At last, the fire was crackling merrily. The dead tree had caught in the branches of another as it fell, which had kept the dead wood off the snow, and allowed the limbs to dry out nicely.
And with that, Ringo Flinthammer tromped through the snow to the corpse, while the great white owl watched patiently. Ringo took an axe from his belt and, gripping a dead limb distastefully, brought it down. The desiccated flesh gave off little smell as it parted, which in a way made it worse.
The body was four years dead, struck down in the early days of the Third War, a peasant from the Kingdom of Lordaeron, killed by an infection hidden in grain which was then turned into bread. They were not allowed to rest easy, however: The Lich King’s plague had jerked these corpses back onto their feet like hideous marionettes and marched off to war. Later, a faction of the damned had rebelled against the Lich King and joined the Horde, but at the end of the day, this was still an innocent victim of the cult whose body had been turned into a weapon.
Ringo chopped apart the body of the undead rogue, tossing each piece into the fire, one by one. The dwarf knew the shadow priests of the Horde could reanimate this corpse again, but he would make it as difficult as possible.
Finishing, he wiped his gloves with snow, cleaning the dead flesh from them, then wiped cold snow on his hot neck and cheeks. In addition to killing the rogue and burning him, Ringo had also had to bury two slain rams the rogue had gotten to before Ringo had caught him. The Horde was collecting these hides to create saddles for their wolf-rider cavalry. The rams deserved better than that, and Ringo’s own mount, a ram with heavy horns and fur the color of smoke on snow, had balked at the smell of the blood, and had to be tethered to a stout branch. His mount had once been one of the rams that wandered this high valley, and seemed to have recognized his old herd mates.
Ringo walked back up the hill to where his ram had been tied, the great snow owl flying silently past him. The owl and the ram got on well. Both were natives of the Alterac Mountains, and although the great owls were known to prey on the rams in the wild, the ram had seen Ringo could keep the great bird of prey in line, and the two beasts worked together well as a result.
He climbed onto the back of the ram, the reins held loosely in one hand.
“Tch-tch.” A noise and a gentle touch of his heels was all that it took to prod the ram forward, wide hooves crunching through the icy top layer of snow. He closed his eyes as he rode, letting his senses of hearing and scent and his instinct spread out, and attempted to detect more Horde scouts slipping behind Alliance lines. They were great when it came to slipping from shadow to shadow, but the undead foot soldiers always forgot the other senses, perhaps because their own had been dulled by decay and rot.
The storm had broken this morning and for the first time in a week, one could see their hand in front of their face instead of having it be obscured by snow. It wouldn’t be long now.
In the days after the Battle of Mount Hyjal, when word had come of how the Horde had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Alliance against the Burning Legion, he had allowed himself to hope that peace had come at last. But as word was brought by the goblins of what was going on within the Horde, it became clear they had fought the Burning Legion only out of necessity, nothing more.
The Frostwolf Clan chief, Thrall, had declared all other clans to be dissolved and made himself Warchief of the Horde. The Bloodhoof tauren, Cairne, had similarly turned his back on his people’s way of life, declaring his people to be nomads no more. The dissenters, even the hated Dragonmaw Clan, should not have their ways of life casually thrown aside on the whim of these two brutes. And, of course, they had welcomed the dead of Lordaeron — or, rather, the things that inhabited their defiled corpses — into the Horde as well. This was an enemy without honor, without compassion and a foe that performed cruel experiments on Alliance soldiers unlucky enough to survive their wounds and fall into the enemy’s hands.
The ram climbed its way back onto the road, and Ringo opened his eyes and dug his heels in more firmly, spurring it to a rolling gallop. The massive ram was faster than he looked, and soon the icy wind was howling past Ringo’s face, making his frozen beard rattle loudly.
He rode through a series of fortifications the Stormpike Guard had erected in the hills, following the massacre by the Frostwolf Clan when the dwarves had first ventured here in the north, seeking Titan ruins and more details of their ominous prophecy.
A guard outside Stonehearth Bunker saluted, her braids shining in the sun.
“Well met, Flinthammer.”
Ringo saluted back. Although only a Knight of the Alliance, he had been awarded the highest of commendations by the Stormpike Guard. His purple-ribboned medal depicted an all-seeing eye atop a snow-capped mountain, the Eye of Command.
“Keep yer feet on the ground. I caught a Horde scout below Dun Baldar. The weather …”
He paused. There was a sound like thunder in the distance.
“Shhh!” He held up a gloved hand.
The sound, he realized, was a rhythmic, pounding, frenzied chanting, spears and swords being banged against shields, totems being banged against one another.
“The Horde is coming.”
Ringo followed the pointing finger’s path upwards. Along the ridgeline, he spotted blue-skinned heads peeking over, taking advantage of what cover was available. They were Winterax Trolls. After the Horde was defeated at the end of the Second War, the trolls had slipped away in the night, back into their forests, back into the mountains. They only respected strength, and once the Horde’s back was broken by the Alliance, the Horde lost the trolls’ respect. One tribe, the Darkspear, had joined the Horde led by Thrall, but the other tribes had not yet returned, although they watched with interest from the wilderness. A show of strength by the Horde in this high valley in the Alterac Mountains could have consequences that would be felt across Azeroth.
“‘There are more tribes of trolls than whiskers on a dwarf’s chin,'” Ringo quoted. He grinned, breath steaming in the cold mountain air. It was something his father had always said and his father before him. “Don’t worry about them. They won’t interfere unless we take the fight into their village.”
He turned back towards the south, squinting in the direction of Frostwolf Keep.
“Any moment now … here they come.”
It was as though the snow-covered hills had sprouted a crop of spears and horns and axes. The Horde came thundering over a crest and spilled down in a wave across the hills and over the explosion-pocked frozen lake the Stormpike had taken to calling the Field of Strife. They rode slavering wolves and furry kodo beasts and undead horses, their bones clattering loudly across the ice.
Snipers’ rifles extended outwards through the murder holes in Stonehearth Bunker and a moment later, began firing at the oncoming mass.
“Fall back, fall back!”
The Alliance forces retreated into the bunker, scrambling up into the squat tower, taking up positions along the staircases or on the ring of sniper’s perches at the top of the tower.
Ringo’s owl left his perch atop the tower and whirled in wide circles around the bunker, watching for his master to reappear at a window. Ringo climbed up and looked out to spot the owl, then down at the guards trying to hold the bunker. The white snow quickly soaked with blood, Alliance and Horde.
He unslung his long rifle, the sunlight sliding up and down the arcanite barrel like a liquid as he sighted on a shadow priest near the rear of the Horde attack and squeezed the trigger. A satisfying burst of troll blood and brains sprayed the priest’s comrades and Ringo ducked back inside to avoid return fire.
The Stormpike Guard fought bravely, but they could only hold against force of numbers and sheer ferocity for so long. With a cry of triumph, the Horde battered their way into the tower, and the defenders swarmed inwards, peering down into the tower and preparing to fight as the Horde spilled in.
The smell of them hit Ringo like a fist. There was the sour stench of orc blood, the spicy scent of troll sweat and the funk of wet tauren fur. They boiled in the door and up the stairway, a howling, yowling, screaming, screeching mass, all axes and claws and spears and clubs. Totems dotted the floor, bristling with sinister energies.
He was deafened for a moment by the response: There was a roar of guns firing, almost simultaneously, followed by the battle cries â€“ screams, really â€“ of the Alliance soldiers, swords and axes gleaming in the sunlight peeking through the murder holes.
The two sides came crashing together, and a streak of white flashed by him: His owl had joined the fight, talons gouging out eyes, beak biting and ripping off noses and ears and tearing through cheeks.
Ringo held his rifle in his hands, considering firing into the melee before slinging it across his back and drawing a pair of hand axes, and leapt down into the fight below the snipersâ€™ perches.
“FOR KHAZ MODAN!”
He pointed with a huge hacking blade and orcs detached themselves from the shadows, spears and axes biting into Alliance flesh. Ringoâ€™s great snowy owl sliced through the smoke overhead, sinking a talon into one blue wolf eye. The two animals snarled and clawed at one another, blood squirting the Frostwolf and Stormpike fighting around them, making the stone floor slippery with gore.
Ringo jammed a Stormpike battle standard down into the frozen soil between two large paving stones and unslung his rifle as the infantry brawled around him. He sighted through the clear crystal scope, taking aim between Drek’Tharâ€™s pale, nearly sightless eyes. The ancient shamanâ€™s body was still corded with muscle and, through the aid of the spirits, had regained just enough sight to supplement his bestial sense of smell. Dwarves who had thought to take it easy on Thrallâ€™s “old blind mentor” had found their shaved heads stuck on pikes atop the walls surrounding Frostwolf Keep and their beards woven into a thick cape for the general.
The melee was too heated, too confused for him to get a clear shot at Drek’Thar until the orc roared, swinging his blade around him in a whirling, slashing dance, accompanied by a foot-slapping rhythm. The orcs had claimed to have turned their backs on the demon-worshipping Burning Blade Clan, but Ringo remembered the Bladestorm Dance of the orcish Blademasters from his youth, when the orcs had briefly conquered much of Khaz Modan. And this was Thrallâ€™s own clan; demonic corruption had not been driven out of the Horde, just driven underground. Ringoâ€™s cramped finger curled around the trigger.
From outside, the remains of the Horde forces began pouring in, gibbering in Troll and Orcish and Tarahue. There were also the lurching corpses of Lordaeron shambling back into the room, a deadly intelligence glittering in rotting eye sockets.
Now the Stormpike were caught between Drek’Thar and the reinforcements. Although Drek’Tharâ€™s wolves looked almost dead â€“ one had a long flap of bloody flesh hanging off his flank, and a bloody foam dripping from his muzzle â€“ they were tearing into the Alliance forces unhindered. Ringo winced as he watched one wolf toss a gnome up in the air, her eyes wide and terrified, before dropping into his jaws, which snapped her loudly in two, spattering the foul wall hangings with gnomish flesh.
But the Horde was on their last legs, and the will to fight was fading in many of their eyes. At the rear, there were trolls and orcs turning and scrambling away, their open wounds steaming on the frigid air. The tauren fought on, too gripped with religious fervor to break and run, as did the undead, who had no fear of a death that could be overcome by a tailor and some strong fishing line. But the loss of the Darkspear trolls and the orcs was enough and the remaining Horde were cut down and the Stormpike turned their full attention back to Drek’Thar.
Although he was still almost a force of nature, decades after he had first come through the Dark Portal into Azeroth, the orc was weakening. He panted as he snapped the neck of a human soldier, using his forearm and bicep like a nutcracker. His wolves were dead now, and his intestines were slowly pouring out of his stomach, coiling like wet pink ropes on the floor.
And still, he spat, a bloody gobbet of saliva landing on the floor before him, clear where the Alliance had backed off a moment in horror and awe.
Ringo raised the rifleâ€™s scope to his eye and squeezed the trigger.
The thorium bullet entered between the orcâ€™s milky eyes, but he did not fall. Ringo cursed a little under his breath, going cold with horror. Could Drek’Thar be undead as well?
But after a moment, the orc dropped to his knees, blood pouring down his face from the hole between his eyes. He whispered one word, “ancestors,” and then fell face-forward onto the stone floor. A night elf with one of her ears bitten completely off leaned forward, poking the orc with her spear.
Frostwolf Keep began to shake suddenly, a howling wind ripping in from the open doorway of the stronghold. The wind whispered angrily, an alien language filling the ears of the Stormpike Guard. The spirits Horde shamans called upon were angry, perhaps at the Alliance, perhaps at their now-slain captors, Ringo didnâ€™t know. What he did know was that they seemed intent on tearing down Frostwolf Keep, with the Alliance troops still inside.
“Run!” He barked, but hadnâ€™t needed to: The Alliance was already in full retreat, dragging their dead and wounded with them. The flaming watchtowers were collapsing around them as they made their way down the slick mud and ice of the ramp into the lower portions of the keep. The spirits seemed to be streaming from the cave where a lone surviving troll shaman cackled and capered, dancing around a glowing cauldron. He ducked behind the cauldron, laughing, as the Alliance fired on him, but the Stormpike could not spend much time on him. Even the healthiest of them was ready to collapse on their feet, and Frostwolf Keep seemed determined to drag them down into the grave with it.
At last, they made their way free, gathering their forces inside the sparse woods north of the keep and looked back as the buildings tumbled down followed by the spiked wooden barricades. A great gout of flame leapt skywards, and for a moment, Ringo thought he saw a shape of a giant orc twisting in the flames, screaming wordlessly down at them. But then it was gone, and he was not sure he had really seen anything there at all.
They had won.
Alterac Valley belonged to the Alliance.