Continued from The Next Best Thing, Part 2
Echo remembered the long march up Mount Hyjal. After trekking across sandy savannah, blistering with heat and eyed by strange animals, after delving through the darkest, deepest, oldest forest she had ever seen, they had been set to a long switchback trail leading up and up and up. The scouts and engineers who had gone ahead of the infantry had left the merest parody of a road, full of cut logs and stones and woodland debris. Every step threatened to twist an ankle. But they had marched and marched and marched, on legs of lead and backs bent with pain, until exhausted they had reached the summit and battle with the Scourge.
That march, as vividly as she remembered it, held nothing to compare with this journey today. Her feet plodded across worn cobblestone streets as she walked from the Cathedral Cemetery to Stormwind Harbor, slumped with fatigue and dread.
The chill wind off the harbor lifted Echo’s hair, flickering the flame of her lighter as she took a deep draw on a fresh cigarette. She paced, up and down the deck of the houseboat, unable to stop moving. Either Credence or E would be up to check on her soon. Her bike offered no chance for escape, already tied down in preparation to set sail. She would just have to walk, even as the letter of commission in her pocket continued to chafe her thigh.
As soon as she stepped off the gangplank and onto the docks her shoulders tightened across her back. Stormwind had changed in the past months, from a city at last relaxing into relief and rebirth into one mobilizing once again for war. Youngsters grown out of the children of the Third War now prepared for a fourth, just as she had taken up arms after the orcs razed her homeland. They marched in shining columns through the harbor to board ships, and her footsteps fell into the familiar rhythm of their cadence. The march lead her up and into the city proper, along the canals, where she passed civilians with her shoulders squared and her gaze high and narrowed. The beating drums in her head carried her forward as they had for miles upon miles, years upon years.
Echo watched Erzabet’s enthused gestures from across the table, but really had no idea what the girl was saying. Something about her last venture to Wyntersmere, she figured, or something she was looking forward to sharing with her mums on their winter holiday: sleigh rides through snow-frosted trees, big warm fireplaces to huddle around, the way the cooks at House DeWynter made the richest hot chocolate...
Echo pulled her spoon around her cooling soup. She should be bolting it down with her slice of bread so she could get back to packing; they were due to start their journey north as soon as the meal was cleaned up. But she wasn’t tasting the food any more than she was hearing Erzabet’s voice, and her heart was thrumming not from excitement over the promised holiday but rather deep-seated dread stemming from a piece of paper in her pocket.
“I’ve got to go.” I didn’t even look back as I stuffed necessities into my pack, buckled my crossbow quiver against my hip and tugged on my gloves. “It’s important. There isn’t time.” I opened the door.
Before I stepped out I glanced over my shoulder at the two of them. Credence and E, sitting at the table with our unfinished dinner plates between them, just as they had been when the message from Zhukova arrived. Neither had even moved, nor spoken a word as I’d leaped from my roast chicken and started suiting up, blathering about Hron Ironbelly and cultist informants and a hot lead.
“Kids these days,” Echo muttered, wincing as Credence gently lifted her foot to her shoulder and leaned forward slightly, hands pulling back at the muscles of her thigh. Echo’s knee gave a sad little creak and burned, the pain ebbing back as Credence loosened her hold and gently lowered the limb to the bedspread. Echo let out a few breaths before she opened her eyes again.
“That’s better,” she sighed, as strained muscles and tendons relaxed after the stretch. “Just... just wait a minute before you do the other one.”
Kast decided to take a break. He didn’t look at me as he walked out of the room, and I didn’t look at him. He can be an ugly man sometimes. This business was some of the ugliest, and sure wouldn’t do much to improve his looks.
I snapped my fingers at my side, answered by the huff and scuff of Gus rising from where he had been lying against the wall. The basement was dark enough the hyena’s hoary coat barely muddied the shadows, but his eyes gleamed in what light there was. Funny how I treated him like a dog. In many ways, he wasn’t like a dog at all. All the better for this. People get used to dogs.
The barge was the key. It came downriver with the gray light before dawn, sidling up to scrape against the shallows. A quick transaction of men and cargo followed. With Forsaken crowding the surrounding territories, new supply routes had been carved through the hills, Alterac’s river shores being one safe place to make landing. Chillwind camp would have some fresh soldiers and fresh supplies tonight. But not after a quick trip downstream, first.
Timothy, the black fox, took a white-tipped ear in his mouth and growled. The owner of the ear, a long, golden cat stretched out on the houseboat deck in the sun, rolled slowly over, loose spotted coat flowing after the initial torsion, big white paw lifting to spread toes across the fox's cheek. Echo smiled at the lazy feline and poked Timothy with the toe of her boot on the cat's behalf, though her interference did little more than motivate the fox to switch ears. The two animals curled into a playful, harmless wrestle, Whistler the parrot hopping to and fro around them, bobbing his head and spreading his wings like some kind of mad referee.
"Going north, you said?" Credence asked, lifting the green-and-blue bracers from the table and handing them to Echo, a note of curiosity in her eyes.
"Not that far north," Echo answered, with a soothing smile. "Not that far, hopefully ever again. Just up into Quel'thalas, to deal with the Amani. Haven't been up there, myself, but most of the Scions have been. You know, I don't think I've dealt with trolls before - at least not a whole tribe, not like this. Should be interesting."
"I always feel better when there's a dwarf around," Echo said, sitting back in her chair after swallowing a particularly refreshing mouthful of ale. Decompressing with Credence on Friday nights had become a cherished routine: a light supper on the table, plenty of ale, and a patient smile accompanying a listening ear. Her sooty armor hung on its rack, far enough away that the scent of creosote didn't tingle their noses, and her bare feet rested in Credence's lap. As those kind fingers worked the tension from her toes, the ale tempted further musings from her lips.
The weight of the ham - wrapped in cloth and secured about Echo's wrist with a loop of butcher's twine - balanced the weight of the basket hung over her opposite arm, which was full of potatoes, apples, onions and yams. Between them, she cradled a sack full of lighter things: bundles of sage, thyme and marjoram, a bouquet of greenhouse flowers. Despite the planning which had gone into burdening herself, still she more or less waddled down the Stormwind docks. Her mind, likewise, carried an abundance of cooking times, recipes, double-checked ingredients and most of all hopes for a successful family dinner. It was to be the first, formally, on board the houseboat.
She remembered a flag.
A swath of blue with gold embroidery, it flicked and wavered over the battlefield like a stroke of pure color on a muddy canvas. Somewhere, far back in time, careful hands had woven the cloth, dyed it, sewn the seams and with callused fingers a hundred times pricked in dedication to that design. Not the last blood the banner would bear, carried across the sea, unfurled on foriegn soil, borne up by hands upon hands of those far from home. It fluttered over their marching steps, over desert and through forest, high up the mountainsides, to witness their efforts against the enemy. It flew bold and bright against magic, explosives, blood and thunder, death-cries and the curdled moans of the wounded and dying. She saw it, battered and frayed, snapping against its staff, so little left of its original cloth as to seem unrecognizable. She saw it, as she lay amid the corpses, the shock of her wounds dulling their pain but knowing she was bleeding out; the Standard waved, to her, to her, only to her, to bear her up and remind her of so much more than what she could see.
It wasn't every day Echo would consider relationship advice from a girl half her age. The whole notion still seemed ridiculous. Even if Countess DeWynter was indeed older than she estimated, she was still - more or less - some noble's brat with little to show but an oddly subservient Kaldorei lover (if she could call Tavlo'ashmalan that) and an expansive house and lands. It could be pure coincidence that Echo had always so enjoyed her time at Wyntersmere with Credence, or it could just be something in the water, or Light forbid some kind of lingering succubus curse hanging over the whole estate.
The low winter sunlight rolled over the snowy Alterac hills, pushing long shadows back from the pines, scattering across the windows of trappers' huts, shining off fresh-frozen streams. The mouth of a cavern gaped to catch it, swallowing a swath of brightness to paint one inner wall. Just inside the cave, Echo crouched opposite in shadow, careful not to disturb the fragile beam nor what it revealed.
Near the floor of the cave, poking up among oddly arranged little piles of rocks and sticks, four lumpy animal feet were drawn. Massive, rounded toes sported painstakingly-placed claws, spindly legs winding upwards over blocky outcroppings to meet a sausage-like body. From the body a huge shape was drawn, rounded at the front, coming to a point at the end. Above, where the sunlight licked into shadowy crevices, a head, long-snouted, perked triangle ears. The drawing was childlike and scrawled and yet somehow recognizable: A fox. A magic fox.
The crisp wind rolled into the cavern, sweeping its dank depths and dusting away yet more bits of charcoal from the image. In her bare hand, Echo held two thick sticks, heavily charred at the ends, the points dulled. The wood had gradually warmed in her grasp. The last time the sticks had been held Kjerstin's young niece had wielded one, and Echo's sister the other.
Shimmering orbs, the water droplets sparkled on the blue and gold of the motorbike, trailing down through the machinery or whisked away by the cool winter winds off the harbor. Echo knelt, the thick mail of her leggings creaking and jingling, to carefully wipe down the leather seat and polish the chrome. Not a lick of soot remained, nor ash, nor pine needle. She dug at a little stubborn clod of dirt between two metal plates, wearing her fingernail through the cloth, eyes intent. Even Credence would approve of how the bike gleamed, slick and shiny after its journey to Hyjal.
So much for appearances. Echo stood, flicking the polishing cloth out and letting her eyes travel over the machine in front of her. Credence was right about one thing; cleaning did, indeed, grant a sense of calm assurance. Things should be in place, Credence had said, or things could go wrong. Echo nodded a little, catching her wide-eyed reflection distorted in the chrome. She polished another spot away then twisted the cloth in her hands, looking out for a moment at the gray sea. The wind blew sharp and salty, buffeting her drawn-back hair. Winter's Veil, soon...
When the knock came on the door of House DeWynter, Kjerstin almost didn't answer it. Echo and Credence had gone out somewhere, and all she wanted was to be left alone. She had cut down a ghoul that morning with a face like Garrett's. Though, after nearly two weeks, she was starting to see her family in every glimpse of an undead face. She needed to get out of here. She got up and went to the door.
"Kjerstin Engel?" The uniformed man couldn't have been more than eighteen, but he wore the livery of the Argent Dawn.
"We found a kid outside Chillwind Camp this morning, ma'am. She's clammed up now, but when we brought her in she was babbling and said something about Auntie Kjerstin." Kjerstin's heart leaped. "And it's not a common name, so the Sarge sent me to find you, ma'am, and see if you knew who she was."
I wish I could write with better news. I have confirmed that Lise is dead. A Forsaken plaguebringer at what remains of the farms was wearing her wedding ring. Before he died of his wounds, he admitted that he had taken it from a body of a woman. He didn't live long enough to describe any others he had seen. Clearly I need to refine my technique.
It has been five days now, and I am still hoping, but not expecting to find any survivors. The Forsaken were very thorough, and I don't know how much longer I'll be able to slip past their guard and get into Hillsbrad. They are tightening their grip on the borders every day. My companions in the search for survivors, Echo Martin and Credence Black, have offered me shelter at House DeWynter in Alterac, but it may not remain safe to stay here. Our daily forays into enemy territory are becoming more dangerous, and every day the chances of finding refugees dwindle.
Morning rose once more over the broken city of Stormwind, and once more Stormwind's citizens rose in quiet determination to clean up the mess.
Echo walked up from the harbor fully armed and armored, wearing her old 7th Legion tabard. Although she didn't expect the great beast who had done this to return soon, plenty of looters were about, pilfering the destruction. She had found they responded much more quickly to perceived military force bearing down than some lady yelling at them. At her side trotted a large, iron-gray dog who amplified the effect.
Stormwind Harbor, usually placid, washed and heaved.
Echo looked out from the quarterdeck of the houseboat, narrowing her eyes as a hot wind seethed over her face. Under the black night sky the horizon glowed strangely orange.
She had a feeling no elementals would invade tonight.
Echo’s lungs burned. Every footfall rang like an explosion through her legs, but they kept pumping nevertheless. She flung back her hair and looked behind her; Kast, Rothmal and Malifor had planted themselves around the steamtank, the last of their loyal soldiers sweeping around them like parted waters. The cultists were hot on their heels.
Shit shit shit... They wouldn’t last long, especially if the cultists found a moment to summon up another round of elementals. With a shaking hand, Echo fumbled at her belt, trying to loosen a flare. If she could just reach the arch of the bridge she’d shoot it up, with every hope that some patrol from Hammerfall or Refuge Pointe would see it. Then she’d turn and get back behind Kast and hold back the Cult as long as she could.
Echo always remembered the obstacle course.
She remembered the smell of sweat on warm skin, bare earth, well-trod grass. She remembered the whisking little black flies that hovered around her eyes in the summer heat, swarming in clouds over some fallow field outside Southshore. She remembered the ache in her thighs at the hurdles, the tear in her shirt as she pulled herself under barbed wire, the desperate lunge over the top of the wall. Most of all she remembered the white chalk line in the dirt and the grass, smeared by the other young recruits as they passed over. All she had to do was reach it -
He watched the troll move from person to person, doling out succor for Horde and Alliance both. After all, everyone here was now fighting against the same enemy, the same threat. With their resources pooled, they stood the best chance at another day.
Down the echoing hall, the rough human’s crass tongue was spreading platitudes and encouraging words, rallying the stone-dumb orcs and the equally stone-dumb humans to value their pitiful lives long enough to make one final push for freedom.
How did these short-lived races fool themselves into such a delusion of self-worth?
When the troll priest knelt before a wounded orc blademaster, Xelarus could see with his fel-green eyes two women – one dead, one living – as they embraced with more passion than any two sisters-in-arms. Plum-painted lips curled in a smirk.
Echo’s hands clutched her head, covered her ears, though still the bounding screams and repeating clashes would not leave her, nor the smell of death, nor the irritating buzz of panic throbbing between her temples. Her eyes shut tight and her teeth clenched, but it had a hold of her, the bone-shaking fear of doom closing in, of no way out, of -
“Joo need da juju, eh, ba’tah?”
A figure moved to block his view of where the Grand Marshal Krauss struggled with Malifor. The lens over his eye revealed the truth behind the young human who raised his sword in what the old fencing trainer Elrin's father had hired called: “la poste di falcone”. The guard of the falcon was only beaten by speed, which Elrin had in spades over the poor boy.
He stepped in faster than the cultist could bring the sword down and quickly eviscerated the boy.
“Get the fuck outta my way.”
“What th -” Echo whirled around as Kast jerked the flare from her belt, but he was already off, jogging toward the center of the fray. Her eyes moved swiftly from him to the clash between Malifor and Krauss, then suddenly she was bowled over. Sharp pain slid over her side, bruising her ribs. What was that? Longsword? Lance? Totem?