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The Perfect Monster: A Tale of the Scourge By Matthew Perrett Chapter 1: Arise! Hunched over a massive wooden table, an elderly man carefully sewed scraps of dead flesh onto a framework of bones more than twice his size. So absorbed in his task, he was, that he failed to notice another living presence enter the decrepit laboratory. "Doctor Alexi Romerov!" boomed a deep, commanding voice. Startled, Alexi jerked his head up and looked around frantically. Seeing a man in the doorway, he squinted in the dim light, trying to make out his unannounced and unwelcome guest. Finally recognizing the figure, the doctor turned back to his work. "Oh, it’s just you," grumbled the old man, applying another stitch to the body before him while waiting for the inevitable rebuke. "Just me?" replied the other man tersely. "You would be wise not to take that tone with me. I am your superior, as much as you dislike acknowledging the fact." Doctor Alexi harrumphed loudly, then turned back and gave his visitor a mocking bow. "Well then, Necromancer Edvard Barov, please excuse my lapse of proper etiquette and subservience, but my work is time consuming and keeps me too busy for empty pleasantries." "Too time consuming, Acolyte Romerov," snapped Barov. "You’ve had more than enough time to finish your abomination, and you still have a great deal of work to do!" Alexi waved the retort away dismissively. "You cannot rush quality, Edvard. You may have hastily assembled your creature in order to earn a promotion, but I will not sacrifice my craftsmanship for petty material gains. My monster will be perfect, unlike your clumsy beast." Barov turned red with anger. "The abominations are hulking brutes of undead meat, not elven dancers! You may have forgotten, but this is an army! We have deadlines – ones we must meet! We are in the middle of a war, and mass-produced soldiers are the key to victory, not custom-made monsters!" Alexi took off his glasses and cleaned them on his black robe. "You have no idea what you are talking about, Edvard," he replied wearily. "Without innovation, the Scourge is doomed to failure. Great numbers can fall to superior strategy, and if we do not change

and adapt our foes will learn all our tricks. You do not understand because you are not a scientist. You were a paper-pusher before the Plague, and you are a paper-pusher now. And I will never finish if you don’t let me get back to my work." The necromancer sputtered with rage, unable to respond coherently. Finally controlling himself, he held up a finger angrily. "One month, Alexi! I’ll give you one month to finish making your abomination! If you are not done with it then, I will throw you to the tender mercy of our leaders!" With that, he turned and stormed out of the lab, leaving Alexi alone once again. Alexi chuckled and went back to his work. "Poor Edvard," he said quietly, "your temper will be the death of you one day." He patted the stitched monstrosity on the table, feeling the cold, leathery texture of the creature’s skin. "You will be a masterpiece," he whispered, "no matter what anyone else says." -------------------------------------------------Three weeks and five days later, Alexi’s work was complete. Only a final inspection to ensure his creation’s viability for reanimation remained. Ordinarily, the inspector would be the acolyte’s direct superior, but Alexi instead chose to go directly to Scholomance’s leader, Ras Frostwhisper. Such a maneuver was not unprecedented, but while the lich’s attention could be profitable to an ambitious mage, it could also prove deadly. It was a risk Alexi did not take lightly. Alexi felt the lich approach before he heard anything – a chill of both cold and fear running down his spine. One day that power would be his, but today he had more important concerns...namely staying alive. Alexi opened the door with shaking hands, revealing his undead master. Bowing deeply, he stepped to the side of the doorway as quickly as his old bones would allow. "Welcome to my laboratory, Lord Frostwhisper." The lich glided into the dank structure, cold mist flowing from its skeletal form as it calmly surveyed the room. Its focus soon turned to the creature on the immense operating table in the center of the room. "So," it intoned emotionlessly, "this is the abomination that you have informed me of." Alexi bowed again, his face showing both anxiety and confidence. "Yes, Lord Frostwhisper. It is finally complete." Ras Frostwhisper moved slowly to the edge of the table. It examined the monster carefully, with the infinite patience of the dead, and several minutes passed before it spoke again. "I see no flaws with your creation. However, I see none of the modifications you said were present. Elaborate." The doctor beamed with the pride of a master craftsman, and began to speak with great enthusiasm. "Yes, my lord. It is true that my changes are not obvious, but what I have

done is make it able to grow, and learn." He hesitated, waiting for a sign of approval from his master. The lich remained silent, as if considering the implications of this. "Continue," it said finally. Encouraged, Alexi went on. "I enchanted it with some of the magic that drives the ghouls, my lord. Unlike other abominations, it is imbued with a great hunger...a desire to feed, and take from what it consumes." Frostwhisper turned its head to look at the doctor, its eyes burning with cold flame. Alexi willed himself not to blink. "Explain," said the lich. "The necromantic magics that sustain the creature are not stagnant, my lord. Whatever it eats, the magic adds to the whole. The more it devours, the larger, stronger and tougher it becomes. Allow me to demonstrate, if I may." The lich nodded slowly, and Alexi walked to the other side of the table. Grabbing a hunk of rotting meat from a nearby bucket, the doctor dropped the dead tissue into a gaping hole in the creature’s stomach. Almost as soon as the meat made contact, it began to change color, quickly matching the shade of the abomination’s flesh. Within minutes, the meat was completely absorbed, appearing as if it had always been there. Frostwhisper watched the process impassively. "Impressive." Alexi nodded. "Indeed, my lord. In truth, the stitches are more for show than purpose at this point. The frame will adjust to support the additional mass, and will grow taller as well. Before long, it will be substantially larger than the other abominations. Also," he said with a sly grin, "this same magic allows the creature to learn and adapt – the standard magics keep our creations mindless because are unable to alter the structure of the brain. This one has no such...disadvantage." The lich considered this in silence for several minutes. "What are the limits of its intelligence?" Alexi gestured dismissively. "Little more than a child at best, my lord. Mindless creatures require too much control, but so do overly intelligent ones. It will learn from its mistakes and remember orders, but it is still stupid enough to be properly malleable." "Good. I am pleased that you understand the needs of the Scourge. However, the time it took to construct this creature concerns me. If it passes the trials, we will need many more. You are capable of reducing the production time, I assume." The doctor bowed. "Of course, my lord. Prototypes always take the longest to produce. Now that I understand the process, I can work on perfecting it."

Nodding, the lich almost smiled. "Good. The Scourge needs more innovators such as yourself, Necromancer Romerov." A promotion! Alexi was thrilled, but kept his face calm. "I am pleased to be of service, my lord. And if I may make a suggestion..." "You may." "Necromancer Edvard Barov’s abomination would make for a fitting trial for my creation. He has attempted to discredit me and my work on a number of occasions, and I believe that such a challenge would settle matters once and for all." "Yes," said the lich, "I have heard him speak of you. His dislike for you leads him to act...unprofessionally at times." Frostwhisper paused for a moment. "The challenge will be held tomorrow at dawn." Alexi bowed again. "We will be ready, my lord." Frostwhisper turned away and slowly glided out of the lab. Pausing in the doorway, it looked over its shoulder at Alexi. "We expect great things of you, Necromancer Romerov. Do not disappoint us." Then it was gone. Alexi stood at the table a few minutes longer, then collapsed into a nearby chair. "Whew! Never been so nervous in my life!" He grinned with fierce triumph, and rubbed his hands together. "Alright...time to put the finishing touches on you. Tomorrow’s a big day, my boy, and it wouldn’t do to be unprepared." -------------------------------------------------Midwinter. Midnight. The Scourge facility of Scholomance was a beehive of activity, even at this hour, and especially on this day. Liches prepared dark rituals to take advantage of the equinox and the magical energies available at the changing of the seasons. High-ranking necromancers aided their leaders in their preparations, gathering reagents and tomes of forbidden lore. Ghouls and abominations guarded the gates, ready for an attack if it came. Only a few acolytes slept this evening, most of them too keyed up by the magic in the air to rest either. Necromancer Alexi Romerov was not among the blissfully unconscious. In the dark of the night, Alexi stood beside the table where his creation lay, chanting vile words of necromantic power. The lab was devoid of light, save for five candles that gave off a red glow and unholy-looking smoke. Although the magic that animated the monster was complete, it had not yet awoken, and the final spell that would bring the creature to life was nearly finished. "– drak thal’an, gul kad alanatos! Fer’nas, grath vo zeradal! Rise, my creation! Know life once more, in the name of the Lich King!"

As he spoke the final words, Alexi thrust his arms into the air, and the black smoke flowed down into the gaping maw like a whirlpool. The force of the wind extinguished the candles, leaving Alexi in utter darkness. The ritual complete, the doctor lowered his arms. Silently, he stood there in the dark while he caught his breath. Sighing, he rubbed his forehead to relieve the weariness that threatened to overcome him. "Guess my age is showing," he said, chuckling. "This wouldn’t have drained me so much ten years ago. Got into this business too late, I suppose, but it won’t matter soon. Now, where did I put those candles..." "Here, mas-ter." "Ah, good." Striking a match, Alexi found the candle he was looking for and lit it. Light radiated from the flame, revealing a hideous face that peered at him curiously in the dim illumination. An ordinary man would have been scared out of his mind by the proximity of this horror in the darkness, but Alexi took in the sight calmly. After all, he had seen that face every day for months. "Good, you’re awake!" said the doctor with a broad grin. He moved around the room, lighting more candles so he could see more clearly. When he turned back, he saw his creation propped up on one massive elbow, looking around the brightening room with childish amazement. "Yes, mas-ter," it replied in a deep, resonant voice. It had the same echo-y quality that all of the Scourge possessed, as if the magics that reanimated them carried their words from the damned souls in the hells directly to their lips. A mystery Alexi hoped to solve, but one that would have to wait for now. "Where...this place?" asked the abomination, bringing Alexi out of his musing. "I am Necromancer Alexi Romerov, and I am your master," he replied with a commanding tone. "You are in my laboratory, in the Scourge training facility of Scholomance." "Sk...Skolo...manse?" The creature struggled with the name, the same way a child would with a new and difficult word. Alex was thrilled, but kept his face calm. "Yes, but that word is not important right now. Do you understand that you are one of the Scourge, and that the Lich King is your master?" The monster paused briefly, then spoke. "Yes...we are...the Scourge. Lich King...mas-ter of Scourge." Alexi chuckled. "Excellent. Do you have a name?" It was always wise to ask, he reflected, since occasionally the Lich King stepped in during the reanimation process and gave the newly awakened undead a name. Once given, the undead would cling to the

name with the only shred of personal identity they had left, and could never be convinced to accept another name. The abomination looked sad, and shook its head. "No, mas-ter. Had name once, but...forgot." Fierce pride surged through Alexi. So intelligent already, and newly risen! This monster would be his – no other would command it! "Then, my creation, you shall be called..." He glanced at the creature’s plump gut and grinned. "Pudge. Rise, Pudge, and stand before me!" Pudge nodded vigorously. "Yes, mas-ter. Pudge...good name." Sitting up, it slowly slid off the table and tentatively placed its oversized feet on the floor. Its balance was a bit shaky, Alexi noted, but that problem would work itself out soon enough. Pudge simply needed to get used to its – his, Alexi decided – his new body. "Excellent. Now, walk around the outer edge of the room while I tell you what you need to know. You have many things to learn, my creation." Pudge nodded again and began stomping around the room, his great bulk causing test tubes to rattle and loose items to shake with every step. "That sound good, mas-ter. Pudge know so little." Alexi cackled with glee. "Yes, yes, I know. Now, listen to me very carefully. In a few hours, we will leave this place. You will follow me to another place. Is this clear?" "Yes, mas-ter." "Good. When we get to the other place, you will wait until things are ready. When I say to, you will fight another abomination, like yourself. You do know how to fight, yes?" Pudge’s circuit around the room slowly briefly as he thought, then nodded and curled a meaty hand into a fist. "Yes, mas-ter, can fight. Need sword." Alexi laughed dryly. "Unfortunately, we do not have swords big enough for one your size. You will have to learn a new weapon, I’m afraid. Pull down that hook from the ceiling." Pudge stopped walking and looked up. Seeing the massive butcher’s hook, he stomped over and pulled it loose. The large length of chain attached to the hook came down as well, a portion of it smacking Pudge on the head as it fell. "Ow," grumbled Pudge petulantly, rubbing his head. Chuckling, Alexi moved towards the door. "I’m going to get some sleep. I will be back in a few hours, so practice with that thing while I’m gone. Don’t leave this room for any reason...and don’t break anything!"

"Yes, mas-ter," called Pudge distractedly, already busy testing the weight and balance of his new weapon. As Alexi closed the door, he heard the sound of shattering glass and a muffled "Oops." Alexi clucked with annoyance, but he was pleased nonetheless. His Pudge would show them all...tomorrow! Chapter 2: Trials Pudge stomped noisily down the halls of Scholomance, following his master Alexi Romerov and dragging his new hook behind him. The abomination made sure not to follow the little man too closely – he had already stepped on the doctor’s foot once, and his master still walked funny. He knew his master was angry with him because he had stopped talking for the first time since Pudge woke up. Still, the doctor was talking to him again, so Pudge guessed that meant he wasn’t mad anymore. The master was talking awfully fast, too, and Pudge struggled to keep up with the constant flow of words. He knew it was important, but it was hard to focus on walking and listening at the same time. "– and remember, Pudge," said Alexi as he strode quickly down the hallway, "when you see a lich, stand aside and bow to them. Oh, and call them Lord, preferably with their name if you know it – they like that, as much as an emotionless being of untold power can like anything. You do remember how to bow, right?" "Yes, mas-ter. Pudge practiced many times." Pudge remembered what liches looked like. They were tall, but not as tall as he was, very thin and bony, and they floated off the ground. Pudge wondered how they did that. There was something else...oh, and they made things cold. Pudge was sure he would know a lich when he saw one now. Alexi stopped in front of a massive set of double doors taller than Pudge, and the monster stopped himself before he ran into his master. He was still getting used to walking, though he didn’t remember it being so hard...before. Before when? The thought always made his head hurt. "Now then," said Alexi, turning to face his creation, "do you remember what you’re going to do out here?" Pudge paused for a moment to think, then nodded vigorously. "Yes, mas-ter. Pudge wait for signal, then fight other thing like me. Win fight, make everyone happy." He grinned toothily, feeling very pleased with himself. Alexi chuckled dryly. "Well, certainly not everyone, but," he waved dismissively when Pudge looked confused, "that’s an explanation for another time." Pudge nodded again, still feeling like he was missing something. "Yes, mas-ter."

The doctor turned back to the doors and pushed them open slowly. As the doors yawned open, Pudge saw the outside world for the first time...but it wasn’t the first time. He had seen this Before, whenever that was. Stepping outside, Pudge blinked in the bright light of early morning. The sunlight all but blinded him, and from the way his master was squinting, the light was no more pleasant or welcome for the small man. Slowly, the light faded until finally Pudge could see again. Dry, cracked black dirt crunched beneath his bare feet as he looked around with childish amazement. A vast encampment covered the area, full of people and buildings of all shapes and sizes. A large forest of black and browning trees lay to his right, and he knew that at one time animals of all kinds had lived there. He could hear no sign of them now...which was just as well, considering how much noise the people were making. "Why they all so busy, mas-ter?" "Everyone has work to do," replied Alexi, "and the Scourge has no place for slackers. We are at war, as I have told you before." Pudge looked down at his master curiously. "Is Scourge winning?" Alexi hmphed with annoyance. "We made excellent progress initially, but I understand that we are at something of a stalemate with the allied forces. We no longer have the advantage of surprise, and they are learning our tricks. Too few of our leaders understand the need for change...but you will change that. You will help us win this war, Pudge." Pudge scratched his head, not knowing what his master meant. "How, mas-ter?" The doctor gave him a wry grin, then began to move forward again. "You’ll see," he said, chuckling quietly. Pudge shrugged and continued to follow his master. After a few minutes of walking, they reached a large clearing. A great number of robed people stood around, apparently waiting for something. Waiting for him? Pudge thought this was very strange; his master told him there would only be the other and its master, and maybe some liches. Did these people think he was important? He didn’t think he was important. Alexi strode confidently into the clearing, and several people stepped aside to let him pass. On the other side of the area, they were doing the same, making room for an angrylooking man and a tall, bulky creature. Was this the thing that was like him? Pudge looked down at himself, then back at the monster. Yup, very much like him. Smaller, though, and carrying a huge cleaver instead of a hook. Pudge wondered if it could fight well, and found himself looking forward to the battle. The other man stormed across the clearing and pointed angrily at Alexi. "You!" he shouted, then lowered his voice. "I don’t know how you arranged this, Alexi," the man whispered fiercely, "but this...this farce won’t help you!"

"I beg to differ, Edvard," replied Alexi smoothly, a condescending smirk on his face. "And I didn’t have to arrange anything. I simply mentioned the idea to Lord Frostwhisper, and he thought it had merit." "Then it was your idea! I knew you had a hand in this, you, you–" Barov closed his eyes briefly, obviously trying to calm himself. "I know what you’re up to," he said with a vicious smile, opening his eyes again, "but it won’t work. You only finished him last night, so you can’t possibly have had any time to train him yet. Stitches and I have had the past month to train – it’s easy to see who the victor will be." "You can tell yourself that all you want, Edvard," said Alexi calmly, "but very shortly we’ll see who wasted their time...and odds are, it won’t be me." Edvard glared at Alexi for several seconds, then turned around and walked back to his abomination. "We’ll see who laughs last, Romerov!" "Yes," said the doctor quietly, "we shall see." Pudge looked down at his master curiously. "Who that, mas-ter?" Alexi sighed and rubbed his forehead wearily. "My rival. My enemy. Whatever other nasty word I can call to mind." He gave Pudge a serious look. "Whatever happens, Pudge, do not harm him. Defeat his creation, his...Stitches, but not him. He would love to use that against me." Pudge nodded. He didn’t know what his master was talking about, but it sounded important. "Yes, mas-ter." Suddenly the chatter died down, leaving the clearing in silence. The crowd parted again, making way for three liches. Pudge noticed his master was very surprised, but didn’t know why. "Three," Alexi whispered with awe, "three of them! I never expected so many! Lord Ras Frostwhisper in front, of course," Alexi pointed the lich out to Pudge, "and flanked by Araj the Summoner and Naze the Eternal! Truly amazing! They’re usually too busy to bother with such things...a point for our side, to be sure!" The three liches, having arrived, stopped and took a moment to survey the challengers. Frostwhisper glided forward a short ways and stared at each of the necromancers in turn. "You are ready?" it said coolly. Alexi bowed as deeply as his age would allow, and Pudge mimicked him clumsily a moment later. Edvard and Stitches did the same, though more smoothly. "We are, Lord Ras." He bowed again to the other liches. "Lord Araj, Lord Naze." The two liches regarded him emotionlessly, then nodded their acknowledgement. Ras held up a hand, then dropped it quickly. "Begin."

Bellowing a war cry, Stitches charged across the clearing. Taken by surprise by the suddenness of the attack, Pudge stumbled back a step and clumsily raised his hook and chain. His hasty defense blocked his foe’s chop at the last second, and Pudge felt the impact reverberate through his meaty arms. His opponent was strong! Keeping the chain up, he blocked a second strike, then ducked under a vicious swing that only barely missed. Knowing he had to get off the defensive, Pudge attempted to hit the other abomination with his hook, but Stitches easily dodged the inept attack. The miss threw him off balance and sent him stumbling forward, knocking his foe back a few steps. Pudge swung wildly, trying to force Stitches back further, but the abomination would have none of it. His enemy grinned as he casually blocked another strike, then countered with a brutal backhand. The blow made Pudge reel in pain, pain he had not felt since Before. Distracted, he only noticed his opponent’s next attack at the last second, when it was too late to avoid it. The cleaver bit into Pudge’s shoulder and he roared with pain, his green blood flowing out of the wound. A reflexive strike knocked the abomination’s arm aside and dislodged the cleaver, and a quick attack with the hook struck Stitches in the face as Pudge retreated. Stitches shook his head clear and spit out a grimy tooth, then growled and stomped forward to continue the fight, no longer amused. Edvard laughed heartily, his voice carrying across the clearing. "Your Pudge is putting on quite a show, Alexi! As you can see, a little training goes a long way, though I think your creation will go far as well – to the trash heap!" Alexi smiled slightly in response. "This fight is far from over, Edvard. First blood means nothing." Edvard’s taunts were irritating, but Alexi was more concerned about Pudge. He knew the creature would learn quickly...but he wished Pudge would speed it up! The battle continued to rage between the two monstrous enemies. Pudge managed to get in a few more weak hits, but was unable to slow the other abomination’s assault. Several more minor wounds leaked blood, though Pudge was not yet seriously injured. Stitches battered Pudge’s hook aside with a flurry of attacks, then leaned down and swung at an exposed leg. Pudge moved the appendage clear, but a sudden push sent him careening off balance. Toppling like a falling tree, he fell to the ground with a deafening crash. Struggling to right himself, Pudge barely noticed his opponent bringing his cleaver down hard. Raising an arm to defend himself, the blade cut into him and caused immeasurable agony. Fighting through the pain, Pudge’s anger rose. He knew how to fight! The hook was slowing him down because he didn’t know how to use it, but it could not keep him from winning! Snarling with rage, Pudge caught his foe’s head in the hook and pulled him down, head-butting him ferociously. Stitches reeled back from the blow, giving Pudge the time he needed to get to his feet. The other abomination growled and swung again, but Pudge neatly caught the blade on the inner curve of the hook. Spinning his arm around, he twisted his enemy’s arm around until he lost his grip, sending the cleaver

flying across the clearing. Disarmed, Stitches tried to get back and retrieve his weapon, but Pudge grabbed him by the throat and jammed his hook into his opponent’s stomach, ripping the poorly stitched flesh open. Howling with pain and rage, Stitches struggled to break free of Pudge’s grip. Suddenly he paused, and Pudge could faintly hear the mental command Barov was giving his creation. Get the acid, now! We are lost – this is our only chance! The abominations turned their heads in unison towards a large dead tree at the edge of the clearing. Now aware of its presence, Pudge spied a large cask hidden behind the tree, guarded surreptitiously by three of Edvard’s loyal acolytes. Distracted, Pudge was unable to dodge the lightning fast blow to his head, and he released his grip. Stitches pushed past him and lurched towards the cask with grim resolve. Pudge’s eyes narrowed with cold fury. They would not cheat their way to victory while he still moved! Whipping the hook around like a sling, Pudge hurled it at the other abomination. Catching Stitches around the throat, he jerked the chain viciously and pulled his enemy down to the ground. Stitches struggled to rise, but Pudge lumbered forward, wrapped the chain around the abomination’s neck and yanked him up. "You...made me hungry," Pudge growled quietly. With that, he bit into his foe’s neck, consuming the undead tissue with sharp teeth and a ravenous appetite. Stitches screamed and fought to get free, but he was too weak. Soon he slumped over lifelessly, the necromantic magic that reanimated him no longer able to sustain him. Edvard fell to his knees, broken and defeated. As Pudge sated his terrible hunger, Alexi walked over to Barov, accompanied by Lord Frostwhisper. Pale-faced, Edvard rose quickly, but swayed on his feet. Lord Ras gazed at him unnervingly for several minutes before finally breaking the silence. "Pudge has defeated Stitches. Necromancer Romerov takes your position by right of challenge. Necromancer Barov, you will now oversee the acolytes’ ghoul training and creation. Is this clear?" " lord," replied Edvard quietly, bowing shakily. The lich waved dismissively. "Dismissed." Edvard glared at Alexi wrathfully, then turned and departed. Pudge lumbered over, having finished his meal. He carried both the hook and the cleaver, his toothy grin covered in green ichor. Alexi noted with great pleasure that not only had all of Pudge’s wounds healed already, but also that he was at least an inch taller. He would have to measure his creation back at the lab to discover exactly how much he had grown as a result of his feast. Turning to face the lich, he bowed low. "What did my lord think of the trials?"

Frostwhisper looked over the abomination thoughtfully. "Brutal. Effective. He exceeded my expectations." It glanced back at Alexi. "As I said before, I expect great things of you and this...Pudge, High Necromancer Romerov." Alexi’s smile broadened, and he bowed again. "We live only to serve, Lord Ras." Chapter 3: First Sortie Alexi trudged wearily through the twisting passages of Scholomance, the silk of his new robes brushing against the floor quietly and picking up stray dirt. He never noticed how dirty the place was when he wore his Acolyte’s robe, but in his fine High Necromancer’s garb, the dust and dirt disgusted him. He did not need to look to know that the hem of his robe had a thick coating of grime by now and would need washing...again. Perhaps he could ‘persuade’ a few of his less obedient students to sweep the floors clean. Menial labor always served as an effective punishment, especially for the unruly and arrogant. Thinking about his new students made the doctor grumble under his breath with irritation. Some of them had a good balance of intelligence, discipline, subservience, and ambition, but they were far too few. Only a few suffered from lack of intellect, thankfully – they always required the most supervision, and had the highest odds of doing serious, accidental harm. Already one student had killed himself during a relatively simple exercise; the man’s spell had backfired, draining his life energies into the Twisting Nether instead of infusing a skeleton with necromantic magic from the dread realm. Alexi was glad to have him gone – fools like that had no place in the Scourge. No, the students that frustrated him and made him feel like an old man were the overly ambitious and arrogant ones. They had enough intelligence to succeed, but too little discipline, subservience and wisdom to know their place. For most, learning magic is empowering, but wise mages quickly learn that for every secret they discover, they will find themselves with two more unanswered questions. The arrogant students reveled in their parlor tricks and lorded their magical ‘prowess’ over their lessers, with no understanding of how little they actually knew. Truly, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Sighing, Alexi made his way down the stairs to Ras Frostwhisper’s private laboratory. Passing a pair of elite skeletal guards, the doctor halted his step just inside the spacious room that held all of the lich’s personal experiments. Seeing that Frostwhisper was in the middle of a delicate procedure, and knowing full well that it would not pay to interrupt his master now, Alexi stood in the doorway and waited for the lich to acknowledge his presence. Twenty minutes later, Frostwhisper set down his test tubes and cast a simple spell to slow the passage of time for the contents to a crawl – Alexi had used it many times before to

preserve time sensitive projects when other matters called him away. Without looking, the lich gestured to a nearby desk and chair. "Sit." Gratefully, Alexi walked over to the chair and sat down, resting his tired body. A few minutes later, Frostwhisper floated around to the other side of the desk, seating itself in a large, high-backed chair. "You wished to speak to me, my lord?" asked Alexi. "Yes. I wished to know if Pudge was successful on his first day in the field." Alexi shook his head. "I don’t know, Lord Ras. The assault unit hasn’t returned yet." -------------------------------------------------Pudge squinted in the bright light as he trudged through the forest, following a small group of necromancers, ghouls and abominations down a narrow trail. The dense woods kept out most of the light, but every so often, a sharp beam of blinding sunlight would make its way through the tree cover onto the ground and creatures below. For an entity born and raised in darkness and shadow, the light was pure torture, and Pudge did his best to keep the harsh rays from his eyes. Despite his efforts, the sun assaulted him with unerring accuracy and irritating frequency, and Pudge grumbled with annoyance as he marched. His fleshy stomach grumbled as well, reminding him that his only meal today had been a rotting deer carcass slain by the Plague. His master fed him well, but Pudge’s curiosity was as insatiable as his appetite, and the abomination was growing tired of the same putrid fare, day after day. He needed something different...something fresh. Some fresh meat, he decided – after the incident with the tree bark, he wanted nothing to do with plant life ever again. Just thinking about it brought the taste to his mouth, and he spit noisily to get rid of it. One of the necromancers leading the group glared at him, but Pudge just grinned toothily. They didn’t control him, as they did the others. Only his master could do that. Catching a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, Pudge glanced curiously at the nearby trees. Another blast of sunlight hit him square in the face, however, driving the thought from his under-developed mind. The monster walked on, oblivious to the dangers of the silent forest. -------------------------------------------------"Oh, I do hope Pudge is alright," said Alexi nervously, rubbing his hands together in the cold office. "Any number of things could go wrong out there." Ras gestured dismissively. "He is capable, and you trained him well. He will be fine." --------------------------------------------------

A pillar of fire erupted from the ground beneath the necromancers, slaying several instantly and leaving the others to burn alive. The other ghouls and abominations stopped mid-step, deprived of the controlling influence of the necromancers, and simply stood in place looking dazed and confused. Pudge looked around frantically, seeing an ambush party melt out of the woods around him. Bows, long ears...these were the Blood Elves his master told him about! A tall elf in a large cloak and plate mail stepped forward, three balls of pale green energy circling his head. "You monsters have caused enough evil in our lands for one lifetime," he stated calmly. "May you find peace in the afterlife, minions of the Scourge." Raising a hand, he pointed at the hapless creatures. "Kill them all, my brethren! FOR QUEL’THALAS!" Shouting vicious elven war cries, the elves charged the defenseless monsters. Realizing he had to do something, and quick, Pudge turned to his allies. "Fight!" he roared, "Fight, and leave none uneaten! REND AND TEAR!" Miraculously, the undead heard his command and hurled themselves at their rapidly approaching foes with a mindless frenzy. For better or worse, Pudge was their leader in this desperate battle. -------------------------------------------------Alexi sighed, letting the tension drain out of him. "Yes, I suppose you’re right, Lord Ras. We old men tend to fear the worst, and my imagination is getting the better of my reason. After all, how badly could a routine patrol go?" -------------------------------------------------"Ow! Stop shooting Pudge!" Pudge winced as another arrow wedged itself into his back, but the pain did nothing to slow his rampage of death. A quick backhand strike with his cleaver beheaded a charging swordsman, and a powerful blow from the hook crushed the skull of a second warrior. Pudge watched the dying elf twitch on the ground for a second, then grinned with satisfaction and turned back to the battle. Nearly half of his companions had fallen, too badly damaged to rise again, but their berserker fury and Pudge’s might had killed enough elves to make the fight almost even. Their enemies had clearly not expected the undead to fight back so effectively after losing their controllers, and that surprise had turned the tides in the Scourge’s favor. Another arrow bounced off Pudge’s thick skull, forcefully reminding him that the archers did not, in fact, intend to leave him alone. Since they were not in the middle of the chaotic woodland conflict, they had recovered the quickest and focused their fire on Pudge, the most obvious threat. Snarling, Pudge speared a preoccupied elven warrior on his hook and threw him at the archers, knocking several to the ground and causing the rest to scatter. That gave him all the time he needed to barrel into their midst and shatter their line, killing most of the elven bowmen and sending the rest running.

A strange tingling sensation under his skin made Pudge turn around, just in time to see a large circle of magic rune appear on the ground under the battling elves and undead. The elven leader gestured imperiously and uttered words of arcane power, preparing to unleash another torrent of flame on the area. "Oh no you don’t!" cried Pudge angrily, hurling his hook across the battlefield at the mage. The hook looped around the elf’s torso, and a vigorous jerk of the chain pulled him off his feet, disrupting the spell. Pudge stomped over to the fallen leader, dragging the elf towards him as he paced forward. The mage struggled to free himself, but Pudge grabbed him by the neck before he could get away. Hauling the leader into the air, the abomination savored the stark terror of his captive. "What kind of a monster are you?" whispered the elf. "Hungry," replied Pudge with a grin. With that, he opened his toothy maw and bit the mage’s head off. Crunching noisily on his hard-won treat, Pudge watched the remaining elves turn and flee. Only a few managed to escape; the Scourge warriors fell upon the rest and began to feed, ignoring the screams of the still living as they feasted. Slinging the dead elven leader over his shoulder, Pudge gestured back at Scholomance. "Come! Time to go back!" he called across the clearing. Rounding up the remainder of the unit, Pudge stomped back to the Scourge base, followed by the wounded and battered survivors. -------------------------------------------------A young acolyte scurried in Frostwhisper’s laboratory, stopping just past the guards. "Lord Ras, High Necromancer Romerov," said the mage-in-training breathlessly, bowing to each in turn, "the scouting party has returned – they were attacked in the woods." Alexi leapt to his feet, shocked. "What about Pudge?!" The acolyte took a moment to catch his breath before continuing. "Not too badly wounded...the other students are pulling the arrows out of him now." The messenger took another deep breath. "I ran all the way here...I knew my lords would want to know as soon as possible." "A wise decision," replied Frostwhisper. "Go to your creation, Romerov." "Yes, Lord Ras," said Alexi gratefully. The old man bowed quickly, then hurried out of the lab. As he passed the acolyte, he patted the young man on the shoulder. "Keep up the good work, lad, and you’ll go far with the Scourge." Alexi barely heard the youth’s "Yes sir!" as he raced down the corridors of Scholomance, abandoning all pretenses of decorum in his haste to get to Pudge. Bursting through the main entrance, he rushed down the hill to the lower camp, which bustled with activity. Acolytes tended to the wounds of the surviving warriors, making them ready for combat as quickly as humanly possible. As he approached, Alexi saw Pudge sitting apart from

the others, carefully pulling armor away from a severed leg. "Pudge! What happened?" he exclaimed. Looking up, Pudge grinned at his master. "We was attacked by elves in forest, mas-ter. They killed little mages, then tried to kill us all. But," stated Pudge proudly, "Pudge told others what to do. Killed leader, chased elves away, came home." Pudge gestured at the half-eaten body of the elven mage, then grimaced. "Only arrows really hurt Pudge. Hurt to pull out, too." Shaking his head, Alexi chuckled. "I imagine they did," he replied, still worn out from his sprint. Pudge’s expression brightened, and he reached for something Alexi could not see. "Pudge brought mas-ter a present!" Pulling out a red, bloodstained cloak, he held it up for his master to see. Alexi examined the cloak carefully, then laughed. "A Blood Mage’s cloak, eh? It will need cleaning, of course, but this is an excellent present. You did well, Pudge," he said as he took the cloak from the abomination’s massive hands, "and I’m glad you’re back safe and sound." Pudge beamed at his creator, then took a bite of the elf’s leg. "Pudge is glad to be back, too," he replied happily, talking around a mouthful of the oh-so-yummy fresh elf meat. Chapter 4: Beyond the Grave "Mas-ter, Pudge’s tummy feels funny..." Alexi, watching a bubbling and smoking beaker intently, held up a long, bony finger. "One moment, Pudge! This concoction is almost finished, and I can’t take my eyes off it for more than a second at this stage." Knowing that his master would be mad if he ruined another delicate experiment, Pudge tried to find something to take his mind off the distinctly unpleasant feeling of building pressure in his stomach. Glancing down at his substantial gut, he noticed that the gaping hole in his abdomen wasn’t hanging open as much as it had yesterday. In fact, the edges of the gash appeared to have come together, sealing the opening almost completely shut. Pudge, having grown used to the hole, thought it looked weird. Across the room, Alexi quietly counted down from ten, then added a small quantity of yellow powder to the beaker just as the gray smoke rising out of it turned a sickly purple color. Stirring the mixture swiftly, Alexi sighed in relief when the smoke dissipated and revealed a sea-green liquid in the glass container. "That makes six," the necromancer said wearily, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "If I had any other way to get a decent night’s rest anymore, I wouldn’t bother making the blasted things." Turning away from

his alchemy equipment, Alexi looked over to see Pudge standing in the doorway. The abomination was poking his gut repeatedly, a painful grimace on his face. "Pudge, what in the Lich King’s name are you doing?" Pudge looked up at his master, and started to form a response when a large quantity of gas noisily forced itself out of the hole in his stomach. Alexi wrinkled his nose in disgust and turned back to his equipment, missing Pudge’s muffled cry of pain in the noise. "That’s repulsive, Pudge. Try to learn a little decorum, and step out of the room the next time you feel one of those coming." The elderly man leaned on the table in front of him, then suddenly jerked his head up as a thought struck him. "Wait...the dead don’t—" The gash in Pudge’s abdomen, no longer able to withstand the pressure, finally burst open, spewing massive amounts of yellow-brown gas into the room with a loud hissing sound. Other tears in the abomination’s flesh appeared all around his waist, expelling more of the gas in all directions. Pudge bellowed in agony as a searing pain swept over his entire body, his skin starting to bubble and pop where the acidic gas touched it. Alexi, recognizing the danger in an instant, dashed across the room and hurled himself into a specially designed closet that – at least in theory – should protect him from all harm. Peering out of the crack in the doors, the old man saw the gas sweep over his laboratory, melting and dissolving anything in its path. Frantically, he racked his brains as to how to make it stop. Suddenly, an idea came to him. "Pudge," he shouted, "try to turn off the gas!" "Pudge can’t, mas-ter! It huuuuuuurts!" The monster was staggering around the lab, desperately trying to escape the noxious vapors that were causing him so much pain. "YES YOU CAN!" yelled Alexi. "Concentrate! Your body is making it, so only you can stop it! Stop flailing around and think HARD about the nasty gas going away!" Seeing the sleeves of his robe start to come apart, the necromancer pushed himself into the back of the closet and sealed the doors. A few minutes later, the hissing noises died out, and Pudge timidly knocked on the doors of the closet. "The gas is gone, mas-ter." Cautiously opening the doors, Alexi scanned the room. The toxic haze had vanished...apparently, the gas dissipated quickly. The damage to the lab, however, would not disappear so quickly. The vapors had dissolved every piece of glass, the tables and chairs had melted into misshapen forms, and only twisted fragments remained of anything metal. The sleeping potions he had worked so hard to brew, he noted with a mournful sigh, were now a puddle of sea-green liquid on the floor. Turning his attention to Pudge, he saw that the gas had completely burned off one layer of skin, if not two. "Are you alright, Pudge?" The abomination smiled weakly. "Yes, mas-ter. Pudge hurts," he said, wincing in pain as he shifted his weight, "but Pudge will get better. Some meat would be good."

"Funny you should say that, Pudge," Alexi grimly replied. "If I’m not mistaken, it was meat that caused this to happen." Pudge scratched his head in confusion. "But mas-ter, Pudge thought meat was good." "Oh, it is," said Alexi as he calmly noted that his black High Necromancer robes were slowly but surely disintegrating. "Eating meat will give the magics that sustain you raw material to work with, allowing them to repair any damage you’ve suffered. Now then, perhaps you could remind me exactly what it was you ate last." "Elf meat," stated the monster with a toothy grin. "Was yummy." "Yes, of course," the necromancer replied as he carefully avoided a shard of jagged metal on the floor. "Elves are inherently magical, after all, and the two kinds of magic mixing together must have caused you to gain that new ability. And what a spell!" He gestured at the mangled lab, damaged beyond repair. "Just look at what it did in a few minutes! Imagine if you could control that gas, Pudge!" "Pudge doesn’t want to control it," the abomination stated grumpily. "It hurts." Alexi patted Pudge’s arm gently. "Just think of it as a new weapon, one that you have to learn to use properly. It will take some practice, but I’m certain it will come in handy the next time you’re outnumbered." The elderly man grimaced as he surveyed the devastation. "Just...don’t practice in my lab. Go get some food and a little rest while I take care of this mess." "Yes, mas-ter," Pudge replied as he lumbered out of the room, passing a small crowd of students who had come to see what was going on. Alexi scowled at his apprentices. "Don’t just stand there, you simpletons! Start cleaning up this mess! Oh, and fetch me a new robe, before this one falls right off me." -------------------------------------------------Pudge stumbled down the empty hallway, leaning heavily on the wall for support. Though he had felt fine in the lab, a rapidly growing bout of headache and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. Pausing to rest for a moment, Pudge shook his head vigorously, sending spittle flying in the direction of some nearby students, who watched him curiously. When the massive abomination snarled at them, they cringed and scurried off. Alone again, Pudge sighed deeply. He didn’t like feeling DRAINED. Was it the gas that his master wanted him to learn to control, or maybe the potions in the lab? The gas had broken a lot of bottles, and Alexi did tell him once that mixing things together

sometimes made weird things happen. Either way, Pudge was tired, and he wanted to find a place to lie down and... mommy ...sleep? Pudge looked around the hallway, but couldn’t find the source of the voice. It sounded like a little boy, but what was a child doing in Scholomance? How did Pudge know what a boy sounded like? He shook his head again, which just made it hurt more. Maybe he was imagining it. help me mommy i’m scared Pudge let out a low growl, gripping the handle of his cleaver tightly as his eyes swept the corridor. He still couldn’t find the boy, and it was starting to annoy him. Then, remembering where he was, Pudge relaxed. This was Scholomance, after all! Torture and live experiments were not uncommon here, though usually the necromancers used older subjects than little boys. i’m cold and it hurts and it doesn’t stop why doesn’t it stop Like that man! Pudge leaned back on the wall, relieved. Nothing to worry about, just day-to-day if only he could get rid of his headache... jakob why did you leave me you left me to die alone and unloved i’m trapped here forever and i’m cold so cold A woman now. Funny, they all sounded so close. Pudge wondered if some necromancer was using a room nearby. Watching might take his mind off his headache, if he could just muster up the energy to find out where the voices were coming from... you didn’t have to run faster than the SCOURGE just faster than ME i’ll find you HENRIK i’ll find you i’ll HUNT YOU DOWN AND KILL YOU Pudge winced, the last voice’s scream amplified by his throbbing skull. Wherever they were coming from, they were chatty and getting louder. Noticing a closed door to his left, Pudge stumbled over and tugged on the handle. The door’s rusty hinges squealed and resisted his efforts, but he pried it open and glanced around. The room was dark and dusty, clearly unused for some time. Closing the door behind him, the abomination limped inside, using his cleaver like a cane. i miss my mommy and my daddy and nana she baked the best cookies and she made my favorite blanket i wish i was home i’m so hungry and so cold i wish i had my blanket the cold won’t go away

The boy again...but the room was empty. Pudge was really confused now – the voices were so close, but the room was empty and he could almost figure out where they were coming from if only his damn headache would just go away! i miss you so much anne if only i could see you one more time i hate you jakob you coward you ran away and let them eat me alive i was screaming and you ran away I’LL KILL YOU HENRIK I’LL FIND YOU AND MAKE YOU COLD LIKE ME Pudge’s cleaver slipped out of his fingers and clattered on the stone floor. Staggering into the center of the room, he clutched his head with both meaty hands and moaned piteously. He couldn’t find the voices because they were in his HEAD and he couldn’t make them stop and there were dozens of them and his head hurt so much and he was so cold mommy i miss you mommy i want to go home but i can’t move i can’t see i can’t feel but i’m so cold i love you so much anne why did the plague take you from me i lost everything when the scourge took you i’d avenge you if only i could move but i can’t and i’m so cold they ATE me jakob they ATE me while i SCREAMED and what they didn’t EAT they put in a monster and i’m TRAPPED and i’m so COLD IF I COULD MOVE I’D HUNT YOU DOWN AND KILL YOU HENRIK BUT I CAN’T MOVE AND I’M SO COLD Something gave in Pudge’s mind, and he fell to the floor with a crash unheard by the rest of the facility. Blissfully unconscious, the abomination slept, the voices mercifully silent at last. Chapter 5: Choices As darkness descended, Scholomance settled into its nighttime routine. Tired acolytes traded places with their brethren on night duty, weary from long hours of work and eager for sleep. Necromancers, accustomed to working late into the evening, diligently labored to finish tasks that could not wait until tomorrow. Guards equipped with glasses that increased their night vision patrolled around the facility, commanding undead that would never sleep again. None of this went unobserved. -------------------------------------------------A Blood Elf woman snapped a spyglass shut and rose from the ground, her chain mail making no noise as she moved. Turning away from the lair of her enemies, she strode quickly towards a commanding figure standing on the ridge, who gazed down at the base. "Admiring the view, captain?" she inquired with an amused tone.

Not looking up, the captain nodded solemnly. "These lands were beautiful once." Straightening up, he tore his eyes away from the sight. "Have the patrols set out?" Recognizing his tone, the elf woman got right to business. "Yes sir. They just left, and won’t be expected until the changing of the guard in an hour." "Good," he stated. "We must strike now, before they have time to organize a defense. We cannot allow them to create any more monsters like the one you fought the other day." The woman glanced back at the facility, then met the captain’s gaze, seeing her suppressed anger mirrored in his own eyes. "Yes sir!" she replied fiercely. Smiling grimly, the captain gestured at the forest behind him. "For the blood of our fallen. For Quel’thalas!" As he stepped past the woman, he placed a hand on her shoulder. "I would see you in my chambers again when this is over, Al’anara," he whispered in her ear, "if the Gods are willing." A coy smirk found its way onto her face. "The Gods may be willing," she replied musically, "but how do you know that I am?" The captain only smiled. Removing his hand from her shoulder, he walked down the ridge towards the Scourge base. As he departed, dozens of Blood Elves emerged from the shadows of the forest, following their leader silently. Al’anara stood there for a moment, then joined the line. Though unsure how she felt about the captain’s attention, she would welcome a day of life after this night of death. Any reason to survive was a good one, she reasoned. She felt the thrill of anticipation rising up her spine as she tested the string of her bow. Tomorrow there would be passion, but now it was time for the hunt. -------------------------------------------------The door to Alexi Romerov’s study slammed open, revealing a breathless acolyte in the doorway. The High Necromancer looked up with annoyance, his work disturbed. "What is it boy, I’m—" "Master Romerov, we’re under attack!" shouted the young student. Shocked, Alexi stood up so fast his chair fell over. "The elves?!" Panting, the acolyte nodded rapidly. "Yes sir! Dozens of them!" "Our patrols?" asked Alexi as he swept his red Blood Mage cloak around his shoulders, quickly fastening the knot at the top.

" the forest!" Alexi tsked irritably. "Clever of them. Remind me to burn those forests to the ground tomorrow. Has Lord Ras been informed?" The student shook his head. "No sir, he was in deep communications with the Lich King and left orders not to be disturbed, so I came to you." "Smart lad. Who’s leading the defenses?" The acolyte gulped. "Necromancer Barov, sir." Alexi looked at the young man sharply as he rummaged through a pile of trinkets. "Edvard? Are you certain?" When the student nodded, he hissed with frustration. "I have to get out there at once, before that paper-pusher gets us all killed. Ah, here it is!" Picking up an ornate amulet, he tossed it to the acolyte. "Put that around your neck. I want you to notify Lord Ras immediately, and it will probably protect you if he attempts to blast you into the Twisting Nether before you have a chance to speak. Understood?" The man looked terrified, but put on the amulet with trembling hands. Bowing, he rushed out of the room, his footsteps echoing down the corridor. Glancing around the room to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, Alexi strode through the open doorway. "Where the devil is Pudge?" he muttered, then slammed the door shut and hurried down the hallway. -------------------------------------------------The din of battle grew louder as Alexi approached Scholomance’s entrance. Stepping outside, the noise rose to a terrible clamor, a cacophony of death under a dim moon. The sounds of swords, screams, spells, roars, arrows, war cries, and flames all assaulted his ears. The dead and dying lay everywhere, illuminated by the fires of their attackers and a meager quantity of moonlight. Though many of the bodies wore robes proclaiming the rank of necromancer, the Scourge’s lines were less chaotic than the old man expected. Moving as quickly as his aged frame would allow, Alexi found an acolyte at the back of the fray who was bandaging the wounded. "Where is Necromancer Barov?!" he shouted over the bedlam. The acolyte looked up for a moment, then gestured at the battle and went back to his work. "At the front, sir! Master Barov is commanding the defenses in your absence!" Alexi nodded and turned to leave, then looked at the student over his shoulder. "Your patient is dying, save your energy for the ones with a chance!"

"I—Yes sir!" replied the acolyte, who calmly slit the dying man’s throat, then moved on to bandage another wounded mage. Willing his aching body into motion, Alexi hurried towards the battle. Hearing Edvard Barov’s distinctive roar, he quickened his pace, stopping only once he reached his rival. "Barov!" Barov finished shouting orders, then scowled back at Alexi. "About damn time you got here, Romerov!" "You would be wise," Alexi stated with clenched teeth, "not to take that tone with me! I am—" "—my superior, as much as I dislike acknowledging the fact." Edvard and Alexi shared a grim smile. "Now is not the time for petty arguments, High Necromancer Romerov." "I agree, Necromancer Barov. What’s the situation?" Edvard wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his robe. "The elves came out of the forest about twenty minutes ago. They ambushed all our patrols right after the changing of the guard, so we had no warning. Probably a hundred of them, but there’s no way to get an accurate count. They’re keeping with their usual tactic – kill the controllers as fast as possible to confuse the undead." Alexi scanned the battle as he took stock of the situation. "Have you deployed the new ghoul and abomination variants?" Grinning fiercely, Barov nodded. "They’re the only reason we haven’t been overrun yet. The elves had no idea that we started making them with magic similar to what you used on Pudge, so that surprise nullified much of their advantage. The arrogant bastards have taken heavy losses from undead they thought were safe to ignore. We only had a small number that were battle-ready, however, so our victory is still in question." Barov was silent briefly, then swallowed. "Pudge would be a great asset here." Shaking his head, Alexi looked back at the facility. "If he’s not here, I don’t know where Pudge is. I haven’t seen him since he wrecked my lab this morning!" "HOLD THE LINE, YOU SORRY EXCUSES FOR MAGES!" Barov shouted over his shoulder. Turning back to Alexi, he gestured at the Scourge base. "Go look for him, Romerov! I can handle this!" Alexi stiffened. "You do not have the authority to lead these men, Barov!" "I have authority enough to—" Suddenly Edvard screamed and fell to his knees, an elven arrow lodged in his shoulder.

Alexi hunched down and looked at the wound. The barbed arrowhead had not passed through cleanly, and would be difficult to remove. "This is bad, Barov! Give up this foolishness and get this taken care of!" Gritting his teeth, Barov slowly got to his feet. Straightening his back, he glared at Alexi fiercely, his brow wrinkled and covered in sweat. "I’m...fine," he replied through clenched teeth. "Alexi, go and find Pudge. He’s important – more important than myself right now – and he only listens to you. You can take all the glory when you return." Standing, Alexi held Barov’s gaze for several long seconds before cracking a slight smile. "I thought you hated me, Edvard." Edvard smiled back, pain evident on his face. "I do, but I’m selfish. I can’t be rewarded for my service if I’m dead." Alexi chuckled dryly, then turned away and headed towards the facility. "Don’t die on me, Edvard! We can hate each other tomorrow!" he shouted back at his rival. Edvard just shook his head as he turned back to the battle. "SHADOWBOLT VOLLEY ON THOSE ARCHERS, YOU DOGS!" he roared at his men. "I WANT THEIR RANGED SUPPORT DEAD AND COLD!" -------------------------------------------------Alexi strode rapidly down the halls of Scholomance, every joint in his body aching. "I’m getting too old for this," he muttered sullenly. There was still no sign of Pudge, though he had a few more places left to check. The abomination hadn’t returned to the ruined lab, but perhaps the study... The old man suddenly stopped in his tracks as two elves in blood-red leather stepped out of the shadows. Glancing behind him, he saw two more emerging to surround him and cut off his escape. All four wielded long, graceful daggers, their cold eyes revealing their intent. Noticing that they hadn’t moved in for the kill yet, Alexi chuckled contemptuously. "Come to kill an old man, have you?" One of the elves smiled maliciously and shook his head. "Old, perhaps, but not helpless." His smile disappeared, rage filling his eyes. "You’re wearing my brother’s cloak, you bastard! If I can’t kill your monster, I’ll take my pleasure from you instead!" Alexi raised his hand to cast a spell, but the elves behind him grabbed his arms and dug knees into the old man’s kidneys and lower back. Repressing a cry, he exhaled sharply as the blows forced the breath from his lungs. Before he had a chance to recover, the leader stepped in and thrust his dagger into his victim’s intestines. Overcome by the pain, Alexi couldn’t help letting out a strangled cry, which continued as the elf twisted his blade

cruelly. "You will die slowly and painfully," whispered the elf in a smug, satisfied tone, "and your blood will satiate my vengeance." -------------------------------------------------Pudge slowly opened his eyes, and as his strength returned to him, he looked around to see where he was. The storeroom he had passed out in was empty, the dust around him undisturbed. The voices in his head were still present, though not as loud, and his headache was not as painful. The halls of Scholomance were eerily quiet...until a scream shattered the silence. His master was in danger! Raging, Pudge got to his feet as quickly as his hulking frame would allow, gathering up his weapons in one smooth motion. The mental cacophony went dead quiet, as if fearing his fiery wrath. Snarling, he summoned his energy and kicked the massive iron door with all his might, knocking it clear off its hinges and into the midst of the surprised elves. They recovered quickly, but not before Pudge grabbed the closest one by the neck and smashed his head on the stone wall like a pumpkin. Releasing Alexi, who slumped to the floor bonelessly, the elves moved to avenge their comrade. Pudge, roaring with bestial fury, attacked with the force of a hurricane, but his elven attackers nimbly avoided his blows. Dancing in and out of range, they slipped out of sight and sunk their daggers into his most vulnerable areas, hoping to wear him down over time. Howling with pain and frustration, his flesh burning as if stung by a hundred wasps, Pudge flailed wildly in an attempt to free himself from the dance of blades. Seeing the monstrosity weakening, the elves stepped in to finish him. Heedless of the pain, Pudge snarled and unleashed waves of burning, acidic gas from his pores. The gas swept over his foes, disintegrating their clothes, dissolving their flesh and consuming their lungs. The elves, unable to express the agony they were experiencing, fell to the floor and gasped breathlessly, their voices raw and empty of all emotion but horror and pain. When they died minutes later, Pudge could not tell whether it was from lack of air, or the complete absence of vital organs. Shutting off the gas, Pudge stood in the hallway for several long moments, barely able to think past the pain. Though the gas had cauterized the innumerable knife wounds covering his body, they still burned maddeningly, and several layers of skin and, in some places muscle, had rotten away from exposure to his own magic-fueled defense mechanism. trapped Exhausted, bone-weary and aching in a hundred places, Pudge suddenly remembered the other victim of his frantic effort to live. "Mas-ter!" he cried, lurching over to the fallen form of Alexi as fast as he could. The man was in terrible shape; though further from the gas than the elves, rotted clothes revealed bubbling, blistered skin, his grey hair falling

out in large handfuls. The cruel slash in his intestines bled copiously, and he wheezed painfully as his lungs labored weakly to sustain life in his mangled body. trapped in a monster and can’t get free "Mas-ter," Pudge moaned, his voice anguished at the sight of his creator. "Pudge did this to you!" living but not free to live Alexi rolled his head to look at Pudge, his eyes glazed with suffering. "No...Pudge. I was...already dying. The...elves made sure...of that. You sped...up the process...that’s all. avenged me...more than I...could have asked for. I—" He started to say more, but was cut off by a violent coughing fit. dead but not free to die Tears of green, brackish water oozed down Pudge’s face. "Yes, mas-ter, Pudge killed the elves for you...but Pudge was too late." Kneeling beside his master carefully, the abomination set down his weapons, then reached out his arms to pick up the dying man. cold never free of the cold Alexi shook his head weakly. "No Pudge...I can’ moved now." He coughed again, then continued. "Listen to me...very carefully, Pudge. You must...guard my body...after I’m gone. Any more...damage and...they won’ able to...raise me." The old man cracked a slight smile. " only...temporary...after all." not free not free not FREE NOT FREE Alexi let his head roll back, exhausted by the effort of holding his creation’s gaze. Weeping, Pudge hung his head and sat back on his haunches. The corridor settled into a silence that stretched into minutes. "Mas-ter," said Pudge, breaking the silence at last, "Pudge...Pudge cannot stay." not free to rest not free to sleep The old man’s eyes widened with surprise. "What...are you talking...about?" not free to hunger Pudge buried his face in his meaty hands. "Pudge is haunted, mas-ter," he replied, his voice muffled. "Pudge hears voices all the time now, inside Pudge’s head. Sad voices, angry voices, scared voices, cold voices! They want to be free, but they’re trapped in Pudge’s head, Pudge’s body, and they can’t get free and they’re so cold..." Pudge

moaned, rocking himself back and forth. "Pudge has to get them out, has to make them free!" not free to regret Coughing, Alexi’s eyes focused on nothing as he considered this information. "The souls...of the dead I...used to make you...bound by stay in their...remains..." Focusing again, Alexi locked his gaze on Pudge. "I you...learn to live...with them, Pudge...but you survival...first." not free to hate Pudge shook his head violently and stood up, staring down at his master. "No, mas-ter! Pudge cannot live with the voices! Pudge must let them go free, but Pudge cannot free them here, where Pudge is not free!" not free to kill "!" hissed Alexi, fighting to keep his voice strong. "I...gave you...LIFE! You...may a me...but I am...still your...your MASTER! You...will...OBEY!" not free to end Wiping the tears from his face with an enormous forearm, Pudge hung his head in shame and sorrow. "Pudge...Pudge is sorry, mas-ter," he sobbed, his frame racked with grief. "Pudge must go, before it is too late." Picking up his weapons, he began to walk away, then spared a glance over his shoulder at his dying creator. "Goodbye...mas-ter." Lumbering down the hallway, Pudge soon disappeared into the darkness, his heavy footsteps fading into silence. "PUDGE!" screamed Alexi hoarsely. "Don’t leave me here! Don’t—" Alexi’s cry quieted to a whisper, his meager energy depleted. "Don’t let me...don’t let me die alone..." -------------------------------------------------Al’anara looked down at the body of her captain, lying on the battlefield with his eyes open and unseeing. Kneeling, she gently shut his eyes and laid his hands on his chest. "I might have loved you," she said, her tone mournful yet resolved, "but the Gods were not willing. All I can do for you now, Illianaro Reithel, is ensure that your body is not desecrated." Removing a bottle of oil from her belt, she poured the contents on his still form, then struck her flint and set him ablaze. Standing, she saluted, a single tear running down her cheek. "May your spirit find its way to peace, and may your next life not meet such a violent end."

Turning to face the battle, Al’anara raised her arms. "RETREAT! THE BATTLE IS LOST!" Hearing this, the surviving elves broke free of the defenders and ran, vanishing down the forest trails. Scholomance’s forces howled with triumph and started to chase the fleeing warriors, but stopped cold at the sound of their master’s arrival. "Do not pursue," stated Ras Frostwhisper coldly, its voice amplified by magic. "Return to your duties." The battle line broke up, the undead carrying away the bodies of the fallen, while the acolytes tended to the wounded and the damaged structures. Edvard Barov limped over to the lich, the arrow still in his shoulder. "Report, Necromancer Barov." Edvard nodded, taking a moment to regain his breath. "The new undead variants helped us turn the tide, my lord. Our casualties were not light, but theirs were greater. I do not think they will try such an assault again anytime soon." Ras stared at Edvard emotionlessly. "Why did you lead the defenses?" Edvard gulped and hastened to explain. "I only intended to lead them temporarily, until High Necromancer Romerov could relieve me. He went back inside to find Pudge – at my recommendation, Lord Ras – but never returned." Another necromancer stepped up before the lich could speak. "My lord, I have terrible news...High Necromancer Romerov is dead." Ras turned its gaze on the speaker. "How?" The necromancer glanced at Barov, then averted his eyes. "Ambushed by elves inside the compound, my lord. His attackers appear to have been killed by his abomination, but the High Necromancer did not survive." Edvard lowered his head, unable to speak for a moment. "Lord Ras, I take responsibility for his death. If I hadn’t told him to look for Pudge—" Frostwhisper silenced him with a dismissive gesture. "Romerov was killed by his inability to defend himself, not your recommendation. Furthermore, your command of the defense was excellent, High Necromancer Barov." Startled, Barov bowed low to conceal his surprise. "Thank you, Lord Ras." Ras returned to addressing the other necromancer. "I do not wish to lose Alexi Romerov now. Prepare his remains for revival as a lich." The lich paused briefly before continuing. "Where is Pudge now?" The man shook his head and spread his hands. "We do not know, my lord. A scout reported seeing him heading into the woods, but he did not respond to hails and never joined the battle at any point."

Barov cleared his throat to get the lich’s attention. "My lord, a proper abomination would have stayed with its creator even after death. Pudge is either overcome with rage or making a bid for freedom, but either way he is disobedient and must be dealt with." Frostwhisper considered this in silence. "You share my thoughts, High Necromancer Barov. Take a unit and retrieve Pudge. I will decide his fate when he returns." Edvard bowed again, a crafty grin spreading across his face. "It would be my pleasure, Lord Ras." Ending: The Fate of the Dead Pudge fled through the woods surrounding Scholomance, moving as rapidly as the undergrowth would allow. The very land seemed to spurn him as a traitor; branches snapped back at inopportune moments, thorny bushes laid deep scratches on his stilltender skin, and thick vines tripped him and slowed his progress. The abomination fought through them with grim determination and pressed on, knowing that any delays could spell his doom. OBEY! Pudge stumbled as the mental command echoed in his skull, threatening to overwhelm his own thoughts. A will more powerful than he had ever experienced fought to control him, to force his body into immobility and his mind into silence. THE LICH KING COMMANDS YOU, ABOMINATION! YOU WILL OBEY! The voices in Pudge’s head cried out in terror, drowning out the Lich King’s voice enough for him to get to his feet and continue moving. That terrible will was still in his head, fighting him for every inch, but he found that he had enough willpower of his own to resist. The voices were weakening the effect of the Lich King’s command! OBEY YOUR MASTER! OBEY THE SCOURGE! OBEY THE LICH KING! NO! Pudge roared at the voice with all the strength his mind could muster. The voices of the dead rallied with him, adding their willpower and cries of defiance to his. A horrible pressure filled Pudge’s skull as the Lich King fought to annihilate his resistance with raw cerebral power. A few of the voices winked out of existence, extinguished like candles. OBEY OR DIE!!! Pudge will NOT obey! Pudge is FREE!!!

The pressure vanished, leaving as suddenly as it appeared, though Pudge could still feel the Lich King’s mental presence faintly. Had he actually won the battle of wills, or did the Lich King simply have more pressing matters to resolve? Not having the luxury of time to decide, the abomination put it out of his thoughts and resumed his escape to freedom. Behind him, not far enough away for comfort, Pudge heard the gibbering howl of a ghoul, a cry soon joined by several others. His pursuers were on his trail, and they would have much less difficulty making their way through the forest with their nimbler frames. Not pausing to consider where he was going, Pudge plunged deeper into the woods, making use of his enormous strength to clear obstacles and, with luck, stall the hunters. Without warning, Pudge hurdled out of the tree cover and into the open. Looking around frantically, he realized that he had stumbled onto a crossroads. Two paths lay before him: one to his left, the other to his right. With his pursuers getting closer by the minute, he knew he had only seconds to make a decision. Either path, or both, could lead him to his end, and there was no way to know where they would take him. The monster made his decision and broke into a run down the path to his left. Racing down the path, Pudge scanned the area for potential avenues of escape. If he stayed in the open too long, the ghouls would outrun him and bring him down like a pack of wolves. He had to find some cover, a river to cross, a mountain to climb, anything that would get them off his trail! Pudge’s undead heart sank when he turned a corner and saw Blood Elves in his path – the retreating survivors of the battle. Seconds later, he realized the advantage this gave him and, gritting his teeth, charged forward resolutely. Al’anara turned quickly at the sound of heavy footsteps. Caught off-guard, it took her a few seconds to react to the abomination bearing down on her. "Form ranks! Form ranks!" she yelled frantically. To their credit, the exhausted elves swiftly moved into fighting positions. The archers fired at Pudge, attempting to slow him down while their warriors put down the wounded and readied their weapons. Shrugging off arrows like insect bites, Pudge continued his charge, bowling through the elven line and sending his opponents sprawling. Al’anara quickly recovered, but looked on in stunned shock as the abomination did not, in fact, attack them, but rather seemed interested only in running past them. As the hulking monster disappeared around a bend in the road, she wondered what possessed the creature to run as if the hounds of hell were at its heels. This one was different, she suddenly realized, like the other undead that fought uncontrolled. If only she could capture it, it would be the perfect specimen to decipher the nature of the Scourge’s new creations!

Seconds later a pack of ghouls launched themselves at the survivors, and the elves were once again fighting for their lives. -------------------------------------------------Pudge, sensing that his maneuver had bought him some time, took the opportunity to climb into the hills of the Plaguelands. A few minutes later, he found a convenient pocket that concealed him from sight but also gave him a good view of the terrain below him. Knowing he was safe, at least for the time being, he took a seat on the dead earth and pondered his next move. Despite what he had said to his master, Pudge truthfully had no idea how to free the trapped souls in his head and body. He didn’t think that killing or eating would solve the problem, and he doubted that he would find anything in the Plaguelands that would satisfy them. Suddenly, he remembered something that Alexi had told him once – that ghosts were spirits who were still clinging to the world, and that the only good way to get rid of a ghost was to release them from that attachment. If that were true, he would have to track down the places or people these damned souls had known in life, figure out what their attachment to the world was, and find a way to set them free. A difficult task by any stretch of the imagination, one only made worse by the fact that Pudge was an undead monster, and would not be welcome in the slightest in the lands of the living. He barely knew where to begin. mommy i want to go home i miss you so much and it’s so cold The little boy again...and with a desire so powerful and obvious that even Pudge, who was no candidate for the Kirin Tor, picked up immediately. Little boy, where is your mother? Where is your home? It was as good a start as any, Pudge thought with rising hope. The first step on a long road, but one that could lead him – all of them – to freedom. -------------------------------------------------Alexi Romerov returned to consciousness slowly, his mind emerging from a thick haze that dulled his thoughts. The first thing he noticed was the sky, which was quite out of the ordinary. Streams of dark red and blue – clouds, or something else entirely? – swirled hypnotically and blended into tumultuous seas of vibrant purple. Black patches competed with the pulsating colors, some with star patterns he failed to recognize, others vacant holes in the sky, gateways to oblivion that gnawed at the churning flows like rats. It occurred to him, after watching this strange sky for a length of time he couldn’t seem to measure, that he was lying on his back as he gazed upwards. What was beneath him didn’t feel like the cold stone of Scholomance, however. He ran his hands over the

surface, trying to identify it, and finally concluded that it was dirt and grass he was touching. Grabbing what felt like a small handful of earth, he lifted a hand to his face so he could see it with his own eyes. It was dark and moist, with small pebbles and bits of dark green grass clinging to it. The wonderfully familiar smells of home and life emanated from the loosely packed dirt, and gradually he remembered that this was good farming soil from his homeland. Strange, the reaction he was having to the stuff...he’d always hated the idea of becoming a farmer, like his father and his father’s father. He couldn’t get away from his home and his family fast enough, so why was it bringing back such pleasant memories now? Turning over his hand to put the dirt down, he stopped to examine the smooth, unwrinkled, unblemished skin. How long had it been since he had skin like that? It was hard to think past the haze, but he knew it had been decades. He had perfect skin like this as a boy, before he shut himself in dark rooms to learn the secrets of the universe and forget the wonders of life at his fingertips. Was he regretting what he had done, what he had devoted his life to learning? It wasn’t like him. Setting the soil down gently, he reached up and ran a hand through his hair. It was thick and silky, and oddly, he didn’t mind the dirt that he was rubbing into it. Tugging gently, he pulled away a single strand and held it up to his face. Long and black, just the way it had been in his youth. He chuckled and decided he liked the sound of his voice. Lying there, waiting for the haze to clear so he could think straight again, Alexi slowly put the pieces together. "I’m dead," he stated calmly, untroubled by the revelation. "There’s no other explanation. I’m dead." He sat up, unhindered by the aching joints and muscles that had plagued him for years. He wore a simple black robe, the one the Kirin Tor gave him when he became an apprentice. Carefully, he moved his hands over his torso, looking for the gaping abdominal wound he expected to find. It was gone. His body was whole, healthy and young...probably in his early twenties. He wished he had a mirror, then dismissed the vain desire. Standing was an easy, graceful process, unburdened by pain, and his spine was straight again. He felt tall, though as he looked around, he saw that his environment was lacking any sort of scale or reference. He stood on a grassy plain, very much like his homeland, only it went on forever in every direction. There were no trees, no buildings, no people, no hills...only a perfectly flat landscape. "Definitely dead," he told himself, enjoying the vibrant tones in his voice that he hadn’t heard for many years. Alexi inhaled deeply, taking in more of the delightful smell surrounding him. "Hm," he said to himself as he gazed peacefully at the lack of scenery. "Not exactly what I expected, it’s true, but certainly better than what I feared."

He found his thoughts turning to Pudge, the son he never had, though he struggled to recall any of the emotions he once associated with his creation. "Poor Pudge," he whispered, shaking his head. "Poor naïve Pudge and his freedom. There is very little freedom in life for any of us...though I hope he finds what he can of it, I suppose." Looking up, Alexi stared at the strange sky, allowing the swirling chaos to occupy his mind. "Fascinating," he said, pondering its mysteries. "I wonder where Azeroth is in that patchwork void. I could spend an eternity studying it, and never know every secret." He lowered his head and sighed, a slight smile crossing his features. "That wouldn’t be so bad, in the end. I could get used to this...being free." Then the pain in his chest hit. As his vision went to black, he felt his body hit the endless plain, and the only peace he had ever known disappeared forever. -------------------------------------------------Alexi awoke suddenly, gasping for a breath that never came. Every ache, every wound, every agony was back in full measure as unbelievably powerful necromantic magic dragged his consciousness back from the Twisting Nether and forced him into his body again. His body was dead but he was reliving its dying and he couldn’t breathe— A wave of cold more terrible than anything he had ever experienced swept over him, stripping away his aging flesh and exposing worn bones to the elements. The cold numbed the anguish of reborn existence but burned like fire, and he writhed and struggled to get free of the excruciating sensations. The freezing fire burned him from the inside out, cruelly searing away everything that made him human, every part of him that was Alexi Romerov. His master’s voice rang in his empty skull, demanding obedience or death, and he knew he could not refuse any more than he could fade away to oblivion. When the process ended, after an eternity of pain, what arose from the cold, rune-covered slab was not Alexi Romerov, High Necromancer of the Scourge, but something else entirely. Clothed in ice and glacial winds, the skeleton descended to the floor, its feet never touching the ground. Raw power over cold and death surged through its form, though it found itself unable to care. The Lich King’s voice receded to a whisper, reminding it to obey, to serve the Scourge. It knew the Lich King had bound it in eternal servitude until nothing remained of its physical existence, and even after that eons of formless undeath awaited it. It had lost freedoms it never knew it had, and it would have wept if it still possessed any shred of emotion...but there was only the cold. It examined its new form without interest or curiosity as two necromancers stepped forward and swathed its body with the ceremonial robes of a lich. Ras Frostwhisper glided from the magical focus at the far end of the room and stopped in front of the newly risen undead. Reaching up, it placed a large gemstone, dull and pulsating erratically with unholy light, around the neck of the other lich. "You are a lich now," it said simply, "and this is your phylactery. Its destruction will annihilate your soul. Never lose it."

The being that was Alexi nodded. There was no need to say anything. "As a lich," Ras continued, "you have great power, but also great responsibility. Night and day, you serve the Scourge in all ways. Your time is no longer your own, it is the Lich King’s. Do you accept these conditions?" A tiny remnant of its old self, buried in the back of its mind, wanted to reply, Damn the Scourge, and damn the Lich King! Let me die in peace! The entity that it had become had no choice but to say, "I accept." Its voice echoed, a hollow shell in the absence of life. Ras gazed at its companion impassively for several long minutes, as if aware of the inner conflict. "Men grown accustomed to everything," it said quietly, "even death. You will learn." It gestured for the other lich to follow, and the two glided towards the door. Before they left the room, Ras paused in the doorway. "What do you wish to call yourself? Alexi Romerov?" The entity shook its head dispassionately. "Alexi Romerov is dead. I am..." It hesitated. "I don’t know what I am." The senior lich considered for a moment before speaking. "You are Alexi Winterbringer. Is this acceptable?" Alexi nodded. "Alexi Winterbringer. It is...fitting." "Good. Now we must discuss Pudge. He disobeyed your orders and fled from Scholomance, forsaking the Scourge. He must be hunted down and destroyed as a traitor." Alexi held up a skeletal hand. "I request that you call off pursuit of Pudge. I believe that he is not a danger to the Scourge, and tracking him is a waste of our time and resources." Ras stared at Alexi, searching for the other lich’s motives. "You are not saying this because of your feelings for the abomination?" "I have no feelings," Alexi replied emotionlessly. "You know this as well as I do." Frostwhisper made no motions, but seemed to accept Alexi’s words. "Then why?" "Pudge is unique. The others feared his intelligence, and modified my process to create minions that are more pliable. With Pudge gone, no one will dare make an abomination like him again. The odds of such a problem occurring a second time are so small that they are insignificant. Pudge also has no allies. He is safe nowhere, and will surely be slain eventually by the living."

Ras considered this for a long while, then nodded. "Your argument is sound. It is, however, unfortunate to lose such a valuable minion. We could have learned much from him." Alexi merely gazed past Frostwhisper at the world outside. A small part of it wondered where Pudge was now, though it could not summon up the emotion to care about what might happen to its creation. "Pudge was...too intelligent for his own good. This is the best way this could have ended...for all of us." Epilogue 1: Just Rewards Anna gazed longingly at the verdant landscape, her eyes drawn to the dirt road that led up to the farm. Churning butter was exhausting work, and while the rhythmic motions usually helped distract her from her troubles, today her thoughts constantly turned to her missing son. Months had passed since she last saw Teodor, and even though she knew she would never see him again, she still held onto hope. Maybe today he would come bounding around the corner, his golden curls bouncing as he raced up the path to tell her of his grand adventure. He would hug her tight and promise never to leave her alone again and... A tear rolled down Anna’s cheek, and she dashed it away angrily. Foolish woman, she thought to herself, your son is dead. You have to accept it and move on. She told herself that every day. Maybe tomorrow she would believe it. Shouts in the distance tore Anna out of her reverie, and moments later, she spied a man on horseback racing up the road. Her husband emerged from the house as the man brought his mount to a halt. "What’s the matter, Lukas?" he asked the rider. "Scourge, Rasmus!" shouted Lukas frantically. "On the road from Arathi!" Rasmus’s eyes widened in shock. "So far south? How many?" "Just one, but it’s an abomination, and the biggest one I’ve ever seen! We think it may be a scouting party. We’re still looking for its controller, but the bastard may be invisible." Lukas wheeled his horse around to leave. "Get your sword, Rasmus! We’ll need every man to kill this monster!" "Lukas, wait!" cried Rasmus as the rider sped away. "Where is it going?!" "Here!" called Lukas over his shoulder, before he disappeared around the bend. "It’s coming here!" Anna’s heart skipped a beat. "Here?" she whispered. "Why here? Why now?"

Rasmus shook his head mutely. Entering the farmhouse, he emerged minutes later bearing his old footman sword and shield. The two stared at each other for a long moment without speaking. "Anna," Rasmus said finally, "I know things haven’t right between us, since..." He swallowed, unable to finish his sentence. "But we survived that, and we’ll survive this." Anna nodded, not sure what to say. She watched Rasmus walk away, burning to tell him that, despite everything, she still loved him, but her voice stuck in her throat. All she could do was stare at his back and wonder why the words wouldn't come. When he reached the gate, he turned and looked back at her, his gaze full of the same wordless longing. He gave her a wan smile, then waved and jogged down the road, eventually vanishing from sight. Time passed slowly, but before long, Anna could hear the sounds of distant battle. To her dismay, the din only grew louder and closer. A bellow of monstrous pain sent the birds to the skies, but the shouts of the men became more panicked and urgent. The militia came around the corner, retreating in the face of a seemingly unstoppable assault. When the creature lumbered into view, Anna’s blood ran cold. It was a massive abomination, easily half again as big as any other she had seen, and wielding an enormous cleaver and hooked chain. Green ichor ran down its leathery skin from numerous small wounds, but it pressed on with relentless determination. Though terrified, Anna quickly realized that something was wrong. The monster passed up killing blows in favor of sweeping strikes that pushed the men back. It was as if it did not want to hurt them. Just then, it looked up and their eyes met, and for a moment Anna’s breath caught in her throat. Those were not the cold, dead eyes of the Scourge – there was life in them, and they recognized her. "Anna Pavdun!" it called out to her. "Are you Anna Pavdun?" The militia collectively gasped and took a step back in shock. None of them had ever heard of lesser undead that spoke. Only Rasmus was unfazed, and snarled with protective fury. "You will not have her, you FIEND!" he yelled as he delivered a brutal slash to the creature’s arm. It cried out in pain, but did not retaliate. "Pudge does not want to hurt little boy’s father!" the abomination exclaimed. "Pudge only wants to talk to Anna Pavdun!" Rasmus prepared to strike again, but Anna raced down the path. "Rasmus, stop!" she shouted. "Can’t you see it isn’t defending itself? Something’s different about it!" Rasmus hesitated, but did not lower his weapon. "Stay back, Anna," he growled. "It’s just a Scourge trick!" Ignoring Rasmus, Pudge focused his gaze on Anna. "You are Anna Pavdun?" he asked.

Standing up straight, Anna looked the creature in the eye. "Yes," she stated, trying to put some steel in her voice. "What do you want?" The abomination’s visage softened. "Pudge is here," he said quietly, "to tell you about Teodor." Stunned, Anna struggled to maintain her calm. " son? Where is my son? Is he alive?" Pudge shook his head sadly and pointed at himself. "Teodor is in Pudge...Teodor is part of Pudge." "My son is in you?" Anna asked with a mix of horror and disbelief. "Teodor talks to Pudge sometimes," Pudge said gently. "He asked Pudge to come he could say goodbye." Anna buried her head in her hands. "I can’t believe it," she whispered. "I won’t believe it!" Pudge looked at the ground sorrowfully. "He says he misses your pies, when the fruit in the orchard was ripe. He wishes he had the blanket his nana made for him, because it’s so cold where he is." "Stop," Anna whimpered. "He misses your woodcarvings," Pudge said to Rasmus, who dropped his sword and shield without realizing it, "and the stories you told him at night. He always loved the ones about the Great Kings of Lordaeron." "Please stop," moaned Anna. "He was looking forward to his ninth birthday," Pudge continued, "because then he’d be big enough to help his father in the fields..." "Stop it stop it STOP IT!" screamed Anna, launching herself at the monster twice her size. She battered his chest with her fists, taking out all her fury and pain on Pudge’s unyielding flesh. "How could you do that to him?! HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO MY SON?!" She sank to her knees and wept, all her strength and resolve gone. Carefully, Pudge set his weapons on the ground and knelt before the sobbing woman. He wrapped his arms around her in a gentle embrace, and no one moved to intervene. "Pudge is sorry, Anna," he said softly. "Pudge is sorry." Anna clung to the abomination, and for a moment, he was her son, with his innocent smile and piercing blue eyes...

goodbye mommy ...and then he was gone. Slowly, the wracking sobs faded, and Anna found the strength to stand again. Rasmus rushed to her side and held her close, tears of his own streaming down his face. "He’s gone," she whispered. "Our little boy is gone." His only reply was to squeeze her tighter. Rising to his feet, Pudge collected his weapons and turned to go. "Where are you going now?" asked Anna as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Pudge looked over his shoulder and smiled toothily. "Pudge has many people in him," he said matter-of-factly, "and they all want to be free like Teodor...and like Pudge." Anna nodded, searching for something to say. "Good luck," she said finally. Pudge grinned, then stomped off down the road. The militia milled around for a few minutes after the monster’s departure, then returned to their own homes in silence. Alone again, Anna rested her head on Rasmus’s shoulder. They stood together for a long time without speaking, taking in all that had happened. "Rasmus?" Anna said quietly. "Yes, Anna?" he replied. A small smile crossed Anna’s lips. "How would you feel about a new son?" Rasmus looked deep into Anna’s eyes and smiled broadly. "Well, I think you need a bath first," he teased. "You have green stuff all over you." Anna laughed and slapped his arm. "You say that like you’re not all nasty and sweaty, too!" she said playfully. "You better get that bathwater ready, mister, before I change my mind." "Yes ma’am!" he said with a mock salute, then went inside. Anna stayed outside a few minutes longer, basking in the rays of the setting sun and the gentle breeze that ran over the foothills. It would be night soon, but there was one less terror waiting for her in the darkness...and tomorrow was another day. Epilogue 2: The Cruel Hunt Henrik Trulson cursed his miserable luck as he fled for his life through the stinking swamp of the Wetlands. Things had just been starting to look up for him, too. His parents had died at an opportune time, leaving him ample inheritance money to start a

small, but profitable, smuggling operation in Menethil Harbor. With the Scourge and the Horde a constant threat, the authorities had more important things to worry about than a few crates of quasi-legal goods. It didn't hurt anyone, and the few guards who were aware of his operation were taking a little extra coin home to their families. Henrik hadn't even had to split the inheritance with his insufferable peacock of a brother, Tomas, as the Scourge had taken care of that problem nicely. Tomas had suffered a nasty wound to his side in the first few moments of the surprise attack, and had clearly been in no shape to escape from the ravenous undead. The monsters had barely been paying attention to Henrik, giving him a golden opportunity to run. All he had had to do was walk away from his elder sibling; it was the easiest thing he'd ever done in his life. How delightfully ironic that his brother's tendency to hog the spotlight had doomed him and saved his perpetually overshadowed kin. Now, however, a mammoth abomination was hot on Henrik's heels, and he had absolutely no idea why. Sure, he had done some trafficking for a few necromancers, but they all seemed quite pleased with his work. It was remotely possible that they were attempting to tie up loose ends, but he was certain that he was still useful to them. Besides, there were more subtle ways to kill someone than to send a huge, slavering monstrosity to murder them in the middle of the night. No, this wasn't business; this was personal. He frantically searched his brain for likely suspects as he continued his desperate flight, but came up with nothing. Anyone who hated him this much was already dead. Henrik had very nearly soiled himself when the enormous, meaty arm smashed through his bedroom window and snatched him out of bed. Being a man who prepared for many (but clearly not all) eventualities, he had grabbed the gun under his pillow just before the necromantic horror dragged him outside. Unloading the pistol in the monster's face had distracted it just enough for him to break out of its grasp, but he landed hard – the creature had lifted him further off the ground than he had expected. He had struggled to rise before his attacker could recover from the gunshot, but had been too slow. Before he could get off another shot, the abomination had lashed out, knocking the firearm from his hand and breaking his wrist. Fighting through the pain, Henrik had decided that the wisest course of action was to run away as fast as his lanky legs could carry him. He had cried out for help, shouting that the Scourge was attacking the city, but no one had responded or come to his aid. Where were the guards or those good-for-nothing adventurers when you needed them? Passing a shadowy alleyway, his sharp eyes had spotted the bodies of several guards. Whoever his opponent was, he had been crafty enough to prevent the local authorities from interfering. Henrik had tried to head for the harbor, hoping to cut through a busier part of town and sail to safety on any vessel he could find, but the hulking monstrosity had blocked his path at every turn. It was almost as if the creature knew every inch of Menethil, and it was surprisingly quick for its size. Changing tactics, he had doubled back and bolted for

the nearest gate out of the city. If the harbor wasn't an option for him, then the boats anchored in the cove where he had based his operation might be his only salvation. The sentries had been absent from their post here as well, but he had wasted no time thinking about their fate. The abomination's hooked chain had sailed past his head and crashed into the stone wall, narrowly missing him and reminding him that the chase was still on. Tripping over an unseen root, Henrik fell face first into the muck. Sputtering and coughing up the foul water, he glanced behind him and saw that his pursuer was still lumbering after him, steadily and relentlessly. He surged to his feet just as the hook embedded itself in the spot where his hand had been only moments before. As he took off running again, it suddenly occurred to him that his enemy had passed up several opportunities to finish him off. Was the terrifying creation, or rather its master, toying with him? Regardless, it wouldn't matter once he reached the cove. There was no way something that massive could outswim a boat. Henrik turned the corner and stopped dead in his tracks, his desperate optimism replaced with horror. His boats were smashed, useless hunks of timber scattered all over the beach. His last hope of escape shattered, he raced into the grotto where he hid his supplies. He frantically searched for something, anything, to defend himself with, but the cave was bare except for a torch and a lone piece of flint. Presumably, the monster had thrown it all in the water after destroying his boats. Quickly lighting the torch, he started to make his way outside when the abomination's enormous frame closed off the entrance. It somehow managed to squeeze inside the cavern and stalked towards its prey with a low, menacing growl. Backed into a corner, Henrik felt his resolve strengthening. He was no timid and cravenly wretch. If he were to die today, he would die as a man. "Go on," he raged at his tormentor, "kill me! That's what you're here for, isn't it?!" The creature stopped advancing and gazed at him calmly, as if waiting to see what he would do. "Do you expect me to beg for my life?!" shouted Henrik furiously as he continued his tirade. "I'll never beg! I've never groveled before anyone, and I'm not going to start now! You'll get no more pleasure from me, you sick bastard!" Instead of attacking, the abomination cocked his head as if listening to something, though Henrik heard nothing but the waves and his own labored breathing. Slowly, a broad grin spread across the undead behemoth's visage, a sight more horrifying than anything else he had seen that night. "Tomas says goodbye," the monster stated simply in a deep, echoing voice. Frozen with shock, the torch slipped from Henrick's limp fingers. He was too stunned to do anything but watch as the monstrosity opened its gaping, toothy maw, and for a moment he could feel his brother's presence. Something snapped in his mind, and with the realization of the truth, he screamed a terrible, soul-rending scream. The abomination's jaws descended towards his head, and then there was nothing.

The Perfect Monster: A Tale of the Scourge  

Alexi Romerov, an acolyte of the Scourge, must construct an abomination before he is promoted to the rank of Necromancer. His creation is a...

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