A Storm Over Kharanos
The air was so cold that even the smallest, most measured breath steamed out like one of the Gnomes' clattering, clanking, belching machines. When you took the air in, it crackled and bit at the back of your throat. It could make your eyes water, which would then freeze immediately, giving you icicles for eyelashes. And speaking of icicles, only up here on the frigid peaks of Coldridge Valley could you collect so many of them in your facial hair that you had more ice on your face than actual beard. It made the whole thing hang heavy on your chin as if you were carrying a forge anvil around with you, and Light forbid you should run a hand through the frozen mass without thinking; if you didn't stab yourself, you'd snap off a handful of beard, and wouldn't that look stupid after you thawed?
On top of that, there was a real sod of a blizzard brewing; spend enough time up here and you could sense them building, sense them lurking in the high forests of pine and the ridges and hollows while they built up their power. It was something about the air. It tasted… crisper, yet thicker. Like how the air tasted while you were drifting across the sky in one of those thrice-damned airships. A storm announced itself with a certain feeling up there too; a weird tension of the ether that stretched and stretched and stretched until your eyeballs ached and your moustaches itched and you thought for Light's sake, will it just break already?
Then there was the snow, of course. The peaks of Dun Morogh only had three weathers; snowing, about to snow, or snowing so hard you couldn't see your feet – and for a dwarf, whose feet weren't that far away from his head, that was really saying something. A veteran of the dwarf lands could tell the transitions between the types, especially when the last began to threaten. It was the way the snow began to gust from the crests of ridges and half-buried fallen trees, or fall in clumps from tree branches suddenly caught by a rising wind. The way the snowflakes changed their dance from a thick, soft downpour to whirling eddies and flurries that swept up into your face unexpected.
Several heavily-laden pines had dumped their boughs of snow almost on his head as he'd trudged up the mountainside. Now he was standing on the crest, overlooking the town huddled in the valley beyond, the wind was snatching up clumps of it and throwing it into his face, adding to the already prodigious coating in his long, braided beard and moustaches.
So aye, Brahrgognoth Stormbreaker knew when a blizzard was coming. And anyway, it was in his name.
The town below looked small enough from up here, a little cluster of civilisation buried in the icy, forested wastes. Even built from stout stone and with the bright golden light from the Thunderbrew Distillery's windows pooling on the snow, the settlement looked very alone and vulnerable in the valley. An outsider looking down on the place as Stormbreaker was might fear that the coming wintry tempest might bury it entirely, necessitating an expedition from the rangers in Ironforge to dig everybody out. But appearances were deceiving; Kharanos was a hardy little town with an even hardier people. Down there in the Distillery, Stormbreaker knew, dwarves and gnomes and even humans drank and feasted and caroused, there was the finest ale in Azeroth on tap, men and women trained in their professions, Innkeeper Belm's legion of cooks produced mouth-watering meals throughout the day and night and adventurers sang and danced and banged tankards in front of a roaring fire.
In Thunderbrew, you could rent a room, drink ale, swap stories with grizzled dwarven hunters, marvel over a gnomish inventor's incomprehensible gadgets, drink ale, sharpen your blades and your skills with one of the local trainers, argue the finer details of the Church of the Light with human paladins and priests, drink ale, devour a glorious meal of braised boar meat and blood sausage and spice bread on the side (with a tankard of ale), even hear tales of the beautiful forest city of Darnassus before it was razed from the few Night Elf refugees that had braved the freezing mountains.
And, of course, drink ale.
As the first rumbles of the oncoming thundersnow grumbled their way over the icy peaks around him, Stormbreaker broke out in such a wide grin that it stretched his frozen moustaches and broke off a whole cascade of blonde icicles. They pattered into the snow at his feet.
It was bloody good to be home.
By the time he trudged into town, the blizzard was in full force. The wind howled down out of the peaks, dumping snow in a fierce tumult that meant even a dwarf had to lower his head and square his shoulders against the onslaught. Few other figures moved in the furious whirl of snowflakes. Stormbreaker saw one diminutive form scurrying through snow that was almost up to its chest; a gnome, hurrying between the workshop and the distillery. A trio of three hunched figures were traipsing into town from the north. Even in the failing light and through the flurry of snow, Stormbreaker could see the bulbous muzzles of their blunderbusses jutting up behind their shoulders. Hardy dwarven hunters coming in from their day's work in the mountains, probably with a few pelts and trophies to sell.
Stormbreaker brought no such wares, nor anything he was willing to part with in trade. But then, money was really no object. Work, and thus gold, was plentiful for a talented, experienced warrior in these dark times. If you could swing a sword or a warhammer, the Alliance had need of you, and would pay well. And even the smallest, most remote settlements had trouble of one kind or another; the sort of trouble you could solve with a dwarf in plate armour.
Stormbreaker had been solving those troubles for the better part of ten years. His ornate plate armour moved smoothly as he tramped through the snow, as much a part of him as his own limbs, or his long, ice-encrusted beard. Two long, wickedly-sharp blades were nestled alongside each other on his back, one down each side of his spine. They were carved with ancient runes, and he could feel the familiar, comfortable heat of their enchantments seeping through the steel of his cuirass and the biting cold.
He'd engraved them himself, of course, though what an effort that had been. Inspired by the exploits of Brann Bronzebeard and the primeval dwarven history that he had uncovered, Stormbreaker had embarked on a quest of his own. He had read esoteric works in remote libraries and lodges of the Alliance and Explorer's Guild the length and breadth of Azeroth, not knowing exactly what he was looking for, but confident he would know it when he found it. He'd sat in shadowy alcoves of the great human cathedrals and abbeys, reading by a single candle. He'd joined armed excursions into the overrun city of Gnomeregan to recover obscure works of lore by ancient gnomish archivists and technologists, previous to the gnomes recovering their home. Light, he'd even meditated in the Temple of the Moon in Darnassus and conferred with Tyrande Whisperwind herself, long before everything had gone up in flames.
Then, one blustery night in the haunted, windswept Gilneas City, in a dusty library lit only by moonlight, he'd chanced upon a ragged tome. It was leatherbound, or had been; most of the leather had come away in flakes, leaving only a barely-legible name in faded gold. Hjalfohm Moltencrag. The pages were yellowed and falling out, the old ink so faint that he'd had to wake a Gilnean scholar to dig out candles and an archaic gnomish magnifier to make sense of it. But the bleary-eyed ire of a man who could transform into a slavering beast at will and the headache of peering at tiny, cursive letters and angular runes had been worth it; he'd found what he wanted.
The book was a treatise on strategy, early tactics from the founding of Ironforge. Tactics, troop formations, issues of attrition and subterfuge and saboteurs. But more than that, it was a dissertation on the mindset of the warrior; how to channel it, how to inhabit it, how to transform the mind and body into something that transcended such mortal concerns as fear and exhaustion. You were not separate from your blades or hammer or axe, Moltencrag insisted, but one with them, and they were merely the extension of your will; the will of a lethal weapon. And a weapon was never tired, nor afraid, nor afflicted by any emotion at all. Its whole life was war. It lived and breathed war and violence and death. It met the enemy whenever it was needed, wherever it was needed and it swung always to kill.
Until Stormbreaker had read that old tome, his dual blades had had no names of their own. They were simply swords. Mastercrafted, certainly, and sharpened to an edge that even the claws of the worgen were hard-pressed to match, yet nameless nonetheless. But the old master had named two twins in an anecdote in the tome's dusty pages; truly early dwarves, maybe even some of the first to be born after the earthen were infected by the Curse of Flesh. Ugathohr and Thymwes, brother and sister. They were a storm upon the battlefield, perfectly united and balanced in every way, neither one far from the other in the blood and noise and sweat of war. Where Ugathor was the thunder, Thymwes was the lightning. Where he was the landslide, she was the avalanche. Armies fled before them rather than face their axes. Generals came to parley when they saw that the twins were in the dwarven ranks.
They were exactly what he'd been looking for.
With the begrudging aid of a cantankerous gnomish mage named Ynki Fizzlecrank, he'd carved the names into each blade in their original runic forms, imbuing them with fiercely powerful enchantments. One blade glowed with a sullen, molten red light. The other shone with a similar luminescence to that which glittered from the snow on the very highest peaks at daybreak.
Ugathohr and Thymwes. Fire and ice. Twins on the battlefield as their namesakes had been in life, dealing death in two different forms.
And in Stormbreaker's hands, that death came as swiftly and completely as nightfall in the depths of winter.
The blizzard was worsening as he stumped up the stone steps to the Distillery. Snow came thick and fast, swirling around the massive pillars of the building's porch and driving the few patrons that had braved the elements to smoke their pipes back into the inn's warm embrace. Mostly dwarves, Stormbreaker saw, merchants and their guards, a few prospectors, even a priest, all clad for winter weather. The deluge of snow might have sent the merchants back to the warm fire and their tankards, but a few hardier souls merely hunched their shoulders against the assault, tightened their cloaks and gritted their teeth around their pipe stems.
The priest was one of them. He had no pipe, and his fur-lined cloak billowed out and flapped in the icy wind, the pale blue robes beneath rippling, but he stayed out in the cold nonetheless. He seemed deep in animated conversation with a tall, slim individual dressed in so many layers as to be almost indistinguishable. But then, as Stormbreaker tramped in among the pillars, the figure turned and he caught a glimpse of lilac skin in the light from the doorway, and bright eyes glowing in the shadowed depths of the hood.
A night elf, then. And for all the heavy layers and furs, she didn't carry herself like a refugee. Interesting.
As the priest looked up and saw where the kaldorei was looking, he turned and blinked with surprise. Stormbreaker grinned, snapping off more frozen icicles of beard. He knew he must look a sight, a heavyset dwarf in full plate armour, two blades on his back and a face full of blizzard, looming out of the whirling gloom. He nodded genially.
"Chilly, ain't it?" he said.
The priest grinned back. At least, Stormbreaker thought he did. The dwarf had a bright orange beard styled into two long forks. At the end of each fork a pewter ring hung. Similar rings in his moustaches made them droop so low it was difficult to see the expression underneath. But there was a twinkling in his dark eyes.
"Bracing, aye," the priest rumbled. "Makes you feel alive though, don't it?" He squinted up at the tall figure at his side and nudged her in the hip. "Eh, Asta?"
The night elf in her bundle of furs and leathers shook her head inside her deep hood. "Bhalfurm, I am wearing five layers. Five. And the cold has still seeped so far into my bones I feel I shall never be warm again. I haven't felt my toes since I got here." What Stormbreaker could see of the lilac face grimaced. "Feel alive? I feel half-frozen to death."
The priest chuckled, a deep chuffing sound like one of the gnomes' steam engines. "I'll convert you yet, lass." A particularly fierce gust of wind snatched at his cloak and flapped it madly out behind him for a moment. He fought it back down and extended a thick, calloused hand to Stormbreaker. "Bhalfurm Blackpike, stranger." He gestured at the night elf, huddling from the onslaught of snow and muttering in her own musical language. "And this is Astalynn Forestflower." He was definitely grinning under all that beard now. "Something of a delicate lily in a patch of onions right now."
Stormbreaker shook his hand, and was pleased to find his grip firm and strong. A warrior's grip, for all of his priests' robes. When Astalynn leaned down to offer a slim hand made bulkier by thick gloves, he shook that too. "Brahrgognoth Stormbreaker. A pleasure. Call me Brahrg."
Bhalfurm's eyes widened. "The Brahrgognoth Stormbreaker? The Trollslayer and Orcbane? The Hammer of Ironforge?"
Stormbreaker smiled. "It's been a while since people used the second one, but aye, 'tis the same."
The priest shook his head in wonderment. "I should have known from the armour – and those swords! You're home then. Word was you were still giving the Horde a sore head on the front lines." He looked up at Astalynn and gestured excitedly. "Asta, you're in the presence of a genuine dwarven hero. Stormbreaker singlehandedly turned back the tide of trolls from Ironforge after the Cataclysm."
The night elf's bright eyes looked like two moons inside her hood. She bowed her head slightly in respect. "I am honoured."
Stormbreaker shifted uncomfortably under that intense gaze. "Well. It was'nae, you know, quite singlehandedly. You know how we dwarves like our stories. It's been, uh, embellished. I had quite the cadre of hunters an' warriors at my side."
Bhalfurm snorted good-naturedly. "Modest, eh? Funny trait for a dwarf, that. Humble or nay, you stopped a sackin' an' pillagin' of Ironforge that would have made the War of the Three Hammers look like a drunken tavern brawl."
Stormbreaker shrugged. It made his pauldrons clank. "You do your duty, as it comes." He saw the night elf was still gazing at him with interest and thought to change the subject. "Why're you out here in the cold? Ye've no pipe, and all the ale's in there." He jerked a thumb towards the bright square of light, out of which poured laughter, song and the sizzle and smell of cooking meat.
Bhalfurm glanced inside and shrugged. "Truth be told, 'tis too rowdy for the discussion Asta and I have been having. Difficult to debate the finer points of faith with twenty drunk gnomes doin' a round of 'Once More Down Into Gnomeregan, y'know?"
The finer points of faith didn't much interest Stormbreaker. He believed in the goodness of the Light and that was about it. And snow was beginning to turn to slush in his gorget and slide down his neck.
"Well, pr'aps I'll see you both inside later then," he said. He made to head for that gateway to warmth and food and most importantly, ale.
The priest reached out and touched his gauntleted arm. It was a light touch, but it stopped him. "Actually, mebbe an outside perspective would do our discussion some good. We've a hitchin' point, y'see."
Stormbreaker smothered a sigh. People were always wanting him to intercede in things, wanting his opinion on everything from politics to foreign relations to what was the best diet for your ram, when really, all he knew was how to fight. And the ale was so close he could literally smell it.
He made himself smile indulgently anyway. "How can I help?"
Bhalfurm gestured up to Astalynn. "Ms. Forestflower is'nae a Priestess, but the Kaldorei be different from us; spiritualism is a way of life for everybody, not just the priests an' scholars." He pulled his fluttering cloak down and held it closed with one fist. "Asta believes that Elune – that be the night elf goddess – is the pinnacle of a pantheon of deities, quite above and apart from the Light."
"And what do you believe?" Stormbreaker asked patiently.
Bhalfurm swept his free hand around them to take in everything. "The Church teaches that the Holy Light infuses the world, and everything in it. Aye, the Titans made it, or made servants like our Earthen ancestors to aid in the building, but if they were the builders, was'nae the Light what gave life to their creation?" He shrugged, and fresh snowfall cascaded from his broad shoulders. "There is no 'apart' from the Light, savin' the Void. Elune is the goddess of the moon. The moon shines with moon-light. So I argue Elune is another facet of the Holy Light."
Astalynn made an exasperated sound deep in her hood. "Void magic gives off light, yet we are not arguing that it has anything to do with the Light. The moon is not the Light, and nor is Elune. Granting that the Titans formed Azeroth, Elune created the Kaldorei, and granted power to the Ancient Guardians to protect us and our World Tree."
Bhalfurm was grimacing and shaking his head, his snow-encrusted forks of beard swinging. Stormbreaker hoped he wasn't about to say something about how Elune and her Guardians hadn't prevented Teldrassil from being put to the torch. That was a raw wound, not even scabbed over, and it would be cruel to pick at it for the sake of argument.
But when the priest spoke, it was to Stormbreaker, and slightly sheepishly. "So yer see our impasse."
Stormbreaker looked between the two, swallowed another sigh, and decided to go with the truth. "What makes you believe I'm qualified to curate such a debate?" He held up his mailed, gauntleted fists. "I am skilled only in one area; war. I am a weapon, useful only in battle. In peace; in matters of spirit, I am as the farmer's rake is to the fisherman. A tool useless to the task."
At this, Astalynn stepped forward. Was he imagining it, or was she smiling in the shadows of her hood? She stepped up to him, but he was pleased when she did not make that common mistake of patronizing him by bending to speak to him. A frequent enough insult from the taller races, though rarely intended. She stood tall, and laid one gloved hand on his pauldron.
"I feel you do yourself an injustice with your words, friend Stormbreaker," she said. Her voice was quiet, but somehow it still carried over the howl of the blizzard. "A warrior goes where war takes him, and thus sees much of the world. He sees many terrible things; death, misery, suffering. But also much beauty as well."
Stormbreaker gazed up into Astalynn's bright eyes, thought about the battlefields he had stalked across, Ugathohr and Thymwes dripping scarlet with the blood of the slain, and said nothing.
"In moments of peace, nights in which you wait for battle or rest from it, have you not seen the moonlight shining over the ocean? If you went to the shoreline and took a cupful of water in your hands, could you capture that shine? Temporarily perhaps; the water might glitter as it trickles from between your palms. But then it is lost, and the moon still shines over the waves." Astalynn definitely smiled this time; to Stormbreaker's eye, the twist of the purple lips looked wistfully sad in the glow from the tavern door. "That is Elune."
She looked away into the blizzard, and Stormbreaker would have bet a hefty purse of gold that she was looking in the direction of Darnassus, of home and ruin. But then a small tremor ran through her and she turned her gaze back to him.
"An experience quite apart from the intense, sweat-inducing heat of the noonday sun, wouldn't you say?" Her eyes were truly luminous, like two moonlit pools in a shadowed glade. "Or the dazzling, scouring fire of the Light?"
Bhalfurm harrumphed, folding his arms over his chest. Clearly the dwarven priest had not been moved by the night elf's poetry.
Stormbreaker shook his head. As usual, were he to offer his opinion, he would surely disgust one party even as he delighted the other. He frowned out at the falling snow. He had not come traipsing down out of the mountains, not travelled this far home from the blood and fury and adrenaline of the battles between the Alliance and the Horde to arbitrate matters of spiritual contention between strangers!
Before he could finish, there was a deep, reverberating sound that cut through the howl of the blizzard and the snap of cloaks in the wind. For a moment, Stormbreaker thought it was the thunder rumbling down out of the foothills, but the note was too sonorous, too drawn out.
He met Bhalfurm's eyes and saw recognition dawn there at the same time he felt a sudden slab of ice slide down around his heart. The cold had nothing to do with the blizzard outside.
"Alarm horn," the priest breathed.
Astalynn whirled around to look at him, her eyes widening. "An alarm? Where? Why?"
"There's a watch camp on one of the hills," Stormbreaker growled. He stepped over to the stone balustrade and stared out into the snow. The buildings of Kharanos were barely visible in the whirling gloom. Nobody moved out there. What in the Light was going on? He glanced at Bhalfurm. "Have you been in town long?"
The priest nodded. "Aye, I come out from Ironforge twice a month to see to the spiritual needs of the hunters and prospectors, attend to the paladins comin' home from war with their faith shaken, that sorta thing. But I know what yer askin'. There's been no trouble that I've seen. Nothin' beyond drunken brawls an' the gnomes blowin' up parts of their workshop."
Stormbreaker compressed his lips into a thin line and brushed the ice and snow out of his braids. He had his eyes on the patch of darkness where he knew the watch camp sat, high on the surrounding hills. "Maybe somebody took some Thunderbrew up to the sentries. Barrel of that an' they might think sounding the horn would make a bloody good prank. But if they light the watchfire…"
Out in the gloom, there was a flare of light. It flickered, fighting the blizzard and the darkness, but then grew into a bright pyramid of fire, the tongues of flame licking into the night visible even at this distance.
Stormbreaker swore in dwarvish under his breath and pushed off the stone. "There it is." He glanced at the priest and the night elf. "Go inside, warn Innkeeper Belm, he'll organise everybody sober enough to fight."
"Friend Stormbreaker, you don't intend to go out there alone?" Astalynn wrung her gloved hands.
Stormbreaker gave her a grim smile. "I ain't alone, lass." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to his swords. "I've got the Twins with me."
"From everything I've heard about you, that'll be enough," Bhalfurm rumbled. "Then again, you don't know what's comin' and it's blizzardin' like nobody's business. I'm goin' with yer."
"That isn't necessary," Stormbreaker set off for the steps. "Whatever's comin', I can handle it. Somebody needs to lead the defence. Belm can't corral all those people on his own. An' you're a priest; they'll listen to you."
Bhalfurm scowled, blowing out his orange moustaches. He looked like he was going to argue, but Astalynn laid a hand on his shoulder.
"He's right, friend Blackpike," she said. "Better a dwarf organises the defence. In me they will see only a refugee, maybe think me hysterical. No, I will go instead."
Stormbreaker froze on the snow-covered stone steps. Protect a refugee out in the storm while battling an unknown enemy they could barely see? He spun to argue, but found himself staring into those bright eyes.
"I can fight," Astalynn said grimly. "Since the burning of Teldrassil, I… well, I've had to survive. I have knives; many knives, and I know how to use them."
Night Elf eyes were difficult to read, with the way they glowed without any pupils, but Stormbreaker could still see the emotions shining there, deep in the shadows of her hood. Pain, recent and bitter and hard, not yet buried, anger like the coals of a forge and something else he couldn't identify… determination, perhaps? Resignation? He couldn't be sure. But he'd seen eyes like hers before, many times, on the front line before battle, in the blood and sweat and death of the battlefield.
They were a soldier's eyes.
He searched her face. "I intend to climb to the watch camp, find out what we're facing. But whatever it is, it could get nasty, lass. Really nasty." He hesitated. Soldier's eyes or no, this wasn't her fight. Hadn't she and her people already lost enough? "Ms. Forestflower, this ain't your town. Ain't your people. Aye, anybody in the Distillery'll join the defence, if there be need, but there's no reason to stick yer neck out for us." He shrugged. "After Darnassus… well, people would'nae blame yer for lookin' out for yerselves."
Astalynn's face was hard. "You might not blame us, friend Stormbreaker… but we would. We have lost much, it is true… our World Tree… our home. But because of that, we would not see our allies lose theirs! You ask me to stand by and watch chaos envelop you and cast you out into the world, as we were? I will not."
Her words were fierce. Stormbreaker nodded shortly. "Come, then. Let's see what comes for us in the night."
With the night elf at his back, Stormbreaker tramped out into the darkness and flurrying snow, crossing the main – and only – street of Kharanos. The gnomish workshop loomed in the gloom, and beyond it the watch fire burned brightly in the night. Stormbreaker eyed what he could see of the forested slope leading up to the watch camp. The pines clustered thick and dark, with what little light that shone from the windows of the Distillery highlighting the snow weighing down their limbs. It would be hard going up that slope in this blizzard, for sure, and Light knew what could be coming down through those trees, but what other choice was there? It would take time for Bhalfurm and Belm to rouse a defence. Someone had to face whatever enemy bore down on them now; snarl them up among the pines and disrupt them long enough for Kharanos to arm and organise.
Once again, like so many times before, across the length and breadth of Azeroth, the duty fell upon Stormbreakers shoulders.
Gritting his teeth against the cold of the snow soaking through his gorget, he squared those shoulders and started up the slope.
No dark, shrieking forms launched themselves out from between the trees as they climbed. In fact, nothing moved beneath the boughs of the laden pines except the ever-whirling snow. Stormbreaker eyed the slope, but no footprints marred the white except for his own and Astalynn's. Ahead, the light of the raging watchfire glowed between the tree trunks.
The night elf climbed quickly and deftly alongside him, a far cry from his own heavy, plate-armoured trudge. She did not seem out of breath, her bright eyes flicking this way and that, alert for any movement in the forest. Bulky as she looked in her many layers of furs, Stormbreaker wondered how many knives she had secreted on her person.
"Ms. Forestflower," he rumbled, in his closest approximation of a whisper. "Your ears are better than mine. Do you hear anything?"
Astalynn glanced at him, narrowed her eyes at the snow billowing around them, then sighed and reached up to tip back her hood. In the flickering light from the watchfire, the bun she had tied her emerald hair up into glowed like jade. Her lilac ears, no longer restrained by the hood, stood out to the sides, long and tapering. She frowned as snow blew into her face and wiped it from her green eyebrows, but she tipped her head on one side and seemed to be listening.
"Nothing," she said, at last. "I hear the crackling of the fire, the blizzard and thunder to the north-east. Nothing else."
"Strange," Stormbreaker grunted, scowling. He peered up through the trees at the leaping fire. "Y'sure you don't hear dwarf voices?"
Astalynn nodded, shivered and pulled her hood back up, tucking in her ears with one hand. "Quite certain. With the utmost respect, one can hear dwarves from much farther away than this."
Stormbreaker grunted. "I dinnae like it, lass. Too bloody quiet. Keep yer head on a gimbal-mount."
"Just somethin' the gnomes say. It means keep your wits about you."
They climbed the rest of the way in silence, except for Stormbreaker's grunts of exertion. He was used to marching long distances over uneven terrain, of course, and in all weathers, but trudging up a steep, snowy slope in plate armour was still like carrying another dwarf on your back.
When they reached the circle of flickering, leaping light cast by the watchfire, Stormbreaker stopped at the edge, still obscured by the deeper darkness beneath the trees. He gazed out at the watch camp beyond, and even as his heart sank into his boots, he felt rage building somewhere around his heart.
"Son of a pox-infested, flea-bitten, plague-ridden troll!" He growled.
Astalynn had stopped just behind his shoulder. She brushed snow out of her eyes, took in the camp beyond and gasped.
"By the Light of Elune," she breathed.
Stormbreaker had the urge to spit, but not in front of a lady. No matter how much the scene in the camp made bile rise to the back of his throat.
"I'm sorry, lass," he said gruffly, "I don' think your lady Elune can help these poor buggers now."
The watch camp was a slaughterhouse. All around the fire, the dwarven sentries lay in dark heaps, many skewered by spears that still jutted, broken, from their corpses. Others lay slumped against the remains of collapsed tents or out in the deeper snow beyond the camp. One dwarf had clearly died trying to light the watchfire; he lay sprawled out before the flames, a torch stretched out in one hand into the burning logs. A spear jabbed skywards from between his shoulder blades.
With a cautious glance around the camp, Stormbreaker trudged across and pulled the dead sentry away from the fire. The dwarf's hand was gripped so tightly around the torch that it came away with him, and the snow extinguished it with a quiet hiss. Stormbreaker crouched awkwardly alongside him and rolled him over to look at his face. He was young, with a healthy long black beard wrapped into a single braid. His teeth were still bared in a fighting snarl.
"Ye might just have saved the whole of Kharanos, laddie," Stormbreaker said. He closed the dwarf's eyes with one mailed fist, and stood.
When he looked up, he found Astalynn standing over him. She had a gloved hand to her mouth and her bright eyes shone with tears.
"I'm so sorry, friend Stormbreaker," she said. "We were too late."
Stormbreaker nodded. "Aye, lass. But we'd have been too late even had we left when they sounded the horn. Tis'nae your fault, nor mine."
He crossed the camp to the edge of the ridge, where the huge alarm horn curved out into the night. Sentries lay dead around it, and among them, a larger, much more gangly and wiry form. It had blue skin, like the deep frost of a glacier, and was headless, the neck still oozing from a ragged, dark wound. A dozen or more other bloody gashes on the torso were beginning to freeze in the night air and falling snow. The head lay nearby; its long tusks jutted up into the howling night sky. They were festooned with jewellery that glittered in the light from the watchfire.
Stormbreaker glared at it, then kicked the body aside and levered the horn back into position from the drunken tilt an impact had knocked it into. He fitted his lips over the mouthpiece and blew lustily. The tone that issued forth was deep and reverberating. It shuddered his bones and cut through the howl of the blizzard like a hot blade through sheep's butter. He repeated it again and again, until the wild night was filled with echo upon echo, rolling on top of each other and up into the highest peaks.
Astalynn joined him as he stepped back from the horn, breathing deeply. She crouched beside the severed troll's head, the wind tugging at her furs.
"Now the town cannae mistake it," Stormbreaker told her. "They'll have heard that o'er even the bards an' carousing."
The night elf nodded, but her attention was on the head, with its wild, sodden mane and bone piercings and sharpened tusks. She reached out to touch it with her gloved hand, then seemed to think better of it. The face was contorted into a rictus snarl. She stared at it.
"Trolls," she breathed, "But not like the ones in the forest. Why would they do this?"
Stormbreaker looked at her grimly. "Frostmanes," he said. "I thought they weren't much more than a pain in the arse since we pushed 'em back after the Cataclysm." He shook his head and his frozen braids swung. "Guess they've got bold again."
She seemed hypnotised by the dead troll's grimacing face. Stormbreaker kicked snow over it and it seemed to break the spell. She looked up at him, blinking.
"Because they're bloody savages, lass, that's why," he said. "Or 'tis the only reason I care to know. Now let's go. We need to get back into town and join the defence." He glanced back at the roaring fire. "This was just an advance party, meant to stop th' sentries from raising the alarm before the main attack. The Frostmanes will have seen the fire, know that their chance of a surprise attack is fadin' fast. They'll attack now, in force."
He looked down from the ridge into town, but in the darkness and cascade of snow, he couldn't see much beyond the faint glow of the Distillery's windows. If trolls were down there even now, creeping into town armed to the teeth and with murder on their minds, he wouldn't see them. He swore long and low in dwarven. No time to descend back through the trees. They'd have to take the hard way down.
"Ms. Forestflower, we're out of time," he told the Night Elf as she stood. "We can slide down from this ridge into town; we'll come out behind the gnome workshop. But 'tis dangerous. I can go alone, and meet you at the bottom, if y'wish."
Astalynn glanced down the steep slope and her purple lips compressed into a thin line, but she shook her head. "No, we'll go together. Perhaps we will flank them, if we are lucky."
Stormbreaker nodded approvingly. "Slide on your rump. It'll do yer rear no favours with the cold, but it's safer."
Astalynn smiled for the first time since they'd come upon the watch camp massacre. As they trudged through the snow to the edge of the ridge, her voice was amused in the depths of the hood. "You speak from experience. Is this a standard dwarven tactic?"
Stormbreaker snorted a laugh. "Let's just say I've had chance to use it once or twice in Northrend, lass. Y'know, they say the Scourge cannae feel emotions, but I saw surprise on their rottin' faces when a detachment of dwarves came slidin' down on 'em!"
He chose a spot that looked fluffy with fresh drifts of snow and not too rocky at the bottom and readied himself with a clanking of armour. Astalynn arranged herself gracefully alongside him. "Ready, lass?"
Astalynn looked down at her many layers as if wondering if they would protect her from both the cold and the bumps, took a deep breath and then nodded. "As I will ever be."
"Down we go then!"
The slide down the steep ridge was a tumult of billowing, sheeting, fountaining snow; their feet kicked up the drifts and broke them over them like white waves, and the blizzard threw its own share into their faces. The whole world was snow. They careened off sparse trees, launched off unseen dips and crags and steered themselves around black rocks that jutted suddenly from the night in front of them.
Stormbreaker felt his teeth rattle as he thumped off a particularly stout pine, his armour clattering enough to deafen him, then scrambled for balance as he flew off a sudden boulder and came thumping down in the white. He felt like a rat inside a barrel that was being rolled downhill, bounced this way and that, thumping about inside his plate armour. He caught glimpses of Astalynn in between the fountains and splatterings of snow. She was sliding much more elegantly, if not with total balance, her head tucked in to her chest and the hood pulled tight. He thought she might be grinning.
When they came out onto the level ground, it was with a wave of snow that broke over the stone side of the gnomish workshop – at least, it was in Stormbreaker's case, as he came in like an armoured cannonball. Astalynn slid in quite neatly alongside him, using her gloved hands and thick boots to skid to a stop.
Even with his ears ringing from the clattering of his armour and his face and beard caked in snow and ice, Stormbreaker was up before her, stomping alongside the high stone wall to peer out into the darkened street. He squinted into the stormy darkness, gazing up and down the packed snow in both directions. Nothing moved that he could see.
Astalynn slid along the wall, up beside him. "Do you see them?"
He shook his head, glowering out at the snow. Where were the motherless buggers? Across from him, the Distillery still gave out bright golden light, but the porch was empty and the sounds of song and merriment had ceased. For a moment that made his blood run cold, Stormbreaker thought he might have been too late; the trolls were already in the tavern, going about their slaughter. But there were no sounds of fighting, and as he watched, dwarven faces appeared at the windows, peering out into the snow. Others too; the small, round features of gnomes, and even the light purple of a draenei.
He let a breath out he didn't know he'd been holding. It steamed in the air and was snatched away by the wind. Good. Bhalfurm and the blasts of the horn had put them on alert. Half of them might be drunk, but unless they were in a stupor in their rooms, they'd be ready to fight. And in the dwarves' case, the ale could only be a benefit.
"Perhaps they retreated when their surprise was spoiled," Astalynn murmured at his shoulder. "The fight at the watch camp was more than they bargained for. They are guerrillas, these Frostmanes, yes? Perhaps they have chosen to fight another day."
Stormbreaker nodded. It was possible. Frostmanes weren't idiots. Savage and bloodthirsty, certainly, but not lacking in cunning. And yet, if he knew anything about troll culture, and ice trolls especially… a troll had been slain up on the ridge. Troll blood had stained the snow. Their snow, in Frostmane eyes. They would want a repayment for that, in dwarf blood. A reckoning. He doubted they would just slink away and- wait, what was that, moving around in the shadows under the trees off the road. Something sharp-angled? He squinted. More than one?
He squinted intently. Was it just the blizzard playing tricks? But then the shadows moved in range of a battened-down wagon. A lamp hung from the wagon's driver's board and flapped in the wind. The madly dancing pool of light fell over the skulking figures and shone on blue skin.
"There!" Stormbreaker hissed. He counted quickly. "See, by the wagon? Five, six, no, seven. And more buggers behind them in the trees, 'less I'm goin' daft."
Astalynn peered around him, careful to keep her hood lowered over her bright eyes. "I see more by those tents."
Stormbreaker growled. "Aye, an' if we can see this many, odds are good there's double that in the forest." He nodded to the group lurking closest to the heavy stone mound of the Distillery. The lamplight glinted off steel speartips and wickedly sharp daggers. "They're almost up on th' tavern. I say we hit 'em now."
"Just the two of us?" Astalynn whispered.
"Aye, lass. Lotta sound and fury, maybe scatter 'em. They take off; nobody in the Distillery needs to risk their neck."
"And if they don't break and run?" the night elf asked. She didn't sound afraid, merely intent on their course of action.
"I'll be bellowin' a war cry the folks in th' tavern cannae fail to hear. An' they'll recognise it too. If th' trolls don't flee, every dwarf in there is gonna come chargin' into the fray. Gnomes, humans, draenei, the whole soddin' lot. I'd rather not risk 'em getting skewered but if the trolls stand an' fight, well..." He grinned up at her. "We'll soon have plenty of company."
Astalynn nodded shortly. "Sound and fury, then."
Stormbreaker's grin widened. "Somethin' that dwarves are very good at, so dinnae worry if I drown ye out."
The night elf gave him a thin smile. "I take it you've never seen kaldorei rangers in battle?"
"Good point," Stormbreaker admitted. He peered out around the corner of the workshop one more time. "On three then, eh? One… two… and three!"
They stormed out into the blizzard, charging across the packed snow of the road in a tumult of battle cries and brandished weapons. Stormbreaker gave voice to a bellow of utter rage, channelling all his anger and pain at the slaughter up in the watch camp into a yell that sounded like a ferocious beast pouncing on its prey. At his side, Astalynn screamed high and fierce, a wordless shriek of imminent retribution.
The trolls, skulking around the wagon and the edge of the trees, stiffened in shock at the sound and sight of the plate-armoured warrior and night elf bearing down on them. A few further back hesitated, then fled into the trees, but the closest had no choice but to throw up their weapons and meet the assault.
Stormbreaker had the Twins in his fists. Ugathohr sizzled red and angry, the runes glowing molten orange. Snowflakes hissed into nothingness on the blade. Thymwes shone bright and cold, her runes like moonlight, and rime had formed around his gauntlet.
"Ironforge!" He bellowed as he ran to meet the first troll. "The Hammer and Anvil! The King and the Clans! Ironfoooooorge!"
The troll, bright blue and much taller, with a long nose and a longer pair of tusks, met the first strike with a pair of primeval-looking daggers with curving blades, catching Ugathohr between the crossed steel. Orange sparks cascaded into the air, burning little holes in the snow where they landed. The blue face snarled with the effort. Stormbreaker put all of his muscle into Ugathohr's hilt, shoving the crossed daggers downwards. As the troll came down, pulled off-balance, he stabbed upwards with Thymwes. The blade plunged through the troll's throat, blood fountained and where the gobbets hit the blade, they froze into patches of scarlet ice.
The troll gurgled and thrashed, Stormbreaker following it down to the snow, then wrenching Thymwes free of its throat before she froze in place. Quickly, he slashed down with Ugathohr to separate the head from the body. These ugly buggers could regenerate, given half the chance, even from lost limbs. But lop off the head and that was that.
Another lean, wiry body came at him through the blizzard. He met it with Thymwes even as the stump of the troll's neck at his feet sizzled and hissed. This one had a short spear and some sort of hide buckler. It jabbed at him with the point and he twisted so it glanced off his armour with a dull scrape, then whirled to snap the spear neatly in half. The troll snarled and hit him with the buckler, but then snatched another spear from its back and retreated a few feet.
"Smart one, eh?" Stormbreaker grunted. "Not so keen when it ain't easy pickings, are yer?"
"Ya stupid, runty half-man!" The troll spat at him. "Ya dead, mon! Ya dead an' all ya city's gonna burn!"
Stormbreaker snorted. "An' the Frostmanes are gonna do that, are they? Not likely. Yer second-rate trolls even among yer own tribes! Burn Ironforge? Yer couldn't burn a pile of oil-soaked logs!"
The taunt had the effect he intended. With a howl of rage, the troll launched itself at him, stabbing viciously but carelessly. He took the point of one stab on the brunt of his cuirass, shrugged it off, stepped in and slammed Ugathohr into the troll's stomach. He buried Thymwes in alongside it. The trolls dropped its spear and screamed, writhing against the blades. Stormbreaker glared up at the tusked face. He pulled with the blades until the troll's face was level with his own.
"Let's get this straight," He growled through gritted teeth. "Ironforge will never burn. The Dark Irons could'nae do it. Ragnaros could'nae do it. Deathwing could'nae do it. It sure as flies like t' land on ram dumplings ain't gonna fall to a tribe of lily-livered savages like you Frostmanes." He wrenched the troll even closer. The Frostmane wriggled and twisted, trying to escape the twin blades. "Once we're done cutting you lot down, I'm gonna go lookin' for your camps, up in the mountains. I'm gonna take some oil with me. Then we'll see what burns."
For a moment, rage overcame pain in the troll's face and it scrabbled at Stormbreaker's throat, trying to get a purchase. The blue fingers scraped uselessly at his gorget, snapping off beard icicles in their frantic grabs. Disgusted, Stormbreaker lifted one boot, placed it on the troll's thigh and kicked it off his blades. It flopped into the snow and he stepped up and cut the head off.
"Ya die now, mon!"
Stormbreaker whirled just in time to catch a vicious-looking sword with a bone hilt on Ugathohr. He backstepped and slashed with Thynwe, but she met nothing but air and snowflakes. The troll bore down on him, a particularly massive and ropey-muscled example of the species, slashing with a serrated dagger even as the bone-hilted sword pulled the dwarf warrior off-balance. Stormbreaker gritted his teeth, fighting to stay upright and free Ugathohr while simultaneously deflecting the dagger with Thynwe. What a big sod. Fall here and the troll would undoubtedly cook his corpse up for tomorrow's breakfast.
Then, as he felt that his shoulder might come out of its socket with holding back the blade, something silver and small flashed through the night and buried itself in the troll's leering eye-socket. It dropped the sword and clapped a hand to its face, screeching and stumbling.
It was the only opening he needed; Stormbreaker regained his balance and charged, diving between the troll's staggering legs and sweeping out to each side with the twin blades, severing the hamstrings. The troll toppled forwards and Stormbreaker spun, leapt onto its back and sliced through the neck with both blades. The head bounced off into the snow.
When he looked up, it was just in time to catch a quick salute from Astalynn. She was battling two trolls at once, a long, thin rapier-like blade in each fist, keeping them at bay with a series of graceful dodges, sweeps, leaps and other acrobatics. Her hood was thrown back and her hair had come out of its bun; it billowed around her in a whipping, snatching blur of emerald green as she flipped and spun. Her eyes shone brightly in the night. She looked nothing like the demure, poetic refugee that he had spoken to on the porch of the Distillery about such gentle things as moonlight shining over the ocean.
She looked like a killer.
As he watched, she ducked an oncoming blade, spun and lopped off the arm holding the weapon. As it flopped into the snow, she deftly sidestepped the troll as it bellowed and clutched its stump, brought her other rapier up and cleanly decapitated it. She shoved the headless body at the other troll and as he got tangled up in it, swept in and thrust through both corpse and living attacker. Pinioned to his dead brother, the Frostmane thrashed, but could do nothing to stop the night elf whirling to decapitate with her other blade.
She pulled her rapier free and the two blue bodies slumped into the snow. She looked up at Stormbreaker, blood and slush splattered across her lilac features. Her eyes were so cold that he almost took a step back.
"More come," she said, nodding to the treeline behind the dwarf warrior. "Your war cry did not bring the expected help."
Stormbreaker glanced back into the trees. The Frostmanes who had fled before had regrouped, led by a huge shaman whose tusks shone with jewellery and whose body was adorned with feathers and hide. He wore a long linen robe that was stained a dark reddish brown from multiple sacrifices. There was a whole host of trolls with him, and a quick look up the street showed even more emerging from the night. Not an army, not even a regiment, but definitely more than he and the night elf could manage alone. He grinned at Astalynn.
"Oh, that weren't the war cry I meant," he told her. "That was just me givin' my dues to Ironforge. This is the cry I meant!"
And he turned and charged at the trolls coming out of the trees, whirling Ugathohr and Thynwe in either hand, bellowing; "Stormbreaaakerrr! Champion of Northrend! Scourge of the Scourge! Death comes for you in fire and ice! Stormbreakerrrr!"
He almost made it to the shaman, but a cluster of trolls swarmed in, forcing him back with a flurry of strikes. As he deflected them in showers of sparks and rime, he saw faces appearing at the windows of the Distillery out of the corner of his eye. Excited, hopeful faces.
That's right, you buggers! It's me out here! Brahrgognoth Stormbreaker. Holding vicious trolls at bay just as he took on Death Knights and undead in the frozen wastes. Why don't you get out here and fight?
A troll swung for him with a bone club, an ugly, heavy, spiked weapon. He didn't try to block it, but leapt backwards so it passed through nothing but falling snow, then stepped in and dispatched its owner with a succession of thrusts and a decapitating slash.
Trolls leapt over their fallen comrade and came at him in a fury. The golden light from the Distillery windows glinted on spear points and daggers and made bone blades and charms glow dully, like mammoth ivory. Stormbreaker let himself be pushed back, into the packed snow of the road, where there was more room to manoeuvre. Astalynn retreated with him, flicking speartips aside with her rapiers, her green hair streaming out in the wind. The trolls, sensing false weakness, bared their teeth in cruel grins and pressed the attack. The blizzard seemed to be filled with ice-blue bodies and whistling death.
Astalynn glanced at him with concern in her bright eyes as she caught a sharpened bone sword between her rapiers and kicked a troll away from her. "We cannot hold them alone."
Stormbreaker grunted as he deflected a club off his gauntlet and slashed with Ugathohr to lop off the hand holding it. "We won't need to."
He made his voice sound sure, but his confidence was starting to crack. Were his tactics sound? They relied on the nerve of people he didn't know, relied on the power of a name and a legend. They relied on the fire in the bellies of dwarves and their allies. If they failed, well… there were a lot of trolls.
"Fire and ice!" he yelled once more for good measure, "Stormbreakerrrrr!"
And this time, it was answered.
"Ironforrrrrge!" Came a deep bellow that reverberated up and down the street, loud enough to drown out the howling blizzard. "Thunderbrew! Kharanos!"
Higher, more piercing cries joined that first dwarven shout. "For Gnomeregan!"
Then it was a cacophony of furious voices, rending the cold air with anger and resolve. Stormbreaker thought he heard 'Stormwind' from a few throats, and 'Exodar' and even one snarling 'Gilneas!' But it was all swept up and mashed together into a roaring, repeating cry of 'For the Alliance!'
The troll attacking Stormbreaker broke off and stumbled backwards, staring up the street with widened eyes. The dwarf warrior followed his gaze and saw an onrushing tide of townspeople, blistering with weapons and snarled expressions, hurtling into the fray. In the glimpse before the wave of townsfolk broke over the stunned trolls, Stormbreaker saw faces he knew; Ragnar and Jarvan Thunderbrew, owners of the Distillery, still clutching tankards of ale and their beards flying out behind them; Dannie Fizzwizzle, the gnome warlock in her scarlet robes, her wand already glowing with eldritch energies; and Bhalfurm, his cloak and sky blue priest robes flapping, a long, sturdy-looking stave in his hands.
And then everything was chaos as the dwarves and their allies crashed into the trolls. The world became a whirl of snow, cries of rage and agony, the glint of lamplight on weapons and the sizzling arc of spells. Blood jetted and splattered into the snow, turning it to crimson slush beneath their feet. More than one fighter slipped on it, going down in a tangle of limbs and weapons, but none of the dwarves; they stood firm, used to battling in blood-soaked snow as they were.
Stormbreaker blocked a scything sword with Thynwe, turning the blade aside but taking a teeth-rattling shield bash in return. He grunted, stepped back and swept up with Ugathohr, and was rewarded with a fountain of hot blood over his face and a shriek of pain. As the troll fell back, he allowed himself a glance around at the battle, looking for the signature green hair of Astalynn, but he'd lost her somewhere in the tumult. He turned back in time to meet the blades of two particularly massive trolls at once and was forced to give ground under their clanging, snarling assault.
Suddenly, Bhalfurm was at his side. The priest blocked one of the troll's blades with his stave, then smacked it smartly upside the head. As it reeled, stunned, he jabbed the other end into its belly. It folded into the snow and he smashed the back of its head in. He grinned at Stormbreaker through his orange moustaches.
"Hail again, brother!" he yelled over the din of battle, "So yer found our theological problem so troubling that yer needed to bring a whole jury to deliberate the answer?"
Stormbreaker laughed despite himself. The priest's scholarly tones were so at odds with the death and violence around them that it filled him with mirth.
"Well, y'know, they were there," he shouted, "I figured they might as well be useful!" The other huge troll pressed his attack, but it was a mistake. Stormbreaker deflected his bone blade, dived between his legs in a clatter of armour and a splash of bloody snow and drove Ugathohr and Thynwe up through the troll's armpits. A leap and a scything slash and the savage's head tumbled away into the chaos. Stormbreaker landed on the body as it fell, spraying slushy red snow. "What's a bit of theological philosophy between friends?"
"Where's Astalynn?" Bhalfurm shouted, jabbing another troll in the ribs to send him sprawling.
Stormbreaker raised his swords in a shrug. A spell went whizzing over their heads and splashed against a pine tree, vaporising the snow on its boughs and lighting it up like a torch. Burning needles fell all around them. "Dinnae know, mate. I lost track of her when ye all charged in. But I'll tell ye what, ye don't need to be worried; that girl can fight an' kill with the best of 'em!"
A gap appeared in the fighting and a troll, sighting Bhalfurm, charged the priest with its wicked axe spinning.
"On yer left, there!" Stormbreaker shouted.
Bhalfurm spun, saw the threat, and flung his arm out. Coruscating, dazzling light coalesced in his fist and then shot out to engulf the troll. The savage erupted in bright flame, shrieking even as it incinerated him to ash, and the heat and light of the fire drove back attackers and defenders both.
"Sods!" Bhalfurm groused. "Why d'they keep comin'? They have to know they're outmatched!"
Another spell flashed overhead and exploded against the side of the Distillery. The impact jolted snow off the roof and it cascaded down into the street in a shower of slush and vivid sparks. Dazzled, Stormbreaker was squinting as he met the next bone blade, bright shapes dancing in his vision. So it was that he didn't see the spearhead jabbing at him through the tumult until it pierced his armour and lanced deep into his side.
He roared as the point ground along his ribs and then lodged somewhere below his scapula. More with rage than pain; after all, he'd been stuck with shabby troll spears before. Light, they'd almost turned him into a quillboar with the things out front of Ironforge. Now that had been a battle. Nay, mostly he was furious that he'd been careless enough to let one through in a wee skirmish like this. Goat-brained fool! Are you a warrior or a pincushion? Ah, but there'll be a payment in blood for this.
Stormbreaker felt the spearpoint tug at his flesh, at the armour which imprisoned it, and ran his glare along its length to its owner. A thin, sinewy savage was clutching it in both hands, snarling around his tusks as he tried to yank it free. Stormbreaker laughed in his face.
"Oh, d'yer want yer spear back, laddie?" He grinned. "Well, why don't yer come and get it!"
He launched himself backwards, ignoring the flare of agony in his side as the spear went with him. Still gripping it hard, the troll was wrenched off his feet into the crimson slush. As the savage scrabbled to his feet, Stormbreaker twisted Ugathohr up and severed the embedded spear near his wound. The haft fell into the snow, the white-hot cut burning a furrow.
"Ah, dear me," Stormbreaker said, fixing the troll with a baleful stare. "I seem to have broken it."
The savage went for a blade still hanging at his waist, but too slowly; far too slowly. Stormbreaker was on him before it was even half out of its throng, slashing and stabbing up with the Twins. Ugathohr burned a livid cavern down the troll's blue stomach, then crossed it with an ice-edged chasm from Thynwe. The troll went down, fumbling and grasping at its spilling entrails, and the dwarf warrior stepped up and came down with both blades like a guillotine. The thrashing stopped.
"Make way there, make way!" A high-pitched voice cut through the din.
Stormbreaker looked up and saw the gnome warlock, Danni Fizzwizzle, darting this way and that through the fighting, dodging legs and whistling weapons and flung spells, giving as good as she got with her wand. At one point a hulking troll staggered in front of her, his spear buried in a human soldier whose torn tabard flapped with the gold and blue of Stormwind, his own sword biting deep into the troll's shoulder. They were locked together, rage contorting both their faces. Fizzwhizzle didn't slow, instead vaulting up over the struggling pair, her crimson robes fluttering. As she flew over their heads, she jabbed out with her wand and scintillating, sickly-green energies engulfed the troll, blasting the two combatants apart with a thunderous detonation. Human and dwarven hands darted out for their comrade, pulling him to his feet even as he hunched around his wound, his chainmail smoking, but the troll shrieked and beat frantically at burning green flames that consumed him even as he was still writhing. The flames left a patch of bare earth in the red slush. Fizzwizzle ran on without a backward glance, her brown hair wayward and waving and collecting snow.
"You there!" The diminutive warlock yelled, brandishing her wand at Stormbreaker and Bhalfurm. "Brahrgognoth Stormbreaker, right? Hero of the Northrend campaign? Poster boy of Ironforge? Yes, no, yes?"
Poster boy? The trolls surged in again before he could answer. He caught a spear between the Twins, snapped it and used a heavy armoured boot to kick its wielder away. A blade swooped in from overhead and he ducked and dodged, the lodged spearpoint howling in his side. The sword's owner took Thynwe in the armpit, screeched and stumbled away. Beside him, Bhalfurm was busy thumping heads with his stave in one hand, and sending coruscating flame jetting into the enemy ranks with the other. The blasts of Light scoured great long furrows in the crimson snow, leaving criss-crosses of bare stone and rocky soil away from which dazzled trolls staggered. Why weren't they breaking?
"Aye, thas' me," Stormbreaker rumbled back, "Can I help you?"
"I hope so," Fizzwizzle said dourly. She tossed a spell out into the crowd almost casually and then gestured with one small, pink hand at the chaos around them. "You may not have noticed, but we appear to be losing."
Stormbreaker had noticed, and it puzzled him. Why hadn't the Frostmanes broken under that first charge? Why had the sheer weight of casualties not caused them to turn tail and flee? Why were there so many? He took a glance around the main street of Kharanos, at the bloodletting and battle and slaughter, and felt a familiar bleakness settle near his sternum. He'd felt it before, in Northrend, when he and his regiment had been outnumbered by shambling corpses. But the Scourge had been almost limitless, the dead filling the valley where they had fought from crag to crag and out to the horizon. There weren't nearly as many trolls. And yet they were fighting tooth and nail, as if they were selling their lives to breach the very gates of Ironforge itself.
In the seconds it took him to survey the battlefield, he saw the line of Alliance irregulars faltering in a handful of places; here, a knot of Stormwind soldiers fighting back to back against a crush of Frostmanes; there, a single worgen, transformed into towering, black-furred beast, going down with a snarl under a tide of stabbing bone and blue bodies. Closer to hand, a trio of dwarven hunters backpedalled, reduced to blocking clubs and blades with their blunderbusses as they struggled to find a moment to reload.
Still no sign of Astalynn Forestflower.
Stormbreaker turned back to look down at Dannie Fizzwizzle. Her round face was grim, and her big green eyes hard.
"It's the shaman," she all but spat. "He's casting some kind of spell to bolster them; I can feel it. Bloodlust, I should think. If we don't put him down, this will turn into a rout."
Stormbreaker swore vehemently in dwarvish. "I almost had the sod earlier. Can yer feel where he is?"
Fizzwizzle nodded, her hair flopping over her face. She pushed it back. "Just about. He's lurking somewhere in the trees off the road. Probably alone, if he's committed all his Frostmanes to the assault."
"Then it's best I go introduce meself."
The warlock shook her head, threw off a fire spell at a troll that had got too close. "Not alone. His powers are strong, connected to the land. The blizzard is giving him even more strength. You'll need a spellslinger or you'll never get near him." She shrugged, as if men and dwarves and trolls weren't fighting and dying all around her. "Who better than me?"
There was no time to argue. The Alliance line was beginning to buckle further inward. Even Bhalfurm was taking reluctant steps back, three trolls filling the gap wherever he incinerated one or bashed in the skull of another.
"Lead the way," Stormbreaker grunted down at the gnome. Fizzwizzle turned on her heel immediately, cutting a diagonal across the battle as she dodged and ran between the combatants in a blur of crimson and the detonation of spells. Stormbreaker paused long enough to clap Bhalfurm on his shoulder. The other dwarf glanced at him. Blood ran in his beard from a gash on his scalp and one of the forks had come undone, flapping madly in the blizzard. His cloak hung straight down, heavy and wet with blood, though it didn't look to be his. His sky-blue robes were spattered with scarlet.
"If yer lookin' to debate theology, I'm a little busy!" the priest managed a grin. "Maybe later, with a smaller audience?"
Stormbreaker grinned despite himself. "I've some business with the troll leader in the woods! Hold these sods as long as you can, but fall back to the Distillery if you have to. We'll have our tankard in front of the fire yet!"
And then he was away and running, or at least jogging as fast as the heavy plate armour and the spearpoint buried in his side would allow. It was a lurching start, tired from the battle as he was, but he built up speed in the same way as a charging ram, until he was pounding through the snow like one of those irascible juggernauts, head down and armour clanking, keeping the warlock in sight by virtue of her scarlet robes and arching, whizzing spells.
Trolls moved to stop him, of course; even the greatest dullard in their number could see he was making a beeline for their precious shaman. But the biting wound in his side and screams on the air that he knew to be dwarven stoked him with white-hot rage. Speed and the sheer weight of him did the rest. Blue bodies went down under his plate boots, limbs crushed and bones stamped to kindling, or else hamstrung by Ugathohr or Thynwe in passing. Hot blood splattered his face and where the whirling snowflakes blew into his face, they formed a crimson slush that ran down into his frozen beard.
He gave voice to a full-throated roar, as much for the utter thrill of it as for the fury. Thundering through the blizzard, beset by enemies on all sides, the Twin blades spinning in his hands, this was what he lived for. Even with the burden of duty that came with it, even with the people of Kharanos fighting and dying all around him, it was what he lived for. And one day, it would be what he died for.
But not today.
The world darkened as he ran in under the pines. They grew close together here, leaning into each other like a huddle of conspirators bent over their secrets. The wind howled through them nonetheless, whipping them, tearing at them. The air was filled was almost as many whirling pine needles as there were snowflakes. His vision still adjusting to the gloom, Stormbreaker slowed and jogged after the splodge of crimson moving in front of him. The roar of the wind in the trees almost drowned out the clatter and screams of the battle behind him.
"Shamans, shamans, shamans," Fizzwizzle was muttering, only audible on account of her high-pitched voice. "It's always shamans. I hate shamans!" She slowed to a halt, suddenly seeming uncertain, but her vehement stream did not cease. "Can't make a nice, demonic pact like normal people, nooooo, they have to meddle with the elements. Where's the skill in that? Where's the finesse?"
"Where is that gangly sod, Fizzwizzle?" Stormbreaker grunted, cutting off her stream. She jumped, as if she'd forgotten he was there, and then glared up at him.
"In here somewhere!" She snapped. "I'm narrowing it down. This is like- like trying to fish out a single wooden bead on storm-tossed seas!"
"Well, fish faster," Stormbreaker rumbled. "Khanaros won't hold much longer!"
Fizzwizzle pulled a face, scrunching her round features into a frown of concentration. She turned on the spot, turning her head this way and that, as if she was listening. Then abruptly, she flung her arm out, pointing her wand into the shadows beneath the trees. "There! He's that way!"
Stormbreaker thought it might be east, but under the trees and in the teeth of the blizzard, everything looked the same. He wanted to ask if she was certain, but there was no time; and besides, she had taken off into the wood a moment later. Even now the scarlet flick of her robes darted between the trees in little puffs of snow.
"Bloody warlocks!" He told the trees in general. "Bloody shamans!" And then he tore off after the diminutive warlock.
He needn't have worried that she'd chosen the wrong direction. The moment he started thundering through the underbrush, scattering snow in all directions and crushing sodden logs and bushes underfoot, blue forms began to come howling out of the dark. Stormbreaker met them at a run and didn't slow; one troll went down with its heart cleaved in twain and pumping lifeblood out into the ice and snow, another reeled back with shattered tusks and a smashed face, still another staggered back grabbing uselessly at its opened gullet, the blood splattering over the snowy rocks and roots. Ahead of him, green flashes stabbed out into the dark and the reek of magic filled the spaces he ran through. He'd lost sight of Fizzwizzle in the chaos, but she was obviously giving a good account of herself.
He stamped up and over a low ridge of rocks, slashing sideways with Ugathohr to open a troll's belly as he went. Another appeared in front of him and he ducked his head and battered it aside with his pauldrons, following through with Thymwes to send it headlong into a frozen steam. No time to give them his full attention; just enough to take them out of the battle. But they were big buggers, he noticed; more jewellery, better weapons. The shaman's personal guard? Maybe. It didn't matter. All that mattered was ending this.
When he emerged into the brazier-lit clearing, the leaping flames almost dazzled him, but eyes adapted to subterranean living and the constant flare of gigantic forges in the dark adjusted quickly; he took in a plinth or altar of sorts, built haphazard from rough stones, black-iron braziers hissing with melting snowflakes and at the centre of it all, a tall, wiry shape that gyrated and gesticulated wildly in the firelight.
"Ya too late, mon!" The shaman exulted, and Stormbreaker saw that he was dancing; dancing like a man possessed, feral and violent and savage. The wind howled and moaned and shrieked around him, pulling at the feathers adorning his arms and chest and head, and his linen robe flapped madly, snapping and whipping in the tumult. "Ya too late!"
The troll was holding a sacrificial knife in one hand, holding it aloft, like a triumphant trophy or war banner, waving it as he capered. The blade shone dully crimson in the firelight. On the stone plinth, almost invisible beyond the whirling snowflakes, a carcass lay prone and discarded; blood seeped down between the rocks and pooled on the snow beneath.
For one horrified moment, in the whirling snow and the firelight, the form on the altar had all the size and shape of a recumbent gnome, a gnome only recently slain, stabbed through the middle to cascade its lifeblood into the forest floor, all the better to fuel the profane rituals that gave this monster his power.
Stormbreaker stumbled and almost fell, but caught himself against a stray sapling. Only then did the shape on the plinth resolve itself in his vision. It was a young deer, small and gashed open from throat to stomach, spindly legs lifeless and neck contorted in its death throes.
It was not Dannie Fizzwizzle. Thank the Light.
Rage filled him anyway; who was this savage dog, this rabid beast, to saunter into dwarven forests and pluck its defenceless creatures for wicked sacrifice? Who was this gaunt, gangling monster that capered in the storm and laughed maniacally at the splintering sound of thunder? This creature that brewed up blizzards and filled his fellows with bloodlust and set them upon unsuspecting towns in the desolate mountains?
And if it was an animal lying on the plinth and not the gnomish warlock, where in the Light was she?
Stormbreaker pushed off the sapling and advanced on the shaman, his teeth gritted so hard they made his jaw ache, the rage in his belly simultaneously hotter than Ugathohr's blade and colder than Thymwes'. There would be an end to this now. There would be vengeance, or justice – it didn't really matter which. Death, which every story he ever wrote with the Twin blades ended in. Violence, death, and rescue for Kharanos. It came down to him, alone. It often did.
He broke into a clanking run. The shaman frolicked on, sweat beading his blue skin in the firelight, blood running down his wrists, seemingly unconcerned, intent only on the howling sky.
On his tenth step, he realised his mistake. Half-hidden in the blowing snow and leaping firelight, a bundle of sharpened stakes stood tied together with twine that looked like the guts of a small animal. A wooden symbol was strapped to it, some sort of sharp-edged, savage-looking motif painted in dull red and beige. It glowed softly with a light all its own.
The troll shaman was laughing uproariously as the wind plucked Stormbreaker off the ground, armour, weapons and all, as if he weighed no more than an oak leaf. The world became a whirling, tumbling blur of snow, fire, treetops and sky. Snow whipped into his eyes, his bellowing mouth; it filled his gorget only to be whisked out again, it soaked down to his smallclothes, to his skin. His beard flailed madly, mostly a frozen clatter of icicles that he could hear even over the roar of the wind and his own cursing. The gale plucked at his gauntleted fingers, trying to pry them away from the Twins, but he clung to them as he would have his own children, had he any. He hung on, as helpless as a flower petal on a whirlwind, yelled his defiance into the wind and berated himself for recklessness.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. A shaman always has totems. Especially a troll shaman. When did you get so careless? When did you get so old and slow?
Suddenly, he was hurtling through the air, no longer buoyed by the wind, but flying, tearing through the air like an armoured meteor, splintering branches and scattering pine needles as he plunged through the canopy. When he slammed into the trunk of an especially prodigious, ancient pine, the impact made a sound like an entire town's armoury collapsing into a crevasse. The collision rattled him head to toe, a dozen different agonies vying for attention in his body all at once.
As he slid down into the drifts of snow that had blown up against the tree's width, a sharp, white-hot pain shot through his right arm. Thymwes slipped from numb fingers and dropped into the coating of slush and pine needles, freezing a hole of pure ice all the way down. As if studying someone else, some wounded ally on the battlefield, Stormbreaker gazed down at his twisted arm. It was wrenched the wrong way, the thumb pointing in a direction neither nature nor the Titans had ever intended, and blood trickled from a handful of places the armour had been crushed in.
He sighed, huffing out a great cloud of steam. That's well and truly buggered for sure.
He tried flexing the fingers and received a jolt of sickening pain for his trouble. Blood pulsed out between the gashes in his gauntlets.
And so is Kharanos, now.
His vision still swimming, he tried to make sense of where he'd landed. He was on the edge of the clearing, just within the edge of the pool of firelight from one of the braziers. The shaman still danced and cackled before his plinth while the blizzard raged. If there were still any sounds of fighting in the town beyond the forest, Stormbreaker couldn't hear it over the storm.
"Got you too, huh?"
Stormbreaker flinched at the sudden voice. His neck protested angrily at the abrupt twist as he turned towards it and his vision seesawed. Dannie Fizzwizzle was sitting propped up against a snow-dusted rock a few feet away, her wand in two pieces and inert at her feet. Blood trickled down one side of her head and into the collar of her robes, merging with the scarlet fabric. One of her legs was folded awkwardly under her. Small, shivering and bloodied, she didn't look wholly different from the deer on the plinth after all.
"Aye," Stormbreaker said, because there wasn't much else to say.
"Summoned my imp," Fizzwizzle said dejectedly, then coughed. "Got swept away before I could blink. Hit a tree and-" she snapped her fingers slightly wetly. "Gone." She shook her head, then winced. "Fireballs didn't go through, tossed them right out over the trees. Surprised the forest isn't alight."
Stormbreaker wasn't really listening. He was watching the clearing. Other trolls were beginning to emerge from the trees now, gathering before their dancing shaman. None of them danced with him. Maybe it was taboo. More than a few cradled gashes and burns, or limped in leaving a trail of blood across the snow. Stormbreaker hoped that the changing shadows hid he and Fizzwizzle from them for now; some of them glowered with simmering vengeance. Maybe if his legs were still working after his head had stopped spinning, he could carry Fizzwizzle deeper into the wood under his one good arm while the trolls were distracted. Even if Kharanos was doomed, he could save at least one of its inhabitants. At least one. One was better than none at all.
Maybe, if he could just get through that cluster of Frostmanes and crush that hateful totem under his boot, maybe then he could reach the shaman, and bury Ugathohr in his scrawny blue neck. Maybe he wouldn't be too late. It would be suicide, of course. The trolls would be on him like a landslide, enraged by the death of their leader, burning with retribution for the wounds he'd already doled out among them. He'd fought one-handed many times, on many battlefields, and could kill with only one blade just as easily as with two, but wounded and half-stunned as he was… aye, that would be a last stand for sure.
But as his old mentor Hjarrargehm Cinderbraid would often say – and there was a hard, Dark Iron bastard if ever there was one – "When the day comes that you have to sell your life, make 'em pay dearly for it, charge plenty of interest and make sure whatever yer buying is bloody well worth it."
Stormbreaker began pushing himself to his feet. It was a laborious process, painful and awkward with injuries and dented armour, using his only working arm to lever himself up out of the collecting snow. By the time he was standing, his vision was swimming and he was weaving where he stood, blood dripping wounds, but he had Ugathohr clasped firmly in his good hand, burning bright and hot. Thymwes he left where she lay. She'd played her part and could do no more.
Well, old man. What do you think? Is a whole town full of good, honest Alliance citizens fair trade enough?
He glanced at Fizzwizzle, but the gnome had slipped into unconsciousness. Snow was beginning to collect on her red robes and in her hair. Poor blighter. She'd taken a hell of a battering. But he'd seen wounds like that before, a hundred times on a hundred battlefields. She'd live.
If he could end this.
Slowly, his body protesting a hundred different hurts, he stumped out of the flickering shadows, out from under the snow-laden boughs, and into the pool of firelight around one of the braziers. If it gave off any warmth in the shrieking blizzard, he couldn't feel it.
The trolls noticed him quickly, of course. He was hard to miss, even wounded and at half their height. They were gesturing wildly with bone clubs and blades, and the wind occasionally snatched a tusked snarl and threw it to Stormbreaker's ears. He counted six lithe, blue bodies, sweat glistening in the firelight, tusks winking where the flames lit the jewellery that encrusted them.
That's right, boys. The old, battered dwarf isnae dead yet.
Stormbreaker ignored them for the most part. The totem was what mattered, and running was out of the question; the way his boots and greaves had bent from the impact with the pine made sure of that. The best he could manage was a lumbering half-jog, but it would suffice. Saplings struggling up through the snow served as good handholds for pulling himself along. Trolls would come or they would not. So long as he got one solid kick on the totem, it didn't matter.
The first Frostmane was on him before he was out of the first pool of firelight, a lanky, hide-clad savage with one broken tusk. The break looked fresh. Stormbreaker wondered idly if he was the one who'd broken it.
"Die, ya runt!" The troll bellowed. It stabbed with a short spear decorated with feathers and fur. The head glowed dull ivory in the firelight.
"Not yet," Stormbreaker told it.
He didn't try to dodge the speartip, instead twisting so that it would meet the thickest part of his cuirass. The bone edge screeched as it slid along the dwarven steel, not biting, then it hit some of the golden scrollwork and scraped off into the night. The troll jerked it back, but too late. Stormbreaker stepped in past the haft, Ugathohr swept down and the spear dropped into the snow. The three-fingered blue hands were still attached, clenched around the wooden haft, the seeping blood stark against the surrounding white. While the troll was still shrieking and flailing spurting stumps, Stormbreaker reversed his grip on Ugathohr and jerked him upwards. It cleaved straight through from jaw to brain, the sizzle of the runes and evaporating saliva a grotesque counterpoint to the spatter of boiling blood and gurgling death.
When he wrenched the blade free, the troll fell face down in the snow, steam rising from a hole torn clear through its skull. Stormbreaker didn't bother to behead it. Not even a troll was coming back from that.
Halfway to the totem. The shaman was doing something within his circle of protective storm, something with the deer on the plinth or the blood. Drinking it, maybe, or wearing it. Irrelevant. At least he'd stopped capering. Even a troll ought to have some decorum.
The rest of the trolls met him in the centre of the clearing, insults that Stormbreaker couldn't hear spitting from grimacing, tusked mouths, eyes blazing, moving until they had him penned in between them. Two were between him and the blasted totem. Irritating.
"'Urry up then!" He yelled in their faces when they merely circled. "I don't have all bloody night!"
Three of them attacked him at once, including one from behind. Ugathohr met a bone club, rebounded off, bit into a belly, slashed through and came up to deflect a sword thrust. Stormbreaker tried to sidestep the attack he felt coming from the back, but his damaged armour betrayed him; he staggered, almost fell and felt a point pierce his back and grind to a halt against his shoulder blade. The pain was exquisite, enough to drown out the agony from his ruined arm, and he almost went down on his face, but set his feet and held himself upright, panting.
He gasped as the spear was wrenched free, his vision turning red and white for a moment. As it cleared, he glared about himself. One of the trolls was hunched over a vicious gash across its midriff, but stared at him with eyes full of malice, and it was holding its club well enough. The others circled, cruel grins beginning to leer beneath long noses. A couple made cursory jabs with spears. Stormbreaker turned the points aside without looking. Frustration twisted his mouth, icicles breaking off in his moustaches. No way around and through would be tough.
Maybe it was time to make them careless.
"Didnae yer mothers tell you not to play with yer food?" He said to the troll in front of him. Then he grinned contemptuously. "Oh, tha's right. Yer a bunch of motherless dogs. My mistake."
Anger tightened blue faces, and one of them actually spat into the snow at his feet, but still they circled. Still the occasional jabs. Stormbreaker swore privately. Come on, you bloody savages. Come at me!
He opened his mouth to insult them again, but something caught his eye over a troll's narrow shoulder, something that darted past in the shadows and blowing snow under the trees. Had that been a flash of… green?
Instead of an insult, mirth bubbled up unbidden, spilling out as if he were a barrel full of laughter that had been upended. It started as a throaty chuckle, then grew into a guffaw as he saw the confusion on the trolls faces. By the Light, but the blue buggers were a picture! If only they could see what was coming!
Stormbreaker was laughing so hard that he could barely see the troll in front's scowling expression through the tears. The troll snatched a spear from one of his fellows, reversed it and prodded the dwarf in the breastplate.
"Whatsa' matter wi'chu, halfman?" The troll demanded. "Ya town about t'burn an' ya look like a wolf been usin' ya for a chewstick. What's funny, mon?" He rapped the spear haft against Stormbreaker's armour. "You tell me what's funny!"
Stormbreaker could barely breathe. The mix of anger and puzzlement on the troll's face was just too rich. The others were shifting their feet uncertainly. "What's funny, matey?" He laughed, wiping tears away that were beginning to freeze on his eyelashes. "Why, 'tis the funniest joke of all, ain't it? The one fate likes to play on all of us, right at the end. Death, when you least expect it!"
The troll had a moment to look surprised, just before something that glimmered sharp and silver bloomed in its throat. Blood arced through the air and splattered across Stormbreaker's face, running down into his beard and soaking the snow and ice caked there crimson. Some of it ran down into his gorget, making a scarlet slush. He was still chuckling as the troll fell on its knees at his feet, scrabbling at the blood pouring between its fingers, and still grinning as he stepped up and severed the head with Ugathohr.
Pandemonium erupted among the remaining trolls. They whirled to face their attacker, but the lithe lilac and green shadow that danced among them was as difficult to pin down as the wind itself. A flash of pointed ears here, a glimpse of purple lips compressed into anger there, bright eyes in the dark. Another troll went down, head already bouncing away into the snow, and another bellowed in agony as knives blossomed in its chest, stitching all the way from throat to navel. Blood fountained, spurted and scattered like rose petals across the snow, and the firelight from the braziers glinted on the narrow steel of a flashing rapier.
Mesmerising as it was, there was no time to watch the night elf's beautiful dance of death; Stormbreaker left her to it and trudged painfully across to the totem. The carved, leering wooden face and sharpened stakes stared up at him, glowing faintly. He stamped on it. The wood splintered under his plate boot, and the magic contained within dissipated with a distinct pop. Stormbreaker fancied he felt the evaporating energy rustle his beard.
"Noooooooooo!" The shaman howled.
If the blizzard did not abate, it certainly lessened. Twigs and whole clusters of pine needles no longer tore through the air along with snowflakes, pattering off his armour, and his hair no longer streamed out behind him like the airsock at a gnomish airfield. The wind still screamed and whistled through the shuddering trees and snow still gusted from every direction, but it was a storm now, not a whiteout.
But most importantly, no more shield around the shaman.
"Ya horrible little shorty!" The troll was raging, his blood-soaked linen robes flapping, "Ya ugly, hairy, tuskless murloc-breath, meddlin' little runt! Why couldn't ya die when ya w'meant to? I was almost done wit' me ritual!"
"Now, now," Stormbreaker said placidly. "Temper, temper."
The shaman roared in fury and bore down on him, the sacrificial knife trailing blood drops and jewellery flashing in the firelight as he bounded across the clearing. Stormbreaker met the wicked blade with Ugathohr, the clash causing a cascade of orange sparks to spray hissing into the snow. The shaman stabbed and slashed with the abandon borne of sheer, apoplectic rage, going for the midriff, the chest, the head, anywhere he might get the blade through. The other hand, three glacier-blue fingers curled into a fist, battered at Stormbreaker's head and neck, seeking purchase, seeking revenge, trying to claw out any sort of damage against this hated ancestral enemy in his gilded plate armour and ice-encrusted beard. Stormbreaker weathered the punches and scratches and scrabbling in much the same way he weathered the blizzard itself; head down and immovable. They weren't important. Might as well flail away at a stone statue for all the good it did punching a dwarf. He focused on that jagged, glinting, thrusting blade, deflecting it, turning it aside, blocking every rage-filled blow with the unmatched dwarven steel of Ugathohr. The runes of fire smouldered sullenly in the night, flaring bright and angry each time steel met sharpened bone.
Through the furore of seething sparks, clashing blades and blowing snow, the fetid breath of the shaman and sweat that began to freeze on his forehead almost as soon as it seeped out of his pores, Stormbreaker glared up at the troll. For the shaman's crimes, for those who had died – were dying – in Kharanos, he should have liked a more ignoble end than this. Not locked in battle with a dwarven warrior, a son of Ironforge, a veteran of a dozen different wars, not standing blade-to-blade like some sort of equal. He should have liked to see it dragged in chains before the Alliance magistrates, hear it howl in rage as a sentence of lifelong servitude and imprisonment was proclaimed. Or at the very least, borne witness to the whistling descent of a headsman's axe.
But these were not thoughts worthy of a warrior. A warrior was noble, honourable, and ended his foes quickly and cleanly. He did not prolong suffering, or let his emotions cloud his judgement. What need did a living weapon have for such lofty ideas as justice and law in any case? He was a tool of war; a sword to be sent to slash open the enemy's gizzards, a bulwark to bolster failing defences, a banner to inspire courageous charges that turned the tide of battle. A sword did not trouble itself with ideas. It chopped and hacked, it ended lives, and then it moved on.
Enough toying with the blighter.
The sacrificial blade came in at a diagonal, driven by wiry strength and fearsome anger. Stormbreaker twitched Ugathohr, turning the knife aside, and then as the shaman reeled back, stepped in and buried the burning blade into the troll's stomach. It slid in clean and quick, sizzling as it went, setting fire to the linen and burning the flesh black around the wound. It didn't grind until it met the edge of the spine, and then it made a sound like a metal file against granite. It lodged for a moment and then exploded from the troll's back, sending gobbets of boiling blood and cooked tissue spattering into the snow.
The troll screamed like the very blizzard itself.
The knife came down, of course; he expected it to. It clanged off his left pauldron, scored a scratch down the polished metal, and then flopped uselessly into the slush. The shaman scrabbled with his empty hand at the hilt of Ugathohr, stubby fingers working frantically. He found no purchase. May as well try to pry open an industrial vice in a gnomish workshop as try to open a dwarven fist. Stormbreaker felt the other hand flail, grasping, clawing, until it gripped the chainmail around his bicep.
"Do us both a favour, an' die," Stormbreaker grunted. But as he said it he looked up into the troll's eyes and realised his mistake. The eyes were full of agony, but something else besides. Rage and… was that satisfaction? The troll's mouth was working. Not a scream anymore. Words.
The world went bright white, his head rang like a bell and for the second time that night, Stormbreaker found himself flying through the air. Not so high or so far; he came down among the saplings and snow-covered underbrush of the clearing. He landed hard and rolled over and over and over, sending up great billowing gouts of snow. His ruined arm screamed as shattered armour ground into ruined biceps and torn tendons. Blood splashed out with every crunch and bounce; he caught glimpses of stark, bright crimson smearing the ground as he tumbled.
He thumped into a snow-buried rock with a cacophony of clattering armour, still trailing fire and smouldering, and slid down into the slush. He lay there in an awkward heap, taking in great lungfuls of freezing air. Sparks danced across his ornate cuirass and across his vision.
Light, but everything hurt. Too many years campaigning, that's what it is, you old bastard. Should have retired to a cabin with a fishing rod years ago. Now look at you.
He pushed himself up with his good arm. Ugathohr melted a circle of snow around his fist. His beard was alight with embers. He used a handful of snow to douse them. Ruin a dwarf's beard, eh? Typical bloody trolls. Not a shred of honour, any of 'em.
He tried to scramble to his feet, but his left leg refused to move. He looked down at it. The armour was twisted and bent completely out of shape. He wiggled his toes, tensed a few muscles. There was no pain. No blood. But the greaves were ruined. He wasn't going anywhere without prying them off.
Across from him, the troll shaman had been blasted back against the altar. He lay crumpled there, the terrible wound in his stomach steaming into the freezing air, flames dancing on his filthy, torn tabard. Not dead though. Stormbreaker could see the rise and fall of the bugger's blood-smeared chest.
The shaman's head came up, the tusks glinting. An arm that still burned came up with it.
Stormbreaker sighed. This was it, then. Death at the hands of a mangy Frostmane shaman, blasted to bits by a lightning bolt. What a depressing end. He'd always imagined he would die atop a mound of Scourge, or under the hooves of a tauren charge. Something heroic. Something worthy of a song.
He didn't close his eyes. When death finally comes, Cinderbraid had said, you look it dead in the eye and greet it like an old friend. He stared at the shaman, stared at the magic coalescing in its fist, and waited to say hello.
But it never came.
A flicker of emerald green whipping through the blizzard and suddenly the shaman's arm flopped into the snow. It only had time to howl before a flash of silver took its head from its shoulders. Blood gouted up the rough stones of the altar and the body slid to one side. The charred tabard flapped in the wind.
Astalynn materialised from the whirling night and came to crouch before him. "Friend Stormbreaker."
He grinned up at her through a faceful of blood and icicles. "Ms. Forestflower."
The night elf's lilac visage was spattered with slush and blood. Her eyes were bright jewels. The purple lips were downturned.
"You are badly injured," She said softly.
"Ah, this?" He said, shrugging his useless, bleeding arm. "Had worse in Northrend. Barrens, too. Nothin' a potion and some ale won't fix."
She smiled, if a trifle sadly. "Warmth and light await you, Friend Stormbreaker."
Ah, bugger. That sounded like a goodbye. Like something you might say at a graveside of a companion. None of that. No tears. Not in victory.
Stormbreaker saluted her with Ugathohr. Snowflakes sizzled off the blade. "You were right about Elune, lass. Look up there."
She looked where he'd nodded. High above the trees, the roiling clouds were beginning to part. The moon glowed through tendrils of them, a soft and silvery shine.
"Reckon she sent you," Stormbreaker said. "Not the Light. The Light had no place here, not in this dark and cold. The night sent one of its own, eh?"
He coughed, and blood ran down into his beard.
Astalynn gripped the gauntlet of his good arm with her gloved hand. "This was our fight, Friend Stormbreaker. Without you, without your valour, Kharanos would be burning."
"Nice of you to say, lass," He said. His smile broke off some icicles. "Nice of you to say."
High above, the moon seemed to dim. So did the light in the braziers, and the sullen glow from Ugathohr that lit Astalynn's lilac face. Even her eyes, bright pools in the night, seemed to fade.
"A wee rest," He told the night elf. "That's all I need. A wee rest and I'll be right as rain."
She nodded, but a tear slid from one eye. It was whipped away by the wind halfway down her cheek.
"Dinnae cry, lass," Stormbreaker said softly. "You'll make me think we lost."
She wept then, tears pouring from her bright eyes. They pattered into the snow and onto the ruined dwarven armour. Stormbreaker put Ugathohr aside and touched her face with his fingers.
"It's been a rare pleasure, Ms. Forestflower," He said. "A rare pleasure."
And then darkness crowded in.
Danni Fizzwhizzle stepped across to the roaring hearth, holding her hands out to the dancing flames. High as they jumped and danced, they didn't seem to confer any warmth. It seemed she could never truly get warm now, ever since the Frostmane attack a few weeks ago. She wore furs, buried herself in blankets at night, stood before the fire until her pink skin turned pinker still, but the chill never quite left.
She shuddered with the memory of the clearing, the trolls and the capering shaman with his bloody sacrifice.
"Rememberin' again?" A familiar voice asked.
She turned. The dwarven cleric, Bhalfurm, stumped awkwardly towards her, swinging on his wooden crutch. His beard looked even more orange in the firelight, and the pewter rings at the end of each fork glowed like brass.
She made room for him at the fire. Not that a gnome took up much room, but for Bhalfurm, she could give up some heat. For him, she could.
"It seems that's all I do," She said. "Remember."
The priest stopped by the hearth, held out his hands towards it. For a long time he didn't say anything.
"Memories should be warm," He said eventually. "Warm like the halls of Ironforge. Maybe ye should visit, Danni."
She shook her head. "My place is here."
"Yer too hard on yourself."
She stared into the dancing flames a long time before answering. Around her, the Distillery was quiet. Only a few travellers sat at the stone tables.
"I should have done more."
Bhalfurm shook his great head. "That way lies pain. I could have fought harder. Saved more people. Not taken this leg wound through bein' careless. Should've. Would've. Could've. Bad path to take."
She looked down at his leg, the bandage almost hidden beneath his sky-blue robes. "You should heal it. Why do you punish yourself?"
He shrugged. The cloak billowed, buffeted by the eddies of heat from the fire. "It reminds me I'm alive. An' the price I paid to be. The price others paid."
"Now who's being hard on himself?" Danni said softly.
They stood there in silence for a time. Heat washed out over them, the flames hungrily consuming a pile of logs taller than she was. She tucked her hands into her crimson sleeves.
She'd been about to say that maybe a trip to Ironforge wasn't so far amiss. But the thundering crash of a door flinging open upstairs cut her off. The sound echoed through the Distillery. A few of the patrons had jumped.
At the top of the stairs, the night elf, Astalynn Forestflower stood with her lilac hand still against the trembling door. Her green hair glimmered in the lanternlight, and her eyes shone. She was beaming.
"He's awake," she breathed.