(This story came out of the convergence of two things. One is the Feathermoon Peace Summit, a bit of RP that’s happening tonight, Friday 7 September, in Dalaran; a group of PCs from both factions will be meeting to attempt to broker at least a tenuous peace and time to heal in the wake of Deathwing’s destruction and the end of the Cataclysm. It will, of course, all go spectacularly wrong in two weeks or so…but the characters don’t know that.
The second is trying to explain the fact that I haven’t played World of Warcraft for going on six months now, and hadn’t played my dwarf hunter Beltar for a few months before that. He’s been absent for almost a year. I offhandedly mentioned something about this on Twitter one day a few weeks back and Marty–the guy behind Bricu Bittertongue, driving force behind the Peace Summit, world’s most ascerbic paladin and Number Two of the Wildfire Riders–came up with this idea. I took it and ran with it. Combine the dwarf’s newfound love of archaeology and the heightened state of tension between the Horde and Alliance, and season it with my tendency to do horrible things to my own characters, and, well, here you are.
There are several other parts to the story, which will come in due time as I write them. And yes, this means that I hope to get back to WoW blogging, and blogging about other games as well, on a more consistent basis. I don’t know if I’m over my critical WoW burnout, and my head is still kind of fucked up in a lot of ways, but with a new job and living in a new town taking some of the pressure off things, I am somewhat optimistic–a rarity for me–that I can get my poop collected enough to get my blog groove back.
Oh, this story is rated “R” for language, thick dwarven accents, and exploding heads.)
Beltar Forgebreaker had never been very good with numbers.
Mathematics, advanced or otherwise, had never been a subject that the School of Hard Living had bothered to teach him. He could do what he termed “simple cipherin’,” if he had quill and paper, or perhaps charcoal and rock, or even stick and dirt, to hand. He tended to count on his fingers a lot, out loud. Someone had once told him that if he’d apply himself to learning some sort of bizarre form of science he only remembered as “trigganawhatthfuckever,” it would make him a better shot. But that was pigshit, he knew. He didn’t think about being lethal behind the stock of a gun, he just was. He sighted, he fired, things died, and he didn’t waste time or effort worrying about the whys and wherefores of it. “Why mess it up with thinkin’?” was his reply.
Fact was, he simply didn’t need to be good with numbers. He could count the coin in a purse given to him after killing a target or completing a job as a bodyguard, and when that was empty, he went on to the next one. The nuances of finance, of computing compound interest or balancing a ledger, that was best left to others. As long as he had enough to eat and drink and whore and buy what he needed, with a little stuffed away in a sock for emergencies, that was fine.
But there was one number, now, that Beltar never lost track of, and never forgot. He carried it with him, every waking second, and he knew exactly how to cipher it and how he had arrived at the result. That number was precisely three hundred and sixteen.
It was the number of days since the orcs had captured him.
(The Pig and Whistle, just shy of a year earlier.)
Taverns like the Pig don’t operate on the same schedule as the rest of Stormwind, or even the rest of Old Town. The quietest time inside the Pig isn’t the darkest part of the night, just before dawn, but instead is the brightest part of mid-morning, when the good citizens of Old Town (there are a few, believe it or not) are at work, and everyone else is still sleeping off the previous night’s adventures.
This sunny, quiet morning inside the Pig’s main room, there were just two people up and about. One was Reese Langston, doing what Reese had gone for gods alone knew how many years, even before the Wildfire Riders had come along and taken over…cleaning mugs, arranging taps, preparing the tavern for the day ahead. The other was Beltar Forgebreaker, perched awkwardly in a chair too tall for his dwarven frame as always, gun propped against the table and bulging pack taking up another chair nearby. He was enthusiastically polishing off the last of an egg-and-steak breakfast, letting fly with a huge belch as he put down his fork.
“You knock the mugs off my shelf burpin’ like that, Forgebreaker, they’re coming out of your beard,” Reese growled without even looking up.
“Bah,” Beltar replied. “This little trip o’ mine works out, I’d get ya sommat fancy glass t’replace ‘em…y’know, fer ‘em tea-drinkin’ mage types.” He wiggled his fingers at Reese.
The barkeep snorted. “You ain’t said where you’re goin’ on this trip, anyhow.”
Beltar eased down off the chair and began arranging items in his pack. “Kalimdor, ain’t as sure ‘zactly where yet. Hirin’ on w’ Explorer’s League, doin’ some ruins diggin’ over ‘ere. Turns out Deathwing, in addition t’damn near destroyin’ th’ world an’ all, cracked open a few ol’ night elf an’ dwarf ruins, an’ th’ League’s been lookin’ fer folks t’, ah, ‘freelance,’ shall we say. Y’know, workin’ fer ‘em but not quite workin’ fer ‘em, case th’ locals git techy ’bout it. ‘Plausible deniawhatsit,’ one ‘em perfesser types called it.”
“Never pictured you as the archaeologist type, Forgebreaker,” Reese said, putting down the mug he’d been polishing. “I always thought you’d use artifacts for target practice.”
Now it was Beltar’s turn to snort. “I ain’t no pointy-headed Harrison Jones-type what can’t tie ‘is boots, lad. But…Nether, I dunno. Gotta have somethin’ t’do what with peace breakin’ out like a rash, aye? ‘At Jones ponce gave me a coupla books, I read ‘em, dig some diggin’, found out I kinda liked it and apparently I ain’t ‘arf bad at it.” A shrug. “Must be in our blood ‘r’ somethin’, dwarves diggin’ up ancient shit.”
“You told Tarquin or Annie?”
“Nah. They don’t need t’know.” Beltar went back to arranging his pack.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong.” Beltar didn’t turn around but kept working on the pack.
“Horseshit. Don’t lie to a bartender, Forgebreaker. You oughta know by now that never works.”
“Ain’t nothin’ what needs t’be talked about, Reese,” Beltar replied shortly, still not making eye contact.
The dwarf stopped working on the pack, hung his head, and sighed before looking back up at Reese. “Aright, lad. Y’want yer answer? The short of it is, it ain’t like they need me ’round here noway.”
“What are you on about?”
“Take a look ’round, Reese. Deathwing’s done. Shaw’s backed down. Boss’s turned legit, as close as that boy’ll ever git. Riders got ever’thin’ under control ’round here. Sevens ain’t even fuckin’ wi’ us no more, on account’a th’ Riders bein’ dragonslayers ‘n’ shit. I ain’t no dragonslayer. They didn’t need me fer any ovvit.” He turned back around and started yanking on straps and drawstrings on the bulging backpack. “Ain’t but three things I ever been good at, Reese—used t’be four but I’m gettin’ on too old fer ‘at one. Number one’s killin’, number two’s drinkin’, an’ turns out, number three’s diggin’. Got ’nuff people ’round here t’handle number one, an’ it ain’t like y’can make a livin’ outta number two. So I’mma go dig. Might help git m’head right, might not, who knows? But hangin’ ’round here w’ fuck all t’do surely ain’t.”
Beltar awkwardly hoisted the pack onto his back and began strapping it on. “Figger they all might notice I ain’t been ’round in a few days, ‘r maybe not. Reckon if they don’t, ain’t no loss on either side, aye? ‘S all covered either way. I ain’t left no notes ‘r’ nothin’, figger y’can tell anybody askin’.”
Reese stood there with his mouth half-open as the dwarf finished adjusting his backpack and started walking for the door. “That sounds damned final, Forgebreaker. You are comin’ back, right?”
Beltar shrugged as he picked up Black Death, his rifle. “Prolly. I ain’t plannin’ t’git m’self killed, if that’s what yer askin’. Guess…I dunno. Guess a change o’ scenery might do me some good, I reckon. Feel like I’m actually part o’ somethin’ again, y’know, ‘stead o’ just th’ ol’ dwarf in th’ corner wi’ a pig an’ a ale.”
He stopped and turned back as he reached the threshold and stared out into the bright Stormwind morning. “Take care o’ yerself, Reese. I’mma miss yer cookin’.” A forced grin. “An’ mornin’s like ‘is. Yer…yer a good man, lad. See ya soon.” He stepped forward and disappeared into the dusty sunlight of the street outside.
“You too, Forgebreaker,” Reese Langston said softly.
That afternoon, when Reese went back around to the stable, he saw a familiar black shape standing in a stall to greet him. Squealer oinked once, seemingly pleased at Reese’s expression of stunned exasperation. There was a note pinned to a string around the boar’s neck:
Reese. Take care of the fat bastard for me, Jolly the drool factory too. Dog’s downstairs, he knows to go out to pee and shit. Not so sure about Squealer even after all these years. He ain’t bacon so don’t even. Beltar.
(Stonetalon Mountains. Nine days later.)
The view, Beltar had to admit, was worth the trip it had taken to get here.
The cliff to the north dropped a hundred feet or more into a green valley, dotted with scrubby trees. Beltar knew that the sea was off to the northwest, but a wall of rocky hills similar to the one that surrounded him blocked sight of it. No one seemed to live down there, which was odd to him; he knew the soil in the Stonetalon Mountains was generally too poor for farming, but he also knew the Tauren were hunters, and he’d seen signs of game when they had explored down there a few days earlier. Ain’t bad country fer Kalimdor, he thought. Beats all outta Desolace fer damn sure, least until th’ Cenarions get done with ‘er.
He turned back around and looked at the ruins that had brought them out here to this northwestern corner of Stonetalon, a place that was so damned remote that the maps didn’t even bother to name it. The Cataclysm had partially opened up the high valley in which he now stood and revealed what might have been some sort of pre-Sundering elven town or outpost—so the “perfessers” said. To Beltar, the columns did resemble some ruins he’d seen while flying over Azshara years earlier, but that was about as far as his knowledge of architecture went.
He, two archaeologists, and two Explorer’s League guards had been here for three days, digging and cataloguing the old elven ruins. They’d ridden in following the lead of a goblin that they’d paid a damned exorbitant sum to lead them through a tortuous pass in the mountains up from Desolace. The journey had cost them one of the pack rams that had been shipped in special from Loch Modan, and that had just been the beginning. Their erstwhile guide, the day after he’d gotten them to the valley, had up and disappeared. Beltar had a good eye for terrain, and thought he could get them back out to Desolace when they broke camp tomorrow, but the goblin’s sudden vanishing act had him nervous. These lands, he knew, were not only wild, but a war zone between the orcs and the Alliance. And as near as he could figure, the Horde was winning.
The sounds of an animated discussion carried over to him. Beltar looked over at the great white worg next to him and sighed. “Fuckin’ eggheads, Furball,” he shook his head. “Better see what’s what afore the perfessers stab each other w’quill ‘r’ sommat.” He picked up his rifle and walked over to the other side of the ruins, Furball casually padding along behind.
The “perfessers”–Dolwin Longstride of the Explorer’s League, and a Kal’dorei from Darnassus who had just introduced himself as “Carnelius” and hardly said six words to Beltar since—were standing over a half-buried piece of statuary, having a heated argument.
“I’m telling you, Professor,” Carnelius said, drawing the title out in a way that made it quite clear what he thought of it. “This is not what you think it is. There is no possible way that this could have been used in elven worship. It is a simple ornamental house statue from a period no further back than two hundred years before the Sundering, and has no real historical value whatsoever!”
“Far be it from me to correct ye, Professor, about yer own people’s history, but yer full o’ dung!”, Longstride roared back. “I read every history yer own scholars wrote on late Azsharan religious practices, an’ I’d bet a week’s bar tab in Ironforge that this here is a temple offerin’ statue. An’ see those jewelry carvings? That went out of fashion five hundred years earlier than what you said. This is a find, ye stuffy ponce!”
“Um…”, Beltar interrupted, straddling the statue to stand between the two academics. “I don’t rightly know whether ‘is bit o’ furniture’s from a temple house ‘r a house house ‘r a fuckin’ shithouse. What I do know izzat twilight’s comin’ on, and y’d best keep yer damned voices down! Sound carries a ways off those rocks up there, and in case y’ hadn’t heard, there’s about a shitload o’ orcs two valleys over what ain’t gonna take kindly t’us furtherin’ yer academic study. So pack yer shit up, an’ be ready t’ ride outta here at first light, ‘cuz we’re pushin’ our luck bein’ up here. Unnerstand?”
In the tense, echoing silence that followed, the only sounds were the chirping of the birds and the suppressed snicker from one of the caravan guards.
“Now see here, dwarf,” Carnelius finally managed to grit out through clenched teeth. “I do not take orders from…”
“Fine, lad,” Beltar cut him off. “Y’ don’t take orders from th’ likes o’me? Tell Garrosh Hellscream all ’bout yer ornamental house statue while th’ rest of us ‘r halfway back t’Theramore. This ain’t a classroom, y’ poncy git! This…”
Beltar stopped. Furball was staring up into the rocks to the east, growling. His fur began to bristle.
“Fuck,” Beltar hissed, and that one word had a weight of meaning behind it.
“What’s…” Beltar cut Longstride off. “’That there worg can hear ‘n’ see better’n any of us, an’ th’ way he’s actin’, I’d say we got company.” He glanced up and saw that the guards had already drawn their blunderbusses and moved near some defensive positions. Good lads. He reached down beside the statue, where he’d set Black Death down when he’d first come over. “Find yerselves a place t’hide if y’ain’t innerested in gettin’ in a fight, lads. I’d say this might be ’bout t’git ugly.” Fuck, why am I not wearing my armor? Because you can’t dig in armor, dumbass, that’s why…
There was a hissing sound near Beltar’s right ear, just over his head, from behind him. Reflexively, he turned and brought Black Death to his shoulder. The sight settled on a red-clad troll that had just stood up from behind a rock forty paces up the shoulder of the valley to the west, the other direction from where Furball had been looking. The troll’s arm was extended forward. Details burned into his mind—teal skin, green hair, yellow tusks—as Beltar stroked the rifle’s trigger once. The crack of the gun boomed off the walls around them as the troll flung his arms wide and disappeared back behind his rock.
Beltar spun back around to see Carnelius still standing there looking down…not at Beltar, not at the statue, not at Longstride. He was looking at the throwing axe protruding out of his breastbone. He touched it, eyeing it with what could have almost been academic interest had it been buried in someone else‘s chest. He looked to the rock where the troll had stood, coughed once, and collapsed in a heap.
“Move!”, Beltar screamed, and dove for the excavated area around the statue, trying to find some cover. The others did the same, and even as they did, the hills around them—all around them—erupted in shouts and screams. A throwing spear clanked off the statue as the old dwarf landed awkwardly and rolled behind it. Booms from the guards’ guns mingled with battle cries as Beltar stuck his head up and tried to come to grips with what was going on.
Orcs, and the odd troll, were pouring down off the ledges overlooking the digsite. A couple dozen, maybe more, Beltar guessed, all wearing identical spiked brown shoulderguards and matching breastplates. Some were throwing spears, others were waving swords and axes. All of them had bloodlust in their eyes and curses on their lips.
Beltar felt no fear…there wasn’t time. Time slowed down and his actions became automatic, honed by decades of training and experience.
Find a target. He peeked up from cover and picked out a particularly large orc near the front of a group of five clambering down the western slope toward him.
Aim. Black Death’s unwieldy barrel and bayonet cleared the lip of the pit and the sight settled on the orc’s massive head.
Fire. One gentle squeeze of the trigger, a flash and crack, and the top of the orc’s head exploded as he turned to urge on the ones behind him. Bone and brains sprayed as the orc’s neck and shoulders snapped backward while his legs, improbably, carried forward another step. The net result was an almost laughable cartwheel, the orc’s bare feet flailing in mid-air for a split-second before his lifeless body, pitched parallel to the ground, crashed straight down into the rock. Beltar didn’t see it. He was already behind the top of the pit again, jacking another round into the chamber.
A scream from his right…the orcs had reached the column one of the two guards had been using for cover. He had thrown down his blunderbuss and drawn two hand axes to try and defend himself, but there were four of them and but one of him. One orc rolled on the ground in front of him clutching his stomach, but another smashed an axe through the young dwarf’s helmet and on into his skull even as a troll speared him through the gut so hard the guard’s feet left the ground.
Beltar aimed and fired again. The orc he’d picked out fell forward, dead before his face met rock, and the one behind him clutched his shoulder and spun backward—not dead but at least wounded. But still they kept coming, apparently not slowed by any fear of death.
A yelp, from his left this time. He saw Furball covered in blood—some his, some not, judging by the two motionless orcs in front of him. He leapt onto a third, driving him to the ground with fangs sunk into the orc’s huge neck. Then he disappeared under a wave of green skin, brown armor, and flashing blades.
No time to mourn. The fourth orc went down to a shot in the gut, and then the fifth was upon him with no time to reload. Beltar was no lover of close-quarters fighting, fair or unfair, but he wasn’t entirely unskilled at it. He couldn’t match the orc strength for strength, even in his younger days, and he was far from those. So he wasn’t even going to try.
The orc bellowed a war cry and brought his great two-handed axe down, trying for a single killing blow. Beltar side-rolled to one knee as best he could, using Black Death to parry the downstroke. Sparks flew and metal screeched as the parry pushed the axe aside just enough to send it sticking into the soft dirt at the edge of the pit. The orc, still carrying some forward momentum from his charge down the hill, couldn’t stop and went ass-over-elbows down the slope, crashing into the base of the statue leaving the axe stuck in the ground. Beltar staggered to his feet and bayoneted the orc in the throat before he had a chance to recover.
He dropped back to one knee and grabbed another round to reload. He faintly heard the noise of movement behind him, and turned around as he brought the rifle up to firing position.
He saw a huge orc with brown skin. He saw the flash of a hammer. And then he saw nothing.
A little over three years ago, in the build-up events to the release of Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard inflicted upon World of Warcraft the ultimate zombie plague. At the time, the Zombiepocalypse had a lot of bad things going on with it, as well as a lot of good–I covered that in a post on the one-year anniversary of the end of the event. But to me, the best thing it provided was some awesome roleplaying opportunity, more so on my dwarf hunter Beltar than on my main Linedan. Lin was a prot warrior, and, well, a melee class with no self-cleansing really didn’t do very well against things that could turn you into a ghoul in just a few hits. But Beltar, now he and his pet boar Squealer, they were a zombie-killing machine.
Our Alliance guild, the Wildfire Riders, did a collaborative writing project we called The Longest Night, based on the final night of the zombie event in Stormwind. This was my contribution to it. The events here, including finding the zombie in the room inside the Rose, actually happened. The zombie in question was a level 15 character who’d been turned, and who I one-shotted. (He whispered me to bitch me out about it later. My response is, dude, you were a freaking zombie. What was I supposed to do, invite you over for tea and crumpets?)
I repost my part of it here because (a) I like it, and (b) it provides some context to another piece I’ll post later. At the time, Beltar was running around with a Wolfslayer Sniper Rifle off the Big Bad Wolf in Karazhan. It’s always been one of my favorite gun models in the entire game. Well, now, with transmogrification in 4.3, his Wolfslayer–which he named “Black Death”–rides again. But that’s a little later. Here’s the story of Black Death’s busiest night.
Beltar Forgebreaker limped over to the edge of the plaza that overlooked Stormwind Harbor. It hadn’t been light for long, perhaps half an hour…it was hard to tell, with the unnatural overcast that covered the sky overhead. In the dimness, everything looked normal from this great height. The ships still rode at anchor, quietly creaking as gentle waves moved them in their berths. Gulls wheeled and screeched. Save for clouds that looked almost like a gathering summer thunderstorm, all looked as it should be.
Except no one moved.
Not a single shape moved except the seabirds. No porters moved packages, no crews readied or cleaned their ships, no merchants haggled deals, no prostitutes plied their trade. The docks were deserted of life, and of unlife.
He let his eyes travel to the hills above the harbor, outside the city walls. They were dotted with bright glows of fire. Five, six, seven…nope, there’s eight, Beltar counted to himself as the eighth one sprung into life. Each one of those, he knew, was a funeral pyre, and each one was burning dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, undead and otherwise.
He’d climbed on Mountain at dawn and ridden out alone, Squealer obediently following, and picked his way through the streets to the Harbor, thankful for the surefootedness of a Khaz Modan ram on cobbles slicked by blood and ichor. No zombies showed themselves, no clash of arms rent the heavy, chill air on his journey. The Scourge, for the moment, had been beaten from Stormwind.
But it damn sure hadn’t been easy…
The Trade District. Just after sundown.
“They got the healer! THEY GOT THE HEALER! RUN! RUUAAAAAAAHHLIIIIIIGHT…”
The screams out of the Gilded Rose snapped Beltar out of thought as he finished loading his rifle. He looked over at Tarquin, who was leaning against the wall of the arms shop nearby, catching his breath after finishing off another zombie. The lanky Northman sighed and raised his hood, and bellowed, “There’s a Dawnsman by th’gryphon master, y’ken? Need healin’, go there!” The hood came back down, and he faded into the shadows cast by the overhanging roof.
None too soon. A wave of zombies poured out of the Rose like rats, falling on guardsmen and those too slow to run from the screams. Shouts and clangs sounded, and the Stormwind Guard fought yet another doomed battle as Beltar snapped his weapon shut. He issued the barest of whistles from one side of his mouth, and smoothly brought the rifle to his shoulder.
His boar launched himself forward from a dead stop, streaking across the plaza in a black, squealing blur and slamming into the pile of zombies like some bizarre game of bowls. As Squealer began tearing at one in a fury of black fur and white tusks, Beltar’s rifle roared again and again. Three feet of black wood and gray steel, with an extra foot of bayonet poking under the barrel, it was the most masterful boomstick Beltar had ever seen, much less ever owned. He’d found it in Medivh’s ruined castle. He named it–with feeling, if not with originality–Black Death.
This night, Black Death would earn that name many times over.
The first zombie crumpled to the cobbles headless. Squealer plunged tusks into another one and Beltar kept up his steady drumbeat of fire, killing the second zombie before it figured out that the black form goring it wasn’t the only thing causing it pain. But the third zombie must have retained some tiny modicum of its previous intelligence. It ignored Squealer and saw Beltar forty paces away, and started lurching toward him.
The dwarf stood his ground. He fanned the hammer, and Black Death ripped off three shots into three zombies. He fired again, and again, but the zombie kept coming, and then leapt.
Sheer reflex saved him; he thrust the rifle upward as the zombie lunged, and it slammed directly into the bayonet. It impaled itself, flailing long clawed hands at Beltar as he fought to stay upright with ten stone of zombie trying to push him over.
“I AIN’T DYIN’ T’NIGHT, Y’BASTARD!”, Beltar roared, and pulled the trigger. The zombie flew backward, a hole through most of its chest, and crashed to the stones to finally lie still.
The sound died down. Paladins and shamans in the square had finished off the rest, and for the moment, no zombies moved. Squealer returned to Beltar’s side, fur matted with Shapers-only-knew-what. Beltar tried to calm his breathing and concentrate. Aright, y’fuckers, he thought to himself. Lessee…any more’a’ya ’bout? Concentrate…yes, one more, at least. Inside the Rose. He started walking past the fountain toward the inn.
“Are you crazy?”, a guardsman tried to block him. “You can’t go in there!”
“There’s one more of ‘em in there, lad,” Beltar snarled. “We don’t get it now, it comes out here when y’ain’t lookin’, infects other people, whole shitpile starts up ‘gin. Now, you wanna go kill it, ‘r y’stay out here an’ let me do it?”
The guard, wisely, backed up. Beltar just nodded at him once, and stumped forward into the Rose, Squealer trailing behind.
The common room was a charnel house. Bodies and parts of bodies–human, elf, and zombie–were everywhere. The floor, on the tables, even a zombie arm stuck in the overhead chandelier. The body of the Argent Healer lay in two pieces, torn apart at the waist, near the kitchen entrance. Nothing moved here. But he heard a faint scrabble from upstairs.
He crept up the stairs as quietly as he could, stopping at the top to listen. He heard it again…second door on the left. Black Death came out from over his shoulder and into his right hand as he walked toward the door. Taking a deep breath, he spun around the jamb into the doorway.
The door itself was gone, shattered inward into the room. It was a small room, one of the Rose’s cheaper ones, utterly demolished. Splintered furniture, pooled blood, and a zombie corpse on the floor made it obvious what had happened.
There was another zombie in the far corner, near the bed. It snapped its head up as it saw Beltar…but it didn’t attack. It looked at him, almost quizzically, as if saying, “Who are you and why are you in my room. And more importantly…who am I?”
For a few seconds, the two stood looking at each other. For a second, in the zombie’s face, Beltar swore he saw…fear? Sadness? Confusion, maybe?
Then Beltar sighed. “Sorry, lad.”
And Black Death roared yet again.
A single gunshot from back toward the Cathedral snapped Beltar out of his Harbor-side reverie. No more followed it. The only sounds were the creak of the ships and the scream of the gulls.
Beltar looked out over the ships, to the sea. Out there, somewhere, was the cause of all this. Arthas Menethil. The Lich King. Defender, and then damn-near destroyer, of the Alliance. And Beltar knew without seeing, sure as the sun had risen behind that thick blanket of cloud, that the Riders were going North, and he was going with them. Time to be heroes.
“Heroes,” he snorted. “Gods, I don’t feel like no hero.” He looked at the big black boar standing beside him, flecks of gray bristle appearing around its snout. “I feel old, boy. Leg’s botherin’ me worse’n’anytime since Anvilmar. I’m feelin’ ever’ one’a these hunnert’an’twenty-six years o’mine. Too old fer bein’ a hero, right now, anyways.”
Squealer just looked up at him with that calm, neutral look he always gave Beltar.
“An’ I’m standin’ in th’chill, in a city runnin’ wild w’zombies, talkin’ wi’a pig. Heroes do crazy shit like that, y’think?” He laughed without humor. “Aright, piss on it. Back t’Old Town w’us.”
Using Black Death’s stock as a makeshift walking stick, he began limping back toward the stairs, where Mountain waited at the top to take him back through the streets of a waking city of the dead, back to the Pig and Whistle, and life.
This is a very old story. In fact, it’s the first piece of fic that I wrote for Linedan, back in March of 2005 when he was still leveling through his 20s. It has an interesting story behind it, too. First off, I was, at the time I wrote this, doing the “gather 30 skulls for the Deathguard in Tarren Mill” Souvenirs of Death quest. Also, the meeting that takes place in the middle of the story actually happened in-game, at the lake outside Bloodhoof Village. This was a time when random walk-around roleplay was still prevalent on Feathermoon, but even so, the encounter–which took place exactly as I wrote it in this story–stands out. I don’t remember the shaman’s name. I surely wish I did. And finally, yes, I did drop the quest. (Although I admit to going back and doing it later when I was trying to get Loremaster.)
I like to think I’ve gotten a bit better at my writing and roleplay since I wrote this, but the themes in this story are the same ones that drive my roleplay on Linedan almost six years later. The struggle between the berserker and the protector, the toll that war takes on the warrior, and how far one is willing to go for their faction…they’re still as relevant to me now as they were back then.
The sky over Mulgore was its usual brilliant, deep blue, broken only by a few puffy white clouds drifting east toward the Barrens. A gentle breeze pushed those clouds, and ruffled the grass along the shore of Stonebull Lake.
A lone Tauren sat on the edge of the lake, staring out over its shimmering water. In one hand, he held a fishing pole, its line played out ten paces from shore where a small bobber bounced on the ripples. In the other hand, he held a small white object.
A human skull.
The boomstick shot hit the peasant in the right shoulder and spun him around. As he recovered, he saw me. His face twisted into a snarl, he raised his pitchfork and bravely charged as I set the blunderbuss aside, grabbed my shield from my back, and drew Truecleaver…
The bobber abruptly dipped. Linedan carefully set the skull down in the grass and reeled in a small brightfish, which joined several others on a stringer hooked to his belt. He rebaited the hook and cast the bobber back out into the lake, farther this time, then sat back and closed his eyes. He leaned back to face the bright sun, hoping that even though his closed eyelids, the light could fade the images from his view. But sunlight cannot block images from the mind.
…Truecleaver thudded into the farmer’s side. The human’s shirt began to stain red as he bellowed in pain and twisted away. That gave me an opening, and I took advantage by slashing low, the sabre tearing into his right leg and hobbling him…
Even in the quiet and peace of the lake, Linedan could hear the sounds of battle in his mind. It seemed that was all he ever heard, these days. The clash of swords, the screams of pain, the bellows of anger. It felt odd for his hand to be holding a fishing pole instead of the hilt of Truecleaver, his sabre. His left arm didn’t feel right unencumbered by a shield. He sat forward and closed his eyes again, his breathing coming a bit faster, the memories still raging.
…He hooked Truecleaver with the pitchfork. A quick flick of both his forearms, and my sword was wrenched from my hands and landed on the ground two paces away. He faced me, and smiled. Actually smiled. He was still smiling when I punched him full in the face, he never saw it coming. I felt the flesh part, felt the bones splinter under my mailed fist…
Linedan was agitated now. He stood up and dropped the fishing pole, paced three steps one way, turned, then three steps back the other. He saw the skull, still sitting in the grass. In one motion, he bent and snatched it into his massive hand. The front of the skull was malformed, crushed. The bone under one eyesocket was smashed in and partially missing, and the lower jaw was gone, just as it had been since he had first placed it in his backpack days earlier.
His head bowed, almost involuntarily, as if a ton of weight had landed hard on his shoulders. His empty fist clenched. He reared his arm back, as if to pitch the skull into the lake…and froze. He couldn’t do it. For long seconds, he stood there, locked in time, one arm back with the skull in his hand. Then, slowly, he brought his arm forward and looked again at the skull in his hand. At its smashed face, into its empty sockets.
And he remembered the eyes.
…He was hopping, then crawling away from me. I tripped him, and he landed on his back, looking up to where I loomed over him. And as I brought Truecleaver up to finish him, I saw his eyes. Full of fear, full of rage, maybe a bit of resignation, even relief, knowing that his life was over in a few seconds. Totally devoid of hope. They were blue.
They were still open after I killed him. They were still open after I cut his head off. And they were still open as I began to deflesh the skull to add to the collection that Deathguard Samsa in Tarren Mill asked me to provide.
A motion off to Linedan’s left started him. He dropped the skull behind him and whirled, his right hand falling to his sabre’s hilt. A fellow Tauren stood there, dappled black-and-white, wearing ragged leathers, a staff slung over his back and a small ball of lightning orbiting his chest. A shaman, and a young one at that. The shaman showed no fear, didn’t flinch a bit when Linedan spun on him with Truecleaver half out of its sheath. He just stood there, smiling.
Linedan let his hand fall back to his side. “My apologies, friend,” he muttered. “You startled me.”
The shaman spread his hands by way of apology, then raised a single finger as if to say, “Wait a moment.” As Linedan watched, the young Tauren pointed up to the sky, to one of the white clouds drifting over. Then he held out his left palm and used his right hand to mimic the motion of someone walking. Then he pointed to the east.
Linedan was puzzled. “What do you…can you speak, friend?”
The shaman shook his head, with no trace of embarassment or discomfort. He made the same motions again–pointed to a cloud, then made walking motions with his hand, then shrugged. He stood, looking at Linedan, still smiling faintly.
“I am confused, young one…you seek a windrider? Or Thunder Bluff? Walking in the sky, I don’t understand…”
Again, the young shaman held up a finger in the “wait” gesture. He reached into a pouch at his belt and showed Linedan a parchment. He couldn’t read most of it, but the heading was clear enough to him…”Venture Company.”
Of course! “Ah! You seek Morin Cloudstalker!”, Linedan exclaimed. The shaman nodded vigorously.
“Well, then, you can find him on the road east of Bloodhoof, friend,” he answered. “He wanders the path there on guard. I’m sure he’ll be quite happy to see that.”
The shaman nodded again and made a slight bow toward Linedan. Then he turned to leave, stopped, and turned back to face Linedan. The two of them locked eyes.
Linedan noticed that the young Tauren had the kindest, gentlest eyes he’d ever seen. There was no trace of fear in them, no anger, no rage. Only kindness, and friendship. And hope. They were blue.
The shaman patted Linedan’s shoulder gently, then turned and walked slowly back toward the road. Linedan watched him go, then called after him, “Earthmother protect you, brother.” He turned, bowed to Linedan, and continued walking to the road, turning east toward the Barrens.
Linedan stared after him for a long minute, watching his back recede into the distance, still feeling the touch of that gentle hand on his shoulder, still seeing those eyes, yet untouched by war and darkness. Eyes that must have somewhat resembled his own once, when he was much younger. Before the killing began.
He turned and saw the skull still sitting in the grass where he dropped it. Gently, he bent down, picked it up, and put it in his backpack. He looked up at the sky, and nodded. The sun was lowering in the west. If he hurried, he could be in Hillsbrad by nightfall.
Hillsbrad village was all but silent that night. The only movement was from two footmen who stayed together and looked nervously out into the darkness, hoping that yet more villagers would not disappear, would not be struck down by the Horde.
On the outskirts of the village, Linedan straightened up, panting. Digging the hole had not been easy in the wet, heavy clay, especially with a dull half-broken shovel that he had “borrowed” from a shed in Tarren Mill. Fortunately, he had not needed a large hole, but he knew he had to make it deep, to keep scavengers away from the contents.
He reached into a mageweave bag and pulled out first one skull, then another, then another. All told, he carefully, reverently placed eight skulls into the small trench. The last one was the skull with the smashed face. He placed it beside the other seven.
He said a quick prayer to the Earthmother to guide their spirits to whatever god or gods they worshipped, to give them a safe journey through the spirit world, and to watch over their families and friends in the village. Then he put shovel to dirtpile and began filling the hole back in.
In the village, the footmen heard the scraping. They dared not go into the dark to investigate.
At dawn, a weary Linedan walked back into the Tarren Mill inn and gathered up the last of his possessions to leave. As he walked out, he almost literally bumped into Deathguard Samsa.
“Ahhhh, Tauren,” he hissed. “I have tasssked you with obtaining my trophieessss. Thhhirty human sskullss. How goesss your collection in Hillssssbrad, fleshhhling?”
Linedan never paused. He just glanced over his shoulder at Samsa as he walked out of town.
“Get them yourself.”
I talked in a post a while back about wanting to shake Linedan’s somewhat stony personality up a bit, and, honestly, what better time to do it than a world-shattering apocalypse, right? This is the first part of some RP that I hope to develop over the next few weeks leading up to whatever happens with the Cataclysm. It’s the story of a simple Tauren who’s been fighting on the front lines for five and a half long, hard, bloody years and has sacrificed everything to succeed there…his friends, his family, even his very heritage. What happens when the battles are won and the burden becomes too much?
He had suffered the dreams for so long that he thought little of them anymore.
They didn’t always come every night. Sometimes they would come for two, three, or four straight nights and then leave for just as many. He had once gone over a week without one. Most of the time there was only one a night, but not always; occasionally there were two. There had never been three. On the nights where a second one had caused him to wake up sweating, he either stayed awake until the dawn, or found a bottle of alcohol to send him into a dreamless “sleep.”
They followed the same pattern, all of them, but they were by no means identical. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes with a few of his friends, sometimes with a small army. Usually he was clad in his sturdiest armor with weapon and shield, geared for endurance and protection; but he had also had dreams where he was in his lighter armor, wielding two huge weapons, fighting in the berserk way that the troll spirit had taught him years ago.
The locations changed as well. The steaming jungles of Zul’Gurub, the fiery pits of the Molten Core, the frozen halls of Icecrown Citadel, even the scrub-covered plains of the Barrens. The antagonists changed, chosen seemingly at random from an endless list of those he’d faced in combat. And the location and antagonist didn’t always match; once he remembered a dream of fighting the Soulflayer, Hakkar, in Winterspring of all places. The dreams were totally accurate and vivid, drawn from memories that Linedan didn’t even know he retained. The sounds of clashing metal and breaking bones, the stench of blood and the dying voiding their bowels, the sweat, the shadows, the glare, the screams…all of them were reproduced with perfect precision.
There were, really, only two constants in the dreams’ plots, and for years, they were rules that were never broken. The first was that regardless of numbers or foes, Linedan and whoever he was allied with always lost. They always ended up dead or dying on the battlefield; no mercy was ever given. And the second was that, invariably, as the blow came down that would kill Linedan, he woke up, heart pounding, breath coming in gasps.
This night, Linedan found himself atop Icecrown Citadel, surrounded by his friends from The Anvil. He was staring up at the Frozen Throne, the black figure of the Lich King seated upon it, but Tirion Fordring was nowhere to be found.
There was no warning, no talking. Suddenly Arthas was right there in front of Linedan, and battle was joined. It became a whirling blur of shouts and clanging metal, the howl of the frozen wind and the cries of descending val’kyr. The Lich King was wounded again and again, but he fought on, and slowly, one by one, Linedan’s fellow adventurers began to collapse onto the icy stone. The Lich King laughed, and raised Frostmourne for the downstroke that would finish the bleeding Linedan and end the dream…
…the sword slammed into Linedan’s shield and skittered down it with a tortured skree-ee-ee of metal on metal and a shower of sparks, before ringing against the stone. Arthas stopped; it was quite possible to imagine him blinking in surprise behind the blue glow of his helmet.
Linedan swung his shield upward with all his might and slammed the edge into the Lich King’s side, then backhanded it up into Arthas’ chin. With his other hand, he slashed forward with his great Scourge axe–how did that get there? I normally use a mace–and felt the blade crunch through the thick saronite armor into the frozen, rotted flesh beneath. He stepped aside as the Lich King fell to his knees in front of him, blood pouring from his chest through the rent in the armor. Without a word, he raised the axe, and brought it down with a roar. The Lich King’s head parted cleanly and rolled away as the body collapsed, coming to a stop a few paces away face-up.
Linedan blinked, staring dumbly at the severed head as the blue glow faded from the eyes. I…I won? That’s…never happened before…
He looked up. No longer was he standing atop Icecrown. Instead, he saw around him the rolling plains of Mulgore atop Red Cloud Mesa, the plains of his childhood. But they weren’t as he remembered them. They were scorched and blackened. The grass was wilted, dying, even burning in a few spots. Ravens croaked and vultures called. Smoke hung in the air, and the scent of death hung thick. In the distance, he saw the tent where he grew up. Something compelled him to head for it.
All around him as he walked, there were bodies on the ground, hundreds of them. He recognized them…the bodies of his friends. Ghaar, his guildmaster. Gorebash, Keltyr, and Haicu, his fellow fighters on the front lines. Davien, Loremistress of Noxilite. Mirandella, the priestess that had driven him to the edge of insanity. Bricu, the human paladin whom he had nearly died trying to protect, along with Threnn, his lifemate. Corspilla, the mage he had very nearly had to kill when she was possessed. He recognized them all, and more…all those who he had ever fought beside, year after year. They all lay dead around him.
As he reached the tent, the flap opened. To his astonishment, his mother, Muatha, walked out of the tent and up to him.
“Mother,” Linedan gasped. “I…”
“Linedan,” she interrupted him, solemnly. “Last of the Granitehoof clan, until you forced me to make you of the Disowned.”
“I…forced?”, he sputtered, growing angry. “Mother, I did not…”
She ignored him and began to pace. “You have done well in the five turnings of seasons since you defied me, Linedan of the Disowned. Many say you are a hero. You have seen and done things that few ever have. You have fought the greatest foes, and emerged victorious.” She stopped in front of him and stared up, her eyes boring into his, her voice growing colder. “But you are Disowned. You are not Shu’halo. You are as much a foreigner as those you associate with.” She touched the armor he still wore. “Was it worth it, you who was once my son? Giving up your identity and your people, your birthright and your history? Was the gold worth it? Was the thrill of the fight, the killing, worth it?”
“What would you have had me do, Mother?”, he snapped. “Ignore that my destiny lay out there? Ignore my call to defend and protect the Horde, including the Tauren? Ignore my duty to my friends? If you would not have me, then this…” He plucked at the black-and-silver symbol of the Noxilite Eye he wore on his tabard. “…this is my clan. These are my people.”
Mautha stood silently for a moment, then nodded her wizened head. “I would expect nothing less from you, calf. You always were too stubborn for your own good.” She turned to face the corpse-littered field in front of her and raised her hands. “Your people, you say. Let us see what they think of your call and your duty.” She threw her head back. “Come to us, spirits! Rise up, and give your thanks to he who is not my son! RISE UP!!”
From the field in front of him, the corpses began to stir, to move, to stand. They still bore the means of their death…bloody from wounds, or charred with fire, or disfigured by shadow. They stood by their dozens, the lifeless, shambling bodies of those whom Linedan had known for years. And as they came toward him, backing him against the tent, he heard his mother’s cackling laughter rising behind a crescendo of voices that spoke, over and over again, as one:
“Was it worth it? Was it worth it?”
This time, Linedan did not wake up when the first blow fell. He only woke up after feeling himself be torn apart while alive, unable to block out the chanting, and his mother’s laugh, with his own screams.
Linedan is my main–he always has been and barring catastrophe, he always will be. But my “Alliance main,” the dwarf hunter Beltar Forgebreaker, is probably my most fun character to roleplay.
On the surface, he looks like your typical fantasy dwarf…irascible, sarcastic, a bit on the greedy side, inordinately in love with his guns. But dig deeper and you’ll find that Beltar’s not exactly a stout-hearted dwarven hero in the Gimli mode. For over a hundred years, he’s wandered the Eastern Kingdoms as a gun for hire, on both sides of the law (sometimes simultaneously), not settling in any one place for long. He’s been a mercenary, an assassin, a guard, a hitman, a bodyguard, and more. His idea of a fair fight has always been one where he shoots his opponent in the head without ever being seen. And now, late in his life, he’s found his calling as an adventurer and general ne’er-do-well with the Wildfire Riders.
But even anti-heroes have to start somewhere. And in a fashion typical of the accidental nature of his wanderings, Beltar’s first steps on his wandering path didn’t happen the way you’d envision they might.
“Redemption” was a story that I wrote in late 2005, a few months after Beltar’s creation in August. I don’t remember how this backstory came to me, really It just popped into my head and I had to take some time out and write it right now dammit…so I did. I always knew Beltar was oldish, and a wanderer, but until this story body-checked me out of nowhere, I had no clue as to what started him on his lifelong odyssey of the gun.
It’s below a cut, because it’s hella long–4400 words. In case you haven’t noticed, I do tend to run on a bit.
I hope you enjoy it.
This is a story that I wrote in August of 2005, back when Linedan had not quite reached level 60 yet and was still struggling along as an arms warrior. I had originally given him the last name “Granitehoof,” because the original Linedan, my warrior in Everquest, had taken the last name “Granite.” And, y’know, Lin’s a Tauren, so, yeah, “Granite…hoof.” Get it?
Yeah, I hated it too after a while. So I decided to ditch the last name…and this story was what I came up with to do it. The story of the “curse” and the slow decline of the Granitehoof clan had been part of Lin’s background since I created him, this was just the culmination of it. To this day, four years later, Linedan has no last name. I wanted to get Exalted with all of the other Horde factions before getting it with Thunder Bluff, but things didn’t work out that way; nevertheless, Lin doesn’t use his “of Thunder Bluff” title and I pretend like it doesn’t exist. He is, in my mind, still “one-named,” somewhat dishonored before Tauren society, and will remain so until something happens that would allow him to join another clan, or even (should he marry) found one.
I put the story below a cut because it’s long, about 2600 words. So without any further exposition, here it is…”Alone.” I hope you like it.