Incidentally Heroic

90 Dwarf Warrior
12760
In the summer of 2010, I had a lot of time on my hands. Blizzard's writing contest was a good opportunity for working to a deadline, so I wrote a story and sent it in. I wasn't trying to compete, or to be faithful to canon or even original. I just wanted to write a satirical, what-if tale to entertain whoever might read it. Whether or not that happened, I can't say, although two years later Blizzard created a race based almost entirely on the expression "ook." Your guess is as good as mine. In any case, I thought I'd share. Enjoy!

 
I.

I didn't set out to do what I did.

I have no idea where I might have ended up if I hadn't followed Belinda out the gates of Northshire Abbey and run into that paladin, Sir Garrulus.

Though it was really Garrulus who ran into us.

He stepped out from the treeline into the road, genuflecting for Belinda and nodding at me.

"Does Stormwind, do all nations of the good and living, know you as the champions you will become?"

Garrulus was a burly, square-jawed, cleft-chinned man clad in plate armor that looked like it had once been a soup kettle. He spoke at one volume, loud, occasionally patting his steel warmace. His red handlebar moustache flapped and twitched when he talked as if two squirrels were standing on his lip doing the jitterbug rump-to-rump.

Belinda blushed. I talked through my teeth. "Maybe the next two travelers will be the ones you want."

"I am no idler. I waste no one's time. I," he sang, "am Sir Garrulus. Disciple of the Light, servant to the Alliance." Garrulus swept his arm, as if unveiling the sycamores behind him. "I seek to exalt the humble to carry out righteous deeds."

You couldn't get much humbler than me. I was a rat-catcher in Ironforge when the foreman noticed my talent for toasting rodents instead of whacking them with a sledgehammer. He suggested I study under the mages of Stormwind.

Why? Because, he said, in Stormwind the girls are taller and prettier.

The foreman was right. As soon as I stepped onto those cobblestone streets I forgot about magic and spent my last copper on gnome-size shoes and bottom-shelf cologne called L'eau de L'ogre. Sure, to me all human females look the same, but they looked good. They also responded to my advances by suggesting the Darkmoon Faire was right outside Goldshire.

Belinda took the time to glance down when I introduced myself. She was fair, willowy; a priest. Soft-spoken and kindhearted. She also smiled and actually told me her name. My heart was stolen.

That morning Belinda had been ordained. I tagged along as she, in the exhortation of the abbot, "would walk forth on a path in the Light." And Garrulus happened to be the first thing in her path.

"What kind of deeds?" asked Belinda.

"Right wrongs in this land and beyond."

I shrugged. "Did the real heroes turn you down?"

"Strength comes from purity of heart. Can you ignore the dulcet call to arms? Defending kingdoms embraced by the Light?" His moustache flexed like a strongman curling iron.

I'm no romantic. I was about to take Belinda's hand and leave Garrulus to proselytize to the birds when I actually turned to Belinda, and saw the wide-eyed look that says RECRUIT ME. She was sold.

There was Belinda, see, but then there was this cavalier with enough ideals to get her and me into real trouble. I toed the dirt, then turned back to the abbey. One of the monks, Brother Raymond, stood outside with his olive robe and snow-white tonsure. He smiled. His eyes met mine, passed right through and into the wide world beyond, as if in one gaze the holy man could place me on the road to my own destiny.

I whirled around, winked at Belinda, then said to Garrulus, "Lead on, boss."

It was some time later I learned Brother Raymond was blind.

 
II.

We spent the next week in a Stormwind inn while Garrulus recruited the rest of his troupe. Belinda spent her time meditating. I kept myself busy conjuring illusions to order inedible draenei takeout for the loud jerk downstairs. One by one the new hires joined us.

The first was a night elf who had to turn sideways to enter our room. She was curvy, if by curvy you mean defined by large muscles. She did pushups with one hand, used her sack of armor for a pillow, and ate off her shield. When Belinda asked her name, the purple body-builder answered, "Violette." Not exactly a Teldrassil girl, which was just as well, since Violette's only apparent connection to nature was the wad of Fadeleaf in her cheek.

Next came Manx, a little mountain of a dwarf. He'd been running with Hemet Nesingwary's entourage down in Stranglethorn when he happened on an albino gorilla he preferred to keep as a pet than mail to the taxidermist. The ape, Poco, was very much an ape — big, dumb, always hungry — but Manx swore Poco could talk. Fortunately, Ook ook ook often meant "Let's go down to the tavern," and Manx was always buying. I love dwarves.

Lucky introduced himself to us by rapping on the door. He looked like a rogue, but he spent most of his time in plain sight. Weren't thieves supposed to be furtive? Lucky's eyes bugged. "Darned if I won't try to vanish," he hissed. "Something's wrong with the concept. You'll never see me again." So I just asked him to do another knife trick.

When we greeted the charm-bedecked Windsor, I expected the warlock's first request to be redecorating the walls with twice-cursed goat's blood. Instead, he quietly told us about his studies of the demonic arts while remaking my bunk. Then he brandished a duster and swept the room. Imp? "No, not here," said Windsor, his soft eyes softening to match his soft voice. "He's not housetrained."

 
III.

All together, we followed the road southwest from Stormwind, stopping at the Westbrook Garrison. Garrulus and the others sat down to rest. Manx took Poco for "a wee pit stop" in the woods, leaving a trail of banana peels and coconuts.

In front of the stone fort were several signs. Scribbled on each was a wanted notice appealing to defenders of a countryside which — judging by the accuracy of the drawings — was beset by funny-looking cartoon monsters.

"Hey, Garrulus," I called, pointing to one of them. "What about this fellow 'Hogger'?"

Garrulus' eyes momentarily became all pupil. "Too dangerous," he said. "No, we will travel to the Deadmines and arrest Edwin VanCleef, leader of the Defias Brotherhood."

Belinda swallowed her bite of sweetbread hard. "Who's Edwin VanCleef? Who are the Defias?"

Lucky leaned back, tossing blades of grass at Windsor's imp. "VanCleef was an engineer who led a bunch of artisans out of Stormwind and into the plains of Westfall, where they turned to banditry."

"Why?"

Garrulus answered gravely. "VanCleef accused the House of Nobles of the most unforgivable act against a contractor: denying a change order."

 
IV.

Westfall was once prime real estate for settlers, farmers, and square-dancers. War and hard times changed that, the dusty plains now dotted with ramshackle farms begging for more food than they harvested.

We got the same story about VanCleef at the Alliance's remaining outpost, Sentinel Hill. Garrulus was undeterred. I didn't see the danger. What were disgruntled craftsmen going to attack us with? Ball-peen hammers? Decorative pottery?

Moonbrook, a run-down town occupied by the Defias, wasn't abandoned. Sure, buildings hadn't seen a coat of paint in years, but the main street was buzzing. Unfortunately, the crowd that surrounded us was angry and big. The Brotherhood had grown to include members of professions more fitting to theft, arson and murder.

"What're you doing in Moonbrook?" asked one goon with a face that even his mother couldn't love.

He wasn't offering to build us a cabinet. Garrulus narrowed his eyes, gripping his mace. His moustache convulsed. He looked ready to order us all to battle.

And to our deaths, I presumed. Violette let a quick sluice escape from the corner of her mouth and pulled her shield a little closer. Manx grit his teeth and fondled his rifle. Belinda steepled her fingers while she whispered a psalm. Windsor's hand hugged the mouth of his imp, who wanted to hide even more than poor Lucky, who stepped behind Poco instead.

Me, I did what any gnome does under duress: I ran my mouth.

"My colleagues and I represent the Independent Committee on Urban-Pastoral Labor Relations," I said in a voice that could have sold snake oil. "We wish to speak to Mr. VanCleef about negotiating a settlement."

The goon tried to mouth a few of my words before he was brushed aside by another man who looked a little less thuggish. "A gnome, a dwarf, an elf, three men, a woman, an imp and a gorilla?"

"Diversity allows us to work through all differences," I lied.

The man pursed his lips. "This way," he said.

So we were marched off into the Deadmines. Garrulus had turned beet-red, exasperated into silence. And as long as he stayed quiet, I figured, we stayed alive.

 
V.

Even while gathering every malcontent with a blackjack into his ranks, Edwin VanCleef hadn't lost an appetite for grand architecture.

The guided tour began as expected — in tunnels of ore. A few hundred paces beyond, swollen pipes and girders poked through raw stone. Then the passageway opened up into the largest space I'd seen since leaving Ironforge — a titanic, glowing-hot foundry smack in the middle.

The crowd escorting us grew. Watching the odds stack up with every step didn't exactly help morale. The silence was broken only by Poco's occasional and nervous Ooks.

We stopped in front of a gate thirty feet across. When heaved open, it revealed a subterranean lake dominated by a half-finished warship. The man-of-war was orcish design, the kind so laden with armor plates and cannons that it stays afloat only because the ocean doesn't want any trouble.

Up the ramps we went, prodded aboard the ship. From the quarterdeck walked a man with the gait of a prince, the girth of a laborer, and the company of fifty of his closest and most heavily armed friends: Edwin VanCleef.

"What are the King's terms?" he drawled.

 
VI.

I tried not to tremble, and recited what I'd made up.

"King Varian Wrynn requests — "

"Demands," corrected Garrulus, who had regained his composure.

"Expects," I compromised, "that the Defias Brotherhood lay off Westfall's poor, nostalgic farmers — "

"Submits to the authority of the King."

"That you mosey up to Stormwind for a little throne room chat — "

"Surrendering all weapons and disbanding."

"Checking sharpened and/or blunt instruments with the friendly valet in chain mail near the gate — "

"Accepting punishment befitting acts of treason. "

"Keeping in mind there might be hard feelings, but surely we can let bygones be bygones?"

Not where I planned to end up. Garrulus' face flushed again. The others were on the edge of panic. Edwin VanCleef locked his eyes on me, talking through a sneer.

"So, has Varian Wrynn rescinded prices from the heads of those in the Brotherhood?"

"Didn't say exactly, but I'd guess — no." I felt things sliding downhill.

"Will he even grant us entrance to his city?"

"I suppose you'd have to ask him yourse — " Oh, wait. Right. Shoot.

"Do you bring payment for the blood and toil Stormwind asked of these working hands?"

I even pretended to check my pockets. ". . . No."

"Then you offer me nothing. And so you will di — umph!"

The magic word VanCleef nearly got out was all Violette needed to give him an amateur nose job with her shield.

"Like hell!" she shouted.

"For Stormwind!" cried Garrulus, and there was a wild fracas.

It's remarkable what the fight-or-flight instinct can do, especially when flight is a no-go. Violette led the attack, meeting and answering blows with her shield and sword. Garrulus swung his mace left and right, sweeping rows of Defias like beads on an abacus. Manx roared, filling the air with buckshot. Lucky slipped between and behind, slicing and stabbing. Windsor and I waved our hands in conjury and torched anything that moved. And things that didn't move but got in the way. It's a wonder the ship didn't burn to the waterline.

Even Poco joined in. He bounded up the rigging, beat his chest, and swung from one side of the deck to the other, crying Ook ook ook in shrill distress. Or red-hot bestial rage. Either way, it was intense. Have you ever seen someone stabbed with a banana?

Belinda and her curative powers kept us all alive. When the smoke cleared, we stood atop a pile of Defias who were not going to threaten anybody for anywhere between the next few weeks and eternity. The rest backed away and begged us to tell the King that a reduced sentence would be fine, thank you very much and please don't set me on fire.

Garrulus flashed me two smiles: one from his mouth and the other from his moustache. I smirked back. I had learned not to underestimate terrified adventurers. He realized a just cause wasn't enough in and of itself. At least I thought he had.
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90 Dwarf Warrior
12760
VII.

Garrulus must have assumed Edwin VanCleef would be more recognizable than he actually was, because when he walked into Stormwind and held up the slain Defias leader's head, guards gathered, admired the valor for a moment, and then carried Garrulus and the head off to the constable's.

A few hours later, Garrulus burst into the tavern where we'd hid out after Lucky and I assured the guards we hardly knew the guy.

"Compliments of the King of Stormwind," he orated, handing a lapis lazuli brooch and bulging sack to each of us. The sacks clinked in a way leaving no question as to what was inside. "Go and celebrate our victory, then use this royal largesse to prepare for the coming journey."

The rest of us exchanged glances.

"Where to?" asked Windsor, cordially.

"We'll board a troop ship in a port nearby," said Garrulus, "sailing north for the Howling Fjord."

We exchanged more glances.

"Where to?" I repeated, not cordially.

"The King sees no place for us but on the front lines. We shall brave the frigid extremity of Northrend to face the fallen prince, the author of so much evil — Arthas, the Lich King."

 
VIII.

We had a week to kill before setting sail. I paid for private lessons with Stormwind's archmage, picking a Peacebloom bouquet every afternoon for Belinda.

Manx, Poco and Violette headed into the forest to hunt. Lucky played high-stakes cards until he lost his shirt, then stuck to solitaire. Windsor taught himself to summon a succubus, except the succubus dressed like a headmaster and chided him about posture and cleanliness. Windsor didn't seem to mind.

Garrulus gathered us, and we left for cold waters.

Tirion Fordring, leader of the Argent Crusade marshaled to defeat the Lich King, was in Stormwind on some dignitary work and rode the ship back with us and the other recruits, walking among us and shaking our hands. A paladin himself, Fordring might have been a grander version of Garrulus if you replaced Garrulus' supple idealism with cold, hard egoism.

Still, in spite of his overbearing confidence, Fordring made no illusions about the campaign. Although the siege of Icecrown Citadel continued apace, half of us wouldn't come home, he said. But unless we made sacrifices, none of us would stay un-undead for much longer.

Fordring reminded us of what we faced.

Arthas Menethil was a paladin's paladin, the crown prince of Lordaeron, who discovered a plague spread by the minions of the phantom Ner'zhul. Forced to choose between letting the citizens of the town Stratholme become zombies or killing them to stem the contagion, Arthas massacred Stratholme — and lost Lordaeron anyway.

Driven bonkers by grief, Arthas chased Ner'zhul's allies to Northrend, where Ner'zhul lured the prince to wield the cursed, soul-devouring sword Frostmourne for his revenge. Arthas took the bait, becoming a champion of the undead Scourge, killing his father and wrecking half the world. Back in Northrend, he climbed to the top of a frozen spire in Icecrown, donned a hideous suit of armor, and joined souls with Ner'zhul to become the Lich King.

Quite a ghost story.

Garrulus turned to us. "What I shared with Arthas compels me to Northrend."

Belinda nodded. "Because Arthas was a paladin, too."

"Arthas was no mere member of my order. He was an exemplar, steeled with morals. Had Ner'zhul seduced another, a warrior, a hunter, a magic-user," Garrulus paused briefly to acknowledge he'd slighted everyone, "the Lich King would simply be the consummation of lust for power. There was a will for good in the son of King Terenas Menethil; something more. A paladin can find it and stop Arthas. And redeem him."

You could see Manx's doubt beneath the beard. "Redeem? I dinna think there's much left after all he's done."

"All of what I am is nothing if it can be overcome by evil," said Garrulus, his moustache furrowing.

Logic assaulted me. "If Arthas had no equal, yet succumbed to Ner'zhul, how can anyone defeat or save him?"

I was going to add Let alone you, but Garrulus' reply silenced me.

"If there is nothing to do, why bother to live? The Scourge will be coming. I can only believe that we can stop it."

I couldn't argue with that. What choice did we have? And we were too far from shore for me to swim back.

 
IX.

Two weeks later, the crew sighted land. As advertised, we sailed up a fjord to the Alliance's port of Valgarde. The narrow inlet's cliffs flourished with stubborn greenery — and buildings carved like dragons, scaly red hides stretched across their roofs.

These were dwellings of the vrykul: proud, warlike half-giants whom legend traced to Azeroth's stone-wrought demigods, the Titans. They inhabited Northrend and responded to the Argent Crusade by trying to eradicate it.

Half a mile upstream, we saw vrykul handiwork. Charred Alliance ships were strung between cliffs by gigantic chains. The water was thick with driftwood. "Was full of men overboard, too, before the sharks swam in," said a dockworker with a grin as we disembarked.

"How is that funny?" Windsor asked.

"The vrykul who did this finally got what was coming," he answered, pointing to a display of oversized heads hanging from a crossbeam, each wearing an expression combining murderousness and surprise. "King Ymiron had been raiding Valgarde day and night. Tirion Fordring and his knights finally swept in and killed Ymiron and his henchmen, reducing the vrykul to harassing us from their villages."

"Wouldn't the vrykul have made natural allies against the Scourge?" wondered Garrulus.

"Allies?" the dockworker scoffed. "Ymiron pledged fealty to the Lich King before we came, sacrificing his people to Arthas' undead army."

 
X.

Garrulus stared at the vrykul heads for a long time. We stood there with him, in no hurry to begin our assignment of guarding Valgarde's livestock.

From the crowds stepped an ancient, blue-skinned draenei done up in bright feathers, a quilted robe, and body paint. "You wonder and wonder," he said. "Why? Why would warriors, fit to survive the ages, surrender to death?"

Garrulus turned to face the walking rainbow.

"No creature would give its soul willingly," he insisted.

"The vrykul have. There's more," said the draenei. "The spirit world has fallen under the sway of the Scourge. Val'kyr, undead vrykul slaves, watch over the realm of elements. I sense they guard a secret. That secret is the key to the Lich King's dominion over mortals."

"How can we learn it?" asked Garrulus.

"Enter the spirit world. You wish to face Arthas yourself — Thoralius the Wise knows these things." His smile was full of exactly three teeth. "Help me, and find what you seek."

Garrulus' moustache flicked as duty arm-wrestled aspiration. "But I have orders."

"You won't be missed. Tirion Fordring has more men than could be counted but can't spare a moment for an old shaman."

"How do we enter the spirit world?"

Thoralius stroked his beard. "It is dangerous. Take this censer. Come with me to Wyrmskull Village, and breathe in the incense."

"Garrulus is too important," I heard myself saying. "Someone else do it."

Garrulus turned to me. "I trust you."

I blinked. "Well, now, maybe you should go."

We crept out of Valgarde and hugged the rocky beach until we approached a cluster of dragon-shaped huts.

Thoralius lit the censer. Everyone backed away as I let the incense waft around me.

"You will enter another place, another time," said Thoralius.

His voice became distant as the world folded like a bent twig. The sun popped and the sky turned from a pleasant blue to a color I couldn't make out because I went blind.

Then blackness.

 
XI.

Then I could see again. I was still on the beach, but the rocks and trees were different sizes — and misplaced. The world went colorless, the air shimmering as if I could see the wind. The walls of Valgarde were gone. And I was alone.

I followed light shining from a hut. Inside, a vrykul warrior and his wife spoke. A cradle rested on the floor between them. The conversation was intimate, though with a striking absence of tenderness.

"Look on this face full with loyalty, woman."

"Only when the husband is fit to command."

"Sass in my abode? Traitor! Witch! I'll barter away your scalp!"

"Coward! Swine! I'd slit your throat if the bones wouldn't dull my blade!"

Vrykul pillow-talk at its sappiest.

The wife knelt beside the cradle. She extended a finger the size of a dagger and gently stroked whatever lay inside.

"What sickness stole into my womb to curse my child?"

"That is not a child!" hissed the warrior. "My son is no waif, no misshapen weakling."

I peered into the cradle, expecting a monster but instead finding a chubby, soft form seen in Stormwind. It was a human infant.

"By Ymiron's decree, my brothers will slay me themselves if they find it," said the warrior. He stepped toward the cradle.

"No! I will hide it until I find it a home — far away from here." The wife took the baby in her arms.

The vrykul then became three feet tall and a hundred miles long while the hut's beams split apart and crawled away, wormlike. Cobalt water poured through the rents and swallowed everything.

I drew a sharp breath, suddenly back on the beach. Belinda stood over me, her hands on my shoulders.

"Rise and shine!" she smiled.

 
XII.

Thoralius took the information like a good shaman: with pleasure and puzzlement.

"So the vrykul gave rise to man," he mused. "But they saw the new race as their own extinction."

Thoralius rummaged through his pile of arcana, fishing out a scroll and a map.

"You must have visited a place from nearly 15,000 years ago. Inscriptions tell of a stunning declaration Ymiron made, around the same time, in 'the misty place.' I believe," he said, "that it led the king to his collusion with the Scourge. The question, now, is where."

Talking to himself in a low voice, Thoralius look back and forth between the scroll and the map until he finally tapped a spot in the southeast corner.

"Nifflevar," he said. "I'll fetch us rides."

 
XIII.

Jutting out from looming sea-sprayed bluffs over the bay, Nifflevar looked like the villages we passed along the way, with imaginative architecture you couldn't fully appreciate because its vrykul creators would filet you if they caught you looking.

We tethered our mules and snuck up to Nifflevar. Thoralius unpacked his censer and I flung a helpful spark at it to get it smouldering.

"We should all go," said Garrulus. I didn't mind the company. Belinda and Poco plugged their noses as the rest of us took a generous sniff.

As before, I saw bright lights, then nothing, then awoke in that same otherworld wrapped with dirty gossamer.

Even from a distance, we saw that the huts had shifted, each a little taller or longer.

Heavy steps from behind had me and the others darting to one side, even though the dozen vrykul slogging by couldn't see us. The throng headed straight toward Nifflevar. Several streams of half-giants converged.

"This ought to be the place," I said.

Thoralius nodded.

"Let's hurry, then!" cried Garrulus. Into Nifflevar we went, silent and formless.

A few hundred vrykul had gathered. From a huddle of warriors on a small rise in the center of the village emerged Ymiron. He called to be heard, and the crowd hushed.

"The gods have abandoned us!" he bellowed. "Where are the Titans in our time of greatest need?"

From the crowd, murmurs grew to rumblings, then shouts of blasphemy. Ymiron fed the anxiety, describing human infants in the most unflattering words he could find.

"It is the Titans that have cursed us!" he continued, jabbing a mammoth arm toward the northeast. Around us, agitation swelled into a roar. Chants of Ymiron's name began.

"On this day all vrykul will shed their old beliefs! We denounce our old gods! All vrykul will pledge their allegiance to Ymiron!"

The cheers were deafening. My wraith-form lacked ears but I cupped my indefinite hands to my inchoate skull all the same.

"So that was how Ymiron grabbed the reins." I said.

"Tyrant," spat Violette.

"It doesn't answer why the vrykul humbled themselves again — to a false god, no less," said Thoralius.

As if in reply, the otherworld was gobbled up by an eye-frying flash.

 
XIV.

After a moment, we could see again, still in Nifflevar.

But it had changed. "Look!" I pointed.

The crowd had vanished. The huts were slightly rearranged again.

Two warriors stood at attention outside one of them. From inside the doorway was a glint. "There," said Garrulus, and led the group to it.

Metal reflected the light. Crammed inside were two plated hulks: Ymiron, not so young as before; and Arthas, so cold he made the walls condensate.

"Could we have jumped forward thousands of years?" whispered Windsor.

Garrulus shushed him. The behemoths were speaking.

"The vrykul are a willful tribe," the Lich King began, his voice a chorus of umpteen tortured wails. "But they fall to my armies, and your kingdom shrinks."

"I am Ymiron. This land is mine! I have defied invaders, storms and pestilence. I stand alone, equal to the Titans! No other, beast or demon, will ever rule it."

The dark lord couldn't resist. "The paladin, Arthas, is the distant son of your waning kind. He might say it was his right to claim a tottering throne."

"I know what you are," Ymiron snarled. "You are the kin of lame, thin-blooded offal. Whatever sorcery preserves it, your flesh is feeble!"

"Flesh? Fool!" thundered the Lich King. "This body is a vessel for the everlasting spirit of Ner'zhul and the ineluctable Scourge." He unfastened his breastplate and tilted it forward, revealing a fist-sized gash along the left side of his chest. None of us needed a closer look. "I cut out the paladin's final, mortal frailty, and cast it into the frozen depths. What this body was once is meaningless: all that remains is a pure and unending presence."

He unsheathed Frostmourne. The fire sputtered and we all flinched. He pointed the sword at Ymiron.

"You repudiated the Titans and only stand before me now because you know that no god is a god whose reign can end. I am the end. I am death. Bow before me."

Ymiron said nothing more. He pulled off his helm and knelt in homage.

Our soiree ended like the first. Ymiron somersaulted into Arthas before rolling up with the dirt floor and hearth. The Lich King's greathelm pinched into an infinitesimal dot while the rest of him, and the hut, and the now-cylindrical vrykul flapped like sheets on a clothesline.

Belinda roused us. We retrieved our mules.

I rode quietly, unable to shake the ease with which Ymiron sold out his people to hang onto power. Garrulus and his moustache quivered with excitement.

"That's it!" he said. "I know the Lich King's weakness and Arthas' salvation. Conscience."
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90 Dwarf Warrior
12760
XV.

We would retrieve Arthas' heart, Garrulus told us.

"Where could he have tossed it?" I asked.

"The paladin has keen ears," advised Thoralius. "The Lich King used no careless phrase."

Back at Valgarde, Thoralius grabbed a bundle of tomes and opened each to a page. For hours, he overlaid maps at different angles, pulling one out then sliding it back in.

Finally, Thoralius spoke. "There is a place known in old tongues," he cleared his throat, "as Naz'Anak," which sounded like he'd cleared his throat a second time. "It means 'the frozen depths.' It lies beneath Azeroth, tunnels wandering here and there, where horrors immemorial stir. The restlessness of earth exposed it to the surface of Icecrown, now lying at the bottom of a deep pit."

"Where in Icecrown?" Garrulus asked.

Thoralius looked up and smiled. "Under the Lich King's fortress, Icecrown Citadel, and," he leaned in, dropping to a whisper, "right where our forces have targeted for sapping."

Violette blinked. "We won't have to fight our way in?"

"No," Thoralius said, his smile growing. "The siege is set; bombing begins soon. It is no place for simple footsoldiers," he paused to snatch quill and parchment, "but there will be a detachment — sent by order of an old shaman whose curiosity wasn't worth the time of Tirion Fordring."

 
XVI.

We arrived at the siege with orders for the dubious commander.

Then the day came: the bombs were ready. Garrulus volunteered us to light the fuse. The commander — more than happy to risk lives he wasn't responsible for — warned Garrulus to be quick, "otherwise the only way to avoid the blast is down that hole."

Everything went dangerously according to plan. The fuse burned too fast. "Save yourselves!" shouted the commander as he and his men fled.

"Are you ready?" asked Garrulus.

"Yes," said Violette.

"Aye," said Manx.

"I think so," said Lucky.

"Having second thoughts," volunteered Windsor. His succubus slapped him.

"As we'll ever be," I quipped, putting my hand in Belinda's.

Belinda just smiled.

"Then — jump!" shouted Garrulus. In went Garrulus, Violette, Manx, Lucky and Windsor. I was about to follow when I turned and saw Poco backing away, a defiant Ook with each step. Here we had made the rational decision to risk injury and death, and the animal's survival instinct said Nothing Doing.

Profound dissonance between man and nature. A poser tickling philosophers for decades. I shoved the ape into the abyss, took Belinda's hand again, and fell with her into the darkness.

 
XVII.

I suppose Thoralius called the pit "deep" because he lacked a better word to describe it. After a minute of dropping through pitch black I was bored, and just clung to Belinda, hoping the bottom was soft.

The bottom was water. Cold water — but it saved our lives. We struggled to the surface and flopped onto dry ground. All accounted for. I waved my hands and lit Garrulus' torch.

Weird plants and oddly colored crystals lined the cavern walls. Shadows mingled and shifted. Soft outlines of mastodonic shapes surfaced before disappearing into the gloom again.

Garrulus pointed the torch.

"There it is!" he said.

In the water, a few strokes out, was a dark object.

Garrulus handed me the torch and swam out. Rubbing his hands, he reached and touched the object. With a yelp, he swung his arm around like he'd tried to pet a swarm of bees. Manx and Violette pulled him out.

"You shouldn't have touched it."

We did a fast about-face. Standing there was a boy — through whom we could see the cavern wall.

"Now he's going to come looking for you."

Arthas, surely. "How do we get out?" I asked the ghost.

"This portal," it said, calmly drawing a magical door to its right. "But if you want me to tell you about his heart, you'll have to stay. And you'll have to smear yourself with blood of the Faceless Ones if you want to live."

I had never been given two unappealing offers at once, and it wasn't as if they canceled each other out.

The mastodonic shapes grew larger. "Let's get out of here," I said.

Everyone but Garrulus hurried to the portal. "What about Arthas' heart? How it got here?" he pleaded.

"The Lich King told us what we need to know," I answered, pulling on his arm as monstrous things lumbered toward us. "And the heart isn't going anywhere."

 
XVIII.

Tirion Fordring met us in Valgarde with Thoralius when we returned.

"My scouts sighted a procession leaving Icecrown Citadel, bearing an artifact. And now Thoralius tells me it might be Arthas' heart."

"I knew a paladin could never serve evil," Garrulus said.

Fordring clasped Garrulus' hand. "This is a sign of the Light! Arthas could be made a man again. Thank you. My men and I will be leaving shortly to obtain it."

Garrulus' moustache bristled. "But — we'll join you!"

"Though you are worthy of the title 'crusader,' this is work for the greatest champions." Fordring leaned in. "We are near victory, my enthusiastic friend. For months we have fought in the chilled halls of Icecrown Citadel. Now we stand outside Arthas' throne room. The attack comes at a time of our choosing, and I can think of no better end than saving the finest man of our station."

 
XIX.

That night, Tirion Fordring returned — minus half the men he left with.

"It is not to be," muttered Fordring, as his bloodied procession went by. "You did indeed find Arthas' heart. But the Lich King's grip on Arthas is inextricable. Had I not run the heart through with my sword, we would have perished."

Garrulus — for only the second time — flushed, unable to speak.

"I'm sorry, Sir Garrulus. Tomorrow my champions will meet the Lich King in battle. There is nothing to redeem." With that, Fordring walked away.

We sat silently for hours. I don't know if anyone was as eager to challenge the greatest enemy on Azeroth, but none of us enjoyed seeing Garrulus so disappointed.

Then, out of nowhere, Thoralius joined us — an ashen man in armor beside him.

"My name is Thassarian," said the man, "and yes," he rolled his eyes, "I was once a death knight, cast in the Lich King's image before we joined your cause. My men guard the entrance to the Lich King's throne room."

He knelt beside Garrulus. "I heard of a crusader who braved dangers to truly understand the Lich King's power. Thoralius led me to you. Tirion Fordring will make his move tomorrow. But I will let you ascend to the top of the frozen spire first."

Garrulus' moustache perked up. "Why so generous?"

Thassarian snorted, offended by the suggestion.

"Because I have two masters. The first is serving Tirion Fordring. The second is annoying Tirion Fordring. Quickly, now."

 
XX.

I would have thought the Lich King were a statue if two solid-blue eyes weren't burning from beneath the greathelm.

He rose, approaching with unnerving nonchalance.

"Where is Fordring? You aren't his cohort." He stopped, looking us over, shifting his heft.

"Wait," said the Lich King, slowly. "It is you — the meddler. The naïf."

Garrulus straightened himself. "You cut out your heart to escape the guilt it held. You heard it calling for justice."

"Arthas pursued justice and in Frostmourne, found it. Flesh — the heart — chained him to simpleminded fancies. There is no more perfect, more ultimate judgment than the end of life."

"There is more to living, Arthas! You know this." Garrulus held out his hands. "There is the Light — truth, a power above all — which death cannot extinguish."

The azure pinpricks narrowed to slits.

"I have deigned in allowing a mite such as you to even speak," said the Lich King, assuming a battle stance, saving his nastiest insult for last. "I will slaughter your rabble. You will watch, contemplating your quest yielding only the proof of its futility."

The Lich King snapped his fingers. A blue bolt zigzagged through the air. It hit Garrulus, expanding into a watery blob and freezing into a coffin-shaped ice block — Garrulus suspended within.

We attacked with magic and steel. The Lich King rained strikes us, unleashing the ghouls, spirits and forces of deadly cold at his command. Harpy-like val'kyr swooped low, grasping with their claws.

The Scourge chased us from one end of the spire to the other. Manx lagged behind, fighting for breath. A val'kyr tore at his coat — when Poco launched upward, harrying the val'kyr with bananas and coconuts. Content to dispatch anything alive, the val'kyr let go of Manx and carried the struggling ape away, disappearing beyond the edge of the spire.

"Poco!" I shouted. Then another name. "Garrulus!" Then another. "Terenas Menethil!"

The Lich King slowed, turning his head.

The others followed suit, and we cried out every name and place lost to the Scourge that we could think of.

"So, you wish to join them," said the Lich King, wheeling toward me. "Frostmourne hungers."

He held the sword a few inches from my face. A chalky haze swam out. The bone-white mephitis hugged my eyes and snaked up my nostrils, the floor left my feet, and I found myself in a vast nowhere with a menacing ghost and a very old and very determined man. The only thing missing was a sign that read Welcome to Frostmourne.

The old man turned. "You have come to bring Arthas to justice?" he asked, a mile-away voice boring into my brain. "I heard you reciting his crimes. The Lich King is beyond remorse, but can be overcome by what endures: the indignation of his victims. Now, help me strike back!"

He swung his sword at the wraith. I took the cue and set my fingers to broil, turning the ghost to toast.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Terenas Menethil," said the old man. "You have injured Arthas. Go! Fight!"

The nothingness shattered and I fell back onto the spire. The Lich King staggered, one hand to his greathelm.

"Rrrrgh!" he groaned. "The noise! The unworthy multitudes! I demand silence — vengeance — of the grave. And I . . . shall . . . have it!"

Dread filled me. "Vanish, Lucky!" I screamed, and with a flourish of his cloak, the rogue disappeared.

The Lich King moved with unearthly speed. Frostmourne slashed five times, once for each of us. There wasn't a lot of blood but the way that cut sliced me top to bottom, my life was seeping out all the same. I joined a chorus of gasps as we lay stricken and helpless.

I looked up at Garrulus — our fearless, irrepressible leader. He hired us to save the world. He believed it could be done. We bungled it.

Garrulus' mouth was moving.

He was shouting something, muffled by the ice block. It was a prayer. "Light, give me the strength . . . to shatter these bonds!"

Arthas heard it, too, because he dropped his stance and lowered Frostmourne, a serrated grin spreading from under the greathelm.

I admit it. I wanted to see celestial fireworks. I wanted to see an empyrean hammer flung down, whirling end-for-end, to smash apart the prison of hate, malice and extremely cold water. Because cynics wimp out at the end, right?

That wasn't it. There, dying at the top of the world, I wanted to see the Light corporeal, the heavenly majesty, Goodness and Friends and Relations, appear and kick Scourge behind. I believed Garrulus had been chosen to defeat the evil one, girded by something other than the plate-armor super-saver special from Stormwind's trade district.

I tried to say a prayer myself, but all that came out was a strangled squeak. So I did it silently.

Nothing happened.

No swirls of kingly, sun-kissed yellows and blinding whites. The ice block stood there unbroken.

The Lich King's grin widened then flew apart. He arched his back and laughed — a pulsing, nebulous chuckle. "Uh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh!" it went. That wasn't the last sound I wanted to hear. Darkness closed in.

Then I heard a noise. It wasn't Arthas' rotten yuk-yuks, or my lungs sifting through their last breaths. It was a hum. A hum? No, it was a voice. It was a growl.

It was Garrulus. I opened my eyes.

The ice block shook. Arthas drew back. Slits wandered along the face of the ice. Then there was a thunderclap, the block cracked in two, and Garrulus strode from the halves.

My ears rang. Had I seen an almighty feat? My eyes said the paladin pushed his way to freedom. And I guessed that no man could survive such a mortal exertion.

Garrulus knew it, too, his face vacant, the frost-flecked moustache drooping. He took a half-step toward the Lich King, then stumbled. With a slow turn toward the circle of our bodies — as if to urge us forward one last time — Garrulus dropped to the floor of the spire and was still.

The Lich King started to laugh again.

A coconut hit the back of his greathelm.

He whirled. There, with one hairy, knotted arm clinging to the edge of the platform, and the other carrying a second volley of ballistic fruit, was Poco. On his back, the albino ape wore val'kyr wings appropriated from their previous owner.

The Lich King roared. Bearing down along the path the val'kyr had taken to carry Poco away, the Lich King stomped on rumpled, yellow fruit skins until one gave under the weight of a greave and slid, taking the massive warbringer with it.

Frostmourne whizzed into the air and skidded along the icy spire until it stopped — at the feet of Tirion Fordring.

There he stood with his elite guard. "I heard the cry from a hero's soul. The Light guided me to this place. No more, Arthas! No more lives will be consumed by your hatred!"

Fordring swung his sword down on Frostmourne and the abominable blade disintegrated. A milky cloud spewed out, lifting Arthas up like a whirlwind.

"Rise up, champions of the light!" said another voice. It was Terenas Menethil. His hand waved over us — suddenly I felt a lot less like croaking and more like putting paid to a paladin gone bad. In concert, we laid down our final barrage. The whirlwind vanished. The armored lord fell, the greathelm spun off his head, and the Lich King — the prince of death — was destroyed.

We stood before two slain paladins. Arthas — and Garrulus.

His heart had burst. "With zeal," said Fordring. "The act of your friend was no incidental heroism. Don't fear: he will savor the triumph apart from us."

Something Garrulus would have said.

 
XXI.

I knew where to bury him: outside Northshire Abbey, where he gestured at fate's horizon — and I thought he was pointing at a tree.

The tombstone was carved in the shape of a broadsword, commissioned by Tirion Fordring himself and inscribed with the elegance of a king's chronicler. Sir Garrulus, it read, Fallen in Battle against the Lich King.

Beneath the epitaph was a proverb: Truth, the Eternal Oath.

Belinda, Manx, Poco, Violette, Windsor and I held a vigil at the gravesite. As we stood there, I noticed the sword's hilt bowed upward in a familiar way. Violette did, too. She pulled out a handful of Fadeleaf and smeared the russet leaves on the stone until we had a red handlebar moustache.

Everybody laughed, and laughed for a long time, because I think what we really wanted to do was cry.

 
XXII.

Our righteous deeds carried out just as Garrulus said they would be, we exchanged goodbyes.

Violette was welcomed by the nobles of Stormwind as one of their own, sharing values of martial prowess and single syllables. A natural at full-contact polo, she dons the Wrynn crest and gets on the field to beat the dickens out of Theramore United every season.

Windsor and his succubus founded a school training ambitious, young thaumaturges the arts of forbidden magic and interior decorating. I suppose a do-gooder warlock is a contradiction to begin with: go with what you know.

Manx pushed the frontier in the Hinterlands. Poco published his memoirs: Times and Trials Among My Bald Brothers. It was dictated to Manx, of course, but scholars agree: that ape sure has an ear for metaphor.

Lucky eventually reappeared, as we figured he would. He was relieved to know Arthas had been defeated, was disappointed to have missed it, but seemed happiest to no longer be wherever he'd been. Visibility became an ambition of his, for obvious reasons. Lucky is now a town crier, and there's rarely any question as to where he's at.

Belinda and I settled down, filling an Elwynn Forest cottage with the pitter-patter of little half-gnome feet. Extending Belinda's family line was my idea, but Belinda, bless her, wouldn't have it. I thought back to what my father always told me: Make something of yourself; marry up; and don't ever saddle another child with the last name Van Klinkdagen Oom Mierikswortel Der Vonkboog.

Two out of three ain't bad.
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