“Well, whatever,” said Seryth. “I guess we’re stuck here until that elf returns from patrol.”
“Or you could look for him.”
“And get lost. And then he’ll pass by this place and keep going, and we’ll have to wait again.”
“Then do something for the guards here until he returns,” said the cat boredly, waving a paw. “Either way, scratch a little higher. That’s right in the sweet spot–“
Seryth dumped the imp-cat off his lap and got up.
As luck would have it, the elf the guards mentioned, Kirkian Dawnshield, was coming up the hill. Seryth rode to meet him.
Dawnshield explained briefly that the elves at the lodge –Quel’Lithien, he called it — had been cursed, thanks to a magical artifact they had obtained and experimented with. The elf paladin was weary however, barely looking at anything in particular besides his feet and the mess tent up the hill. So Seryth let him go, figuring he wouldn’t get anything more useful out of the elf until Dawnshield had recovered from his patrol. In the meantime, Seryth decided he would return to the lodge to look for clues about the artifact.
The twisted elves of Quel’Lithien were more vicious this time, descending on Seryth en masse. It was almost as if they were being drawn to him…
This time, he wasn’t able to reach the lodge itself, his enemies swarmed so thickly. Seryth gave them “something to think about”, as the imp put it, then turned and fled.
By the time Seryth returned to the Northpass Tower, Dawnshield had recovered some from his patrol. He told Seryth he wasn’t sure what the artifact had been, or even if the elves had held onto it after falling to its power. He offered that he had heard of another lodge, in the Hinterlands, that had suffered a similar fate.
Was there more than one artifact? Or perhaps it had been the same one, transported south after working its devilry on the elves of Quel’Lithien?
Thanking Dawnshield, Seryth rode out from Northpass Tower. It was a long trip to the Hinterlands, but he couldn’t shake the feeling there was something about that lodge, and this artifact, that had something to do with him personally.
Seryth cut across country to save time. He passed more outposts of the Argent Crusade, and more old battlefields from the Third War, but none of it concerned him, and he kept pressing south.
Fearsome creatures known as Plaguehounds stalked him, though they were little match for Seryth’s magic whenever they caught up to him. Their presence made Seryth wonder, though. The Plaguehounds were wolves and dogs twisted by the blight unleashed by the Lich King so long ago. Was the artifact that had twisted the elves of Quel’Lithien also from the Third War? Dawnshield had made it sound like it was more recent. What other evils were in the area that were capable of such a thing, if not the Scourge?
It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Seryth’s foster father had told him about the massacre of Silvermoon and how the Lich King had killed and driven out many of the quel’dorei, such as those who had settled at Quel’Lithien. What could be so powerful and dangerous, that the Lich King couldn’t vanquish those at Quel’Lithien, but an artifact could?
The strange soldier ghosts were still on the road, as Seryth approached them from the other direction. He rode through them this time, knowing now they wouldn’t bother him.
The road forked just ahead, in a way Seryth hadn’t noticed before. Curiosity prickled, so Seryth took the fork, moving along the road and down into a valley. Before hitting the valley floor, he urged his ram up onto a hillock to see if he could find where the road led to.
It wound through a few more hillocks until ending in a ruined town. Scourge banners were still planted at the gate, though they were tattered and limp; for all Seryth knew they had been standing there for decades. No other soul or creature stirred on the village’s streets.
Beyond, the mountains rose again, and remembering his map, Seryth knew just past them was the Hinterlands. Maybe there was a pass on the other side of the village that he could use to save more time.
The town square was eerily empty. Seryth stood for a while in it, wondering what the place had been like before the Third War. If he squinted, or looked from the corner of his eyes, he thought he could almost see the townsfolk, drifting like ghosts along the streets, going about their daily business in a time long removed from this one. It reminded him so much of Westfall that for a moment Seryth felt a lump in his throat.
Seryth continued up into the hills. He directed his ram up the shallowest slopes, until even its sure-footedness was defeated by the sheer cliffs. There wasn’t a pass in this direction after all. Seryth turned east, following the mountains’ spine. This took him through the empty village again, and up to a ruined cottage removed from the rest.
Seryth was about to bed down for the night in the cottage — it was reasonable shelter, and it was getting late — when a voice emanated about knee-height and somewhere to the right of him.
“Hello? Who are you?”
It seemed this was a ghost that was actually aware of him.
The ghost belonged to a little girl. Shyly she asked if her mother had invited Seryth to stay the night. Seeing no reason to disabuse her of the notion and possibly upset her more, Seryth said yes.
The ghost seemed encouraged by this, and kept talking, even going so far as to sit on the edge of his bedroll. Seryth could see the bedroll through her, patted down like someone was actually there. He could also feel a spreading cold through his toes, emanating from her.
Seryth wished she would go away. “Do you have to keep bothering me?” he asked irritably. “Why don’t you go outside and play?”
“Well, to the truth…” The girl started crying. “I’m so lonely. And it’s gotten so cold. I haven’t seen Mommy in ages, and I’m confused. I thought maybe she told you to come see me, and I got so happy, but…”
Seryth felt bad, but said nothing.
“…I can’t even find my dolly!” the girl was exclaiming, before bursting into a fresh round of sobbing.
Wincing, Seryth cast around until his hands lit on his pack. He drew it closer, looking for — there it was. He pulled out the raggedy plush bear he had taken from Quel’Lithien.
“Why don’t you have this one instead?” he told her. “Here. A gift.”
He stretched it out to her, not entirely certain if she’d be able to take it or even see it, but, sure enough, she reached out her hand for it. Even through the inches of fabric and bean stuffing between them, Seryth could feel the unearthly cold of the lost spirit. He released the plush bear, and the girl hugged it to her, crying stopped in mid-sob.
“Oh…” she said, in awe. “It smells like you!”
“Well, it should, it’s been in my pack for days.”
“He’s saying something about you!” The girl tilted her head as if listening to the bear’s whispers. She gasped. “He was?! But that’s so sad!”
Seryth refrained from rolling his eyes. “What did he say?”
“He said once you were very hurt, and he comforted you just like you comforted me.”
Seryth felt a chill run through him that had nothing to do with ghosts. “Oh, well, that’s what toys do for us, don’t they? Comfort us when no one else is around,” he said off-handedly.
The girl giggled, and pretended to listen to the bear for a few more seconds. Seryth wiggled his feet, but unlike the bear and the bedroll, she didn’t seem to notice the movement.
“He also said you forgot all about him,” she said a moment later. “Is that…do you think that’s why Mommy left me? She forgot?”
Uncomfortably, seeing another deluge of tears imminent in his future, Seryth quickly said, “Oh, surely not. She probably just had something really important to do, and she’ll be back later.”
Luckily, the girl seemed to accept this explanation. She nodded like a sage, then looked at the bear. “Sometimes people have to go for a really long time,” she told it. “And they forget you, and even themselves. They always come back in the end, though. …oh!” She suddenly started as if stung.
She looked up at Seryth, only he saw it wasn’t at him, but through him that she was looking. She dropped the bear and stumbled up suddenly, crying out, “Mommy!” Her voice was faint, echoing like up from a canyon, or across a lake…
Seryth pulled his knees to his chin defensively as she stumbled past him, to someone only she could see. Seryth turned to keep her in his field of view, and she began to fade away…
“Wait! I forgot!” she turned back around and looked straight at him.
“Don’t you forget yourself, mister! Even if it gets really scary and dark. Don’t you forget–“
And then she was gone.
Seryth shook himself, then pinched his arms a few times to reassure himself he was awake and this was real. Several winces later, he was satisfied, and the ghost showed no signs of returning. He lay down, stretching out his legs again. There was no weight or chill at the end of the bedroll this time.
There was also no plush bear.
Unnerved, Seryth dug in his pack for it, but it wasn’t there. He sat up and looked carefully around, but there was no sign of it in the ruined cottage at all.
Perhaps it had fallen out along the road. Yes, that was surely it, and he hadn’t been hallucinating. Repeating this mantra, Seryth laid down and tried to sleep.
“Don’t forget…” he thought he heard the little girl say, just before he passed out into dreams.