There was quite a break before I started writing more about Steadfast. Towards the Autumn of 2008, the Bloodhoof Militia merged with Aura and were now known as Forgotten Shadow. By then, Steadfast had managed to hit the level cap at 70 just in time for Wrath of the Lich King to be released. As you will know, the landscapes and stories in that expansion are incredible so it fired off new inspiration to write...
STEADFAST, BOND OF THE BEAST
===“Ploughing rapidly through the snow which was
now up to his knees, Steadfast winced as he saw
the blood soaked hollow where the fleeing
person had once again fallen. Where the bear
had caught up with them.”
His great hooves cutting through the crust of ice into the deeper snow beneath, Steadfast paused and surveyed the scene before him. Carnage! That was the only word. Counting all the bodies, he reckoned at least a dozen Nerubians had been killed here, and recently too. The fine snow, more gritty ice grains than flakes had not yet covered the corpses.
He had encountered enough of the scuttling Scourge-cursed insects here in the Dragonblight to know that whoever had killed so many them must have been mighty indeed. The scouring wind was already obliterating the tracks, but it was clear that whoever... or whatever... had taken out an entire Nerubian ambush party so close to Azjol’Nerub was strong enough to fling some of the bodies up into the branches of the spindly trees. Motioning for Manjari, his faithful Bear to stay still, Steadfast inched forward and tried to recreate the battle in his mind.
Eyes scanning the undead corpses for injuries, he saw evidence of axe wounds on the carapaces of the smaller creatures. One of the great warrior beetles seemed to have run into a spear... or possibly had been shot. The shell just above it’s head was pierced right through with a neat hole from which a foul gel was oozing.
Some of the smaller insects, those which burrowed under the snow to spring out on unwary travellers, as well as the strange “leaders” who had large bulbous abdomens and a cruel understanding of Shadow Magic seemed to have been either crushed or even torn into pieces. More than one were missing legs and one of the spell-casters must have died horribly when the impact from something large had caused its abdomen to burst.
Spotting a flash of colour in this cruel world of white snow and black tree trunks, he knelt and scraped away the crust of powdered ice. There... blood. Red blood. The Nerubians did not bleed - at least not what any living thing would recognise as blood. Clearing more of the wind-blown ice, Steadfast came to the conclusion that the target of the Nerubian attack had been wounded. Seriously wounded, too. They had tried to hold themselves up against a tree, only to slip and leave a large blood-soaked streak on the bark.
Turning his attention to the tracks in the area, he could just make out a few boot prints where a heel had pressed deeply into the frozen leaves under the snow. That ruled out a Tauren... or even a Taunka. Hard to believe they were so closely related. The boot print was too small to be a Forsaken or Blood Elf and too broad for a Troll. Delicately brushing away some shards of packed ice, he looked again. Far too small for an Orc. That only left... Alliance! So close to Agmar’s Hammer too! He should probably go and report... but the blood was fresh. The wounded person would not have gone far with that injury. Better to report the presence of a corpse than worry the Commander with a half-complete report of a wounded Alliance Spy.
Thinking of all the Alliance folk he had met over the past year or so, Steadfast tried to fit the boot print into what he knew of them. Too big for Gnome... too small for Human and Draenai. Could be Night Elf, but it was a fairly broad and heavy print. Most likely a Dwarf then. That would explain the axe marks on some of the Nerubian corpses... if only he could find more prints.
Standing, Steadfast allowed his eyes to see the contours of the land. A wounded person would probably leave the area away from the squatting bulk of Azjol’Nerub. An Alliance Spy would never seek help from the Horde outpost so that favoured the downhill slope where the trees were thickest. Yes, a slight depression in the snow some distance away indicated where someone had fallen and struggled upright again. A stick was poking out of the snow, its surface already sprouting a layer of ice crystals. The stick was odd... thick... metallic. A weapon?
Steadfast snorted and Manjari obediently padded over, pushing through the snow. Together, the pair moved to the weapon in the snow but before they had got closer than ten yards, Steadfast knew what it was. The reek of sulphur declared that it was a gun. Pulling it free from the ice where it was wedged, Steadfast quickly took in the details. Blood on the stock. Nerubian ichor on the barrel where it had been used as a club. The scope was smashed off, probably in the same attack leaving only its mounts. Sighting along the stubby weapon, he noted that the broad barrel was cold but straight. It was unloaded but probably fired a heavy projectile with devastating power. Not accurate and certainly not stealthy, it was not a weapon he would have chosen.
There were more tracks here. Clearer too, less obscured by the frantic melee that had occurred a short distance behind them. A small humanoid had fallen here. They were losing some blood. They had tried to push themselves up with the gun but had dropped it. A frosty lump under the crust of snow was a canvas pack. Whoever had lain here was well equipped and had been prepared for a long stay in the cold. Steadfast hauled the pack free and slung it over his shoulder by its one good strap.
There was a clear set of boot prints for a few steps but then they were joined by the prints of something larger which had approached from an angle. An animal. Steadfast didn’t need to know what kind. Manjari could have been the twin of this animal. The tracks were clearly bear, and a large one too judging by the force with which they crushed the packed snow.
More cautiously, Steadfast edged forward, nose testing the freezing air. The bear tracks were on top of the boot prints but not much fresher. The ever present wind was already taking the edge off them and fresh snow was falling, covering everything with an even layer of white. So... a wounded Dwarf, probably, now being tracked by a bear? A local white bear with a cub in a den perhaps? Or worse, a rabid Grizzly? Whatever the situation, Steadfast needed to hurry if he was to have any hope of finding the owner of the gun alive.
Ploughing rapidly through the snow which was now up to his knees, Steadfast winced as he saw the blood soaked hollow where the fleeing person had once again fallen. Where the bear had caught up with them. The snow was churned up too badly to see much of what happened next, but from that point there were only the bear tracks and a long sliding mark of something being dragged. Steadfast knew how Manjari carried his victims. A bear dragged prey using its jaws. The body of the victim would drag between the front paws, the thick neck muscles easily supporting the extra weight.
Before he could take another pace towards the trees ahead, Manjari started to growl - a long low rumble in the back of his throat. Glancing at his companion, Steadfast noted that the bear’s fur was standing up across the back of his neck and shoulders under a light covering of powdery ice. Following the line the beast’s nose was pointing, Steadfast could just make out a patch of deeper darkness between a few of the trees slightly to their left. Shielding his eyes from the stinging grains that the wind was whipping across their path, he began chanting the invocation of Eyes Of The Beast. Instantly his vision jerked forwards deep into the thicket of trees and he found himself looking back towards where he and Manjari were bracing themselves in the wind, barely visible even at this distance. With a grunt of effort, Steadfast rotated the point of view of the spell while it was still running and jerked upright, losing his concentration as he realised he had focused just in front of an enormous black bear. Reeling slightly at the sudden shift of perspective, Steadfast was aware of the shape of a prone figure between the black bear’s paws before his sight returned to normal.
A black bear? That meant the animal was not native to the Dragonblight! The great bears here were either of the same colour as the snow or the mottled plagued pelt that the Scourge imposed on the diseased and dying rabid Grizzlies. You were only likely to find black bears and Dwarves together in the distant hills of Dun Morogh. Perhaps the Dwarf was not prey after all... perhaps the bear was a tamed companion? Never one to underestimate a Dwarf in battle, Steadfast remembered that the few Hunters of that race that he had encountered often favoured the massive beasts of their native lands. This changed everything. The bond between Hunters transcended mere politics... perhaps the bond between Hunter and Beast would work in his favour also?
Motioning for Manjari to hold back, Steadfast rummaged in a pocket for one of the last pieces of a Sporeling Snack and stepped towards the trees...