The Murloc is Lonely
by Albatros

Book One: The Frozen Tomb

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Part One - The Law

Chapter X
Stealth Ops

I woke up warm. The bed I was in ended at my knees, but pillows, or blankets or something, had been piled up beneath my legs and feet. The room’s low ceiling was made of skillfully-interlaid blocks of stone.

A pale face drifted into view – a pointy-eared elf, his hair dirty-blond and his eyes a quiet green. He reached toward my forehead with a moist, steaming cloth, but I flinched away. My muscles ached again.

“Where am I?” I said. “Who are you?” The elf made to answer, but more questions surfaced in my muddled mind, each more important than the last. “Where’s Madoran, and M?” A sudden swell of grief welled up inside me. “Where’s Katy M?” I whispered.

The elf reached forward with his cloth again, and pressed it to my forehead. Its steam smelled like forest herbs, and as I inhaled, a powerful feeling of calm crept over my consciousness.

“Eat this,” said the elf firmly, and handed me a thick slab of bread. I raised it to my mouth and ate, suddenly famished. The elf stood and left.

He returned a minute later, and Prince Madoran entered behind him, looking enormously relieved. He carried an enormous steaming mug full of what smelled like mulled cider. “Biggest mug we have,” he said, handing it to me, and in my hands, it turned out it wasn’t so big after all. “Ah was sure we’d lost ye when ye jumped,” he said.

I sat painfully up and took a sip. The elf sat on a small wooden chair at the foot of my bedding. The cider warmed my innards, and my body felt a little better.

“If ye’d died,” continued the dwarf gruffly, “I’d’ve berated yer corpse as a damn fool, but it’s him that’s less of a fool that plays the fool and lives to tell the tale.”

I sipped at the hot cider again, then looked up at Madoran. “Where’s Katy M?” I said quietly.

Madoran shook his head sadly. I stared at him, jaw clenched, unwilling to believe.

“That fall ends thousands of feet below,” he said, “and it doesn’t end softly. We would be fools to hold out in hope when there is none.”

I shook my head.

“It is a great loss to us all,” he said gently. “But there is no time for mourning, at least not now.”

“Why not?” I said, peeved, angry. I wanted to mourn now.

The dwarf pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. “My kingdom has been taken,” he said quietly, intensely. “You were right about the coup. If M has fallen, then you will need new companions for your journey to the north, and if all goes as planned, it’s to be me and Allyndil,” and he nodded to the placid elf, “though no one knows it yet.”

“You’re coming north with me?” I said, a faint hope glimmering through my grief.

“Aye,” said Madoran. “But before I can leave,” and he leaned in with a fierce look, sparks of pride and fury in his eyes, “I need to retake my city.” He sat back. “I had hoped that you’d help me.”

I nodded dumbly, my pulse quickening.

“Grand!” he exclaimed, as though I’d agree to go to the beach, and stood up. He bowed. “Get better, then, and quick!” He turned and left.

* * *

In contrast to the other ancient capitals, Ironforge was still home to few but dwarves and gnomes: because, as Madoran cheerily put it, “Who else’d voluntarily live in a giant cave with lava?”

The Stone King, of course, had fallen silent and his representative disappeared two weeks previous, at the same time as Fang the Tooth was withdrawing from Storm City. In the power vacuum which had ensued, the Bronzebeard family had attempted to reassert its ancestral command, but with their leader and figurehead off in Storm City, they were confused and disorganized. A quasi-religious cult which called itself the Herald of the Titans swept them aside, declaring all Bronzebeards to be in league with the Stone King and traitors. They secured the city, banishing Madoran’s family and their loyalists, and anyone who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the cult.

The gnomes had chosen banishment en masse, having pledged eternal gratitude and fealty to the Bronzebeard family centuries earlier when an unfortunate radiation incident had rendered their homeland uninhabitable. “Oh, great,” Madoran had muttered good-naturedly when he’d heard the news.

All the exiles had placed themselves at the Prince’s command, and Madoran had been busy.

I’d learned all this in bits and pieces, overheard snatches of hurried conversation, and from Madoran himself when he’d had a moment’s pause to speak with me.

The building I’d woken up in was part of the cluster of buildings which Madoran had referred to as the airstrip, where our green-clad allies had taken off from, high up in the Ironforge Mountains. In the nearly two days that I’d been out since my fall, the place had blossomed with activity. Madoran had dispatched messengers: squads of dwarven soldiers had snuck up from their refugee camps in the valley below; a few human and elven allies had been gathered; and a small, ad hoc corps of gnome mages had formed, studying and meditating together atop one of the other low stone buildings, where there was nothing to accidentally set on fire.

With the aid of my caretaker-elf, whose name was Allyndil, I was up and walking again within a couple hours. Only my shoulder stubbornly refused to be healed by herbs and magic, and the elf fashioned a sling for my right arm until it repaired itself.

* * *

That evening, Madoran called a war council. He requested my attendance, and when I hesitated, he ordered it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to go: it was that I didn’t want to go, be asked to demonstrate tactical intelligence, and fail. Madoran laughed when I’d confessed this. “Don’t say anything, then,” he said.

The meeting took place around a long table in a cramped room, stuffed with dwarves, two gnomes, and me.

Madoran assigned each dwarf and gnome a squadron to lead, and instructed that they be ready to fight by midnight. He put Beren Bronzebeard, his younger cousin, in charge of an aerial assault on Ironforge’s front gate, to commence at one hour past midnight. It was a dangerous time to fly, but a necessary one: the frontal assault was merely a diversion. Madoran himself would lead his army in a sneak-attack, the details of which he kept to himself.

There was muttering around the table at this. “Old Ironforge?” said the dwarf next to me to the dwarf next to him.

“Yeh, right,” said the other. “Doesn’t exist.”

“It does,” whispered the first.

A third dwarf leaned over. “I hear you have to be dead to find it!” he said.

“Yeh, right,” repeated the second mockingly. “I hear you have to be a sheep.”

I took the confusion as a good sign that the back end assault, to begin exactly fifteen minutes after Beren’s would be a surprise to the separatists as well.

At the end of the meeting, Madoran announced to general shock that he would not immediately begin to rule his kingdom. Once the battle for Ironforge was over, he would temporarily transfer command of his armies and the kingdom to Beren (whom he made a general on the spot), and would instead head north on vital business. He bowed to the speechless Beren, professing his confidence in the younger dwarf’s capabilities, and thanked him in advance for his faithful service to his family and the people of Khaz Modan.

The meeting ended and everyone dispersed to ready their squadrons, while Generals Madoran and Beren Bronzebeard cloistered themselves in close discussion. I went outside into the rapidly fading dusk. The temperature had plunged as the sun set, and it nipped sharply at my nose.

Katy M and Fang had been my link to the Law. The Law itself had some plan – something more complex than “Go save a book”. I didn’t know what it was, though, and now that Katy M was gone – I hurriedly moved past the thought – I would have to fall back on the tutelage of Madoran, the dwarven prince, the general of his armies, and figure that if the Law wanted me, it would come and get me.

The words that Katy M had whispered to me as we mounted our griffins, the last words she had spoken to me, surfaced in my mind. Trust the dwarf, she’d said, but believe in the Law. I nodded, making up my mind to do exactly that, and returned to my warm room.

* * *

By five minutes to one, the dwarven army had assembled, standing at attention along the edge of the airstrip. I stood, wrapped in a pair of dwarven scarves that had been sewn end to end for me. General Madoran stood next to me, and we waited.

The wide, heavy doors of the strip’s largest building, a hangar that was set into the side of the airstrip’s hills, rolled heavily open. Harsh electric light flooded onto the airstrip, and strange mechanical growls filled the night. I glanced down at Madoran and he grinned back up at me, though it seemed forced. “Ah’d never fly in one,” he whispered, “but they’re magnificent to watch.”

At his words, a monstrous, clumsy winged beast, a flying machine of the sort I’d only heard about, never before seen, rolled heavily out of the building and onto the runway. I stared at it, wholly disbelieving that the thing could fly.

At some signal, the dwarven army cried, “Hurrah!” at it. General Madoran stepped forward, and a goggled, thickly-clad dwarf stood up out of the flying machine’s cockpit. It was Beren.

“Fly well!” shouted Madoran up to his cousin. “The power of the creators and the blessing of the Light go with you!”

Beren saluted and sunk back into his cockpit. A moment later, the engines of the contraption bellowed and the machine rolled down the runway, ponderously gathering speed, until, as I was sure the thing would pitch off the end of the runway and down the mountainside, it lifted miraculously off the ground. Before my dazzled eyes, it disappeared into the dark night sky.

Another magical flying machine rolled out of the stone hangar, and, to another unified “Hurrah!” from the dwarven army, rattled down the runway and up into the sky. Another machine and another hurrah followed, then another and another, until five of them had taken off. At another unseen signal, a rank of griffins, each topped with a green-clad, armored dwarf, was suddenly thundering down the runway as well, and it followed the flying machines into the sky and off towards Ironforge’s unfriendly gate.

The night returned to silence.

General Madoran nodded up at me. Then he turned, and, with all eyes on us, we walked alone into the hangar.

It was an enormous room, sloping gently downward into the stone ground. Madoran strode confidently towards a blank spot on the room’s back wall and knelt. He pressed his palms to the floor as he had when summoning doors from solid walls before. After a moment of searching, he pressed down, and after another moment he was pulling open a massive trap door. “A little help?” he said, straining, and I stepped forward to help him heft the stone slab. It was heavy.

Beneath it, a smooth stone stairway descended into darkness. I grinned.

Madoran nodded to me again, and I strode back to the hangar’s door. I waved to the nearest three lieutenants, two dwarves and a gnome. They saluted back, and their squadrons marched forward into the hangar. The sight of the descending stairwell drew looks of amazement from a few of the soldiers.

General Madoran, with me at his side, led the squadron down into the darkness. As the light from above faded, the General held his battle-hammer aloft, and, after a hastily-muttered prayer, it burst into light.

There was a chorus of muffled gasps and quiet muttering from the soldiers behind us. “That’un should be king, so ‘e should,” whispered one of them, “like his grandfathers.” I glanced down at Madoran, whose face was set in stone.

The stairs ended in a low hallway, and then, past an intricately-carved arch, the tunnel widened suddenly into a low cavern. Light streamed out from Madoran’s hammer, illuminating a rough stone ceiling and several other archways, leading off into darkness. There were dwarven runes carved above each archway, and some of the older dwarves began pointing and whispering intensely to themselves, in words I couldn’t quite understand. Madoran led us stoically forward, across the dark cavern and towards the archway opposite us. A dull red light glowed in the darkness on its other side.

Down a short stone tunnel, another cavern opened up before us. The red glow intensified, and a blast of heat hit me in the face as we entered it. Ahead of us, our path led over a wide stone bridge. I glanced warily over its edge, and below us flowed the source of the glow and the heat: a river of thick, viscous lava. Some of the gnomes looked nervously down at it as well, but the dwarves marched stoically along as though rivers of molten rock flowed beneath them regularly. I admired them, but I still breathed easier when we were back on solid rock.

Through another arch, we came into a cooler cave. A duller red glow came from below, but the cave’s high, dark ceiling was studded with glittering crystals: giant ones, light blue and violet, jutting out of the solid rock. To our left, stone stairs rose, covered in ancient, faded, threadbare carpet, up to a balcony above us. Ahead of us, another carpeted stairway wound down around the cavern towards another platform, a few short yards above the stolid pool of magma at the high cavern’s base. We marched down the stairway to the lower platform, where another runed archway stood. General Madoran halted us in front of the arch. Beyond it, a low passageway sloped steeply upward into darkness. Madoran glanced up at me and nodded. This was the one. He rustled in a pocket and pulled out a tightly-wound, golden pocket-watch. It read ten minutes past one.

Our small army’s advance team, a select group of dwarves and gnomes, had been given explicit instructions, and they stepped forward now. Madoran turned to the first, a goggled gnome engineer whose name I had been told but which I had forgotten. “Set your charge,” said Madoran, “then wait for our signal.”

The gnome nodded and scampered through the archway and out of sight. Three other goggled gnomes scampered past us after him, each wearing colorful robes and armed with tiny, gnome-sized wands. Three heavily-armored dwarves wearing stolen red tabards followed them. The last red-clad dwarf stopped where the passageway turned, and watched the quiet bustle of activity above.

Madoran turned to the small battalion of stout green-clad dwarves behind him, each bearing a stout axe or battle-hammer across his back. “You know what to do,” he said. “If you think our cover has been compromised, send the alarm back, but quietly! If you’re certain our cover has been compromised, then holler like hell and fight for your lives.”

He glanced up at me. “If Beren’s mission goes according to plan, we won’t have to worry about any of that,” he muttered.

The dwarven general, his usually-carefree forehead creased with worry, stared intensely down at his watch, his head bobbing gently as the seconds ticked by. The sounds from up the passageway ceased, and after a moment, the red-clad dwarf turned and nodded to me. I nudged Madoran, who didn’t respond.

The only sounds to break the silence were the occasional muffled cough, and, some five minutes on, a single faint drip of water echoing down from some deep unseen cleft higher up in the mountain. Just above the silence, blending into our thoughts, was the irregular ticking of Madoran’s pocket-watch. I glanced down at it. It read just shy of quarter past.

Madoran held his fist over his head, and the red-clad dwarf in the stairwell did the same. The sudden increase of tension in the cave was palpable.

Then Madoran’s fist pumped once in the air, and the stairwell dwarf’s fist pumped once in the air, and a moment later, a hoarsely-whispered “Fire in the hole!” echoed from above, and the stairwell dwarf ducked away as a sharp crack! of an explosion and a shower of stone debris cascaded down, and he charged up the passageway into the thin cloud of stone dust, followed by General Madoran and a battalion of green-clad dwarves and me. Above us came the sound of a stifled scuffle, a few half-shouts. We rounded the passage’s last corner, and at its top was a small jagged hole in the darkness, disappearing for a moment as each dwarf ahead of us clambered through it, and we charged towards it, and Madoran nodded to me and clambered through himself. The dwarven battalion was charging up the stairs behind us, and I motioned one dwarf at a time through the door’s hole in quick succession. The last dwarf scooted through and the battalion’s lone gnome stopped, stood at attention and saluted me. I nodded back, got down on all fours, and, wishing that no one were watching so I could shift, I squeezed painfully through the narrow, jagged stone gap.

The other side of the hole seemed bright as daylight to my sensitized eyes. We were in a round, high chamber, with a pair of dwarf-sized desks on each wall and a throne on a dais at its far side. Immediately to my right, opposite the throne, was a high, empty archway leading to an enormous empty cavern. Two of the three red-clad dwarves we’d brought stood at attention outside the chamber, having replaced the separatist guards which had stood there until moments before. With luck, we would avoid arousing immediate suspicion.

I glanced quickly around the chamber. The gnome mages and the green-clad dwarven warriors stood or kneeled or sat around the inside of the chamber, as out of sight from the outside cavern as they could manage. One dwarf, the first of the red-clad ones to have emerged, and one gnome, one of the mages, lay unconscious or dead on the ground, also against the walls, tended by compatriots. Several large burlap sacks lined the walls as well, and out of each stuck four white, furry legs. With a distinctive pop, one of the sets of legs turned suddenly back into dwarven boots and hands, who managed to get off half a muffled shout before he was clubbed solidly over the head into unconsciousness. Madoran had given strict orders that no dwarf or gnome, or living creature of any kind, was to be killed if it was at all avoidable.

We all held our breath, listening. There was no sign that the separatist dwarf had been heard.

One dwarf from each side of the chamber, the lieutenants, nodded affirmative at me. I glanced up at the throne. General Madoran sat on it, looking, for the first time since I’d met him, truly regal. He nodded to me, unsmiling. I knelt at the hole in the great door through which we’d climbed and whispered, “All clear, run back and move the rest of the army forward!” to the gnome waiting on the other side. The gnome whispered, “Yes, sir!” and scampered back down the passageway and out of sight.

I moved quickly around the edge of the chamber and stood behind Madoran’s throne, out of sight.

Then I breathed. My shoulders slumped and I realized that, from the moment we had arrived in the dark chamber below, through the whole operation, I had been terrified out of my wits.

I inhaled as deeply as I could, willing my hammering heart to slow back down. We were all silent, waiting and listening. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear the sounds of what might have been a pitched aerial battle. Nearer to us, the caverns were silent.

We had achieved the operation’s primary objective: securing a foothold within Ironforge. For now, we wanted to remain undetected; when the larger force of dwarves and gnomes arrived below, we would secure the throne room and strike out from a position of strength. “Now we wait?” I whispered.

“No,” muttered Madoran back to me. “There’s something we have to do first. D’you like secret ancient libraries?”

Then, after a moment in which I looked confused and Madoran tilted his ears against the cavern silence, he stood up and beckoned me to follow.