“Well, Ah ha’e heard that the forests of Ashenvale are more than just pleasant woodlands and gleaming purple-emerald forests. But Ah ha’e nae idea if it’s true.”
I get an impression of burning brown eyes gleaming from the depths of a tangle of red … Fur? No. It’s hair, not fur and I don’t need to look to know it’s a dwarf either. The smell of aeons old dirt, roughly brewed ale, and grime precedes him. I’d rather not engage in small talk, if I can help it, so I focus on my blades and say nothing. I don’t even look at him because in addition to being renowned for mining, drinking and fighting, dwarves have a tendency to talk. A lot. He doesn’t take my subtle hint, stops sharpening his massive two-handed axe, turns it upside down and leans on it with his burly, red-furred arms crossed over the sturdy base. I bite back a groan.
“Y’see, mah mistaken appearance here at Silverwing Hold has been the product of in-stan-taneous magic. Ah ha’e not travelled to these tree-huggin’ elven lands of me own volition; no fear about that! You and me both, Ah’d be bettin’! Give us the deep halls of Ironforge any day, eh?” His conspiratorial nudge nearly knocks me over.
I clench my jaw until it throbs and barely retain my composure.
“Argh, by Bronzebeard’s red hairy palms but Ah hate trees!” He pauses, looks around to see if anyone is listening and then bends down to whisper, “I tell ye truly, I kind of appreciate what the orcs are tryin’ te do here, ye ken? By knockin’ all trees down, Ah mean.”
Somehow, I manage not to pass out from the smell of his breath, which is an almost overpowering mix of stale ale and rotting meat.
Oblivious to my discomfort, the dwarf continues. “Ne’er trust magic, mark me words! One moment Ah’m in the smoky, torch-lit halls of Ironforge ‘aving a disagreement with another dwarf - who Ah thought was a guard, mind ye.” He scratches his beard thoughtfully for a moment and then slaps his thighs and begins to laugh heartily, “Ah cannae even remember what the tiff was about now but Ah popped him one fair on his bucket-headed jaw! Turns out he was the battle master wasn’t he! Before Ah could say ‘Bronzebeard on a trike’, Ah found m’self ‘ere!”
I’d been polishing my blades furiously, up until now, but my actions slow in the face of the dwarf’s words. My journey to Warsong Gulch had been similar. I thought the battle master had been an off-duty guard who was simply enjoying an ale at the same inn as me, so I’d asked him for directions to the Forlorn Cavern and ended up here in Silverwing Hold instead. My first thought upon arrival had been to seek a way to get back to Ironforge, or to at least find some kind of official to whom I could explain my predicament. But I could find no way out, no path back, and no official to help me. Now I know why. There isn’t any. Just a mean-spirited dwarf in Ironforge giving wayward adventurers bad directions!
The room we are in is made from stone but it looks as though the elves' forest is trying to reclaim it. Huge vines twist over the thick walls and curl around uprights bared by heavy bombardments, as though to protect what is left or at least replace the stones that have been blasted away. The encroaching forest doesn’t make the Hold look any less secure or secure, just wild and even a little mythical. Heavy, wooden portcullises, ancient and covered in ivy, block all entrances and a tell-tale glimmer hints at magically-enhanced strength. There is a glowing flag in the middle of the back wall, too, planted firmly in a shimmering dais. I look at it suspiciously, trying to find some hidden secret in its magical folds. But there is no gods-sponsored epiphany, no amazing revelation. It is just a beautiful, well-made magic flag.
The dwarf catches me eyeing it. “’Tis what we’re fighting for, ye ken? And in the Horde hold at the other end of the Gulch is another dais just the same, only it holds a Horde flag instead of an Alliance one. We have to get the Horde’s black and red, and they have to get our blue and silver - or try to - and somehow this fight o’er flags will stop them flippin' Warsong Outriders from levelling the forests by proclaiming loud and long as to who has a greater claim on the place - or not, if we lose.” His chuckle sounds like rocks rolling down a rusty pipe. “Sounds like a wad of goat shite to me.”
It sounds ridiculous to me, too, but I remain silent and resume polishing my blades.
“I reckon we should just drive the Horde scum back to their hole in the desert with our axes up their arses! Everyone knows the forests belong to the elves, even the flippin' orcs know that. Forests are just what elves do, ye ken? Same as orcs do deserts, dwarfs do mountains and gnomes do…” he pauses, laughing, “well what is it exactly that gnomes do? Radiation?”
I bristle but say nothing. To retort would be to encourage.
Mercenaries appear in the hold periodically - and disconcertingly - out of thin air, probably the same way that the dwarf and I had. I wonder if they have been sent by mistake as well? Surely no one actually wants to be in this treeless hell-hole, pitted against a bunch of slobbering, pillaging orcs. But eventually the flow of mercenaries slows and then stops completely, long before I think there is anywhere near enough of us, and I notice there is only one Night elf among us. The rest are Draeni, dwarf, or human. I thought there would be more elves since it's their forest we are fighting for after all, but nae, there is only one. No Worgen have made an appearance at all, which strikes me as odd since they have such close ties with Darnassus. So much for the loyalty of dogs. A murmur of excitement ripples through the crew, jerking me from my thoughts. Our only Night elf is dancing in the middle of the room dressed in little more than a loin-cloth, his leather and be-feathered robes are tossed in a careless pile at his long purple feet.
Beside me the dwarf cheers and laughs loudly. “Ah was wonderin’ when our big-eared-friend was gonna start dancin’! Ah knew he would as soon as Ah seed him, Night elves are always dancin’ before battle. No one knows why, p’raps it’s some ancient druid magic.”
My fellow mercenaries certainly seem to enjoy it at any rate, laughing and joking along with the dancing druid. Maybe there is a point to the dance, after all. Everyone seems much more at ease than they did. A Draenei shaman with long, white curls spilling down her gracefully curved back dances beside the druid. Another Draenei, this time a paladin with massive horns jutting from his temples, claps loudly and wiggles his be-tailed backside. The mercenaries cheer him on even though he looks clumsy on his broad hooves and he gives a big, joy-filled smile to anyone who meets his white, glowing eyes. I do my best to avoid them and look around the room.
Close to the portcullis, a grey-haired human mage has conjured a small floating table laden with food and drink. He smiles as the mercenaries help themselves to the food and he nods, good-natured, when they gruffly thank him for it. An evil whine and loud clang reverberates through my head, announcing the presence of a warlock behind me. From the corner of my eye I see the hooded figure has summoned a device of dark magic, a soul well, which makes little green stones that have the power to heal any wound.
I don’t help myself to the well or the food. I cannot, in good conscience, use conjured food and the essence of dead things to prolong my life simply so that I can continue to kill. Just thinking about it makes me fear for my immortal soul. Maybe it is for this reason I have never been very successful at my work. Perhaps I should have been a priest instead of a rogue. I’d much rather heal a thing than kill it. Feeling a little despondent, I abandon my examination of my fellow mercenaries. There seems little point in continuing. They who have the most enchants, armour, life-prolonging tricks and magical food still die. Of course in Azeroth, being dead does not always mean ‘the end’ but that simply makes death even more shocking and tragic when someone actually really, truly dies and stays that way.
I hear something, the distinctive sound of flint being struck, and images of cosy camp-fires and good company chase the morbid thoughts from my mind. I love the crackle of flames, it makes me feel safe. I’ve never heard of anyone making a fire when there’s a chance it will attract danger. But the fire turns out to be little more than a spark, which a bored looking human hunter has struck on her boot to light the cigar dangling from her lips. There is a red bandanna tied around her forehead, maybe to hold her black shoulder-length hair back from her face, maybe not. It makes her look a little unhinged, like someone who has seen too much battle and now has trouble separating memories from real life. Other than that, she looks much like any other human, to my eyes.
There is a small white monkey with a red, tasselled cap sitting at her feet. It reaches around to scratch its behind with a long spindly arm and chews on something. I shudder to think about what it could be, and look away with disgust. My eyes meet the hunter’s cool blue gaze through a haze of smoke. She eyes me from head to toe before looking away and I can glean nothing from her bored expression. For some reason I cannot fathom, I feel a little jilted. Was I that uninteresting? More to the point, why did I care? I pretend to look away too, but watch from beneath my thick pink bangs as she hoists an enormous crossbow from a holster on her back. Her weapon looks too heavy, too clumsy to be wielded by a woman whose stature is, well, as ordinary as any other human woman. Her hands are deft and sure though, and she moves the crossbow like it weighs little more than a gnomish hand-ray. She doesn’t seem to notice the dancing-elf-induced revelry around us. Instead, she turns knobs, peers down the shaft of her bow, and finally flicks a lever on the chunky, green-lensed scope. A fine ray of red light streams from it and illuminates a red hunter’s mark on the opposite wall. I watch it like a cat watching a mouse as the hunter pans it around the room. When it reaches the bare (but incredibly hairy) chest of the dancing Night elf, it stops.
The Night elf’s dance slows and then stops too. One by one the mercenaries fall silent. The monkey screams, whoops and flings something that looks a lot like poo at the elf’s feet. All eyes shift from the druid, to the hunter, and back to the druid again until finally the hunter lowers her bow. She winks at the druid but her eyes are not smiling. Neither is the druid and he glares imperiously at the hunter. He ends up looking away first, but while he seems most unamused, the rest of us release our collective breaths. It would have been a bad way to start a battle, had one of our own killed
one of our own. I have no idea what just happened, and neither it seems, does anyone else but there is no more dancing.
Battle horns blast from the parapets and the last of the tension enveloping the hold snaps like a wire that’s been stretched too far. I jumped, startled, but a quick scan of those around me leads me to believe that no one saw my nervousness. Perhaps they were too nervous themselves. Chains screech piercingly, protesting at the weight of the portcullises as they lift them. I slap my hands over my ears but it seems as though I’m the only one that the noise bothers. The rest of the mercenaries merely line up at the exits and prepare to charge. All except for the hunter, anyway, who spins her crossbow in one hand and rests it on her armoured shoulder, takes a final long drag of her cigar and then grinds it beneath the heel of her boot. Casting a final glare at the hunter, the druid slips his feather-lined robes over his head and leads the charge from the hall in a burst of wild magic and long, green hair. The mercenaries follow without hesitation as the elf somersaults over the edge of the cliff upon which Silverwing Hold is built. Again, the mercenaries follow but with far less agility. I gasp, fearing the worst, but the mage cries out a few archaic words in a deep, resounding voice and the entire war band floats gently and unharmed to the grounds below.
I still haven’t left the hall. At some point after the mage saved the war band, I clenched my eyes tightly shut, trying to glean courage from the fact druids can heal. Sometimes, they can even resurrect the dead so I will be alright...surely...? I say a final prayer to whatever god is listening, draw my cloak of shadows tight around me and force my legs to walk in the direction of the exit.
The hunter’s long, mail-clad leg bars my way. “Stay, gnome. Defend.”
I am too shocked to respond but the hunter has already moved to the entrance on the right side of the hall. She concentrates on setting traps that will explode in either fire or frost or ice. Once she finishes her self-appointed task, she moves to the left side of the hall.
“Gnome! Stand here and guard.”
I bite my tongue again, remembering that we have the same goal and that bickering will not keep us alive. There are captains and there are grunts, after all. Not everyone can or should lead.
I move to where she told me to. The entrance opens into a torch-lit tunnel but I can’t tell how long it stretches because the roof dips a quarter of the way down and cuts off my view. I can see another exit though, which I guess must lead to the Holds upper level. I think it would be a good idea to scout this area but the hunter’s husky bark cuts me off before I can voice the suggestion.
We disappear from view; me in my cloak of shadows, and the hunter and her monkey in camouflage so perfect that I can’t see them - until she whistles. It is the kind of sharp whistle that guards used to call their dogs.
I meet her eyes again, both surprised that she can see me despite my rogue tricks, and peeved that she whistles at me like I’m an animal.
Ignorant to my ire she points at the tunnel.
I see nothing in the torch-lit gloom but that doesn’t mean much. Not many can see me either but here I stand. Hunters, on the other hand, have a knack for sensing things both living and dead, both seen and unseen. So I trust her word over what my eyes report.
She whistles again.
I roll my eyes and turn to see what she wants this time. She shakes her head impatiently and points to the small floor above. I nod, creep out of the hall and up the ramp, which will take me to where she indicates. Just as I reach the upper level, I catch the tail of a group of Horde as they drop over the edge and into the room I’ve just come from.
Three orcs wearing heavy plate and two Blood elves; one dressed in the dark armour of a death knight and the other in healer’s cloth. Three warriors, a death knight, and a priest.
The hunter and I cannot best them alone so I remain hidden. I know there is little point in both of us dying but shame still threatens to overwhelm me as I watch the fight begin. Someone must have taught the Horde crew enough Common to be able to swear fluently and they hurl insults at the hunter that make me blush, despite my leg-quaking fear.
The hunter may as well be deaf for all the impact their words have. She lures them into her traps, encases them in ice, sets them on fire and/or both. Thick fog covers the ground, slowing the enemy, and when the hunter leaps backward, webs appear out of nowhere to entangle and entrap the enemies’ legs.
Her movements are fluid, powerful, precise; but her shots do not fell the orcs. Indeed, the bolts don’t appear to hurt the orcs at all. I see why when the enemy priest ducks out from where she hides behind a wall in the room below, shooting golden white healing light from her hands. She keeps the orcs whole despite how much damage the hunter inflicts upon them.
I fear I was right. It is a losing battle. But no sooner do I finish the thought than does an orc fall beneath the hunter’s barrage! The orc directly behind him staggers, trips over his fallen comrade and then hits the ground hard. A bolt takes the last orc in the neck, which, either by the hunter’s skill or by pure dumb luck, has passed through a chink in the warrior’s armour and into his throat. Blood gurgles and gushes from his mouth as he tries to scream but there is no sign of the priest or of her magic. Nor is there any sign of the death knight.
Against all hope the hunter has won but victory has cost her dearly. Her face is a grimace of barely contained pain and her right arm hangs limply at her side. It is covered in blood from shoulder to wrist. A gash splits her forehead and blood pumps steadily from her thigh through a tear in her mail.
Dread twists my insides. If the orcs somehow managed to cut one of the hunter’s arteries - and it looks like they have - she will be dead within moments. I can hardly believe she isn’t dead already until a drained health stone drops from her remaining good hand. The flow of blood from her wound slows but does not stop completely. She still needs proper healing, and quickly if she is to live.
Suddenly, the air splits with a deafening crack and the death knight bursts into the room amid a fury of broken ice and sleet. He must have been caught in one of the hunter’s ice traps but now he is free.
The hunter is not out of fight yet, despite her grave wounds. A glaive appears in her good hand and she flings it expertly at the elf but there is no power behind the throw. She is too weak, the death knight’s armour too thick. The glaive bounces away harmlessly and the hunter falls to one knee, exhausted.
Laughing, the death knight seizes the flag. But before he leaves, he stands over the hunter and gloats as her life blood spills across the floor. Without warning smashes his plated fist squarely into her face and her nose explodes across her cheeks. She drops like a stone to the floor, tries to lift herself once, falls again and then lays unmoving in the spreading pool of her blood.
Disbelief turns me into stone. I cannot move. I watch helplessly as the enemy healer finally makes another appearance. The death knight barks a few harsh commands at her in the guttural language of the Horde and does not bother trying to hide his impatience as she staggers to his side, whining all the while. He stares unsympathetically at her, although it is obvious she is severely wounded and drained from the fight.
I feel no pity for her either.
From somewhere beyond my line of sight there is a weak, pain-filled whoop, a shuffle and a slide.
The elves stand in stunned silence.
The hunter’s monkey pulls itself toward its fallen master. It is gore-covered, it’s legs are mangled and drag uselessly in its wake leaving twin tracks of blood across the floor. It cries like a small, helpless child and I am barely able to see through my own tears as it reaches into the hunter’s belt and pulls out another health stone. It taps the stone gently on the hunter’s still breast and when the the hunter doesn’t move, the monkey lays its head on her chest and begins to keen a sound so full of gut-wrenching grief that my heart shatters into little pieces. The death knight, however, is moved to laughter as though the monkey’s grief is the funniest thing he has ever been privy to. The priest laughs too but puts a restraining hand on the death knight’s arm as though to encourage him to leave. He doesn’t seem to like the idea and snatches his arm away. Then, begrudgingly, like a child told to pack up his toys, he turns back to the monkey and lifts his sword.
I hide my face behind my hands, unable to watch. The monkey’s crying stops abruptly and through my splayed fingers, I see the health stone drop from its lifeless paw.
The death knight retrieves the warlock’s handiwork and tosses it contemptuously at the priest. It is covered in monkey poo, which makes her squeal, but she cannot afford pass up the free healing. Once the stone’s magic is spent and she is revived, she curls a hateful lip, wipes her dirty hands on one of the few remaining clean patches of the monkey’s fur and follows the death knight out of the hold without a backward glance.
I slump to my knees and let the tears run freely. Would it have made any difference if I had helped? Should I have at least tried to take the healer out? Would the hunter and I have been able to beat the death knight on our own?
Eventually I muster the courage to drop silently to the floor below. I steal over to where the hunter lay, to the wreckage that had once been a woman and a monkey. Their end had been so uncalled for. So cruel. I turn away and retch the contents of my stomach.
I have no idea how long I stay like this but after some time a warm hand gently clasps my shoulder and holds my pigtails away from my face while I vomit. I cry out and jump terrified to my feet! But it is the big Draenei paladin smiling his huge, friendly smile. Behind him is the Night elf druid and the shaman-come-enormous ghost wolf, who is holding the Horde flag. And there is someone else. I meet a cool, blue-eyed gaze through a cloud of cigar smoke.
The hunter? It cannot be! Surely my guilty mind plays tricks! I look again to where the hunter and her monkey’s corpses are - were
- but even the blood has disappeared. A blinding flash of light makes me cower and shield my eyes. A joyous whoop almost deafens me. I tentatively peep from behind my hands and wonder what other impossible thing has happened. The hunter’s monkey stares at me without emotion, chewing, scratching its arse.
“Come! Come, little one!” The Draenei paladin booms in heavily-accented common. “There is no reason to be sad. I bring hunter back and our friend here,” he sweeps his other arm wide to indicate the still less than amused druid, “brings back little monkey! Their work is not finished!”
I gape at him, astonished.
He leans down to tap a big, chiding blue finger on the tip of my nose. “Little one, little one! All is possible with the Light.”
“Yeah, well, I hate to spoil the mood,” the hunter says, blowing out a long stream of smoke before continuing, “but like you said, our work isn’t finished.”
I don’t know what she means by our? Does she mean ‘our’ as in her and her monkey, or as in me and her and her monkey, or as in our entire war party? Perhaps all of the above?
She crushes the barely smoked cigar beneath her booted heel and lifts an eyebrow pointedly at me. I lower my head, hoping my bangs hide the shame burning my cheeks but the hunter’s sharp whistle snaps me back to the present.
Indignation quickly replaces guilt and I glare after her as she strides from the hall. Who does she think she is? And more to the point, what does she think I am? Her slave? Her minion?
“Gnome!” She barks again when she realises I am not following. Her voice lowers dangerously. “I said heel.”
I clench my teeth and although I cannot think of anything to say, I do manage to narrow my eyes. The hunter holds my gaze as I stomp toward her and when I am near enough, she adds insult to injury by hoisting me into the air like a child!
I find myself sharing the side car of a thrumming chopper with the monkey, who stares at me and chews on something I hope is not poo. What a disgusting little creature, and what a cow it’s mistress is! Without further ‘niceties’, and I do use the word loosely, the hunter lowers multi-lensed goggles over her eyes, twists the throttle and steers the bike over the edge of the cliff.
The monkey screams and whoops with glee all the way down.
Invisible in the shadows of what had once been an enormous, majestic tree, I watch the death knight and his healer all but skip across the field that separates the Alliance and Horde bases. There is a trail of bodies from both factions in their wake but they laugh together as though they are merely going for an evening stroll. The healer even swoops like some macabre dancer to pluck flowers as she passes and shows no interest in healing any of the fallen Horde warriors. She has eyes only for the death knight - and for flowers of course.
I hope the weeds she picks make her piss-the-bed.
My hands begin to tremble as the hated pair draw ever nearer. Sweat runs in rivulets down my sides. Images of the death knight staving the hunter and her monkey’s heads in run through my mind like a bad cinematic. With great effort I force the images away in time to see the death knight kick something into the air and laugh as it arcs across the sky.
At first I think it is a rock or an odd shaped lump of wood but when it lands at my feet, I recognise it as the horned helmet the dwarf was wearing. And it isn’t empty. My guts churn again, bile threatens to choke me. Gods, what am I doing here?
The hunter’s sharp whistle startles me back from the edge of despair. She stands on one leg and leans against the entrance of a wood-framed tunnel. She has not bothered with camouflage. In fact, she seems to have gone out of her way to be seen.
I want to yell! To scream at her to run! That he is coming! And he would not die! She would and so would her monkey.
Instead, I remain hidden in my cloak of shadows and watch with growing horror as the hunter strikes a light and holds it to the end of a cigar. Her monkey chews, stares and scratches its arse. Neither look at me again or pay any attention to the fast approaching death knight and healer.
The elves notice her, though. The priest squeals in unbridled disgust but the death knight is much less perturbed. His face lights evilly and he begins to laugh that horrible, blood-hungry, skin-curdling laugh. His voice has a tinny sound to it as though a can is strapped to his mouth like the muffler on a chopper.
Regardless of how ridiculous it sounds, my knees turn to jelly at the sound of his rasping, otherworldly voice and my hands tremble so hard that I am in danger of dropping my blades. I close my eyes and try to steel my will but the fear is overwhelming. Gods! It is going to happen again. The hunter will die and I will watch and this time there is no one around to bring her back.
Open your eyes, gnome!
I scream the words in my mind, I have to watch the hunter, I have to watch for the signal! Open your eyes!
A colossal act of will. My eyes crack open and meet the hunter’s cool, blue gaze.
Something explodes to my left!
I cower and cover as much of my head as my tiny arms can reach as shards of ice splinter in all directions around me.
The priest has fallen victim to one of the hunter’s traps. Yet, even though she is held suspended in a block of ice, fury blazes in her glowing green eyes. It is the glow in her right hand that concerns me most, though.
It comes from a trinket that has the insignia of the Horde emblazoned upon it. The Alliance give such trinkets to its warriors as well when they serve long enough and the items are greatly prized. The magic within them is so powerful it can break the holder from any movement impairing spell or trap in the known worlds.
With this in her hand, the priest will be free in moments...
...Free to revive that monster death knight while he kills the hunter.
I have to take the priest out, I must! But I think I have misunderstood where the hunter said to stand because the healer is so far away, I don’t think I can I cover the distance in time to stop her. I look frantically at the hunter.
She is watching me but there is no answer to my dilemma in her bored expression. Without looking away, she flicks the butt of her cigar in the death knight’s direction -
- and I see the death knight’s unholy blade rise above the hunter and her monkey
I shake the morbid thought from my mind and suck huge breaths into my lungs.
When my breathing steadies, I close my eyes so I can better focus on what little magic I have...Inhale...
And before I can think any more, before my fear can stop me, I use a rogue spell to step through the shadows...Exhale...
...And appear behind the priest just as the trap shatters. I bury my knife deep into the her kidneys. She arches, tries to scream, but I am all over her now. I leap into the air, lasso a thin wire around her scrawny neck and use all my strength to choke her.
The Blood Elf is not without considerable power of her own, though. Her psychic abilities claw at the edge of my mind and try to dominate it, try to make me release my hold.
I grit my teeth and fight back with images of the death she and her malicious knight had served not long before to the hunter and her monkey. Only this time, it is the healer and her knight who die so cruelly.
Her psychic attack falters and then stops. She stumbles, falls and I ride her body to the ground, springing deftly to my feet before her corpse can land atop.
I look down at her for a few heart beats, her eyes are glazed and lifeless but still glow with the fel green magic her people feed upon. This is the first time I’ve killed anything other than a wild animal, but I feel nothing. No, that isn’t true. It is a good thing that my stomach is already empty.
Without warning, some foul kind of magic blasts into me with the force of a cannon ball and sends me flying. Air explodes from my lungs when I land with a loud oomph! The death knight’s laugh washes over me like an evil tide. Ice begins to crawl through the arterial ways in my body, up my arms, my neck, my face. Blue lines crack along the exposed skin beneath my jerkin and smoking chains of ghostly black ice rise around me. I try to move, to run, but I cannot. “Bash'a no falor talah!”
A voice that sounds like it has been dragged kicking and screaming from the gates of hell roars behind me.
I know without looking that the death knight’s sword swings for my neck. I flinch internally, grateful at least that my frozen form can not betray my terror - or allow my bladder to shame me. But the blow does not fall! Instead, I am thrown some distance away by the repercussion of another explosion and searing heat warms me. The icy death the knight tried to inflict upon me begins to thaw and within moments, I am able to turn my neck enough to see what is happening.
The death knight is caught in a blaze of fire from another of the hunter’s traps but if he feels any pain it does not show. The flames die quickly too, perhaps his corpse-skin is too cold to burn. He rounds a malevolent glare on the hunter.
She still leans casually against the wood and stone wall, her monkey still chews and scratches its arse. Unhurriedly, she hauls the crossbow from her back, fiddles with the green scope and red cross-hairs light the death knight’s plated chest.
He laughs scornfully in answer, makes rude gestures and screams some snide remark at her in his grating language.
The hunter answers with her bow.
Bolts bombard the death knight and ping musically from his black armour. He laughs even more manically and manages to dodge most of the projectiles or deflect them with his sword.
My heart begins to slide to my feet. It is the flag room all over again. The hunter shoots but no damage is inflicted.I scan the field quickly, checking to see if his healer has somehow managed to resurrect and return in such short time but I cannot see her anywhere.
Suddenly the death knight staggers. There is a dazed look to his weirdly illuminated eyes. The hunter’s shots have somehow managed to hurt him! But not badly enough, if his evil glare is anything to go by. I fear she has only hurt him enough to make him very, very angry.
He bursts from the ice trap! The hunter’s spells and tricks have been for nothing! I cry a hoarse, mortified sound that even I do not recognise and fall hopelessly to my knees.
The death knight charges and is oblivious to the additional traps the hunter has set. But just when the death knight is upon her (and I fear the worst), the hunter makes an impossible backward leap that takes her far from the death knight’s reach. Webs appear around his ankles and he falls hard to the ground.
Another hate-filled diatribe spews from his corpse-blue lips, but the monkey is upon him in a heart beat, screaming and whooping, smacking and clawing - throwing poo - and the death knight is forced to shut up and defend himself.
Faster than lightning the monkey slips through the death knight’s guard and tears away a chunk of corpse-coloured scalp with long white hair still attached.
Cringing, I half-turn away.
The death knight touches his hand to his wound and his gloved fingers come away covered in black ichor. He stares as though he can’t believe the injury.
The monkey gulps the hair and scalp down as smoothly as a peeled banana and then licks its lips.
The death knight’s his face twists with rage. Dark magic explodes from his fist and blasts the monkey from his back! The creature hits the ground hard and the momentum sends it tumbling over and over again. The death knight rolls nimbly to his feet and shoots out his other hand. Another unearthly, shadowy fist bursts from his palm, clasping the hunter in a death grip she can neither dodge nor escape! It hauls her back to where the death knight waits, laughing, sword raised and ready to impale her as she lands. She will not even have time to defend herself.
Still shivering so hard that I fear I will bite off my tongue, I try to walk but hypothermia blocks my attempts.Come on… legs, move… by Bronzebeard’s hairy toenails, move!MOVE!
The last of my magic explodes around me and flames ignite around my feet. I sprint with unnatural speed to the death knight and thrust my blade into the back of his knee where his armour does not join. He screams in rage or pain (I cannot tell which), as his leg buckles beneath him. I stab at his back, through a chink in his armour.
He turns his fel gaze upon me and his laughter sounds almost greedy. The shadowy fist drops the hunter and swoops in my direction.
I watch it, completely defeated. I cannot run away. My blood is still too cold and what little magic I have is spent. Fear forces me to my knees and the shadowy fist curls almost lovingly around my throat.
I cannot breathe! I try to pry it loose but my hands, my blades pass straight through it. White dances at the edge of my vision -
And then I am dropped hard and abruptly onto the ground.
The hunter, free once more to move and fight has slammed a knee into the death knight’s groin. His face turns a tortured, bruised colour. His legs fold beneath him.
The hunter slams her knee up again, this time into his jaw.
His teeth crunch and ichor flows from his mouth. Writhing on the ground the same as any other man, and covered in goo that looks like regurgitated liquorice, the death knight does not look so menacing now.
The hunter’s crossbow spins into her hands as though by magic and she presses the ‘serious’ end against the back of the death knights’ head. She flicks a cigar into her mouth and then she reaches into the pouch at her side for flint. Considering how cold I still am, I surprise us both when I reach my tinder first. With shaking hands I strike a flame and hold it up for her to use. The muscle at the corner of her lips twitches as she accepts the light, although she has to bend almost in half to reach it.
“Gnome,” Grey smoke billows around her mouth. She flicks her chin at the Night elves’ flag, which is still in the holster on the death knight’s back. “Grab that. Run it back to the base as fast as you can - the dick’s hypothermia spell will wear off in a bit and the casters have cleared the field so you won’t have any problem.”
Nodding, I keep a wary eye on the death knight and reach for the banner. Thankfully for me, (and sadly for him), the pain between his legs has made him oblivious to anything else. A shot of magical energy, like static electricity only more fortifying, flows through me the instant I touch the flag and the last of the death knight’s evil touch melts away. I feel more optimistic than I have since entering this horrible battle ground. Perhaps I can do this, after all. Perhaps, and I feel this is a long shot, but just perhaps we might actually win this battle and put an end to the conflict. Then, all the pain and trauma might have some point after all.
Happily, I turn to run but I am halted in mid-stride by the unmistakable boom!
of an explosive shot. I swallow hard and force myself to turn. It seems to take an age. There is a smoking, fist-size hole in the ground beside the death knight’s head and he isn’t moving. Blinking dust uncontrollably from my eyes, I watch as the hunter none too gently turns him over with the toe of her boot and a sinking feeling of regret that I cannot understand threatens to make me gag.
The death knight groans. He is alive! I release the breath I did not realise I’d been holding.
“Kill… me… you fucking bitch!” The death knight’s Common is halting and heavily accented.
“Gnome, I told you to run.” The hunter doesn’t seem to have heard the Blood elf’s insults.
She drops her cigar onto his plated chest and grinds it beneath her heel. Perhaps she did hear him, after all. Without another word she strides to the copse of trees where she hid her chopper earlier. She wheels it out and throws a long leg over the seat.
The death knight struggles to his knees but pain forces him down again. “I said…kill…me, you fucking bitch!”
The hunter ignores him.
I follow her lead but wince with distaste when I see I have to share the side-car with the poo-flinging monkey again, who now has black ichor plastered in the fur around its mouth as well. As though trying to incite me, the monkey stares, chews and scratches it’s arse as usual. I ignore the mangy thing. At least I don’t have to stay with the death knight. Smashed gonads or not, he is the single most terrifying being I have ever encountered. I just know that images of his fel visage will haunt me for the rest of my life. We speed over the eerily empty field and when we draw closer to base I see why things are so quiet. The grey-haired mage and the warlock look to be having a break, sitting companionably in the midst of innumerable piles of bones.
"That's a lot of corpses." The hunter smiles grimly.
The mage waves and the warlock’s deep, dark hood turns to follow our passage as we pass. I feel myself pale beneath their gaze. Foul and fair. I am glad we are all on the same side.
The Draenei paladin waits for us at the door of the hold. The shaman and druid stand behind him.
“Ah! My little friends! You did good, yes?” He claps me good-natured on the back.
It knocks me forward a few paces but I resist the urge to rub my shoulder. Instead, I give them a weak smile and hand over the flag.
“Now, we go again, yes?”
As though in answer to his question, the shaman promptly shape-shifts into a ghost wolf. Now I find myself resisting the urge to shudder, too. Watching things shape-change always makes my skin crawl. The paladin does not immediately follow the shaman over the cliff though, and I know he is waiting for me to meet his eyes. I swallow hard, hesitate for only a moment more, and then look up. His eyes are warm,kind, but most of all, they are just so sincere. I can not help but return his huge friendly smile. He lifts a hand above my head in benediction, gold-white light chimes around me and I am instantly filled with an almost supernatural sense of warmth and well being that removes all weariness from my bones and fear from my heart.
“Is good, yes?” He laughs heartily and mounts his armoured elekk.
I nod and wonder how we can possibly lose with him on our side. But then I think of the death knight and his healer again and fear worries at the edges of my heart. Perhaps it is healthy to have at least a small sense of fear.
The hunter has already returned to the Hold and I follow her lead. She is laying more traps, the mandatory cigar hangs from her lips and although she does not turn as I approach, I know she knows I am there. Of course she does, she is a hunter after all. I watch for a few moments, chewing my bottom lip, shifting uneasily from foot to foot while I work up the courage to ask-
“You want to know why I didn’t kill him.” It is more a statement than a question.
I nod sheepishly.
“When it comes to killing, there is only one rule; if you kill it you eat it.” She takes a final drag on her cigar and then crushes it beneath her heel before adding, “Unless it’s in self-defence, of course. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to eat a death knight - ‘specially not a Blood elf one.”
I bite my lip and smile, though it quickly turns into a scowl when I meet the eyes of the monkey. But to my surprise, it lifts its hand and holds something out. My first instinct is to turn away but it is grinning a huge, tooth-filled monkey smile that is somehow so innocent and sweet that I feel obliged to at least look at what it wants to give me. Hesitating, I hold out my hand and the monkey drops something into it.
It is poo.
Of course it is poo! What did I expect?
I drop it like a hot coal and the monkey screams and whoops and jumps gleeful somersaults into the air. I glare at it and barely manage not to throw a dagger at its head.
“Enough, both of you.” The hunter’s tone is crisp but she is as close to a real smile as I’ve ever seen.
The monkey follows obediently as the hunter camouflages them but every now and again, it makes a monkey noise that sounds a lot like suppressed laughter.
The disgusting little creature!
“Incoming!” The hunter hisses.
I brace myself and pray to the Gods that it isn’t the death knight and his healer returning for round two but, as usual, the Gods do not listen to my
prayers. Ah well. At least the death knight hates the monkey too.