gently down off its back – It can’t be, I almost thought, but, as I had trained myself to do, I firmly suppressed it.
The mist tendrils on which he floated reached the ground, and he glided gently to a stop in front of me.
“Hello, Horse,” he said.
“Hannathras,” I replied, and I bowed. “I thought I saw you get torn to shreds by a hailstorm of crystal shards.”
“I thought I saw you fall off the top of a thousand-foot ice needle,” he hissed in reply. “We’re heroes, Horse. It takes more than a little death to kill us.”
Myriad thoughts and emotions nearly boiled up at this – hatred, confusion, utter frustration at the refusal of anything evil to die, excitement and, just a bit, pride – but, again, I hastily suppressed them. There was another tickle at the outside of my mind, and Hannathras narrowed his black eyes at me.
“So,” I said, bringing my focus back to the present, “you didn’t resurrect your father out of sheer love and loyalty after all.”
“A touching thought,” he hissed. “I knew that his first act after I fed myself into the spell which resurrected him would be to resurrect me.”
“His first act was to try to kill me and fail,” I replied lightly.
Hannathras smiled thinly. “I meant, his first act of consequence. You’re defecting, then.”
I nodded. “And I’ve got your murloc friend as a good-will offering.” I held Fang out, not looking at him, limp, bound.
Hannathras regarded my offering skeptically for a moment.
“This is the Tooth of Storm City,” I continued, falling thoughtlessly into the rhythm of my gruesome salesmanship. “He’s well-connected – knows important people in Ironforge, Under City, Storm City…” Hannathras’ interest had piqued at the mentions of Storm City, though he’d tried to hide it. No kidding, I almost thought. “The Scarlet Resurrection,” I added on a whim. “He’s in good with them.” (The tickle returned, for a moment, then subsided.)
“Interesting,” Hannathras replied. “And I see you’ve learned how to keep me out of your head. Very interesting.”
I smiled. “This one taught me,” I said nodding at the murloc, still avoiding looking at him. “Ironic, isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” hissed the banshee.
I shrugged. “Take him or leave him.”
“Oh, I’m taking him,” hissed the other. “The question is what to do with you.”
“Huh,” I said, delicately keeping myself from reacting. I narrowed my eyes in return.
The banshee-wizard bobbed up and down some more, considering me intensely. The tickle at the edge of my empty mind grew into a gale, but it found no hook for entry. I smiled thinly.
“Who knows you’ve turned traitor?”
I nodded down at the murloc. “Him,” I replied.
“No one else?”
“No one else,” I replied.
“Good,” hissed the other. “Then you might be useful to us.” He nodded to the glowing green dragon. “Get on,” he said dangerously.
I straddled the beast’s enormous vertebrae, and for a moment, all I could concentrate on was how intensely uncomfortable they were. My legs dangled between its ribs, thicker across than my arms, and the wispy green tendrils which flowed glowing through its empty chest cavity passed around my legs with a subliminal chill. I shivered as the thing lumbered forward and flexed its wings.
The dim moonlight lit a surreal landscape below as we flew north: miles of the shadowy black tents, and, periodically, great cauldrons spewing fetid smoke, black in the moonlight. We avoided them.
Buildings began to appear – low, utilitarian ones, some sprouting pipes, some belching smoke, others doing nothing at all. Zombie workers shambled in and out of a few of them, and I filed the images away for later digestion.
I allowed myself a bare moment of dread. Then I turned my face to the hazy brown sky and breathed the thoughtless autumn wind as it passed.
The bone wyrm alighted at the northern tip of the army, in front of the vast encampment’s largest structure. Its base, just uphill from us and at the edge of a steep precipice, was made of local white stone, rebuilt from the foundation of an ancient human tower like the one just west of Under City’s tunnel entrance. Atop that ancient foundation, though, was set a terrifying black stone tower, great black spikes radiating from it as it rose into the sky. Beyond the tower, the land dropped off abruptly into the black ocean below.
“Welcome,” hissed Hannathras, “to Death’s Doorstep.” He nodded commandingly up at it, and I began walking.
“Why on Az do you call it that?” I said.
“Use your imagination,” replied the other.
“No can do,” I grunted, balancing the unconscious murloc and tapping the side of my head. Hannathras furrowed his pale forehead in what might have been frustration.
We reached the tower’s dark, heavy wooden door. It creaked open. “After you,” said Hannathras, and I entered.
Within, it was nearly pitch-black, and no warmer than the outside chill. In a moment, my eyes adjusted, and a dim green glow perfused the high, wide, black room. A staircase began immediately to my right and wound up the room’s round walls until it disappeared in the high ceiling overhead. Hannathras prodded me towards the staircase, and I stumped stiffly forward.
The stairs wound up the tower’s stone cold walls like a corkscrew, passing out of the lowest room through a series of higher ones, each guarded by thickly armored, dark-eyed, immobile skeletons – ready, I was sure, to leap to the tower’s defense at a moment’s notice.
Then we were at the top of the tower, and spikes of black stone rose around its wide, round roof. Beyond, the army of the dead extended to the horizon.
I turned around. An empty, high-backed stone chair sat on a stone dais, its back to the ocean. Evil-looking patterns were carved up its length, and at its top sprouted a pair of snarling gargoyles, their wings taut and arching over the seat. Behind them, along the stone edge of the parapet, a row of manacles were set into the stone. In one of them hung what might have been a Forsaken scout, and I hastily suppressed a swell of pity. In another hung a foot soldier, unconscious or dead, clad in the red garb of the Scarlet Resurrection. I tilted my head at it.
Beyond the rank of manacles hissed the distant ocean.
“Death’s Doorstep,” I said. “Nice place.”
“Thanks,” hissed Hannathras. “It’s where we bring prisoners for interrogation. The view, it rattles them. Makes the interrogation go faster. Not you, though,” he added in mock respect.
I shrugged. “Where’s the interrogation equipment?”
Hannathras bared his teeth. “I don’t need equipment,” he hissed.
Ah, I almost thought.
Hannathras looked away to the south and east, and bared his teeth again. It took me a moment to realize that this time he was smiling. I followed his black eyes – there was a black figure in the sky coming towards us. Damnit, I almost thought, everyone can fly but me.
It was Varimathras, of course – the Dread Lord, free of his tomb. His wings, mere stumps when I had last seen him, had regrown. Plate armor covered his massive frame. His horns had regrown as well, rising menacingly up from his forehead and curling back over his bald scalp. With a flick of his massive wings, he landed heavily in front of the throne, his hooves resonating on the cold stone. He sat down.
“Hello, Father,” hissed the banshee.
Varimathras nodded to his son. He turned to me. “Still planning on being my downfall?” he growled.
I laughed shortly. “A faulty prophecy from a faulty prophet,” I replied. “That was the murloc’s prediction, not mine.”
“Interesting,” said Varimathras, echoing his son, though his voice was deeper and harsher. “And your compatriots are not aware that you’ve turned.”
“Correct,” I said.
The Dread Lord shuffled his powerful wings and narrowed his black eyes at me. Then, with a beckoning flick of his finger, Fang’s unconscious body flew out of my arms and landed, with a stomach-turning squelch, at his feet. He looked discerningly at me, then sent the murloc’s small blue form hurtling across the stonework. It smacked into the far wall and slid limply to the ground.
I looked confidently back at Varimathras. “Seriously,” I said, “I can’t stand him.”
The Dread Lord nodded, then glanced at Hannathras beside me.
The banshee turned. “Why,” he said icily, “are you here?”
“You tell me,” I said, glancing sidelong at him, suddenly anxious, suddenly uncertain, as I’d practiced. “You tell me – you’ve got an army of skeletons that do anything you tell them to, they don’t sleep or eat or do anything but fight your fights. You’ve got the army out there to completely decimate anything the good guys can throw at you, and you want to know why I’m here?” It did its job: the tickle outside my mind stayed there.
“Good guys,” growled Varimathras venomously. “And certainly we’re evil, seeking nothing but empty power and the meaningless death of this pathetic planet’s valiant heroes? Because what more could evil ever want?”
“And you,” hissed Hannathras, “turned coward and ran.”
I grimaced. “Call it cowardice,” I said, “I call it smart. I want to make sure I’m on the winning side when you conquer the world.”
“I’m always on the winning side,” mused the Dread Lord, almost too faintly to hear. “And who said anything about conquering…” He trailed off.
Huh? I almost thought.
The foul-skinned demon narrowed his eyes again, and nodded to his son, who looked questioningly at his father, and it seemed to me that an unheard conversation flew between the two demons’ powerful minds. Then Hannathras nodded.
“We need a book,” he said.
“Another book!” I cried, and it was nearly too genuine. My heart pounded suddenly as the tickle grew to a pinprick pain, and the terror of discovery nearly overwhelmed my ability to contain it. My heart calmed back down. “A book,” I repeated calmly.
Hannathras snarled, his attack rebuffed. “A book,” he said. “Its cover is red, with a gilded tree across it.”
“Seriously, another book?” I said, grinning lopsidedly.
“It is held by the Scarlet Resurrection in the library of their Monastery,” continued Hannathras, unabated.
This gave me pause. “Scarlet Monastery?” I said, my eyes drifting to the dead foot-soldier hanging behind Varimathras. The feeling rose within me that this was unbearably important information, but, again, I filed it away for later.
“So you dangle your hostage’s intimate knowledge of the Resurrection in front of me without knowing much about them yourself,” hissed Hannathras, half annoyed and half taunting.
“Yeah, barely anything,” I mused, “I only used to be a member.”
Hannathras and Varimathras glanced at each other, as though this was significant news.
“Then you may have less trouble getting in,” said Hannathras. “The Monastery stands at the top of cliff along the ocean, two days east, as the cow walks,” he added tauntingly. “It’s a red book with no title on the spine and a gilded tree on the cover. Retrieve it and return here, and we’ll think about not killing you for sport.”
I smiled sardonically. “A better reward was never proposed.” I would have preferred Jonathan Trent’s eighty silver.
“Get out of here,” snarled Hannathras.
“I have to walk?”
“My little army won’t hurt you,” replied Varimathras, who had been watching us imperiously for the duration of the conversation. “They only do that if I tell them to, as your Forsaken friends discovered this evening.” He peered keenly at me, seeing if I would slip, let a stray thought out, but I was strong. I smiled.
“Leave,” repeated Hannathras, and I turned.
I set hoof on the top stair, then the one below, then I was in the tower and out of sight. Ohhhh sweet, I thought, I did it! I’m awesome!
And then the tickle was back from above, and then it was inside me, and then, Ohhhh, too bad, hissed Hannathras’ voice gleefully in my head, too soon. My belly turned to ice.
My legs turned me back around, pulled by strings far too strong for me to sever, and I marched stiffly back up the stairs. “Father,” said the banshee quietly. “Shock and amazement, but the cow was sent as a spy.”
“You’re sure?” said Varimathras.
Who sent you? Hannathras was inside now, exploring every nook, and I couldn’t fight him. The Forsaken? The Argent Dawn, maybe? The Dawn, I thought desperately, the Dawn sent me!
A memory, shaken loose from some nook of memories, floated to mind: Katy M sitting across a fire-lit cave from me, a lifetime ago. If you want me to trust you, you can start by telling me what the Law is, I’d said.
Interesting, hissed the voice in my head.
“Should we hold him?” said Varimathras, gesturing with his great horned head to the ranks of shackles on the wall behind him.
And then the agents appeared in my mind’s eye, one at a time – the dwarf, the bull—
The druid! hissed the voice in my mind—
—and the whelp, and then, though I fought desperately—
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Hannathras out loud. “I don’t think there’s anything in this little mind,” and he turned towards the limp blue figure on the far side of the parapet, “that I can’t pry out of the murloc’s.”
And the images in my mind winked out. I gulped.
“Good,” said Varimathras. He stood. “Down,” he snarled. My legs collapsed and I fell to my knees. He walked heavily forward, his hooves echoing on the thick stones. Terror clutched at my chest and squeezed at my throat. I can’t die, I thought desperately. I can’t die, I can’t die, I can’t die I can’t die I can’t die—
And then the Dread Lord reached forward with one ugly, uncut fingernail, and, in a most painful way, he killed me.