KEZZIG KLACKWHISTLE STRAIGHTENED from where he’d been kneeling for what felt like at least a decade, pladcing his big, green hands on the small of his back and grimacing at the ensuing cascade of pops. He licked his dry lips and looked around, squinting against the blinding sunlight and mopping his bald head with a sweat-stiff kerchief. Here and there were tightly clustered, swirling swarms of insects. And of course, the sand, every-where, and most of it probably going to end up inside his underclothes. Just like it had yesterday.
Man, Silithus was an ugly place.
„Jixil?“ he said to his companion, who was analyzing a hovering rock with the Spect-o-Matic 4000.
„Yeah?“ The other goblin peered at the reading, shook his head and tried again.
„I hate this place.‘
„Ya do? Huh. It speaks well of you.“ Glaring at the piece of equipment, the smaller, squatter goblin smacked it soundly.
„Ha-ha, very funny,“ Kezzig grumbled. „No, I mean it.“
Jixil sighed, trudged to another rock, and began to scan it. „We all hate this place, Kezzig.“
„No, I really mean it. I’m not cut out for this environment. I used to work in Winterspring. I’m a snow-loving, snuggle-by-the-fire, holly-jolly kinda goblin.“
Jixil threw him a withering glance. „What happened to bring you here, instead of staying there, where you weren’t annoying me?“
Kezzig grimaced, rubbing the back of his neck. „Little Miss Lunnix Sprocketslip happened. See – I was working in her mining supply shop. I’d go out as a guide for the occasional visitor to our cozy little hamlet of Everlook. Lunny and I kinda … yeah.“ he smiled nostalgically for a moment, then scowled. „Then she goes and gets her nose out of joint when she caught me hanging around Gogo.“
„Gogo,“ Jixil repeated in a flat voice. „Gee. I wonder why Lunnix would get upset with you hanging around a girl named GoGo.“
„I know! Gimme a break. It gets cold up there. A guy has to snuggle by the fire now and then or he’ll freeze, am I right? Anyways, the place suddenly got hotter than here at midday.“
Sighing, Kezzig picked up the huge pack of equipment, slung it easily over his shoulders, and lugged it over to where Jixil was still hoping for positive results. He let the bundle drop to the earth, and there came the sound of delicate pieces of equipment clanking perilously against each other.
„I hate sand,“ he continued. „I hate the sun. And oh boy, do I really, really hate bugs. I hate the little bugs, because they like crawl in your ears and up your nose. I hate the big bugs because, well, they’re big bugs. I mean, who doesn’t hate that? It’s kind of a universal hate. But my particular hate burns with the light of a thousand suns.“
„I thought you hated suns.“
„I do, but I -„
Jixil suddenly stifferned. His magenta eyes widened as he stared at his Spect-o-Matic.
„What I meant was -„
„Shut up, you idiot!“ Jixil snapped. Now Kezzig was starin at the instrument too.
It was going insane.
Its little needle flipped back and forth. The small light at the top flashed and urgent, excited red.
The two goblins looked at the other. „Do you know what this means?“ Jixil said in a voice that trembled.
Kezzig’s lips curved in a grin that revealed almost all of his jagged yellow teeth. he curled one hand into a fist and smacked it firmly into the palm of the other.
„It means,“ he said, „we get to eliminate the competition.“
Sylvanas Windrunner, former ranger-general of Silvermoon, the Dark Lady of the Forsaken and present warchief of the mighty Horde, had resented being told to come to Orgrimmar, like a dog that needed to perform all its tricks. She had wanted to return to the Undercity. She missed its shadows, its dampness, its restful quietude. Rest in peace, she thought grimly, and had to smother a smile. It faded almost at once as she continued pacing impatiently in the small chamber behind the warchief’s throne in Grommash Hold.
A few years ago, Garrosh Hellscream had pushed to have a massive celebration in Orgrimmar to commemorate the end of the Northrend campaign. He wasn’t warchief – not then. There had been a parade of every veteran who wished to participate, their path strewn with imported pine boughs, and a gigantic feast awaited them at the end of the route. Awards had been distributed, and the inns of the city flung open without limits to those who had fought for the Horde.
It had been extravagant, and expensive, and Sylvanas initially had no intention of following in the footsteps of Hellscream in not just this situation, but in any. He had been arrogant, brutal, impulsive. Sylvanas had loathed him and had secretly conspired-unsuccessfully, regrettably-to kill him even after he had been arrested and charged with war crimes. His decision to attack Theramore with a devastating mana bomb had the softer races wrestlin with their consciences. The only thing that had troubled Sylvanas about it had been the orc’s timing.
When at last, inevitably, Garrosh had been killed, Sylvanas was pleased, though she still harbored regrets that she had not been the one to take his life.
Varok Saurfang, the leader of the orcs, and Bain Bloodhoof, chieftain of the tauren, had borne no love for Garrosh either. But they had pushed Sylvanas to make an appearance and at least some kind of gesture to mark the end of this war. Brave members of this Horde you lead fought and died to make sure the Legion did not destroy this world, as it had so many others, the young bull had intoned. He had been but one step away from openly rebuking her.
Sylvanas recalled Saurfan’gs thinly-veiled… warning? Threat? You are the leader of all the Horde-orcs, tauren, trolls, blood elves, goblins-as well as the Forsaken. You must never forget that, or else they might
What I will not forget, orc, she thought, ire rising in her anew, are those words.
She paused, her sharp ears picking up the sound of familiar footsteps. The tanned hide that served as a node to privacy was drawn aside, and the newcomer entered.
„You are late. Another quarter of an hour, and I would have been forced to ride without my champion beside me.“
He bowed. „Forgive me, my queen. I have been about your business, and it took longer than expected.“
She was unarmed, but he carried a bow and bore a quiver full of arrows. The only human ever to become a ranger, he was a superlative marksman. It was on reason he was the best bodyguard Sylvanas could possibly have. There were other reasons, too, reasons that had their roots in the distant past, when the two had connected under a bright and beautiful sun, and had fought for bright and beautiful things.
Death had claimed them both, human and elf alike. Little now was bright and beautiful, and much of that past they had shared had grown dim and hazy.
But not all of it.
While Sylvanas had left behind most warmer emotions the moment she had risen from the dead as a banshee, anger had somehow retained its heat. But she felt it melt away now. She could never stay angry with Nathanos Marris, known now as the „Blightcaller,“ for long. And he had indeed been about her business – visiting the Undercity, while she had been saddled with duties that kept her here in Orgrimmar.
She wanted to reach for his hand, but contented herself with smiling benevolently at him. „You are forgiven,“ she said. „Now. Tell me of our home.“
Sylvanas expected a brief recitation of modest concerns, a reaffimation of the Forsaken’s loyalty to their Dark Lady. Instead, Nathanos frowned. „The situation…is complicated, my queen.“
Her smiled faded. What could possibly be „complicated“ about it? The Undercity belonged to the Forsaken, and they were her people.
„Your presence has been sorely missed,“ he said. „While many are proud that, at least, the Horde has a Forsaken as its warcrhief, there are others who feel that you have prechance forgotten about those who have been more loyal to you than any other.“
She laughed, sharpy and without humor. „Bained and Saurang and the others say I have not been giving them enough attention. My people say I have veen giving them too much. Whatever I do, someone objects. How can anyone rule like this?“ She shook her pale head. „A curse upon Vol’jin and his loa. I should have stayed in the shadows, where I could be effective without being interrogated.“
Where I could do as I truly wished.
She’d never wanted this. Not really. as she had told the troll Vol’jin before, during the trial of the late and greatly unlamented Garrosh Hellscream, she liked her power, her control, on the subtle side. But with quite literally his dying breath, Vol’jin, the Horde’s leader, had commanded that she do the opposite. He had been granted a vision by the loa he honored.
You must step out of da shadows and lead.
You must be warchief.
Vol’jin had been someone she respected, although they clashed on occasion. He lacked the abrasiveness that so often characterized orc-leadership. And she had been genuinely sorry he had fallen – and not just because of the responsibility he had placed on her head.
Nathanos was wise enough not to interrupt her. She forced calm upon herself. This was Nathanos, daring to speak truth to power, as he always did. And she valued that. „Continue.“
„From their perspective,“ the dark ranged resumed, „you were a fixture in the Undercity. You made them, you worked to prolong their existence, you were everything to them. Your ascension to warchief was so sudden, the threat so great and so immediate, that you left no one behind to care for them.“
Sylvanas nodded. She supposed she could understand that.
„You left a great hole. And holes in power tend to be filled.“
Her red eyes widened. Was he speaking of a coup? The queen’s mind flashed back a few years to the betrayal of Varimathras, a demon she had thought would only obey her. He had joined with the ungrateful wretch Putress, a Forsaken apothecary who had created a plague against the living and the undead – and who had nearly killed Sylvanas herself. Retaking the Undercity had been a bloody endeavor. But no. Even as the thought occured to her, she knew that her loyal champion would not be speaking in so casual a manner if something so terrible had happened.
Reading her expression perfectly, as he so often did, Nathanos hastened to reassure her. „All is calm there, my lady. But in the absence of a single powerful leader, the inhabitans of your city have formed a governing body to tend to the population’s needs.“
„Ah, I see. An interim organization. That is … not unreasonable.“
„They are calling themselves the Desolate Council.“ Again, he hesitated. „My lady … there are rumors about things that have been done by you in this war. Some of those rumors are even true.“
„Word has reached them of my efforts to continue their existence. Unfortunately, I assume that word has also reached them that Genn Greymane destroyed their hope.“
She had taken her flagship, the Windrunner, to Stormheim in the Broken Isles, in search of more Val’kyr to resurrect the fallen. It was, thus far, the only way Sylvanas had found to create more Forsaken. „I was almost able to enslave the great Eyir. She would have given me the Val’kyr for all eternity. None of my people would have ever died again.“ She paused. „I would have saved them.“
„That … is the corcern.“
„Do not dance around this, Nathanos. Speak plainly.“
„Not all of them desire for themselves what you desire for them, my queen. Many on the Desolate Council harbor deep reservations.“ His face, still that of a dead man but better preserved due to an elaborate ritual she had ordered performed, twisted in a smile. „This is the peril you created when you gave them free will. They are now free to disagree.“
Her pale brows drew together in a terrible frown. „Do they want extinction, then?“ she cried, anger flaring brightly inside her. „Do they want to be rotting in the earth?“
„I do not know what they want,“ Nathanos replied, calmly. „They wish to speak with you, not with me“
From outside the room came the thump-thump of a spear butt on the stone floor. Sylvanas closed her eyes, trying to gather patience. „Enter,“ she growled.
One of the orc guards of the hold obeyed and stood at attention, his green face unreadable. „Warchief,“ he said, „it is time. Your people await you.“
Your people. No. Her people were back in the Undercity, holding meetings, using her own gifts to them – their existence and their free will – to inexplicably refuse those gifts.
„I will be out momentarily,“ Sylvanas said, adding, in case the guard did not understand what was behind the words, „Leave us.“
The orc saluted and withdrew, letting the skin flap fall into place.
Nathanos, ever patient, waited for her orders. He would obey them, she knew. She could, right now, order a group of any combination of non-Forsaken Horde warriors to march on the Undercity and seize the members of this ungrateful council. But even as she had the satisfying thought, she knew it would be unwise. She needed to know more – much more – before she could act.
„We will leave this topic for now,“ she said. „I have other things I wish to discuss with you.“
„As my lady wishes,“ Nathanos replied.
They emerged, ready to begin the march. Sylvanas had taken care that no one referred to it as a „parade“, lest they start having expectations of the one Garrosh had advocated. Varok Saurfang await her in the main area of the hold. With him stood an honor guard of veterans. Sylvanas would make a circuit through the city astride on of her bony skeletal horses, gathering different races and their leaders as she went. She was not fond of any of them, but Varok Saurfang was the one she gave grudging respect. He was intelligent, strong, fierce … and, like Baine, loyal. But there was something in the orc’s eyes that always put her on alert when she gazed into them. The knowledge that if she misstepped too badly he might well challenge her, perhaps even oppose her.
That look was in his eyes now as he stepped forward to greet her. He met her stare for stare, not even breaking eye contact as he executed a brief bow and stepped aside to let her pass before h e fell in line behind her.
As all the others would do.
Sylvanas nodded to him as she strode to where her horse awaited her. After swinging lithely into the saddle, she waved to the throngs of celebrants who crowded the streets of Orgrimmar. They cheered and waved back, swept up in the enthusiasm of the day.
Sylvanas did not fool herself that she was universally beloved. For her part, she did not have much interested in the Horde as a whole, although she took great pains never to let her true feelings show. She had led the Horde to a seemingly impossible victory, and for now, at least, it looked as thought its members were solidly with her.
Nathanos rode beside her, followed by Saurfang and his honor guard. In the dusty road outside the hold was a cluster of the blood elves and the Forsaken who inhabited the city.
The blood elves were all dressed splendidly in their predictable colors of red and gold. At their head was Lor’themar Theron. He rode a red-plumed hawkstrider, and met her gaze evenly. Friends, they had once been. Theron had served under her when she was a ranger-general of the high elves. They had been comrades in arms, much like the one who rode beside her as her champion. But whereas Nathanos, once a moral human now Forsaken, had kept his unswerving loyalty to her, Sylvanas knew that Theron’s was to his people.
People who had been just like her, once. They were „just like her“ no more.
No one among the leaders of the various Horde races had truly welcomed her ascension to warchief. But they all accepted it. Sylvanas wondered how long that would last. How far she could push them.
Theron inclined his head. He would serve at least for the moment. No one for speeches, Sylvanas merely inclined her own head and turned to the group of Forsaken. They stood, patiently as always. At least here in the capital city, they were her people – no defectors to a self-pityingly named Desolate Council.
But she could not show favoritism, not here. So she gave them the same nod she had given Lor’themar and the sin’dorei, and nudged her steed to move through the gate. The blood elves and the Forsaken fell in line, riding behind so as no to crowd her. That had been her stipulation, and she had stood firm on it.
She wanted to be able to snatch at least a few moments of privacy. There were things meant for her champion’s ears alone.
„We need to increase what is in the Horde’s coffers,“ Sylvanas murmured quietly to her champion. „We will need the funds,“ Sylvanas continued, „and we will need them.“ She waved at the family of orcs. Both the male and female bore battle scars, but they were smiling, and the child they lifted over their heads to see the warchief was plump and healthy-looking.
Sylvanas‘ path through the city would take her first through an alley lined with shops called the Drag, then to the Valley of Honor. The Drag had once been an apt name for the area, which abutted a canyon wall in a less-than-savory part of the city prior to the Cataclysm. With that terrible event, the Drag, like so much of beleaguered Azeroth, had physically shifted. Like Sylvanas Windrunner herself, it had emerged from the shadows. Sunlight now illuminated the winding, hard-packed dirt of the streets. More reputable establishments, such as clothing shops and ink supply stores, seemed to be springing up as well.
„I’m not sure I understand, my queen,“ Nathanos said. They had not had much time for private conversations. The war had taken everything they could give it, every day, and most of the time, they were surrounded by listening ears. „Of course, the Horde needs funds and its members.“
„It is not the member that concern me. It is the army. I have decided I will not dissolve it.“
He turned to look at her. „They think they’re come home,“ he said. „Is this not the case?“
„It is, for the moment,“ she said. „Injuries need time to heal. Crops need to be planted. But soon, I will call upon the brave fighters of the Horde for another battle. The one you and I have both longed for.“
Nathanos was silent. She did not take that for disagreement of disapproval. He was often silent. That he did not press her for more details meant that he understood what she wanted.