Part 9: Clouds gather

Nobody knew where they came from. They just looked up into the skies, and there they were, hanging perfectly still, supported by nothing visible. A large stone structure, with a square bottom and a triangular roof, On large chains hung great crystals, which glowed. As the citizens of Stormwind looked up into the sky, the crystals lit up and spat bolts of angry purple light in various directions. Griggin Steambender adjusted the knobs on his telescope, and examined the improbable object, swearing quietly under his breath. They had been glad to see the last of the plague zombies. Partly due, he noted with some pride, to his own inventions. Never throw away any ideas, that was his motto. Today’s disaster can be tomorrow’s glorious victory. This was something new,though. It would be bad. He couldn’t see where the blobs of light were landing, but he’d probably be forced to find out if he wanted to be at least half-way prepared. He frowned. This time, Lenna and Bieslook would not be coming with. For all her power, Bieslook was still a child, and Lenna needed to look after her. Nix and Trixie could look after themselves, especially if they had Griggin’s expert advice to help them. He dismounted his telescope and folded up the tripod, whistling a little monotonous tune between his teeth. Time to bring in the team. He walked into the house and called for his unruly children.

“Nix! Trixie! Field trip. We’re going to find out what’s with those flashes of light.”

Trixie looked up from her copy of “The green hills of Stranglethorn”.

“Why?”

“Well, firstly, because I want to know if it’s anything likely to come bothering us here, and secondly… Can you guess?” Nix sighed.

“Because you say so.”

“There! And they say you can’t teach kids anything these days. Suit up, my little sprouts.”

Trixie dog-eared the page she was reading and dropped the book under her chair. With a put-upon look on her face, she trudged over to the room she shared with Bieslook and started putting on her plate. Nix rolled up the blueprint he was working on and stowed it in a cupboard. Then, he put on his leather armour.

“Dad, any idea what we’re facing?”

“Not a clue. Judging by recent experience, Undead will feature. Pack lots of medical supplies. If we come back as zombies, your mum will never talk to us again. We leave in thirty minutes.”


“What the hell is that?” Stetson pointed into the sky. Mareva looked along his arm.

“It looks like a pyramid of some kind. There ought to be laws against things like this!”

“You know, I think there are. Gravity springs to mind.”

Mareva dug out her long-view and peered at the object. “Can’t see any evidence of engines. Bloody magic again. I hate mages.”

Father Brenndyn joined them. He only needed one look.

“May the Light protect us. It’s a Scourge necropolis.”

Mareva looked at him. “Necro-polis. Dead-city. That does not sound like a happy place.”

“Correct. We are enjoying the special attention of one of the Lich-king’s batallions.”

Stetson cracked his knuckles in a disconcerting way.

“So. What do we do?”

“We go out there,” said Father Brennwyn, “and we kill whatever comes out. Priests and Paladins of the Light will have a field day.” He grinned. “Time to get holy on their arses!”

Mareva scowled.

“I do not like Undead. Nobody should walk round without a pulse.”

“Well, there’s likely to be enough for the lot of us. Feel free to try a few, we won’t mind.”

Father Brenndyn picked up a nasty looking pole arm, and summoned his war-horse.

“I’m off. See you there, if the Light wills it.”


“Come and have a go if ye think ye’re hard enough!”

A small figure was running round, kicking a zombie here, a ghoul there, and miscellaneous other Undead for good measure. Soon, he had a string of them in tow, growling and screeching. With a big grin on his face, Korenwolf ran towards Peterselie, Kaylad, and their son, Tanque, who were waiting, weapons at the ready. Korenwolf almost disappeared under a mountain of foul-smelling creatures. With great sweeping strikes, he swung round his axe. Many of the zombies hit him, then burned themselves on his Retribution Aura. Kaylad stood a little to one side, shooting healing spell after healing spell at Korenwolf, while Peterselie concentrated her healing on Tanque. With a great shout, Korenwolf lopped the head off the last of the Scourge scum, and stood still, breathing hard, as the last few heals by Kaylad removed the last of his wounds. He reached into his pocket for a bottle of blue potion. These heavy fights were taxing on even his mana pool.

“Mana break first, and then we hit the spellcasters.”

Tanque nodded. He was the spitting image of his father, except that he wore different armour, having earned it in different places from his family.

“Better go a bit easy, Wolf,” said Kayla. “I can’t do another Laying On of Hands for at least another twenty minutes.”

“Hah! I felt that one! It was a good one, and just in time, too.”

Peterselie was using a sword and shield these days. She held up her sword, checking it for notches or other damage.

“Ye gods! Do ye think that dying is something that only happens to other people?”

“Has so far,” said Korenwolf. “My heart is pure. My faith is strong. My wife is capable as well as beautiful. I need not fear.”

“Ye’re a mad fucker,” said Peterselie.

“That, too.” Korenwolf grinned, tossed away his empty bottle and pointed at one of the sorcerers, whose attention was completely fixed on the floating purple crystal that had spawned all these undead, blissfully unaware of what was to come. A steady stream of purple light ran between the sorcerer’s hand and the crystal.

“Right. That bastard is not so tough, but he’ll call in one of his little friends. As soon as he does, I’ll get it and leave Tanque to finish off the sorcerer. Then, do what comes naturally.”

“We will destroy the forces of evil,” said Tanque.

“Yes dear,” said Kaylad. “Just try not to aggro them off your dad, it upsets him.”

Korenwolf’s eyes shone. “Hah! Ready everyone?”

There was a round of ayes. Korenwolf ran at the sorcerer and gently prodded him with his large battle-axe. As clothies went, these were pretty tough, but opposing him was the compact pack of pure aggression that was Korenwolf. The first assault combined a disembowelling stroke of the axe with Holy Fire. The sorcerer tried casting Shadow magic at Korenwolf, which ran from him like water off a duck. Just before Wolf’s axe split his skull in two, he gave a great high-pitched shriek, and the real enemy approached.

It appeared out of nowhere, a shadowy, ghost-like form. It seemed to cry out, though nobody could see where the noise came from. Korenwolf and Tanque ran at it, sword and axe ready. The counter-attack was terrible. It threw back Tanque and even Korenwolf seemed to be affected. He cried out in pain, blood streaming from a head wound, into his eyes. Tanque rolled over twice, then struggled to his feet. Kaylad responded immediately. She didn’t bother with the small, subtle healing spells that would keep the enemy from noticing her. Korenwolf’s form shone with a pure light and wounds and blood were erased from it. He wasted no time, and charged forward with a vicious two-handed axe-stroke. Peterselie raised her hands in the air and cast healing spells at Tanque. The figure took the attack without much effort. Kaylad braced herself as the creature’s gaze settled on her. It glided over to her, fists raised for a killing blow.

Korenwolf wasn’t having any of it. Nobody touched his beloved wife and lived. With a great cry and righteous fury, he ran at the ghostly shape and slashed it with his axe, magical light shimmering on its edge. That brought the creature’s attention back to Korenwolf. Korenwolf and his son kept beating on the shadowy form, until suddenly, it heaved a great sigh, raised its arms into the air and disappeared, leaving only a small, dark globe. Tanque picked it up.

“Hey look! It was carrying Netherweave cloth. And a big sword. Who wants it?”

Three hands went up. Korenwolf shook his head.

“I’ll pass. Roll for it if you want.”

Peterselie produced her dice, and the Paladins took turns. Peterselie rolled a five, Tanque a three and Kaylad a four.

“It’s yours.”

Peterselie picked up the sword and examined it.

“Hmm. It’s not really better than what I have now. I’ll drop it on a merchant if nobody else wants it.”

“Stick it on the auction house,” said Kaylad. “We’re never short of fools eager to give us their money.”

“Could do. Right. Next sorcerer?”

Korenwolf was already running.

Evening fell. Korenwolf rattled a stack of necrotic tokens in his pocket. These were worn by the Scourge minions by way of identification.

“Right. If I get more of these tokens, I’ll start walking in circles from the weight. What say we head over to Light’s Hope Chapel and turn these in? It’s about time our efforts were appreciated.”

Kaylad and Peterselie made no reply. They were asleep on their feet. Tanque’s eyes lit up.

“Can’t you get the Undead Slayer’s armour from them? I like those pauldrons!”

“Aye, lad. Aren’t you glad now I made you pick them up?”

“Armour is good. It keeps you alive.”

“Right. Mount up, ladies! We’re off to the Eastern plaguelands!”


Mareva and Stetson watched Father Brendynn at the job he was meant to do: destroy many Scourge Undead. Though he was not technically a Priest or even a paladin, his spells proved most effective against the oncoming Scourge creatures. Great arcs of lightning flew from his hands, and any animated corpse that came near him was turned to dust and ashes, until there were none left. With the last of the Scourge gone, he turned round, and smiled at Mareva and Stetson. They had come along to help, but felt somewhat surplus to requirements. Father Brendynn smiled at them.

“It’s nice to see that my attunement is working.”

Mareva stared at him in awe. “That was most efficacious. You hardly need our help for this.”

“Ah, but we do, my child, we do. We can’t be everywhere at the same time and heal those afflicted by the plague as well. If you are eager to make yourself useful, find a place called the Eastern Plaguelands. In it, you will find a church called Light’s Hope Chapel. If you talk to the people of the Argent Dawn there, they will be able to find you some work.”

Mareva gave Stetson a look. The big hunter smiled, nodded.

“Right. We will go there. I should still have the flight point.”

Stetson blinked. “You’ve been there before?”

“It is a nasty disease-infected region. Of course I have. As it turned out, it was nothing to do with Exodar’s fate.”

“Want me to beat up your bosses?”

“Oh my love, you do tempt me. But they are all the way over on Exodar. It would not be worth the trip.”

“Whereas fighting more Undead is? I’ve said this before, Mareva, and I’ll say it again. I worry about you.”

Mareva gave Stetson a hug. “To repay these Argent Dawn people for healing us.”

“I know. Off we go then.”

They said their goodbyes to Father Brendynn, mounted Stetson’s elekk and rode for Gadgetzan.


Old Bannog was sitting on a bench, at a table, in one of the small deserted villages in Redridge that had fallen to the wars. The place didn’t have a roof left to speak of, but some of the furniture was still intact. He’d had his son set up a table and two benches, then told his men to stay back a bit, though not actually to hide. As his opponent would expect there to be a bit of a retinue, having them out of sight completely would only make him suspicious. Old Bannog smiled. Well, it would make him suspicious. No way of telling what would make an Orc suspicious. His son was standing behind him, arms crossed, in a classic protector stance. Gerrig was out there somewhere, preventing surprises with the rest of the men.

“Think they’ll show up, Father?”

“Yes. One way or another. Let’s hope that they are inclined to some civil discussion.”

“Well, Gerrig will shout if they decide not to be civil.”

“And we’ll run like mad.” Old Bannog reached in his pocket for his pipe. “At my age. I really hope not.”

There was a whistle coming from outside and Old Bannog looked up. Ah. Action. The door opened and a large Orc walked in. Young Bannog smiled.

“Gorm Bladebreaker. You’re higher up in the organisation than I thought. My apologies for underestimating you.”

The Orc’s eyes quickly scanned the room, looking for trouble. Then his eyes settled on Bannog the Younger.

“Likewise, Bannog Mage-killer. If I’d realised who you were, I might have killed you after all.”

“But you did not, and here we are.”

“Yes.” He stepped back to the door, and called out. In walked an Orc. He was wearing only light chainmail. One of his tusks had snapped off at some point in the past, and he had a short white beard. He gave Old Bannog a slow, calculating look. Old Bannog gestured towards the bench opposite him. The old Orc sat down.

“Good morning. My name is Bannog the Elder.” He pointed his hand at his son. “This is Bannog the younger.”

“Are all Humans at your castle called Bannog?” The old Orc’s voice was deep, but clear. Old Bannog smiled.

“Family tradition. Those called Bannog are supposed to go out and make a name for the castle. So far, it seems to have worked.”

“I am Gharash, Under-chief of the Blackrock Clan. Why have you called me here? I don’t believe it is to surrender to me.”

“Ah. Yes. I’m afraid I had to mislead your warrior a bit. He might not have delivered the message otherwise.” Old Bannog smiled. “Warriors. All strength and stamina. Intellect? Who needs it?”

Gharash laughed. “Creative thinking is not encouraged in our warriors either.” His eyes found Old Bannog’s. “It does not help with efficiency in killing Humans.”

“Couldn’t have that, could we? Why have you stopped attacking us?”

“Orders. What else? Surely, you have noticed the new arrivals?”

Old Bannog nodded. “Zombies. They ran amok in Stormwind. Killed lots of people. Turned them. They’re not with your lot, then?”

Gharash looked disgusted. “We wish to kill the lot of you and live well off your lands. They are already dead. They want everybody else to die as well. What they want then, I cannot begin to think.”

“Hmm.” Old Bannog ran his hand through his beard, staring at Gharash. “I thought so. So what we have here is a common enemy.”

Gharash nodded. “That would appear to be true. I have been ordered not to waste more warriors fighting you. Mind you.” Gharash smiled grimly. “Warriors wasted defending ourselves are not wasted.”

“I beg to differ, but let’s not let our different philosophies spoil the morning. I have up to now sent out patrols hunting for Orcs. I can stop those patrols, if you would agree to make them unnecessary. That would free us both up to battle this new threat.”

“Can we trust you?”

“Of course not. But we can always go back to fighting each other while the Scourge waits and mops up whoever is left. Neither of us wants the Scourge to win, Chief Gharash. It makes sense to concentrate on combatting these newcomers.”

Gharash nodded slowly. “I agree. Then let it be so. I will order my Warriors not to hunt more Humans until the Scourge is defeated. After that, we will see. You will stop your warriors from bothering us.”

Old Bannog took a deep breath. Then, he held out his hand across the table. After a moment’s hesitation, Gharash took it.

“We are agreed.” He stood up. “I assume you will seek counsel in the Eastern Plaguelands?”

“I may. In the name of those who would have died, I thank you.”

“They may still die, Bannog the Elder. The Scourge is no trivial enemy. Take good counsel. Good bye.”

Gharash jerked his head at Gorm Bladebreaker, who checked the door, then nodded at his master. They left. Old Bannog took a deep breath, then looked at his son.

“Well. It would seem we have just found a little peace from this particular enemy. Let’s go back to the castle and talk this over with Gerrig.”

“What did he mean, seek counsel in the Eastern plaguelands?” asked Gerrig

“I think there’s a chapel there. Let me see.” Old Bannog walked to one of the bookshelves and pulled out a volume. He rifled through its pages, then pointed. “Light’s hope chapel. Under the management of a group called the Argent Dawn. Militant group, dedicated to combatting Undead of many denominations.” He snapped the book shut, then looked at his sons. “I think they would be a useful lot to go and talk to. Volunteers?”

Bannog raised his hand. “I volunteer Gerrig.”

“Ha ha. You leave tomorrow.”


“Ariciel! I have a job for you. Gets you lots of silver and maybe I’ll throw in a few free spell upgrades as well.”

Ariciel grinned. “Dire bear?”

“You couldn’t. Don’t worry about that, you’ll learn when you’re ready. If I gave you the spell now, it wouldn’t give you anything you don’t already have. Right. About the job.”

Ariciel pulled up a chair, and sat down. Bearwalker continued.

“It’s going to involve some travelling, to the Eastern Plaguelands. There’s a church there called the Light’s Hope Chapel. In it are the people of the Argent Dawn, who have been watching these zombies since their organisation was first created, so they have the information we need.”

“So you want me to go there end get the information they spent centuries gathering? They’ll like that!”

“Well, kind of. You are to establish rapport with them. Perhaps do a couple of quests for them. Build up a little reputation, so that we can be sure that the Cenarion Circle has a few friends within the Argent Dawn.”

“Hmm. That sounds like I’ll be there a while.”

“True, unless they don’t like you and throw you out.” Bearwalker grinned. “So try to be likable.”

“Hah. I’m pretty. What more do they want?”

“Kick some serious Undead arse, I’d say. They do little else, so you probably won’t outshine their experts, but if you pull your weight and perhaps heal some of them, then you’ll be fine.”

“I’m specced for feral and balance. You want Mira for restoration.”

“True, and I’ll have a word with her as well. She may join you there, but she’s got other things to think of as well, so you’ll probably be our main contact there.”

Ariciel nodded. “Alright then. Oh. How do I get those wonderful spell upgrades that you were promising me?”

“Oh, you’ll be back here every month or so. Who knows? Maybe I’ll travel out. Hasn’t happened in a century, mind, but we can always hope.”

“They don’t let you out much, do they?”

“Sadly, no. Arch-druid Staghelm is of the opinion that I’m at my best teaching young Druids to prod buttock. I suppose I can see his point, but it’s a bit disappointing sometimes. So if you’re out there in the disease-infested plaguelands, I have a valid excuse to travel out once in a while.”

“Hm. When do I leave?”

“Soon, but not instantly. We need some more information first.”

“Want me to write Redridge to find out if they have anything?”

“Can’t hurt.”


Griggin and Nix were running, carrying Trixie between them. The silly, brave girl had come rushing to the defense of her father when Thuljuk was finally beaten and the Scourge Minions came looking for Griggin’s blood. She’d taken a heavy beating, but succeeded in destroying the Scourge creatures. Luckily, these particular ones were not infecting anyone with the Zombie Plague.

“Right Son. That’s far enough. Get out the medikit.”

They laid down Trixie carefully. She opened her eyes briefly.

“They gone?”

“Yes, my dear. We got them all. Easy now. Let Nix see to your hurts.”

Trixie winced with pain, then smiled.

“I kicked arse.”

“Shh. Don’t try to talk.” Griggin held her in his arms, smiled at her. “Yes, you did. You’re the best.”

Trixie smiled, and closed her eyes. Nix unsnapped the catches on her armour and took it off. With quick movements, he applied Netherweave bandages to Trixie’s wounds, trying not to look too worried for her.

“I hate to think of the repair bill for this one, Dad.”

Griggin gave him a look, realising that Nix wasn’t talking about gold. Trixie looked in a bad way.

“I know, Son. Get her fit for travel and we’ll get her home.”

“They don’t seem to move outside the area. And there’s lots of big warriors and paladins ready to get them.”

“Good. They’re useful for something after all.”

Trixie had closed her eyes, and was whimpering quietly. Nix looked at her face, pale and drawn.

“She needs a proper healer, Dad. Not just these plasters.”

“We’ll get her to one of these Argent Dawn people. They’ll know what to do. Ready?”

“Ready as I can be.”

“Good. Well done, Son. Move out.”

The Argent Dawn priest took a look at the small Gnome Warrior, and laid his hand on her forehead. Power flowed from him, and Trixie’s small body glowed with a pure, white light. With her eyes still closed, she took a deep breath, then sighed with relief as her hurts were removed. She slept on with a smile on her face. Griggin’s eyes filled with tears, and he looked up at the large Human priest.

“Thank you for healing my daughter. How can we repay you?”

The priest smiled. “There is no need to pay me. Healing is my calling, and my reward is to see the wounded rise again. Still, if you would undertake it, you could visit my brethren at Light’s Hope Chapel. My heart tells me that they will need the help of all kinds, large and small. Even of those who wield the dark magic of the Warlock.”

Griggin bowed his head. “Then to Light’s Hope Chapel we will go, and assist them in whatever way we can.”

Nix grinned. “Let’s hope they don’t have any central heating yet. We’re shit hot on central heating!”

The priest laughed. “I know of one lady there who would bear your children for the mere idea.”

Griggin frowned. “My children do not need bearing. They can walk perfectly well on their own. She’ll have to think of something else.”


“Gate! Incoming visitor! Lady Ariciel by the looks of it!”

Gerrig put his hands to his mouth. “Well let her in, then!”

The guard turned the windlass that raised the portcullis, wondering out loud why he hadn’t thought of that, and thanking Gerrig for his guidance. Quartermaster laughed.

“When we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it, my lad. Keep going.”

The yellow spotted cheetah ran under the gate. Magic flowed, and there stood the slender form of Ariciel. Quartermaster walked out to her with a smile, holding out his hand.

“Welcome back, Lady. If you’ve come looking for Bannog, I’m afraid you’ve missed him. He left for Light’s Hope Chapel three days ago.”

Ariciel shook the old man’s hand.

“That’s a shame. Still, I’ve got a quest to go there as well.”

“But not tonight, I hope. Dinner’s already over, but I’m sure the kitchen could manage something for you. And you always run better on a good night’s sleep.”

“That would be lovely, thank you.”

Ariciel was lying back in Bannog’s bed, hands behind her head, staring at the ceiling, thinking of him, when there was a knock on the door. It opened and in walked Selena.

“Hiya. Mind if I join you? For a bit only. Need a break from Puissance.”

“Sure,” said Ariciel.

“Well, move over, bright eyes.” Ariciel giggled and shifted over.

“Get in, short-ears,” she said. “How’s our Warlock girl?”

Selena frowned. “Well, she’s not a bundle of laughs at the best of times, but these last few days, she’s been one long, drawn-out drink of misery. We daren’t let her sleep on her own.” She sighed. “Mind you, given what happened to Aunt Flo, she’s got an excuse, so I’m giving her a bit of room. But enough is enough. She’s under my strict orders not to kill herself in a way that makes a mess of my bedroom.” Selena snuggled up closer to Ariciel. “I’m glad you’re here, even for a while.”

Ariciel stroked Selena’s hair, then resumed staring at the ceiling.

“I still think that girl needs to get laid.”

“Well, can’t help her there.”

Ariciel closed her eyes, and smiled.

“Sure you can. If I can, so can you.”

There was a moment’s silence, and Ariciel’s eyes slammed open, realising what she’d said. Oh damn! This sort of thing always happened when she started feeling at home somewhere. She glanced at Selena, hoping she’d missed it. Not a chance. Selena turned round slowly to her.

“You’ve done it with girls? Eww! Squick!”

Ariciel glanced at Selena’s face. She didn’t seem to be panicking.

“It’s not ‘Eww’. Neither is it ‘Squick’. It’s nice. Boys are always so eager to prove what great lovers they are. Girls just give you what they have, take or leave.”

Selena raised her eyebrows. “Do all Elf girls do it with other girls? And what do you do with a girl, anyway?”

“Well, from my limited experience of Other girls, you find nice bits of skin and stroke them. We use magic, of course, which you can’t do unless we help you a little.”

Selena sniffed. “‘Riciel?”

“Selena?”

“I have a thing I do for Elves, to help them in their dealings with Humans.”

Ariciel looked round at her apprehensively.

“What?”

“Whenever they’re being unbearably smug…” Selena gave Ariciel a prod in the ribs. “I hit them. For their own good.”

Ariciel chuckled, relieved that Selena was taking the latest revelation so well. She might not get thrown out of the castle in disgrace after all.

“Hey. We’ve stopped calling you ‘Mortals’. Anyway, to answer your first question, no, not all girls do.” She smiled up at the ceiling. “I do. So does my girlfriend Lesta in Auberdine, obviously. Lirael, I’ve never asked. I think she mostly does boys unless the right girl comes along and the right mood strikes her. My sister was very much a boys-only person. In fact, the only time she’s ever done it with a girl was right after she’d got rid of her boyfriend of the time.” Ariciel sneered. “Good thing too.”

“What? Elves don’t have perfect boyfriends?”

Ariciel gave Selena a vague smile. “Elven boyfriends can be bigger rotters than you Humans could ever imagine.”

Selena giggled and punched Ariciel in the side.

“What’d he done?”

“Hm. I forget the details, but basically, he’d lied to her about something important. Berciel made Puissance look positively exuberant.”

“Hey. If you don’t want to talk about your sister…”

Ariciel shook her head. “Don’t worry. It’s a happy memory, actually. Lesta came in, took one look at her, grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and took her to her own place.” Ariciel smiled.

“They demolished a huge bowl of strawberries, and a bottle of wine, and they had a good long round of ‘all men is bastards’. Then Lesta seduced Berciel.”

“What? And you didn’t mind?”

“It was a very sweet thing for Lesta to do, really. Berciel was singing the next morning. No wonder. She’d spent all night being told how beautiful she was by the most gorgeous creature you can imagine.”

Selena took a swing. Ariciel caught her fist.

“I’m not being a smug Elf! She’s my girlfriend. I’m allowed to gush over her!”

“Oh alright then.” Selena studied Ariciel’s face. “She is? You’re still with her?”

Ariciel sighed. “Haven’t seen her since Mother spirited us both away. I haven’t looked her up.” She swallowed. “I’m a bit afraid to. Bannog more or less told me he doesn’t mind girls he knows and likes, and it would be so nice to get back to her. But I think it’d hurt him. Especially if Orin is there too.”

“Orin?”

“Boyfriend.”

Selena lay back on the pillow, a thoughtful expression on her face.

“You have complicated lives. Can you really just get it on with anyone you like?”

“Well, given nobody objects, and everybody likes each other, and everybody knows what everybody else is doing, yeah, you can. Usually.”

“Would you do it with me, for instance?” Ariciel looked at Selena’s face. It was a question, not a request. She sucked in air through her teeth.

“That’s not as simple a question as it appears. If you mean would I do it with someone like you, your age and all, then yeah, why not?” Ariciel smiled. “Your body is waking up, and it’s fun to show someone what they can do with all those bits.”

Selena scowled. “Oh believe me, it’s woken up and moping around for morning tea.”

“Well, I could point out that Elves don’t get that, but you’d just hit me.”

“See? Already it’s working!”

“Haha. Now if you mean, would I do it with you, Selena, then I’m afraid the answer is no, nono, definitely not. I love you to bits and you can have all the hugs and cuddles you need, but I’m walking on eggs as it is with you Humans. Bannog would have a fit!”

Selena smiled. “Well, what he doesn’t know, doesn’t hurt him.”

Ariciel stared at the ceiling.

“Ah,” she said. Selena raised herself on an elbow, surprised at the sharp edge that had suddenly appeared in the Elf’s voice.

“What?”

“So that’s how you do it. I’ve been wondering. I know that you can’t control when you get the hots for someone. I assume neither can Humans, even though they are supposed only to take one lover. So you climb into bed anyway, then pretend to your love that it didn’t happen, and hope to the Light that they don’t find out. Or that your other affair doesn’t turn sour and they spill the beans.”

Ariciel turned her luminous eyes on Selena, a serious expression on her face.

“You think, perhaps, that the most important thing in a relationship is love? Well, it isn’t. It’s trust. Being able to depend on each other.”

Ariciel laid her head back down on the pillow.

“I didn’t mind Lesta having her night with Berciel, because she told me the next day. So did Berciel. Nobody lied, nobody cheated, like that boyfriend of hers. Lesta didn’t talk to us about it beforehand, because it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and you can’t plan that. So everybody was fine.”

The Elf turned her gaze back to Selena.

“I’ve told you things tonight that I wouldn’t like to tell Bannog. I might foul up, there’d be misunderstandings and people’d get hurt. But I love him like I’ve never loved anyone else, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t tell him if he asked me. And there’s nothing I’d do that I wouldn’t want him to find out about.”

Selena swallowed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“Oh, I know,” said Ariciel, smiling. “I’m not even sure you’d enjoy it anyway. You look like a boys-only kind of girl. Find a nice one. Oh. If you can, pick one with some experience for your first time. Nothing worse than having two clueless people fumbling about.”

Selena lay back, putting her hands behind her head.

“I’m going to save myself for my husband. He’ll be my first, experienced or not. The first time may be horrible, but that’ll improve. I’m not going to run the risk of getting pregnant before I’m married. That would be Very Bad.”

“Oh yes. I forgot about that. Well, if you manage it, you’re a stronger girl than I am. At least with a girl you’re not running that risk.”

Selena smiled at Ariciel. “I can deal with Elf girls getting together. Just your strange ways and all that. But for me, I’d gross out. No offense.”

“None taken. It’s not everybody’s taste even for us.”

Selena rolled over to look at Ariciel’s face. “You’re going to find it hard, living here. There’s all kinds of stories doing the rounds about Elves. People will talk if you find a girlfriend here, and are also with Bannog.”

“They already talk. We’re not married, and still sleeping in the same bed. Which is against your rules, but I’m not sleeping in a separate room when we could both be dead tomorrow. I’m already pushing my luck, so I’ll just have to control myself.”

“Hmm. So there’s no chance of dropping Puissance on you, is there? You may not be able to help yourself, and that’d be a disaster!”

Ariciel grinned. “Nope. Current events aside, I really don’t understand what’s the matter with that girl. She seems to enjoy being morose.”

“She’s weird. Hanging out with demons will do that to you, I suppose. She doesn’t look like the kind to summon creatures from the Nethers and subject them to her will, but still, I’ve seen her with that imp of hers. And she can summon a voidwalker too. Light help us if she ever gets a Succubus or something worse.” Selena sighed, and got out of bed. “I suppose I’d better get back to her.”

“Get up close behind her and nibble her ear if you can find it,” said Ariciel. “Generally works.”

Selena laughed. “You raise pushing your luck to an art-form.” She waved. “Night, Ariciel.”

“Night, Selena.”

Ariciel was sitting in the dining hall, with a large bowl of porridge, when Selena and Puissance came down. Selena grinned and waved, and made for the table, pushing Puissance ahead of her. Ariciel took a deep breath when she saw the young girl’s face. Back in Stormwind, her miserable ways had been part of some kind of dramatic pose, romantic, dashing, misguided. Now, her face looked much, much worse. She’d been crying. She looked a hair’s breadth away from crying again. She sat down opposite Ariciel and Selena put a steaming bowl in front of her. She handed Puissance a spoon. Puissance stirred her bowl, staring down. Ariciel reached over, put her hand on Puissance’s arm. She looked up. Ariciel gave her a smile. Puissance’s expression didn’t change. Oh my. Ariciel handed Puissance the pot of syrup, just to have something to do. Puissance accepted it and slowly turned her attention back to her bowl. Ariciel shot Selena a look, Selena shrugged. Whatever might have been the matter with the young Warlock in Stormwind, Ariciel saw that something much worse had been added to it. Being careful not to show it, she sighed. What could she do? She’d be travelling on to Light’s Hope Chapel later today. Puissance was eating at least. Maybe she could stay for just a bit longer, see what was the matter with the girl. But not much more.

Puissance pushed her bowl away, half empty. She made a move to swing a leg over the bench and get up, but on a sudden impulse, Ariciel put her hand on Puissance’s arm.

“Hey. Selena and I are going on a hunt this morning. Want to come?”

Selena recovered marvellously, and hardly scowled at Ariciel at all before smiling.

“Yeah, Puss. We’re hunting rabbits with Hugin.” She pointed at Ariciel. “She’s got animal shapes. She can fetch!”

Puissance looked from the one to the other. “I don’t want to…”

“Miss the opportunity to watch an Elven Druid do what she does best? She’ll be off soon. You may not get the chance again!”

“I…”

“Excellent! Come on. That dress isn’t fit for travelling in the woods! I’ve got some clothes you can borrow. We’re about the same size.”

Selena flashed a brilliant smile at Ariciel. “Won’t be a minute!” Then, she bent over to the Elf, and in a much lower voice added: “I’ll get you for this.”

Ariciel smiled, and poured herself another cup of tea. “Not a problem. See you in a minute.”

A few hours later, the girls were running through the forest. Puissance, for all her moping, was at least healthy and could keep up with Ariciel and Selena. Selena was staring up at her bird Hugin, as she hovered in the air before diving down on some luckless creature. So far, Hugin had caught half a dozen rabbits and a small deer. Their packs were getting heavy. They had made their way south till there was the rush of water. Selena grinned.

“Stonewatch falls! Now there’s a good place for lunch. You’ve never been there, have you?”

Ariciel shrugged. Puissance said nothing. They ran on, East past the waterfall, till they came to a small lake. With a big grin, Selena dropped her pack, stripped down to her underwear, ran to the water’s edge, shouting.

“Last one in’s a rotten egg!”

Puissance looked disgusted. Ariciel raised her eyebrows. Selena dove in with a great splash.

“You know,” shouted Ariciel, “If we don’t go in, you’re last!”

Selena pointed to the other side of the lake, treading water.

“Perhaps, but the first girl to reach the other end of the lake doesn’t have to clean and dress the rabbits!” She set off at a confident pace.

Ariciel sat down at the edge of the water, and started on the rabbits. Puissance stared at Selena.

“C’mon. Sit down. She’s enjoying herself. Hungry?”

Puissance started to shake her head, but then realised that she was. Ariciel smiled and gave her some bread and cheese. In less than five minutes, Ariciel had skinned the rabbits and put away the meat. The deer took a bit longer, but only because she wanted to keep the leather for some future leatherworking project. She looked at Puissance, who had finished the food already.

“Feel better? I find that going out into the forest works wonders for cobwebs in the head.”

“You don’t understand. Nobody does.”

“Try me. I know you’ve lost someone, I can tell.”

Puissance looked at her feet. Ariciel smiled.

“You can tell me. I’m a stranger here. I’ll be off again by evening.”

“The one I love is dead. I had to kill them. Zombie plague. So you understand, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know. Trust me, I do. Family?”

Puissance closed her eyes, took a deep breath.

“Lover,” she said, in a whisper.

Ariciel stared out over the lake. Selena had made it about a third of the way across. Not bad. Lover. Ariciel felt a pang of regret over remarks she made earlier. She shouldn’t have.

“Been with him a long time?”

Puissance shook her head.

“Just a few weeks, but… I felt good with them.”

Ariciel gave Puissance a quizzical look.

“Them? You had more than one? I thought you didn’t do that.”

Puissance shook her head, and said nothing for a while.

“Them as in he, or she.”

Ariciel stared at her, mouth open to say something, but finding no words. Ah. Puissance stared back, eyes wide open, scared.

“Please, don’t tell anyone! Please!” Anger passed over her face. “I’ll set my demons on you if you do.”

Ariciel gently touched her hand, smiling.

“Don’t worry. I like girls. You’re not the only one.”

“Yeah, but you’re an Elf! All Elves do.” Puissance’s shoulders sagged. “If anyone ever found out, they’d…”

Ariciel looked back over the lake, to where Selena’s head had now progressed to two thirds of the way across. She heaved a great sigh. Stupid, stupid Humans. Why? What possible harm was there in two girls showing affection for each other? And to think that Selena thought Elves had complicated lives. Here was a girl, just lost her love, and if only it had been a boy they’d have been all over her with cups of tea and sympathy. But now…

“Promise me you won’t tell. Please!”

“I promise. Really. I do. I won’t tell anyone.” Ariciel suddenly grinned. “See Selena over there? She thinks she’s won. Now watch this!”

Fully clothed, Ariciel ran towards the water’s edge. She took a great leap, and in mid-air changed to her sea-lion form. With a big splash, she dropped into the water and shot across the lake. Within a minute, she had caught up with Selena, leaped out of the water over her, then shot on to the other side of the lake. She was back on the Northern bank even before Selena had decided whether to swim on or not. With a great leap, Sea lion-Ariciel broke the surface, changed back into her Elf form and calmly walked back to Puissance, who was gaping at her. There wasn’t a drop of water on her.

“Think you’re strange? You’ve seen nothing yet!”

Ariciel put her hand on Puissance’s shoulder, then pulled her to her. Puissance looked at her, tears in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Ariciel.

“You cheated!”

“Yes,” said Ariciel, happily.

Selena put her clothes back on, over her wet underwear.

“I don’t suppose there’s any food left? I bet Puss ate it all!”

“Did not! There’s plenty left!”

Selena raised her eyebrows, surprised to hear Puissance speak.

“Well, gimme!”

Ariciel pointed at the rabbits and deer meat. “Well, it’s a bit rare but…”

“Eww. Any bread left?”

Puissance handed her a hunk of bread, and the rest of the cheese. Selena looked at her face.

“Thank you.”

Puissance did something amazing. For the tiniest moment, her anguished expression faded. It was not a smile, and it lasted for only the blink of an eye. Then she turned round, and started wrapping up the meat in bags.

They set off in the direction of the castle, at a leisurely jog. They came to a clearing in the woods, when there was a noise to their right and four Orcs came into view. Ariciel raised her quarterstaff, gathering up her magic. Puissance took a sharp breath, then closed her eyes, tilted her head back, raised her arms to her side and started the chant that would summon her Voidwalker. Selena took a quick look at them, then stepped forward.

“Wait! Stop! There’s a truce! Don’t attack.”

Selena scanned the Orcs, looking for the leader. There didn’t seem to be one, so she addressed the largest one.

“Are you Blackrock? We are of Caer Bannog. By the promise of Old Bannog and Under-chief Gharash, we must not fight.”

One of the Orcs chuckled.

“Three girls. Sickly pale skins, but still, I think we can have some fun with them. I bet that Elf screams prettily.”

“Shut up! Didn’t you hear? They’re Castle people. They’re off. Unless they attack us first.”

“We will not attack,” said Selena. Puissance had finished her chant, and from out of nowhere, the familiar blue shape of her Voidwalker appeared.

“I do not like this place.”

Ariciel smiled at the Orc who had spoken. “We’re not that soft a target, either. Shall we all continue our little walks?” In a flash, her smile disappeared. “Or we can allow things to go… wrong.”

Her magic flowed, and before anyone could move, a large bear stood by Selena’s side. Bear-Ariciel roared, making the woods ring. Then she tilted her head slightly to one side as if to ask, “Well?”

The largest Orc exchanged glances with Selena. Then he turned round to his friends, and explained something to them in Orcish. Selena could catch the name “Gharash” in there several times, and he made some hand gestures that were perfectly clear even to her, sheltered life though she had led. Then, he jerked his head, and the Orcs jogged off with a last nod at Selena.

Ariciel turned back to her Elf form.

“Well, that could have been a lot worse. Seems some Orcs have a brain after all. And the desire to keep it in their skulls.”

Selena shook her head.

“Since this Scourge business, we’ve been leaving each other alone. Anyone who picks a fight starts the whole bloody business again. The Orc chief has ways of dealing with disobedience that he wouldn’t use on his enemies.”

Puissance spoke a few words to her Voidwalker, and the blue shape dissipated. She turned to Ariciel and Selena.

“To summon him, I used the soul-shard I took from…” She closed her eyes. Ariciel leapt forward, put her arms around her. Her hand gently stroked Puissance’s hair. Puissance sobbed, then wailed. Selena rolled her eyes, and opened her mouth to say something, until she saw that tears were on Ariciel’s cheeks as well. She looked away, embarrassed, waiting for them to finish. Eventually, they did. Selena caught Ariciel’s eye, pointed over her shoulder with a thumb. Ariciel nodded, and they made their way to the castle.

“So, what’s up with Puss then? You were having a heart to heart while I was swimming.”

“Puissance. It’s an Elvish word, meaning ‘Power’. A chosen name.”

“Yeah whatever. What’s up?”

Ariciel sighed. “She lost someone close to her. Very close.”

“What, Aunt Flo?”

“No, not her. Someone else.”

“What? She had a boyfriend? I never knew that!”

Ariciel shook her head. “I promised not to tell.”

“Tell what?”

The Elf looked at Selena from under her long eyebrows, and said nothing.

“Ah right. Well her mother died years ago, when she was very young. Her father left, which is when Aunt Flo took her in. Did her father die, then?”

“No. Look, Selena…”

“Didn’t think so. She’s almost forgotten him, anyway. So it must have been a boyfriend. Oh my. Perhaps it was still early days, and he turned into a zombie. That’s awful!”

“How many times do I have to tell you? She told me a secret. I can keep secrets, even if I don’t like them. So try to get it from her, if you must know. I can tell you that she needs all the sympathy she can get, and she’s really hurting. So be nice to her.”

Selena stared at Ariciel, gears turning in her head with an almost audible crunch. Suddenly, her mouth opened.

“Oh my.”

Ariciel scowled. “What?”

“Oh my. She didn’t have a boyfriend. Boyfriends aren’t that secret. She could just have said that, without even saying who it was.” Selena looked straight at Ariciel. “Puss had a girlfriend. She likes girls!”

Ariciel kept her face perfectly still, not knowing what to say or do, realising too late that even that might be a clue. She needn’t have bothered. Selena wasn’t looking at her.

“And I was in bed with her! Oh… my.”

Ariciel turned to Selena, as angry at herself for letting this slip as she was at Selena for being… a stupid Human.

“So? You were in bed with me! I do girls! What are you afraid of? That she might suddenly start licking you or something? Like I’ve been trying to explain to you Humans for ages: it does not work that way. Even if she did fancy you, she’s just lost her lover. She had to kill her after she turned into a zombie. Do you think she’s in any mood to look for another? What she needs is a shoulder to cry on. A bit of comfort. Someone telling her that everything is going to be alright. Someone to understand what she’s going through. Is she getting it? Hell, no! And why not? Because she’s scared stiff that anyone finds out she likes girls! The worst thing is, she’s bloody right to be!”

Selena stared at Ariciel with wide open eyes. She’d never seen her this angry. Ariciel put her hands on Selena’s shoulders and gave her the full benefit of her alien stare, luminous eyes, long eyebrows, face markings. She made herself calm down.

“Look, Selena. I’m sorry for shouting at you, but Puissance is not a freak. No ‘Eww’, no ‘Squick’. She’s a perfectly nice Human girl, even if her taste in lovers is a bit off the beaten track. She’s been hurt, and she has nowhere to go with herself. I wish I could stay here and help her through this, but I have to leave. Please. Don’t give her a hard time. Be nice to her. She needs it.”

“But what if she thinks I…”

Ariciel rolled her eyes.

“You say ‘No thank you Puissance, I don’t do girls.’ That simple. Not that she will, but if she does, then that’s what you do. Like I said, she’s hurt. Humans have lost lovers before. They get help dealing with it. This is no different. Help her. Please?”

Selena looked up into Ariciel’s eyes, quickly looked away.

“I suppose. It’s just…”

“The idea of doing it with a girl grosses you out. I know. I assure you, poor Puissance won’t try to seduce you any more than I would. Don’t worry. Will you help her? Till I get back?”

Selena looked at Ariciel, and this time held her gaze.

“I will.”

Old Bannog was sitting at his desk, reading letters from all around about the scourge, when there was a knock on the door. He called, and Lady Ariciel came in. Old Bannog smiled.

“Good evening, Lady. What can I do for you? I suppose you’ll be leaving for the Chapel soon?”

“I will, but before I do, I have to talk to you about something else. I’m here to break a promise.”

“That sounds serious. Sit down.”

Lady Ariciel did, and heaved a sigh. Something was evidently bothering the lass. Old Bannog put down his papers, put his elbows on the table and looked at her over his folded hands.

“It’s about Puissance. I found out what is troubling her, but she swore me to secrecy. The girl is afraid her secret will come out.”

“Hm. And I assume you are about to tell me this secret?”

“Yes. But only because not telling you might be worse.” The Elf took a breath. “The reason for her distress is that Puissance lost her lover in the recent zombie plague. In fact, she destroyed the zombie she turned into. She has been keeping all that to herself, because,” Ariciel swallowed, “Her lover was another girl.”

Old Bannog smiled, and nodded.

“No wonder she was drawn to the fringe of Stormwind. They are less… judgemental.”

“That’s the problem. She’s afraid of being cast out.”

“I will not send her away, simply for being strange,” said Old Bannog. His eyes wrinkled. “After all, you are still welcome here, in spite of your sinful ways with my own son.”

“And I am grateful for that, Sir Bannog. But you might want to tell the same to Puissance, and perhaps watch over her a little.”

Old Bannog took a deep breath. “Lady Ariciel, you know as well as I do that castles seem serene and quiet only on the outside. Inside, there is turmoil, chaos, intrigue. It all works because of the common goal of keeping the place afloat. I know of one soldier who has carnal knowledge of another man. I know of two soldiers who do not know that the other is sleeping with the same chamber-maid. I know of a certain lady enjoying the company of my own son at nights. I have now been told of a woman attracted to other women sleeping in the same bed as my daughter. But never will I admit that I know of any of this. For the simple reason of keeping my sanity, I choose to ignore all these things because if I were forced to act on them, I would have to evict half of the castle, and the other half would leave of their own account.”

“I understand, but…” Old Bannog raised his hand.

“I won’t let anything bad happen to young Phyllis. She is my late sister’s ward, and I am responsible for her now. But I simply cannot be the arbitrator in all of my charges’ problems. I would not have time to rule the castle.”

Ariciel gave Old Bannog a sad look.

“I understand. Still, Puissance is suffering, and she needs the support of her fellow Humans.”

“She will receive it from all who are inclined to give it. She won’t be alone. But ultimately, her inner ghosts are her own to dispel.”

Ariciel smiled. “Then you can’t do more. I thank you.”

“I’m sorry I cannot do more, truly I am. When are you leaving?”

“After I say good-bye to a few people. Do you have any messages for Bannog?”

“Send him my regards, and remind him that his mission is an important one. I wish you a good journey.”

“Thank you, Sir Bannog.” She got to her feet. “Good night.”

“Good night. Oh.”

“Sir?”

“Is this girl likely to seduce my daughter?”

“No more than I am, Sir.”

“Good. Good night.”

Ariciel nodded, and walked out of the door.

“But then again, I like girls, too,” she said, softly, to herself.


She looked over her shoulder at the dark shape of Caer Bannog behind her. Lights were lit, and soldiers marched along the walls. Inside, there was a thoroughly unhappy girl who deserved better. She sighed, changed to her Cheetah form, and ran off in the direction of Stormwind.


Copyright: © 2008,2009,2010 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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