A story I wrote in 2009 about World of Warcraft
June 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
The screaming was disconcerting. It was loud, shrill, and it wasn’t until her chest started to hurt that she realized she was the one doing it. The shock of the heavy blade of the sword she carried crashing down through rotting flesh and the smell of the twitching, vaguely human-shaped thing that had leaped at her as it tore in half didn’t make her want to stop, either. Lack of air ultimately forced her to.
All around her, the sound of wild, disorganized fighting. They’d headed out from Crusader’s Pinnacle to try and push further into Icecrown two days before, 100 strong. Not all were members of the Argent Crusade, but most were, including a strong force of some forty paladins, and they’d expected to make their way through the mountains and then the glacier and head north to meet up with the main force of the Crusade in a week or more. Time enough to help clear the ground for the new base Highlord Fordring wanted to construct.
Kicking off and pivoting on her hip, the wide, broad blade of the sword swept three mockeries aside, breaking their ragged bones and scattering them. Forming a prayer with her lips, she called to the Light for strength and sent that strength burning to judge the worthiness of a purple robed man chanting atop a hill, but too late.
Even as the Holy Light seared into him he threw his hands wide and darkness melted out of his hands, dripping onto the ground, flowing of its own accord. A huge, gnarled fist of withered flesh and massive bones erupted from the ground, holding an axe bigger than her entire body. To its side, two more were fighting their way out of the tightly packed frozen earth.
“Back!” The voice came over the sound of furious combat, a voice bellowed over grunts and moans and screams and the crash of metal against metal, against rancid flesh, against dry bones. “Form up! Use the path against them, get back here!”
Anara tried to parry that gigantic axe with her own blade, managed to knock it out of line but took a hit in her side from a wicked looking hammer held easily in one hand by one of the other skeletal giant figures crowding in on her. The air driven from her lungs, she still managed to deliver a brutal overhand slash with the blade that crashed through breastplate and breastbone alike, driven both by her furious desire to survive and the burning golden radiance of her faith.
Then the blade snapped off in her hands as the creature fell.
She threw the hilt to the side and prepared for the death blow to come from one of the two remaining bony figures hulking before her. She was too far away from the line, she knew she couldn’t get around them and back to the remaining Crusaders in time. Swallowing to keep her gorge down she prayed again that the Light would prevent her from rising like the things before her.
Then the sound of metal crashing against the bones of the one to her left and she barely had time to move before it fell, headless, at her feet. The enormous hammer that had nearly crushed her fell black and pitted into the icy rock and she swept it up in both hands while rolling to slide under the gigantic axe that tried to take her head, feeling the metal crest of her helmet and part of the visor shear away as she came up again.
Before her, the red and black armored form of the last person to join their column lashed out three times with the huge curved swords he held in each hand, pushing the rotting remnant of a giant back, ripping chunks of decayed flesh and spraying putrid blood with each strike. In the cold air it almost seemed to hang suspended in brown and purple clouds. The draenei was no paladin, for all the rumors she’d heard of his people and their strong connection to the light, but he wore plate armor even more massive than that she was accustomed to, roaring with each strike.
Shifting her own grip, Anara called forth the power of the Light again, feeling it nearly burning her tingling hand as she loosed it on the monstrous, twisted, withered and stinking corpse forced from the earth. The blast of Light tore it like a seam, sending parts of it tumbling down the incline.
“Nicely done. Now get back. We can’t win if they can use their numbers.” She saw a glimpse of glowing eyes from within the dark recesses of the massive helmet he wore, shaped vaguely like a ram’s head with an enormous curling horn on the right side and a severed horn to the left. He slashed out with his left hand almost lazily and took the throat of the robed thing, a stroke that decapitated and left the head dangling from a loose flap of skin yet still reaching forth with twisted hands to try and strike at them.
Refusing to fear, she struck the thing twice with her new hammer, crushing bone and maggot-infested flesh, then let reason take hold and retreated.
Anara spent a great deal of time oiling and cleaning every available surface of the huge war hammer she’d taken. Her own sword had been too broken and unusable to reclaim before the fighting had finally ended. Sitting as close to the fire as she could arrange, she ran a tattered rag over the pitted but serviceable mass of reflecting black metal.
She tried to inhale smoky air as much as possible. The smoke was a far preferable smell to have lingering in her nostrils. Exhausted arms corded with years of effort worked without her having to try and remember what to do, a task first learned as a novitiate when the greatest threat she’d expected to face in her life was guard duty in Andorhal near the granary.
The air was cold, it hit the lungs like a slash from a claw even warmed by the fire. Her nose was running, her eyes watered and had to be blinked or wiped to keep them clear. The steep crags of the ice and rocks all around them left only one way up and one way down, a winding, treacherous path that led to a sharp walled gully. It had funneled the creatures, the shambling, rotting remains of once living men and women and other things, which had been all that had kept them from being overrun.
Grey hairs fell out of the severe bun she’d pulled them into the night before, plastered to the side of her sooty, grimy face. Eyes the color of the broken sword blade stuck into the abdomen of some thing that was stitched together flitted over the pile of corpses past the edge of the makeshift camp, as younger members of the order worked a line to hurl them into fire pits as fast as they could and keep them burning.
She raised her eyes skyward and gave thanks to the Light for the wind out of the south.
“It’s clean already.” Well oiled chain and plate armor rattled slightly, but Anara was still surprised at how silently the enormous azure skinned speaker had moved over to the log laid out across the fire from hers. “Clean enough for what you’re going to do with it, anyway.”
She didn’t reply, but turned her head slightly to look at him as she continued wiping at the head of the truly ugly hammer. If not for the hooves, the legs that bent more like a ram’s than a man’s, and the bony plate along his forehead she could forget he wasn’t human. Not that it mattered, really. When she had been a young girl, an aspirant priest, it might have.
She looked around the few pitched tents, the roaring fires as a few terrified children hurled corpse sand parts of corpses in to burn, and those forms half concealed in darkness waiting at the edge of the fire’s light for more to come.
“I like to keep my hands busy.”
“Understandable.” He rolled his massive shoulders. If he has been a man, he would have been a huge man. She’d seen him tower over an orc blademaster, and once watched him fight a practice bout with a tauren and had been shocked to realize that the same tauren that merely seemed large then was more than twice her size. “I’m not going to be getting much rest tonight myself.”
“How many left?”
“Counting us? 27 and another twenty of your… squires?” He scratched at his chin, where a tendril of flesh twitched, severed in some fight long before she’d met him. It barely made half the length of the other three, each as thick as a finger. “We lost fifty two.”
“How many of them?”
“Oh, we killed quite a few of them.” He gestured, his hand waving out from under his cloak. She didn’t bother to survey the battlefield. “The difficulty is that there are already more out there somewhere coming this way.”
“We’re far from Crusader’s Pinnacle.” She spat on the mace, gave it another few passes with the rag that only served to tear it further apart, then placed it to her side. “Any point in trying to make for it?”
“If we can survive till morning, perhaps.” He stood up, gestured to the sky. “I don’t know about you but I can’t find a star I recognize in all that. Not that I am particularly good at recognizing your stars.”
“Yes, Anara?” He hadn’t looked back to her. Like the elves she’d grown up with, or their strange counterparts from Kalimdor, his eyes glowed slightly. She could see them even across the fire.
“Any chance we can?”
“I wouldn’t think so.” He sighed and sat back down. “We needed the fires to survive and we couldn’t leave the corpses. But they make us a target. These things are mindless, but there are minds among them, directing them.” He drew one of the swords he carried crossed on his back and, placing it point down into the ground, signed heavily and leaned on it. “They’ll find us again before morning. Some of us might make it, but only if those of us who can move leave those who have been injured behind.”
She stared flatly at him and he chuckled.
“Yes, I didn’t think you’d like that idea.”
The wind picked up around them, swirling the smell of smoke and rot together and carrying it up and away.
“You could go.”
“Certainly I could.”
“There’s nothing holding you here. You’re not one of us.” The words came hurtling out of her mouth, launched by the old combination of envy and confusion. “We’re here because of our oaths. To serve the Light. To…”
“Child.” He sat down again, this time closer to her, facing her directly across the fire. “Yes, child. To me, you are one. I was born on Argus, so long ago that even Velen counts me as a contemporary. I have seen so many like you, young and old alike, afire with the news of the Light. You will not convert me to it now any more than they have, not after so long. You ask me why?”
He removed his gauntlet and showed her his right hand over the fire. She looked in shock at the scars all across the surface, skin wattled and torn and gnarled. Nodding, he replaced the metal glove and leaned back.
“We ran from Argus. We ran from those who had been our brothers and our sisters and our leaders and our teachers, from Archimonde and Kil’Jaeden. We did not want to fight. We just wanted to find a small place where we could settle and live free of the madness that they had embraced. We ran from world to world, time and again we thought we were free and they found us again. So many times I long ago lost count. When we found a refuge, finally, and it seemed they could not find us again so many of us were overjoyed beyond words. Even I was.”
His shoulders hunched forward as he stared into the fire, orange and ruby light playing across his face.
“I married. After so long, I took a wife. Have I told you this?”
“No.” She didn’t remind him that they almost never talked about his past for fear of cutting him off. The dying embers of the campfire shifted, dimming, the crackle of the pits to her side also dying out. Out of bodies to burn. She could hear the soft moaning and occasionally, a choked back sob or grunt. Harak’s face was dark as twilight in the dying firelight.
“She was younger than I am… by your standards, much younger, but we don’t die as you do and no one minded very much. She was so very bright. Gifted, a quick laugh, a quicker smile, first to heal whether it was a grievance or a wound. She convinced me that it would be alright, just by being who she was. We had two sons and three daughters. The last was born a few hundred years ago.” His hand, the ruined hand he’d shown her, clenched along the hilt of the sword in his grip, a wicked curved thing.
“They lie dead somewhere in the ruins of Telmor. My wife, my sons, my daughters, all dead. I survived because I was not there. I was off fighting the orcs. We were always fighting the orcs in those days. We did not know it then, but they’d found us again, you see. Kil’jaeden had found us, and he used the stupid, simple, dirt eating orcs against us.” He smiled bitterly at her. “I got the hand at Shattrath, fighting them. Many got worse. You’ve seen the Krokul? The ones you call lost, who huddle around the portal? Many of them were at Shattrath.”
“I’ve met a few on my way to Nethergarde.”
“Yes. We treated them so horribly they prefer the swamp to the Exodar. No matter. I crawled out of the ruins coughing up blood, maimed, and did not die. I crept home to Telmor and did not die, even though everyone else had. I made my way to the last retreat in Zangarmarsh and waited, to die or to live. The Light could not heal me because I did not want to be healed.”
“I still do not. How long I was like that, I do not really know, trapped between my bitterness and my despair. I wanted to die, but I wanted to kill more. Velen never said it, but I knew he was disappointed in me, as were the Exarchs and Vindicators and even Priests… we’re supposed to forgive the orcs. I could not forgive them.”
“Those we call Naaru arrived on a vast celestial craft, and I did not care. Those Blood Elves came and stole it, and we managed to steal part of it back. I killed quite a few of them that day, but I barely even felt it… killed them without either joy or hatred, killed them as if in a dream that would not end.” He stopped talking for long minutes, just staring into the fire, then reached back and drew the other sword off of his back and held them out to her. “I got these from them.”
She took one, looked it over. Noted the fine etching in Thalassian along the curved blade. It was a sword longer than the span of her arms, a blade she would have had to use both hands to wield, despite the years of training in the Order’s barracks and even more years in the field waging war for the Light. She handed it back.
“It’s a fine blade.”
“It cut off a nice portion of my face, so I’d hope so.” He pointed to the severed tendril. “I didn’t even really think much of it at the time. I didn’t hate them… I didn’t have room to hate them. They weren’t orcs. I just killed them to get them out of the way. Then there was a lurching and a sound unlike anything I had ever heard in my life and we were suddenly no longer on Draenor at all. We had run away again.”
“Run and run and run again. I came to amidst the wreckage of the craft, which had been far beyond my ability to understand. My people… they honor intellect, they revere facility with the Light, but I never had much of either of those things. Yet, here I stand, after Myarna and the children and my brother Kortesh and his daughter and granddaughter all slid into unmarked, unadorned graves polluted with the filth and offal of blood mad orcs. I have survived where better people fell.”
He stood and walked over to her, placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Why would I leave? Where do I have to go that is so important, after all? I think I’ve done enough running and lived long enough. My people are safe enough for now… if they need swords to protect them they have their pick. And I am here, in this horrible cold hell where the dead will not stay in the ground where they belong. It must be fought. We will all die here, but it still must be fought. I am going to go relieve Karn at sentry, the poor lad probably can’t even see past his nose in the dark.”
He flexed his fingers slightly, and walked away into the darkness past the smoldering pits of the dead. She watched him go numbly.
Less than an hour passed. Karn Delroy, emaciated and weary, walked in and flopped down next to the fire, throwing a few rotten branches on it to try and ward off the horrible cold. They spoke to each other but she couldn’t really remember what he said, and she doubted he was any more interested in what she was saying.
Something nagged at her. It was a faint thing, bothering her. Harak could live, if he would just run away, but he wasn’t going to run, and he’d said… if they were so close, if the dead were so close to finding them, where were they? Why hadn’t they already attacked?
Fingers of faint blue extended out across the sky. Morning was closer than she’d thought, cutting through the weird of the night on the glacier. If they could just make it to daylight they’d have a chance to find a path back to the Pinnacle. Why had Harak been so sure…
She reached down and grabbed the enormous, jagged parody of a hammer from where it lay and got to her feet. Karn started from his exhausted slump, his shaved head sparse and thin fleshed in the coif of mail he wore even in the cold. He looked up at her in dazed puzzlement.
“Get Gavin and Elsa.” Anara pulled her helmet over her head, dropping the visor down over her face.
It took them nearly twenty minutes in their armor to make their way down the path, not helped by the fact that it was still dark. Long before they reached the gully at the base of the hills they heard the sounds of combat, the eerie noises bones made when they rubbed in open air against other bones. The crash and splinter of metal against bone.
Anara made as much haste as she could along the narrow path, barely wide enough for one. Elsa, like all her people, was the most comfortable in hills but the dwarf woman was also the slowest in general, as her armor and weapons and enormous shield weighed her down with the need for caution, each step a possible fall to certain injury if not death. Gavin, for his part, was a young lad originally from Moonbrook and although eager enough, he held his sword like it was a pitchfork even after a year in the order.
They saw it well before they could act.
A pile of bodies, several still with flesh on them, one or two even bleeding real blood, and Harak in his soot blackened plate standing atop the pile, astride the path out of the gulley up to them. There were so many dead that the remaining rotten, reeking things shambling towards him had to try and clamber over their corpses of their fallen. Several twisted, barely humanoid things with sacks over their heads tried to do just that, jumping and leaping on all fours and finding themselves in perfect position for devastating slashes with the curved blades. Harak snapped those swords hard to the sides to clear whatever fluids they were coated with and resumed his guard position.
There was no point to calling out to him. He couldn’t possibly hear them over the wind rushing up the narrow pass, that same wind that had carried the sound of the fight up to where Anara could sense it, if not actually hear it. Growling, clutching the hammer, she redoubled her effort to climb down the narrow walls, her feet scraping on the gritty ledge.
A black robed, red eyed woman hurled fire from her hands as she hid behind a mass of bones that took long stride up the narrow path, a massive axe in its hands. A giant in life, it was even more terrifying dead, but Harak didn’t seem to notice either the flames now licking at his armor or the keening of the bone giant, he just planted himself and struck out with both blades as soon as it came close, crushing knee, hip and spine in three astonishingly fast strikes before turning and hurling one of the swords end over end in a throw almost impossible to believe even as the four of them saw it.
Gavin hissed in surprise even as the sword buried itself up to the hilt, punching right through sternum and out the back in a rush of rotten flesh and spoiled blood. Then, even as Anara realized the woman was the last of them, Harak dropped to one knee, then pitched forward onto his face.
Screaming an obscenity from her time serving on a ship during the retreat to Kalimdor, Anara threw herself down the steep rocks and called upon the Light to protect her even as she crashed down to earth sixty feet below. The warm presence almost shocked her but she kept running even as she hit the ground, making her way over the bodies of the black and purple robed cultists and the cloying stench of their twice dead tools, denied even the dignity of death.
Shoving some of the dead out of the way she finally reached Harak’s side. Turning him over, she called to the Light even as she hissed in breath at the sight of his smashed, ruined face, the rent chestplate, torn mail, and the clear hissing of air in his lungs mixed with blood. He caught her hand in his before she could lay it over any of the injuries she could see, the withered hand from the campfire somehow locking around her wrist with more force than she would have thought possible.
“Ah, no.” He didn’t cough, although his words came out a wet whisper. “You see, they too thought I would run, if they gave me a way out. I decided to use it to my advantage. You’d have stopped me if you knew.”
“I can still…”
“I don’t want you to. I’m an old man, child. Long past any reason to live. But this was as good a reason to die as any. You can get your people…”
His hand lost its strength, and he simply stopped talking. It wasn’t dramatic, it was just that he ran out of air, and out of blood. It pooled below him onto the ice and dirt of Icecrown as she got to her feet.
“Gavin, go back up. Get everyone. We’re leaving. Elsa, Karn, help me.”
Together the three of them bore him up. Anara wouldn’t leave him there, surrounded by the defiled dead. They wrapped him in sliced up tents, and they left for the Pinnacle.