Seryth didn’t see a soul on the road until he was well into the Eastern Plaguelands. Scars of war and old ruins became more and more frequent the further north he went, and the air itself seemed heavy and oppressive.
It was in this gloom he eventually came across a caravan. The worgen who ran it allowed him to hitch a ride, his ram tied to the back of the wagon train.
The worgen seemed friendly enough, and it wasn’t long until they were exchanging stories with each other. He told her about his adventures and his wish to see Quel’Thalas, and she told him stories of the fallen Lordaeron and of her paladin friends.
“You said your foster father was a quel’dorei?” she asked after a story of one his fights with the gnolls.
“I think so,” said Seryth. “He never gave loyalty to the Horde, and he lived among humans for as long as I’ve been alive.”
“There’s quel’dorei here,” said the worgen. “Though I think you’ll find they’re not very friendly to visitors. If you take my advice, you should go to the Light’s Hope Chapel and meet with my friend Tarenar Sunstrike. The sin’dorei are still very respectful towards anyone who follows the Light, and he could put in a good word for you.”
“Erm,” Seryth said, hoping it sounded more like agreement than the sudden anxiety he felt. Would a paladin really be so accepting of him, he who could trap a voidwalker in his body and travelled with an imp disguised as a cat? “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’d like to see the quel’dorei, first. They’re more like I am.”
The worgen gave him a long, slow look, and Seryth could swear her gaze stayed longer on his chest and the scar on it than it did on any other part of him. “In more ways than you’d think,” she finally said, and then she changed the subject.
The caravan eventually came to a stop at the Crown Guard Tower. The worgen said she’d be making some sales and picking up some travelers before heading back in the other direction.
“Think about what I’ve said,” she told him. “You’ve taken the first steps onto a very long and dark road. My friends could help you choose a much lighter one to travel.”
It seemed like a lot of flowery words to remind him to talk to some paladin in a church, but Seryth thanked her. The aura of Light about the tower was making him itchy and was aggravating his demons, disguised as they were as his shadow and his cat. He didn’t want either of them to lose patience and reveal themselves.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “Fiona, right? Yes. I’ll let Sunstrike know you’re doing well, if I see him.”
“That’s all I can ask,” she said, and he turned away.
There was a commotion at the base of the hill at right about that moment. Trolls were attacking! They weren’t just any trolls but were covered in wraps like mummies and stank of undeath.
Seryth pitched in to the guards’ defense, but the trolls just kept coming. “We’ll have to get at the root of this to stop it,” said Seryth to himself. He pulled one of the guards aside. “You! Do these trolls have leaders? A camp?”
The guard shouted something about a Zaeldarr in the crypts across the road and down aways. Seryth mounted his ram and charged it through the troll lines. It didn’t need any encouragement, lowering its head and galloping down the road.
The crypt was swarming with undead trolls, but they didn’t put up much of a resistance as Seryth charged in. He killed the biggest troll he could find — or, well, hit it until stopped moving at least — hoping that one was the Zaeldarr the guard spoke about.
The crypts weren’t just full of trolls, but also vermin. A giant scarab beetle crawled out of a troll corpse he was examining, and with a squeak, Seryth burnt it to a cinder with a large green chaos bolt. He left pretty quickly after that.
When Seryth returned to the Crown Guard Tower, the trolls had retreated. Maybe it was due to his actions, and maybe it wasn’t. After a round of celebration with the guards, Seryth left.
Trolls weren’t among the only undead he encountered on the road. A day out from Crown Guard, his ram shied and stopped on account of several ghostly soldiers standing on the road ahead of them. Strangely, the ghosts paid Seryth no mind and almost appeared to be waiting for something. Perhaps orders from a ghostly officer or news of battle to attend? Seryth tried flinging a fire bolt at one of them, but it went right through the ghost as if it wasn’t even there. Uneasy, vaguely recalling stories about some “Redpath” who massacred a village in this area, Seryth spurred his ram through the blockade and kept going.
A sense of urgency drove Seryth onward. The teeming undead and the fact the land was patrolled regularly by paladins didn’t help his nerves. Everything smelled bad — scents that he as a farmer knew well and feared: rot, disease, and sickly-sweet mold.
Even the wildlife was twisted. Giant bats attacked Seryth thrice, each as large as a condor. In Westfall, bats had been regarded with some suspicion by the human farmers, but Seryth’s father had taught him that they were actually a good thing, eating the insects that might otherwise eat the farmers’ crops if left unchecked.
Well, they weren’t doing a very good job of it here, despite their outlandish size, Seryth reflected. Once, he had to saw his ram’s reins hard to stop as a huge maggot the size of a horse and wagon made its lumbering way across the road. Seryth didn’t want to see the fly spawned out of such a creature. The giant maggot didn’t seem to notice them, however, and a few minutes later, Seryth could coax the shivering and sweating ram forward again.
Another guard tower loomed out of the oppressive air. Seryth avoided it, and the ruins it watched over, on account of not wanting to tangle with any paladins who might be suspicious about him and what he was doing here.
He crossed a river, or what was left of one: the banks showed erosion several inches higher than the water now trickling through its bed. The forest of sick trees thickened and the land grew more hilly, and Seryth began riding to the tops of each hill in hopes he’d get a good view. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for; his foster father had never described to him what a quel’dorei hunting lodge actually looked like, but Seryth figured he’d know it when he saw it.
He passed two more guard towers before he saw it: the sloping roofs of a large building decidedly not of human make.
At first he thought the gangling pale elves outside the lodge were undead. They attacked him with the same amount of mindlessness, but only after killing a few did Seryth realize they were alive.
But twisted. How could that be? Quel’dorei were pale, yes, but his foster father had been one, and he looked nothing as sick as these elves. Seryth fought his way up the hill and into the lodge itself, hoping to find answers. He ignored the nagging feeling of disappointment; this wasn’t Quel’Thalas after all, only some low outpost. Yet he felt an odd sense of responsibility to understand what had happened here, to his kinsfolk.
The skies cleared as he reached the top of the hill, and Seryth was struck with the sense that this was a place that had been protected from the Blight, was perhaps even holy, before whatever befell the elves here to twist them so. No elves of any sort, sickly or otherwise, were at the top, reinforcing that perception.
Seryth explored. There were crates of grain in the storerooms, and Seryth vaguely remembered his history, of how undead plagues were released through grain poisoned by cultists. That didn’t seem to have been a problem here, both because the crates were untouched and because Seryth was sure even an undead plague wouldn’t have survived those long years in a box. Or could it? He gave them a wide berth, just in case.
There were also armaments and ammunition, hunting trophies and sculptures of the sort priests liked to meditate around — and books. So many books. Seryth took them down from the shelves eagerly, but most turned out to be boring titles such as guides to local herbs or collections of old treatises with the human kingdoms.
He was surprised at the cleanliness of the place, wondering if the elves had maintained just enough sanity to look after themselves, or if it was part of the magic that had protected the place for so long. He considered capturing one of the broken elves and interrogating it, but his conscience rankled at the thought. Torture was something the old Seryth would have done, and besides, these were his people, weren’t they?
Another dead end, perhaps. Seryth was used to that. He turned to leave.
As Seryth turned to leave, he noticed a calico cat sitting in the middle of the doorway. The imp had been very quiet since they had left the Loch, maybe in deference to Seryth’s struggles with what he had done, though that seemed too charitable for the little pest. Perhaps it was merely self-preservation on its part instead.
“Are you going to start taunting me again?” he asked it. “You know I’m not in the mood.”
The cat only blinked and then sauntered into a side room with tail held high. It was odd behavior for the imp, and Seryth had a moment of doubting whether maybe it was just a cat, before he heard it call him, “In here, stupid!”
Seryth followed. The room must’ve been a private bedroom, for there was a bed, a shelf with all kinds of personal knick-knacks arranged on it, and a rack like the sort one normally stored weapons on. The cat was sitting next to this rack, tail curled about its paws.
“What is it?” Seryth snapped.
“Recognize anything?” said the cat.
“There’s nothing there TO recognize.”
Seryth looked. He touched the rack. He touched the bed, where the bedspread was still nice and fragrant, even though it had probably lay untouched like this for several years. He at last turned to the bookshelf, looking it over. He spied a child’s toy, a raggedy stuffed bear, on the bottom shelf.
The cat began to purr as he picked it up. It had a scent, like some kind of salve, and Seryth sniffed it. Faint memories prickled in his mind.
He re-examined the items on the shelf. Fletching materials, old whetstones. A writing kit. Coiled, oiled bowstrings. Nothing out of the ordinary for any elf, or so Seryth assumed. Any Farstrider.
On a whim, he looked under the bed. It turned out to be a trundle bed, and a second mattress was under there, stored in a drawer that pulled out into another full-size bed when properly extended. The mattress was stained near the head, as if someone wounded had lain there while recovering.
“Someone small, though,” Seryth said to himself, looking down at the stuffed bear. “Someone no more than a child.”
The cat blinked, long and slow, in acknowledgement.