Aldineri stood in awe at the splendor of Stormwind City. He had been here many times over his years as an adventurer, but he never grew tired of its wonders. Even the entrance to Stormwind over a small waterway, lined with oversized statues of heroes of the Alliance evoked strong emotions within him.
From somewhere to his left, Cald cleared his throat. “We should probably get moving, Ald. We’ve got to freshen up before reporting to King Anduin.”
Ald felt a wry smile creep across his lips. If he knew Cald (which he most certainly did after spending so many years as an adventurer with him), the man had a different reason to freshen up. But Ald kept his mouth closed, gave a brisk nod in Cald’s direction, and mounted up again on his reptilian steed. The giant turtle’s shell was slick, and it took a few moments for Ald to regain his balance across the mount, but after a few tries, he was able to manage it. Cald hadn’t noticed. The shaman was already moving across the bridge on his mount, a raging storm elemental wearing its own bronze helm and gauntlets.
After the events at his garrison, Ald and his team of adventurers had briefly parted ways. Many had returned to their families to let them know of their new mission. Others went to their superiors. The priests and monks returned to their orders. Aldineri and Caldmaster, on the other hand, set out to make preparations. First, they would meet with King Anduin. Next, they would gather what supplies they could before leaving the city. Then…well, who knew? Surely, King Anduin knew enough about the situation with the Lich King to point the group in the right direction.
Of course, before any of that could happen, they would indeed need to freshen up. It had taken a few days for the two to make their way to the city, and Ald’s oily fur was starting to stick to his body in mattes. And though Ald would never say anything, Cald was starting to smell a little ripe himself.
The turtle followed the storm elemental past the immense statue of High Exarch Turalyon through the gates of Stormwind City, and Ald could hear the city’s buzz grow steadily as they approached. The main street was thriving with people. Shoppers and shopkeepers were bartering outside stalls and small buildings. Children were running here and there as they played some sort of game involving inflatable swords. City guards were patrolling the streets in a rigid march.
Of course, there were lots of more nefarious things happening as well. Ald watched as one of the children broke off from the rest and pickpocketed one of the marching guards before returning back to play. One night elf female had resorted to dancing on top of a mailbox for donations of silver or gold. As Ald passed by the alleyways between shops, he could feel the presence of eyes on him, looters waiting for some innocent to wander aimlessly through their territory.
The two adventurers found themselves at the Gilded Rose in the Trade District. Most adventurers of the Alliance knew the Gilded Rose. It was a popular resting place due to its convenient location near the bank and the auction house in Stormwind. The inn rented rooms and baths to patrons who had the gold and served as neutral ground for adventuring war parties.
While Cald negotiated with Allison, innkeeper of the Gilded Rose, Ald tied up his giant turtle mount outside. Cald’s elemental had vanished into thin air, helm and all.
By the time Ald entered the inn, Cald had already booked two rooms. Allison gave a small curtsy to Ald as he passed, and he stopped to bow deeply to her before straightening up and heading up to his room.
Ald threw his only piece of baggage to the ground and fell on the bed with a loud whumph. He could sleep for three days if uninterrupted.
But alas, a knock at the door.
He turned and saw Cald standing there naked except for a fluffy gray towel wrapped around his waist. “Get off the bed, Ald. You’ll want the clean sheets tonight, so quit dirtying them now. And I booked the rooms, so I get the baths first. I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Without another word, Cald vanished down to the baths.
Ald rolled his eyes and smiled. Cald had been by his side for so long, they both tended to say it like it was. And Cald was right anyways. The number of times Ald had complained about sleeping on dirty sheets or lumpy mattresses was probably starting to grate on the shaman’s nerves.
With a groan, the pandaren rolled his sore body out of the bed and fell upon the floor in a heap. He closed his eyes to rest but saw the same images in the darkness. The same images he saw every time he had tried to sleep for the past few days. Broken rubble. The corpse of his friend. Giles’s dead eyes staring into his own. Ald’s eyelids snapped back open and instead of sleeping, he stared at the ceiling of his room at the inn until he heard the heavy footfalls of Cald upon the stairs.
“You’re next! And be quick. I want to make a stop before seeing the King.”
Ald grabbed a fresh towel from the cupboard in his room and headed down to the bath. The water was warm, and the perfumed scents made his head swim, but it was relaxing. He was there for nearly half an hour before stepping out of the tub and shaking his fur vigorously to get the excess water off his body. He wrapped his towel around his waist, went back up to his room, and got dressed in his formal leather rogue gear. Ald didn’t expect to get into a fight between the Gilded Rose and Stormwind Keep, but it never hurt to look the part of an Alliance champion when visiting King Anduin.
Cald was waiting by the door to the inn when Ald finally padded downstairs. Before leaving, Ald purchased a carrot from Allison to feed to his turtle. They wouldn’t be mounting up to walk around Stormwind City, and he needed to make sure the beast didn’t get hungry while they were out.
Their first stop was exactly where Ald thought they might be heading.
The small shop was located right outside the cathedral district next to the waterways that wound their way through the city. The wooden sign above the shop entrance read “Knicks & Knacks” and had a carved image of a wrapped gift, complete with bow on top.
Outside the shop, Cald stopped walking, straightened his shaman robes, and took a deep breath before finally stepping across the threshold. With the ghost of a smile on his face, Ald followed.
The interior of Knicks & Knacks was filled with shelves and tables of various items. Ald’s eyes swept over trinkets, baubles, mysterious potions, ancient weapons, dusty tomes, broken shields, clay idols, jade statuettes, gemmed bracelets, musical instruments, crates of ores and ingots, sealed scrolls, and at least one loot-a-rang, which came in handy for picking up items while running from hostile locals. Amidst the assorted goods was a female Draenei paladin. She was busily unpacking her knapsack onto the only clear shelf in the room.
Cald stood near the entrance of the shop. The shaman had become mysteriously mute upon seeing the woman in the center of the room.
“Decebul. How are you, dear?” Ald said, breaking the trance over Cald. The shaman shook his head as he returned from the clouds back down to Azeroth.
The draenei turned to face the newcomers, and a warm smile filled her face. Decebul was an adventurer of the archeological sort, which meant that she traveled to countries and zones all over the globe. She wore an outfit composed of many pieces of light plate, which allowed her to move freely while maintaining protection, but at her side rested an oversized mace. She wore no helm, allowing her dark hair to freely fall over her face and horns.
“Well, if it isn’t Aldineri and Caldmaster,” she said in dulcet tones. “I have just the thing for you, Ald.” Decebul turned back to her knapsack and tossed a few items out of it while she searched the little bag. Cald had to dodge a sweetroll, and Ald heard a small metallic clang as something that looked like a marble slammed into one of the ancient swords on the wall. “Here we are,” she said as she pulled out a small vial of green liquid. She held it up to the light and walked over to place it into Ald’s outstretched paw.
Ald turned the small glass container between his fingers. It had no tag or writing on it. “Um. Okay. What is it?”
He looked up into Decebul’s smiling face. “I have no clue,” she answered. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve narrowed it down to either a major healing potion or an incredibly deadly poison.”
Ald felt his eyes widen. “I’d imagine that makes it hard to test?”
“Like you couldn’t believe. But I still thought you might be interested. For a mere five gold even.” As she mentioned the price, Decebul pulled a small journal from her belt and opened it to a page with scribbles and numbers all over it.
Ald sighed. “Sure, sure. Cald, pay the woman.”
Cald let out a breath that Ald was sure the shaman had been holding since he had walked into the building. He reached into a small bag at his side, pulled out five gold coins, and dropped them into Decebul’s hand. She gave him a sweet smile. “You know what?” she said, looking into Cald’s eyes. “How about a small discount since you two are such good customers?” She passed back two of the gold coins to Cald, lightly grazing the shaman’s fingers.
The moment lingered a bit longer before Ald cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, I believe Cald wanted to purchase a few items. We plan on gaining an audience with King Anduin, and time is moving against us.”
Decebul nodded, turned, and disappeared through a door in the back of the shop. While out of earshot, Ald sidled up to Cald. “Well? What was that about?”
Cald blushed the color of his fire elemental.
“Why don’t you just ask her out already? It would definitely make these visits less awkward for me. I’m like the third wheel on a goblin trike that’s going nowhere. Make a move already.”
Cald’s red face washed over with frustration. “And when exactly do I have time to court her, huh? Between fighting warlords in strange lands? Is it your impression that we have a lot of downtime, Ald?”
Aldineri pursed his lips. The shaman had a point. There wasn’t a lot of resting time between their campaigns. And it would never be easy to be away from a love and a family for so long. But that didn’t mean happiness was unobtainable.
“Just go for it,” Ald mumbled under his breath as Decebul returned to the room with two small bags. She handed one bag to each of them, and Cald in return gave her more gold coins. Ald peeked inside his to find a small assortment of potions, flasks, and cooking ingredients – a basic adventurer’s supply satchel.
Decebul hovered a few moments as if waiting for Cald to say something – but whatever that something was never came. She lightly pursed her lips and then returned to her knapsack. “Be safe, you two. See you next time.”
Aldineri and Caldmaster exited the shop on the way to Stormwind Keep.
“Look, Cald -” Aldineri began, but the shaman raised his hand as the two kept pace down the cobblestone walkways. Ald nodded, and the two continued in silence for the rest of the journey up the stairs to the open doorway of the Keep.
On most days, Aldineri would need to check in with the Keep guards before entering to see the King. But there were no guards on duty today. In fact, all of the normal sounds of marching and music and chatter were missing. Ald looked over at Cald and noticed the worried expression written on his face.
They both quickened their pace towards the throne.
King Anduin was not sitting upon the royal chair. Instead, High Exarch Turalyon sat on the throne with a grimace etched across his face. This was not good news.
“We wish to have an audience with the King, High Exarch,” Ald said as they approached the center of the throne room. “It is a matter of urgent business.”
Turalyon leveled his eyes at Aldineri and Caldmaster as they stood before him. The pain on Turalyon’s face was real, and Ald felt he knew what the High Exarch was going to say before the words left his mouth.
“Champions, the King has been taken.”