The keep shook one last time, now as if to collapse. Rylai and Hylael threw themselves to the wall to keep their footing, but at the same time it became obvious that the walls would not offer stability for much longer. They both knew what these tremors meant; those who had survived attacks from the Horde had told terrible tales of orcish catapults.
"They've...they must have taken the wall," Hylael sputtered. He backed away from the wall, turning his attention to the door as he readied his bow. "Then they'll soon be here."
Rylai saw the look in his eyes, the same look that had taken her brothers so readily to orcish slaughter. She saw death and glory in those eyes. "What of the army, though? If any city in Quel'Thalas can withstand the Horde, then…"
"No city in Quel'Thalas or Lordaeron or any place else can withstand those barbarians," Hylael spat. She understood his anger, and that he did not mean it for her or even for their enemies at the walls. "Not unless we fight as one."
Rylai went to him, taking him by the shoulders. "The Alliance iwill/i come."
He shrugged her off. "Damn them if they do, then, for they are not here now. No, beloved, I will not die with my teeth chattering in this war room, clutching my bow and waiting for others to save me. I will lead my men out and make my stand inow/i, before the eyes of all who…" He stopped when he met Rylai's eyes, expressing such fear – not for the city or her death, but for him. He could not find words for glory or vengeance, and it was just as well; she had never known him to love either very much.
"I'm sorry, Rylai. I forgot myself."
She approached him again, keeping her eyes on his, and took his hands into hers. "I understand. I know we have to fight today; I know there's a good deal of fighting that we still have to do. Just…" She smiled; she couldn't manage much, but it was enough for Hylael. "Remember that we're not fighting to die. We're fighting for peace…I want to keep my promise to you."
Hylael smiled back. "I'm not about to let the orcs make a liar out of you."
He drew her in, and they shared a kiss.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen – I suppose you're all wondering why I've asked you here tonight." Rikimaru chuckled, and Rylai came toppling out of her daydream and back into reality. That moment – she and Hylael had had so many fond memories together, but for some reason those last painful moments replayed in her mind far more than any other.
Kardel nudged her with the butt of his rifle. "You all right, lass?"
She nodded. "Yes – just tired, I suppose."
Kardel frowned, nodding. They both turned back to the satyr, sitting on a kind of dais at one end of the tent. "You talk in your sleep, you know."
She quickly turned to him again, but couldn't muster any words before Rikimaru began talking again. "Always wanted to say that. You know why you're here, though – actually, I guess the point of all this is that none of us knew why we were here, until tonight.
"Some of you have probably been wondering why an insignificant little Sentinel shrine like this one has gotten so much attention from the Scourge lately. They all say that the undead are ripping through this land like wildfire, but don't let the clichés block out the obvious for you: the Scourge use strategy, and that means they only deploy their troops in areas which make sense strategically. So – a river, a couple of trees, and a few mountains on either side – the question you should have been asking yourselves is 'What's the draw?'
"Well, I did some spying tonight. Almost got me killed, but I found out what the big draw is. And with that, I think this is the point where I turn over the presentation to Sister Luna. I found out the names and places; she can tell you what they mean."
Luna nodded, walking up to the dais and turning to the assembly. "Before the trees took root or the grasses grew, before any creature of flesh had stepped out of the darkness, this world was home to the Elementals – creatures of pure fire, raw metal, solid stone, or any such other primal form. In those days, you would not have recognized a map of this world as your own; this very valley would have been very far north, as cold as the most distant tip of Northrend.
"There is not a single Frost Elemental left in this world, but in antiquity, this region was teeming with them. This vast forest was their icy kingdom, and before this place here was a valley, it was the heart of their lands. Of course, we have little true knowledge of those times, but the legends say this: in their last generation, in the years before the Titans came and cast out the Elementals, the Frost Elementals had a great ruler, whom they called Skadi, the Queen of Frost. All but forgotten now, they say that never has a queen understood her people as did Skadi, and that she had such a deep connection to the Frost Elementals that her eyes could see every inch of her dominion, into the heart of her every subject, and on into the future of her kingdom.
"She saw, too, the coming day of doom for her race, and she knew that she could do nothing to avert it. Thus, rather than cling to false hope and perish completely, she resolved to preserve the memory of her people, and to that end she plucked out her own eye. In that eye, which had seen the past and future of her people and understood every secret of the frost, she hoped to keep an indelible record of herself and her kingdom; thus, before the Titans set foot in her lands, the Eye of Skadi was supposedly buried in a secret vault, far beneath the palace."
"Guess what the Scourge are looking for," Rikimaru continued. "I guess you and the Lich King are in the same Ancient Text book club, because the Scourge have zeroed in on this valley as the final resting place of Skadi's Eye. They claim that its power will give them an invincible edge – and hell, it all sounds really far-fetched to me, but I don't know what it's capable of. I think I'm with everyone when I say that I'd much rather stop the bastards from finding it in the first place."
There was a brief commotion over this idea, but Luna quickly stepped up and took control again. "Please, everyone – I have called in a small team of specialists to help us locate the vault, but they will need protection; we must assume that the Scourge are expecting us."
Rylai couldn't say why she did what she did just then.
She stepped forward. "I'll go."
Davion trudged on through the snow, losing a little more sensation with every step. He had long since lost feeling in his feet and hands, and that frozen numbness had begun an unsettling advance up his legs and down his arms. He would wait until his legs went entirely, though; that he was going to freeze to death, the knight no longer questioned, but he would fight to the last. Nothing less would befit a retainer to the King.
Long live Lordaeron, he thought. Long live King Teneres.
His sword fell into the snow, but he didn't even notice, so dull were his senses. It fell silently through the inches of frost – looking back through the years, Davion guessed it still rested there. Sometimes, when the moon was bright or the wind strong, the times when he could most feel the worm clawing for control, he wished that he had joined it. Of course, he supposed that a part of him did die in the tundra that day, but the cold had nothing to do with that.
What now, though? A cave? Yes, yes, quite clearly a cave; the hoary winds of Northrend blew so thick and wild that Davion had not even seen the mountain until he was standing at its foot, gazing inside of it. Fate seemed finally willing to give the freezing knight a hand, but even as the storm promised to bury him unsung in those godless lands, Davion felt far more suspicion than relief. As he had seen it, fate had a very dark sense of humor; if he stayed outside, the cold would kill him, but perhaps whatever was in that cave would kill him slower, or more brutally – perhaps, even, he would find something iworse/i than death in this cave.
He only paused a moment, pushing such thoughts out of his head as he walked up to the entrance. The long and short of it was simple: he stood a chance to survive in that cave. Only a coward would abandon such a chance for fear of pain, and Sir Davion, Knight of Lordaeron, Retainer to the King, was no coward.
Long live Lordaeron. Long live King Teneres.
Kardel had a bit of work to do with his own pack, mostly making sure that his ammo and gun parts were properly stored, but he could hardly help watching Davion. He packed no tent, no blanket, no clothes, and nothing else beside several days ration water and however much meat he could cram in. Dried, rotten, raw - however he could come by it, Davion never seemed to eat anything else, and thus he spent all his time laying traps and all his other rations bartering for the smallest bits here and there.
"Think ya' have enough?" Kardel asked, completely serious.
Davion looked at the pack, then shook his head. "No. If we stay out long enough, I'm going to have to hunt."
Kardel frowned, more in concern than anything else. "You know…I have a lot of hard-tack meself, more than I care to eat…" An outsider would have thought Kardel was trying to get his hands on some of that meat himself, meat being the commodity that it always is during wartime, but Davion knew better. Kardel and Rylai both knew about his condition, and they both treated it with the same concern.
"Thank you, but…believe me, if I had the choice, I would never touch another piece of meat again. Come on, Rylai's going to be waiting for us."
Kardel wasn't finished. "When I was just a wee lad, my uncle was a shepherd, you know. He had flocks like you've never seen – he did it for his whole life, and he liked to sit me on his knee and tell me all about it. And every time he would tell me, because he knew it was my favorite part, about the time a dragon came and devoured his whole flock in five minutes."
Davion paused, and they stayed quiet like that for a moment. Kardel had expected some kind of anger, but the knight only hung his head a little.
"You have ihis/i appetite, Davion," Kardel finally noted in his distinctive dwarfish brogue. He picked up his pack, deciding that it was fine as it was after all. "Take care of yourself."
As Kardel left, Davion sighed, knowing what Kardel meant.
Long live Lordaeron. Long live…
The Dragon spoke inside of him. "Are those scraps the best you could come by? They smell terrible."
Davion closed the pack as quickly as he could, binding it closed and leaving the tent with all due haste. The trouble, he knew, was not in taking care of himself.
Davion, Retainer to the old kingdom of Lordaeron, had to fight constantly to remain himself at all.
"Wow, she's hot!"
"Gentlemen, please!" Luna tried to maintain order amongst the chattering goblins, but their attention was already hopelessly lost. Rylai just steeled herself, knowing that she would have to deal with these "specialists" for the entire mission.
"Do you think she has a boyfriend?" one of the three asked, this one crowned with a brilliant shock of red hair.
"Shut up, didn't you hear the elf lady?" another asked, this one sporting a metal hat.
"I heard your imom/i last night!" the first one replied. The third of their company, covered by a (presumably) empty gunpowder keg that left only his stocky goblin legs visible, started cackling hysterically. In fact, all three of them laughed; the goblin with the hat, at whom the insult was seemingly aimed, gave the red-haired goblin a high-five.
"What strange creatures…" Rylai wondered aloud.
Luna sighed. "Goblin technicians; if you can bear their company alone, you'll be a nobler woman than I, but they are still the finest treasure hunters to be found."
"That's paleontologists!" the goblin with the hat replied.
"Yeah!" his red-haired companion agreed. "Treasure hunters don't get to blow stuff up!"
"Yay!" said the goblin the keg.
"Whatever terms you use, their instruments should help you find Skadi's vault with relative ease, provided that you and your companions can keep the Scourge at bay," Luna finished.
"We'll do more than keep 'em at bay for ya'," Kardel assured as he entered the tent, rifle at his shoulder, with Davion following close behind. "Any a' those beasts come near, and I'll blow 'em a new set a' wind-pipes."
"Yay!" said the goblin in the keg again. Everyone stared at the goblins, particularly the two newcomers.
"Are these your specialists?" Davion asked.
"I believe introductions are finally in order," Luna concluded.
"I'm Spleen!" The two spoke at almost the same time, and sounded so similar that one could hardly tell which said what. As well as they could determine, the one with the hat was Squee, and the red-haired one was Spleen. Their companion, on the other hand, spoke very distinctively.
"Kaboom!" he shouted, jumping into the air as if blown back from an explosion; he landed on his back, and the now-sideways keg began to roll out of the tent with him inside.
Kardel stopped it with his foot. "What's his deal, then?"
"Who, him?" Squee asked. "He just knows how to have a good time! We call him Kaboom."
"Don't know his name, he just says that more than anything else," Spleen added.
"Kaboom!" Kaboom sang, his legs flailing about as his laughs echoed in the keg.
"My name's Kardel. I'm the finest sharpshooter you're liable to-"
"Yeah, that's great dwarfy," Squee interrupted.
"Who's the girl?" Spleen followed instantly.
"Girl-girl-girl!" Kaboom shouted eagerly, his legs flailing out again. He seemed clearly unable to right himself, or at least he didn't care to.
"I'm sorry, Rylai," Luna whispered. Rylai just shooed the apology off.
"Do you have your equipment together?" Rylai asked. "We should move out as soon as possible."
Nessaj walked out of his tent, ripping at a hunk of jerky with his teeth. It felt and tasted like leather, but bad food sure beat no food at all, particularly when your employers had no need to keep food on hand. At least they kept the bodies coming in, though…
Nessaj jumped, dropping his jerky but fumbling it back to safety. It was the Fletcher, standing right next to him at the entrance to the tent – Nessaj could have sworn he was alone a second ago.
"Hey, Clinkz. You seen Leshrac around? I want to talk jerky with him."
"He is with the Ghoul at the western entrance. We leave tonight."
"Whoa, right now?" Nessaj asked. "I thought we were going tomorrow night, what's the rush?"
"The Sentinel have finally sent a spy; they will be looking for the Eye, so our time runs short."
"Oh…well, I guess just gimme a few minutes to get ready."
"Pack light, Nessaj," Bone Clinkz advised as he started to walk off. "And take heart. There will be fighting this time out."