The Murloc is Lonely
Book One: The Frozen Tomb
Until that day, my only experience with the Tooth had been about a year after I’d arrived in town. I’d been tasked with delivering a letter from one Scarlet higher-up to another Scarlet higher-up operating in a different part of the city. It should have been a straightforward delivery, except that Fang had just announced some new rules, and not everybody liked them. A mob had formed outside a nondescript office building, shouting in tongues up at a nondescript third-floor window. I should have been moving on, of course, as duty should come before curiosity, but curiosity had always been my strongest instinct.
Of course, I knew about the Tooth. Fang, spokesmurloc for the Law, was the closest thing Storm City had to a government. If you thought you were in trouble with the Law, or if you thought that some rule or other oughta be different, you talked to Fang. If you were actually in trouble with the Law, then Fang talked to you, and if Fang took the trouble to talk to you, then you did what he said. People that didn’t, their homes burned down, or all their gold mysteriously turned into piles of fish, or, at worst, they disappeared. I knew about the Tooth, because everyone did, but I’d never seen him.
The nondescript window opened and he appeared, snout first, then the rest of him. His scales were a deep blue, patterned with a deep sea-green and some yellow. His eyes were red, and his entire body swelled and subsided as he breathed. He seemed shrunk by distance, but his aura of calm power was such that I felt that in person he must certainly be enormous. He stood at the window, looking down at us, silent.
The crowd quieted, and, one at a time, as though organized by necessity or mutual advantage, each shouter stepped forward, shouted his or her name and grievance, and then drifted away. In a matter of minutes, the crowd had dispersed.
The Tooth stared down into the shadows of the empty street where I stood alone, looking up at him. I felt the hackles on my neck prickle with a strangely familiar sensation, and I was sure for a moment that he was looking at me.
He blinked, once, and then disappeared.
I learned later that this royalty-pop-star act at the window was what happened when the queue to get in to talk to him grew too long. He would take down his sign, lock the door, go to the window and listen to the rabble en masse. They said that if you shouted from that crowd, he would hear you, remember what you’d said and who’d said it. If you were a lucky shouter, you’d get a blue slip of parchment in your mailbox a few days later with an answer to your grievance. There were some to whom amassing these papers was a symbol of status, and even then, I could tell that many of the shouters had been looking for little more than a status slip. Others, I thought, were shouting just to hear their own voices.
If you were an unlucky shouter – or a belligerent, or a fool – you disappeared in the next few days, killed or worse. There were those that swore that you didn’t need to even be yelling, or at his window, that if you said the wrong thing about the Law, the Tooth would hear. Some said, all you had to do was think it. The Tooth was what you scared little children with to make them go to bed; he was the excuse for the unexplained. In his way, I thought, he was very much like a god.
And now, I thought as I slid back out the second-story window and leaped lightly back down to the alley, he had appeared to me alone, delivered secret instructions to me, prepared me for some mysterious journey. As I pulled my body back into the shape of a bull, I shook my head in bemusement.
I wandered slowly along the narrow, twisted streets back to my apartment, under the eves of an Old Town inn and tavern. Ajax, my two-year-old orange tabby, was curled up on my pillow. “Hey kiddo,” I said, and scratched his ears. I pulled off my pants and jerkin and climbed into the too-short bed, laying my head down next to the purring cat.
I lay quietly, staring up at the angled, dark-wood ceiling. For a long stretch of minutes, the only thought I could summon into my unquiet mind was, What the hell? Soon, though, as I resigned myself to the hope that the unexplainable would be explained in the morning, I let my eyes drift shut, and I fell fast asleep.
* * *
The next morning, I stopped by Jonathan Trent’s office. His door was closed. Through it, I could hear two voices: Trent’s, and another, deeper one I hadn’t heard before. Curiosity took over, and I leaned in at the door, trying to look casual in case of passersby, but certainly failing.
“Jonathan,” said the new voice, “you know you can’t ask, you’re not allowed to say these things.”
“I have third question clearance,” said Trent, “you have fourth. Neither one of us is supposed to know these things, so let us speak as equals?”
The other man sighed. “I’ve heard the same as you,” he replied quietly, “that the date and hour have been set.”
“The rumors place it within the decade,” said Trent hungrily.
There was a moment of silence, and the other man said something too quietly to hear.
“You’re kidding,” said Trent.
“Not all of us believe it,” said the other.
“What use is such a rumor to the Cardinals if it’s not true? We’ll know, too soon.”
“I suppose we will,” said the other. There was a smile in his voice.
There was a pause. I made to knock, but the new voice stayed my hand for another moment: “Back to business, if you please,” it said.
“Well,” said Trent heavily, “my initiate should be returning today with new information, but certainly all the other evidence I’ve seen points to the murloc’s complete abdication of power.”
“The High Abbots believe so too,” said the other. “There is a meeting of the Circle of the Fifth Question this afternoon, to make final decisions. I will bring you their orders when I have them, so make ready.”
“Where are the Cardinals for all this? Are they even concerned?”
“They are where they ever are,” said the other, “tucked away at the Monastery, scheming and predicting and scholaring. I am sure that they watch us with great interest.”
“Where is it?” said Trent quietly, suddenly hungry again. “Our great secret Monastery? You’ve been, haven’t you?”
Probably in the old sewers, I thought, or a little shack in the mountains, just far enough away to give the Cardinals their pretentious air of mystery.
“You’re pushing your luck, my good friend,” said the other, a note of satisfaction in his deep voice. “About that, we may not speak as equals.” Yeah okay, buddy, I thought. I had fallen into an acerbic mood.
There was another pause, and I heard someone coming down the hall, so I knocked.
“Come in,” said Trent.
I entered. The other man was draped in dark scarlet robes, standing impassively against the wall.
“Horse,” said Trent. “We didn’t hear you coming! I don’t know how he does it,” he said, and he smiled simperingly up at the other man.
Really? I thought. The carpet in your hallway is like two inches thick.
“Well,” said Trent, “sit down and tell us what you have to report.”
I dutifully reported that I had found hard – albeit ghostly – evidence of the Tooth’s demise. Trent nodded curtly and presented me with eighty silver, which I pocketed eagerly. It jingled against the few coins I had left over from my last quest.
“Spend this afternoon and evening finding out anything else you can – leave Old Town if you have to. Has anyone else been seen investigating the murloc’s office? Has anyone heard of anyone disappearing or being in the least way punished for disobeying the Law in the last nine days? Report back to me tomorrow,” he finished. “You will receive eighty silver.”
Not knowing what else to do, I accepted.
* * *
I was glad that my new assignment was vague: it was my turn to cook for my two friends that night, and I had no intention of missing it. I could report back to Trent the following afternoon and let him know that no one had told me anything.
I wasn’t a great cook, but I knew a few simple recipes. I stopped by a corner deli and ordered up a pound of boar meat. The stew I was making, an old Westfall recipe from back when people actually lived in Westfall, called for some vulture meat as well, for added spice. I was scrimping, though, and grabbed a jar of crushed red pepper instead. I pulled out the sack of silver that Trent had given me, handed a few coins to the cashier, received my change in copper and headed out.
That evening, I headed back down into Newton, avoiding crowds and dark places, and marched up to the ugly modern-brick building which my friends called home. I opened the building’s thick wooden door with the key they had given me long ago, and entered.
The windowless stairwell was harshly lit, and I clomped heavily up the metal stairs to the second floor. At Number 28, I knocked. A short silence followed, then the peephole went dark for a moment. About six locks clicked open, and then, “Hi, Horse!” Tidus exclaimed jovially. Tidus was a wiry young orc, with dark olive skin and shaggy black hair, and if push came to shove, he could shock you something fierce with some beginner lightning bolts he’d learned long ago from his grandfather.
I grinned and pushed my way past him into the apartment. He click-click-clicked the door shut behind me.
“Hi Horse,” rasped the apartment’s other occupant and my only other good friend in Storm City: a skinny human fire-mage girl. She was sitting on the couch in her usual brown, full-length robe, throwing a string for her tiny white kitten Snowball.
“Hey Rhy,” I said back, dropping my backpack at the end of the couch and ducking through the human-sized doorway into the kitchen. I pulled out the boar meat and began slicing it into chunks.
“How’s your week been?” said Tidus, coming in and pulling out a pot for me.
“Weird,” I answered truthfully.
“No kidding,” said Rhy, coming in from the living room, (her kitten chasing the string which she dragged behind her,) and grabbing a soda from the refrigerator. She never drank beer. “What’s the meat?” she said.
“Boar,” I replied, a little embarrassed. “It’s what I know.” I poured some broth from a jar into the pot. Rhy lit the stove with her finger-tip, and I set the broth to boil.
She smiled. “I’m sure it’ll be delicious,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter if it is or not,” said Tidus, “I’m starving.”
I tossed the meat into the pot and shook some red pepper in on top of it. “What’s new with you guys?” I said, kneeling to turn the heat down to a simmer.
“They say the Tooth might have been killed,” said Tidus.
I swallowed heavily and stood back up, my nose suddenly ice-cold. I glanced over my shoulder at him. “Where’d you hear that?” I said as casually as I could.
“They were talking about it at the store today,” replied the orc. He worked in a reagents shop during the day.
I hesitated for a moment. I’d never lied to my friends before. There were things we said, agreed-upon key-words for when we weren’t allowed to discuss our secrets, so I’d never had to. But Fang had given me explicit instructions, and, with my stomachs knotty and the fear of phantom bounty-hunters hovering over my head, I lied. “He’s dead,” I said, “I saw it myself. I snuck into his office yesterday for the Scarlets.” I glanced back and forth between them.
“Cat form?” said Tidus, grinning.
I nodded. “Jumped in through a window. His blood was everywhere,” I continued, “and some scales, and then his ghost showed up. Gurgled at me and made it clear he wanted me to leave, so I left. Ghosts are scary when they want to be.”
“I know,” said Rhy, and she shivered. The way she said it caught my ear, and I looked at her, trying to plumb her glowing eyes for deeper meaning, but Tidus went on: “Any sign of a struggle?” he said. “Like, papers strewn around, broken window or anything?”
“I know what a struggle looks like,” I said, wrinkling my nose at him. “Not really,” I continued, my face going blank again. “It looked like someone had already started to clean things up though, so maybe there had been.”
“Wow,” said Rhy. Then, “I’ve never been to his office, what’s it like?”
“I mean, it was pretty bland,” I said, relishing the prospect of being able to say something without lying, “considering Fang the Tooth works there. Worked.” My nose went cold again. “Just… just some books and a big painting of him in a gold frame and his desk. And lots of blood, like I said.”
Tidus shook his head. “So Fang is gone. Weird.”
“He’s been here forever, hasn’t he?” I said.
“Yeah, long time I guess,” said the orc, who had come to Storm City only a few years before I had. “And now he’s dead. I guess we can do whatever we want now.”
I shook my head. “Just because Fang isn’t around any more,” I said carefully, “doesn’t mean the Law’s gone, does it? We still have to obey the rules.”
“You sure?” said Rhy.
“Of course,” I said. I wasn’t.
“Because if it’s not,” said Tidus, “then things are gonna get ugly. The Law sucks for us, but think about it – most of what Fang did was keep the cults at bay, right? Made them play nice in his city. They were talking about it down at the store today.”
I looked at him. It was true, but it had never quite occurred to me before.
“Seriously,” he continued. “You lived in the slums in Orcmar for a while, right?” I’d joined one of the smaller gangs there for a short time, after I’d left home. I nodded. “It’ll be bad like that.”
I thought uneasily of the Scarlets and the orders which Jonathan Trent would soon receive. “The Law’s still around,” I said confidently.
Tidus nodded somberly. “I hope so,” he said. He paused. “I heard the original recipe for this stew required a murloc eyeball. You could see if you could go track down one of Fang’s…”
* * *
The stew, as it turned out, was a hit. Rhy complimented it glowingly, and Tidus had thirds.
As Rhy gathered our plates and set them down for Snowball to lick, I inhaled, preparing myself for another discussion of partial truths.
“I think my debts might be catching up with me,” I said. I didn’t talk about it much, and the orc looked around with interest.
“Your Orcmar ones,” he said, “to the goblins?”
I nodded. “I heard from someone today that there are bounty hunters after me.”
“No kidding,” breathed Tidus.
“That’s terrible,” said Rhy sympathetically. “Do you know how bad it is?”
I shook my head. “I think I’m okay for now,” I said. I sighed. “It’s like… it’s been three years. I thought maybe the whole thing had gone away.”
Tidus shrugged. “I worked for them for a while, you know, and they never found me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you just quit, right? Pissed some guy off and quit. I actually owe them money.” I sighed again. “I’m okay for now, at least,” I said.
“They better not come for you here,” said Rhy, grinning wickedly, and for a brief instant a tiny flame danced on the tip of her finger.
“Damn right,” said Tidus, and he held up a fist. It crackled with electricity. I grinned back at them, happy for a moment, even though I was pretty sure the orc’s lightning-bolts couldn’t actually hurt anything bigger than a badger.
Normally, I would have stuck around for hours with the pair, but my heart wasn’t in it tonight. “I’m tired,” I said, once the dishes were washed. “I think I’m gonna go home.”
“Boo!” said Tidus. “Beer now! Sleep later.”
I smiled. It was fake. I left.
Rhy caught me on the broken sidewalk outside. It had started raining out, hard, and my ears were dripping with water.
“I can never read tauren expressions,” she said, “but I know you, Horse, and I can tell when you’re not okay.”
For the first time in my stay in Storm City, since hearing the tales of the Tooth and his powers over our lives and deaths, I believed that he could listen, wherever I was. I wanted to pull Rhy into a dark alley and tell her everything, but I didn’t.
“I might be leaving Storm City,” is as close as I got.
“Because of the bounty hunters?” she said.
“Right,” I said.
She smiled underneath her brown hood and shook her head. “It’s not really, is it,” she said. “It’s got something to do with Fang’s death, doesn’t it? A lot of people are leaving, but you’re being sent.”
I stood, miserable. “It’s, for a quest,” I said. It was what we said if we couldn’t say more.
Rhy understood. “Good luck,” she said. “Be safe.”
“Thanks,” I said. I smiled. It was real this time.
“Is this goodbye?” she said.
“I honestly have no idea,” I replied, shrugging helplessly.
“Tidus is gonna be pissed if you leave without saying bye to him,” she said seriously.
I sighed. “I know,” I said. “Say it for me, if I don’t see him?”
I clapped her bony shoulder in my big hand. “Thanks for everything.” She smiled. I shook the rain out of my eyes and turned towards home.
* * *
The rain hammering on the roof of my apartment drowned out the noise of the late-night crowd in the tavern below, but I still couldn’t sleep. I locked my door and walked down the narrow, twisting stairwell to the bar. It wasn’t too crowded, just a couple of loud dwarves in the corner and a human mage trying to impress a human lady mage with his tricks. My favorite nook was open, but sitting in the next nook over was another tauren, the first I’d seen in Storm City in some time. He was wearing a thick, dark hood, with holes for his horns. He looked older – his neck hump, a sign of maturity in male tauren, was fully developed. I ran my hand back over my own flat neck. A thick, spiked mace hung at his side. I forewent my regular nook and sat at the bar.
Widget, the bartender, popped up on the other side. “Hi, Horse!” he said, always energetic. His mop of white hair and enormous white moustache gave him an air of ridiculousness, as did the fact that he could barely see over his own bar, even standing (as he was) on a stool. “I bet you’re having the regular, and I bet you’ve got some rent for me, too!” Widget was also my landlord.
I shook my head. “Just a glass of wheat-grass juice tonight,” I said.
“You and your strange Kali delicacies,” laughed the gnome as he began preparing it.
I pulled some silvers out and slid them across the bar. “Keep the change,” I said.
“No change,” said Widget. “The big bull in the corner is buying all your drinks tonight.” He jumped a bit and pointed to the tauren in the nook next to mine. “Means more rent!” The gnome pulled the coins toward him and pocketed them. “Who’s your friend?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I replied, glancing nervously over my shoulder at the stranger, who was, to all appearances, ignoring us. Not a bounty hunter, I hoped. I’d kept my end of the bargain. My heart had begun pounding.
I stood up, grasping my drink in my fist, putting my other hand firmly on my mace, and lumbered over to the other tauren’s nook. His hood and cloak, which had looked nearly black from across the room, seemed more like a dark blue up close.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The bull looked up. “Can I help you?” he growled, his voice deep and gravelly.
“Do I know you?” I said. “I think there may have been a mistake.”
“No,” he growled, “and no.”
“I see,” I said. “Thanks for the drink.”
I paused. “Do you have a name?”
“None of your business,” growled the other tauren. I didn't much like people with that name.
“Do you know mine?” I pressed confrontationally. “I assume you do, if you’re buying me drinks.”
“Of course I do,” growled the other.
I narrowed my eyes at the stranger. “Who do you work for?” I said hotly. “What’s your business, and what the hell do I have to do with it?”
The other bull finished his beer. He set it down heavily on the table and stood, rising slowly out of the nook. He was a bit bigger than me, and significantly broader. His hand rested on his mace, which looked like it had been carved out of a single, massive, knotty tree branch.
“I work for the Law,” growled the bull.
“You what?” I said blankly. I didn’t understand, and staring with my mouth slightly open wasn’t helping.
The bull walked heavily past me and towards the door. “Get some sleep tonight,” he growled.
I shook my head, downed my drink, walked heavily back up the stairs to my apartment, and took the stranger’s advice.
* * *
I’d tossed and turned for hours, staring at the ceiling and counting exploding sheep. When I fell asleep, I drifted in a familiar nightmare: I stood, sedentary, on a rocky plain. My horns drooped, and my beard, graying before my eyes, stretched down to the ground. My hooves plunged in between the rocks and turned to thick, knotty roots. Run before it’s too late, said a familiar voice, and I’d tried to, but the gray beard wrapped around my legs, sending me tumbling helplessly to the black ground.
I woke up with a gasp, sitting bolt upright.
My room’s window had blown open. I got up and latched it shut. It was another dark, endless stretch of minutes before I fell asleep again.
* * *
Since I’d had a steady job with the Resurrection, my mornings had been routine: I’d hit my alarm clock two or three times, get out of bed, wash and braid my beard, and slap on some musk. (If it was Monday, I’d squeeze myself into the tiny shower and wash everything.) I’d walk downstairs, have a blood sausage at Widget’s bar, check my mailbox, and, after an hour or so spent “meditating” at the Scarlet Cathedral, I’d get to work on whatever quests the day had brought me.
When my alarm clock went off, I hit it so hard I crushed it. That wasn’t actually that unusual; any night I’d gone to bed late, or angry, I risked crushing my human-sized alarm clock before waking up enough to control myself. I went through a couple clocks a month.
I didn’t get up, though. I stared at the ceiling some more, listening to the morning bustle downstairs. It had stopped raining. I lay there, listening to my cat purr from somewhere in the room. My hooves dangled off the bottom of the bed, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Then I started wondering if I’d had anything to do with getting into it at all. Fang had known things about me that I thought no one but Rhy and Ti did. He knew a good deal more about me than the Scarlets did, and seemed to have plans for me that had begun when I’d gotten off the airship from Orcmar. Plans that didn’t take my own plans into account in the slightest. I was angry at this for a moment, until I remembered that I hadn’t really had any plans to ignore.
Everyone thought the murloc was dead, and I was the only one that knew the truth, and the reason I knew it was because the murloc wanted me to. It was heady stuff.
I got up, pulled on my leather pants and jerkin, donned my cloak and hood (with horn-holes that I’d cut myself), and wandered downstairs for breakfast.
“Morning, Widget,” I said.
“Morning, Horse!” said Widget from behind the bar. “You’re late this morning. The usual?”
“Breakfast is for the weak,” I muttered. Widget wasn’t fooled, and he hopped down off his stool to begin preparing it.
“Only the best!” the gnome piped cheerily. I pulled some coins out of my bag and tossed them on the bar. “Did you figure out who your friend was last night?” he said.
“No,” I replied. “He said he works for the Law.”
“The Law,” breathed Widget, “that doesn’t make sense!”
“You’re telling me,” I grunted.
There was a bamf sound from behind the bar, and a puff of green smoke mushroomed over where Widget’s voice was coming from. He popped up on his stool and handed me a sizzling plate. He reached under the bar and produced an oversized fork and knife, which as far as I could tell he only kept around for me. I was suddenly starving, and ate greedily. “Tha’s good,” I said, through a mouthful of sausage.
I finished, and went outside. Widget’s building’s mailbox had a spring on top with a bouncing metal square painted like an envelope. I twanged it, like always, then held my palm against the box for a moment. It binged.
Inside was a folded piece of parchment. Only pretentious people used parchment any more, and I only ever got it from the Resurrection. I pulled the parchment out and looked at it. The outside was unlabeled, except for the thirty-copper stamp, a magic wax seal, and the words, written in spidery calligraphy, “This letter is property of the Law, and is intended only for its recipient. Unauthorized viewing will be detected and punished immediately.” Yeah, sure, I thought. I pressed my thumb to the seal, and it disintegrated. I opened the letter.
No matter the danger, meet my agent at the North End Bridge tomorrow morning at sun-up, it read. Danger? I thought. Bring what you wish, but pack for a journey. Bring your weapon. My agent will know you when you arrive. Of course, I thought, apparently every mysterious person does. Tell no one, it continued. Thank you for carrying out your duty faithfully thus far. I will see you soon.
Instead of a signature, there was what looked like a bite mark at the bottom of the page.