Hello again, friends!  I hope you are enjoying this ever more sordid tale.
 

The Agony and the Ice Cream

A pervasive restlessness electrified the air in Moonglade.  Kieromaris sensed it the moment she materialized in Nighthaven, the tranquil village usually watched over by the Cenarion Circle wardens.  But no cheerful voices greeted her, nor did any voices at all.  The village was empty, though the winds whistling through the open dwellings were heavy, worrisome.  Dread built up in her mind, mounting steadily towards a crescendo of panic as she searched for some living soul.  Just before she gave in to a full on breakdown, she heard shouting, coming from the direction of Lake Elune’ara.  Shifting into a swifter, feline form, she raced to the lake’s shore, where she found a massive contingent of druids gathered before Remulos the Keeper, a powerful and wise protector of the forest (who nevertheless tended to frequently prick himself on his own woodtalon fingers).

“Druids of the Cenarion Circle!” Remulos’s voice boomed over the assembly, which quieted in response.  “As many of you are no doubt aware, a terrible enemy has resurged!”

Never known for her patience, Kieromaris jostled her way to the front of the crowd, upsetting tauren and night elf alike.

“I am sure you have felt the planet’s struggle,” Remulos rumbled, “as she battles with the renewed will of the Lich King.”

The assembled wardens and druids mumbled in assent.  Everyone from Nighthaven was there.

“Rest assured, I, and your leaders, have felt it too … have seen, first-hand, some of the repercussions.”

Several of the tauren grunted nervously, while the night elves pursed their lips in a disapproving, but unsurprised, fashion—as though the tauren had brought home an unruly puppy without permission and it had just thoroughly soiled the rug.

“Always thought it was a blunder myself, letting those corpse people into any kind of polite society,” said a male druid, his golden eyes narrowed haughtily.

“The Earthmother loves all her children,” replied the tauren woman beside him, her arms crossed over her chest.

“It is true that Elune’s forgiveness is boundless,” the man said. “But to permit them places at your tables …”

“Is the correct and compassionate path!”

Their argument was overlapping Remulos’s speech now, and he paused to admonish them.  “Shadian, Araminta—this is no time for quarreling.  Indeed, it is crucial that we band together …”

“Look, I’m just saying—” Shadian began, but Remulos cut him off with a wave of his gnarled hand.

“Enough,” he said warningly.

Kieromaris cleared her throat. Remulos was one of the wisest creatures she knew.  Perhaps she needn’t wait on that fool undead to have the journal translated.  “Pardon me, Keeper Remulos, but I’ve just been to see Hamuul Runetotem.”

“Ah, yes, he should be meeting with the other Horde leaders about now,” Remulos said. “Have you a message for me?”

She explained, before him and the crowd, what had happened at Thunder Bluff.  Before more arguments broke out (as the increasingly tense muttering suggested they would), she raised her voice and showed everyone the journal.

“This might have some information on how to combat the Lich King’s plague,” she said. “Only, it’s in Gutterspeak.”

Many of the tauren had worked closely with the Forsaken, but of those by the lakeside, none knew how to read the language—or even hardly speak it.

“Nobody?” said Kieromaris, crestfallen.

“Truth is, we stick to Orcish, mainly,” said a tauren druid near her.  “They seem to use Gutterspeak just among themselves.”

“I can pronounce a few phrases,” said someone else. “But, um, I guess that’s not much help.”

“I guess I’ll have to wait then,” Kiero said.

“Wait for what, my child?” Remulos asked.

“I told my traveling companions to meet me here,” Kiero said. “A Forsaken is with them.  He’ll be able to make sense of this for us.”

“No!” Shadian cried.  “Please, Keeper, we can’t let one of them among us right now—what if he loses his mind, like the others?”

“I expect we outnumber him sufficiently,” said Remulos mildly.  “Still, your concern is not unwarranted.  I will have some wardens assigned to you, Kieromaris—for your protection.”

Kiero frowned at Shadian with burgeoning dislike. “Thank you, Keeper.”

“Do not close your minds or eyes, children,” said Remulos. “The earth is in an hour of deepest need.  We mustn’t ignore her.”

The crowd nodded, and then, recognizing his words as a dismissal, dispersed.

As Kiero left the lake, intending to go for a drink in the inn, Shadian caught up with her and said, “I’m only looking out for the interests of the Circle, you know.”

“I’m not fond of the Forsaken, either,” Kiero told him, remembering how ready she was to kill Cian at first glance, how that readiness had not dulled in the slightest. “But you show disrespect by speaking out of turn.”

“Besides,” said a third voice, “if the Horde want to endanger themselves, what business is it of ours?”

Another male druid had run up alongside the two in his travel form and then shifted from cheetah to night elf shape so as not to outpace them.  “Heading into town, milady?” he said to Kiero, with an inviting (and somewhat lascivious) smile.  Unlike Shadian, whose dark blue face was serious and baleful, this man had open, jovial features, and he walked with a confident swagger.

“Yes,” Kiero said guardedly.

“Mind if I join you?”

She shrugged.

“Name’s Lojac,” he went on, offering his hand.  She did not take it.

Shadian smirked. “Don’t think she’s interested, friend.”

“Give it time, give it time!” Lojac said cheerfully.

“Check back in the next thousand years,” Kiero said, as they entered the inn.

They sat down at a round, wooden table decorated with a softly burning, lilac candle.  Lojac called to the innkeeper, “Oi!  Couple of moonberry juices over here, if you please!”

“Actually, I prefer—”  Kiero began, but the innkeeper was already placing brimming goblets in front of them.  Kiero sighed, sipped hers, and said, “Thanks.”

Shadian ordered a morning glory dew, which was Kiero’s favorite.  She watched him drink it, licking her lips, and Shadian’s cheeks darkened.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” she murmured, as Lojac flirted with the pretty innkeeper, “it’s just your drink.”

“Oh …” said Shadian. “Um—do you want to switch?”

She blinked, and pushed her goblet across the table, wondering if she had misjudged him. “Sure, if you don’t mind.”

“So, tell me about this Forsaken friend of yours,” said Shadian.  “Are you sure it’s really safe for him to be here?”

She saw that his young face was lined with real concern.  “Trust me,” she said grimly, “if he puts a toe out of line, I’ll be the first to step on it.”
 

-----



“Damn it, laddie!” Ingomar shrieked at Cian, who hovered mournfully by the bed, his sunken, glowing eyes fixed on the dwarf paladin curled up beneath the sheets.  “If ye don’ stop yer loomin’ I’m liable to smash in what remains of yer face!”

“Please,” he moaned. “It hurts.”  As if to punctuate the point, he doubled over, bony hands clutching at his chest.  Beads of sweat dotted his sallow skin, and even the unnatural yellow of his eyes was subdued by the intensity of his pain.

Not for a moment had the old woman’s curse let up—if anything, its effects worsened as the night wore on.  By morning, Cian was wishing fervently for someone to end his miserable unlife.

“If you won’t heal me, then just kill me,” he groaned.  “I can’t bear this much longer.”

Eulalia noted worryingly that Cian was in fact bleeding, owing to several open and oozing wounds on his legs, neck, and the fleshy part of his upper torso.  Thick, green blood seeped into the floorboards beneath where he lay.  Ingomar stood up on the bed and prayed for light to coalesce in her palms.  A gentle coolness, like a breeze through his hair or a damp cloth pressed to his forehead, passed through Cian’s body.  His wounds closed, for the moment.

“Can’t believe they don’t teach you people how to remove curses,” Cian breathed.

“I dinnae question what powers th’Light chooses tae give,” Ingomar said irritably. “Now quit yer  ooking ing’ and let’s get a move on.  Those druids in Moonglade will fix yeh up right quick.”

So he would have to endure for the better part of a day.  Fantastic.

“I made nibbles!” Linnaris called from outside.  She was kneeling over a cooking fire, adding spices to a thoroughly roasted crab.  Three others were already laid out on a rock behind her.  “Linnaris’s famous crab delight.  Recipe stolen, of course.”

Cian didn’t feel much like eating.

“Just a bit, c’mon,” Eulalia pleaded, dangling the dead, seasoned crab in front of him, in what she clearly thought was a tantalizing way.

“I don’t need to eat,” he rasped. “I’ve barely got a stomach.”

“That does not change the fact,” Eulalia cut the crab into thirds as she spoke, “that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” She handed him a third of crab.  “Now I insist.  You need your strength.”

Reluctantly, he accepted the food, and as he chewed it, he had to admit that it was quite good.  And he did feel better, if only a little.  The curse had reduced his muscles to water, but after a bit of the crab, he had the fortitude to walk upright, albeit only for about twenty paces.

Instantly, Eulalia was at his side, helping him to his feet. “It’s okay, I’ve got you, it’s okay!”

He shrugged her off brusquely. “I’m not a child.”

She smiled. “Oh, I, I know.  I was only wanting to help.”

He grunted, and forced his limp, aching limbs to obey.  Upright again, he said, with difficulty, “I can handle it.”

“Oh aye, brave lad now,” said Ingomar.  “Wha’ happened tae ‘kill me nae, I canna take no more!”  She pitched her voice two octaves higher for her imitation, and Cian scowled.

“It’s not even physically possible for me to achieve that register,” he said.

“I’m just stayin’ true tae th’essence of the thing,” she said.

Another wave of pain crashed over him, and his retort choked and died in his throat.

“Come along now, children,” said Linnaris.

“Just follow me, okay?” Eulalia said to him.

“Euls,” he said. “I’m fine.”  He called for his mount, and Eulalia stared up at him uncertainly, before finally summoning her giant panther.  As soon as her back turned, he leaned over and muttered into his horse’s ear, “Stick close to that one.”

The horse whinnied under its breath, to show that it had understood.

Cian resolved not to say another word about the pain caused by his curse, but they still stopped periodically so that Ingomar could heal him—his wounds kept re-opening, and he couldn’t disguise the wet splotches of blood that he left in his wake.

“I just don’t understand who’d want to be so mean to you,” Eulalia said, every time they paused their journey.

“Reckon that old bat thinks you’re done in by now,” Ingomar said, as they were crossing the border from Ashenvale into Felwood.

“Not so sure she wanted to ‘do me in,” Cian mumbled weakly, barely able to grasp the reins of his horse.  “Say, aren’t there some druids around here …”

“Aye, just ahead.  Maybe they’ll do us a favor,” Ingomar said.

But as their mounts cantered up to the outpost, they saw that they would receive no help from the druids there.

“Not again,” Ingomar whispered.

The outpost had been completely destroyed.  Not only was every living being slaughtered, but the house and two tents were in ruins.  The smoldering house had been scorched by spells, and they could see corpses beneath the rubble of wood and glass.  The tents had been torn down by hand, ripped to shreds by frenzied attackers who had then turned their weapons on the druids, who were lying under great swathes of tattered animal skin.  The lily pond in front of the night elf house was discolored by blood, the water turned brackish by debris and gore.  The stink of fear and fresh death permeated the area, and the embers still rising from the burnt house led Cian to believe that this attack had happened only hours before their arrival.

“But, how …” he said. “We killed all the undead at Splintertree … unless, unless they came from Orgrimmar.”

“No,” said a thin voice, and one of the apparently dead druids opened her eyes, though her mouth was stained with blood and her body was rent with deep scores.  “They came from nowhere … like from a, a portal …” she coughed, spitting up more blood.

“By the Light,” Ingomar said.  “Stay still, lass, let me help ye …”

“I’m … beyond your powers, now,” the night elf said, her words shaky and soft.  Her eyes closed, then fluttered open again.  “The corrupted … the moonwell, take a vial, it—we wanted to study it … I, I sent someone, but they never returned—please—only chance …” she exhaled deeply, as though satisfied, and her body went slack.

Ingomar shook her head.

“Can you bring her back?” Linnaris said. “I mean, if she’s only just gone …”

Ingomar tried.  For ten tense seconds, they watched her channel the spell, each of them keeping absolutely silent and still.

Many points of light sprang up in thin columns around the druid’s body.  But she did not stir.

Ingomar tried again, and the druid did not so much as twitch her thumb.

“One more time,” Eulalia said, as Ingomar climbed back onto her horse.

“No,” the dwarf said.  “Nothin’ doin’.”

“But—”

“I told ya earlier,” Ingomar said roughly, “It’s outta my hands!  I cannae order the world about, anymore than you or anyone else can!  Let’s just go.”

Chagrined, Eulalia fell in step behind Ingomar, along with Cian and Linnaris.  They traveled in silent gloom for a while, listening to their mounts beat the stone path, to the swoops of the giant owls flying through the trees, and to the undercurrent of menacing whispers from the forces which tainted the woods.

The atmosphere was particularly oppressive to Cian.  While at the outpost, he had suffered a nasty spike of pain, directly between his temples.  He had thought it was due to the curse burning in his veins, but he realized that the throb in his head was separate from the sharp pangs pricking at his skin.  He heard a voice behind the headache, a horribly familiar voice, hissing commands at him, ordering him to complete the carnage and turn on his companions.  He fought against his own body, which tried to draw his daggers, aiming to plunge them first into Ingomar’s spine and then Linnaris’s, finishing with Eulalia.  The voice lingered on her the longest, and its hiss turned to a silky purr.

She betrayed you, didn’t she … she abandoned you … and look where you’ve ended up … Maybe if she hadn’t left you, you’d still be alive, you’d be happy, you’d be—

He shook his head, hoping to rattle the thoughts into silence.  It wasn’t like that.  She had said it wasn’t like that.

She lies.  You were a burden to her.  A passing fancy.  She never cared for you.  She was never even your friend.  She was just bored.

He wanted to rip apart his own skull and physically remove whatever had gotten into him, but such an action would probably have drawn unwanted attention.  The last thing he needed was to give Ingomar a reason to start throwing exorcisms at him, so he fought to marshal his wayward impulses, even as his hands continually strayed to the daggers hanging from his belt.

Fortunately, the three women were so engrossed in Ingomar’s efforts to revive the druid that they did not notice his internal war.  When they set out again, he hunkered down on his horse, hiding his face against the animal’s fleshless neck, gripping its reins rather more tightly than needed.

The more distance they gained from the outpost, the better he felt—in terms of the voice, anyway.  The cursed sigil on his cheek throbbed painfully, sending bolts of agony through every possible nerve.  His tolerance for suffering was somewhat above-average, but that meant only that he could retain consciousness and will, instead of passing out on the spot like an average Azerothian.  Cian focused on the stones passing rapidly beneath his horse’s hooves, trying to direct his mind away from the complaints of his body.  Consciousness and will, he thought again, and he sat up on his mount, suddenly understanding.  This curse—their journey to Moonglade—the ruined outpost …

Someone was actively attempting to recruit him back into the Lich King’s service.

Was it Nina?  But how could she have known they were traveling to Moonglade, and that they had to travel on foot because of the destruction in Ratchet?

Clearly, she had placed this curse on him in order to soften his mind to the Lich King’s whisperings—for he now felt certain that was what the wretched voice was—but how could she have predicted that he would so soon pass by a place infected with the Scourge’s taint?

And then—his mind seized upon the name—An’jin.  Only that creepy troll knew the full extent of their movements.  Cian wanted to spit, but he had lost so much blood that he could barely gather together the necessary saliva.  When he next saw that traitorous troll, he was going to stab An’jin with his own tusks.

Ingomar halted their group beside a path of crumbling pillars.

“I reckon ye want ta get tae Moonglade as fast as possible,” she said, looking over at Cian’s hunched, bloody body with what, on a clear day, might be interpreted as concern, “but I think we ought tae make a little detour here, fer tha’ druid’s sake, aye?”

Cian nodded without comment.  Eulalia offered her arm to him after they dismounted, but he refused, and instead limped slowly behind the group, heaving audibly.  The bleeding was so pronounced that he could not even slip into stealth.  Although Linnaris refrained from, for instance, doing invisible cartwheels with her tongue lolling out, he still sensed something mocking in the way she crept close to him, flaunting the ability he could not currently access.

“Why don’t you go up by Ingomar,” he said, out of the corner of his mouth.

“She can handle herself,” Linnaris replied, also in low tones.

“So can I!” he whispered fiercely.

“Listen, guy,” said Linnaris, with the air of someone whose patience well had just dried up, “I understand you’re having some unpleasant times over there, but we’ve all been trying to look out for you today.  It wouldn’t kill you to slow down the surly gloom train, mister.” She nodded at Eulalia, who was cooing obliviously to her pet tiger, “Especially for Euls.”

He knew that she was, of course, correct, though being chastised certainly didn’t improve his mood.  Rather than press the losing argument, he stumped along quietly, and when his knees buckled from a fresh onslaught of white-hot agony, he did not rebuff Eulalia’s help.

However, when she tried to hoist him onto her back, he had to draw the line. “No.”

“But, it’d be easier for you …” she said, putting him down reluctantly.

“I am not riding piggyback into a mass of bloodthirsty cultists,” he said.  “It is simply not going to happen.”

“Actually,” said Ingomar, “this place is  ooking’ a wee bit deserted at the mo’.”

The barrow dens they approached had long ago been converted into a hold for the Shadow Council, and the area was usually populated by the cult’s guards and warlocks.  But no one waited for them outside the Shrine of the Deceiver, and they met no opposition as they continued towards the corrupted moonwell.

“Maybe they are having lunch?” Eulalia suggested.

“I think not, lassie,” said Ingomar, coming upon the corpse of an orcish adept.  She nudged the body and frowned. “He’s got curse marks all over’im.”

Cian’s breath hitched.  Was Nina here?  Was this the last phase of an elaborate trap?

“Halloo!” Someone a few feet to his left squeaked.  Turning his head, Cian saw a gnome sitting on top of a fallen pillar, his stubby legs swinging back and forth.  An imp that almost matched its master in size did backflips beside him. Singed ice cream cones littered the dead grass around the pillar.
“Viraj!” Eulalia cried, striding over to envelop the gnome in an excruciating hug.

“I have to ask,” said Cian, “are you friends with the entire goddamn world?”

“I hope so!” Eulalia said.

Linnaris mussed Viraj’s hair affectionately. “What’s up, little man?”

“Ice cream break,” said Viraj, taking another pink-topped cone from his bags.  His hands were already sticky with strawberry streaks, and the tips of his fingers were covered with pale welts.  The imp leaned forward to accept the treat, and the ice cream sizzled as it touched the unholy flames surrounding the demon’s body.  Cian watched in amazement as the imp lapped eagerly at the rapidly disappearing ice cream, racing against its own flames, tasting what it could.  When Viraj’s fingers began to burn, he dropped the cone, and it joined the pile already accumulated on the grass.

He said, offhandedly, “You seem to have a stray undead following you!  Shall I finish it off?”

“Go ahead,” said Cian.  “I’m sure your curses can’t be much worse than what I’m getting on with.”

The gnome’s blackened fingers turned still darker. “I would revise that opinion if I were you!”

Cian stared defiantly at Viraj, but Eulalia rapped lightly on the gnome’s head. “He’s our buddy.” She paused. “Maybe I should write down some lines of talking for this kind of thing.”

“Since when d’you know how to write?” said Linnaris, grinning.

Eulalia thought seriously for a moment and then said, “Oh, I guess it’s never, isn’t it?”

Ingomar coughed. “Lass, why don’ ye get a bit o’ that moonwell for us?”

Eulalia withdrew a vial from her bag and waded into the corrupted moonwell, scooping some of the acid-green water into the container and then corking it shut.  She frowned at the vial, looking from its contents to the splatters of Cian’s blood at his feet. “This kinda looks like what all is inside of you, Cian.”

He glanced at it. “Yes, I suppose so.”

Bending low to the ground, Eulalia dragged another empty vial across a particularly stained patch of soil. “Later when we are in a sit-down place I will have a look at this.”

“We’re headed to Moonglade,” Linnaris said to Viraj. “Want to come with?”

“That’s okay, I’m waiting on Arolaide,” said Viraj.  He jabbed a thumb at the barrow den.  “We’re gonna go in there.  Kill some people.  Lament the poor decorating choices.  You know how it goes!  Maybe we’ll catch up.”

“Suit yerself,” said Ingomar. “Mount up again, lads.”

They waved goodbye to Viraj as they left Jaedenar, except for Cian, who at that point considered a slow blink to be a noteworthy achievement.

“Not long now,” Ingomar said.  She looked over her shoulder at him and allowed herself a small frown of worry, since his head was down and he could not see her face.

He could do nothing but groan in response.
 
 

-----


 


Four drinks later, Kiero had grown weary of her company, and with possibly every sentient being capable of forming speech.  Shadian, while ultimately not a bad sort, had continued to express his reservations about Cian’s visit to Moonglade, while Lojac had kept up an aggressive campaign to find his way inside of her kilt.  Feeling that both of these topics had exhausted their interest approximately four hours ago, Kieromaris decided it was time to take her leave.

“Listen, guys,” she said, “I’m, um, gonna go for a walk around town, all right?”

“The lamps are very romantic at this time,” Lojac said.  “Let me join you.”

“I don’t think you should be alone with him,” Shadian said. “I’ll come too.”

“No, no, listen, it’s fine,” Kiero said, “I, uh, could actually use some alone time, you know, before my friends get here …”

She began to back out of the inn, and in the process bumped into a swarthy, armor-clad night elf.  He caught her shoulder before she fell and said, “Careful, miss.”

“Sorry,” she said distractedly, as both Shadian and Lojac made to follow her, apparently misunderstanding her words to mean ‘please keep bothering me’ as opposed to ‘I swear to Elune I will bite off the next head that talks to me.’

“No need,” he said, and nodded to his equally swarthy female companion.  “We’re here to guard you.”

Kiero ground her teeth in frustration and stalked outside, trailed by the two wardens, Shadian, and Lojac.  Dusk had settled over Moonglade, and if her temperament had allowed for it she would have agreed that the lamps did cast lovely plays of light over the roads.  Instead she stomped past them, scowling, wondering if she would have to swim to the bottom of the lake to lose them.  Except that they could transform, too.  Damn it all.

Just as she was about to round on the lot of them and deliver a gale-force lecture about personal space and the importance of ‘me’ time, an injured warden limped into view on the road ahead.  Breaking into a run, Kiero reached the warden in time to cast a quick spell to mend his wounds.  His heavy armor was melted in places, and shattered by blunt force in others.  His green hair was matted with sweat and blood, and Kiero observed deep, angry scores across his neck and face.

“Thank you,” the warden said heavily.  He swallowed, and gestured into the mist beyond.  “Y-your friends have arrived, I think.”