Picnic at Sentinel Hill
Meteorus urged his mount up the hill overlooking the settlement of Sentinel Hill, her tack and harness rattled and creaked as though it were about to give way. No matter how much he oiled, nor how much he sewed, hard travel unraveled his work in a matter of days. “You deserve better, Bluebell.”
He touched the most recent patch stitched into his decayed cheek. Instead of some wretched animal's hide, he had applied a patch of mageweave torn from a witch doctor's robe. Oddly, it transmitted, by some necromantic mechanism that he could not explain, the touch of his fingers to his worm-riddled brain. Meteorus wondered idly how long it would last compared to the light leather he normally used. He envisioned himself stitched together entirely of mageweave or runecloth, and smiled.
"Brocade, perhaps," he uttered aloud to the dry dusty air of Westfall, then he chuckled, a deep rolling barking laugh that most could not have described as 'mirthful.'
Bluebell shook as they stopped just below the ridge line. Meteorus dismounted and Bluebell immediately collapsed into a pile of bone and rotted tack that looked like it had lain in the dust of Westfall for a decade or more. "Neat trick, that. Sadly, it seems to be your only one." While it might just have been the wind whipping over the ridge, Meteorus thought he'd heard a faint ghostly nicker.
The bottle of elixir swished in his unsteady hand, only a few doses left. "Let's hope I get something useful right off," Meteorus half prayed, to who or what, he was not certain, then took a drink. The glamor rippled out from his insides, transforming him into a flesh and blood looking human, complete with pirate hat. Meteorus sighed, "This will have to do." He gave a tattered bit of cloth a few shakes and there was a blanket on the top of the ridge. He debated only a moment, and pressed the runes that deployed the umbrella and conjured the picnic basket; making his subterfuge as complete as possible. Perhaps any patrols would think this merely a romantic assignation and would pass him and his eventual guest by. He absently touched the oilskin wrapped book hidden under his robe, even now unsure he wanted to part with it.
He peered over the top of the ridge, looking expectantly at the flight point.
Meteorus's vigil was soon rewarded. A small green-haired gnome hopped off of a griffin and clumsily started up a folded mechanostrider that had been dropped at the edge of the landing area. She rode south out of town, headed for the slope of the hill overlooking the inn.
Meteorus turned to follow her progress, risking what he hoped was a friendly wave. The small figure waved from the back of her mechanostrider, which veered slightly and stumbled over a pile of stones. The town guards turned to look at her and she waved them off, "I'm okay, fences and rocks, you know," she righted herself. The guards chuckled and went back to their rounds, and never once looked up the hill.
"Clumsy or clever?" Meteorus muttered to himself. "I wonder."
Meteorus' attention was drawn to the griffin landing area, another Gnome had hopped off a griffin, this one with a more familiar shape and way of moving. He watched the Gnome, his bright blue eyes visible even at this distance. The Gnome had neatly trimmed facial hair, green. The Gnome was quick, so quick Meteorus lost sight of the Gnome as soon as the Gnome ducked into the sedges along the sides of the road. Meteorus' heart, usually still, fluttered oddly in his chest cavity. He now wondered which Gnome he was supposed to be meeting with. The first was female, which the letters had insisted on being her gender, but the other had looked and moved like his few remaining memories of his old friend, Cogswaddle. He began, for the first time, to think that meeting with the Cogswaddle was a bad idea.
Meteorus tapped the book as he watched the female Gnome pick her way carefully over the rocks, and grinned to himself when she chose a lumpy pile of broken bones and tack to park her mechanostrider next to. She looked up to the ridge at him a moment before dismounting.
“Uncle Fenton?” her voice squeaked.
Meteorus recognized the name, but it pulled at nothing inside, that disturbed him, made him wonder, not for the first time, if the memories that flowed into his rotted brain were really his own. He tapped the book under his robe, a rhythm from an old song in the weavers used while spinning. He nodded at the young Gnome, barely keeping focused on the present.”Meteorus, now, please.”
“Ah, certainly, I'm Grommet, Grommet Cogswaddle.” The young Gnome blushed, muttering, “But you know that, of course what other green haired Gnome would ride out here to meet you?” She struggled through the grasses up to the blanket on the ridge.
Meteorus pondered her question, not realizing its rhetorical nature. “I saw another Cogswaddle come in on a griffin behind yours.”
“What?” The Gnome rushed past him to look over the ridge into the town below. She stared out at the town searching, and Meteorus noted, trembling.
'Tasty,' he thought, catching the scent of her fear. Then quickly shook his head to clear it.
“Just another militia member, I'm sure, many of us serve in human militias these days.”
“Just so,” Meteorus offered his vial of Nogginfogger to the young Gnome, “A glamor, just in case?” In case of what, he wasn't certain, but he would not be able to meet comfortably with the Gnome if she didn't settle down. The Gnome eyed the container uncertainly. Meteorus realized the container wasn't particularly clean, and remembered; sanitation was a concern for the living. He wiped the mouth of the vial with the white trim of his crimson robe. Unaware that all the gnome saw was a pirate wiping a vial on his dirty shirt sleeve.
“Uh, no thank you, Meteorus, Uncle Meteorus, Uncle Met....”
Meteorus stoppered the vial. While the Gnome rambled on trying to find a comfortable way to say his name he checked his pockets and found a wand with a charge or two left from All Hallows. Before the Gnome could squeak out her protest she stood before him in the form of a black clad ninja, long auburn hair pulled in a pony tail, face hidden behind a black mask. “That will have to do.” Meteorus pocketed the wand as the Ninja sputtered a half formed argument against it. “Even your mother wouldn't recognize you.”
The glamor did nothing to hide the Gnome's squeaky voice, or the enticing smell of her fear. Meteorus moved to the other side of the picnic basket and sat down, placing the breeze at his back.
Grommet held her hands out in front of her. She looked at her hands, spread them wide and wiggled her fingers. She seemed fascinated by her pinkie. “I can't make it move on its own.”
“It's just a glamor of sorts, half polymorph, half illusion,” Meteorus reached into his robe to remove the book.
Grommet looked down at her body, studying herself, “There's so much of you! It seems highly impractical, clothing wise, food wise, you know?” As if to punctuate the thought her stomach growled.
Meteorus smiled at the Gnome, “The Cogswaddle never seemed to lack for an appetite, either for food, drink, clothing or women.”
The Ninja flushed crimson over her mask and sat down on the other side of the picnic basket.
“Eat, Cogswaddle, the food in the basket is conjured, so I am sure it is safe.” Grommet opened up the picnic basket and set out plates of food for the both of them. She dashed down to her mechanostrider and returned with a bottle of wine. As she did so she cast a worried look down slope.
“I thought I saw someone down there,” Grommet pointed to a rocky pile halfway down the slope.
Meteorus wondered if it was the other Gnome, the one that actually looked like the Cogswaddle. He stood up to look.
“Sit down, they'll know we know they're there,” Grommet hissed under her breath.
Meteorus shrugged, fairly certain her high pitched voice could be heard halfway down the valley, “I'm pretty sure they know that you know, so what if they know that I know, too?” Meteorus' attention shifted to the base of the hill, where a Guard in Stormwind Uniform patrolled. For the second time that day his dead heart performed painful gymnastics inside his chest. Just what was a Stormwind guard doing way out here? Meteorus began to wonder if he'd been set up.
“If we both know then they know that we know...” Grommet stopped, watching the Stormwind Guard step cautiously through the brush, stooping to look at tracks. “Maybe they aren't interested in us at all. That guard is tracking someone.”
“Indeed.” Meteorus hadn't been concerned when he'd cut across the prairie, Bluebell's tracks were certain to lead right to the collapsed pile of bone and tack with the weeds growing through it.
Either the Gnome was a consummate actress, or she really had no connection to the guard. Meteorus decided the hillside was becoming a bit too crowded, and sat down. He pushed the oil skin wrapped package over to the Gnome. ”I found a copy,” he just wanted to get this business over with.
Grommet set the wine down and pulled the book to her, excited. While she unwrapped the book Meteorus opened the wine and poured a couple of glasses, in case the guard should be watching.
She eagerly but gently pulled back the dried and partly decayed protective cover. She gently opened the book itself, and her shoulders hunched, her smile faded. “Oh, rust,” she muttered in Gnomish. “It's a mess, isn't it?”
Meteorus had thought the book, oversized and well bound, was in remarkably good condition, particularly considering how long it might have been in the pile outside the town hall of Tarren Mills. It's external leather cover had been well oiled at one point. Not surprising, as it had been meant, despite its size, to be a field guide. The banshee guardian of the town had tossed him a quizzical look when he pulled the volume triumphantly from the pile.
"I know the author," Meteorus had said lamely.
The banshee had taken the book, looked at it, barely curious, hesitated, assessing him, and then pressed it back into his hands.
"Kor'kran have been through the pile, and the Apothecaries before them, take it." She looked at him, knowing that he wasn't the first, nor the last Forsaken who would take some moldy reminder of a past he would never recapture.
Meteorus shook off the memory and looked at the book, upside down to him, now. Indeed, the pages were water damaged and he couldn't make out what she was looking at from the various colored mold stains. It hadn't looked like that, he was sure. He reached out and turned the book to face him. There, the page looked clean, the sketch crisp. Meteorus turned the book back to the Gnome, preparing to tell her it was fine, but as the book turned away, he could suddenly see the damage. Meteorus' shoulders slumped. Whatever mechanism allowed him to see without physical eyes, had betrayed him. He saw the book from memory, not as it was in the present. “I wonder what else I'm not seeing... accurately.” He looked at the Ninja glamor, trying to pierce its secrets to really see the Gnome inside.
Meteorus sat, looking into the eyes of Grommet's ninja illusion, seeing them grow sadder at each turn of the page. He shifted, preparing to stand and leave.
The Gnome reached out and placed her hand on his boney arm. “Stay a bit, it's okay, the paper is sound, mostly, it can be restored, I bet.” She closed the book gently.
That sat that way for a time, looking at one another's illusions trying to figure out what else to say.
The pair jumped and turned to find the Stormwind Guard standing at the edge of their picnic blanket.
“Sorry to interrupt, lovebirds, but I was wondering if either of you have seen a short green-haired gnome, neatly trimmed beard, bright blue eyes, all in dark leathers? Or if one of you is, perhaps, said person?”
The Guard looked at Meteorus, who resisted the urge to throw off Grommet's restraining hand, her grip tightened to a surprising level of strength. He shook his head. “No,” he said, doing his best to control the decayed rattle that normally attended most Forsaken voices.
“Oh, certainly not,” squeaked Grommet, and in turning to face the guard squarely, tipped over the half full bottle of port, splashing its contents on the guard's shiny metal boots. “Sorry, sorry, it's this costume, I'm not used to being big...” She grabbed a napkin and leaned over towards the guard, who took a couple of steps back.
“Clever,” Meteorus thought, which meant Grommet *was* a good actress.
“Show yourself, child,” the guard unsheathed his sword slightly, indicating that Meteorus should stay seated.
“No, it's not what you think,” Grommet started. She stood up, making a production of dispelling the glamor.
Meteorus would have rolled his eyes, if he had any, he really needed to learn to trust his feelings. In his mind he sought out the flow of nether energies that would define the bolt of arcane material for a spell to stitch around the guard.
Grommet's disguise dropped, surprising the guard.
“Ah, oh, I see,” he cleared his throat and stepped back. Grommet's scowl made him want to laugh, but he'd all ready had to sit through the Captain's lecture on the proper treatment of their smallest allies. “I suppose you are of the age of majority?”
The guard was now four paces away from Meteorus, and the tiny Gnome had managed to place herself directly between them, delicately stepping out of the puddle of wine. It was obvious that the guard felt he needed to reestablish his control of the situation.
“So is your friend also a Gnome?”
Grommet blushed. Meteorus held his hands out, standing and gesturing at the same time. His disguise dropped.
“Ah, I see not, well...” The guard's eyes grew wide, he drew his blade, sunlight flashing off its high polish.
Whatever the guard had planned to say, he never got to finish it. A sheep bleated softly where the guard had been standing.
Grommet spun to face Meteorus, cursing in Gnomish, quite likely the only Gnomish he understood, “Rusty sprockets! Have you gone out of alignment!” Then in Common, “What were you thinking!”
“We have been here long enough.”
“Hey, Lieutenant, we found some hoof prints over by this mechanostrider.”
“What now?” Meteorus glanced down the hill to where Bluebell and the mechanostrider waited. Two of Sentinel Hill's Militia guards were walking up the hill.
“He's seen me! He's seen us! Together!”
“I can fix that.”
Grommet raised her hands, “No!” Meteorus stepped out from the umbrella, and then she saw him, the patches, the puckered lines of stitching holding them together, a partial tattoo on a forearm patch, still recognizable as the Anchor of Kul'Tirus but at an angle no human would have chosen. She swallowed hard. He really was undead. The familiar fear swept over her, more effective than if he'd frost novaed her in place.
The two Militia members were not so frozen, however, they had seen plenty of Forsaken amongst the frequent Horde raiding parties. They were excited at the opportunity to face one alone. So excited that they advanced several steps up the hill before remembering that they had rifles.
Meteorus advanced on the cowering Gnome, hearing his old friend's voice admonishing him.
“You never, ever pick up a Gnome!” The Cogswaddle had quite thoroughly smacked him around for picking him up. The Gnome had the element of surprise, granted, but the Gnome had been far stronger, and far faster than the young man who was now Meteorus had anticipated. “No one picks up this Gnome, unless she's buxom, wide-hipped and auburn-haired,” The Cogswaddle had delivered the last while bouncing on the prone tailor's back at each point. They had gotten drunker together after.
“Sorry, Cogswaddle,” Meteorus Grabbed Grommet under the arms, fully expecting to be kicked and possibly fire blasted or frozen at any moment. The Gnome just yipped and made a sad whimpering noise.
“Hold your fire, he's got a kid!”
Meteorus stepped up to the rocks at the edge of the ridge. He looked into Grommet's eyes, and he would have winked, if he had eyelids.
He whispered two words to her as she started to struggle. He lifted Grommet high over his head. “Cogswaddle, your days of meddling in the affairs of the Horde are over!” Meteorus shouted.
“Monster!” Shouted one militia man, a sudden onslaught of tears ruining his aim.
“Bastard!” Shouted the other, again. The report of his rifle punctuated the thought.
The bullet punctuated Meteorus' right forearm, he heard the ulna snap. “Rat turds, I just patched that.”
Grommet yelped, she'd come around too late. The monster had picked her up, and, to her complete shock, thrown her over the cliff!
Meteorus turned, fire on his fingertips. The wet eyed soldier took careful aim.
“Meteorus, noooo!” he heard Grommet shout from behind him, from the sound he judged she was all ready half way down the cliff.
The fire at Meteorus's fingertips went out. Instead he pulled the nether and stitched it into the shape of a less lethal frosty rain of ice and cold. The men slowed, learned the folly of charging uphill, in a blizzard.
The militiamen were pelted, they slipped, exposing their backs and necks, one dropped to his knees, “Mommy!” and collapsed, but still struggled to line up a shot.
“Bastard!” yelled the other, and ran.
Meteorus instantly stopped, Grommet's “No!” echoing back from the tower on the other side of town.
Grommet focused, and cast, “Slow fall,” Meteorus had whispered while picking her up, she'd almost remembered too late. She heard the report of a rifle just as air resistance slowed her magically altered mass nearly to a halt. Her legs were still like liquid and she collapsed and rolled, handle over spout, under the raised floor of the inn.
The bullet ripped through the robe, nicked his hip flask and tore a large divot out of his left thigh. Meteorus knew he was hurt, but real pain would only come later, with memory. At least nothing was broken this time. Meteorus raced towards Bluebell, almost passed the man who'd called for his mommy, but still hearing Grommet's concern stopped to check him. Still living, blood pumped strongly through his veins. He would be sore, but would live.
The sheep on the crest let out a loud bleat that changed halfway trough to an angry “Stop!”
'Shouldn't have...' Meteorus grabbed the nether and tried to fold it and himself down the hill the last few yards towards the pile of bones that was Bluebell. He found himself up hill, three yards closer to the ridge line, and further away from his loyal mount. He'd missed the roiling Ley line just below the surface of the hill, it had bounced him backwards. “Rat...”
The mass of the plate wearing Lieutenant slammed into Meteorus, rattled his soggy brain, tangled his limbs. Before Meteorus could turn to face his attacker, even before he could straighten out, the large shining sword split the recently repaired robe, sliced through rotted muscle and tendon, shattered both shoulder blades and chipped large chunks from his third thoracic vertebrae.
“Turds.” Meteorus finished as he slumped to the ground, a rag doll in ability as well as looks.
“Get up here, he's dead, I got him.” The Lieutenant kicked Meteorus over, leaned down and stuck his hand in front of his nose and mouth, felt the sunken chest above his dead heart. For good measure he thrust his dagger a few times through the chest cavity. “Help me drag him over to that pile of tack, that looks like it will burn.” The Lieutenant started to drag Meteorus over to the pile next to the mechanostrider. “Never mind, I got it. It doesn't weigh anything.”
“What about the kid?” The rifleman who'd called for his mommy muttered, still prone on the ground.
“Gnome, you mean, see the strider there,” the Lieutenant pointed in the direction he was dragging the desiccated corpse. “I figure she came up here and was snookered by this villain.”
“Bastard,” said the other militiaman, having regained his composure.
“Yeah, he was, almost had us there, too.” He grunted as he tossed Meteorus onto the pile of debris. Take the strider with you. If that Gnome survived she's probably going to want it.” The Lieutenant strode back over to the fallen man, helped him up. “Let's go, no one bleeds to death on my watch.”
“What about that,” the injured man pointed to Meteorus, “we should burn it.”
“Let's get you squared away first, soldier. I'll bring some mill-men back to clear the brush and make a proper bonfire. No need to burn down the whole valley for it.”
The injured man nodded and drifted off into a troubled unconsciousness, only the first of many featuring a pallid, patched, monster. His children would grow up never understanding why he burned all their rag dolls upon his return from the infirmary.
Meteorus felt the banshee long before he faced her. He wasn't certain how she could be behind him, nor how he could turn around, since he was dead. He lay, or stood, or sat, never sure which, looking at the long tunnel. Something told him there was supposed to be someone there to meet him, but no faces peered down the long shaft to where he, existed.
“No!” came the answer to his yet unformed question.
“I am dead.”
“We're all dead,” laughed the banshee, and her voice was joined by others, “or not living, or not dead,” they filled in the tunnel walls with sound that was not sound, but a feminine pressure on his brain.
“It is time to go back,” the loudest voice stated.
Meteorus turned to face her, long elf ears and a small oval face floated above the stretched female form which shimmered and flowed as silk in water.
“As a Tauren Brave?” Meteorus asked hopefully.
“As a clever Troll?”
There was laughter.
“Gnome,” he didn't even dare hope.
“Soulless Maker's Toys,” one of the quieter voices hissed.
“Human,” he offered in disappointment.
There was much more laughter at this one, but not of a reassuring kind.
“Maybe I can get it right this time.”
“It doesn't work that way, human.”
Meteorus groaned. “Is there ever...”
“No. It is a curse.” The banshee drifted momentarily out of his sight, the returned, a golden glow in her hands.
“Curse,” was repeated, filling the tunnel and dimming the light at the end.
“Curse.” Meteorus repeated.
“Or a gift,” some of the voices offered.
“I don't see how...”
“Go back, human.”
“Go back,” echoed hundreds of voices, as though every banshee was connected to every other.
“I know you,” said a small distant voice. “You tried to save me from a Night Elf attack on Tarren Mill.”
Meteorus remembered being torn into eight pieces and spread across the town and the dead orchard beyond. With the memories came the pain.
“You attempted to deceive the Apothecaries with a Silverpine wolf in place of a dog.”
There was a rippling of laughter that filled the tunnel with darkness. He remembered the burning acid in a pit in the Undercity, and with the memory came the pain.
“That saved you from the Kor'kron inquisition after Wrathgate,” a consoling voice whispered far away.
“You fought bravely to protect The Bloodhoof, yes, Elder Runetotem was impressed.”
Meteorus remembered the burning pillars of light from hands of tentacle faced paladins who ignored is plea for a truce. The most horrible burning of all, and with the memory came the pain, double, it appeared, as he had once been spared.
“We rarely see such intervention. Even with the power of an Elder's prayer this curse can only be delayed.”
He wailed. “Will it always be like this?”
“Yes,” the voice had little sympathy.
“Always,” echoed hundreds of female voices, only a few sympathetic.
“Until your true death.”
“When is that?” Meteorus now had no hope that this was it.
“We will call your name.”
There was laughter.
A voice far away amidst the laughter whispered, “Your true name. Hope you know by then.”
The banshee lifted her hands, thrusting the golden glow into is dull eye sockets. His vision returned, he saw where he was, he remembered, and with the memory came the pain.
Then, while the laughter of hundreds of banshees echoed in his skull, Meteorus sat up. His body quivered, wracked with all the agony of his previous deaths.
Bluebell stirred beneath him, standing in fits and starts. She started down the hill slowly then picked up speed until they raced away from Sentinel Hill, looking for a place to teleport to safety.
A pair of bright blue eyes below a thatch of thick green hair watched the pile of rags and bones become horse and rider. He watched the rickety pair ride off, gaining speed as they headed for a ruined cabin in the distance. He'd stayed, because he'd known his sister was safe, he couldn't have explained how, but their cogs were linked, and he just knew.
Camfollower slipped into the shadows and crept to the top of the ridge. There was nothing left of the days events but some trampled grass, a port wine smell, and a book.
The book was familiar, it's size, its binding, its heft. He'd helped his uncle once, painting the little shadows on the thorns of the Swift Thistle. Drew beetle shadows on the underside of Steelbloom leaves, many other small details. He opened the book exactly to where the plate of the Thistle would be. Barely visible beneath the mold stains was an illustration, the iron based ink had faded from black to rust, but there were the very strokes Cam had applied to the plate as a little cog.
“Oh, Grommie, what are you doing?” he said to the wind. “That's not Uncle Fenton, he's turned, and those turned don't turn back.”
He sat against the rocks in contemplation, clutching the book, thinking of happier times, listening to the wind whisper over the ridge. He started to nod in the afternoon heat. He dreamed he'd been meditating in the hall of gears, he'd thought he'd heard The Call. A sudden chill prevented him from giving the ritual response, “I am ready to follow the plan.”
He woke with a start, then he imagined he heard the wind wailing out “Cam, Camfollower Cogswaddle.” This sounded anything but machine-like. He shivered despite the heat. He was thankful it wasn't dark yet.
Cam slipped into the shadows without responding to the voice, hoping the day's business had taken the Lieutenant Detective back to Stormwind.