Chapter Eight: Barkskin and Icethorn

Before leaving Knicks & Knacks, the team needed to take care of Kebechet. They wrapped her in ropes from head to toe. It was rather lucky the missing group had been holed up in Decebul’s shop. She had plenty of rope in her back storeroom for the express purpose of exploring old caverns and ruins for artifacts. Though Ald felt a sneaking suspicion she was tallying up how much rope they were using so she could bill him later.

After Keb was tightly bound (with an extra smaller rope binding her snapping jaws), Ald dug through her bags and found a few flares. Using the same tactics as before to bypass Kobi’s ring of peace, Ald stealthed into the street outside the shop and set off the flare.

As soon as the bright light flashed in the street, the Scourge zombies outside went rabid. Bloodcurdling screams and eerie grunts sounded loudly near the waterway. The increased noise from the zombies acted like a pheromone, which only attracted more zombies. Soon, the crowd of the undead outside the shop grew from five or six to more than twenty. And more zombies were coming outside of the Cathedral District straight towards the gathering crowd.

“Time to go,” Ald said to everyone gathered inside Knicks & Knacks. “Come on, Emma.” he muttered under his breath. As the seconds (which felt like hours) ticked by, Ald grew increasingly worried that the team couldn’t see the flare from their location. After all, they were outside the city walls taking great pains not to be seen by the circling frost wyrms.

At the edge of a nervous breakdown, Ald finally felt it. The pull. He smiled, relaxed, and closed his eyes as his body teleported through the vast shadows back to the abandoned house outside the castle walls. Emma was smiling just as wide as before as the rest of the group was summoned in. The last one brought from the small shop was Kebechet, bound in rope and struggling against her bindings.

As she appeared, Ald felt many eyes turn towards him, but he looked away and ignored them. He honestly didn’t want to go into any detail about her condition at the moment for two reasons. First, they quickly needed to devise a new plan to gain access to the Argent Tournament grounds. And second, he was sure that even the slightest crack in his voice would give away his true feelings. 

“Brainstorm time,” he announced to everyone. “We need a new plan to get back to the Argent grounds. We can’t fly in – frost wyrms, of course -, and there’s no warlock there to summon us this time. I’m at a loss honestly.”

The group looked around at one another, blank expressions on each face. It was a tough nut to crack. They only had hours to go until Keb became one of the undead forever. And they still needed to arrive in time for Tess to brew the necessary potion, however long that would take. There were too many unknowns.

“I may have an idea, actually,” Anth said, his voice breaking the silence. “Arch, can we have a brief chat?”

As soon as the two paladins had walked away from the group, Anda turned towards Ald. “Hey, Aldi. Mind if we have a chat ourselves?” Ald looked around at the rest of the group, and they all silently nodded. Anda led the way to the interior of the abandoned house. While Ald had been in Stormwind with the missing group, Anda must have organized the house a bit. A few candles were lit on the fireplace mantel, and the table had been dusted. She found a wooden chair to sit down in and gestured for Ald to sit in the other. He did.

“We haven’t really had a chance to talk recently,” she started. “Not with everything that has been happening. And I know this may not be the best time, given what’s happened to Keb out there. But I want to know something.”

“What’s that?”

“What in the royal blue blazes is wrong with you?”

The abruptness caused Ald’s eyes to fly wide, and his eyebrows nearly touched the ceiling. “Huh?”

“What. Is. Wrong. With . You?” she said, carefully enunciating each word as if speaking to a child. “Look, I get it. We all loved Giles as cantankerous as he could be. I know you knew the wizened draenei for many years. But you’ve been different for much longer than his passing. You were going to quit the team that night. I know it. Oh, don’t look at me like that – I’m not an idiot. I can read the signs.”

Ald looked down at his paws clasped together in his lap.”So what if I was, Anda?”

“So what if – so what if you were?” she stammered, her voice rising slightly. “Then, I’d consider you a damned fool, Pandaren.”

Ald looked back at her, fury behind his eyes. The look didn’t scare the druid, though. Instead, she chuckled in spite of his face, which only succeeded in making him angrier.

“There it is,” she said, laughing even more deeply. “That’s the fire. That’s the flame we need if we’re going to survive this.”

Ald’s voice came out in a growl. “We’re going to need a freaking wildfire to survive this.”

“Oh, tish-tosh,” she replied, waving her hand as if she were swatting his words aside. “We’ve seen worse odds. Did we, or did we not take on an old god just a few months ago?”

“Do you not see the difference here?” Ald asked, the irritation built into his voice. “That was one old god. And we basically cheated using the deus ex machina of our Hearts of Azeroth. We’re going up against death itself now, Anda. Death. How can anyone conquer death?”

Anda smiled. “And what would you have us do? Roll over and wait for death to find us? Or would you rather face it and hold it off until we know we’ve done what we can?”

This was beginning to sound eerily like another conversation Ald had back at the garrison with Kebechet. But that was before Giles. And before Keb had turned into…whatever she had turned into. Anger flared in Ald’s face. “I will not have anyone else die! Not while they’re around me!”

Finally, Anda seemed taken aback. A few moments of silence passed, and Ald was sure others would come and see what he was screaming about. Instead, the two sat in their chairs facing one another until Anda broke the silence.

“Self-centered much?” she said.

Now it was Ald’s turn to be taken aback. “Wait, what?” he asked, confusion suffusing his words.

“Do you think this is your story, Aldi? Do you really believe that we don’t have lives outside of you? Outside of this team? Are you really so self-involved that you think we haven’t weighed our options – that we can’t make a decision by ourselves?”

The white and black fur on Ald’s face hid his skin blushing underneath. “That’s not what I meant,” he replied weakly.

“But it’s what you said. It’s what you feel. You think we follow you blindly? We’re adults, you furry nincompoop. We make our own decisions. We’ve left our own families to be here. You’re not letting us die. You’re leading us into the fight, to fight what we believe in.” Anda’s voice was deadly quiet and still. She blinked her eyes and turned away from the rogue. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen your self-worth drop as we’ve lost friends. I get it. Aldi, I’ve lost people, too. But those people didn’t die in vain. They didn’t die with their knees on the ground and their throats bent back. They died heroes. They died fighting for something. For what we’re fighting for now.”

Ald looked back down at his hands. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” he said. He had said it many times in his head, but rarely mentioned it aloud. He felt as if verbalizing these thoughts made them more real, and that scared him more than anything.

“Then, it’s time you got your head out of your backend and stopped leading with this,” Anda said, lightly touching the fur on Ald’s head. She moved her finger down to his chest where his heart beat inside his rib cage. “And started leading with this again. Like you did before when we all signed up to this team under your leadership. This is about doing what’s right, Aldi. Not about what makes sense all the time.”

Ald scowled. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good. We also need to talk about bank management and herb farming soon as well. I figured I’d throw that in while you were finally listening,” she said, a wry smile spread across her lips.

Aldineri rolled his eyes. He didn’t feel much better, but it did help a bit to be reminded that everyone made a choice to be here. Still, he’d much rather not lose any more friends.

Anda blew out the candles and led Ald out of the house back towards the group. Anth was chatting animatedly with everyone while Arch showed them his shield. It had a glittering diamond set in its center. In an echo of Ald himself, Anth said, “I have a plan.”

* * *

Unfortunately, the group had little time to test this plan of Anth’s. The only way to return to Icecrown and the Argent Tournament grounds was to find a portal or, at the very least, a mage who could make one. The mage tower in Stormwind was overrun at the moment, so that wouldn’t work. The closest one they could think of would be the mages who lived around Karazhan Tower.

It was about an hour flight from their location outside Stormwind to Deadwind Pass, but once they approached the tower itself, they could easily make out the group of mages and paladins fighting off small pockets of the undead. It seemed the Scourge truly were everywhere, though not nearly as concentrated here as they were in Stormwind and Icecrown.

They landed their mounts and helped to stave off the remnants of the Scourge invasion. Both Anth and Arch used their Turn Evil spells while the rest of the group stabbed, clubbed, and shot the zombies. Turn Evil was a powerful and useful spell against the Scourge; however, it could only be used against one creature at a time.

While Liady explained the situation to a nearby mage (including why the group was toting around a bound zombie), Ald pulled Anth and Arch to the side. “Are you guys ready for this? Should we practice it once?”

Anth chuckled. “Oh, please. Arch, show him the shield again.” Arch began to reach around his back to grab the shield, but Ald placed his paw on Arch’s arm, stopping the motion.

“I don’t need to see his off-spec shield again, Anth. I was there when we picked it off the boss.”

Anth placed a hand to the side of his face and spoke to Ald in a low whisper. “Would you say seeing a jewel on such a shield to be a rare thing?”

Ald’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “What do you mean? Yeah, I guess it’s rare.”

“Yeah,” Anth replied. “It’s a real gem of a shield.”

Ald groaned.

Fuzzy joined in. “It’s his diamond in the rough.”

“Oh, no,” Ald muttered. 

“If we want two of them, Arch, we should make a carbon copy,” Anth continued.

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Ald said.

“That’s a rock-solid pun, Anth,” Fuzzy said, a grin on his face.

“What happened?” Ald asked, the palm of his paw covering his face. “Is this really the time for jokes, you two?”

“There’s always time for a laugh, Ald,” Archmichaels said, a smile touching his eyes.

The sound of a portal being formed stopped the conversation (to Ald’s great appreciation), and the group lined up. “So, the closest he can get us is Crystalsong Forest. He said he’s never been to the Argent Tournament grounds,” Liady said, gesturing towards the mage holding the portal open.

Ald nodded. “Anda, Cald, and Decebul – you three gather Icethorn and Lichbloom. Fuzzy, Liady, Kobi, and Cerust – make sure Keb makes it through, and stay by her side! Anth and Arch – get your plan ready! Emma, summon whatever demon you need to to keep us safe. Let’s move out!”

One by one, the group went through the portal, emerging into a much colder atmosphere. Crystalsong Forest was on the southern border of Icecrown, and the cold winds swept from its mountains down to where the party stood. 

The group gave one last look at one another before going their separate ways. Ald, Anth, Arch, and Emma mounted up and flew straight towards the Tournament grounds. As the temperatures fell even deeper, the four of them pushed on silently. Ald could feel the chilling winds whipping at him again, and he longed to stand near the bonfire as he had done before.

The flight was long. The cold surely made it feel longer than it was, but as they flew past mountains and crowds of the undead, Ald’s nerves were slowly cracking. He had no idea how much time they had left before Keb succumbed to the plague and turned into one of those monsters below. Hell, those monsters below had been people at one time. At least most of them.

As they neared the grounds, the wall of frost wyrms blocked their view of the tents. Oddly enough, there seemed to be fewer wyrms than there were before. Ald chalked that up to the party that had stayed behind.

Roughly fifty yards out, the four heroes landed. Emma immediately summoned a broad, blue demon that swept the area and intimidated any Scourge that dared get close. 

The wyrm wall shifted at the sight of the four who had brazenly landed on their turf. Anth and Arch dismounted, and Arch prepared his shield. He crouched to the ground, head bowed, and raised the gemmed shield above his body, it’s curved surface parallel to the icy ground.

Many of the wyrms that formed the wall, sensing something was about to happen, let out a series of roars and icy breath. Ald almost felt as if it got colder, if that was possible.

“Come at me, you overgrown popsicle lizards,” Anth yelled. It was the best taunt Ald had ever heard him throw.

The words were barely out of his mouth when the entire wall of wyrms moved en masse towards the four heroes on the ground. Ald felt helpless as he looked on at the battlefield before him. He had faith in Anth and Arch, but staring down the threat of one frost wyrm was nerve-wracking, much less an entire battalion of them.

The wyrms came fast, magic aiding their flight as bony wings flapped in unison. They were twenty yards away before Ald began to panic. He looked over at Anth and saw that the paladin had never lost that smile.

At the sight of their blue eyes, Anth raised his sword high overhead. “By the Light’s righteousness, I say unto you – TURN!” 

As he uttered the final word, he leveled his sword so that it’s tip pointed straight into the diamond centered on Arch’s shield. It was if time had slowed to a crawl. Ald watched in pure fascination as a beam of holy light left the blade of Anth’s sword. The beam entered the diamond, which split and refracted the spell into countless rays of magical light.

The prismatic spectrum of magic created by the “Turn Evil” spell slammed into the oncoming wall of frost wyrms. Chaos erupted amongst their ranks. Blinded and afraid, they scattered. The only few who were stupid enough to hang around were handily destroyed by Emma’s blue demon.

Anth danced on the spot as the wyrms fled, and Arch fell back into the snow, a deep smile on his face. Cheers rang out from the tournament grounds, and within moments, the four heroes were greeted by those who had stayed.

The celebration didn’t last long, however, as Fuzzy, Liady, and Cerust landed with the worgen zombie formerly known as Keb. A stunned silence fell on the members of the Humpday Heroes as they stared into the hateful blue eyes of their undead teammate.

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