Beli Flinthammer didn’t have a plan.
She had spent weeks trying to come up with one, ever since she and her son had identified the demon hidden with the other dwarf and gnome refugees who had fled Stormwind in attempt to keep their families safe from further Burning Legion attacks.
But although she knew the demon was hiding in the shape of a gnome and calling itself Tuldire Longread, that didn’t tell her what kind of demon she was dealing with.
The wyrmtongue seemed to favor the same places that dwarves and gnomes did, but they weren’t known for cunning or deception.
The danger and uncertainty had led her to order her son to stay close to the black lion, Lucky, that her husband had brought back from the Barrens many years ago. Bael had also taken to carrying his sledgehammer with him everywhere, even sleeping with it at night.
“Stay close to me, Bael.”
Her son nodded, and rested one hand on Lucky’s broad back.
Plan or no plan, they were now out of time.
“Look at Argus!” Tuldire said, pointing with his spyglass at the planet looming over them in the sky. “Those flashes of light are the Army of the Light attacking Antorus, the Burning Throne.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Therum Deepforge asked, studiously avoiding looking at the bound and gagged prisoners nearby.
Tuldire shot him a look.
“They are going to lose.”
“Bael, stay with me. Bael?” Beli whipped her head around. “Where did you go?”
“Every member of the Burning Legion that’s ‘killed’ is called back to the Throne and reforms there, meaning an endless supply of troops within the fortress. The Army of the Light has no idea of Sargeras’ power, or what …”
“And you do?” Benik Boltshear snapped. It seemed like Tuldire and Beli had underestimated the refugees; they wouldn’t be going along with Tuldire’s insane plan so easily.
“The Army of the Light is going to lose,” Tuldire repeated, “and there will be no safe place left on Azeroth. The Burning Legion will sweep across this world and everyone on it will either join them or die.
“Or,” he said, pointing to the rows of prisoners, “we can be gone before they arrive.”
The portal had taken shape quickly. Beli suspected that’s why Tuldire had blended in with dwarves and gnomes — if you wanted to build something well, and quickly, there was no one better on Azeroth. Beli had been disappointed to see how easily everyone had gone along with building what clearly was an echo of the Dark Portal, but scared people could rationalize a lot.
But this final step seemed to have caused many of them, at long last, to object.
“We’re not going to sacrificed these pirates,” Benik said. “They are defenseless prisoners.”
“They will die either way,” Tuldire snapped. “Better that their deaths mean something and let us escape somewhere, far beyond the reach of the Legion.”
“No, you simpering fools!” Tuldire roared. “We are running out of time. We must power up the portal now.”
“Ye mean kill these helpless pirates.”
“Yes, I do. It’s us or them, for –”
“Bael!” Beli couldn’t help herself — her son had crept behind Tuldire with his hammer, ready to do … something.
Most times, the diners at the refugees’ Pilgrim’s Bounty feast just waved him away. That was part of the reason he had picked sweet potatoes, of course. Also, looking at the spice bread stuffing made him think of his father and feel sad.
“Candied sweet potato?” Bael said, bringing the platter down between Myrla Stoneround and Therum Deepforge, whose conversation was momentarily interrupted by the platter’s intrusion. They shook their heads and Bael slowly pulled it back, pausing first by Stoneround and then by Deepforge, each time looking across the field toward the apartment he shared with his mother.
“Is she almost finished?”
“What?” Bael jumped in surprise, almost dropping his platter.
“Um, yes, I think so. She’s almost done.”
Across the field, Bael spotted his mother shaking her head again before ducking back inside the apartment.
Another shake of his mother’s head.
Another shake. This time, he actually was able to see her slipping the hood back onto her head. Bael glanced around nervously; no one else seemed to have spotted her doing so before ducking back out of sight. Everyone was studiously keeping their eyes on their plates or their neighbors; no one seemed to want their gaze to land on what had been their stables until a few days ago, but which now housed a group of pirates who had attempted to raid the refugee camp.
“Yes, thank you, I will have some.”
Bael stopped and began spooning some onto Tuldire Longread’s plate.
“Bael,” Longread asked, watching the boy as he served the food, “do you have any idea where your father is now? Your mother never mentions him.”
Bael’s movements slowed and he stared at his plate for a moment.
“No, not really. Not any more.”
“That’s too bad. I hope you can be reunited soon.”
Bael looked up, seeing his mother striding purposefully across the field, her hood hidden safely back in the apartment, their great black lion, Lucky, following behind her, clearly hoping for some turkey. She had a rigid smile plastered on her face, and was nodding ferociously.
They had found the demon hidden in their midst.
The great black lion rolled over onto his back and, without opening his eyes, released a blast of flatulence that made Beli Flinthammer’s eyes water.
“Eonar protect us, even without that bear around, it still smells like farts in here all the time!”
Bael Flinthammer snickered, and rubbed the great cat’s belly.
“It reminds me of Dad.”
Beli put down a bag, thought about this, and nodded.
“Aye. Now, somehow, even though we were barely able to bring anything when we left Stormwind, it’s turned into way too much stuff now that we’ve finally got our own place, just you and me.”
The dwarf and gnome refugees had spent the last few weeks busy, carving out more homes in the base of the Arathi cliffs, all the while being careful to attract no notice from the ships they occasionally saw sailing past on the Forbidding Sea — purple-sailed ships flying the flag of the Banshee Queen, black-sailed pirates or other, more mysterious ships. The refugees were craftspeople, merchants and farmers. There weren’t any who had ever seen much combat besides Beli.
“Careful with that, Bael!”
She reached out, grabbing the pale wooden shaft.
“That’s my Alterac Valley staff; it’s not a toy.”
“Sorry, Mommy — Mom,” Bael said, handing the staff back to her.
It was dark on the farm. The dwarf and gnome refugees were mostly down for the night, nestled in their snug homes under the ground. A few watchmen rode their rams on patrol, but it was mostly an excuse for them to smoke their pipes and think. The only sound was of the waves of the Forbidding Sea lapping the lonely shore. The refugees’ settlement was an almost unnoticed strip of land at the base of the cliffs east of the Arathi Highlands. There was no route up the cliffs, and no sign that the residents of the highlands had any idea anyone was hiding down here. The hope was the Burning Legion would be equally likely to overlook them here.
Bael Flinthammer waited until his family was asleep before waking up. Once Grandfather Rockbottom and Uncle Omar began snoring, no one would — no one could — hear the creak of his bed or his feet hitting the floor.
He slipped outside, watching for the glow of the watchmen’s pipes to see where they had stopped to have a think.
Bael ducked behind some of the crates of junk outside the entrance to the below-ground shelter. The crates were full of things that had seemed like treasures during the hasty evacuation from Stormwind. But once they had settled in this refuge, the refugees had discovered that, say, three dozen finely beaded ballgowns weren’t much use in their new life, hiding from the Legion. So until someone could figure out what to do with them — Bael was very worried someone would decide they should be turned into tunics and trousers for growing dwarf boys — they were piled up outside, where they provided a good place for him to sit and get some privacy.
Reaching into his tunic, he pulled out a letter, sealed with the Flinthammer crest, a pair of beer mugs canted toward one another, as though his parents were toasting something happy, rather than a world apart and not speaking to one another. Under the ominous green light of the world hanging in the sky, Bael opened it, and read.