An entry into the Blizzard Creative Writing Contest.
The sun warmed the skin on Vorman’s face. He scowled back at it. Desert’s no place for the undead. Dank places. Moss and fungus. The other two loved the bright. They walked just ahead of Vorman, unaware of the pain involved in simply moving. Unaware or uncaring.
The orc stopped and knelt at the side of the path, and for a moment the blood elf stopped singing her bawdy song.
“What’s the hold-up now?” she barked, her light, airy voice perpetually unmatched with the things she used it to say.
“It’s peacebloom,” Dowger replied. “I’ll use it to make something nice for you, if you will grant me just a moment to pluck it.”
Uallien made a coarse joke based on the word ‘pluck’. Dowger pretended not to notice. Vorman noticed, but did not laugh. Never laughed. Forgot what it felt like. Something in the chest. Stomach jumping. Didn’t matter.
Dowger stood up and held the unlikely bloom up to the sun, his spectacles reflecting the light. “You see, Vorman, I can grind this up to make ink,” he said in his pedantic fashion. “And with the ink, I can make a glyph. I have learned many glyphs, perhaps even one or two that could help you remember….” He trailed off as Vorman pulled a fat maggot from under his kneecap and popped it in his mouth. Vorman grinned cruelly as he chewed, letting bits of masticated goop squish between what teeth he had left.
As the orc turned away with a quick shudder, Vorman wondered what maggot tasted like. Probably something like orc, he thought. A rasping noise crept up his dry esophagus and burst from between his upper lip and the gap where the lower one had been. The rasp repeated, four short bursts. hach, hach, hach, hach. He noticed he was smiling.
“How much farther?” Uallien whined as she began to walk, shuffling her feet through the dust. “I would eat a pile of steaming kodo dung to spend a night in a city. One with a proper tavern.”
Dowger referred to the oily map he kept in a pocket and grimaced. “Farther than I would like,” he said. “We probably won’t make it to an outpost before sundown. We’ll have to make a fire and camp it out.”
Vorman hated fires. Unnatural. Light in the black, heat against the chill. Memories of a black pot. Drips of bubbling stew spilling over, landing on a coarse wool dress flecked with tiny purple flowers. Noise. Singing.
Uallien snickered. “And how will we make a fire?” she teased. “No wood in the desert.”
“Oh, don’t,” Dowger replied with a smile. “Don’t make me beg again.”
“I don’t mind a little cold,” the blood elf said. “No need to make a fire for me.”
“I won’t do it. It takes you all of two seconds to cast a fire. I’m not begging.”
The soft ululation of Uallien’s laugh bounced over the cracked earth, and Vorman’s eye followed it. Over the pocked Gold Road, past a herd of sickly gazelles. Night was on its way. Night was good. Elf and orc would fall quiet and leave Vorman be. No prattling, no walking. Rest. Dark.
A fleck of something crawled over Vorman’s leg. Some sort of desert insect. Flesh-eater. Gets its water from blood of dead beasts. The light from Uallien’s green campfire wriggled over the bug’s carapace. Hypnotizing. Like distant torches over a summer lake. Nights spent sitting on the shore. Smiling and laughing. A soft face.
“I don’t need much sleep,” Uallien said, masking a yawn. “I’ll take the first watch.”
Dowger sighed, exasperated. “You are falling asleep where you sit,” he chided. “I will take the watch. I can catch up on some studying.”
“I still can’t believe you would risk all this just to learn stuff,” Uallien dodged. “The guy we’re going after? He’s no professor. He’s a killer, and so are all his friends.”
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I decided to join you. After I picked you up off the tavern floor, that is.”
Uallien bristled. “You down nine draughts of Silvermoon Shiraz in three minutes and see you end up, shorty,” she barked.
“I don’t participate in such challenges,” the orc replied, smiling over his condescension. “And I certainly don’t make bets when drinking, particularly the life-threatening kind.”
Vorman coughed. Sick of talk. Clicking little crabs, picking at each other. “I don’t sleep,” he stated flatly.
Uallien and Dowger glanced at each other, bewildered. Vorman wondered if he had ever spoken to them before. “What are you talking about?” the elf asked.
“I’ll watch,” Vorman said. “You sleep.”
Dowger smiled. “Now that’s a fine concept,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of it before?”
“Suits me,” Uallien said. She spat loudly into the fire, laid on her side and promptly fell asleep.
Dowger removed his spectacles and placed them carefully into a small box made of horn. “Thank you, Vorman,” he said. “If you see anything untoward, just give us a quick kick.” Within moments he was snoring away, a deep, guttural sound. Uallien’s breathing was light in contrast, a gentle purr emanating from her mouth from time to time. The green light of the fire made her bare back a shadowy playland. Vorman considered her form, and thought that she must be considered beautiful. He sneered. Had forgotten that word. Mouth remembered it, though. Used to say it all the time. Vorman tried once again to conjure some image of his time among the living, but they never came when he concentrated.
A sense. A sound maybe? No, something else. Something silent.
Vorman raised himself and ambled in the direction of this new sense. The bones of his feet sank into the dunes, the rotten flesh of his thighs straining to keep balance. The sense became stronger when he approached a yellow flower. The smell of its perfume was thick and heady.
Smell. That’s what it was.
Vorman creaked down and tugged at the flower. Dowger would like it. Grind it up. Make something for the elf.
A new smell distracted Vorman, something fresher. Wetter. He shuffled back towards the emerald glow of the campsite, the smell getting thicker as he neared it. When he reached the crest of the nearest dune, he saw that his companions were awake. Uallien was flat on her back, shouting something.
And there was a body.
Before he even knew what was happening, Vorman was on the ground, his hands grabbing innards and muscle from the hot corpse and shoving them into his maw. Fur and cloth got in his way, bits of both joining the wet, scarlet pieces down his throat. The blood lined his insides, felt warm. Stomach struggling to keep up. Limbs stronger.
“Get over here!” a deep voice yelled, uninvited. A massive green hand pulled Vorman away from his meal. Dowger forced him over to Uallien, who held the skin of her stomach together with bloody hands as she screeched remarkably creative obscenities. A rough dagger was clotting the sand on the ground next to her.
“You need to heal her,” Dowger insisted, his voice shaky. “Right now.”
Vorman’s own breathing sounded strange to him. Wet. He looked down at the wailing elf and tried to remember. An open wound. Tears. Secret phonemes. Breath.
The gash pulled itself together, blood drying around it. Vorman’s hands glowed yellow as the sun.
Uallien went limp for a moment, the grimace leaving her face. Dowger sighed deeply and looked very much as if he might cry. Blood dripped from Vorman’s teeth, and he caught it in his palms.
“You rotten fool!” Uallien screeched. “What’s wrong with you! Is there a brain behind that infested face? I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you and leave you in the dung-filled hole I found you in!”
A fit of coughing ended her tirade. Dowger moved to her side and gave her a sip of a healing potion. “Calm down, Uallien,” he soothed. “He saved your life.” Uallien could not reply, but glared up at Vorman, green light burning deep behind her eyes.
She was right. Vorman’s hole had been dung-filled. Animals of various sizes had used the decrepit tomb as a nest before Vorman awoke in it. Some even stayed, and he did nothing to stop them. He did nothing at all.
For the first… months? decades? he wasn’t sure… of his rebirth to unlife, Vorman assumed that he was simply dead. He laid very quietly in the dark, hands crossed on his chest, occasionally surprised that this was all there was to the afterlife. He never thought of the past, unsure if he even had one. Even when the stone door of the tomb crashed open, he tried to ignore it. Dead people don’t care about doors. Faint starlight spilled over the marble, and two figures tripped over each other to get inside. One was a blood elf, who rushed to get the door closed, the other an orc who fell on his side and wheezed.
A large stinger extruded from the orc’s shoulder, as large as a child’s arm. The wound had started blistering with poison. Vorman got up, prayed, and healed him before even understanding what he was doing.
“A priest,” the orc had said, amazed. “There’s an undead priest in here.”
Vorman had looked down at himself and seen holey, rat-gnawed vestments, the white robes of the life he no longer remembered. They meant he had been a priest when he was alive. And apparently he knew how to heal people. But nothing else.
“That should keep her asleep for a good long while,” Dowger whispered, carefully packing a mortar and pestle back into his pack. “She should be better by morning.” Vorman was glad of it. Uallien’s stomach was in searing pain, and he could not remember the right spell to help her.
“Don’t worry about the things she said,” the orc said.
“Yes you are. I can see that you’re worried.”
“Not,” Vorman repeated. “Mad.”
“Oh, don’t be upset at her. She always lashes out when she’s in pain,” Dowger explained with a quiet laugh. “It’s a wonder that she’s such an accomplished fighter. One time she skinned her knee on the rocks of a river… right behind Tarren Mill, actually. She howled so much that the guards ran over armed well enough to kill Big Samras himself.”
Vorman worked his jaw, trying to speak through his rotted mouth. “Mad at memory,” he pronounced carefully.
The orc’s forehead furrowed and he leaned back against his pack, looking even greener in the fading firelight. “Hmm… yes,” he said. “I have heard of such things. It must be maddening, not knowing who you have been. Not even having a name, save the one we gave you. That may not have even been your tomb, for all we know.”
A few seconds of silence passed. Vorman wondered if he was supposed to say something. Maybe he was mad. Insane. Undead and tormented for all time. Beyond help.
“For a while, I studied under an herbalist in Thunder Bluff,” Dowger said, suddenly excited. “Very nice woman. There was a young tauren who fell off the lift and lost his memory due a trauma to his head. And tauren skulls are unusually thick; it must have been quite a fall. We tried all manner of medicines — indeed, I went on some fairly notable adventures finding the right plants for them — but nothing worked. I’ve never understood it.”
Vorman didn’t understand it either. Didn’t like that story at all.
The next day’s march went quietly, the path leading them along a dry ridge where massive vines, as thick as a man is tall, had worked themselves into the rock. Uallien did not sing, indeed made no sound except for the occasional annoyed grunt as she adjusted her pants, and Dowger struggled to keep up with her, his pack jingling with fragile apothecary tools. Vorman followed, keeping on the lookout for flowers. Nearby flowers. No wandering, he had been told.
Uallien stopped suddenly and knelt down. Dowger eased himself to the ground beside her and motioned for the Vorman to do the same.
“That’s him,” Uallien mumbled, motioning with her nose. “The one on the stump”.
Vorman looked down the ridge and saw a bunch of lumps. One of the lumps moved, and he saw that they were quillboars. Like the one that he had eaten. The one that had stabbed Uallien in her sleep. All but one of the pigmen were engaged in various tasks, the idle one watching over them.
“Drysnout,” Dowger said. “They say he kills so often because steaming blood is the only thing that will ease his chapped nose.”
Uallien started to rise. “You tell me this now?”
“I’ve been saving it. I suppose that saying ‘last chance to back out’ would be a waste?”
“Yup,” Uallien replied. “Better arm up. Father Zombie — you stay here. Dowger’ll probably need you to kiss his boo-boos after Red Dog and I get this thing done.”
The blood elf pulled Red Dog, her affectionately-named mace, out of its sling and kissed it loudly as Dowger began pulling metal parts out of his pack. “What’s all that?” she growled.
Dowger did not look up, focused on fitting the pieces of metal together. “It’s a rifle,” he answered plainly. “I will protect you from the ridge.”
Uallien laughed, a sound like the first bird of spring after a bitter winter. “So, I’ll be down there lopping heads off and you’ll be up here having a picnic. Try not to shoot me with that stupid contraption. Coward.”
With that, she was gone. A quick eye might have been able to follow her as she leapt and soared down the ridge, but Vorman could not see her until she landed. A cloud of dust surrounded her and she stood in the practiced pose of combat, grinning at the startled quillboars.
“Always so dramatic,” Dowger said with a sigh, hurrying to a good position. “It’s just maudlin.”
Vorman did not move. Glints of sunlight raced in circles around Uallien, the muted sound of squeals following behind them. Dowger shot well, maiming anyone who attacked the blood elf from a blind spot. Brass casings flew behind the orc with every shot, and Vorman traced their paths with his eyes. One landed in a small patch of… what was it? He paced over to the spot and saw that it was mageroyal. The red blooms quavered at the each report of the rifle, and he smirked. The poor things. So dry here. Need better shade. Darker soil.
He inhaled deeply, savoring the scent. Mageroyal grew outside his old house.
The sounds of combat pulled Vorman out of his reverie, and he turned to watch. Wounded quillboars wailed everywhere, and Uallien’s swings were getting slower. One of the pigs ran away from from the fight, but not in terror. He was headed for a make-shift guard tower. An alarm bell hung from the platform at the top.
The ground no longer felt rough against Vorman’s feet. He was afloat, and gliding towards the tower. He made it before the pig did, and swiftly realized that he had not planned what to do when he got there.
The quillboar snorted loudly and scowled, pulling a long blade from his belt. Vorman’s mind raced. What had he done? In life? He knew the feeling of menace that poured from the quillboar — he must have been in fights before as a living man. Feathers of memory refused to stay still. Just the mageroyal.
The pig pounced, his dagger whistling in the hot air. The blade came within inches of Vorman’s face, but glanced off something. Furious, the pig tried again, but Vorman was safe behind a translucent shield. Vorman grinned and tried to stick out his tongue, forgetting it was mostly gone.
A powerful crack came from the ridge, and an immeasurable moment later the quillboar fell at Vorman’s feet. Dowger waved, the tiny circles of his spectacles gleaming in the desert sunlight.
Vorman floated to the earth and shambled towards the fray as fast as he could. Uallien had nearly carved her way to her objective, and Drysnout was now squawking at her, egging her on. A thin trickle of blood ran down her leg, and Vorman spoke the words which would stanch the cut.
Pain and dizziness erupted in the crown of Vorman’s head. Now on the ground with his teeth in the sand, he tensed as he heard the whistle of a weapon coming down for a second blow. No contact was made though, and Vorman felt strong, thin fingers pull him to his feet.
“No fair taking breaks,” Uallien panted, smiling widely.
Vorman smiled back.
Two months later, Father Vorman Blacktongue walked through the gates of the Brill cemetery. He was dressed in black robes and had two companions in tow. A grim undead guard nodded at them.
“Good morning,” Vorman replied.
Uallien, moderately drunk, nodded back. “He’s pretty cute for a zombie,” she whispered loudly. “Do you he’s still got his….”
“That’s enough,” Dowger said with a tusky smirk. “A time and a place.”
Vorman smiled a little, but did not say anything. Neither of them meant any harm, and everyone deals with funerals in his own way. Some take drink and make light. Some hide behind polity and well-intentioned frowns. Vorman had presided over plenty, and seen far worse behavior than that of these youngsters.
He stopped at a very old crypt, grave moss bending beneath his shoes. “This is the one,” he said.
“Do you want us to say anything? Pray or something?” Uallien asked, slurring slightly.
“No,” he answered. “Thank you, though. Your presence is enough.”
Vorman pulled an herb from his pouch and laid it on the steps of the crypt. Arthras’ Tears, from distant Felwood. It had been a difficult journey for the three of them — a pilgrimage, really — but that forest had been her favorite place in the world, and she had so loved purple flowers.