Part 3: Numbers
The sun was setting over the western mountains, a cool breeze running through the pass along the worn path and into the thornbrush of the Southern Barrens. Silence dominated the dusk and the flickering torches of the Quillboar sentries shone out over the grasslands casting long, deformed shadows. Their bodies rigid, eyes glazed and unfocused, throats crimson.
The dead raise no alarms.
As the sun took shelter behind the mountains, shadows waded through the tall grass and around the perimeter of the Quillboar village. Prowlers they were called, the gnoll scouts, students of the dark and they crept silently and unseen through the checkpoints and into watchtowers waiting for the sign. A low rumble, a deep gust of wind howled over the village and they knew it was time to strike. Ebonsteel daggers held in eager paws lashed out slicing throats, ripping necks and casting silent sprays of lifeblood into the night air. The Prowlers went about their grisly business without so much as a gnollish cackle. When the task was done one gnoll adorned with a hooded cape and an eye fashioned of onyx, reached into a small leather pouch and removed a dark green powder. He picked up a torch and carefully dropped a pinch of the powder into the flame where is sizzled and spat. Then the flame turned and writhed then finally flashed an unholy green. He looked out over the expanse of tallgrass and listened. At first, nothing, then as the moments slipped by the steady and unmistakable sound of padded feet rushed to greet his pointed, furry ears. He turned to the quillboar body slumped next to him and put his paw to its open throat, then took hold of the torch, it’s green flame still burning and snuffed it out with a wet, bloody paw. He hopped down from the guard tower and pulled up his hood as he made to join the rest of the force.
With no alarms being raised they met little resistance. The prowlers crept into huts and stabbed at quillboars where they slept. Screams were silenced quickly and those that did try to fight back were met with hateful savagery. The gnoll brutes set axe, mace and sword to any that fought back, gnoll Shamans rooted those who tried to escape while the gnoll hunters greeted them with raven-feathered arrows. The massacre was over before the spilled blood ran cold.
Camp was set and guards posted. A large bonfire was set in the middle of the village where the gnolls heaped the quillboar bodies and watched them burn. A large tent was erected at the back of the village against the slope of the mountain and that’s where they held council. Black Eye the prowler, Ironpaw the brute, Ravenwing the hunter and Rocktooth the shaman all stood, heads bowed before their leader. He had called them together as only he could, demand they unite and forget their petty tribal squabbles. Their will was bent to his own. The Grimtotem encampment would be crushed the following night and the gnolls would take hold of Ferelas, their rightful home.
He smiled to himself, proud of his cunning in uniting the clans and the devastation he would bring to his enemies, the tauren. His fanged smile widened.
The sun was still rising when the trio came to the southern pass which lead to the Thousand Needles. It had been a long journey but they had travelled quickly under the hot sun and cool moonlight, stopping only when needed. Now they stood transfixed, looking at plumes of black smoke and the unmistakable smell of death lingering towards them.
The blood elf slowly dismounted as a large grey cat slowly stalked alongside her in the tallgrass. The two approached the watchtowers and saw the blood soaked wooden planks and smoking torches. The grass was beaten, crushed and held blood trails leading into the village which they followed to find a vast mound of smouldering quillboar bodies.
The blood elf put her hand to her mouth and gave a shudder as the cat slowly grew and took on a more familiar shape. The third companion sat atop his green skeletal warhorse watching with unblinking, cold blue eyes.
Surveying the scene the two pieced together what had happened. It seemed as though the attacking force had left at daybreak and headed for the south. Huts were torn and splintered, the wood most likely used for rafts and boats for the journey across the flooded Needles. They were at least three hours ahead.
“We are too late,” spoke Tay in a soft voice, “We cannot catch them now.”
The large tauren stood pining over the scene until he saw a black feathered arrow sticking into a wooden shield next to him. He reached down and plucked it free, stroking the soft raven’s feathers.
“How many do you think they are?” she asked quietly.
Observing the ground around him and eyeing the arrow, Tull sighed, “I would guess at a hundred.”
“And your guess is just that my friend; a guess,” Nexx said.
Tay was startled to see the mage standing on one of the nearest watchtowers surveying the scene. She flashed him an angry glare, “Speak your thoughts or keep them to yourself, corpse! We need answers, not riddles!”
Nexx smiled apologetically and bowed low, scooping something off the watchtower floor with abject quickness. He then floated gently off the tower to land quietly next to the duo.
“What I meant to say was that your guess was accurate, in that this force was numbered at close to one hundred,” Nexx said softly. Tay never liked it when the mage was polite, it didn’t suit him.
“So then, why correct me?” Tull asked.
“Because I think, this was but a fraction of their entire force” Nexx said as he showed the two the item he had picked up.
An ebonsteel dagger caked in blood sat neatly in his palm.
Tull’s eyes narrowed and he growled deeply. “Prrrowlers…” Tay saw his teeth legthen.
“Yes,” Nexx said meaningfully, “I see you found a Raven’s arrow.” Tay saw where this was going.
“Are you saying that the Prowler and Hunter tribes have merged?” She asked.
“I am afraid it is worse than that my dear,” Nexx said, his voice hollow, lacking its usual bite. “I have seen the markings of gnoll Shamans as well as the mailed bootprints of the Brutes.”
Tull’s eyes unfocused, his heart pounded in his chest and he could feel his fur thicken.
Tay stood stunned. “All… the tribes? That would mean…”
“Yes. Nearly five hundred gnolls march to Grimtotem,” the mage stated blatantly.
With that, Tull’s rage exploded. His hands sprouted wicked, six inch claws, muscles rippled under a thick hide as his mouth foamed with slather. The large bear reared up on its hind legs and swiped at the four foot thick support beam of the nearby watchtower, sending an explosion of wood and splinters in every direction. The tower came crashing down around him in a cloud of dust and debris.
His voice was anger-filled, primal but there was no mistaking his words.
“Hoggerrr has rrreturrrned.”