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the lonely murloc -chapter11

2005/06/25 Sat

the lonely murloc /CrazyHorseXI “Go get it,” said Fang. I stood at the edge of an enormous star-field. There was a thing, a glowing blue thing, on the far side of the vast, dark beyond, which the Murloc was willing me to fight to, but I wasn’t sure. My mother stood behind me, silent, smiling slightly. I wanted to run back to her. Fang grabbed me, and whispered, “Creditors,” into my ear, before hurling me off the ledge. I flew out, into space: stars, and worlds, and ancient and modern civilizations hurled by me too fast to see. I tumbled, hoof over head, towards the blue glow, the thing I needed more than anything else. I bounced, suddenly, and looking back, it was a metallic wall that I had bounced off of. As I fell farther back, I looked up, and up, and the wall had a face, and arms, and legs: the huge metal humanoid spoke, and said, “Help or hinder; fate or free will; the choice, ironically, is yours.” I fell away from it, and there were more, hundreds and thousands of them standing in formation, marching inexorably towards me. The closest one suddenly gripped his chest, clawed at his face, and burst into spectral flame. He screamed a terrifying, soul-chilling scream at me, hurtling through life, intent on ending me, and everything. I cowered, and suddenly a broad, furry, three-fingered hand snatched me bodily away. Katy M held me in the palm of her hand, smiling down at me. “He’s coming,” she said darkly, “but I got your back, kiddo.” And then, with perfect benevolence, she clapped her enormous hands together, and I died. I jerked awake, safe in my too-short dwarven bed, 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 in the morning. I’d slept for more than twelve hours. As the ambivalent terror from my dream wore off, pleasant drowsiness took over. For a moment, questions whirled in my head, fighting for attention, but as I settled my body a back into the mattress, I began drifting pleasantly back into sleep. “RISE AND SHINE!” Madoran the dwarf broke my door open and threw on the light-switch. “I hate you,” I muttered.Twenty minutes later, after dressing, splashing water on my face, and breakfasting with M and Madoran, I stood at the hill-encampment’s apex, facing an enormous griffin. “If she doesn’t trust ye,” said the flightmaster dwarf, “she’ll drop you off at 2,000 feet. That’s not something you recover from in a weekend. If she does like ye, though, nothin short o' jumpin will make you fall, you can count on her.” I nodded. M and Madoran had said they’d both flown before - I'd be flying with one of them - so I was getting the safety instructions alone. The other two watched at a distance. “Step forward, slowly.” I did so. The bird turned her big head and looked at me sideways. She waved her head jerkily, and made a shark squawk. I started slightly. “She doesn’t not trust you,” said the dwarf cheerily. “You right-handed?” I nodded. “Stick your left hand out towards her,” he said, “slowly. That way if she don’ like you, you’ll still have your right hand.” I looked at him in alarm. “Ah’m joshin ya!” he said. “She hasn’ hurt anybody in a couple o’ weeks.” Without warning me, he tossed the beast a dead rabbit. She snatched it out of the air and swallowed it whole, taking a step back. “Just makin sure she’s not hungry,” he said, winking. He nodding at me to proceed. She stepped towards me again, watching me with one eye. I extended my hand gingerly. The griffin sniffed at me, reared her head back, and nipped my hand. I yelped instinctually. Madoran laughed from his safe distance. I looked down at my hand. It was bleeding. “Means she likes ye!” said the flightmaster. A dwarven medic bandaged my hand. Madoran and I would be on one griffin, with the dwarf sitting just in front of me holding the reins. M had her own griffin. When Madoran had suggested this arrangement, M had balked for a moment, but it made more sense than burdening one bird with two tauren, and she didn’t object. She helped boost me onto my griffin, though (an unnecessary move), and whispered, “Trust the dwarf, but believe in the Law.” I looked at her, puzzled, but she didn't make eye contact. If the dwarf noticed, he didn’t react.Our griffins stood side by side at the hill’s apex. They were tossing their heads, straining against the reins, pawing at the ground, itching to fly. The flightmaster stood in front of us, holding a pair of red signs, one pointed at each griffin. Another dwarf, sporting goggles with lenses almost two inches thick, stood behind us, scanning the skies for incoming flights. The goggled dwarf called, “All clear!” up to the flightmaster, who dropped Katy M’s red circle. The griffin stamped its paws at the sight, looking over its shoulder at its rider, who gave the reigns a shake. The beast bellowed, joyously, and charged forward, past the flightmaster, who jumped heavily to the side to avoid being flattened. A wide grin split 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, an “All clear!” came from behind us. I felt our mount tense beneath me. The flightmaster dwarf dropped our stop sign, and Madoran gave the reins a sharp shake. The enormous bird bucked beneath me. It leapt forward, kicking with its back legs and galloping past the flightmaster. As the hill began to drop, and the low, stone buildings of the encampment began to rumble closer, my stomachs dropped suddenly, and I could feel the muscles across the griffin’s sides and chest contract mightily. The wings beat down against the air, and I felt the world dropping away beneath us. My stomachs dropped into my abdomen. “I don’t suppose ye’d mind letting up a bit? I can’ breath,” yelled the dwarf up at me over the rushing wind. I realized I was gripping him tightly. I let go. My eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and I opened them. I gasped. Morgan’s Rest was a mere speck behind us. The pastoral steppes spread out emerald below us. Far ahead of us to the north, on the horizon, was a mountain range. To the east, glittering in the morning sun, was a black rock dome, with what looked like campfire smoke rising from it. A river ran beneath us, idyllic and blue. Directly below was a little herd of what looked like 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.High above the world and with griffin wings spread far to either side of us, we flew at speeds that boggled my mind. A mere fifteen minutes later, maybe twenty-five, we were coming up on the black mountain range that had been on the horizon when we’d taken off. It had been a third of an hour of pure exhilaration. Subtly, the rhythm of the wings and the constant rush of the wind through my head began to tire me. I nodded, slightly, listening to the sound of the world, the white noise, constant, rushing wind, the feel of the dwarf in front of me, nodding slightly with the beating of the wings of the creature that bore us, the rushing wind, and I nodded slightly, my heavy eyelids closing. When I opened them up again, the wind had turned into icicles that stung my eyes awake. They teared, and the world below, the black mountains and Katy M’s bird far ahead of us, the dwarf and the bird and the sky above and the clouds all blurred. I blinked, and just for a moment, the clouds, the high, wispy, stringy cirrus clouds, resolved themselves into shapes, running from horizon to horizon, from south behind us to the northern horizon: rounded characters, falling across the sky, and I blinked again and they were gone. “Horse,” the dwarf shouted back to me. I shook my head. “Ye’awake back there?” “I think so,” I called gruffly.“You know anything about the history of the Blackrock Mountains?” he called back, apparently intent on holding a conversation over the roar of the wind. “Not a thing,” I shouted. “M told me that 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 muttered. “That’s not important, though,” he shouted. “What I wanted to ask was,” and he paused, as though unsure of how to bring something up. His accent disappeared. “Remember, in the Argent Dawn inquisition we put you through, that Fang had promised to fill you in on the details of the quest we’re on?” “I remember,” I shouted. “Did he?” Nope. I was annoyed for a moment. Then I remembered why he hadn’t. “He was going to,” I called to the dwarf, “when we were attacked in the mansion.” “Right, that,” said the dwarf. “It’s funny that they attacked you, in the mansion, sneaking in past everyone and out again, and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since.” He glanced back and grinned at me. You’re kidding, I thought. He knows we weren’t attacked.“Anyway,” he shouted, “as I told you when we met up in the Elwynn woods four mornings ago, there are those in the Argent Dawn who suspect that Fang the Murloc’s goals are other than our own. As the head of Storm City’s Law, he has had a long and contentious relationship with the Dawn. In the past we have questioned his motives, but they have always turned out to be deep, complex, clever; it is my experience and opinion that he has always worked towards the good. The same can be said of the Druid Katy M, whom we all hold in the highest regard. I don’t know how they know each other, but I do know that the two of them share goals and information. And as I said, I trust them. “I also trust you,” he continued, shouting over the wind. I listened, curious and silent. “You’re young, but I trust you. Whatever the motivations of Fang and Katy M, and I believe them to be honorable, I think you should know as much as possible about the situation into which you are being sent, so that if you should be forced to choose between two paths, you may be prepared to choose what you believe to be best.” He paused, and looked over his shoulder at me. We were over the peaks of the Blackrock Mountain now, and the air ahead of us was smoggy. Katy M’s bird was ahead of us and slightly below, coasting on a thermal down across the plain ahead. “How much do you know about your quest?” he asked. “Not much,” I said. “There’s a book on the dead continent that we are to retrieve.” “Not retrieve, necessarily,” he replied. “We may only need to keep it out of certain hands, but the easiest way to do so is to get it and keep it in our own hands.” “Whose hands are you keeping it out of?” I asked. He laughed a little. “Feel like a history lesson?” he said. “Always,” I said.“So. The Dawn. How much do you know about it?” “It defeated the scourge,” I said. “After that… not much. I know it went underground and stayed in the northlands fighting evil.” “Right,” he said. “Sort of. The Dawn can’t actually take full credit for the defeat of the Scourge. Arthas, the Scourge’s Lich King, ruled it from the northlands for years. We fought long and hard against him, and drove him to near defeat, but the killing blow came from within the Scourge. We don’t know the exact details, but a sect of zombies living in Lordaeron,” – I shivered – “led by a member of the Burning Legion, a dreadlord named Varimathras, had apparently been waiting for an opportunity. In our moment of triumph, Varimathras attacked Arthas, defeating him and claming the Scourge for himself. It caught us quite by surprise, and he routed us. “While besting the weakened Arthas gave him more power than he himself had ever had before, Varimathras was no Lich King, and he rapidly lost control of some of the Scourge’s minions. The first to break free were the Nerubians, Arthas’ first and oldest slaves, from the lost continent of Northrend.” “Northrend?” I shouted up to him. “Nerubians?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. He nodded. “Northrend,” he repeated, enunciating clearly. “It’s a rocky, barren continent north of Lordaeron and Kali. It’s disappeared from the consciousness of the world, and blessedly so.” He bowed his head in what looked like a moment of prayer. “The Nerubians,” he continued, “are a race of intelligent spiders from that dead place–” “There was a spider,” I interrupted, “in the mansion, behind me at the meeting!” “He was one of their number. A relatively powerful one, at that,” he called back to me. We were beyond the mountains, now, over a gray, dusty plain. The sky had turned a toxic brown. “Anyway,” he continued, “the Lich King, having chosen their frozen homeland as his throne, took them as his first slaves. While they were not the cuddliest or kindest of races, as I’m sure you saw, their collective experience under the thrall of the Lich King impacted them greatly. When they freed themselves, they vowed to fight evil to the bitter end. “Luckily, the end wasn’t that bitter. Varimatharas, as I said, was no Lich King, and had apparently lost the love of both his Burning Legion and his Lordaeron sect. With the spiders on our side, we found him much easier an enemy than Arthas. In the end, he lacked Arthas’s arrogance, and fell back strategically to Northrend. We trapped him at the site of the Lich King’s original emergence, and in something of an epic battle, imprisoned him in a huge, half-built frozen tomb that we found there. The Nerubians agreed to guard his tomb, reclaiming Northrend as their homeland and the trapped Varimathras as their ward.”He stopped. I was somewhat out of breath. As high above it as we were, the poison air crept up to us from the plains below. Katy M’s bird was out of sight somewhere ahead of us in the smog. Madoran began talking again, leaning over his shoulder and yelling in the wind. “Arthas, to the best of our knowledge, was defeated for good. The Dreadlord took the Scourge over for a short time, but he had neither the will nor the power to sustain it. Its will is gone,” he said, “but its evil remained.” “Fang did tell me about that,” I interrupted. “He called it toxic waste.” He nodded. “An ichor of undeath,” he responded. “It twists all life, fills it with hatred and an urge to destruction. It is against this evil which the Argent Dawn is primarily arrayed: keeping it contained, and keeping it from regaining a will.” The dwarf fell silent. The rushing wind slowed my thoughts, and I sat, straddling our enormous mount, for some time, thinking slowly through what I had learned. Arthas’ was a name that I knew, an echo of an echo from the old times: Arthas the Betrayer, Arthas Frostmourn. Arthas the Scary as Hell. The dreadlord’s 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 Fang had said days earlier came back to me. Two dead continents, he’d said, not just Lordaeron. As I ruminated, we winged steadily north. The dull smog wind began to clear, after a time, and we could see M’s griffin again. Mountains reared ahead of us, cliffs rising up from the dusty plains like the wall at the end of the world. We began flapping higher as we approached them, flying up and up, until the top of the cliffs were visible above us. We reached them, still only about half way up, and they resolved themselves into jagged, rising walls of rock, falling back upon each other, sloping steeply into the sky. Our griffin banked hard, interrupting my meditations, causing my insides to compress and my voice to yelp wholly without my bidding. Madoran laughed heartily, whooping as we spiraled upwards.The temperature dropped. Snow pocked the cliff faces, sitting white in shadows, behind rocks where the warm summer sun couldn’t melt it. We finally crested the cliffs, flying up and over the edge of the last one, nearly close enough for the griffin to brush it with her claws, 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, shivering slightly. “What’s this place like in the winter?” “Brutal,” he said. “Ye don’t go outside unless it’s noon or yer a dwarf. We’re made of stone, ye know.” “Madoran,” I said, “Fang called you a prince. What are you the prince of?” The question had occurred to me to ask, but this first view of the dwarven homeland made me think I knew the answer. He spread his arms wide and looked over his shoulder at me, grinning. “I am the prince of all that I see!” I nodded and smiled. “My family has ruled Ironforge for a hundred generations. Although, for the last five hundred years or so, it’s been the Stone King and his emissary making all the decisions. No one’s sure how that happened or when, but it’s turned my family into diplomats rather than princes. Not a bad job, but not royal, either.” He muttered the last couple of sentences, thoughtful. The Stone King is the Law, I thought. I wonder how that’s going. “Anyway,” he said abruptly, “enough about me.” “You didn’t tell me about the book we’re in search of,” I said, after a beat. “Right, right, the book,” said Madoran heavily. “We don’t know where it is, or who wrote it, or exactly what’s in it. We do know that it is a thick, black volume, and that it was first seen by Dawn soldiers in Northrend, shortly before we returned that land to the Nerubians. It disappeared some time after that, and we believe that it ended up in Lordaeron. We know from descriptions that it was written in a human tongue, and that it contains extensive references to the unfinished tomb in which Varimathras is imprisoned. If it could tell us how to strengthen the thing, we would very much like to have it. If it contains instructions for destroying it, this book would be very useful to anyone wishing to release Varimathras and make a powerful ally on the side of evil.” He looked back at me. “Our information suggests that there is some group, or someone, unknown to us, attempting to locate this book.” Ahead of us, the speck that was M’s griffin banked sharply. Madoran caught my gaze and looked around. He stiffened slightly, peering forward, trying to make out what was happening. I squinted, and there were two other figures around her’s, what looked like two other griffins. “Welcoming committee?” I said. “An awfully aggressive one,” muttered Madoran. He shook the reigns and dug his short heels into our mount’s side. She bellowed, and began flapping harder.As we grew closer and the scene resolved itself, it became clear that the griffins, each a bit smaller than hers and ridden by a lightly armored dwarf, were not in fact a welcoming committee. They were flapping around Katy M’s mount, trying to get within clawing distance. M was turning her bird deftly about, avoiding the others and using her bird’s wings to get in the way of her attackers. Madoran reached into his backpack and pulled out a dark red flag with a golden hammer on it, the flag of Ironforge. Waving it wildly and hollering, he maneuvered us in, diving in at one of the dwarf birds from above. It squawked and veered away from the fight. Its rider shouted something to the other griffin, which fell out and flew off after his flightmate. The farther one pulled the antenna out on a portable radio, and spoke into it. I leaned forward, letting Madoran know. “Such strange behavior,” he muttered. “They were Ironforge scouts, they should have bowed, not fled, at the sight of their flag. Why on Az were they attacking a royal griffins in the first place?” “No idea,” I said. It was a lie, I had an idea: with the Law out of Ironforge, who knew what alliances had formed or fractured? It was only an idea, though, and not enough of one to voice. “Where’d they come from?” shouted Madoran to Katy M. “North,” she bellowed back. “They came in low along the ground and snuck up around behind me.” “Did you notice anything peculiar about them?” yelled the dwarf. “Yeah,” she yelled back crossly. “They had giant claws flying at my head.” Madoran laughed. “We’d better hurry,” he called back. We flew on.I had heard of Ironforge, of course. I had even seen a photograph or two. That didn’t prepare me 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, surrounded by turrets and towers. I didn’t have long to enjoy it. As we winged across the valley towards Ironforge, six griffins flew in formation out of the great gateway. If the previous griffins had been scouts, these were soldiers: each bird, as big as ours or bigger, was topped with a fully armored dwarf. Their tabards matched Madoran's flag: dark red, with a golden hammer. The leader wore a gilded, winged helm, and had a large, coiled, loaded, deadly-looking crossbow mounted on 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 standing in one spot, in the sun, in as flat a field as possible, and eating the same grass three times. There was nothing in my mind, my genes, my breeding or my experience to prepare me to deal with 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 long enough to take another breath. We were scant yards from the ground and still hurtling straight down. I closed my eyes and started screaming again. We pulled out of the dive seeming inches from the ground, skimming the snowy fields, the downdraft from 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 wings, and scattered a herd of wild pigs. There was a sharp ping from above, and one of them 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 up on the griffin’s reins, bringing her head up. We rose sharply as a crossbow bolt whizzed by in front of us, buring itself in the snow with a light piff. The other griffin pulled out of its dive in a panic as we rose towards it, and we landed a heavy beak-blow to its underside. It squawked, bleeding slightly, and flapped out of reach. Calling mournfully, it spiraling down to the ground, where its rider leaped off and began rapidly tending its wound.We flew back up over the valley. Two of the griffins guarded the Ironforge gate, barring us entrance. We scanned around for M and her pursuers. The rest of the valley was quiet. A moment later, I spotted some movement on the ridge above and east of the Ironforge gate. “Look!” I shouted, pointing. Madoran shook our reins and we took off for the ridge. Three griffins were dive-bombing M’s. Her huge, square, spiked mace was out, and she swung it heavily at any claws that came too close. As we rose above the mountain and the combatants, one of them took a heavy mace-blow to its foot, squawked in pain, and flapped up out of reach. We dove in from above, Madoran brandished his flag. “Halt your attack!” he boomed. “I am Madoran Bronzebeard, your prince and prince of Ironforge!” The red-tabard dwarves hesitated for a moment, looking at him, then at each other. “Not any more,” shouted one of them back. I felt Madoran tense in front of me. “Aye,” called another. “And an order’s an order.” He shook his bird’s reins. Obeying orders, his bird charged at us. We dove under him, towards the mountain’s face, then soared up the mountainside towards the peak. The three red-clad dwarves followed. M had used the respite to begin winging her way up into the mountains. I saw her destination: a small cluster of buildings and a large flat area 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 two of their birds, and, as we passed over 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: it dropped suddenly and rapidly into nothingness, into a greenish fog of distance and humidity some thousands of feet below. As we soared out over it, I gasped. “Don’t look down,” I chanted quietly to myself. We faced about there, over the edge of the world, turning 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 fall here would entail, M and the two green-clad dwarves rammed them full-force from behind. Madoran and I flew back over the Ironforge mountain, flapping about M and her enemy, who were tangled in each other and falling towards the snowy peaks. A moment before they landed, M’s griffin struggled free, beat its giant wings, and rose triumphant back into the sky. The tauren had a look of fierce pride on her face, and she patted the 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 broken up: the red-clad dwarf who had spoken first to Madoran before, 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 peak, waiting for something. The two green-clad dwarves flew back to us. M winged back and forth behind us, watching the Ironforge dwarves intensely. “Welcome back, Prince,” called one of them. “Ye missed a bit of an upset.” “So I gathered,” Madoran called back. “The airstrip is friendly to us, then?” “Aye,” answered the other, “we hold it.”The conversation would have continued but for a shout of warning from the first green-clad dwarf. Cresting the peak, rising on repaired wings and a bandaged chest was the red-armored Ironforge battalion leader’s griffin. He called to the two red-clad dwarves, and with a battle cry of “Traitor Prince!” he charged at us. He unloaded his crossbow with a sharp ping, too quickly for us to react. I felt the bolt whiz by my left ear, barely missing me. Directly behind us, there was a sickening thud. A griffin squawked. I turned 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 had a look of panic on her face, pulling 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 void. Madoran swore loudly, grabbing at the reins. “Damnit, Horse, get a hold o’ yerself or yer going to get us killed as well!” The world below us was empty, except for a lone 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, towards the murderer, oblivious to all else. As we passed him, I gathered my legs under me, on the griffin’s back. 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 in 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 become replaced with grief as I slipped into darkness. END OF PART TWO.

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