Enemy of My Enemy

A World of Warcraft fan fiction contest entry

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1. Enemy of My Enemy

Enemy of My Enemy

--- A World of Warcraft Tale ---

By Ryan Foley

 

            For in a time of great strife, a follower of the Naaru will be forced to align with a representative of the great war chief. Show no disdain or cast no call of traitor, for these two will impact the greater war with an enemy that seethes in the darkness waiting to escape…

-- Scroll of Record

Prophet Xelina of the Naaru

 

     I am going to die…

     Those five words repeated over and over in Aimaada’s mind as she raced through the dark forest as fast as her double jointed legs could carry her. Ducking past branches and slithering through the underbrush, the draenei hunter could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Her hoof feet crunched against the brown pine needles that littered the forest floor and clacked against the occasional exposed rock. Sweat coated her dark violet skin, running under her cured leather breastplate and pooling in the small of her back. Her lungs felt like they were on fire and exhaustion threatened to overtake her completely.

     Chancing a look behind her, Aimaada had lost all sight of the wretched monstrosity that had pursued her so relentlessly, chasing her from the road into the thicket of the darkened woods. Glancing over at her nightsaber companion – her ever faithful Starfall – a small smile came to her lovely features. The great cat’s hair no longer stood so high. Perhaps they had made it to safety.

     Slowing her frenetic pace, Aimaada eased down and gingerly came to a stop. The hunter strained, listening to the sounds of the surrounding forest. All seemed quiet. Letting her exhaustion overtake her, Aimaada doubled over, resting her hands on her knees.

     Catching her breath, Aimaada dug into one of the pouches on her belt and produced a small hunk of grilled Rockscale Cod. Her faithful cat perked up her ears and licked her lips, showcasing her wicked fangs. Aimaada smiled and tossed the succulent morsel of meat to her trusted pet. Starfall caught the hunk of fish out of the air and gobbled it down with hardly even chewing. Aimaada looked into the bright white eyes of her cat and trailed her fingers along Starfall’s flank, dancing her fingertips along the row of spots that ran from the cat’s neck down to her haunches. Starfall let out a low purr of approval.

     Deepening her normally high voice, Aimaada spoke in her thick Naaruvian accent, “You should head to Duskwood, Aimaada. It is a region that puts novice hunters on the path to becoming an Azerothian legend.” Giving an exhale of disgust, Aimaada rolled her eyes. “Great advice, Urikar. Yes, let us go to Duskwood. How bad can it be?”

     The draenei got back to her feet and scanned for the horizon. Unfortunately, she saw just how bad it could be. The realm called Duskwood was far different from the vast, ancient forests of Ashenvale. Here there was no tranquility. The smell of peat and waterlogged wood intermingled with death. Every crick and crack in the forest seemed to be a predator hoping to chance upon prey. 

     But Aimaada was no prey.

     The draenei hunter looked around in the thicket of the forest hoping to find some point of reference and even looked to the stars to try to gain her bearings. She was not even certain how long she had fled from the monstrosity. But what could once be qualified as sunlight in Duskwood had clearly given way to night. Darkness was all around her and Duskwood at night was one of the last places on Azeroth that even a well-armed and armored hero wanted to be. 

     Fearing to strike a torch and become even more visible to predators, Aimaada closed her eyes and tried to get a natural sense of her bearing. “West,” Aimaada whispered to Starfall. “We should head west.”

     Aimaada tried to keep her wits sharp and her mind focused as she slowly picked her way through the tangled forest. Too many salivating, feral wolves and savage spiders the size of buckboard wagons prowled the region looking for a meal of fresh meat. And given the lack of small rodents – or any life in general in the Light-forsaken woods – fresh meat would be pursued relentlessly. Still, Aimaada could not help but reflect back on her life, wondering how she came to such a dark and foreboding place. 

     She thought back to the mission undertaken by her and eleven of her draenei companions. Relations with the night elves of Kalimdor had been thoroughly established but the Elders wanted to extend an open hand to King Varian Wrynn of the great human empire of the Eastern Kingdoms. Traveling across the Great Sea, the draenei delegation arrived in Stormwind to illustrious fanfare and a partnership was assured. Wrynn welcomed the draenei into his lands. Having fully adventured through the Azuremyst and Bloodmyst Isles, Aimaada saw the sprawling continent of the Eastern Kingdoms as a place to prove her quality. So she ventured south from Stormwind and Elwynn Forest, crossing over the river and through the woods into the dark shroud of Duskwood. It was on the southern road that she came upon… it.

     So lost in her reverie, Aimaada missed the crackling sound of burning flames until she stepped into the small clearing. A deep, guttural growl from Starfall snapped her back to reality. She pulled her crossbow against her shoulder and began sweeping the weapon left to right, looking to loose on any potential threat. 

     Looking around the clearing, what she saw was almost too fantastic to believe given the rocky crags and dense forest that served as Duskwood’s landscape. In the middle of the forest was the smashed and burning wreckage of what could only be described as a large boat. Illuminated by crash fires and the light of the full moon, Aimaada could see the ship was easily the size of the massive ocean-faring vessel that had transported her delegation from Kalimdor to the Eastern Kingdoms a month earlier. Such vessels were designed to weather any storm and ferry large amounts of cargo between the great continents. For such a massive vessel to have somehow crashed in the middle of the landlocked forest was simply impossible.

     Still, the size of the crashed vessel seemed to be the only similarity to the ocean faring ships she was familiar with. The vessel’s design was curious to say the least. This was not one of the massive warships that forged north to the frigid continent of Northrend. And it did not have the carvings and elegance of the elven boats that ferried passengers to destinations like Darnassus. This was a design that could only be described as… ugly. It seemed to be a crude but effective vessel, save for the fact that it was smashed upon the forest floor. Still, from the pieces that remained intact, it looked as if the boat had been slapped together by someone who was either a genius at cannibalizing whatever resources they had available or an artistic madman with no sense of aesthetics.

     A flap of movement drew Aimaada’s eye up to the tree canopy now almost lost in the failing light. She could see a large hole in the shattered tree line. Once thick and strong limbs were snapped and splintered as if they were children’s playthings in the hands of giants. Scattered amongst the treetops were massive lengths of fabric, impaled on the broken treetops and tenting across the smashed branches. Picking her way through the burning remains of the ruined craft, Aimaada noted lengths of rope running from mooring cleats on the ship’s deck to the sails skewered above.

     Suddenly, the tumblers clicked into place and Aimaada realized what she was looking at. The fabric above was not a sail and this was not a seagoing vessel. She had seen these great ships before but only from a comfortable distance and in lands that members of the grand Alliance did not venture. They were gondola ships suspended in the air by enormous balloons. But only one group used such modes of transport…

     It was then that she spotted the bodies littered amongst the wreckage. Her eyes growing wide in horror, Aimaada began to take cautious steps backward. Gingerly looking to make her way out of the wreckage, Aimaada pivoted to turn, hoping to run as quickly as she could.

     Unfortunately, she was staring straight down the barrel of a massive rifle pointed directly at her face…

 

*          *          *

 

     The crash had been a living nightmare. The last thing Tatanka remembered was looking down into those solid white, lifeless, reptilian eyes before everything descended into chaos. Giving his bull head a massive shake, the tauren hunter tried to jar loose the cobwebs from the impact and ran a hand over his coal black fur, smoothing the fine hair back into place. Looking around at the twisted wreckage that was once their flying zeppelin, Tatanka saw nothing but lifeless bodies. The goblin crew of the boat and his fellow tauren were scattered amongst the wreckage of the secret ship.

     Charged with her clandestine mission, the great ship had been christened the Iron Eagle II – so named for the similar route that her sister ship made, traveling from the orc capital of Orgrimmar to the Grom’gol Base Camp in the tropical jungles of Stranglethorn Vale. The goblins that piloted the craft jokingly called it The Gedrick. At least Tatanka assumed it was a joke because the goblins would howl hysterically after calling the ship by that name. Tatanka suspected one had to be a goblin to understand goblin humor.

     The tauren hunter ducked his head into a section of the massive ship that still resembled her original form before her unfortunate demise. From out of the darkness, Tatanka heard a distinctive hiss and a clicking of mandibles. “Awak’pawne?” Tatanka called out, speaking in his native Taur-ahe language.

     Skittering out of the darkness was Tatanka’s ever faithful companion who had been resting below decks at the time of the attack. The forest spider stood to his master’s waist, no small feat given Tatanka’s frame measured over eight feet tall. Giving his pet spider a hearty scratching under her chin, ruffling her orange and black stripped hair, the hunter looked into his pet’s multiple eyes and smiled. “I am glad you survived, girl.”

     With Awak’pawne close on his heels, Tatanka began picking his way through the twisted wreckage of the crashed ship. Unfortunately, every step made his heart sink deeper and deeper. Coming to the forward sections of the ship, he saw the last sight he wanted to see. “Brahma!”

     Scrambling forward, the tauren hunter tossed away wooden planks and dirigible lines that covered the body of his older brother. Rolling his sibling onto his back, Tatanka felt his breath catch in his throat. Looking down in horror, Tatanka scrambled, digging into his pack. He felt Brahma’s hand reach up and clasp his. “Do not waste your b-b-bandages, brother,” he managed to growl, spitting the words past far too much fluid. “Even the most t-talented shaman could not s-save me.”

     “Brother, what was that beast?”

     “You should… take heart,” Brahma wheezed, managing a small laugh. “You are one of the few that can say you faced – urgn – a Dragon of Nightmare… and survived.”

     “I guess he didn’t like our boat sailing over his lands, eh?”

     The two brothers shared a light laugh and Tatanka lowered his head, trying not to let the tears escape his eyes. “Brother…”

     “I have little time, Tatanka,” Brahma growled. The dying tauren summoned all his strength. His eyes steeled and once more Tatanka looked into the visage of the proud warrior that lay before him. “Take my pack. You have to deliver that message from Chief Bloodhoof. You are a tauren emissary and we cannot fail. If we fail, this force – this Scourge – will destroy all of Thunder Bluff.

     “It is on you, brother. I know you can do it.”

     With those last words, Brahma’s reserves were spent and a final ragged breath escaped from the once proud warrior’s lungs. All Tatanka could do was hang his head. The hunter wanted to wail out in anguish and give a cry that would let all in the spirit world know of his brother’s imminent arrival. Instead, he swallowed his pain and reached out with a tenderness that betrayed his large, muscular hands. With two of his three fingers, he closed his brother’s eyes as he spoke.

     “Blessed Earthmother, hear my voice as I cry out from the depths to thee. With thee is eternal rest. Let your perpetual light shine upon him. Let him wander the fields of your happy hunting grounds and let Brahma – my beloved brother – rest in peace.”

     Wasting no more time, Tatanka snatched up the wolf hide pack from beside his brother’s fallen form and slipped it across his back. Having gathered up the scattered supplies that could be salvaged, Tatanka hefted the trusted rifle that had served him well on the windswept mesas and grasslands of Mulgore.

     Mulgore.

     Tatanka closed his eyes and tried to remember his home that now seemed impossibly far away.  He tried to imagine the heady smell of the flowing wheat mingling with the perfumed aroma of honeysuckle and the sound of the ever-present wind sprinkled with the sharp calls of the tallstriders meandering about the Golden Plains.

     But the foul aura that covered this forsaken land infected Tatanka’s memories and reminded him just how much trouble he was in. Tatanka looked down at his trusted spider and saw the bright orange hairs of her pelt standing on end and heard a whispered trilling of her mandibles. A low but audible growl split the silence and Tatanka responded by bringing the stock of his trusted rifle against his shoulder. He had expected scavengers to arrive for the bodies but he had not anticipated them to arrive so quickly.

     Coming around the crumpled and shattered bow of the Iron Eagle II, Tatanka saw a lone figure standing amongst the wreckage. But this was clearly not a tauren, no orc, nor goblin survivor of the crash. Given the shapely form, it was clear she was female but thankfully, her back was to Tatanka. He brought his rifle to bear and cocked the hammer back. The sound echoed from the weapon and the female with violet skin spun with lightning speed.

     Thankfully, she was staring right down the barrel of Tatanka’s rifle.

 

*          *          *

 

     Aimaada spun to stare directly down the barrel of Tatanka’s weapon. Looking down the sight of the long rifle, she looked deep into the emotionless eyes of the tauren warrior. His intentions were clear.

     As the tauren squeezed the trigger, Aimaada responded with impossible speed, slapping the length of her crossbow against the barrel of the rifle, sending the weapon high as it discharged. Both hunters’ pets issued terrible growls – Aimaada’s nightsaber giving a throaty snarl and Tatanka’s forest spider singing out a spine-chilling trill. With no range for her crossbow, Aimaada snapped her two short swords out of the scabbards on her hips and began circling for position while Tatanka loosed his mighty two-handed axe from the harness across his back.

     “Horde scum,” Aimaada hissed as she narrowed her eyes, still circling her prey.

     “Pitiful Alliance,” Tatanka shot back. But the massive hunter did not speak with the natural language of the tauren or even the guttural language of the orc. Surprisingly, he spoke with the tongue used as common speech in the Eastern Kingdoms. “Hunter?”

     “Born and bred,” Aimaada replied, letting her short swords drop to her side. With her melee weapons still ready, Aimaada knew she could spring her faster weapons back into position before the tauren could bring his heavy axe to bear. “I like your spider.”

     “And I like your cat. If you are a true hunter, if you can feel the land, you know this place is…” Tatanka paused for a moment, searching for the translation, “…befouled. Long from the blessings of the Earthmother.”

     Aimaada’s eyes narrowed, “Cursed?”

     Tatanka gave a short nod, slightly loosening the grip on his axe.

     “It is hard for me to sense the Naaru – the Light – in these lands.” Aimaada let her shoulders drop and she took a more defensive stance. “And there are things in these woods that cannot be reasoned with – things that would kill anyone regardless of their allegiance or political faction.”

     “Meat is meat.” Tatanka gave a nod of his head. “And certain… partnerships would benefit those looking to escape this wretched place… especially if you were headed, let us say, west.”

     “And what is west?” Aimaada asked.

     “A river that flows to the south. It is the border for this region and the one you call Westfall. That river will take me to Stranglethorn Vale. I am not headed north. I have no interest in your Stormwind capital.”

     “I am sworn to defend the lands of the Alliance from all threats,” Aimaada said with a slight smile. “But you do not seem to be a direct threat to the Alliance… not at the moment.”

     “Not at the moment. But I am a direct threat to all the mindless undead that surrounds us.” As if to prove his point, Tatanka brought up his heavy axe and the razor edge glinted in the half-light.

     “An alliance?” Aimaada asked.

     “Let’s call it… a partnership.”

     Shifting his axe to rest on his left shoulder, Tatanka extended his right hand, “Tatanka Tyrranotaur of Thunder Bluff.”

     “Aimaada of the Exodar.”

 

*          *          *

 

     With the wreckage of the dragon-crashed zeppelin far behind them, the partnership of hunters stopped in a small clearing that provided them a measure of open ground. “What happened to this land?” Tatanka asked as he took a pull from his waterskin. “What made it like this?”

     “A fine question,” Aimaada said, taking a bite of food from her pack. “This land is far from Azuremyst. You would have to ask one of the locals back in Darkshire.”

     “For some reason, I do not think they would be accommodating to a Horde hunter strolling into their town square.”

     A flinty laugh escaped from Aimaada and she covered her mouth to hide her smile. “Indeed.”

     Tatanka’s pet spider came skittering close to her master. “Hungry, girl?” the tauren said with a grin. Digging into his pack, he produced more of his pet’s favorite food.

     “What is her name?” Aimaada asked.

     “Awak’pawne,” Tatanka replied.

     Aimaada cocked her head to one side. “Is that tauren language or orcish?”

    "Taur-ahe,” Tatanka corrected. “Roughly translated it would mean ‘Doom Biter.’ But I believe it sounds more… elegant in Taur-ahe.”

     “I agree.”

     Starfall – Aimaada’s nightsaber – came to brush against the back of her master’s legs. Aimaada reached down to rub the back of her cat’s neck. “How did you come to speak the common language?”

     “My mother taught me and my brother.” Tatanka said, “She would always tell me, ‘Tatan, it is important to know the language of your allies and of your enemies.’ Brahma hated what he called ‘scroll work.’ He would rather hunt with our father or learn how to use another weapon.”

   “Tatan,” Aimaada said with a smile. “It rolls off the tongue quite nicely. And Brahma – your brother – was he on the boat with you?”

     Tatanka let his head drop. Staring at the ground, he managed the smallest nod. “I am very sorry for your loss, Tatanka,” Aimaada said with a revered tone. “Draenei follow the blessed Naaru. After we pass, it is believed that our spirits—”  

     Aimaada stopped short as Starfall’s ears suddenly flattened and her cat gave out a threatening growl. Simultaneously, Tatanka jumped to his feet and whipped his rifle into his firing stance while Aimaada dropped to one knee and shouldered her crossbow. As both hunters stared down the sights of their respective weapons, both disappeared into a heightened state where the world seemed to become more alive.

     From out of the darkness, shuffling along the clearing’s edge, both hunters trained their weapons on movement that threatened to rush forward. A terrible wafting aroma filtered past the gold nose ring pierced in Tatanka’s nostrils. He gave a snort in disgust.

     Emerging into the diffused moonlight was a walking nightmare feared across all of Azeroth. The Undead. It might have once been human but now it was a twisted and mangled form. The emaciated figure shuffled forward into the half light, revealing ragged and tattered clothes, a hunched back and long gangly arms that ended in diseased and yellowed claws. Disgusting saliva dripped from its tremendous underbite. But most horrible were the glowing pinpricks of red light that used to be the creature’s eyes. Those nightmare eyes burned with abhorrence for all life.

     Sensing life so close, the creature summoned all its hatred and issued a screeching cry that echoed through the fog. Like a call to arms, mimicking cries echoed from the shadows and more and more pinprick pairs of eyes began to emerge from the darkness.

     “Ghouls,” Aimaada spat. “You don’t even want to imagine the poisons their bodies carry.”

     “Then let’s not find out,” Tatanka grumbled, finishing his sentence by chambering his weapon.

     Five of the hideous undead burst from the underbrush and sprinted towards the hunter duo. The blast of gunfire echoed through the darkness, accompanied by the twang of crossbow string and the whistling of arrow quarrels. The symphony of death was accompanied by the throaty growl of a rampaging nightsaber cat and the hiss and trill of an infuriated forest spider.

      The waves collided within the forest clearing. Slashes of claws and vicious bites were mixed with gunshots and arrows that sliced through rotted flesh. One by one, the ghastly ghouls fell to their apparent demise.

     As quickly as it began, the fight was over. Five ghouls lay rotting in the grass of the clearing and both hunters and pets were no worse for wear.      Aimaada rose from her kneeling position while removing the unfired quarrel from her crossbow slide. “I would say that they are dead… again.”

     “Hmmm.” Smoke still wafting from the barrel of his gun, Tatanka let his weapon drop and gave an acknowledging grumble. “The age old question. How do you kill that which has no life? I fear the soil will consume these bodies, somehow stitch them back together, and when life draws close again, they will emerge to fight once more. An eternal curse.”

     Aimaada stood over the body of the closest ghoul, looking down on the creature’s desiccated remains with disgust. “When I first came to the Eastern Kingdoms with my draenei delegation, I worked hand in hand with a human – a paladin. She was skilled. Blessed in the Light.”

     Tatanka came to stand beside Aimaada as she spoke, pulling a sharp knife from his belt. Kneeling down by the body of one of the felled ghouls, the tauren sank his knife in and began digging away as she continued.

     “We adventured into a mine that had been overrun with these filthy little kobolds. The leader of this band was called Goldtooth. We put him down. But I never knew if Goldtooth was his name or his title. If you went into the Fargodeep Mine right now, I bet you would find another Goldtooth – a kobold that rose to take his place… I am sorry. What are you doing?”

     Aimaada looked down at Tatanka in disgust has he plunged his enormous hand into the fallen ghoul’s chest. Covering her nose to mask the stench, Aimaada managed to squeak out her question. “Do you not remember what I told you about the diseases these things carry?”

     Tatanka yanked his hand free from the creature’s chest and held up his prize. “Nightcrawlers,” Tatanka said with a grin. “Ghouls emerge from the soil. The soil holds nightcrawlers. These are the best bait for fishing.”

     “I was posing an important question about the afterlife and all you can think to do is mangle a corpse so you can fish if we get out of here?”

     “Yes, I know. You want to know if these monsters will ever know rest. Are they to be eternally tormented or is this just a soulless body? You can ask your Naaru when you meet him. Her. Whatever.”

     Tatanka returned to his feet and stroked the length of braided beard that hung from his chin. “Right now, all that truly matters is this. Look at these ghouls. Remember this sight, draenei. Remember it well. Because when you make your first encounter with the Scourge, you will ask your question again. And more importantly, you need to fight to make sure you don’t end up like this lost soul.”

      To punctuate his point, Tatanka kicked the fallen ghoul’s head with the sharp keratin of his hoof. The ghoul’s head snapped from its neck and bounced across the grass like a heavy leather ball. Shouldering his rifle and hitching up his brother’s backpack, Tatanka continued his relentless march west.

 

*          *          *

 

       Before Duskwood fell into its cursed state of perpetual darkness, Raven Hill Cemetery was a haven of tranquility. It was a solemn resting place for the noble fallen who had given their lives in the service of Stormwind and the Free Kingdoms. What Tatanka and Aimaada now looked upon was a mockery of that once noble burial ground.

     “We should skirt this whole area,” Aimaada whispered. “Head south. It is the safer road.”

     A grumble issued from Tatanka.

     “It is not cowardice to pick smart fights, tauren,” Aimaada admonished. “Don’t be so bullheaded.”

     Tatanka swiveled his head to glare down at Aimaada, cocking one eyebrow and snorting through his nose.

     One side of Aimaada’s mouth had curled up into a sly grin until she could hold it no longer and her face cracked into a wide smile, revealing her pearly white teeth. “Come on. That was funny. I’ve been waiting to work that into our conversation since we first met.”

     Tatanka shook his head and tried to hide his smile. “To the south then,” Tatanka said. “Surely there is an old road or forgotten trail that can speed us along.”

     Surprisingly, all of Aimaada’s humor seemed to deflate like a dwarven bellows. “I would avoid the road at all costs. They may appear safer but… something… lurks on the roads. Far more dangerous than anything you have seen in the woods thus far.”

     Wolf howls echoed through the fog. Aimaada turned to look behind them, feigning to look for a potential threat. But Tatanka had seen the pain on her features. Something had truly scared his fellow hunter…

     Skirting the southern border of the Raven Hill Cemetery, Tatanka and Aimaada edged around the abandoned hamlet of Raven Hill. There was no telling what threats lurked within the boarded up buildings and the whole mission was to continue westward. West was the only safe haven.

     Skirting the edge of the abandoned township, Aimaada and Tatanka emerged from the thicket. Tatanka easily sauntered down the sharp hillside, approaching the cobblestone road. With agility normally not seen with his massive size, the tauren leapt over a rickety section of dilapidated fence. His hooves made echoing clacks on the cobblestone road. “We should make better time now.”

      Aimaada was not so sure. Nervously glancing up and down the road, the draenei hunter was relieved to find the road as still as the grave… at least a grave not in Duskwood. Seeing her anxious posture, Tatanka turned to face Aimaada. “What is wrong?”

     “Nothing,” Aimaada said with a shake of her head that caused her ear tendrils to bounce slightly. “Let’s just keep moving. The passage to Westfall cannot be that far now.”

     The two hunters hustled down the road with both of their pets in tow. Chancing a look up through the canopy, Aimaada saw the first rosy fingers of dawn reaching into the night sky to banish the stars. A large crow flittered from its perch in a nearby tree and flew past the quartet, calling out with a cry Aimaada hoped was not a warning.

     “What is that up ahead?” Tatanka asked with his gravelly voice.

      Tatanka fired a single shot into the air, scattering a cluster of carrion birds from the cobblestone road. Approaching quickly and quietly, Aimaada assessed the bodies of four humans lying sprawled in the road. “They are members of the Night Watch. Darkshire guardsmen,” she said flatly. Holding up a cracked and now extinguished lantern carried by the patrolmen, Aimaada could only exhale in disgust.

      Tatanka leaned in closer, assessing the bodies with the same detached emotion that he regarded the ghoul in the woods. “Look at these wounds,” the tauren said, a grimace wrinkling his bull snout. “Back in Orgrimmar, they said giants had claimed a section of this land. Could they have done this?”

     “They are not giants. Ogres. Commander Ebonlocke runs the Night Watch. He warned me before I set out on the road. The Splinter Fist ogres do not venture far from the vale they claimed as their home. But even they could not cause this kind of damage.”

     Tatanka continued to poke and prod at the bodies of the Night Watch, having to shoo way Awak’pawne more than once. “Well, whatever caused this wound… It was big. Very big.”

      “And unfortunately, it has a name,” Aimaada whispered, trying to hold back the fear in her voice. “The locals know of the terror. They whispered about it back at the inn of Darkshire. Few ever want to speak openly about it… They call it ‘Stitches.’”

      Lost in the gravity of the wounds, Tatanka continued to inspect the dead bodies of the watchmen, marveling at the power it would take to sunder a breastplate in two. So lost in his examination, Tatanka missed Aimaada rising back to her feet and pulling out her crossbow. “Stitches,” Tatanka said with a short chortle. “Doesn’t sound very frightening. So what does this Stitches look like?”

     Aimaada’s reply was barely above a whisper. “Kind of like… that.”

     Tatanka looked up to see Aimaada’s eyes locked on a target behind him. Pivoting on his heels, Tatanka swiveled to look behind him and suddenly realized why Aimaada’s hands were shaking.

     What stood centered in the road easily stood ten feet tall and must have weighed in at over a thousand pounds. Humanoid in shape, the undead monstrosity’s sallow-colored flesh was sewn together from what looked like multiple sources of skin. Bulging with fat and muscle, the naked creature looked fit to burst. Sutures on its stomach had ruptured, revealing disgusting innards that somehow managed to remain in place. Frighteningly, a third arm looked to have been haphazardly attached between its shoulder blades.

     Its chest rose and fell irregularly, as if the beast could not get enough air into its massive lungs and the exhales rumbled with a sickly wetness. The monstrosity stood almost motionless with only a swaying of its three arms, each brandishing its own nightmarish weapon. One hand held a blood-soaked cleaver and the other a length of old chain, while the awkwardly positioned third hand held a rusty sickle.

     Mindlessly, the ghastly abomination stared down the hunters and their pets with his two mismatched eyes. One eye was too small for its socket and the other was too large. It looked as if the horror was trying to decide its next action.

     Aimaada reached a hand out to steady Starfall and began taking slow steps away from the monster. “Tatanka, there is no shame in living to fight another day,” Aimaada whispered. “He is powerful but he is not fast. We have a big enough lead. We can outrun him.”

     “Tauren don’t run,” Tatanka grumbled. “You run and you die.”

     Stitches cocked his head to one side. In the flap of an Onxyian whelpling’s wing, the monstrosity made the choice for the hunter duo. Swinging all three weapons up to a threatening posture, Stitches came lumbering forward with footfalls that seemed to rattle the world.

     Awak’pawne was the first to react. She was not letting that beast get near her master. The forest spider unleashed globules of webbing that smacked the monster in the face and slathered onto its stumpy feet. But little could stop the twisted hulk and its relentless charge.

     Starfall flashed into action, dodging past the monster’s swinging, blood-splattered cleaver. Her claws raked into Stitches’ putrid flesh as she ran past. The cat made her way clear of the monster’s third arm, pivoted on a Darnassian dime, and sprang back into action, attacking the creature from behind.

     All the while, Tatanka continued to blast the monstrosity with well-placed shots from his rifle. With every hit, Tatanka took away chunks of the beast’s flesh, ripping through the very sutures that kept the undead fiend pieced together.

     A slight smile curled up one side of Tatanka’s mouth as the sound of a taut crossbow string sang out. Aimaada had joined the fight. Quarrels began flying past him and imbedded themselves in the decomposing flesh. From out of the corner of his eye, Tatanka saw Aimaada flanking out to the side, firing with abandon. The draenei had quite a knack for targeting the monster’s throat and face with her weapon.

     Stitches found himself in a fine mess. A tauren was in front blasting away with painful shots. A venomous spider was on one side filling his body with terrible toxins. A draenei was on the other side shooting always for his eyes. And that horrible cat continued to painfully rake away chunks of flesh from his backside. The undead horror could not decide which enemy to attack.

     But for all their weaponry, the heroes were not causing enough damage. Tatanka knew they were wounding the beast but not killing it. On the other hand, one well-placed shot from Stitches’ cleaver or sickle would abruptly end the fight for any of the four.

     Slinging his rifle, Tatanka loosed his heavy, two-handed axe. Pawing at the ground with his right hoof once, twice, three times, the great tauren let out a mighty bellow and charged forward. Parrying away the monster’s swing, Tatanka sunk his axe deep into the creature’s chest, drawing gouts of bright green blood and other noxious fluids that splattered the cobblestone road.

     Time and again the tauren swung with his axe. With the cat and spider still continuing their attacks and Aimaada peppering the monster with quarrel bolt after quarrel bolt, Tatanka could feel the momentum begin to shift.

     Suddenly, Stitches pivoted, catching Tatanka with a length of chain that upended the tauren, knocking him from his feet. Pivoting towards Starfall’s terrible claws, one slice of the monster’s sickle was all it took. The great cat barely gave out a cry before spilling to the ground.

     Tatanka was struggling to get back to his feet as Aimaada’s scream of protest cut through the night like a set of dwarven iron knuckles scraping across slate. Wearing a sadistic smile on its twisted visage, Stitches swiveled its monstrous head toward the draenei. Never had Aimaada been so focused. Shouldering her crossbow, the bolt flew straight and true, slamming right into Stitches’ larger eye. The membrane popped on impact and disgusting ichor ran down the monster’s face.

      Back to his feet, Tatanka seized the opportunity. Jumping straight up with all his might, the tauren embedded his left horn under Stitches’ chin. The horn sliced through the soft tissue and rammed upward, impaling the monster’s tongue into the roof of its mouth. Twitching spasmodically, Stitches grabbed Tatanka with two of his three hands and ripped the tauren away. An audible thock sounded as Tatanka was flung to the ground. Unfortunately, he left half of his imbedded horn in Stitches’ head.

     The great behemoth stumbled and staggered, looking as if it might recover from its injuries… until Tatanka’s axe tumbled pommel over blade and sunk into the monster throat. Its life drained, Stitches dropped to the cold cobblestone road, lifeless once more.

     Tatanka stomped forward and, clutching his axe in both hands, freed the great weapon with a sickening squish. He glared down at the great monstrosity and then reared his head back and gave a great bellow, issuing a challenge to any in the night that would dare to answer.

     Looking past the rancid body of the fallen Stitches, Tatanka felt his heart sink. Aimaada was kneeling on the side of the road, cradling Starfall’s lifeless head in her lap. Tears ran from her glowing, white eyes, cutting paths through the dust on her cheeks. Knowing full well the pain of losing a pet, Tatanka stood stoically and let his fellow hunter grieve.

     Looking west, Tatanka caught sight of the forest edge and a covered bridge illuminated by lamplight that surely signified the border of the wretched land known as Duskwood.  Echoes of a flowing river were like music to the tauren’s ears.

     With Awak’pawne between them, Tatanka and Aimaada arrived at the covered wooden bridge that would lead them out to Westfall. Turning his gaze to the south, Tatanka strained to look down the mighty river that would lead him into Stranglethorn Vale and on to Grom’gol. “They say Stranglethorn is contested territory. Doesn’t fall under the control of the Alliance or the Horde. I also heard that it has tropical jungles unlike anywhere else on Azeroth,” he said while nodding down river.

     “I have heard that,” Aimaada replied. “I have never been this far south myself.”

     “A troll who calls Booty Bay home once told me there are cats in that jungle. Beautiful orange pelts with black striping.” Tatanka turned to look down at Aimaada, a sly smile turning up one corner of his mouth. “Could be difficult for a hunter to tame on her own. If she had the help of another hunter, it might make the taming easier… even if that second hunter had pledged his allegiance to the Horde.”

     “Well, any hunter worth her salt is going to need a reliable pet if she is going to square off against the Scourge one day,” Aimaada said. “And those jungles are probably not well traveled. No prying eyes or judgmental stares of those that might not understand a member of the Alliance running with a member of the Horde.”

     “Or eyes that might not understand a member of the Horde running with a member of the Alliance.”

     In the light of a new dawn, Tatanka Tyrranotaur – tauren hunter of Thunder Bluff – headed south, skirting along the river bed as he made his way into Stranglethorn Vale. And in a sight thought unthinkable in places like Stormwind or Orgrimmar, the tauren walked side by side with Aimaada – draenei hunter of the Exodar…

 

*          *          *

 

     Over a year had passed since the fateful events within Duskwood. Aimaada had heeded Tatanka’s advice. She carried out her mission to hunt down the undead and no such creatures were more brutal and disgusting than those on the continent of Northrend.

     Now calling the great floating sanctuary city of Dalaran her home, Aimaada came out of Langrom’s Leather & Links with a broad smile on her face. Matilda Brightlink had done an excellent job fitting her new mail vest and she was anxious to test her new vestment in battle. Beside her, as always, was her faithful tiger Shakasha who had been with her since her adventures in Stranglethorn Vale.

     Dalaran was always bustling with activity. As a sanctuary city, Horde and Alliance mingled freely, promising not to war against one another so that both factions could focus their energies against the looming threat of the Scourge. Still, it was odd to see normally stoic and stalwart adventurers pelting one another with snowballs. Being the last month of the year, the Winter Veil festival was in full swing and even Dalaran was not immune to the jovial atmosphere that seemed to have permeated all of Azeroth. Even with the threat of the Scourge and the dreaded Lich King just over the horizon in Icecrown, laughter could be heard echoing in the streets.

     With the strange and lovely smell of exotic cuisine wafting from the nearby inn, Aimaada rubbed her belly in response to the suddenly gurgling. “Come along, girl. That Spicy Fried Herring served at the Hero’s Welcome is calling me,” Aimaada said with a smile. “Let’s go get us a bite to eat.”

     Strangely, Shakasha gave out a curious growl, one with a pitch Aimaada had not heard in far too long a time. Looking down the avenue, Aimaada first caught sight of a massive devilsaur striding about on massive hind legs. It was a grand beast that Aimaada had never seen outside of Un’Goro Crater. With its dark, iron colored skin, signature striping on its back and fangs the size of daggers, the beast was impressive to say the least. But what was even more impressive was that it monster served as the pet of a hunter… a tauren hunter. 

     Despite improvement in his armor and weapons, Aimaada quickly recognized Tatanka. His coal black coat, broken left horn, and glinting nose ring were far too identifiable. Across the hustle and bustle of the city thoroughfare, he paused abruptly. As if detecting a strange scent in the air, Tatanka pivoted and looked directly into Aimaada’s eyes.

     Unfortunately, the proud tauren was not alone. Tatanka wore a uniquely colored tabard that matched the other Horde adventurers with him – a strange combination of an orc warrior, a Forsaken death knight, and a troll shaman. Pausing for just a moment, it looked like Tatanka would speak to her until his orc compatriot passed, slapping him on his shoulder pauldron.

     Aimaada had been quietly studying the Horde language over the last year. She could not make out completely what the orc had said but she recognized the word “Naxxramas.” The name of the great Scourge necropolis translated across races. She also swore she identified the word “Awaits.”

     “Naxxramas awaits,” Aimaada whispered.

     Seeming to read her lips, Tatanka gave a nod and placed a closed fist over his heart in salute. Spinning sharply, Tatanka hustled down the thoroughfare to catch up with his Horde brethren in the matching tabards. The proud soldier was shaking his head, as if denying he was associating with a member of the hated Alliance… But then he cast a fleeting glance back over his shoulder that was missed by his Horde cohorts.

     A large black war mammoth with a comically small gnome rider crossed an intersection blocking Aimaada’s view of her old tauren friend. By the time the gnome and his mount ambled past, Tatanka was gone.

     “Blessings of the Naaru upon you, Tatanka,” Aimaada whispered with a smile. “Remain strong as always.”

     Reaching down with a strong hand, Aimaada rubbed the top of Shakasha’s head and headed towards the Hero’s Welcome tavern and was soon lost amongst the congested population of Dalaran. The draenei could only hope her path might cross her fellow hunter again one day.

     One day…

 

            In a hopeless night, two of warring factions yet of the same order will come together. Do not speak harshly of these that work together for survival. Show them no hatred, no prejudice. For they shall stand against the beast with breath of fire that is locked away in the center of the world threatening to unleash a horrible upheaval, a calamity for all races, a cataclysm…

-- Scroll of Prophecy

Mistress Khar’razza of Zim’Torga

 

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