Part 15: Old friends, new enemies.

Ramoc sat in the main room of the tavern, enjoying fried eggs and bacon and studying the friendly forms of one of the barmaids, when Bannog came down, followed a few moments later by Ariciel. He opened his mouth to say something irreverend about love-birds, but then he saw their faces, and frowned. They were not the faces of newly-rejoined lovers, brimming over with the guilty pleasures of a busy night. Quite the contrary. Bannog looked sad and gruff, Ariciel looked almost ready to burst into tears. Oh dear. Bannog spotted him, waved, and sat down next to him. Ariciel walked over to a barmaid, and ordered breakfast. Ramoc studied Bannog’s face.

“What’s up? You look like something you’ve eaten came back for a rematch.”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna tell me what it is?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.”

Joran walked up bearing a plate overflowing with fried eggs, bacon and slices of bread. He and Ramoc exchanged glances. Ramoc looked in Ariciel’s general direction. Joran nodded, sat down and started in on his breakfast. He looked at Bannog.

“Aren’t you getting any breakfast? You know it’s good here. Long day ahead.”

“Yeah. In a bit.”

Joran raised his eyebrows at Ramoc, who shrugged, and looked in Ariciel’s direction again. Ariciel joined them at the table. Bannog got up to get his own breakfast. Joran gave Ariciel a friendly smile.

“Good morning! It’s a lovely day outside, isn’t it?”

“Morning.” Ariciel poked at her breakfast, seemingly uninterested. Bannog came back with a full plate, sat down next to Ariciel and started demolishing the content. Joran looked from one to the other, and gave up.

“Right people. Ramoc and I have had a message in the night. We’ve been waiting for it for a while. We’re leaving.”

“Leaving? Leaving where?” said Ariciel, with large eyes.

“We’re leaving for a place called Brum, by way of Mordor Central.”

“That sounds Hordish,” said Bannog. “What are you doing there?”

“Neither Horde nor Alliance,” answered Ramoc. “We have to give a weapons demonstration to the newbies there. Someone will come and create a portal for us, and off we go.”

Ariciel looked at them both, in consternation. “Are you coming back afterwards?”

Joran smiled, and shook his head. “Unlikely. These portals work in one direction only, and even this single to Mordor Central will cost our friend dearly.”

Bannog looked at the faces of his fellow soldiers. “We will miss you. Will you be in any danger there?”

“We shouldn’t be, but then again, who can tell?”

“Hmm. When are you leaving?”

“Some time next week. We can keep you company until we leave, the Gray Cat can find us anywhere in Azeroth.”

“Gray Cat? Who’s he?”

Ramoc grinned. “She. Definitely she. One of our more magical friends from Sol Three. So where are you going?”

Bannog looked at Ariciel. She looked back, then back at her plate.

“Dun Algaz. I’ve had a message that another survivor of the attack on our caravan has surfaced there. I need to talk to him, and ask where he’s been all this time. Which will most likely be some place in Searing Gorge. That’s where the attack was.”

Joran whistled. “That is a very bad place. Crawling with hordies that make our Syndicate look like a bunch of amateurs. Are you sure you want to go there?”

“I’m sure I don’t want to go there. But that’s where I can find my mother and sister, if they’re still alive.”

Bannog looked at Ariciel. He’d been thinking of bringing her to Darnassus, and then going home, but if she went to Searing Gorge alone, she would not make it alive. He might just be one of her friends, rather than the love of her life, but he did not want her to die, if he could prevent it. So it seemed he was due a trip to Searing Gorge before he could go home. For the honour of Caer Bannog.

Joran still was not convinced. “How do you know they are still alive? I doubt even we could hold out there for over a year.”

Ariciel’s eyes flashed at him. “You can if you are a slave. My mother and my sister are house-servants. So am I, for that matter. They have sellable skills, even to Horde masters. It may be unfitting for a Keldorei woman to work for a Horde lord, but we’re not so proud that we let that get in the way of survival.”

Joran’s eyes met Ariciel’s. He didn’t say anything about some of the other sellable skills that all women share. She knew as well as he did to what kind of use pretty Night-elves might be put. If his family were in such a situation, he would be on his feet now, running to their aid.


Mareva and Ariciel emerged from the small cave, their breath leaving small clouds of steam in front of them. Mareva was wearing her hair down, for now. She held her hand over her eyes against the morning sun and stared to the North-east. Nothing moved between the trees in Winterspring’s landscape.

“Were next?”

Ariciel lifted up her pack, quickly checked to see if they had left anything behind, then pointed out. “Everlook seems to me the best choice. Unless you want to try the Timbermaw tunnel again.”

“I never want to see that tunnel again. Let us go to Everlook.”

They changed into their animal forms, and ran off. They stuck to the road, resisting the temptation to take possibly disastrous shortcuts. They met nobody all morning, ate what was left of their rabbit dinner, and set off again. In the early afternoon, they reached the Goblin village of Everlook. They changed back from their animal shapes, and walked through the gate. Waist-high green goblins were running everywhere. They certainly were an industrious people. Ariciel looked round, spotted the most important thing and pointed.

“Tavern!”

“Good plan. I will buy us drinks.”

They walked into the tavern, which was generally empty. The goblin at the tap gave them a hopeful grin. Mareva smiled back like a very good customer should.

“A pint of cider please.” She looked aside at Ariciel.

“Apple juice for me. I can still feel that Qrovna of yours.”

“That is the reason why we drink it. Engineers need much help to forget their jobs.”

“Hold on. You’re not an engineer. You’re a jewel crafter.”

“What?”

Ariciel spoke up. “You’re not an engineer, you’re a jewel crafter.”

Mareva looked at Ariciel, grinning broadly. “I will never get tired of hearing that.”

They found a small table in a corner, sat down and enjoyed their drinks. Ariciel had her apple juice, Mareva had cider. Engineering certainly seemed to give you a capacity for alcohol.

“I must return to Exodar and hand in my samples. Is there a flight master here?”

“Oh yes. Two, even. You want the one that is not an Orc.”

“There are Orcs here? Are they not likely to kill us as soon as they spot us?”

“The Goblins would put a stop to that. We’re potential customers. We can’t buy stuff from them if we’re dead. Also if Orcs kill us, they don’t get to loot the bodies.”

“The love of money may not be completely evil, in that case.”

“Well, I need to go and hand in my research. I think I’ll fly to Astranaar and run the rest of the way. I need to see some nice healthy forest for a bit.”

“Will you be in any danger there?”

“Naah. Ashenvale is safe enough. I’ll be fine.”

Mareva drained her mug. “Then, I will have to say goodbye for now.” She moved a bit closer to Ariciel, and put her hand on her arm. “If you should need my help, send me a message. I am my own master now, and I enjoy working with you.”

Ariciel gave her a slow smile.

“Thank you. I may take you up on that. It could get dangerous, though. Practice those attack spells. I may need your help pulling my family out of wherever they are.”

“If it were completely safe, what would be the fun?”

“Continued breathing?”

“Pah. Do you wish to live forever?”

“Yes, please.”

“Then give up adventures and take up needlepoint. Not with sharp needles, though.”

Ariciel laughed. They rose, and walked to the flight master who was not an Orc.

“Goodbye for now,” said Mareva, and hugged Ariciel. “May your days be long, and your hardships few.”

“Goodbye. Take care of yourself. Until we meet again.”

With a final wave, Mareva mounted a hippogriff, and soon disappeared in the distance. Ariciel sighed. Travelling was fun, but there were so many goodbyes. She asked the flight master to take her to Astranaar, and flew off.

Ariciel was running Northwards, just a hundred yards East of the road. It would have been safer to stay on it, but where, as Mareva had pointed out, was the fun in that? Eventually, she reached a fork in the road. She stopped, turned, and stared. Just a half-mile further on, her old home lay. Homesickness overcame her. She changed to her cat form, and made her dark fur meld with her surroundings. It was not true invisibility, but as near to it as you could get. She walked down the familiar path, recognising trees she’d climbed when she was younger. Streams. Little hills. Finally, she came to the right place. That was where things stopped being familiar. The small house still stood, but all the windows were broken. The door hung on one hinge. Ariciel tried to call out. “Mother?” But the sound that came out of her mouth was like the mewing of a small kitten. Annoyed, she dropped her cat shape, and walked into the house. Weed grew in the great piles of dirt that had accumulated in the hallway. Scraps of furniture, the tatters of a curtain. Her vision blurred, and she blinked away tears. Nobody was home.

Ariciel sniffed, turned round and walked out of the house. She considered going back to Darnassus, but something made her turn farther East instead. She wanted to look on the place that had caused all this misery. Ariciel still did not know why they had left in such a hurry. It had to be something to do with those High-borne spellcasters. She walked down the path that she had walked hundreds, thousands of time before. Perhaps she would find some explanations in the ruins of the Manor.

She only had to take one look. The Manor had disappeared completely. The ornamental trees in the garden had been blown away, and the grass looked brown and dead. Looking round, she saw that several of the old trees had lost branches in what must have been some sort of magical explosion. Strangely, there was no sign of fire, just the slowly healing wounds of the old trees, and the fresh young growth where of old shrubs had been. Ariciel stood in the middle of the ruins, and turned round and round. She could not understand what had caused this. Her head hurt, a familiar ache. Ariciel raised her hand, and rubbed her neck, trying to rub the ache away.

“You!”

Ariciel turned round in a flash, grabbing her staff and holding it in front of her. She could not see who had spoken. The ache in her head grew, and she directed some healing energy to the base of her skull. No time for distractions. Her eyes narrowed.

“It is you!”

Ariciel half-closed her eyes. She could almost see something shimmering in front of her. With difficulty, she could make out the shape of an Elf-woman in front of her. As if the act of looking at the shimmering shape had tipped over the scales, the image fell into place and became fully visible. Well, up to a point. Ariciel could see the single remaining wall of the manor through her. A ghost. There were many stories about ghosts in Elf-lore, but those were the fleeting images of what once was, with no intelligence or will. This was different. It looked more like a living person whose body had been stripped away, leaving only their spirit, unable to die further. Ariciel studied the unreal form. It still wore clothes, had hair, arms, legs, a face. The eyes were horrible to look at: there was no healthy shine to them. Instead, they were dark holes, speaking of hunger, a mana pool that would never fill again. Its lips moved, a single heartbeat before the sound reached her ears, as though it came from a long way away.

“You refused me. We could have done great things together, and you refused it.”

Ariciel’s eyes opened wide. She knew who this was! Now that she looked better at what was left of her face, she could see.

“Lady Iressa?”

The apparition’s eyes darkened.

“Yes. I was Lady Iressa. I waited for years for you to bring me my lunch, and now I will never eat again. I am so, so, hungry. So cold.”

Ariciel swallowed. “What happened?”

“The spell failed! We prepared for so long! And then it failed! It should have worked! We could have done anything we wanted. Anything! We could have brought your mother back from the dead!”

Ariciel turned pale. “Mother? Dead?”

“Have you forgotten, you stupid girl? She died in Searing Gorge. And then you refused to help me, and the great spell failed!”

“And… and… Berciel? My sister?”

“Stupid! Stupid! She died long before! There’s nothing we can do to bring her back.” The thing that had once been Lady Iressa floated closer to Ariciel. “But you can help. If you just help me, then we can do great things! But you must tell nobody! Not even your mother!”

“What? But you told me she was dead!”

“She is not dead, you silly girl! She took the dark-haired girl away from us! Against our orders! She was just a cook, she had to obey us and bring us our lunch! She must be punished!” The ghost suddenly sobbed. “Oh, I am so hungry. Will you bring me some lunch? This afternoon’s lunch has gone cold. And then you can help me with my magic. You can be a great sorceress! Why did you refuse me? We did not have enough mana! The spell failed because we had no mana left. We needed your mana, and now the spell has failed! It is all your fault! You must be punished!”

Suddenly, the image of Lady Iressa floated closer and closer to Ariciel. Her face changed. Great holes appeared in her cheeks, showing her teeth. Her eyes shimmered between the black un-light and being transparent. The ghostly arm drew back, then shot forward. Ariciel tried to block with her staff, but the arm went straight through. It connected with her skin, and a wave of pain shot through Ariciel’s head. Surprised, she screamed, and counter-attacked with her staff. She might as well have punched fog. The staff had no magic, just Bannog’s excellent workmanship. Against a foe such as this, it was worthless. Ariciel jumped back a few steps, and prepared her Wrath spell, her most powerful weapon. A vicious bolt of green energy shot through the air, hit the ghost of Lady Iressa, and sailed straight through, burning a hole in the wall. Lady Iressa hit Ariciel again, in the stomach this time. Ariciel nearly threw up, it hurt so much. Swearing at herself for coming here in the first place, she used another spell called Starfire. Concentraing on her target, she built up the arcane energy she needed in a great ball above her head, then shot it at Lady Iressa. She gave a shriek, and the ghostly flesh on her arms disappeared. Good. Arcane damage then. Well, we have plenty of that! Keeping a suspicious eye on her mana pool, she used what she still called White Fire. Beam after beam of bright white moonfire shot down from above, burning Lady Iressa’s form. Still, she came, though she could no longer outrun Ariciel. It was a tiring fight. Ariciel ran from one corner of the room to another, then turned round to shoot more White Fire at Lady Iressa, until only a faint shimmer was left. Then, the inevitable happened: Ariciel ran out of mana. She tried to shoot, but no fire came. Lady Iressa’s voice came as a whisper.

“You must be punished!”

Ariciel just stared at Lady Iressa, as she floated closer, and struck out at her face. Ariciel almost fainted from the pain, and dropped to her knees. She fumbled for her bottles of mana potion, and dropped one of them. The precious blue potion spilled on the floor. Ariciel gathered her last strength, and stumbled more than ran to the other side of the room. There, keeping an anxious eye on her enemy, she opened another bottle of blue potion and made herself drink in small sips. Lady Iressa floated closer again. Please, no! Ariciel finished her potion, and found that her mana pool was almost full again. Her next Moonfire spell failed because she could not concentrate enough. Once more, Ariciel ran and put more distance between herself and Lady Iressa. She took a deep breath, concentrated on the ghost, and cut loose. Bright white beams once more started to burn the ghost until at last, it disappeared with a single last word: “Cold.”

Ariciel dropped to her knees. With one hand she touched her face where Lady Iressa had hit her. She looked at her fingers. No blood, but her skin felt numb. Her stomach also still hurt, but she had exhausted all her energy fighting and could not heal herself. Too early for another potion. She rocked forward and backward slowly, trying to drink as much mana as she could from the ambient Light in the area. Slowly, her supply of energy replenished itself. Finally, with a sigh of relief, she cast the healing spell of Regrowth on herself. She closed her eyes for a few blissful moments, savouring the absence of pain. Then, she opened her eyes again, and looked round. The words of Lady Iressa rang in her head: “We could bring your mother back from the dead. Your sister? She died long before! In Searing Gorge.”

Ariciel looked round for more enemies, but could find none. She changed back into her cat form, and ran to the West, to the road to Auberdine.


“You’re a stupid blonde, what are you?”

Ariciel bowed her head. “A stupid blonde.”

“Who’s a stupid blonde?” Bearwalker’s eyes burned with anger. What had possessed that silly girl to go to the High-borne Manor? She could have died, or worse. Bearwalker knew from bitter experience that there really were worse fates than death.

The stupid blonde looked up at him.

“I am,” Ariciel said quietly. Bearwalker put his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eyes, then pulled her to him and hugged her.

“Do not do that again. It puts severe limitations on your plans for the future.” He let go. “Now. Tell me what happened. You know the score. Everything. Three times over.”

Using Bearwalker’s usual method of repeating the events ad infinitum, they went through the whole experience.

“She said Mother and Berciel were dead. How could she know?”

“She couldn’t. To use the correct term, she was a wraith. Ghosts are just images. They know what they say no more than a parrot does. Wraiths retain some of their intelligence, but what they lose completely is their sense of time. So they can’t tell what happened yesterday from what will happen in two hundred years.”

“Hold on. Are you trying to tell me that ghosts can see the future?”

“Wraiths. But yes, they can. And a bloody useless skill it is. Let me see. How can I explain this? Ah. Picture in your mind a spinning top for wool. In your fingers, you have some wool, and you are spinning it into a single strand. Got the image?”

“Yes. Spinning wool.”

“Good. Now think of time. the strand of wool is the past. There is only one past that we know of. It never changes. Your bit of wool at the top is the future. Each hair of the sheep is a possible future. Now imagine that between your fingers, rather than twining the hairs together, you pick one hair. That hair then becomes the past. At every moment, you can pick a different hair. Which hair you pick, depends on what everybody in the world is doing. Now what a wraith can do is follow one of the hairs all the way to the end of times. But nothing at all says that the hair they are on is the one that will be picked.” Bearwalker pointed a finger at Ariciel. “So their predictions, while usually completely accurate, are very, very unlikely to be relevant to what’s going to happen to us. Their statements about the past, though, are normally spot on. They can follow people they know.”

“So… They know all about the past, because there’s only one of them, but nothing about the… about our future, unless they get very lucky.”

“Correct. You also can’t tell if they’re in history, which they know, or in one of the possible futures, which they picked at random.”

Ariciel chewed on her thumb. She was thinking. Bearwalker was right. This was useless. She wanted to kick herself. She wanted Berciel to kick her, actually. Or Mother to look at her, disapprovingly. Bearwalker stroked his beard, a sign he was turning something over in his mind.

“Your mother took Berciel away from them. I wonder what that means.”

“Well, we left in a hurry. I’d say we fled. I still wonder why.”

Bearwalker rubbed his chin. A nasty suspicion came to him. Ariciel was not going to like it.

“What if you were not the only one to be asked to provide mana for great spells? What if they asked Berciel the same thing,” Bearwalker looked at Ariciel, “And she said yes?”

Ariciel blinked. Surely, Berciel wouldn’t? She thought about it. Her face fell. Oh crap. She would. Actually, and this was a thought that she’d never even admitted to herself, let alone Bearwalker, she herself might have. It was just that she got splitting headaches whenever these spells were cast. She had refused, because… the magic scared her, and hurt her. Also she had not trusted Lady Iressa at all. She had not realised it back then, but drawing mana from people you are touching was ridiculously easy. The thing, unworthy of the name “talent”, that Lady Iressa had installed in her mind merely helped to do one thing: Draw mana from people without their permission. But then… Oh damn damn damn! Berciel, what have you gotten yourself into? The pieces fell into place. Mother walking in on an exercise, realising immediately what was happening, then snatching them away. No matter where, just far away from the High-borne manor. Only to be caught by some nameless band of thugs on their way through Searing Gorge. She swallowed away the lump in her throat.

“That… could be it. But then, Berciel could be in so much trouble.”

“Yes.” Bearwalker looked into Ariciel’s eyes. “You need to prepare yourself. When you find your sister, she may not be the same person she was anymore.”

Ariciel bit her lip and said nothing. She wanted more than anything else in the world to find her family. Maybe even extend it a bit. Maybe Mother’s flight from Darkshore had been enough to turn Berciel away from the path to darkness. There was still hope. There was still her duty.

“I have to find them. Whatever happened to them, I need to find them and fast.”

“I agree.” Bearwalker looked at Ariciel again. She no longer looked like the clueless self-taught Druid wannabe she had been when they met. If only he had more time. “If you come back, the first spell upgrade is free.”

Ariciel smiled. “How can I stay away with such an offer?” She leaned forward. “I know I have not finished learning, if there is such a thing. But I think I can handle myself better than I could. I have to start searching again, or I never will.”

“Ishnu dal-dieb. When are you leaving?”

“Not instantly, but soon. I need to say goodbye to Lirael and prepare. I’ll see you before I go.”


“Oh. Look what the cat dragged in! Or bear. Or sea-lion. Or whatever.”

“Uh. Hello?”

Lirael’s eyes burned, and she pointed a furious finger at Ariciel. “You were going to be away only for a day or so. That was three days ago. Then I hear you are going to Felwood, of all places! Do you realise that if normal Elves even set foot in there, they die of a case of diseased bear or wolf? I’ve been worried sick about you! But to you that’s perfectly normal isn’t it? You could have dropped me a note, but no. Too busy perhaps? Or you just could not be bothered!”

“Lirael, I was nowhere near a mailbox. I’m sorry. I should have, but…”

“But you forgot, didn’t you? Or didn’t think I’d care one way or another?” Lirael took a deep breath. “Ariciel, you are a friend. I do care about you. Please. Don’t frighten me like that again.”

Ariciel looked at Lirael, and said nothing. Lirael watched the expression on her face, and her mouth fell open.

“You’re leaving aren’t you?”

Ariciel nodded sadly. “Yes. I have to start searching again. Berciel may be in too much trouble for her to handle herself. I have to find her, and Mother.”

“Where are you going?”

“Eastern Kingdoms. They must be there somewhere. I don’t know where, but they’re not in Kalimdor.”

Lirael reached out and put her hand on Ariciel’s cheek, looking deep into her eyes. She closed her eyes for a moment, and power flowed.

“There. A little bit of extra luck. I’m sorry I can’t help you more, but it’s all I can do.”

“You’ve already done so much. Put up with me, gave me a place to stay. I’ll not forget to write to you, if I can.”

“Well, get that big Human of yours to help you. What else are they good for? Except that.”

Ariciel grinned. “He’s probably stuck in the army. They may not let him go. Maybe he won’t want to. I’ll look him up, anyway. He’s on the same continent, how far out of the way can it be?”

“When are you leaving?”

“Soon. I’ve still got my mail to read. One from Bannog, one from… hey! Ironforge. Peterselie!”

“That’s Dwarvish for parsley. Are you getting samples?”

Ariciel laughed. “No, Peterselie is the name of a Dwarven Paladin. She’s great! Wonder what she’s got.”

Ariciel ripped open the envelope and took out the letter.
 

From: Peterselie, Paladin of the Light, Ironforge
To: Lady Ariciel, Darnassus.

 
Hullo Ariciel,

 
I hope your teachings are going well. Have you got your bear
shape yet? I certainly hope so, because I have news for you.
After all this time, a survivor of your caravan has surfaced
in Dun Algaz. I’m afraid he’s somewhat the worse for wear, and
not in possession of all his faculties. I was in Dun Algaz
when he arrived, and he spoke of a place in Searing Gorge
where he was held prisoner. I can only say that I hope your
relatives are not in the same place. Nevertheless, you will
want to investigate this. I will be in Dun Algaz for a while,
on Regiment business, and I’ve taken your man under my wing a
bit. I don’t know what happened to him, but he’s scared of
everything, including healers. If you feel up to a trip, then
come and see me, and him.

 
May the light strengthen you, and especially yours.

 
Peterselie, Paladin of the Light.

Ariciel showed Lirael the letter. “It seems I’m going to Dun Algaz.”


“This looks like a stroke of luck. The best you’ve had in all these years, actually.” Bearwalker gave the letter back to Ariciel. “You’re going to have to travel far. Give me your hand.”

“What? Oh!” Ariciel held out her hand to Bearwalker, and felt the familiar feeling of a new spell settling into her mind. She smiled.

“Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

Bearwalker gave her a bear hug. “Be safe, Ariciel. And come back. Within a mere fifty years or so, I’ll turn you into a force to be reckoned with.”

“I thought I already was.”

“Yes. I do occasionally like easy jobs.”

Ariciel hugged him again, then turned round and left Bearwalker’s home. Outside, she tried her new spell. It was a bit like her cat form, but yellow with spots! Ariciel ran in the direction of the ferry. Oh my, the speed! Wind blew in her face. She dashed through the portal and was at the ferry before she knew it. Oh boy! This was going to come in handy.

Standing by the window, Bearwalker watched Ariciel change, then dash off. He smiled. Be safe, Ariciel. He took a deep breath, then went back to work.

Ariciel jumped off the boat. Menethil Harbour had not changed much. There were still fishing boats. The flight master was still the same, she waved at her. But she did not want to fly. She knew the road to Dun Algaz, and wanted the run. But where was Bannog? She walked over to the garrison at the keep, and asked the captain of the guard.

“Bannog? Oh, Bannog the Mage-killer. He’s in Arathi. Thoradin’s wall.”

“Mage-killer? What has he been up to?”

“Well, he came to the aid of Refuge Pointe, and slew three mages who were pounding the crap out of the defenses there, pardon my Orcish.”

“What, all by himself?”

“Mostly. There were a few others, too.”

“There always are. How do I get there?”

“Up the road to the North, then at the crossroads, North again.”

“Thanks!”

“Send him my regards.”

Ariciel ran out of the gate, then changed to her cheetah form. The road that had seemed so daunting the first time she ran down it, now seemed like a long, long race track. She smiled, enjoying the wholesome smell of wet grass, marsh. A Wetlands Crocolisk lay on the road, sunning itself in the last rays of sun of the afternoon. Ariciel took a great leap and jumped over it. The crocolisk decided to try some cheetah for dinner, and set off after her. Fat chance, Snappy! Ariciel simply sped up and left it in her dust. Or in this case, mud. On she ran, tirelessly, along the road, past the Goblin merchant, over the half-broken bridge, then taking a turn to the West, towards Thoradin’s wall. As darkness fell, she found the camp, in an uproar. Soldiers were emerging from their tents, strapping on armour and rushing to the meeting point. Bannog was not there. Ariciel changed into her black cat form, and hid herself in the shadows. All the Humanoids became brightly visible to her heightened senses. A big Human was talking excitedly to another, pointing East. Ariciel looked East. As she watched, a dazzling light appeared in the sky, almost blinding her. She knew. Bannog would be under that light. She walked away from the camp a bit, then changed back into her cheetah form and dashed off in the direction of the light.

She could smell them before she saw them. Humans sweating in their armour, blood, and another smell… ah. She remembered. Goblins. She heard the sounds of metal on metal, shouts. There! She changed back into her Elf shape and took a better look. Her heart jumped into her throat. There he was! Quickly, she took in the situation. The Goblins were fighting Bannog and two of his companions. Her eyes opened wide. It was not going well for them. As she watched, Bannog fell onto his back, and stabbed the Goblin that had thrown him. But another one came up, ready to kill her Human. Without another thought, she threw her hands forward, and shot Green Fire at the Goblin. Already wounded, the Goblin fell over, died. Ariciel began to lay down a barrage of Green Fire, smiling wildly.

“Hi Bannog. I thought you said you’d be careful!”


“So. First stop Dun Algaz, then Searing Gorge,” said Ramoc. He looked doubtful. “I’m not sure if we’ll make it all the way there in the time we have left. We’re not all pussycats!”

“No time to lose, then,” said Bannog. They left the inn, and ran up the familiar road through the Wetlands.

Joran pointed. “Just look at the state they’ve left this road in! Potholes all over the place, Road signs with hardly any paint left. Someone ought to do something.”

“Hold on, I think I dropped a few coppers here a while back,” said Ramoc. “Oh well. I can always pick them up the next time through.”

Bannog coughed. “There won’t be a next time. You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

“Well, the one thing I’ll miss most of all is your sunny disposition. Oh wait.” Ramoc punched Bannog’s shoulder. “Cheer up, mate. That’s an order.”

“Sod you.”

Ramoc shook his head. Nothing worse than love-sick puppies with a problem. He hoped that one would forgive the other and they would go back to the more usual at-it-like-the-proverbials state, which was much easier to make fun of. Anyway, they would leave in a few days. It had been fun. Hiding here till he heat went down had been the best idea the Gray Cat had ever come up with. And now, they’d hide in Brum again, till the heat here went down. If this continued, they would gradually heat up the entire universe. Global warming is for amateurs.

Nobody much wanted to sleep in the Wetlands, so they pressed on through the night until morning greeted them in Dun Algaz. Ariciel was sleeping on her feet. Bannog and Joran were more or less alright. Ramoc was yawning. Ariciel talked to the guard, who recognised them, and they went into the mess hall. Peterselie was sitting at a table, talking to Mountaineer Stormpike. A big grin appeared on her face, and she waved. She excused herself, got up and walked over.

“You guys look like you’ve been running for a week! What? Only one night? Sissies! Well it’s not barrel time yet, or I’d offer.”

Peterselie jostled them to a table, set them down and showed them where breakfast was. Ariciel tapped Peterselie’s shoulder.

“Could I talk to your refugee?”

Peterselie looked at Ariciel’s eyes. “Sure you can. He’s in the private sleeping quarters. Can’t take loud noises. I’ll take you to him.”

As soon as they left the room, Joran picked up his pack, dropped it by the wall near the fireplace, sat down on it and went to sleep, back against the wall. Ramoc watched him.

“As usual, he’s got the right idea. Good night… morning.” He found a comfortable spot and within minutes was also asleep.

Bannog could usually find sleep with equal ease, but today, too many thoughts were rushing round in his mind. He walked outside, and sat down on a bench by the wall, overlooking the road. He did not really sleep, but stared at his feet, thinking about Ariciel.

“Hey Mister? Are you looking for a good time?”

Bannog looked up. Not very far up. In front of him stood a very small woman. She was wearing comfortable leather armour. Her eyes were bright, but he could see a weary, cynical glint in them. Her hair was bound up in plaits that stood straight up from her head. Bannog took her for a camp follower. At any rate, nothing could be further from his mind than the sort of good time this Gnomish woman was implying.

“All tastes catered for. Whatever you want, I can get it for you. I can get a Blood-elf to do one end while a Draenei does the other, and that’s no mean feat let me tell you. If you don’t pay them enough, they’ll be at each other’s throat before you know it.” The Gnome woman came a bit closer. “I can even set you up with a Gnome, and she’ll pretend to be a young Human. Absolutely adorable, and totally legal!”

Bannog stared. Was there a market for pretend children? He’d heard tell of people with this disease of the mind. And here this Gnome was selling them services! This was Wrong in at least three different ways.

“Don’t look at me. I don’t do that sort of thing, I’m more of a… facilitator. I lead you to those who do. So what’ll it be?”

Bannog cleared his throat, and shook his head. “Do you do guided tours?”

“Sure. I know just the Gnome. Knows all of the Eastern Kingdoms like the back of his hand. Including the more nasty places. He can lead you to the nice ores, or treasure, for a small fee.”

“Good. I can use some guidance. Take me to him.”

“Two silver.”

Bannog blinked, pulled out his pouch and produced two silver. The shiny pieces disappeared without him seeing her put them away. Hmm. Better keep his wits about him. The tiny woman trotted off, and Bannog followed her to a small house, of Dwarf or small Human size. The Gnome reached up, opened the door, and motioned him in.

“After you, Mister!”

Bannog bent down, and entered the door. There was a mechanic sound and Bannog dropped to his knees. A pole suspended on ropes swung down from the darkness of the room. If he hadn’t been quick enough, it would have knocked him senseless. The Gnome woman turned tail and fled, but Bannog, even after his sleepless night, was too quick for her, he ran four steps, then dived behind her and grabbed her foot, sending her sprawling. Quick as he could, he got up, and lifted the little thief by one leg. She kicked and squirmed.

“Sit jou kop in die koei se kont en wag tot die bul jou kom holnaai!” she screamed.

“My goodness. Such language. Now what?”

The woman suddenly squirmed again, and the glint of steel was in her hand. Bannog did not hesitate a moment, and punched her in the stomach, hard. The Gnome turned green and dropped the knife. Bannog held her at arm’s length and shook her till she stopped moving. He took her into the house.

“Now. Eventually, my arm will get tired, and I’ll be forced to bounce you on your head a few times. Instead, I’ll trust you and put you down. If you do something stupid like, oh, try to run off or point sharp things at me, I will pick you up again and show you all the corners of the room. If you think there’s just four, you’re not trying.”

He very, very carefully put down the Gnome, took a step backwards and watched her intently. She was clutching her stomach, and glaring at him, but not doing anything else.

“Good. Now what is your name?”

“I’m a Gnome. We do not give our names to the lugs.”

“I do not wish to enthrall you, I just want something to call you besides ‘nasty little thief’. What are you known by?”

“I am called Interalia. You punched me! Do you hit girls?”

“Get over it. You tried to rob me. Right. Intralia. This knowledgeable guide. Is he anything but a story to get me on my own?”

“In-ter-a-li-a. It is ancient speech for ‘Among other things’.”

“How apt. Answer the question.”

“He’s real. He is my master. I am his slave.”

“Oh no. And he makes you do these horrible things?”

“Tries to make me not do them. I’m saving up to buy myself free.”

“Aww. If you’d have told me at once,” Bannog thought on it. “I’d have told you to sod off. Never mind. Take me to him. I want to know how good he is. Do I have to warn you against doing silly things? I scored three hundred and seventy five points on my last archery contest.”

The small woman scowled. “Follow me.”

She slowly walked to the door. The pole on ropes was still gently swinging back and forth. Bannog gave a pull on it. It didn’t come down. Looking behind him, he saw the thing was operated by a bit of string pulled from outside. Most ingenious. He made a grab for Interalia, who was running for it.

“Don’t do that. I’m not warning you again.”

Interalia scowled, and led the way down behind Algaz station, to a small cluster of tents. She walked to one of the tents and called out a word in Ancient Speech: “Aquaregis?” There were some muffled noises inside and an old Gnome came out. He was hatless and wore a long robe that had once been a Human jacket.

“Yes? What do you want?”

“This Human here. Needs a guide.”

“Then why did you bring him here? I don’t want them coming back here and bothering me.”

Bannog coughed. “I made her. Your slave tried to brain me with some sort of trap and make off with my possessions.”

The old Gnome blinked twice, then stepped over to Interalia and slapped her in the face, shouting at her in Gnomish. Interalia shrunk back. He glowered at her, then turned to Bannog.

“Please accept my sincere apologies for the behaviour of my charge. My name is Aquaregis, and I am at your service, until Interalia’s inexcusable behaviour is compensated for. My skills are considerable. As a Warlock, I am well versed in the arts of Affliction, Destruction and Demonology. My knowledge of the lands surrounding us is vast. I am also skilled in Engineering and can make all manner of useful devices. I also,” he scowled again at Interalia, “Offer the services of my charge, Interalia, so that she can atone for her behaviour. Her skills, I am afraid, lie more in the unsavory realms of stealth and subterfuge, but nonetheless, she can make herself useful.”

“Aquaregis!” Interalia gaped at the older Gnome.

“Be quiet. You have only yourself to blame.”

Bannog ran his hand over his bald head. “I must think about this. Also, my companions must agree to accept your offer. We do need the services of someone who can lead us through the Searing Gorge. If you can do that, we will not only forgive your… charge, but also pay you for the effort.”

“By all means. You can find me here, or we can come with you now.”

“Follow me, please.”

Ariciel stared at the two gnomes, one of them young, the other old. The one surly, the other resigned.

“I don’t like them.”

“They can be useful.”

“I don’t trust that old Gnome.”

“He’s a warlock. He’s used to people not trusting him.”

“And the young one looks like a thief.”

Interalia smiled sweetly, and tossed something in the air and caught it. “I also have excellent hearing.”

Ariciel looked at the object and recognised one of her rings. Bannog watched her in amazement. Not a muscle moved on her face, and still her smile now drew attention to her teeth, where once it had been a polite grimace. He sighed, and did not look round.

“Interalia, my friend here still thinks I am a nice guy, and I would not like her to change her opinion of me. Give it back. And anything else, while you’re at it.”

Interalia tossed the ring to Ariciel, who caught it without taking her eyes off the young Gnome. Aquaregis cast a weary eye on his companion. “Lady, please add that to the list of my obligations if you don’t mind.”

Interalia laid her hand on the table, fingers spread. A small knife appeared as if by magic in her other hand. She looked down on her hand, and with the knife started tapping the table between her fingers. “I was just giving the nice lady a small demonstration of my abilities, Master. While I would not dream of directly confronting a warrior such as Bannog or Joran, sometimes a seemingly impossible situation can be overcome with a certain amount of finesse rather than brute force.”

As she spoke, the knife hit the table quicker and quicker, until the tapping of it became a hypnotic sound. Interalia looked up at Bannog, and smiled sweetly.

“Don’t you think?”

Bannog looked at the young Gnome, and started to answer, then realised something. The tapping of her knife on the table had not stopped. He looked down at her hand and saw the blur of the knife hit the table between her outstretched fingers, without her looking at them. Bannog smiled.

“How many times have you cut yourself practicing that trick?”

The tapping stopped suddenly, and the knife disappeared.

“Never.” Because I practiced it with a stick, you stupid lug, she thought. Honestly. Ramoc sat down next to her.

“I do like your taste in knives, though.” He held up a small, sharp dagger.

“Why thank you! I like your taste in throwing spikes. Hollow point with poison injector. Very flash.”

“Hmm. Not as flash as this lock pick kit. One key fits all, doesn’t it? By the way, I have something very poisonous in my left inside pocket. Be careful with that.”

“I keep something in my bra. Touch that and you’re dead.”

“Never on a first date.”

Joran looked at the pair, animatedly picking each other’s pockets. “Ye gods, I think they’re in love!”

Ramoc could not take his eyes off the Gnome girl. Not if he wanted to keep any of his stuff.

“I like her! Can we keep her?”

Bannog smiled at Ariciel. “Can we?”

“Oh all right.” She smiled back, carefully.

“How did you fare with your caravan survivor?”

Ariciel’s smile faded. “He’s in a bad way. I think he was tortured, but why I cannot say. It’s not like he had any useful information. Peterselie healed him, and he’s comfortable now, but speak above a whisper and he shrinks away. He was one of the drivers. He didn’t recognise me, though. Poor man.”

“Did he know where he was taken?” asked Joran.

“He wouldn’t talk about it, but finally he mentioned something called the ‘Yellow Hand’. I suppose that is the name of the organisation.”

Aquaregis coughed politely. “If it is what I think, then you may be right in your worries. The Yellow Hand is a Horde organisation that trains healers and blood mages. Am I right in believing that you were planning to travel from Ironforge to Stormwind by caravan?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must have been on one of the last caravans that was ever sent. The Searing Gorge, and the Burning Steppes have become quite impassable. The gate to the road is locked. Fortunately, we now have the Deeprun Tram. A great feat of Gnomish engineering.”

Ariciel laughed. “And you don’t allow us to forget it. Last time I was on it, you were asking for more money to keep them running.”

Aquaregis’ eyes shone at Ariciel. “I am not acquainted with the Gnomes in question, but for them to go to such measures, their wages must have been tiny indeed.”

Ariciel half opened her mouth to say something, but caught Aquaregis’ eyes and didn’t. The old Gnome looked back at Bannog.

“Now for things that are smaller than a caravan, there may still be a way in. Typical of Humans to think that they can shut off an entire country with a single key. There is a secret passageway into the Searing Gorge from the Gol’Bolar quarry. Large enough even for a Human to pass through, if we can handle a few Troggs.”

Joran frowned. “Can’t say I’ve ever met any. Are they like underground Murlocs?”

“They are about as popular, yes,” answered Aquaregis, “And about as difficult to defeat. It should not prove to be beyond this group’s capabilities. We will run into much worse enemies once we are in Searing Gorge itself. The Dark Iron Dwarves have all but taken over the area, except for a Human and Dwarven outpost in the North-west, where we should not need to go.”

Ariciel frowned at Aquaregis. “Do you mean you know where this Yellow Hand organisation is? Why? How?”

“I know of the place, yes. It used to be the home of a Dwarf family before the unfortunate events that blighted the landscape of Searing Gorge and the Burning Steppes. I visited there occasionally, to trade in engineering parts.” He turned to Interalia. “This was before you were born.”

“Most of your life is.”

Aquaregis smiled. “So I imagine. Still, I can lead you to the place. It has become an abode of ogres now, with side dishes of Dark Iron Dwarfs and some Humans. I only visited it once after the current management took over. I would not recommend it. Evil things happen there now.”

Ariciel’s face hardened. “My family may be there. I’ll go, and leave with them.”

Bannog stirred. “So will I.”

“And I,” said Joran. “Can’t wait to hunt something besides Murlocs.”

“Allright. I’ll stay here then, and prepare for when you return.” Ramoc looked round. “Just kidding!”

Ariciel got up. “Well, I have some notes to write. I promised Lirael to keep her postered, and I’ll see if I can get us some more help from Mareva. We’ll need all the help we can get.”

Bannog scowled, but quickly controlled himself. If this… woman could help them, then by all means. He smiled grimly. It would give him a chance to find out Ariciel’s taste in women. He looked at his feet. He reminded himself, Ariciel had done nothing wrong. Elves do this all the time. But still, he didn’t like it.


It was not often that Old Bannog ventured into the castle kitchens. Quartermaster was sitting in the middle, while the cook wound more bandages round his arm.

“Getting careless in your old age, Sergeant?”

“This? This is just a scratch. You should have seen the other guy! Those Defiases are getting cheekier by the day! Went all the way to bloody Thoradin’s Wall and back without a scratch, then I get jumped by some nitwit on my way from the bloody post office.”

“Hah. Did you find out anything worthwhile?”

“Well, I had a word with that captain Swann, and it seems our Bannog is a bit of a celebrity there. If you believe it, he’s now single-handedly defeated a group of mages and saved everybody’s life.”

Old Bannog raised his eyebrows. “Really? Well, we’ll get the true story out of him when he returns. I do hope I didn’t raise my son to take more credit than he deserves.”

“Oh, he would never do that, would he?”

Old Bannog’s face was like stone. “Never. So he left then?”

“Aye. With that Elf-girl and two other soldiers. Running away from the Syndicate, which is quite sane. Now where he ran to, that’s a different matter. Young Swann didn’t know. I’d guess somewhere Dwarvish. Loch Modan perhaps. But that’s not sure. For all I know he could be in Theramore now.”

“Hmm. Well done, Quartermaster. No doubt, we’ll hear from him. Now I’m not in the habit of letting anyone molest the people of my household. I think our new lot can use a bit of a stroll in the healthy fresh air.”

Quartermaster grinned. “Can I come with, Sir?”

“If you’re up to it, I won’t hold you back.”


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

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: