My hooves were roots, reaching down into the rocky earth, searching for the nourishing water without which I would eventually wither and die. Suddenly, I smelled piercing, acrid smoke – and from behind me, coming up fast, was a raging fire, a wall of chaos. I wrenched my hooves up out of the ground and ran – I stumbled – I tripped and fell – but Fang the murloc, the Tooth of Storm City, held out a clammy fin and helped me to my feet. “Look,” he said, and pointed, and there was a faint, cool, soothing blue glow over the hills, beyond the sea. “Go get it,” he said, “it’s everything you’ve ever wanted,” but I resisted. I turned back to where I had left my roots, but fire had consumed them: and out of the fire stepped a giant, a monstrous, beautiful, metal-skinned humanoid, wielding an enormous, glowing sword and staff. He looked at me with gentle curiosity. Then he looked with sudden and growing horror at the sword in his hand and at the raging inferno which followed in his wake, and he cast the sword from him with revulsion, and it split in two. He screamed suddenly, a terrifying, soul-chilling scream, and his body burst into violet, spectral flame. He gathered his legs under himself and leapt straight at me, howling hatred and sadness. As my legs quaked and I tried to turn and run for the distant blue glow, the burning metal giant became Katy M, and she reached out with one monstrous three-fingered hand and snatched me bodily up. “It’s coming,” she said darkly, “but you’ll be ready, won’t you?” Then, suddenly, she was the giant again, and, his hand exploding in spectral flame, he crushed me.
I jerked awake, safe in my too-short dwarven bed. I was covered in sweat, and profoundly puzzled. I pulled the covers off and stared up into the near-pitch blackness.
The clock on the bedstand gave off a faint glow. It was five-thirty in the morning: I’d slept for almost an entire day. As the ambivalent terror of my strange dream wore off, an easy drowsiness took over my mind. For a moment, questions whirled in my head, fighting for attention, but as I settled my body back into the mattress, I began drifting pleasantly back into sleep.
“RISE AND SHINE!”
Madoran the dwarf burst in and threw on the light-switch.
“I hate you,” I muttered.
An hour later, after dressing, splashing warm water on my face and breakfasting with M and Madoran, I stood at the hill-encampment’s apex, with the sun rising behind me, facing an enormous golden griffin.
“If she doesn’t trust ye,” said the flight-master dwarf, “she’ll drop ye off at 2,000 feet. Tha’s not something ye recover from in a weekend. If she does like ye, though, nothin’ short of jumpin’ will make you fall, you can count on her.”
I nodded nervously. M and Madoran had both flown before – I’d be flying on the dwarf’s bird – so I was getting my safety instructions standing alone. The other two watched at a distance.
“Step forward, slowly,” said the flight-master.
I did so. The bird turned her big head and looked at me sideways with her piercing green eye. She waved her head jerkily and gave a sharp squawk. I started.
“Well,” said the dwarf, “she doesn’t not trust ye…. Are ye right-handed?”
“Well, stick yer left hand out towards her then, slowly.”
I glanced side-long at him.
“Tha’ way if she don’ like yeh, ye’ll still have yer right hand,” said the dwarf.
I looked at him in alarm.
“Ah’m joshin ya,” he said cheerily. “She hasn’ hurt a soul in a right couple o’ weeks!”
He nodded at me to proceed, and, eyes wide, I held out my hand. The great griffin stepped forward again, one eye tilted towards me again.
She was as beautiful up close as she had been at a distance, and in a moment I was enthralled by her beak’s graceful curves. I extended my hand closer to her.
The griffin sniffed gingerly at me, and then reared her head back and nipped my hand. I yelped. Madoran laughed heartily from his safe distance. I looked down at my hand. It was bleeding, heavily.
“Means she likes yeh!” said the flight-master.
“But,” I said petulantly, holding up my hand. A dwarven medic started forward, but M harrumphed and walked over to me, taking my hand carefully in hers, pressing it between her palms. I hissed in pain, but watched curiously. She closed her eyes and hummed, and a green glow emanated from between her hands. A warmth flowed through them, erasing the pain, and a mere moment later my hand was healed.
“Thanks,” I said, wiping my blood away from where the gash had been, then looking at the dour bull with admiration.
“Trust the dwarf,” said M quietly to me. I looked at her, puzzled. “But believe in the Law.”
She turned and walked towards her mount, a bird which she had befriended on a previous journey. “See you when we get there,” she said gruffly.
* * *
Our griffins stood side by side at the hill’s bald apex. They tossed their heads and pawed the ground, straining against the reins, itching to fly. The flight-master stood ahead of us, holding a pair of large red signs. Another dwarf, sporting goggles with lenses several inches thick, stood to the side, scanning the skies for nearby flights. The goggled dwarf called “All clear!” to the flight-master, who dropped Katy M’s red circle. Her griffin stamped its paws in anticipation, looking over its shoulder at its rider, who gave the reigns a shake. The beast bellowed joyously and charged forward, past the flight-master, who jumped heavily to the side to avoid being trampled. A rare grin flashed across Katy M’s face as her griffin kicked off the ground, flapping its enormous wings and rising rapidly into the cloudless sky.
A few moments later, another “All clear!” came from the goggled lookout dwarf. I felt our mount tense. The flight-master dwarf dropped the second stop sign, and Madoran gave the reigns a shake. The enormous bird bucked beneath us. She leapt forward, kicking with her back legs and galloping past the flight-master. As the hill began to drop and the low, stone buildings of the encampment began to rumble closer, I felt the muscles across the griffin’s side and chest contract mightily, and my stomachs dropped into my abdomen. Her massive wings beat down against the air, and I felt the world dropping away beneath us.
My eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and I opened them. I gasped. Morgan’s Rest was a mere speck behind us. Pastoral steppes spread out emerald below us. Far ahead and to the north, on the horizon, stood a black mountain range. To the east, glittering in the morning sun, was a rocky dome, with what might have been columns of campfire smoke rising placidly from it. A river ran beneath us, idyllic and blue. Other griffins, young-looking ones led by a bigger one with a rider, flew in the west, diving and soaring in tight, regimented formations. Directly below us was a little herd of what looked like little glass spiders, skittering across the grassland, hunting something that we were too high to see. Soon, the spiders were too far to see as well.
“Ah don’t suppose ye’d mind lettin’ up a bit, would ye? I can’t breathe,” yelled the dwarf up at me over the rushing wind. I realized I was gripping him tightly. I let go.
Subtly, the rhythm of the wings and the constant rush of the wind through my head began to tire me. I nodded, listening to the sound of the world, the white noise of the wind, nodding with the beat of the wings and the rushing wind, and I nodded, my heavy eyelids closing.
When I opened them again, the sun was high in the sky, the black mountains had moved from the horizon to directly beneath us, and the wind had turned to icicles, stinging my eyes awake. They teared, and the black mountains below, and Katy M’s bird ahead of us, the dwarf and our bird and the sky above and the wispy clouds to the north all blurred. I blinked, and, just for a moment, wispy, stringy clouds resolved themselves into shapes, running across the sky: rounded characters, alien symbols, falling across the sky from east to west, and I blinked again and they were gone.
“Horse,” the dwarf shouted up at me. I shook my head. “Yeh awake back there?”
“I think so,” I muttered.
“D’yeh know anything about the history of the Blackrock mountains?” he called, apparently intent on holding a conversation over the roar of the wind.
“No,” I said. “M said they used to be volcanic.”
“Aye,” shouted Madoran, “hence the blackness of the rocks. Not yer ordinary volcanism, either,” he continued, “Ancient Elemental God of Fire volcanism!”
“Cool!” I said.
“Anyway,” he shouted, “that’s not important. What I wanted to talk about was,” and he paused. “Your quest, its history.”
Alright!, I thought. “The clouds don’t have ears like the mountains do?” I said, grinning.
“Oh sure,” said Madoran, “there’s just fewer bushes up here for them to hide in! So,” he began, “how much did Fang get to fill you in before you left?”
“Not really anything. We kinda got side-tracked,” I said lamely.
“Aye,” said the dwarf. He glanced back at me. “As I heard it told, yeh took the starch out of him over the fate of Storm City.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I did,” I said.
The dwarf nodded. “There are few good reasons and no good results to be had from a fight, but ye did so on behalf of your brethren and your countrymen. It was stupid, but I can’t help but salute yeh for it.
“So, your mission,” he said, before I could respond. He paused. The air ahead of us was growing smoggy. Katy M’s bird was ahead of us and below, coasting down across the scalded, pock-marked plain ahead. “How much do you know about the Argent Dawn?”
“It defeated the Scourge,” I replied. “After that… not much. I know it went underground and stuck around to keep the evil contained to the northlands.”
“Right-o,” he said, “that’s our mission exactly. Although the Dawn can’t actually take full credit for the defeat of the Scourge, at least at first.
“Arthas Menethil, the Scourge’s Lich King, ruled from the far northern wastes for years. We fought long and hard against him and drove him to near defeat, but his killing blow came from within the Scourge itself. We still don’t understand the exact details – there are strange holes in the accounts – but a senior officer in the Scourge, a great beast named Dread Lord Varimathras, attacked in our moment of triumph and defeated Arthas. Varimathras claimed the Scourge for his own. It caught us quite by surprise, and he routed us.
“While besting the weakened Arthas gave him enormous power, Varimathras was no Lich King, and he quickly began losing control of some of the Scourge’s minions. The first to break free were the Nerubians, Arthas’s first and oldest slaves, from Northrend.”
“Northrend?” I said. “Nerubians?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him in the wind.
“Northrend,” he repeated. “It’s a rocky, barren wasteland in the cold ocean north of Lordaeron and Kali. It’s disappeared from the consciousness of the world, and blessedly so.” He bowed his head. “The Nerubians,” he continued, “are a race of intelligent arachnids from that dead place—”
“There was a spider,” I interrupted, “in the mansion, at the meeting!”
“He is one of their number,” nodded the dwarf. “Quite a powerful one, at that.” We were beyond the mountains now, over the dusty gray plain. Below us, roads ran between towering smokestacks, belching smoke into the smoggy, toxic-brown sky. The valley was controlled by the goblins, although what they made there, I didn’t know.
“Anyway,” he continued, “the Lich King, haven chosen their frozen homeland as his throne, took the Nerubians as his first slaves. While they are not the most naturally altruistic of races, their collective experience under the thrall of the Lich King impacted them greatly. When they freed themselves, they vowed to fight his evil to the bitter end.
“Luckily, the end wasn’t so bitter. Varimathras, as I said, was no Lich King, and had apparently lost the love of a fairly substantial part of the Scourge. With the Nerubians on the side of good, the Dawn found him a much easier adversary than Arthas. In the end, he lacked Arthas’s arrogance, and he fell back strategically to Northrend. We trapped him, and in something of an epic battle, imprisoned him in a huge, half-intact frozen tomb we found there. The Nerubians agreed to guard his tomb, reclaiming Northrend as their homeland and accepting the trapped Varimathras as their ward.”
He paused. I was a little breathless, and my eyes were wide.
“Arthas was defeated for good, to the best of our knowledge,” continued the dwarf. “The Dread Lord took the Scourge over for a short time, but he lacked the power to sustain it. Its guiding will was gone,” he said, “but its evil remained.”
“M told me about that,” I said. “She called it a toxic waste.”
Madoran nodded. “The ichor of undeath,” he replied. “It twists all life, fills it with an unfeeling urge towards destruction. It is against this evil which the Argent Dawn is primarily arrayed: keeping it contained, and, as importantly or more, keeping it from regaining a guiding will.”
The dwarf fell silent. The rushing wind slowed my thoughts, and I sat for some time, digesting what I had learned.
Arthas’s was a name I knew, an echo of an echo from the old times: Arthas the Betrayer, he was called; Arthas Frostmourn. Arthas the Scary as Hell.
The Dread Lord’s name, Vari-something, was not one I had heard before. And Northrend, his resting place, an entire continent at the top of the world that no one had ever heard of? Not no one, I corrected myself, as something M had said days earlier came back to me. Two dead continents, she’d said, not just the one.
“So what does this have to do with the book we’re looking for?” I said.
“Well,” said Madoran, “we’re not entirely certain it has anything to do with it. There are records – journals from the time – which speak of a thick, black leather-bound tome among the artifacts recovered from Northrend after Varimathras’s defeat. It contained writings in a strange language or code, and drawings and diagrams of, among other things, the frozen tomb in which we imprisoned the Dread Lord. According to some records – and here is where history begins to strangely disagree with itself again – the Dawn used the black book, gleaning partial information from its diagrams, to seal the tomb.
“At this point, the record falls apart entirely. Some sources claim that the book was then destroyed, while others claim explicitly that it never existed, that it was merely a soldier’s tale. It seemed to some scholars that there was a concerted and somewhat sloppy effort, about a hundred years after the end of the Scourge War, to remove all traces of the black book from the records – which makes some sense, given the book’s dangerous nature.
“Two hundred years ago or so, Ironforge’s Royal Librarian – the father of the present one, in fact – came across a document dating from around that time, which contained a new account of the black Northrend book, although not much of one. The document, an amateur account by one Katharine Montebello of Eastern history during the first century after the Scourge War, casually mentions that the book had been transported for safekeeping to the cursed city of Lordaeron.”
I shivered at the evil word, but listened on, enthralled.
“There was a flurry of academic interest in this new evidence when it was unveiled, with a few scholars holding it up as proof of the black book’s continued existence. Most, though, discounted it as insufficient, and some even openly mocking its contention that the book rested peacefully in the city of Lordaeron where none dare go.
“That was the consensus, then, until recently: that if the Northrend Tome had ever existed, it had long since been destroyed.”
“What happened recently?” I said.
“Well,” said the dwarf, “about two weeks ago, an innkeeper in eastern Khaz Modan, with whom the Argent Dawn has a longstanding relationship, slipped us word that a group of shadowy men had assembled at his inn, speaking quietly among themselves of plans to go north to Lordaeron, to recover a large, black leather-bound tome containing information about Varimathras’s tomb.”
I waited, but the dwarf had finished. “That’s it?” I said. “M and I are going north to protect a book which may or may not exist from a group of guys that are pretty sure it does?”
“Understand,” replied Madoran patiently, “that ensuring Varimathras’s continued imprisonment is the most important of all of the Argent Dawn’s duties. If Varimathras were to be released back upon the world, his first goal would be to reassert control over the plagued undead of which the northlands are full. His second goal, we can only assume, would be to have another go at taking over the world.”
“Ah,” I said dryly, “so that’s what the guy at the mansion meant when he said that the rumors demanded attention.”
“Aye,” said the dwarf. “If they’re wrong, no problem, but if they’re right, and whatever agents of evil these are succeed in their quest…” He glanced back up at me with a look that made it clear that we had no alternative to success.
I stared off into space for a moment. Mountains reared ahead of us, cliffs rising up from cliffs rising up from the dusty plains like a wall at the end of the world. M’s griffin had begun winging its way laboriously up their face.
“So if it’s this important,” I said, “why is no one but Katy M and I going north to protect the book?”
Madoran laughed. “I imagine that Katy will be doing most of the protecting,” he said. “No offense intended to yourself, of course, but you’re along mostly as an apprentice, unless I much mistake the murloc’s intentions.”
Sweet, I thought – apprenticed to a total ass-kicker! I felt something else, too: happiness, or fondness. I shook it away.
“As to why two have been sent to do the work of an army: The Dawn is no longer united,” he said heavily. “There are those within it who wonder at Fang’s purposes behind his recent and tumultuous actions.”
“I’m with ‘em,” I exclaimed.
“Truth be told, we all are,” said the dwarf. “But…” He sighed. “As the head of Storm City’s Law, Fang has had a long and contentious relationship with the rest of the Dawn. In the past I questioned his motives, but without fail they turned out to be deep, complex and clever: it is my experience and opinion that no matter appearances, Fang always works for the good. There’s nothing happy to be said for the poor state of your City right now, but Fang has declared that there are important and unavoidable reasons for it, and I, for now, believe him.”
I pursed my lips, then nodded. “That’s good to hear from an outsider,” I said.
“Ah’d imagine so,” replied the dwarf gruffly. “The same can be said of our companion Katy M, who is held in the highest regard by all who know her. I don’t know how she’s tied to Fang.” (I do!, I thought, but I put the thought out of my head.) “But I do know that the two of them share goals and information. And as I said, I trust them. But others…” and he trailed off.
“The elves?” I said impertinently.
“Aye, the elves, for one. There was mistrust of Fang in choosing you, a stranger to us, and there are of course other needs pressing on all of our times, what with Storm City collapsing. So when Fang nominated none but you and Katy to undertake this most dangerous task, no one else had the trust or the will to offer to join you. Whatever Fang’s goal is in sending the two of you alone, he achieved it masterfully.” Madoran sighed.
“There are allies in the north, though,” he added. “Not many, but not none. And I am a prince, after all – if Katy agrees, I will add what battalions I can to your strength.”
“Battalions of dwarves?” I said. That would rule. “Prince Madoran,” I said suddenly, “what are you the prince of?”
The dwarf’s eyes twinkled. “Just wait and see,” he replied.
Our mount began to flap mightily as we neared the cliffs, and on her strong wings we flew higher and higher, up and up until the brown plains disappeared in the brown smog below us. The first rank of dusty cliffs peaked and we began climbing the second, rising walls of rock falling back from each other, sloping steeply into the sky. I refused to look down, even as Madoran pointed out far-distant things we could see at this great height. The mountains still towered above us, and as I stared up at them, I moaned in desperation. Madoran laughed heartily, whooping as we spiraled upwards.
The temperature dropped. Snow pocked the cliff faces, sitting white in shadows, behind rock where the warm summer sun couldn’t reach, and then great cascades of ice hung against the rock.
At long last, we crested the last cliff, and suddenly a beautiful, snow-covered, tree-studded world spread out in front of us.
“Welcome to Khaz Modan,” said the dwarf. “It’s big, it’s cold, and it’s my home!”
“It’s the middle of summer!” I said, the freezing-cold wind nipping my nose and ears. “What’s this place like in winter?”
“Brutal,” he said. “Ye don’t go outside unless it’s noon or yer a dwarf. We’re made of stone, did yeh know!”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I’m glad I’m just visiting, though.”
Madoran grinned. “On behalf of my homeland, I take no offense,” he said.
“You rule all of this, or what?” I said.
“Sort of,” replied Madoran. “My family ruled Ironforge for a hundred generations. For the last five hundred years or so, though, it’s been the Stone King and his emissary making all the decisions. No one is actually sure how it happened or exactly when, but it’s turned my family into diplomats rather than kings. Certainly not a bad job,” he mused. The Stone King is the Law, I thought. I wonder how that’s going.
Ahead of us, the distant smudge that was M’s griffin banked sharply. Madoran peered forward, trying to make out what was happening. I squinted, and there were two other figures about hers – two other griffins. “Welcoming committee?” I said.
“Guards,” he replied, “although why they would challenge a lone griffin-rider is beyond me. We should have gone ahead of her, though.” He shook the reigns and dug his heels into our mount’s side. She bellowed and flapped harder.
The griffins were flapping around Katy M’s mount, dive-bombing her and trying to get within clawing-range. M was turning her bird deftly about, using its wings to get in the way of her attackers.
Madoran reached into his backpack and pulled out a lovingly-folded tabard – it was dark red with a golden hammer on it, and I recognized it as the flag of Ironforge. He pulled it quickly on over his head. He maneuvered us in, trying to attract the attention of the red-clad scouts, but when he did, their eyes widened in fearful recognition. They wheeled about, and flew off.
“That was strange,” muttered the dwarf. “And why on Az were they attacking a royal griffin in the first place?”
“No idea,” I said. It was a lie, though, I had an idea: with the Law out of Ironforge, who knew what alliances had formed or fractured. “Maybe there’s been a coup or something.”
I said it casually, but Madoran looked around sharply at me. “What’d you say?” he growled.
I shrugged, thinking quickly. “I just thought… I mean, it would explain why Ironforge scouts were attacking royal griffins, is all.”
“Bite your tongue, lad,” said the dwarf, but a shadow had fallen over him.
“Which direction did they come from?” he shouted over to M.
“North,” she bellowed back. “They came in low along the ground and snuck up underneath me.”
“Did you notice anything strange about them?” yelled the dwarf.
“Yeah,” she hollered back crossly, “they had giant claws flying at my head.”
Madoran laughed. “That’s strange, alright,” he said cheerily, though it seemed forced, and I wondered if he were putting on airs for the other bull. “We’d better hurry, though,” he said. We turned and flew on.
* * *
I’d heard of Ironforge, of course. I’d even seen a picture or two. That didn’t prepare me, though, for the sight, half way up the cliffs on the far side of the valley we were entering, of a vast stone and metal gateway, a titanic hallway into the mountain itself, surrounded by turrets and towers, their windows glowing even in the mid-afternoon light.
I didn’t have long to enjoy it. As we winged across the valley towards the city’s entrance, six griffins flew in formation out of the great gateway. If the previous griffins had been scouts, these were the soldiers: each bird, as big as ours or bigger, was ridden by a fully-armored dwarf. Their tabards matched Madoran’s: dark red with a golden hammer. The flight’s leader wore a gilded, winged helm, and a large, coiled, loaded, deadly-looking crossbow was mounted to his saddle. He was carefully aiming it at us. “Dive!” yelled Madoran.
My brain, my big bovine brain, had evolved from creatures whose greatest joy in life was to stand in one spot, in the sun, in as flat a field as possible, and eat the same grass three times. There was nothing in my mind, my breeding, my upbringing or my experience to prepare me for the sensation of suddenly and without warning going into an eight-hundred foot freefall. My eyes were squeezed shut, and I was screaming at the top of my lungs.
My lungs emptied, and I opened my eyes and took another breath. We were scant yards from the ground and still hurtling straight at it. I shut my eyes and started screaming again.
We pulled out of the dive mere inches from the ground and skimmed the snowy fields, our mount’s wings sending great puffs of snow up into the air behind us. We sailed through a clearing between trees, barely wider than our griffin’s wingspan. A herd of wild pigs scattered before us. There was a sharp ping from above, and one of the pigs stumbled to the ground and slid to a halt in the snow. I looked up, and the lead griffin was diving at us. The winged-helmed, stone-faced dwarf was pulling his crossbow’s reload lever.
“Madoran!” I yelled. He pulled on the griffin’s reins, bringing her head up. We rose sharply and a crossbow bolt whizzed by in front of us, burying itself in the snow with a light piff. The enemy griffin pulled out of its dive in a panic as we shot up towards it, and we landed a heavy beak-blow on its underside. It squawked, bleeding, and flapped out of reach. Calling mournfully, it spiraled down to the ground. Its rider leaped off and began rapidly tending its wound.
We flew back up over the valley. Two of the griffins guarded Ironforge’s gate, barring us entrance. We scanned around for M and her pursuers. The rest of the valley was quiet.
“There!” I cried, spotting something moving on the ridge to the east of the gate.
Madoran shook the reins and we took off. Three griffins were dive-bombing M’s. Her huge, spiked mace was out, and she swung it heavily at any claws that came too close. As we rose above the mountains and its combatants, one of them took a heavy mace-blow to the foot and flapped, squawking, out of reach.
We dove in from above, Madoran’s tabarded chest thrust forward. “Halt your attack!” he boomed. “I am Madoran Bronzebeard, your prince and prince of Khaz Modan!”
The red-tabarded dwarves hesitated for a moment, looking at him and each other. “Not any more,” shouted one of them back. Madoran tensed in front of me.
“Aye,” called another. “Orders is orders.” He shook his bird’s reins, and his bird charged at us. We dove under him, towards the mountain’s face, then soared up the mountain’s face towards its peak. The three red-clad dwarves followed.
M had used the respite to wing her way east. I saw her destination: a long, flat tract of land with a cluster of buildings, lined with griffins, tucked into the mountainside. She landed deftly, yelling something towards one of the buildings. A moment later, a pair of dwarves in green tabards tore out of it, jumped on their birds, and, as we came parallel with the landing strip with our three pursuers, M and her new companions took off into the air.
We peaked the Ironforge Mountains. Below us and to the north, the world disappeared, dropping suddenly and rapidly into nothingness, into a greenish fog of distance and humidity some thousands of feet below. As we soared over it, I inhaled sharply. “Don’t look down,” I chanted quietly to myself. We faced about there, over the edge of the world, towards our pursuers.
We were the anvil, and M’s small battalion was the hammer. As our three pursuers pulled up to avoid the certain death which a defeat and fall over the precipice would entail, M and her two green-clad dwarves rammed full-force into them from behind. Madoran and I flew back over the mountains. M’s bird was locked in mortal combat with one of the red-tabarded dwarves: they tangled in each other and plummeted suddenly towards the snowy peaks. A moment before they landed, M’s griffin struggled free, beat its giant wings, and rose triumphant into the sky. The tauren had a look of fierce pride on her face, and she patted her griffin on the neck. Her opponent crashed into the snow below and lay still.
M waved us on to the next battle, but it had ended: the red-clad dwarf who had spoken first to Madoran had pulled up and was retreating. He called to his compatriot, who broke free as well. They regrouped, holding formation, coasting back and forth over the peaks, waiting for something.
The two green-clad dwarves flew back to us. M winged back and forth behind us, watching the enemy, her eyes narrowed intensely.
“Welcome back, Prince,” called one of our allies. “Ye missed a bit of an upset.”
“So I gathered,” Madoran called back. “The airstrip is friendly to us?”
“Aye,” answered the other, “we hold it.”
The conversation was interrupted by a shout of warning from the first green-clad dwarf. Cresting the peak, rising on strong wings and a bandaged chest was the red-armored battalion leader’s griffin. With a battle cry of “Traitor Prince!” he charged at us, and before we could blink he had unloaded his crossbow. The bolt whizzed by my left ear, barely missing me.
Behind us, there came a sickening thud. A griffin squawked. I whirled around. Katy M’s bird had lurched backwards, out over the green misty abyss, and was struggling to beat its wings. A wound, a red gash, formed and grew on the griffin’s neck. M’s expression was panicked, and she pulled desperately at the reins. The beast thrashed its head back once, and went limp.
And then they were gone, rag dolls off the edge of the world.
Somewhere far away, someone was yelling her name. There was a feeling: leather reins in my hand, and I’d kicked the griffin’s sides. My throat was sore. The voice yelling had been my own.
I leaned forward, and we dove off the edge of the cliffs and into the abyss. Madoran swore loudly, grabbing at the reins. “Damnit, Horse, get a hold of yerself or yer gonna get us killed as well!”
The world below us was empty, except for a lone black crow flapping off in the distance.
Madoran angrily grabbed the reins back from me, pulling our mount back up towards what was now a pitched battle. I kicked the griffin’s sides again, urging it forward, toward the murderer, oblivious to all else. As we passed him, I gathered my legs under me. I closed my eyes for a moment, pulling my body apart and reforming it: I leapt lithely across the sky, growling and hissing, and knocked the winged-helmed dwarf off his winged steed. I latched my cat claws into his neck and face as we plummeted towards the mountaintop, rending and tearing, hissing and yowling in his terrified face.
The fall broke the dwarf and stained the snow red. It knocked me out, and I felt rage fade to grief as I slipped into darkness.