Part 7: Strategy, tactics, operations

Ellandriel sat under a roof, on the floor, at a table that was built for someone not half her size. A steaming bowl of Goblin Stew was in front of her. (“Made by Goblins, Thero’shan, not from Goblins. Cannibalism among Goblins is extremely rare.”) No matter what meat had gone into the stew, it was delicious, after several weeks tramping through the desert living on, basically, mana. She was grateful for the gift of the Light that allowed her to produce food from thin air, especially when she had to rely on it alone. It gave them both the power to travel for long stretches in inhospitable places. Still, as she stirred her bowl, she wished she could conjure a carrot. Teacher was sitting at the other side of the table, talking to the Head Goblin.

“Times are tough, Learned One,” said the Goblin. “We are beset by the Black Dragonflight. They attack us whenever they see us.”

“That is troublesome,” said Teacher. “Have you tried to reason with them?”

“Pah! The only way to put your trust in Dragonkin is to put your trust in your blade, then put the blade in the Dragonkin.”

“Really? Goblins are said to be the supreme negotiators. Have your skills failed you?”

“There is no negotiating with Black Dragonkin. They welch on their deals, curse them! I much prefer the Night-elves. At least they know to be true to their word, unlike these leather-winged cheats.”

“Naturally. What, then, do you intend to do?”

“Destroy them! Hunt them down without mercy!”

“Surely, this has occurred to you before today. Why are any Dragonkin still breathing in the Marsh?”

“We need help. They are too strong for us. We need the firepower that only Mages can bring.”

This surprised Ellandriel. There had been a series of classes on warfare in Kalimdor. They had been lucky to have them. The Shen’dralar were not allowed out of Eldre’thalas, but some of their servants had remained faithful to them, and went out in secret to bring them the things they could not get for themselves. One of their finds had been a large trunk filled with fairly up-to-date weapons guides which were duly brought into the City, copied out and taught to the students. Goblins were renowned for their skills in engineering. They produced weapons that needed no magic, and yet could belch fire, or blast enemies to pieces with violent explosions. Surely, Goblins venturing out into these contested areas would have a store of those weapons?

She looked at Teacher’s face. Teacher looked bored, which was usually a sign that annoyance and anger were quick to follow. She guessed that Teacher suspected they were about to be, as the patois had it, taken for a ride. The Goblin sat hunched on his chair, not meeting Teacher’s eyes. Suddenly, he gave Teacher an intense, penetrating look, filled with despair.

“Learned One, we need your help. A Mage such as you, and your worthy apprentice, could turn the tide for us. With your immeasurable skills, the Firemane would be history within hours!”

Teacher’s eyes met the Goblin’s, glowing with a keen grey light that suddenly had lost all warmth.

“You have at least two dozen warriors here, Mr. Grimegurgle. Some of them have skills in stealth. Dragonkin are fiercely individual, and will only work together under one strong leader. That leader will be the only one. Delegation of leadership is foreign to them. Kill the leader, and the rest of them are as likely to attack each other as you. I suggest you send your warriors on harassing attacks, hit and run, from as many sides as you are able, then have your stealth warriors assassinate the leader. Without a head, the body will thrash about without coherence, and you can pick them off at your leisure. These are creatures of fire. They are especially vulnerable to freezing poisons, which I believe you can make here from natural resources. Warriors of your calibre should be able to achieve this in a few days.”

“Yes, yes. Your words are of wisdom, Learned One, but could an accomplished Mage like yourself not achieve this with much greater ease than we could?”

“I have no quarrel with the Dragonkin. Why should I?”

The Goblin stood up, pushing back his chair.

“You sit under our roof, at our table, eating our food, and yet you will not help us?”

Teacher scowled. “I just did, Mr. Grimegurgle.”

“Bah! Words! It is actions that we need, actions!”

“You speak the truth, Sir. But they will not be our actions.”

Ellandriel, seeing the way this was going, sadly put down her spoon and stood up, picking up her staff. Teacher gave her a quick look.

“Thero’shan? I believe we have worn out our welcome in this place. Let us go.”

“If we let you, Elf,” said the Goblin, “if we let you.”

Ellandriel pulled her hood over her face, gripped her staff. She gathered up her powers, but without much enthusiasm. Most of the Goblins had been nice to her. She didn’t want to end the evening with a fight.

“Shan’do,” she said, in Darnassian, “I am ready.”

Teacher stood up, head almost touching the ceiling of the house, looking down on the Goblin. The room was bathed in a blue light from one of Teacher’s shield spells. Ellandriel pulled down her hood to hide her smile. Mana shield. It drained you of magical energy at alarming rates while absorbing damage, leaving you completely drained just as it failed. An excellent idea, Shan’do had said. Still, it looked fairly impressive to those not in the know. Teacher scowled at the Goblin.

“Don’t be absurd. We are the High-borne. We come and go as we please, and woe to those who try to hinder us. We are leaving.”

“Incredible! Imbeciles!”

They were walking along the road to the North of Mudsprocket. Teacher was marching with long, angry steps, kicking at pebbles. Ellandriel had to walk quickly to keep up.

“Yes, Shan’do.”

“Not help them? I outlined their whole strategy for them, giving them information on Dragonkin command structure that they would have had to pay in blood to find out for themselves, pointed out weaknesses in their defences… Not help them?”

“Perhaps they expected a different kind of help.”

“They certainly did. The lazy little… creatures expected us to do their dirty work for them. Why put yourself at risk when there are perfectly expendable strangers to do it for you?”

Ellandriel nodded slowly. “You could have, though, couldn’t you?”

“Pah! You could have. That is not the issue here. The issue is that we cannot afford to become caught up in the political situation in this place. Were we to attack the Black Dragonflight, then we would risk arousing the wrath of their more powerful members. And besides, these Goblins are perfectly capable of pulling their own chestnuts out of the fire. They were just not willing to take the risk themselves.”

Teacher turned to Ellandriel with a serious look.

“My student, I may have been able to gather the odd titbit of news while in Eldre’thalas, but my knowledge of the political situation in this area is far from complete. Until it is, we must remain strictly neutral, and not involve ourselves. Remember this, Ellandriel. Never walk into any situation without sufficient information. It is a recipe for disaster.”

“Yes, Shan’do,” said Ellandriel. She looked into Teacher’s eyes with a little smile. “Is this one of those things that it is more important for you to explain than it is for me to understand it?”

Teacher suddenly stood stock still, turning a face to Ellandriel that looked old, old beyond years. Night-elves’ faces did not wrinkle like Humans’, not until they were thousands of years old. Teacher’s clan markings were a deep green, and had faded and been re-applied countless times, replaced with more and more elaborate designs until now, they had settled into the elegant leaf-shape of the truly ancient. Teacher slowly started to grin, and then laughed out loud.

“Thero’shan, I knew there was a good reason for taking you on this expedition. In thanks, I can only promise that I will make it as interesting as I can possibly make it.”

“In some places, Shan’do, ‘Interesting’ is a curse.”

“That is true, my student, but ‘dull’ is a curse much worse than that. A day without fear, or without wonder, or without sadness, joy, achievement or worthwhile memories, is a day wasted.” Teacher sighed. “And Elune knows that I have wasted too many of them already. Theramore is at the end of this road, Ellandriel. If we keep up a good pace, we can reach it by nightfall tomorrow. Let’s see how the Humans are doing.”


Stefan Vadu gingerly held the necklace up to the light. Stetson saw that he was touching it as little as he could. His face, which had probably never been one to which happy expressions came easily, was particularly grim.

“I can tell you didn’t try this on, Draenei. I know these necklaces.”

“What is it?”

Stefan Vadu looked at it, turning it round and round between his fingers.

“Perhaps a demonstration would be better.” He called out. “Datura?”

A slender female figure appeared from within a small shelter a few yards off. Once, she had probably walked the lands of Shadowmoon as a Blood-elf paladin or something. Now, her eyes had the same glow as those of all Death Knights. She looked at Stefan, and sighed.

“What is it now?”

Stefan showed her the necklace.

“Our friend here needs to see what this could have done to him if he’d have put it on.”

“Oh very well,” said Datura. She took the necklace from Stefan’s hand and walked over to a cage where a captured Troll sat, staring in front of him. Datura kicked the cage, and the Troll looked up at her. She held the necklace up to the bars.

“A present for you,” she said.

“Ya Mon?”

“Take it.”

The Troll carefullly took the necklace from Datura’s hand, and looked at it.

“Oh Mon! Be Gojas! Be…”

The Troll’s expression changed, and he grabbed his throat, choking, retching. His legs gave, and he rolled round on the floor of the cage, unable to scream, eyes bulging. A small stream of blood came from his mouth. It took him maybe five minutes to stop twitching.

“Disgusting,” said Datura. Gingerly, she picked the necklace from between the Troll’s fingers and gave it back to Stefan. Then, she snapped her fingers and the Troll corpse was instantly turned to flame. She crossed her arms, and looked at Stefan.

“Will that be all?”

“Yes.”

Datura nodded, and went back inside. Stefan held out the necklace to Stetson and dropped it into Stetson’s hand before Stetson realised what it had just done to a Troll.

“You, my friend, are a very special person. You have handled that necklace, and lived.”

Stetson stared at the thing in his hand, unsure whether to drop it. He looked up at Stefan.

“But I took it off another Troll. He was handling it no problem. So were you and that Blood-elf.”

Stefan smiled grimly. “That Troll was unaffected because he’d been given it by his Scourge masters. Bloodrose Datura and I were unaffected because of our special… condition. But you. Why you are unaffected, is a bit of a mystery. I think it means that the Scourge has plans for you. You, my Draenei friend, are the Chosen One.”

Stetson stared blankly at the Death Knight in front of him.

“Oh crap!”

Stetson ran through the dreary wasteland of Zul’drak. He was not feeling quite himself. In fact, he was very much not himself, because he’d just used the ensorcelled necklace. It had turned him into one of the Undead creatures that loped through the area. Stefan Vadu had created the disguise for him, and so far it seemed to work. None of the other Scourge undead gave him a second look. To test the disguise, Stefan had asked him to go and buy some plasma at one of the grisly merchants that the Scourge had positioned round the area. He’d told Morgan to keep himself out of sight. Morgan had no trouble seeing through the disguise, which was comforting to Stetson. On the other hand, if Morgan could see through that easily, so could others. Vadu had warned him about the Blightguards. Stetson had just nodded, and only now started to wonder what a Blightguard was. He took a deep unhealthy, rattling breath. Better get this over with. Where was this Gristlegut? Stetson blinked. Ah. He could see the large individual’s guts leaking out, and they did look like gristle. That must be him, then.

Stetson looked at the flask in his hand. It was filled with a vaguely brown, pale liquid. So this was what the Scourge used to replenish their sorcerors’ mana when they needed to do more evil. Hopefully, it was what Vadu needed. Stetson did not want to go back and look at the squelching mass of innards again. He whistled, and Morgan came from under some shrubs, and head-butted him. Stetson grabbed his manes.

“Right. Let’s get back to the scary bloke and give him his potion. I hope he can get the scourge off our backs.”

With Morgan in tow, Stetson ran back to Vadu and presented the bottle. He seemed pleased. Good.

“Oh excellent. There may be some hope for you yet. Now, since that disguise works so well, I think you’re ready for something a little more… challenging. How about a little espionage?”

Stetson gave Stefan a weary look.

“Do I have a choice?”

Stefan gave him an evil grin. “Of course you do. You can either do what I say and save your blue skin, of you can walk over to Overlord Drakuru, and apply for a job. What’ll it be?”

“All right. Let us get this done. What do you need me to do?”

Stetson took a deep breath, and prepared to put on the necklace once more. He was no more vain than the next guy, and it wasn’t that he was afraid that the disguise might stick somehow, but still. Just as he lifted the necklace to his neck, there was a noise behind him, and he turned round. His jaw dropped, and the necklace almost fell from his fingers. In front of him stood a Draenei man, but… not anymore. His eyes bored into Stetson’s, and they had the pale, cold, dead glow of the Death Knight. A huge two-handed sword was on his back. He was wearing plate armour. He held his helm under his arm.

“What, you mongrel, are you doing here?”

Stetson took a deep, deep breath.

“Garz’houn?”

The Death Knight pulled back his fist and hit Hunter S’dezo’houn with a right hook that sent him sprawling.

“Garz’houn is dead! I will not have you insult his memory by calling me by that name. I am Paxvobiscum.”

Stetson looked up, hand rubbing his chin.

“Garz’a?”

Paxvobiscum stepped forward, grabbed Stetson by his collar and pulled him up.

“I told you not to mention that name! Paladin Garz’houn gave his life for his fellow Draenei. I am not him!”

Paxvobiscum punched Stetson in the face and dropped him. There was a growl behind him, and the next moment, a large polar tiger was on him, fangs bare, claws out. He grabbed Morgan by the throat, shook him and threw him off, knocking him into a tree. Morgan yowled, trying to get back to his feet. Paxvobiscum turned back to Stetson, just in time to stop Stetson’s fist with his face. Paxvobiscum staggered back and Stetson hit him in the stomach.

“I don’t know,” said Stetson, “who the hell you think you are, Brother…” Stetson hit Paxvobiscum with another punch to the face. “But nobody… nobody touches my cat!”

Stetson threw another punch at Paxvobiscum’s face. The Death Knight caught Stetson’s fist in his hand, and held on to it, twisted it and punched Stetson in the stomach so hard that he turned pale, and fell to his knees. He grabbed Stetson by the throat, and pulled him close.

“I am. Not. Your brother.”

Paxvobiscum dropped Stetson, who fell down on his hands and knees. Behind Paxvobiscum, Morgan had scrambled to his feet, and gathered himself up to leap on Paxvobiscum.

“Morgan! Do not attack.” Stetson got to his feet, and faced Paxvobiscum.

“You ungrateful bastard. I’ve been looking all over this bloody continent for you. I’ve been chased by walking skeletons. I’ve been chased by bloody Druids. I’ve been turned into a bloody Scourge minion and now I’ve got the whole damn Scourge on my neck unless I jump through a bunch of hoops for this walking corpse Vadu. All to find you, and try to help you.”

Paxvobiscum frowned. “Vadu? What’s he got to do with anything?”

“He’s trying to help me get rid of the Scourge Lord that’s got his sights on me.”

“You stupid zlotnik! Did he tell you you were the Chosen One?”

“Uhh… Yes.”

Paxvobiscum took a deep breath. “You really are a stupid zlotnik S’dezo’houn. Stefan Vadu tries that trick on everyone. What he wants is someone who will take out Drakuru for him. It never works. They either end up as his minions, or if they annoy him, he drops them from the necropolis and they end up a smear on the floor.”

Stetson looked at the person who was not his brother.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why not? Go home S’dezo’houn. There is no help for me. I am already running bloody errands for Vadu. There is no reason why you should.”

“But… The Scourge has its eye on me!”

Paxvobiscum raised his fists.

“Of course they do! You have a pulse! The Light-damned Scourge has its sights on everybody! Just get your sorry tail out of this place. Tell everybody I’m dead.”

Stetson stared.

“Sod you. I am going to see for myself. Try to stop me.”

Stetson turned round, put on the necklace and spoke the few syllables to activate the disguise. He looked over his bony shoulder once, then loped off. Paxvobiscum sighed.

“You stupid bastard. Why would you never believe a damned thing I say?”


Ariciel sat on a fallen tree by the fire, watching Ripface and Skullcrusher. They appeared to be practicing swords, but they seemed more interested in hitting each other’s blades than they were in hitting each other. Perhaps they were performing some kind of interpretive dance entitled ‘Sword Fighting For Idiots’. Hirudo had made himself comfortable with his back against a tree. He had pulled the brim of his large pointy hat down over his face. Mareva walked up to Ariciel, nudged her and pushed a mug of tea into her hand. She sat down next to her.

“What do you think of our savage protectors?”

Ariciel turned her head to Mareva. Her look said it all. Ripface and Skullcrusher had their swords locked, and were trying to push each other backwards, with fierce Warrior’s grins on their faces. With a big grunt, they pushed each other back, and started to stalk round each other. Ripface spotted a weak spot in Skullcrusher’s defences, leapt forward and hit his sword instead. That seemed to conclude the festivities for this evening. They nodded at each other and put away their swords. Skullcrusher walked up to Mareva, one hand on his shoulder.

“Hey Lady, I think I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder. Could you massage it for me?”

Mareva’s pale blue glowing eyes slowly turned to Skullcrusher, and stayed there, conjuring up images of endless fields of ice and snow, and the immeasurable distances of Space, cold and dark. Skullcrusher opened his mouth to say something.

“No,” said Mareva, got up and started looking in her pack.

Skullcrusher looked at her back for a second, then turned to Ariciel. Ariciel bared her teeth. She growled.

“I am a Warrior Druid. I am sworn never to touch a man unless I defeat him first in mortal combat.”

Skullcrusher stared at her, mouth hanging open.

“That… is hot.” A slow grin flowed onto his face. “Very well, then, Lady. I accept.”

Ariciel watched in astonishment as Skullcrusher drew his jewelled two-handed sword, and bowed to her. Did the imbecile really not understand what ‘mortal combat’ meant? Mareva looked up from her pack. Her face turned the colour of ripe skethyl-berries, and she looked back inside her pack, body shaking with sobs of grief. She looked back at Ariciel, tears in her eyes, and put a hand on her arm.

“Fare thee well, my friend. I will sing of your deeds.”

Ariciel took a deep breath, turned her eyes to the heavens and reached for her staff. She got to her feet.

Excusez moi, Madame,” said Hirudo, in Darnassian, lifting his hat with a single finger. “Please do not kill him. I would be honour-bound to resurrect him, and you would have no excuse left.”

Ariciel’s eyes twinkled at him as she and Grimm Skullcrusher stepped out. It’s not the winning that’s important, it’s the humiliation. Ariciel faced Skullcrusher. The staff in her hands was still the one that Bannog had given her back in Lakeshire. Mareva had done the magical jewels that gave Ariciel an entirely unfair advantage when sparring.

“Will you be fighting in Bear shape, Lady?”

Ariciel smiled. “I don’t think that would be appropriate. I’ll keep my clothes on.”

“Hah! We will see about that! Ready?”

“Now grip your weapon grim,” said Ariciel. “Let us see your fighting style.”

“Gladly,” said Skullcrusher.

He raised his sword and swung it downward. Ariciel watched the blade come in, and stepped to one side. The stroke went wide. Skullcrusher followed up with a savage backhand at middle height. Rather than leap backwards, up or dropping to the ground, Ariciel stepped in, past Skullcrusher, so that the stroke lost all speed by the time it reached her. Skullcrusher whirled round on one foot, and faced Ariciel again. He pulled back the sword, and with a grunt stabbed out at Ariciel. Ariciel moved away easily, smiling. She and Bannog sparred often, he with a wooden sword, because unlike this clown, Bannog did have a chance of hitting her, she with her staff. Sparring with Bannog usually ended up with bumps and bruises for both of them, and the need to kiss them better. Skullcrusher tried several times to stab Ariciel, who moved like a fish in water, not even using her staff. He took a few staps back, breathing hard.

“Haha! You pass the first test, Lady. Now, the real fight begins! Be on guard!”

“Oh no,” said Ariciel.

Skullcrusher charged at her, sword slashing round at head height. Ariciel ducked under and stood facing Skullcrusher by the time he had stopped. He swung his sword round, whistling, in circles left and right of his body, then stood still, sword raised by his side.

“Careful,” said Ariciel. “You might hurt someone doing that.”

“That was your own choice, Lady.” Skullcrusher grinned at Ariciel. “If you wish, you may forfeit the fight now, with your beauty intact.”

“Aww. You say the nicest things.” Ariciel tapped her palm with her staff. “Come on.”

Mareva sat down next to Hirudo, watching Skullcrusher try to hit Ariciel without success.

“She is enjoying herself. I hope he is as well.”

Hirudo produced an old earthenware pipe and a pouch of tobacco. He started to fill the pipe.

“In his mind, he almost has her. I honestly believe he expects her to start begging for mercy in but a few moments.”

Mareva looked at Hirudo sideways. “In earnest, Sir. Why are you bothering with these zlotniks? I can tell they are nowhere near your weight-class.”

Hirudo pulled at his pipe, blowing out small clouds of smoke until the pipe was burning to his satisfaction.

“I was one of the three healers in a group of people who were mounting an assault on…” Hirudo puffed at his pipe. “Well, no place I would mention. We managed to come through with everybody still upright. Not a mean feat, let me assure you. We were all hard put to it. And then, we found one of their healers was using a staff that was hugely better than any staff we had. That was the reason we were so hard put to it. One of us healers was a Priest, and he already had something better suited to him. But my fellow Druid and I, sad to say, got caught in an entirely undignified argument over who should have the staff.”

Mareva shook her head. “Arguments over loot. We should all be above that, and yet we never are.”

“Indeed. We agreed that the staff should go to the better healer, who would benefit us and our group most by using it. Then, to determine who of us was the better healer, we set up a small challenge. The person who could take a group of incompetent idiots furthest, should be the one to get the staff. We both set off from Moonglade fourteen days ago, with a group of fighters about as competent as the one you see before you now.”

They looked. Skullcrusher ran at Ariciel, sword held high. Rather than furnish Skullcrusher with a belly full of quarterstaff, Ariciel sprang to one side, stuck out her leg, and sent Skullcrusher rolling. Hirudo looked up to see if Skullcrusher might fall on his sword and need a healing spell or two. Skullcrusher sprang to his feet. Apparently not.

“My colleague has apparently just teleported into Moonglade, the last of his fighters having died of an excess of Quillboar somewhere near Thorn Hill in the Barrens.” Hirudo took a long draught from his pipe and blew out a few perfectly round smoke-rings. He smiled at Mareva. “If I manage to get at least one of mine to the Stagnant Oasis, the staff is mine.”

Sweat was pouring down Skullcrusher’s face, and his arms shook as he held his sword aloft. He hadn’t managed to score even a single hit on Ariciel. Ariciel, from the kindness of her heart, had held back.

“You leave me no other choice, Lady,” said Skullcrusher. “Forfeit now, or perish by my most powerful technique.”

“What, even more powerful? This I have to see.”

“Very well, my Lady. It has been a pleasure to know you. You may wish to pray now.”

Ariciel crouched down. More fighters had died from complacency than from any other reason. Fights are rarely won by the winner, but mostly lost by the loser. And so on and so forth. Bring it on.

Skullcrusher took a deep breath, then shouted.

BLADE STORM!

In front of Ariciel’s very eyes, Skullcrusher transformed into a veritable whirlwind made of steel, remorseless, pitiless, unstoppable. He approached her, and Ariciel backed away, back, and further back, until she came to a large oak tree. Skullcrusher’s sword embedded itself in the trunk of the tree, and Skullcrusher went flying, landing on his back with a great clang of plate armour some five yards away. Right. Enough is enough. Ariciel sprang forward, put her boot on Skullcrusher’s arm and put the end of her staff under his chin.

“Yield or perish.”

Skullcrusher looked up at Ariciel. “Lady, I have no weapon, and I must yield.”

Ariciel nodded, took her staff away and helped Skullcrusher to his feet. Then, she walked to the campfire, preparing to watch Skullcrusher try to remove his sword from the tree.

“Lady?”

“Hm?”

“As you have won, I will now massage your shoulder as a prize.”

Ariciel’s pale grey eyes shone at Skullcrusher.

“Piss off,” she said, with feeling.

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Comments

  • Pyrelle  On July 17, 2012 at 3:50 am

    LOL I don’t know why but the last line makes me laugh so much, maybe because I hear it in a british accent.

    • bannog  On July 17, 2012 at 6:41 am

      *grin* Indeed. Someone may not entirely have got the message 😉

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