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Aneerys

Keeping Secrets

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Aneerys    34

Daerek sat on the arm of the couch in the apartment he shared with Anee, waiting for the woman to be ready to go.   He wasn’t impatient at all, flipping through a new book to occupy his time.  The young mage looked like he’d actually gotten some decent sleep recently, and he was free of the assorted cuts and bruises he seemed to collect in the course of his work on the Isles.

Finally, Anee came out of the bedroom, wearing blue denim pants and a soft pink top.  Her hair was held out of her face with a simple ponytail and she looked at Daerek with an apologetic smile.  “I’m probably going to burn everything, you know.”

Daerek looked up and grinned.  “You can’t be as bad as Nomi,” he joked. “And you haven’t burned much yet that I know of, so…”  He trailed off with a laugh, pushing off from the couch and setting the book back on the coffee table.

“Well, no, but….I only make simple stuff so far.  I’m sure they’re ready for fires, right?”  She grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder.  “I mean, they wouldn’t take a chance and let someone accidentally burn down the whole place, right?”

“I’m sure it’ll be just fine,” he said with a smile, hoping to ease her fears about their cooking class.  “if you set something on fire, I’ll pretend it was me.  All good.”  He glanced around a moment, as if judging the space available in the room, and then looked back to her.  “Especially since we ah…aren’t taking lessons in Dalaran.  Nobody to be mad at us for it later.”

Anee tilted her head curiously.  “Oh?  Where are we going then?”

“Woooould you have any problems if I said Pandaria?”

“Oh!” She considered a moment before grinning.  “They must be used to fires.  I think Nomi is from there.”

“I’ve heard he used to be a lot better at not burning things.”  Daerek grinned goofily, pleased she wasn’t upset about literally going to a different continent for their roomie cooking lessons.  He raised his hands to about chest-height and then paused, looking at her again. “…do you trust me?”  His words hit him like a brick, and he hurried to add, “F-for a portal, I mean!”

She looked at his hands curiously, then blinked and tried not to laugh at his clarification.  “Umm…sure.”

Back came his goofy grin.  That pleased him more than it ought to, but he knew that portal travel could be dangerous if not done correctly.  He began moving his hands again, gesturing towards the empty area of the room.  Arcane energy coalesced around his hands as an answering nebula began in midair, and soon there was a shimmering portal awaiting their leisure.  The Shrine of the Seven Stars was visible through it.

Anee had no idea of the possible dangers of portal travel, assuming it was just something all mages could do easily, but she watched with some fascination as the portal was created right there in their living room.   “I wish I could do that,” she said with a smile before stepping through the portal.

The poor boy looked unduly grateful for her lack of hesitation.  He waited a few seconds to give her time to move forward before stepping through as well.

The portal was fine.  It took them to Pandaria without issue.

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Aneerys    34

On the Pandaria side of the portal, Anee stepped through, and Daerek emerged shortly thereafter, turning to dismiss the portal.  They’d arrived in the Shrine’s portal hub.  People of all sorts milled about, either on their way to or from a portal, but it wasn’t as populated as it was a few short years ago.  Nobody paid them any mind.

“You could do it, you know,” Daerek said.  “You’re smart.  Learning magic like that is a lot of theory studying at first, but I think you could pick it up pretty quick.”  He flashed her a smile.  As per usual, his compliment was simple and genuine.

She didn’t believe a word of it, though she didn’t doubt that he did.  She knew she wasn’t smart enough for casting spells, but she smiled politely at him, appreciating the compliment nonetheless.

“We’re headed towards one of the rooms off the side of the east wing,” Daerek said.

“I’ll follow you.  I don’t really know my way around here.”

“Really?  Oh, it’s great.”  His enthusiasm was palpable.  “I love it here.  I came briefly during the Pandaria campaign—not with the militia or anything, but for the herbs—and they’re all so nice.”  There was even a little spring in his step as he guided them around a few bends and down the stairwell into the main hall.  “Obscenely so.  It’s great.  They’ll probably yell at us for being too skinny, though,” he said with a laugh.

Anee walked close to Daerek, looking around at everything they passed.  Without thinking about it, she placed her hand on his arm, so she could look around more without watching where she was going so much.  She felt his arm tense briefly, but it relaxed again quickly.  “Why are they all so nice?  I mean, it’s pretty here, but does that make people nice?”

Daerek tried to slow down his bouncing stride so that she could look around more and not miss as much.  “It’s just something about the Pandaren culture.  Something to do with the Sha, I think?  Too many strong negative emotions could attract the Sha creatures—I don’t even know what they are other than physical manifestations of emotional energy—before this place was cleansed, so maybe they just learned to always be nice and happy.”  He shrugged a little.  Clearly history wasn’t really his forte.

“Ohh, right, the big black cloudy monster things,” she said.  “I remember them.  They make you feel bad.” 

“Right, those things.  I had a run-in with one, once.  It us…wasn’t—well, obviously I’m still here and not possessed.”  He laughed a little.  “I’m glad it’s safer to visit now.”

“Me too,” she agreed.  “I mean, I haven’t visited here since then, but if it wasn’t safer now, we probably wouldn’t be taking cooking classes here.” 

“Absolutely not,” Daerek agreed.  If he thought it odd she spoke of past visits to Pandaria but claimed to have never been to the Shrine of Seven Stars, he didn’t comment on it.   “Here we go—in here.”  He motioned for Anee to precede him into the chamber and followed her in.

A few workstations were set up in the room.  Each was large enough for two or three people to work at with plenty of room.  The Pandaren were big on community, after all.  A larger workstation was up front, and behind it was a rotund Pandaren woman in a chef’s hat and apron over a vibrant pink dress.  She was busy looking over a selection of ingredients and tools.

“Oh hello!” the woman greeted, offering a cheerful wave to the pair.  “My first students of the night!  Others should be coming soon, but make yourself comfortable. My name is Jojo.”  She eyed them critically for a moment, the fur around her snout bristling, as Anee led them to the workstation furthest from the door.  “I’m glad you are both here.  Clearly you need to eat more.  What better way to eat more than to cook more!”

Anee gave Daerek a small grin.  He had said they would be called too thin.  She smiled at Jojo and introduced herself.  “What are we learning to cook tonight?”

“Ooh, I’m glad you asked, Miss Anee.  Tonight, we are making Sea Mist Rice Noodles and Braised Turtle!”

“That sounds complicated,” Anee said with a worried frown.

“Have you ever had turtle?” Daerek whispered to Anee out of the corner of his mouth.

She shook her head.  “Have you?”

“Oh  no, dearie, it’s really not difficult at all!” the Pandaren woman favored Anee with a genial smile.  “Don’t worry, Jojo will walk you through every step!”  Anee nodded at the womand’s reassurances, but she didn’t look at all convinced.

“Nope,” Daerek whispered.  “But I’ve had the noodles.  They’re great.”

Each workstation was stocked with an ample supply of everything the student’s might need for the night’s lesson.  All utensils looked to be well taken care of, and the knives were freshly sharpened.  The produce and meat seemed to be fresh and of high quality.  All in all, they were being set up for success rather than failure. 

Other students began filtering into the room, made up of several Alliance races.  Jojo greeted every one of them with the same enthusiasm she did Anee and Daerek.  Anee inched around the counter of the workstation without even really realizing it as the others came in.  Daerek noticed her subtle movements, but didn’t comment on it.  He just took it as Another Quirk About His Roommate and left it at that.  Jojo took note of the girl’s movements too, but she’d seen enough adventuring types to know why the poor thing might feel the need to see the doorway.

“Alright, students!  Now that it looks like we’re all here, let’s begin….”

The lesson from start to finish didn’t take more than a couple of hours.  Jojo was a patient instructor, explaining how to do each and every thing the dishes required, what each utensil was for and how to use it, etc.  At non-crucial moments, she even went into little tangents about other things the assorted ingredients could be used for.

If the meals were successful, the students who cooked them were encouraged to take them home (or elsewhere) and enjoy them.  If they weren’t, Miss Jojo made plenty to share and offered helpful advice on improving one’s technique.   Either way, everyone in that room was going home with food.

Anee looked quite pleased with her success.  Though her dishes weren’t nearly as pretty as the instructor’s examples, she didn’t set anything on fire, so she was very happy.   She looked over at Daerek’s food.  “How did you do?”

While Daerek was excellent at floral arrangements, he was absolutely awful at plating food in a way that makes it look aesthetically appealing.  At her question, he dipped his fingertip into the rice noodle brother and took a taste.

“Well, it looks like hell,” he laughed.  “But it tastes okay.”  His easy smile turned into a grin.  “I told you you’d be fine.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter if it looks bad, as long as it still tastes good.”  She smiled at him, and then she started packing up her food to take home.  “I guess we know what we’re having for dinner tonight.”

He laughed and packed up his own meal.  “Yeah.  That’s another thing I like about the Pandaren—you never go hungry.”

Miss Jojo scowled at a young couple a few tables over.  They’d been bickering the whole time, and now that their plated meal has revealed itself as completely inedible, the bickering as reached a new level.  “Stop it now, both of you!” Jojo said, hands on her hips and a glare in her pretty green eyes.  “I won’t have this in my kitchen!”

Daerek and Anee were both uncomfortable with the bickering and scolding going on in the room.  Both avoided looking that direction and pretended not to notice.

“The terrace has a nice view of the Vale if you want to eat out there,” Daerek offered.  “But we can go back home too.  It doesn’t matter.”

“Um…okay,” Anee answered, distracted with trying not to notice the bad behavior of the ones arguing.  “Wherever you want to eat is fine with me.”

“Let’s eat out there, then,” he says quickly, eager to get away from the mounting tension in the room.  The bickering couple were quiet and sullen now, but there was no telling if they’d start up again.  Daerek waited until Anee was ready to go and then started leading them towards the outside terrace, keeping a leisurely pace in case she wanted to look around some more.

“I hope they don’t argue every lesson,” Anee says as she followed him.  She set her food down on the wall at the edge of the terrace and looked out at the view.  “What were they fighting bout anyway?  I didn’t hear what started it.  Did you?”

Daerek hopped up on the wall and settled himself cross-legged, offering a hand to Anee to help her up to sit beside him.   “Sounded like they were fighting over what Miss Jojo meant for some steps,” he explained.  “Didn’t look like either one of them were right at the end.”

Edited by Aneerys
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Aneerys    34

Daerek looked out across the visible part of the Vale.  The Sha scarring was still present, but telltale signs of healing were there too—a sapling here, a crop of flowers there.  For maybe the first time that Anee has seen, the mage looks at actual peace.

“Silly people.  If a cooking class is serious enough for them to fight over, they must have a pretty easy life.”  She laughed softly, then looked at Daerek. 

He laughed easily.  “Yeah, must be.  I wonder what it’s like.”  He chuckled again, looking to her with an easy grin before opening up his to-go box.

“It’s quiet out here,” she says.

“It is.  You can tell there was a lot of…well, not quiet, not too long ago.  But it’s recovered well, still is.  And—“He pointed to the west.  “There’s nothing like a sunset over that valley.”

Anee narrowed her eyes, thinking.  “I remember lots of fighting in this area.  Garrosh went crazy, and we had to help save Orgrimmar.  But now that everyone’s gone, I like it better here now.”  She blinks, and then smiles at him again before starting on her dinner.

“Were you a part of that?” he asked, surprised by the familiar use of “we.”

“Well, I mean…ummm….  No, not me directly, but um, you know….the Alliance.”  She looked out at the valley as she spoke, not looking at him.  Then she turned back his direction, looking at his food.  “How is it?”

Daerek looked at her with an odd expression for a few seconds, looking like he wanted to say something—but instead just smiled and tried some of the braised turtle.  He nodded slowly as he chewed with a “not bad” face.  “I don’t think I’m gonna die from food poisoning tonight.  How’d yours turn out?”

Anee giggled at him, glad he took to the change of subject so easily.  “That’s good.  Mine tastes better than it looks, so I don’t think I’ll get food poisoning tonight either.  At least not from this. Maybe I should save some for Buster.”

“Maybe.  The turtle might be better than the noodles for his stomach.”  Daerek cut a little bit off from his own braised turtle and set it aside. “For Buster,” he explained with a laugh. “Think we can manage this on our own again?”

“The noodles were pretty easy.  I’m not sure about the turtle though.  We could always try and find out.  I hope we learn a fancy dessert next.”  She grinned and licked her lips.

I’ll be sure to ask when Miss Jojo teaches the desserts,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll make it a special point ot go on that night.”

“Those other people might end up throwing it at each other if they’re fighting again.”  She laughed, then tilted her head.  "Speaking of food, have you seen Mr. Starseer lately?  I don't think I've seen him since...." She holds up her left hand with the pinky stub.  "I wonder what he did with my finger anyway."

Daerek peered at her in thought before frowning. "No...I haven't seen him since he had that bounty on him, actually. The last we spoke, I think, he was going to go into hiding."

"That's a shame.  He was nice.  I hope he's okay.  Maybe he's just traveling with his Caravan," she said, but she sounded doubtful.

"I'm sure he's fine. Tuuro seems to have a way about him to walk out of trouble like it's nothing." He laughed a little, trying to put her at ease. "Maybe we'll be able to track someone from the Caravan down and see how things are."

"I'm sure you're right.  He's pretty clever.  And I bet his cards would warn him of any danger."  Anee had no clue how his Tarot cards worked and probably gave them credit for more powers than they actually possessed.    "Did he ever do a card reading for you?"

"Maybe," he says. Daerek was pretty sure the cards don't work like that, but he's a mage, so who's to say they don't? "But no, he didn't. Never got around to it."

"Oh, I thought you knew him for a long time."   She finished her dinner and stacked up the containers.

"Yeah, it's...it's been a few years now, I guess?" He tried to tally it in his head but gave it up pretty quick. "I guess there was just never really an opportunity. The first time I met him and the Caravan, we were in Dustwallow and I'd just lost my horse." He laughed. "Mostly in the Recluse since then. Once in the Valley of the Four Winds."

Daerek finished up as well, collecting what garbage he had and squeezed everything into the largest box and wrapped up the bit of braised turtle in a napkin for Buster later. He jumped down and offered his hand again.

"You lost your horse?  In the swamp?"  She frowned at the thought as she took his hand and jumped down.   "Did you ever find him again?"

Daerek led them towards a wastebin nearer to the main hall. "Yeah, I did. We were camped in Mudsprocket and something spooked her in the early morning. I had enough time to grab my bag and try to run after her...she jumped a low part of the fence there." He flushed red. "I...maybe didn't have time to put on all of my clothes, either. Don't...don't ever go around the swamp almost naked. It's not fun."

He cleared his throat to try and get past the embarrassing memory. "I got lost trying to find her. Met Tuuroto's caravan later that night and joined them back to Mudsprocket. Right after they let us into the camp, I heard her." He grinned. "Bolted off--fully clothed this time, thank the Light--and found her safe and sound. I still don't know what spooked her."

She managed, barely, not to laugh at the image of him running around the swamp naked, chasing a horse, but her amusement was obvious.  "You're lucky she didn't get eaten.  Or you!  Or...maybe the bugs ate you, if you had no clothes on....?"   She dropped her trash into the bin.  "I'm glad you got her back."

"I had welts for weeks," he confided. "It took me almost an hour to realize I wasn't wearing anything. I was too panicked. But my clothes had gotten soaked from leading her through the places I couldn't ride her, so..." He trailed off with a shrug, dropping off his own trash. "I think the worst part was having to fess up to the guards at the gate what had happened when I was trying to get back in with the caravan. I'd just met all these people and there was a really intimidating Sin'dorei with us and it was just..." He huffed an amused sigh. It was funny now that some time has passed. "Never again."

Her amusement faded quickly as he described the ordeal.  "That sounds awful!  I guess it could have been much worse, but...."   She shuddered.   "There was a blood elf in Tuuro's Caravan?"

He laughed. "It could have been. I'm glad it wasn't." He led them back to a spacious place, probably with the intent of creating another portal. "And I don't think he was in the Caravan. He just showed up, I think. Said he'd help guide us and help out if anything attacked. He seemed to already know Tuuro."

"I don't like them," she said, crinkling her nose.  "They're always so pretty and snobby and bossy and looking down their noses at everyone. They often have silly names though," she added, grinning.  "What was that one's name?  Something with Fire or Dawn in it probably?"

"Eh, they don't bother me so much. Lots of people act like that, so I guess I got used to it." Daerek considered her question, wracking his brain for the memory of the elf's name.

"No, it wasn't one of those...Z-something. I don't remember his last name, though. Red hair, leathers, so probably a rogue...Zaaaaanas?"

Her step faltered, and she blinked a few times.   "Zanas....." she muttered quietly.  "Autumnvale."   She remained still then, just staring at the ground, perhaps distracted by her thoughts.

Daerek frowns at her, concerned. "Is...is he somebody else you know?" he asked slowly.

She lifted her gaze to meet his before answering.  "He....  I used to know him.  A long time ago."

"You knew a lot of people," he said quietly, offering her a small smile in hopes of setting her more at ease.

She smiled back, though her smile was a bit sad.  There weren't many people she missed from her former life, but there were a few.  She shook her head.  "Not anymore, not really."     Then she looked forward again, to whatever destination they were walking toward.

Daerek put his hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze. He didn’t say anything else either way.

They came to a reasonably open area. A few people were around, but not many. "How about we head back and stop by a dessert shop on the way home?" he asked, already readying a spell for a return portal.

She smiled at him at the mention of dessert.  "That sounds good."

"'kay." He smiled down at her and began channeling the portal spell. Nearby, a duel broke out between two men. One of them was clearly an amateur, or perhaps drunk, because his neon green spell went awry and nearly crashed through the portal. Daerek looked up with a scowl, and the man shouted a 'Sorry!' before going back to his duel. The portal itself seemed unharmed though.

Tempted by the promise of dessert, Anee stepped through the portal, considering whether she'd choose pie or cake....or maybe a pudding.

By the time Daerek and Anee stepped through it, they couldn’t see that the portal has started shifting. It was no longer keyed to Dalaran, having absorbed contrary magic--and when they arrived on the other side, it certainly wasn't to a kind place.

Edited by Aneerys
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Aneerys    34

It was hard to tell at first glance where the pair were geographically. The presence of a Legion camp just a few feet away, and a nearby Felhound sniffing about at their sudden arrival, was more or less an immediate danger. If someone were to look, though, they'd see the spires of Suramar City off in the distant west.

Confusion clouded Anee’s face as she took a few steps forward and then stopped, looking around.  “Daerek?” she asked softly.  “I don’t think we’ll find dessert here….”

Daerek paled significantly, breath coming in hushed pants and green eyes wide.  Wordlessly, he grabbed Anee’s arm and took a few slow steps back towards the portal, hoping to pull them back through it to Pandaria.

Too bad the portal destabilized.  It was gone.

“Make another one?” Even in a whisper, Anee’s voice shook.  She pressed close to him, fearfully watching the nearby demons.

“We’re too close,” he whispered back.  “The Felhound will smell it immediately.  They’ll be on us before I can finish casting.”   The hand not holding onto her slowly reached for a pouch at his hip.   

“Eighteen seconds,” he murmured, pressing a small vial of blue-tainted liquid into her hand.  “You drink it, and you run.  You’ll have eighteen seconds of invisibility.  They’ll smell my magic before they smell you.  You drink and you run.  Deliverance Point is….to the south, I think.  Okay?”

Shaking her head, she pushed the vial back at him.  “Remember I told you I can hide from them?  You use this.  I’m not leaving you.”  She reached down to her boot and pulled out a small dagger.  “Too close for hearthstones too?”

Daerek looked extremely agitated at her refusal for a moment, but he forced it down.  Now was not the time to put up a fuss, and he could always break down in guilt later.  “If we get far enough away…   There’s magic to hearthstones too.”

The Felhound stood, eyestalks swaying this way and that as it searched for the source of the magic it smelled. 

“It’s going to smell me anyways.”  Daerek took the vial reluctantly.  “But we can try.  But don’t come out from hiding.”

Anee eyed the Felhound, suddenly remembering something about the beasts—they like to eat magic.  Wordlessly, she nodded at Daerek’s instructions and waited for him to drink the potion. 

He popped the cork, keeping his eyes pinned on the slowly advancing Felhound.  It had their mark, but wasn’t quite sure yet.  Daerek murmured a countdown from three and downed the shot of liquid.  He bolted, praying that he could trust Anee to act as skillfully as she’d led him to believe she can.

Anee took to the shadows as soon as Daerek disappeared, and started running in the same direction.  She started counting to eighteen, planning to stop running when she reached it.  Hopefully they would be near each other when his potion wore off.

The Felhound, however, had finally locked onto the source of magic it smelled.  Though it couldn’t see the mage, it sensed the movement.  It broke into a run, passing Anee without even slowing down in its eagerness to get to the magic source.  With its eyestalk tentacles waving eagerly, the beast closed in on the young mage.

Anee saw it and tightened her grip on her dagger, understanding all too well what the beast’s intent was.  She grabbed a small rock, about the size of an apple, and threw it at the Felhound, hitting it in the back.  It stopped and turned on her, tentacles waving and saliva dripping from its mouth.  Throwing the rock had pulled her from the shadows and the beast had no trouble seeing her now.  She pulled her second dagger from the other boot and raised both blades in front of her as she stared at the creature.

Daerek heard the hound’s eager vocalizations behind him and pushed himself to run harder.  He was used to running; the additional effort wasn’t a problem for him, not yet.  It was when he didn’t hear the growling beast continuing its advance that he realized something was wrong.  The mage chanced a look back over his shoulder, only to see his roommate facing off with the Felhound.

He stopped running and spun back around to face them, horror plain on his face.  His chemically-induced invisibility wore off a moment later.  Any shout he might have made died in his throat, but fire sputtered into being around his hands when he started trying to cast to help her.  The Felhound, sending the magic being cast, turned back to the mage, grunting and growling eagerly.

“No!” Anee shouted.  She charged at the beast, launching herself at its back.   Sitting on the Felhound as if it were a horse, she gripped it with her legs as it started twisting and bucking.   It growled and slobbered, waving its eyestalk tentacles around wildly.  Anee tightened her legs to keep her seat, and she raised both daggers before plunging them into the back of the Felhound’s neck, right at the base of the skull.  

The Felhound lurched a few times, sending Anee flying through the air to land on the rocky ground, before it finally fell over dead.

Something in Anee’s attack shocked the mage so much that his concentration faltered and the fire in his hands disappeared entirely.  If possible, he looked even more horrified than he did before—but whatever it was, he shoved It down and ran to her and the dead hound.  The young mage knelt protectively over Anee.

The tussle had attracted the attention of some larger, bipedal demons on the outskirts of the camp they ran past. Previously preoccupied by the sight of an armored man approaching the camp, two Felguards were pointing and shouting at Daerek and Anee now, lumbering towards them with the same intent the Felhound had.

Dazed, Anee sat up slowly as Daerek neared her.  Even through the fall, her hands never released their grip on her daggers, and she adjusted her grip on them now as she saw the approaching Felguards.  "We need to get out of here,” she murmured.  "If I distract them, can you make us a portal?"

A flash of light intercepted one of the Felguards, and a few seconds later an older man charged at the demons. The man was surrounded in a pale aura of Light. He raised a shield and shortsword up to block the Felguard attacks.

"You kids better run." He huffed out, "These two don't seem happy."

Daerek couldn’t seem to believe their good luck at somebody armored and capable. He rose to a standing position, pulling Anee up with him. He wrapped her in his arms and muttered a quick incantation, blinking them away from the fight. Making sure she could stand on her own, he slowly released her and prepared to open a portal.

Anee, also looking very relieved, looked between her roommate and the adventurer.  "He looks like he can handle himself.  Let's get out of here."

Daerek didn’t look at her once she was standing, instead focusing on his spellcasting. After what seemed like forever (but wasn't quite even ten seconds), a brilliantly shimmering image of Dalaran appeared within the confines of the portal's swirling outline.

"Go," he urged, a hand on her back to push her through the portal.

A moment of doubt crossed her mind at the portal, after what happened with the last one, but she was pushed through before having time for second thoughts.  Besides, what could be worse than this place?   She disappeared through the portal and waited for Daerek on the other side.

"Come on!" Daerek shouts over his shoulder to the armored man. He turned and started chanting another spell, this one causing an icy chill to envelope his hands. The spell would freeze the Felguards in place and allow the man to run to them "safely."

The old man chanced a moment to look over his shoulder to see the portal.  "Look away!" He shouted to Daerek before the Light gathered around him flared and brightened to a painful level. The demons were blinded and confused. The old man then ran towards the portal.

Daerek turned his head and lifted his arm to cover his eyes. When the residual lighting from the flare died down, he chanced a peek again--and stepped aside so the armored man could have a clear shot at the portal.

The old man was able to get up to the portal, but waited for Daerek to go through first. "If it closes on me, I can take more than a few hits before needing to go to safety."

The young mage nodded and went through the portal.  The man followed soon after, deciding not to pass up an easy way out of the fight.

This portal was fine.  It took them back to Dalaran as expected.

Edited by Aneerys
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Aneerys    34

After stepping through the portal back into Dalaran, Anee quickly wiped her daggers off on her leggings and returned them to their hiding places in her boots.  Daerek also stepped through the portal and moved away from it, towards Anee--but not too close.

"Are you alright?" he asked, looking between her and the portal. He hoped the old man dove through soon.

The man walked through the portal a few minutes after Daerek. He looked between the two, composed as if he'd fought demons multiple times and often. "Are you two alright? I am able to heal wounds if need be."

"I'm okay," Daerek said, taking his eyes off Anee and looking at the aged man with palpable relief. "She tackled a hound and got thrown, though."

"I'm fine," Anee insisted quietly.

"Thank you for your help, sir." The young man looked shaken, perhaps for a little more than just having missed chowtime with the two of them as the main course, but he bowed to the older man with a steady frame.

Anee looked at Daerek and frowned.  "You don't look well.  Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." If the words were a little sharp, Daerek didn't seem to notice in his spooked state. "Thank you."

The kind stranger looked between the two, trying to decide if they were just playing fine. After a moment, he decided it was none of his business. "If you two are sure."

For all of his apparent anxiety, Daerek was physically okay. "Yes, sir. Thank you. Are you alright?"

The man nodded, "Nothing I couldn't handle." He chuckled softly, as if a thought came to him that amused him. "Though, the portal was a good help."

Daerek offered a smile. It was quick, though, and his face soon went back to forced neutrality. His breathing maybe came a bit fast, but nothing that would have been incredibly unusual for the circumstances. "It was the least I could do."

The man shook his head with a bemused smile, "You know, you two remind me of my adopted daughter,” he said, maybe catching that Daerek wasn't as good as he pretended.

Daerek didn’t know quite how to take that, so he just offered a smile instead. "We should be going. But please find me later if there's anything I can do to repay what you've done for us. My name is Daerek Smythe."

The man nodded. "Same goes to you as well lad, I'm Mervic Ducharm.  Any of the Silver Hand know how to track me down if it is needed."

"I'm Anee," she said simply.  She fidgeted, picking up on Daerek's mood.

Daerek bowed again. "Thank you, sir. Please be safe." He turned to Anee and offered her a smile. Despite whatever was going on in his head, there was still warmth there. He motioned for her to precede him out of the portal room.

She smiled back, then stepped out into the street and turned for their apartment.

Daerek kept to her side as they walked, sometimes a pace behind her. Something was still bothering him, but whatever it was, he kept it to himself. "We can still stop by a dessert shop if you'd like," he offered quietly, glancing down at her with a small smile. He was making an effort at appearing fine for her sake, and it showed.

She stopped and turned to him, searching his face and trying to read him to predict what answer he wanted.  "Um..sure, if you still want to."

When Daerek wanted to keep something from his face, he was pretty good at it. This was one of those times—there was no telling what he wanted. "I did offer," he said with a small smile. "But only if you're feeling up to it. You took a hard fall."

She nodded.  "Okay.  Um, I mean, if I look okay for it."   She brushed some dirt off her pants and then reached up to smooth her hair.

His smile warmed a bit more. "You look just fine. Like an adventurer with a sweet tooth, at worst." The young mage didn’t seem to care what he looked like, and looked around to orient himself. After a moment, he set off towards the nearest dessert vendor.

She nodded to him, and followed him to the vendor.  "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," he repeated. It was a little less sharp this time; he was getting himself more under control. "Are you?"

She nodded again.  "Just some bruises.  Probably be sore tomorrow.  Nothing serious."

"I have some salve for that in the medicine cabinet. You're welcome to as much of it as you need. It's pretty easy to make."

"Okay, thanks.  Maybe I'll give it a try."

He smiled down at her again and led them towards the sweets vendor by the bank. "She has the best cupcakes," he whispered, a hint of his earlier happy boyishness peeking through. "Get anything you want." He greeted the proprietor with a wide, easy (and ultimately forced, not that the vendor knows) smile, immediately perusing her selections.

Anee smiled back, relaxing a bit now that he seemed to be in a better mood again.   They both ordered strawberry cupcakes, which Daerek paid for.

"Thank you," she said with an easy smile for him as she took the cupcake.  "They have good cheesecake here too.  Want to sit down?"

"Sure," he said, already unwrapping the confection. "Good cheesecake, hm? I'll remember that, too. I like the kind with the cherry topping." He settled himself on the bench, leaving plenty of room for Anee to sit down wherever she chooses.

She sat next to him, and they talked about desserts as they ate their cupcakes.  Daerek still didn’t look at her for long periods of time, but his conversation and even occasional laughter put Anee at ease again with her roommate.

"When's your birthday?"  Daerek asked when their conversation turned to her favorite kind of cake.

Anee blinked a few times.  "Umm...," she started uncertainly, then she grinned suddenly.  "Why?  Are you going to get me a chocolate birthday cake with white icing?"

"Why would I get you one when I can make one?"

"Ooh, you can make cake?  Is it good?"

He just laughed. "You'll have to wait and see."

She mock pouted, then laughed.  "Aw, okay.  When is your birthday?"

"Hey now, how's that fair? You didn't tell me yours." He glanced down to her with a quick smirk and then looked away again. "Guess you don't want cake."

"If I tell you mine, you'll tell me yours?"

He grinned, still looking out over the square. What were they, five? But the easy give-and-take comforted him. "Sure."

"June 25," she said with only the tiniest hesitation between the month and the date.  "When is yours?"

"Back in April. The 8th." He seemed more focused on considering the time between now and June 25th than anything.

"Hm," she muttered, then frowned.  "But that's already past, and I didn't know.  I'll get you a present to make up for it."

This made him look at her again, faint shock open on his face. "You don't have to do that. I didn't even remember it myself."

Now she looked shocked.  "You didn't remember your own birthday?"

He shrugged. "I was busy."

She frowned at him, obviously thinking.  Then a mischievous glint came into her eye.  She stuck her fingers in the frosting of her cupcake, then reached out to put it on Daerek’s nose.

The motion was so utterly unexpected that Daerek didn’t register what had happened until he was bedecked with sweet-smelling icing. He blinked down at his nose, cross-eyed, and then looked back up at Anee with sheer flabbergastment.

Maybe it was genuine, maybe it was a ruse, or maybe it was both, because while she was distracted by his confusion, he was swiping some of his own icing with the intent of smearing it on her nose.  She was giggling too hard at the look on his face to notice.  His aim was off though, and Anee ended up with a frosted cheek, which only makes her laugh harder as she tried to wipe her face clean with her hand.

Daerek grinned, and Anee' s laughter proved infectious as he swiped the frosting off his nose and popped it into his mouth. "That's a good look on you," he teased, but the words were broken up through his laughter.

Following suit, she licked her own fingers off and grinned at him.  "You too!  Cupcakes: snack and fashion accessory all in one!"

He snickered and ate the remaining bit of his cupcake. "My new favorite trend."

"Oh, maybe we will start a trend.  We might become famous."

"And rich." He grinned. "Lap of luxury."

"Ooh, yeah," she agreed with a big dreamy grin.  "We could get a diamond collar for Ber, and even get him a girlfriend.  Maybe a fancy little fluffy dog." 

Something subtle in Daerek's expression shifted as she mistakenly called Buster by a different name, but his smile didn't go away. "And all the chocolate cake and peach cobbler we want."

"Yeah, and you wouldn't have to tire yourself out with so much work."

He snorts. "Me? Not work? Nah. I think I'll still work even if I were as rich as the King himself. I enjoy it."

"But you could set your own hours then, and not work for people like that lady in the Stormwind shop who yelled at you."

It took Daerek a moment to remember what she was talking about. "Oh! No, no, she's not normally like that!" he hurried to say. "Her shipment was really late and she depends on that to help keep her shop running and her kids fed. She had every right to be angry. She was worried." Even now, the tongue-lashing he got didn't seem to bother him.

"Oh."  She seems to consider that as she wipes the rest of the frosting off her cheek, using her nail to assist with the parts that were drying there by now.  "Well, she still shouldn't have been so mean to you."

He shrugged a little, still smiling. "It's not a big deal, really." The turn of topic seemed to make him a bit sheepish, as though he wasn't sure how to take the mild fussing on his behalf.

"Even good people get frustrated and need somebody to vent at," he said a moment later. "It doesn't hurt me to be that person if it makes them feel better when they need it."

She smiled at him, a small smile, for a moment, then looked out in front of them.  "You shouldn't be so nice all the time.  People will take advantage of you."

He kept watching her for a few moments after she turned away. Something shifted in his expression again before he looked out in front of them too. "I know," he said quietly. The smile lessened a little, but it was still there. "I've heard that before. And I'm sure I'll hear it again."

Her head tilted to the side as she looked back at him curiously.  "Doesn't that bother you?"

He didn't look at her. "Sometimes, I guess."

She fidgeted and looked away again, quiet for a brief moment before speaking again.  "Then why do you still act so nice to them?"

He didn't need to think about this answer at all. "Because what if, someday, somebody actually needs it? What if they aren't just using me? There's too many people who assume the worst of everyone and act on it. That's just...not me."

She fidgeted again, considering where she might be right now if he hadn't been so nice to her all those months ago.  She looked at him from the corner of her eye, not directly and gently touched his leg.  "I'm glad you're nice," she said softly, withdrawing her hand again.

Daerek didn’t flinch or tense up when she touched him this time. Instead, he just gave her a little quirked side smile. "Me too," he said quietly. "What do you say we head back? It's been a long night. And I'm sure Buster can smell the turtle from here."

"Okay, but first....what do you want for your birthday?"

He couldn’t help it. Laughter burst from his throat, and he turned an incredulous look on her. "How about we call it even with those alchemy knives you snagged for me?" He grinned.

She blinked at him, looking worried that he might know she actually snagged them rather than bought them properly, but then she smiled as she decided it was just a phrase.   "Okay, sure," she said as if she agreed with that.

That worried look was another thing that got filed away. "Cool," he said. "So don't worry about it." The mage rose and offered his hand to help her up. It seemed to be out of reflex even though they're just sitting on a bench.

Anee smiled at him, placing her hand in his as she stood.  She did not let go of his hand; he didn’t seem to notice.  "I bet Buster will love your turtle dish."

"I'm pretty sure Buster loves basically anything," he joked with a snort. "At least he hasn't learned how to get into the cabinets yet." He glances to Anee with an eyebrow lifted in question. "...has he?"

Giggling at his comments about Buster, she shook her head.  "No, he's not the smart.  If he ever does though, we'll put all the food in the upper cabinets.  Then he'll have to learn how to use a step ladder."

"I still think we could probably teach him tricks and put on a show. You got to admit, Buster the Flying Bamboozler is a great stage name." He lifted his free hand in the air and mimed the air currents that Buster would theoretically glide upon if they taught him to fly.  From there, the two engaged in another day dream of becoming rich and famous, this time from a talented dog.  Anee became overtaken by a fit of giggles that left her in tears, creating tracks through the dried frosting on her cheek.  Their carrying on drew the unwanted attention of a Kirin Tor Guardian, who Daerek assured they were just joking and were moving along.

They talked and laughed all the way back to the apartment building, where Anee apologized for being so silly and unable to stop laughing.

"No, don't apologize," he says with a chuckle, lowering their hands. "It's nice to laugh so much.”

She smiled at him, still making no move to release his hand.   "Yeah, it's been a long time since I laughed like that.  Later, I won't know if my sides hurt from falling off a dying demon or from laughing so hard.  I think I'll believe it's from laughing."

He snorted a laugh, trying to cover the brief flicker of panic at the reminder of the night's events. "That's probably for the best. The salve still stands, though." He started up the stairs to their floor, going slow enough that she could keep up with him and still hold his hand.

She gave his hand a little squeeze when she saw his panic.  He squeezed hers back.    "Thanks.  I think I'll probably be okay without it though.  It's just a few bruises, nothing serious."  

Finally letting go of his hand, she opened the door.  Buster was right there waiting for them, his tail wiggling his whole butt in his excitement to see them.  His nose twitched, and he went to Daerek, sniffing him eagerly.

Daerek laughed and croucheed down in front of Buster, running his hands all over the pup with pets and scritches.  "Hey, buddy! Who's a good boy? Is it you? Aw, it's totally you! You smell that turtle, don't you? Can you sit?"

Buster somehow managed to lower his wiggling bottom to the floor long enough to imitate a sit. 

"Aww, yes, such a good boy! Okay, hang on, hang on..." Daerek held his hand out to try and keep Buster from jumping him as soon as he pulled out the little wrapped package of turtle. He shook the napkin free of the few morsels and then extended them in his palm to Buster. He was quite taken with the little guy.

Anee laughed.  "I should probably take him for a walk after he's had his snack."  She turned for the kitchen.  "Do you want a drink?"

"Um...s--" He glanced around the visible space of the apartment, and his expression tightened a bit. His earlier panic flickered in his face again, but he was quick to shove it down with a smile. "No, I--I've got a few things I should take care of before it gets too much later. Th-thank you, though."

Anee leaned in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, smiling softly as she watched Buster gobble up the bits of meat from Daerek's hand.  The smile faded though when Daerek answered her, and she peered at him.  "Okay....  Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine! I just--" He floundered for a moment, still petting Buster but slowing his motions. "I...um. I do have some things I need to--and...closed spaces?" he trailed off, indicating the apartment with his free hand. It was best to let some of the truth show, he figured, and hoped that she'd understand that part of it without him having to explain further.

"Okay...."  She didn't know exactly what he meant by indicating the apartment, but she figured he was still shaken from their encounter with the demons earlier, so she didn’t question him.  Instead, she just smiled to him.  "I'll see you later then."

He smiled back, gratefulness flooding his expression. He roughed up the dog with some more pets before standing. "Yeah. Take it easy, okay?" He shot her another smile and stepped out the door, shutting it softly.

On the other side, out of eyesight of anybody--especially Anee--the kid looked like he was about to have a full-blown panic attack right then and there. He walked away as quickly as he could without running.

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Aneerys    34

As it turns out, when Daerek is drunk and trying to be quiet, he isn’t very quiet.  He thinks he is, but a few hours later, the jangle of his keys, the this-side-of-not-gentle shutting of the door, and the inevitable drunken swear when he runs into the corner formed by the kitchen all prove otherwise.

He sat on the couch and stared blankly at the wall, illuminated by the soft glow of the table lamp on the coffee table.  Now, he was actually quiet.

The bedroom door opened a few minutes later, and Anee peeked out into the living room.  When she saw her roommate just sitting there staring, she came in and perched on the arm of the couch.  Her eyes looked sleepy, her hair was tousled, and she was only wearing an oversized shirt as a nightgown.   “Are you okay?”

It took him a moment to register her presence and her question.  If she was a mugger, he’d be well and thoroughly mugged.  He was well past the point of stupid drunk, but now he was contemplative drunk.    

“I’m sorry,” he said thickly, looking up at her finally.  “For tonight.  I don’t know what happened.”

In addition to her mind being foggy from having just been woken from sleep, it had been a long night, from the cooking class to the Legion camp, then dessert and the walk home.  What was he sorry for?  She replayed the night in her mind.  “What…?  Oh, the portal?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what happened,” he said, looking sad through his glassy eyes.

“It’s okay.  Magic can be weird like that,” she said, trying to be comforting, even if she didn’t know the first thing about magic and casting spells.  Her nose twitched as she caught the scent of wine clinging to him, and she looked at him.  “I like your new sweater.  Do you want some coffee?”

“o-oh…  It’s Rhork’s,” he said, blinking down at his sweater.  He didn’t think to clarify why he was wearing it.  “And no….no, I’ll be okay.  Thanks.”  He peered a little closer at her, taking in her sleepy face and pajamas for the first time, and smiled again, a little sadder than before.  “I’m sorry I woke you.  You can go back to bed.”

She shrugged dismissively and slid off the couch, heading for the kitchen.  “I couldn’t sleep anyway.  Black, or cream and sugar?”

“Cream and—wait, no, I—“ He broke off and sighed.  Some part of him realized that, even sleepy, she’s not the sort to be unintentionally obtuse.  He recognized the subtle (or not so subtle) form of manipulation for what it was, or what he thought it might be, and continued.  “…cream and sugar, please.  Thank you.”  The words were quiet and meek and defeated.

Buster jumped up on the couch and tried to wiggle his way into Daerek’s lap, little pink tongue lapping towards the young man’s chin.  Daerek welcomed the pup’s presence, petting him vigorously and trying to avoid the tongue.  He wasn’t as deft as he might normally be though, so he got thoroughly slobberized.   He glances up towards the kitchen and frowned a little.  “Couldn’t sleep?  Are you okay?” he called, leaning his head back on the couch to try to catch a glimpse of her.

She came back into the living room, carrying a tray with two mugs of sweetened coffee with milk in them, and a few cherry pastries.   “I’m fine,” she said, then with a sheepish smile, she added, “just a bit sore.”   The back of one thigh, where the shirt didn’t quite cover, was a dark purple.  

“Yeah, I bet.  Hard fall.  You took it well.”  He caught a glimpse of the bruise but quickly looked away.  Even drunk, he knows it’s impolite to stare—especially at a lady’s legs.  “I hope that helps,” he said, motioning to the salve that she had left on the end table earlier. 

The two spent the next hour or so petting Buster until he fell asleep while they talked about Rhork and their families over pastries and a few cups of coffee.  After one particular refill, Anee warned he would burn his throat when he drank immediately.

“With as much wine as went down it tonight, I’m pretty sure I won’t feel it anyways.”  He meant it as a joke, but it was actually the truth.

Anee didn’t laugh.  Instead, she looked worried.  “Sounds like you drank an awful lot….  Are you sure you’re okay?”   She had asked him that several times throughout the evening, and each time he assured her he was fine.  Maybe she shouldn’t have asked again, but she still had the feeling something was troubling him.

He didn’t look away from her this time, nor did he give an immediate affirmation.  Instead, he looked right at her—almost through her—with troubled green eyes.  A flashed image of her driving her daggers into the back of the felhunter’s neck made him close them. 

“No,” he said finally, after she had begun fidgeting under the intense look.  “No, I’m not, but…”  When he opened his eyes again, there was fear and uncertainty simmering just beneath them.  It was hard to say whether it was a result of their demonic encounter or directed at her, and Daerek was struggling to get the words out.

“What?” she asked softly.  “What is it?” 

He couldn’t seem to look at her and talk at the same time, so he looked down at his mug instead.  “I know—I know that you…hide a lot of who you are.  Were.  Whatever.”  He swallowed, trying to force the halting words out through an inexplicably dry mouth.  “And tonight, I just—you’re not an amateur, Anee.  You were trained.  I know it when I see it, and tonight, I saw it, and it…it makes everything else about you make so much more sense.”   He opened his mouth to continue, but the words wouldn’t come just yet.  He still couldn’t bring himself to look at her.

She looked away from him as well, her face paling.  She folded her hands in her lap and just sat there, staring straight ahead.   “I….I didn’t think.  I just…I saw it going after you, and I just reacted.  I’m sorry if I scared you.  But..it’s okay now though,” she tried to reassure him, tentatively turning to look at him.  “We’re safe now, and nobody got hurt.”

Daerek’s jaw worked furiously as he listened to her, gaze still focused down on his coffee.  His fingers tightened around the mug before he spoke again, and they didn’t lose their grip.  

“All the little oddities,” he muttered.  “The hesitations.  The slip-ups.  Blank looks.  Ber?  And Zanas?  Syreena?  Miss Lilliana?  You know more Horde than you do Alliance, it feels like.  And this—tonight—Light, you remind me of her.” That last bit was uttered under his breath, probably not meant for her Anee’s ears.  “You’re running.  I don’t know from who, or from what, or from when, but what happens when you get hurt again?”

Anee's expression went from utterly confused to absolutely horrified as he ran through the list of names.  She looked away from him, staring straight ahead and sitting stiffly still.   “I…what…  You know Horde too…  Remind you of who?  What are you…I don’t understand….”  She barely heard his final question, too overwhelmed by what had already been said.

"You know her as the General," he managed, his words thick with shame at the memory of his fear. "That's how I--how I know you're not an amateur. Amateurs don't...she wasn't..." He shook his head hard and turned to look at her finally. "And yeah, Anee, I know some Horde, but not like you do. Not like that. I'm not stupid. Even now, there's something. You understand, I know you do. And--" His jaw worked again, eyes bright, and his words picked up some speed like he was trying to get it all out at once.

"You know what? I don't...it doesn't matter. I've wondered for months if maybe Kat was right about you, but that doesn't matter either. None of it does. I don't know if I'm just convenient or if I'm actually your friend, but I hope like Hell it's the latter and you haven't ever given me a reason to doubt that you're a good person. So I don't care, Anee, I don't--" His words abruptly stopped, and a different kind of horror fills his face.

"And I haven't even thanked you for saving my life. Light, I'm an asshole."

She didn’t say anything at first.  She just sat there, pale and stiff, with tears pooling in her eyes.  Of all the people to be suspicious of her for her secrets, she never wanted it to be him.  She could almost see her happy life here unraveling with each of Daerek's doubts.   She shook her head at his thanks, as if it were no big deal what she did.

She glanced at him and opened her mouth, only to close it and look away again.  Her gaze darted around the room for a moment, like a trapped animal.  Finally, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and looked him again, briefly, unable to maintain any kind of eye contact with him right now.

"I don't....   I'm not sure what you're accusing me of," she stammered in a harsh whisper.  "In the beginning, you were convenient....  I... had nowhere safe to stay, and you let me stay here, but....now, I don't......"  She blinked hard a few times, and looks back at the coffee table.  "I'm sorry."

"I--I wasn't accusing you of..." He looked more than a little broken that Katrynne was right about Anee all along. But maybe it wasn't all along, because she made it sound like that wasn't the case anymore. Or maybe it was just his wishful thinking. Either way, it worked for him.

"Please don't cry," he whispered, reaching a hand out to try and touch her arm. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything." He looked completely out of his depth now and incredibly regretful. "I meant it. I don't care." He was still whispering. "You're my friend. I care about you. I just want you to be okay."

At the touch on her arm, she seemed to melt, turning into him, and he held her, laying his head on top of hers.  "I didn't know you at first," she blubbered.  "You were just someone I met who let me live in his house, and I thought you'd make me pay for it somehow eventually, but then.... after a while.....I realized that you're just really nice.”

She sniffled, then whispered even more quietly, her words coming very hesitantly.  "I used to be...   I used to have to fight, but I don't want to anymore.  I want to be the good wolf now.  He said I could be......"

“Who said that?" he asked, trying to filter through the meaning in her words.

"The Professor," she said between sniffles. 

"And he thought you were bad? Or you did?" Daerek rubbed her back a little bit.

She ignored the tenderness of the bruises on her back as he rubbed it.  Her breathing evened out a bit, and her sniffling slowed down, as she realized he didn't seem to hate her and probably wasn't going to kick her out.   She shook her head at his question.  "I....was with bad people.  He saved me from them."

Daerek stilled briefly, and then squeezed her a little tighter. His eyes focused blankly on the window across from him. The surface parallels to his own life were uncanny. The little voice in his head that told him for months he was being taken advantage of--the little voice that oddly enough sounded like Katrynne--was practically screaming now at how convenient those words were, but he tuned it out.

He said he didn't care, and he meant it.

"He was right," Daerek said after a moment. "You aren't bad. What we were or what we were forced to do doesn't define us unless we let it." He kept rubbing her back gently, trying to keep calming her while attempting to be mindful of the bruises, but he didn't know where they were and so hoped for the best.

"I'm not that person anymore," she said quietly.  She bit her lip, suddenly embarrassed for her little meltdown.  She fidgeted, before pulling away from him to sit up.  As she tried to compose herself, he got her a wet washcloth and assured her everything was okay. 

"I know it's really awkward right now, but it'll be okay. You could tell me you used to be a serial killer and I'd forgive you if you made me believe you weren't that person anymore." His voice was an uncharacteristic mix of gentleness and supportive steel. He believed every word he was saying right then. "And I already believe that you aren't who you were."

She gave him a skeptical look, since serial killer wasn't all too far off from what she actually was, if not even worse.  Something in his voice though comforted her a bit, and she smiled at him.  "Really?"

He didn't see the skeptical look, eyes slowly drifting shut as they were, but he could hear the smile in her voice. "Really."

She looked at him, seeing his eyes falling closed so she spoke softly and simply.  "Okay."

"Hey. Anee?" His voice sleepily lilted up at the end of her name, and he smiled a little bit.

"Yes?"

"Thanks. For bein' you. Really." It was so mumbled that it was entirely possible it was unintelligible, but it sounds sincere.

Anee smiled softly, but she didn't say anything in response.  She'd had at least a few hours of sleep during the night, and she knew he was awake all that time.  She just watched him as he fell asleep.  She debated on trying to stretch his legs out on the couch to make him more comfortable, but decided not to risk waking him.  Instead, she covered him with a throw blanket.  Buster jumped up on the couch and curled up next to the sleeping mage, and Anee returned to the bedroom.

Edited by Aneerys
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Aneerys    34

A little black panther cub ambled aimlessly through Dalaran. In an ordinary city, that might seem a sad or concerning thing, but given that every time the cub moved something underneath its fur shimmered arcane purple, it seemed likely in this city of mages that it's someone's familiar out on a task, should an observer be in-tune enough with the nature of the city to recognize it. The cub stopped in front of each doorway it passed as though waiting for something, pausing extra long for the moment in front of One More Glass.

As Anee walked down the street, seemingly led by a pug puppy on a gem-studded blue leash, she caught sight of the cub.   The pup also noticed it, pulling at his leash a bit, and wagging his butt with his tail as he panted excitedly.   Anee was not in tune enough with the city to recognize a familiar when she saw one. She saw only a panther cub.  At first, she simply followed it without trying to draw its attention, in case it seemed to know where to go, but as it stopped in front of all the doors, she decided he was lost. 

"Hey, kitty...." she called softly, holding her pup on a shorter leash as she approached the cub.  "Are you lost?"

The cat looked at her upside down, then walked up to the vendor's table right in front of a plate of cheese and waited. After a few moments, it looked at Anee then back at the cheese, somehow apparently oblivious to the dog's presence.

"Oh, hungry, are you?"  Little thief that she was, Anee sidled up next to the cheese table and swiped a small piece, and in the same motion, dropped it to the ground right next to the cat.  Throughout her swiping, she looked over other cheeses on display, as if considering them.   The pup strained to reach the cheese she dropped, but she held him firmly on the side of her opposite the cat.

The cub snaps up the cheese in one quick gulp, then trots down the street back the way it came. At a short distance it stops, turns, and sits down, staring at Anee.

Anee watched it before moving away from the table.  She swiped a few more pieces of cheese, then walked toward the cub.  When she got close, she held the pup at her back and squated down, holding her hand out in front of her with the cheese. 

"Hey, little guy," she crooned, not certain of the animal's gender, but figured it wouldn't matter as much as the sound of her voice as with most animals.  "Do you want some more?"

The cub got an odd expression on its face, almost a flicker of a cheshire grin. It trotted up to her hand, placed a paw on it, then ate the offered cheese. Again, it trotted away a short distance, then stopped, sat, and waited, staring at her.

With her head tilted curiously, she repeated the movements, squatting again with another cube of cheese held in front of her.  This time though, when the cub came for the cheese, she reached out to pet it on the head.

It graciously allowed the petting to take place, seeming generally unperturbed, content to let her do what she liked, but once it had swallowed the cheese, it dashed off. It ran to the top of the ramp leading down into the Underbelly and sat, waiting, staring pointedly at Anee.

"Oh, no, kitty, don't go down there.  It's dangerous down there," she objected, stopping again and kneeling down with another bit of cheese.  This time, however, she was ready to try to grab the cub to keep him from going any further into the bowels of the city.

The cub’s eyes narrowed.  It glanced back and forth between the cheese and her face, hesitating, before finally seeming to make a decision and trotting away from her down the ramp.

As Anee sighed, watching after the cub as she stood up again, her pup jumped up and down at the end of his leash in that direction.   He barked a few times until Anee gave his leash a little jerk and shushed him.  She sighed again.  "Fine, let's see if we can catch him before he gets hurt."     With the pup still on a very short leash, she descended the ramp into the dimly lit tunnel.

As her eyes adjusted to the light, she could see the cub not far down the ramp waiting for her to come into view. It turned to move away again when a rat the same size as the cub dashed past and the cub hissed and leapt after it.

Hoping to take advantage of the rat as a distraction, Anee tried to sneak up on the cub, still intent on picking it up to take it back above to safety.  At first, the cub seemed unaware of Anee’s presence as it furiously chased the rodent.  The rat leapt into a portal, not unlike the ones that could be accessed throughout the Underbelly by those in the know.  This portal was in an odd place though, not one of the usual.  The cub leapt in after the rat, then just a few moments later, emerged again and sat down just outside the portal.  It stared around briefly before settling back to lick at one of its haunches.

Anee blinked at the cub.  "You're a feisty little thing, aren't you?"  she murmured as she slowly moved closer to it.  "Let's get you out of here, okay?  I'll get you some food?  Warm milk?"   As she started to get closer, she bent down, reaching her free hand towards it, her other hand--the one with the missing pinky--was still behind her back holding the pup's leash.

The cub seemed not to notice as she moved, then just as her hand touched its fur, it leapt backward with a yowl, its body twisting in apparent panic as it fell back into the portal. This time, it didn’t re-emerge.

The girl gasped and drew her hand back, then stared with wide eyes at the portal.  "Kitty?" she called toward the portal.  "Kitty come back!"    She frowned at the portal, having no idea where it went.  It showed no indication where it may lead, only swirling around darkness at its center.  She looked down at her pet, as if the pup had any answers.  "Maybe he lives in there?"

Anee bit gently at her bottom lip, looking indecisively between the portal and her pup for several minutes.  "Do you think he went home?  Or maybe that goes down to the demons...."     She tilted her head from side to side, her curiosity growing as well as concern for the cute little cub.  It hadn’t seemed happy about going in the portal that last time.  Finally, after several minutes, she picked up the pup, and, holding him close against her, she stepped through the portal, stopping immediately on the other side to look at her new surroundings.

As Anee stepped inside the portal, the floor shifted slightly beneath her feet. Wherever she ended up, it was pitch black. There was nothing to see. Just as she considered stepping back the way she came, the cub's violet shimmer appeared in the darkness in front of her, though it was difficult to tell how far away. 

The portal behind her swirled to a point and disappeared with a sound of sucking air. She turned, blindly reaching out with her free hand as she clutched her pup close to her with the other. 

“No, wait!”  A whimper escaped her as she waved her hand a few more times in search of the portal.  She looked back toward where she had seen the panther cub and now saw a pair of glowing green eyes floating in the darkness just above the cub’s shifting violet movements.

“Welcome, Anee,” a man’s voice said.

Anee clutched the pup tighter against her, ignoring his squirms of protest.  “Who….who are you?” she asked in shaky voice.

She heard a snapping sound, as of someone’s fingers, and an ornate lamp on a small table suddenly illuminated the entire room.  The room looked much like the one that housed the Underbelly’s black market—slats of wood resting on top of water—but there were no crates or barrels or obvious exits, just solid stone walls on every side. 

Across from Anee, sitting on an out-of-place plush but ragged high backed chair beside the lamp’s small table, was a blood elf with long copper hair dressed in plain robes and a Grim tabard.  On his lap, the panther cub was curled up.  Qabian absently stroked the cub’s head with one hand, the other raised but relaxed.  “Do you recognize me now?” he asked.

After looking around and failing to find an exit, Anee turned her frightened gaze to the elf.  Her gaze paused on his tabard, and then she slowly looked up at his face, looking at him blankly for a moment before frowning and looking away again.

“What do you want with me?” she asked quietly in a shaky voice, ignoring his question.

Qabian smiled slightly.  It wasn’t quite a smirk, but something about it was off, unpleasant.  “Answers to a few questions.  You don’t mind, do you?”  His Common had an accent, light, lilting, but he showed no discomfort with the words.  He glanced down at the floor.   “Can you swim?”

Anee didn’t bother answering the first question, quite certain he would ask his question whether she minded or not, but at his second question, she looked back at him in alarm then looked at the floor.  “Yes…”

“Then you’ll be fine,” he said, but somehow the statement didn’t come across as particularly reassuring.  The fingers of his free hand moved as though he were flipping a coin over his knuckles, but there was no coin there, only a small flicker of flame, like that of a candle.   “Tell me, do you consider yourself an honest person?”

Anee watched the flame with growing concern.  Was it meant to hypnotize her?  Was it a display of power meant to frighten her?  She looked away before answering his question.  Of course, she was not an honest person, what kind of question was that?  

“Yes,” she said quietly and caught her bottom lip between her teeth again.  The pup was growing heavy in her arms and she shifted him around a bit.

Qabian narrowed his eyes, as though suddenly noticing her pet.  The panther cub in his lap lifted its head.  “You brought a friend.  How awkward.”    The blood elf’s arm shifted, palm facing outward.  The flickering across his fingers encompassed his whole hand in fire, but he lowered his arm and the flame dissipated before anything untoward happened.   “Nevermind.  Assume I know nothing about you.  Tell me about your family.”

She blinked and tilted her head at him, surprised by the question.  “My family?” she started hesitantly.  “I…I don’t have a family.  They were killed.  By Forsaken.”   She stuck to the same story she had so recently told another mage.   It was mostly true.

“An orphan, hm?” The mage settled back in his chair, flicking fire across the back of his hand again.  “Then we have something in common.  How long ago?  Do you remember them?”

“Umm….many years ago…  I remember a little about them,” she said in a distracted manner before repeating her earlier question.  “Please sir, what do you want with me?”

“I already told you.  Answers.  Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” she whispered. 

“Why?”  He steepled his fingers, and one of his elbows ended up on the cub’s head.  It didn’t seem to notice or care.

She glanced at his tabard, thinking that should be obvious, then looked away quickly again.  “Because…I don’t see any way out of here, and I don’t know why you want me here.  I mean, I don’t know what answers I could possibly have that would interest someone like you.”

“And you don’t trust me when I say you’ll be fine.”  He smirked and stroked the cub’s head again.  “Why did you come here?”

A fleeting glimpse of hope crossed her expression when he said she’ll be fine, but it was gone just as quickly.  Hope, she knew, was dangerous.   She nodded toward the cub in his lap.  “I saw him wandering around the streets.  He seemed hungry, and I was worried he was lost.  So I followed him.”

“Do you want him?”

“I….the cub?”  She blinked, surprised again as she looked at the cub.  “But I thought..  Isn’t he yours?  I mean….when I saw him in your lap, I assumed…”

“He thinks he’s mine.”  Qabian shrugged.  “Answer my questions, and he’s yours.”

“Okay….” She agreed, but he voice was still heavy with uncertainty.

He put a hand back on the cub’s head.  The cub kept staring at Anee.  “Where were we?  Ah, yes.  What do you remember about your family?”

"Well, umm....". She fidgeted at the topic, but she squinted her eyes a bit as she thought back.  "My pa was....a drunk, and my ma was nice and very quiet, and my little sister was....always under foot."   She chewed on her bottom lip yet again, watching the cub the whole time.

"Lordaeron?"

She gave him a startled look, wondering how he knew that, but after a brief consideration, she decided it doesn't matter, and she nodded.

"Orphans, we make our own families, hm? Who are your family now?"

Anee seemed to stiffen at the question, and tilted her head down, looking at the pup in her arms.  Everything inside her warned her not to tell him about her roommate.   "I...I....I just have ....Buster now, sir," she stammered, her gaze fixed on the little pug.

Qabian raised an eyebrow. "A dog? I don't think so. You live alone?"

Without lifting her gaze from the pup’s tawny head, she nodded.

"Do you have friends? A guild, perhaps?"

"Twilight Empire," she said shakily.  "That's the guild I'm in."

"Ah. That's better. And I suppose some of them treat you like family, yes?"

"I...I don't go to the meetings...  I signed up to be an Ambassador, but.....I never got any assignments...."

"You have no friends among them? They're all strangers to you?"

"I know....some of them....faces and names, but....no friends, no..."

Qabian's expression turned to disappointment. "That seems highly unlikely. You have no one you confide in? No one you share secrets with?"

"Umm....I talk to....the Cardman....  I mean, Tuuroto sometimes.  He's very nice." 

"Hmm." Qabian tapped his fingers on the panther cub's head as he thinks. The cub finally turned its stare from Anee to the blood elf. "How old are you?"

"Twenty."   She fidgeted some more at all the questions, her gaze slowly beginning to roam around the room again.

Qabian's tone turned suspicious. "And your family died years ago, but you have no friends. What have you been doing all this time? Do you want a family?"

"No...." she said in response to the last question, cringing a bit at his tone.  "I didn't much care for the family I had.  I have no wish for another one."

"Well." He continued tapping the panther cub's head. It continued to glare at him. It finally nipped at his fingers and Qabian stopped, though he didn't otherwise acknowledge the creature. "That makes everything much more difficult. It's unusual, don't you think?"

Her brow furrowed at his words, strengthening her suspicion that he was asking about her friends and family to look for targets to hurt.   She glanced at him briefly before looking away again.  "What is unusual?"

"Not wanting a family." He gestured as he spoke, talking with his hands. "Most people are obsessed with family, either finding one, or starting one, or protecting one, or avenging one. But not you. You're all alone and planning to stay that way."

She said nothing at first, just stood there, nibbling on her lip and expecting fire to come shooting at her any second from those moving hands.  Then, somehow, she seemed to find enough courage to look him in the face and ask a question of her own.  "Do you have a family, sir?"

He grinned wickedly. "No. You and I unfortunately have even more in common than I thought at the start. One more question. Then I'll show you the way out. For now."

She felt hope again, still tentative, but harder to push back down this time, even as she caught the hint that they might meet again after this.  She nodded slowly to him, as if bracing herself for the final question. 

Qabian stood up from his ragged old chair, hefting the panther cub under one arm. "Your father's name. In full. If you would."

Again, the hope vanished as quickly as it came.  Her breath quickened as she took a moment before answering, looking around the area again.   "It....his name....is Jonas.  Jonas Hughes."  So much for being an honest person.  Jonas Hughes was not her father, he was her boss at the pub where she worked in Andorhal a long time ago.  There was only the slightest of chances that Qabian would have recognized her real last name if she had told the truth, but she wasn’t willing to take even that small chance of him realizing who she was, not unless she thought it could be used to her advantage.

Qabian nodded. "All right then." With his free arm, he conjured a portal behind him. A vague city is visible within it, but he stood between her and the portal. "This portal leads back to Dalaran. If you don't trust it, which is understandable, there's a pipe in the water below us that leads back into the Underbelly. Easy enough to swim, but far more dangerous."

He held out the panther cub towards her. The creature seemed perfectly calm about its situation now that it was no longer being continually tapped on the head. "You'll need to be careful with him."

With uncertainty still clear upon her face, she set the puppy down at her feet, looping the leash over her wrist.  As she moved closer to Qabian, she reached tentatively for the cub, glancing between the portal and the elf.  Qabian grinned horribly as he dropped the panther cub into her arms.

"He's a bit of a fire hazard," he said. With that, he ran his hand over the cub's back and the animal burst into flames. The cub appeared completely unfazed by this, but Anee screamed and jumped back, dropping the burning cat.

Qabian himself stepped back through the portal behind him and vanished.  Anee looked from the burning cub to the portal, bending down to scoop up the pup again before hurrying through the portal into the image of the city beyond.

The cub just sat there. On fire. And watched her leave. The portal went back to Dalaran, just as Qabian said it would, but on the other side, the mage was nowhere to be found.

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Aneerys    34

Anee was sorting through a bag of herbs on the kitchen counter, identifying each one for Teagan, Daerek’s sister who was visiting for a while, and telling her a few facts about each plant, such as where it could be found and a few uses for it.  Wearing just sweat pants and a tank top, and her hair back in a ponytail to keep it out of her way, she seemed quite relaxed as she taught the impromptu herb lesson to her lone student.  Buster was laying on the couch, chewing on a bone that he held propped up between his paws.

Despite her exuberant nature, Teagan was a solemn student and a quick learner. She was dressed similarly to Anee in terms of comfort, but she had snagged one of her brother's button-downs, rolled up the sleeves, and tied the long shirt ends at her stomach. Every now and then she shared a bit of trivia with Anee about an herb that she’d come across in a history book or some such other place.

Daerek had been gone for the morning on some errand or another, but the jangle of keys outside of the apartment door heralded his return.  Buster, abandoning a bone he had been chewing, jumped off the couch and ran to the door, barking happily and jumping up at Daerek as the door opened.

"Anee?" he called, shifting some packages around in his arms. "You've got a package here!"

Anee came from the kitchen and took the package from her roommate with a distracted “Thanks” as she looked at the box, so he could deal with the excited puppy. 

Daerek laughed at the dog and put the rest of the packages on the desk before squatting down to pet Buster. 

“You being a good girl, Teagan?” he called out, assuming she was there somewhere.

Teagan came out of the kitchen, hands on her tilted hips. "A good girl? What am I, your dog?"

"That's my shirt! You're wearing my shirt!"

"Hmph. The color brings out our eyes." She tossed her hair with a laugh and returned to the kitchen.

Anee set the box down on the coffee table.   Buster left Daerek and came to sniff the box, most interested.   When Anee opened the box and looked inside, she gasped loudly and stepped backwards.  She walked back right into the couch and fell on her butt into the cushions.  She didn’t even seem to notice though, still staring at the box with wide eyes.

Daerek looked up at the commotion and Teagan popped her head out of the kitchen, a frown on her face. Daerek sprinted to Anee.  

"Hey hey hey, what's wrong? You alright?" He peered first into her face, resting a hand on her shoulder, before leaning over to peer into the box.

Inside the box was a head.  It had obviously been dead for a very long time; by now it was mostly just a skull with a few bits of hair and desiccated flesh still clinging to it, with a light spattering of grave dirt.  There was a folded piece of paper shoved in the skull’s jaws.  Frowning, Anee pulled the paper out and unfolded it.  "Not your father.  You're a liar."    With another gasp and her eyes widening even further, she flung the note back into the box and stared at it as if it might start shooting fire at her.

Buster, a lover of bones, jumped up and put his front paws on the coffee table to get a closer look at what was in the box.  Although it was mostly too dried out to stink out the humans, his sensitive nose just knew there was something interesting there.

Daerek sucked in a breath at the sight, but to his credit he didn’t seem too outwardly phased. He grabbed for Buster to move him away from the box.

"What is it? What's going on?" Teagan asked, making to come investigate for herself.  Anee put the lid back on the box.

Daerek shot her a single stern look. "Don't," he said sharply, uncommon command strengthening his voice. "Do not look. And do not listen."

Teagan recoiled with wide eyes. "Okay," she said in a small voice, ducking back into the kitchen without further noise.

The mage shifted again to crouch in front of Anee, both hands moving gently for her shoulders.  "Anee," he murmured. "Why don't you tell me what's going on?" There was nothing but concern for her in his voice and gaze.

Anee looked right at Daerek, not even trying to hide her fear.  "He knows where I live......" she murmured, her voice filled with dread as she considered the implications of that.  Fear for herself turned into an icy lump in her stomach as she remembered the Grim mage asking about family and friends. 

"Then we'll go somewhere else for a while," he said softly. "But you need to tell me what's going on so I know what we need to do." He squeezed her shoulders a little bit, hoping to share any kind of comfort and calm.

"I should go....away from you....  You'll be safer...." then she frowned.  "If it's not already too late for that.  I can...go to Stormwind.  It might be safer there.  Harder for him to get in there....or them....  I don't know if he's working alone.  I don't know what he wants with me...." Her voice started to take on a note of desperation at the end, but she managed to not panic, at least not yet.

After a moment, she seemed to realize she hadn't offered any explanation.   "A few nights ago....  A man asked me some questions.  He said I could have his panther cub, who seemed very hungry, if I answered his questions.   He asked for my father's name, and I didn't want to tell him, so instead I gave him the name of the man who owned the pub I worked at."    Her brow furrows at the box with the head in it.  "How could he know I lied about that?"

Daerek kept a steady look on her, not relinquishing his grip. "What other kinds of questions did he ask?"

"He asked about my family," she said, speaking slowly as she tried to remember everything.  "I told him they were all dead.  He said he was an orphan too, so we had a lot in common.   He asked.... He asked who I live with, and who my friends are.  I lied to him.  I told him I live just with Buster and have no friends.  He got suspicious and asked if I belonged to a guild, so I told him the truth on that one...."    She frowned then, biting her bottom lip.

"Anee." Daerek brought one of his hands up to cup her face, moreso to keep her focusing on him and keep her grounded than as any kind of an intimate gesture.  She looked away from the box and back to him. "No hiding anything, okay? Not from me, not right now." There was still no reproach in his voice, just earnest concern and an intent to get to the bottom of the situation before they make a move.

"If he knows where I live, he may know about you....."  Her voice was barely a whisper.   "Daerek, I'm so sorry...   He's Grim."

"Okay," he said calmly. "Who?"

She hesitated, remembering his words the other night about her knowing so many Horde people.  "I...I...  He wore their tabard," she said, looking back at the box.  "A blood elf.  He cast fire spells..... He burned the panther cub."

The news about the cub made Daerek wince a little. "I'm sorry," he murmured, before looking at her with a level gaze again. "Do you know this man's name?" He knew what he said the other night too—couldn’t get it out of his head--but he was expecting her to be honest with him. That expectation was evident in his eyes.

Still staring at the box, she says quietly, "He didn't say his name..."

"But do you know it?"

She flinched slightly.  "Qabian......I don't know his last name."

"Okay. Why would Qabian be asking you these questions? And following up on them in such a way?"

"I don't know!" she exclaimed, wondering the same thing.  She looked at him earnestly.  "He's Grim.  Everyone knows they just kill all Alliance, not make conversation with them.  I asked him what he wanted, and all he said was he wanted answers to his questions."

Then she frowned suddenly.

Daerek stayed silent and cocked his head to the side, waiting for Anee to voice whatever thought she suddenly had.

She opened her mouth but closed it again on that particular thought, and switched to her main concern.   "You're not safe," she whispered, then glanced in the direction of the kitchen.  "She's not either.  I'm so sorry,"

"I'm not leaving you," he said flatly. "It's not happening. I'll get Teague somewhere safe, but I'm not leaving you alone."

"They'll kill you.  Horribly."  She said it calmly, but her voice was filled with absolute certainty that it would happen.

"Doesn't matter. I'm not leaving you alone." He smiled.

"If they wanted me dead, that mage would have set me on fire the other night.  But you.... If they're playing with me, they'll hurt you, and kill you, just to hurt me.  You're safer without me."

Daerek was silent for several moments, green eyes never leaving hers. "Do you want me to leave you?" he asked quietly. "For your own sake? Not mine?"

She knew she should tell him yes and insist he let her go away alone.  But she was not that selfless, and she was very scared.  Slowly, she shook her head no.  She knew it was wrong, but she told herself she could run away from him later if it was needed to protect him.

Daerek leaned forward and pulled Anee to him in a hug. "Okay," he murmured into her hair. "Okay. Then I'm not. You're stuck with me. We'll figure this out together."

The hug surprised her, but she quickly melted into him, nearly clinging to him.  She nodded her head against him at his words, but miserably felt like she had just condemned him to a horrible death

"We'll be okay, alright? I promise. One way or another." He sounded pretty confident, but Anee couldn’t see his face. There was a flash of fear in his eyes--fear that he had no idea what to do or who to turn to--but if she shifted at all to look at him, that fear would be completely gone.

She just nodded again.  To her, it wouldn't matter how confident he looked or sounded; she didn't at all believe they would be okay.  "Okay."

"Okay," he echoed, mindlessly kissing the top of her head. It bought him time to think if nothing else.

And then they started working on laying out a plan to keep them all safe.

 

Edited by Aneerys
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Qabian    68

Qabian stands leaning against the curved doorway just inside The Agronomical Apothecary when Daerek arrives. The blood elf had done business with a goblin there earlier, put in an order for some flasks and said he'd wait there, making it look like he wasn't just some loiterer.

Qabian brushes non-existent dirt off his Grim tabard as Daerek walks past him, opening with the ever-so-friendly statement, "She does not care about you," in thickly accented Common.

Daerek shifts his pack as he enters the Apothecary, almost passing the elf altogether until he speaks. "I--pardon?" the young mage asks, blinking at the man with confused green eyes.

Qabian smirks, giving the human a lazy salute in lieu of explanation or greeting. "Your girl. The one in your room. She does not care for you."

Daerek draws back a little, taken aback by the elf's words. He eyes the other man up and down before speaking again. "She's not my girl," he says calmly. "Qabian, I presume?"

Qabian raises an eyebrow, curious. "Yes. But I never gave her my name."

The mage shrugs. "You don't have to be explicit for others to put a few things together."

Qabian looks uncertain. "But why?" He then mirrors Daerek's shrug. "No matter. She lives with you, but is not yours?"

Daerek looks at the man with an odd expression. "Living together doesn't mean two people have to be involved," he says slowly, as if it's a rudimentary concept. He doesn't seem bothered that this elf knows he lives with the woman in question.

Qabian seems both bemused and incredulous, folding his arms across his chest. "Maybe no, but not even friends? Strangers do not do such things."

Daerek actually laughs. "You would not believe how many people have told me that," he says easily. "And I'm sure I'll hear it a lot more."

Qabian shrugs. "You do not care then? Neither of you care. Same home, ships in the night." The elf then stares Daerek right in the eyes and grins wickedly. "You are a liar, too. You deserve each other."

The mage seems amused. "You're awful quick to come to conclusions. Are you sure you're making the right ones?"

Qabian shakes his head, chuckling. "No conclusions. Only testing. Seeing what you do, how you answer. Do you know who she is?"

"Sounds like conclusions to me," Daerek says lightly, shifting so that he's leaning against the stone wall of the apothecary in a mirror of Qabian's pose. "And I know enough. But I've got a better question--what's all this about?"

Qabian raises his hands, palms up, still grinning unpleasantly. "Wish I knew. She is nobody, no one. Mystery. But someone I know hates her very much. Curious, hm? What did she do? Where is she from?"

If he's honest with himself, Daerek is edging towards unsettled by the encounter--but he does a good job of covering it up with easy grins and laughter. "So who hates her? She's a nice girl. Seems hard to hate someone like that."

"Indeed." Qabian folds his arms again, open grin shifting back into a closed smirk. "And yet. You know my name. Do you know me?"

"A question with a non-answer!" Daerek slaps his knee with a laugh. "So clever." He sighs a little and gestures vaguely to the counter. "Is there a point to this? If you're just here to chat, that's fine, but I've got work to do."

Qabian gives a slow nod of his head, holding that smug smirk of his. "Just chat. For now. And a warning."

"Yeah? What's your warning?" Daerek regards the other man with lifted eyebrows and an expectant gaze.

"You are easy to find. Easy to follow." Qabian stands up straight, abandoning his leaning posture. He mimics someone else's voice, much higher, and speaks Common without an accent. "'Oh, yes. I remember those two. They bought cupcakes by the bank. They were such a cute couple and very sweet together.'" He shrugs then slips back into his thick accent and short sentences to say, "Not my conclusions. Someone hates you. Maybe time to hide, hm?"

Daerek watches Qabian with an unamused expression while the other man delivers his 'threats.' When he's finished, the youth pushes off from the wall and pulls himself up to his full height--a bit taller than the Grim elf, but not by a great deal. He stares down into the other man's face with a flat look. "You tell that someone that as far as I'm concerned, they're nothing more than a bully," he says quietly. "Now is that all? I really should get to work."

Qabian laughs out loud, essentially in the man's face, intensely amused by both Daerek's dropping of his carefully maintained lightheartedness and the attempt to stare him down. The elf takes one step back in order to give a short, shallow bow with an exaggerated flourish. "Of course. But the one who hates you? No bully. For now, the bully is me." He ends that statement with an absolutely horrible grin, then turns on his heel with another lazy salute. "See you soon."

The young mage doesn't seem bothered whatsoever by the mocking laughter. He seems to almost have expected it, if the smirk on his lips is anything to go by. "Two bullies are hardly any different than one," he says with a snort. "Be well, Bully. I look forward to seeing you again." Daerek doesn't appear to watch Qabian leave, instead turning towards the back counter to begin his work.

Qabian steps lightly back into the street, where he's immediately accosted by a goblin. Qabian nods to the goblin, says something inaudible, and points back into the alchemist's place. The goblin nods in return and hands the elf a package. Only after the goblin skips off, singing off-key as she goes, does Qabian sigh and roll his eyes before pulling a mask up over his face and making himself scarce. Nothing was going quite the way he wanted.

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Katelle    25

A few days earlier...

Ironforge wasn’t anything like Dalaran, but Daerek kind of liked the coziness of the mountain stronghold. It was closed and warm, like a blanket or a hug, and if not for the dire circumstances he and Anee found themselves in, he might have particularly enjoyed staying there. As it was, their relocation here had been the idea of a mutual friend, one they knew they could trust. It wasn’t optimal, but it was something—and he planned to try and keep morale up as much as possible, if only for Anee’s sake.

Keys jangled outside of the door to the small Ironforge apartment as Daerek tried to balance the bags in his arms and open the door. The reinforced wood lurched open under the force of the young man’s shoulder, and he kicked it shut with his foot.

“Anee?” he called, setting his bags on the kitchen counters. “Hey, I found some peach fizzy wine too…I got us a couple of bottles to try.” The newly-brown-haired mage kept unpacking the bags, peering up at the unfamiliar cabinets as he went. There were already some basic foodstuffs and kitchen supplies stored there, but maybe they could rearrange things to make it a little more like home.

Daerek pulled a small wrapped package out of the bag next, smiling down at its weighty presence in his palm. He’d found a few strings of magma crystals that he thought his roommate might like, hoping the surprise would be enough to bring a smile to her face. “Anee?” he called again, taking the small package with him to peer into the cozy sitting room. A frown cut across his face when no answer was forthcoming for a second time. He crossed to her bedroom, rapping his knuckles against the door. “Hey…are you sleeping?”

There was nothing but silence to respond to him, and Daerek gently tried the doorknob. It gave easily, allowing the mage to poke his head inside with slowly mounting panic. “Anee?” he asked softly. His breath left him in a rush when he saw her room: bare of her belongings, only a few articles of clothing strewn across her bed and a couple of odds and ends elsewise.

Daerek spun away from the door and bounded to the bathroom. The door was open, nobody inside to have closed it. He shouted an uncharacteristic curse and turned in place, body jerking this way and that as his mind seemingly short-circuited from the sudden fear crushing his chest. There wasn’t a sign of a break-in. Had she gone out on her own? Did somebody take her and cover their tracks? Was there another room he hadn’t discovered yet that she was occupying?

“Anee?” he called again, almost shouting the dual syllables. It was on his third aborted attempt at moving one direction or another that he laid on the bare table and the folded parchment with his name scrawled on it. “No…oh, tell me you didn’t…” He rushed to the table with lead feet and set the small package down before picking up the parchment with trembling hands. He swore again at seeing her handwriting on the inside, emotion choking his voice.

Daerek,

I am so sorry that you are in danger because of me.  I’m sorry you had to leave your home and your sister.  And what about your work?  Your sister needs you.  You said yourself there’s a reason she came to Dalaran.  She’s your sister, and she needs your help.  It’s not fair for you or her for you to have to drop that because of my troubles.

You have been kinder to me than anyone ever has.  I want you to know that I appreciate it.  And that’s why I must go.  If anything happened to you because of me, I couldn’t stand it.  Go help your sister, have a happy life.  I’ll come back when this is over if I can.

Please don’t try to find me.  Be safe.

Your friend,

Anee

The young mage stared blankly at the letter for several minutes, body still except for his ragged breathing and quaking muscles. Finally, after what felt like a small eternity, he pulled out a chair and sat heavily in it. He pitched forward and let his head rest in his hands, elbows on the table, letter still clutched in one fist. Daerek stayed like that for hours, and when he finally moved it was to plod blankly back to Anee’s room.

He stood as near to the middle as he could, turning in a slow circle to take stock of what was missing and what remained. He hoped he could determine maybe where she went…if he’d been smart, if he’d been able to control himself, he would have gone after her as soon as he found the letter. She couldn’t have gotten that much of a head start on him at that point, but now it was impossible to say where she had gone.

What if she got hurt? What if she got killed? What if…what if…

Daerek paused to stare at a light blue hair ribbon left on the dresser. It was just a stupid ribbon, but sentimentality got the better of him and he picked it up to tuck away in his pocket. He left the room then, stopping by the table in the sitting room to retrieve the wrapped gift he’d bought for the missing woman. He dropped that into his pocket too, followed by the folded letter, before lifting his hands and channeling a portal to Stormwind—and to the only person he knew could help him now.

 

 

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Qabian    68

A blood elf dressed as a Kirin Tor guardian, complete with fancy mask and spiky shoulders, quietly made sure no one was home. He then quietly slipped the lock on a window. He also quietly went about searching the place for what he'd been sent to find, filling hidden bags strapped about his person with various items. However, part of his contract was to leave as much mess as possible, so when he was just about ready to leave, he started making noise, a lot of noise, smashing chairs, pushing all the dishes out of the cupboards onto the floor.

No amount of stealth or trickery was a match for the resident busybody of the small apartment complex currently seeing one of its units looted. The plump, silver-haired human woman that served as landlady made a quiet little "oooo" of a growl under her breath from her position in the hallway when wood started cracking and ceramic started breaking. 

It had been some time since she'd had to sneak anywhere, but nonetheless Gracie McClintock found herself trying to nudge open the apartment door with a cast iron frying skillet in-hand.

Admittedly, a true professional would have been paying more attention, but with his back to the door as he tore open cushions and scattered the stuffing, the burglar was oblivious to the sound of the door opening or anything else. He didn't turn around until it was too late, just in time to see the skillet before it collided with his head.

"Hmph," Gracie huffed, thwacking the downed elf with the skillet one more time for good measure before searching out something to bind him with. "Break into one of my apartments, why don't you!" She returned with some rope, kneeling down to bind the elf's hands and feet with skill that simply did not match her appearance. "These poor kids. They'll be so upset. Hmph." 

Once he was secured, the woman scowled down at him and popped him with the skillet a final time. She stepped out into the hallway, just for a few minutes, and when she returned, it was to stand guard over the man's prone form with her skillet in hand. 

The thief groaned only once over the next hour or so, shifting against his bonds, but he didn't put any effort into fighting.  Whether or not he fully regained consciousness or not was difficult to tell with his Kirin Tor mask in place. Once he did come to and realized the predicament he was in, he kept very still, listening and waiting to see if at any point he would be left on his own before even attempting escape.

The landlady stayed on guard until two more people arrived. The woman, apparently a female sin'dorei of average height, was clothed head to toe in nondescript leather. Her face was hidden by a mask. The man who joined her was tall and slim, human by build, wearing dark clothing. He wasn't masked at first, and from behind his own mask, the thief recognized the man by description as Daerek Smythe, one of the tenants. 

Daerek took Gracie out into the hall. Their low voices could be heard but their words could not before he stepped back in, tugging a mask over his own face. He took up a place by the doorway while the woman stalked quietly around the room. She came to stand next to the thief's body at one point, staring down at him from behind his body.

"You're not Kirin Tor," she commented lightly, speaking faintly-accented Thalassian.

"What gives you that idea?" the thief responded sarcastically in the same language, his voice hoarse. His whole body flinched as if just trying to talk hurt.

The woman laughed, the sound bright and delighted. "She got you good, didn't she? Cast iron is nothing to play around with."

The thief groaned, rolling to face away from her. "Whatever. Ya caught me. I got it. Ya want the stuff back? Gonna lock me up? What?"

The woman chuckled and allowed him to face away from her, but she crouched slightly and made to tug off his mask. "Not yet. I want to know who you work for, first."

The removed mask revealed a scarred face, one side burned at some point years ago, but young. His hair was close-cropped and blond. A few red welts were threatening to turn into huge bruises on his forehead and cheek. "That's nice, but he didn' give a name. They rarely do."

The woman made a sound like she was sucking her teeth, reaching out to grab his jaw. She turned his face this way and that. "Oof. That had to have hurt." The thief winced again, but otherwise let the woman manhandle his face. After a moment of inspection, she spoke again. "And no name? That's fine. I didn't expect one. What'd he look like?"

"White hair. Blue eyes," he continued only after she lets him go. "One o' them traitor types. Gave me this get-up, but..." He shrugged, then regretted it. "Ow! By the sun," he muttered. "Don' think he was in charge."

"What makes you say that?" She shifted to crouch in front of him, cocking her head to the side. So long as he kept talking, she seemed inclined to refrain from causing him further pain. The man, meanwhile, kept silent and stiff by the door. If not for the way his chest moved to indicate his breathing, one might think he was a statue.

"Just not my first tournament, y'know. Something seemed off, stiff, seemed more scared than anything," he said by way of explanation, closing his eyes. "Anyway, doesn' matter. It's all over now. Least I got the advance half."

"Sure it matters," she said cajolingly. "What's your name, kid? Maybe I'll get you some pain relief potion if you tell me all polite-like."

"My name? Lady, whatever you think's going on here, I don' matter. This hurts, but I been through so much worse, sure you can tell." He smirked at her. "Y'can have my name, though. I don' care. It's Jun. I'd say look me up if you need my services, but I'm not selling myself so well today." He chuckled, then winced again.

The woman moved to begin patting him down, making it obvious that this wasn't her first tournament, either. "You never know what you might need, Jun. You got family?"

He let her do what she wanted. "Me? No. Jus' the usual story." She found various odds and ends in pockets of various depths sewn into his Kirin Tor uniform, mostly anything he thought he might be able to pawn off. "Everybody's dead. Got to steal to live. Nobody gets hurt. 'Cept with the occasional frying pan." 

The woman still seemed to be taking care to not hurt him unnecessarily. "I guess I don't have to see about making sure anyone's taken care of in the event that you don't return home then," she said lightly, seeming to peer at his face again. A single hand raised and she snapped her fingers expectantly; the man jerked somewhat and strode forward, handing her a vial of red liquid he fished out of a small bag. "So this traitor type. Elf? Human? Other? What'd he wear? What'd he hire you to do?" She uncorked the vial and gently dabbed little bits of the potion onto his skillet wounds.

The thief frowned at the implication, but showed no signs of hesitating with giving information. "Eh? Elf-type traitor. Y'know, the ones who didn't take the fel help and got kicked out of Silvermoon. Dressed like a mage, same tabard." He glanced down at his own impostor's uniform. "Out of place in the Underbelly, but those types are always looking to hire.  Said to look for any information on the people living in here. Mail, documents, journals, anything with names on it, awards, medals. And anything else I found, I could keep."

"You think he was real Kirin Tor?" she asked, admiring her handiwork on his face before gently patting an uninjured spot and tossing the recorked vial over her shoulder. The man scrambled to catch it before returning to his place at the door. 

The woman made to roll the thief over, allowing him the opportunity to do it on his own steam with a gentle coaxing shove. He shifted willingly, but a twisted grin crossed his face, for the first time looking like he might actually be a bad guy and not just an unfortunate accomplice. She found his fist behind his back tightly closed around something. She cocked her head to the side. "Youuuu wanna tell me what this is, sugar?"

He slowly opened his fingers revealing a small dark crystal with cracks running through it. As he opened his hand, the crystal crumbled into dust that ran through his fingers. "This is how he knows the whole thing went south and not to bother meeting up with me."

"Huh. Neat." She didn't seem bothered. "I don't suppose I can trust anything that came out of those pretty lips of yours?"

The thief's nasty grin shifted to a sheepish smile. "Eh, I haven't lied, but probably best not to trust anyone in my line of work, yeah? Not unless the pay is good, anyway."

The woman laughed that delighted laugh again, shifting yet again to peer at his face. After a moment, she tapped his lips almost playfully. "Anything else you want to share with me, sweetheart?"

He laid back and relaxed, seeming curiously reassured. "Nah. Whoever actually wanted this junk was either super careful or is running something bigger, cartel maybe. You find the guy who hired me, maybe he can tell you what you really want to know, but I won' be pointing him out. Good luck, lady."

"Thanks, handsome. I think I've got just what I need." She patted his face one more time before extending her hand out behind her once again. "That scar is rather dashing," she confessed as she waited. "Maybe in another life." The man took a few jerky steps forward and put a different object in her hand, taking care to not poke her with what was soon revealed to be a syringe. She adjusted it deftly in her gloved hand then plunged the needle into Jun's exposed skin. 

The thief looked confused at the syringe, then looked alarmed as he was injected. He made a questioning sound but said no words before his eyes rolled back in his head and he slipped into unconsciousness, falling into a deep, long-lasting sleep. 

"Nighty-night, darling." The woman sighed and stood, handing the emptied syringe back to her companion as she did so. He remained silent as she nudged the unconscious elf with her foot, considering him for a few moments. 

Voices sounded from the hallway, Gracie's among them, and the woman turned her masked face to look at her companion. She jerked her head towards the window, and he started towards it while she tugged the mask back over Jun's face. When she rose to join the other man, he made a quick gesture with his hand; a faint light glowed around them for a moment before fading, and one after the other they jumped out of the window. 

Gracie hurried into the room followed by a handful of legitimate Kirin Tor guards. "He's the intruder!" she wailed. "I got him good with my skillet, but ooooh he made a mess!"

The guards exchanged glances before assuring the landlady that they'd handle the situation and began dragging the unconscious blood elf off the premises.

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Qabian    68

Qabian was working at his desk when a small pale blue crystal he had set to one side dimmed. He sighed, watching as the light went out of it completely, then a crack formed through its center, then it dissolved into dust. "So much for that," he muttered, making a space to arrange agreed-upon hazard pay.

Later, he made a trip to Dalaran. As much as he wanted to talk to the thief himself, he knew that couldn't happen. There was still too much heat in the city. However, he did manage to find one of the legitimate Kirin Tor guards involved in apprethending the thief, pull them to one side, and inquire into details.

Back in Silvermoon, he sat down to write a letter.

Syreena,

I have succeeded in making her afraid. That took very little effort. Simply inquiring into her existence and a few small threats were enough to send her on the run. Unfortunately, finding information that would lead to easily causing further misery has been far more difficult than I expected. She does not fit into the predictable pattern most ordinary humans fit.

I do not believe I have yet succeeded in causing her actual harm. I may need to back off long enough for her to think she is safe to come out of hiding if my resources prove insufficient to track her down. In the meantime, I will see about causing harm indirectly through those she is connected to.

I've also been told to relay the message that you're a bully. These people are children.

~Q

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Katelle    25

Daerek stared hard at the slowly-spreading green blossom on the treated swab he just tested a vial with. Thinking it must be a fluke, he set the vial aside and reached for a new, sterile testing swab and a new vial from his most recent shipment.

And reached for another.

And another.

And another.

Eventually, there were no more vials to test for toxins, poisons, or things that generally shouldn’t be in sterile glass vials. Next to that pile, in an increasingly haphazard stack the nearer the top someone looked, rested the used testing swabs. Each swab was returned to its packaging to avoid further contamination, but all of them had the same green stain marring their white tips.

Somebody had tainted his shipment, and he bet he knew who.

With a soft curse under his breath, the young mage cleared his workstation and set it up for a new project: determining the type of taint present within the vials. Not for the first time, he silently thanked the poison mistress who taught him more than just how to brew.

 

---

 

A little bell jangled above Daerek’s head as he stepped foot into the rickety Booty Bay shop. It wasn’t much to look at, with its salted wood and grimy windows, but the mage had never had problems with the service…until now.

“Heeeeeey, welcome to Sparkfoot’s Deliv—ayyy, kid!” The bleach-blond goblin behind the counter flashed Daerek a gleaming grin. “Haven’t seen you in a while, eh? Always notes and letters and boxes! Howzit been?”

“I wish I could say business as usual, Wix,” Daerek laughed, striding to the counter and resting both hands on it. He leaned forward a little, using his height to its full advantage. “But I’ve got a problem with my latest shipment.”

The goblin scowled. “What’s that now? A problem? And you think I got somethin’ to do with it? Bub, I’m hurt! How long have we been doin’ business, huh? I’d never scam you!”

“I know you wouldn’t, Wix,” Daerek said with a disarming smile, drumming his fingers on the counter. “You know better than to do that because you know some of the same people I know, and you know they wouldn’t be happy if they heard you were earning the wrong sort of reputation.” Arcane energy crackled between his fingertips. “But maybe one of your workers isn’t as smart.”

Wix eyed the mage’s fingers and slicked his hair back with a greasy palm. “I got some real idjits here, lemme tell you what,” he muttered, glancing around the shop. “What kind of trouble we talkin’ ‘bout, pal?”

Daerek leaned forward a little more. “Somebody laced my glass vials with a neurotoxin. The kind I could slip into your morning coffee and you’d be dead in a day. You want that kind of name for yourself? Wixet Sparkfoot, the goblin who frames his clients for mass murder?”

“Hey hey hey! I don’t deal in that kind of stuff no more! I’m an HONEST businessman, kid! Murder is good money but it ain’t my money, ya hear? And none of my idjits’d have the know-how for that kind of stuff anyways!”

“What about bribes?” the mage asked. “Someone take one to swap a box? To look the other way while the shipment was replaced with a new one? Anything like that?”

“I don’t like what you’re insinuating, kid,” Wixet grumbled, “but I’ll ask my people. Yeah? And you won’t go spilling this all over the place and ruining my good name! Got it?”

Daerek pushed himself off of the table and spread his hands wide. “I knew there was a reason I liked you, Wix,” he grinned. “You’re an honest goblin looking to make an honest buck. I’ll spread a little love in your name if you get me an answer, alright? Maybe throw some extra gold your way at the same time.”

The goblin harrumphed and tugged on his vest to straighten it. “Damn straight you will after all this trouble I’m going through for you, pal. You’re damn right. Now if you’ll excuse me, time is money—and you’re wasting my time!”

 

---

 

As it turned out, Wixet Sparkfoot was an honest goblin who wasn’t interested in murder for money. Nor were his employees. No, the weak link worked for Wixet’s glass seller. It seemed the goblin responsible had indeed accepted a hefty bribe to swap one innocuous crate with another—and after some method of questioning that Daerek didn’t dare ask about, Wixet even discovered the briber’s name: Minkley Fizblade. 

Daerek didn’t expect Wixet to investigate any further, but the slick-palmed goblin had done it anyways (“Nobody knows you to be a liar, kid,” he’d said when pressed, “and if you go spewin’ nasties about my name, that’ll cost me double money to fix”). In addition to bribing the goblin who swapped the crates, Minkley did the bulk of the dirty work herself—procuring the toxin, lacing the vials, and packing the crate. Wixet casually mentioned that he was already in talks with “the proper authorities” to see poor Miss Minkley received “appropriate treatment” for her part in “potentially costing two well-known and well-respected businessmen like themselves” their good reputations. Daerek didn’t dare ask what that meant, either.

“Where did she get the toxin from?” Daerek asked with a frown. He expected to hear Qabian’s name somewhere in the narrative…was he an alchemist, or a poisoner, too?

Wixet flicked some lint from his vest. “Eh. She said it was from the Royal Apothecary Society. I got someone followin’ up on that, but it might be a while.” He flashed his pearly whites at Daerek. “Unless I can talk’em into speedin’ up their inquiries.”

With a sigh, Daerek plucked his coin purse from his shirt pocket and dropped it on the counter. “I need to know.”

“Desperate, much?” the goblin asked skeptically. He swiftly pocketed the money anyways. “Word for the wise, kid. Don’t go poking around the RAS. They won’t just eat you alive, they’ll tenderize you with their experiments first.”

“I’m touched that you care.” Daerek laughed humorlessly. “But I’m not getting my hands dirty with them. I just need to know, Wix. You’ll do that for me, right?”

Wixet patted the pocket where the purse went. “Anything for my loyal customers,” he said with a grand sweep of his arm. “Now go on and make that money to keep up your excellent patronage, eh? Eh?” He laughed. “Ah, you’re a good kid. Go on, bub.”

Daerek left the little shop with a smile, a wave, and an impatient itch at the back of his mind. The next time he heard from Wixet, it was by way of a note added to his next shipment’s invoice:

The name checked out, but he hasn’t been seen since he sold the goods. I’d bet my business he’s gonzo.

The mage stared at the note for several seconds before crumpling it in his fist. A quiet whoosh of flame engulfed his hand before flickering out, and Daerek opened his fingers to let the smoldering ashes fall to the floor.

Edited by Katelle
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Qabian    68

Qabian paced back and forth in his small apartment in Silvermoon. It was taking much too long to hear about the effects of his latest scheme. It must have gone awry. The human was more careful than Qabian had expected, more professional perhaps. Syreena had been asking about it, but he had nothing to tell her. He didn't mind telling her that he had done something and it hadn't gone as planned, but not having the details of why or how was frustrating. It was time to move on.

He stopped at his desk and penned a quick letter.

--

Several days later, as Daerek was moving through Dalaran in the early evening, three dark, burly figures suddenly leapt out of the alley between the Violet Citadel and the magic shop and grabbed the mage. One of them grabbed his arms. Another covered his mouth and nose with a big green hand. Another yanked a dark sack down over Daerek's head as they dragged him back down the alley. They didn't let him breathe again until he stopped struggling.

When Daerek came to, he found himself on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. Beneath his knees, he could feel wood flooring, but it wobbled a little, as though floating on top of water. 

Someone removed the bag from his head and he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light, which was mercifully dim, though the source was not apparent. He was in a room not unlike the Underbelly's black market, but devoid of any furnishings but a small table. 

A slim Forsaken woman in an out-of-place black satin pantsuit and high heels sat on the table, swinging crossed legs back and forth. "Good morning," she said, in a somewhat gravelly voice with a sing-song tone, stretching out the black cloth of the sack that had been over his head.

Daerek craned his neck to look around. There was no noticeable exit, and an ominous looking orc dressed in black leather stood silently in the shadows.

"We're going to ask you some questions today," the woman said, hopping off the table. Her metal lower jaw clacked slightly with each word she spoke. She turned and faced away from him, busying herself with something on the table. "Well, just one, really." She winked one of her glowing yellow eyes at him over her shoulder as she pulled on a pair of black rubber-looking gloves. Her bone fingertips tore right through them, so it seemed as though the only reason she put them on was to make the snapping sound against her wrists.

She approached him with what looked like a pair of pliers in one hand, snapping them toward him. As she moved away from the table, he could just see the full set of ominous looking tools she had rolled out on its top.

She crouched in front of him and placed the pliers against his face. "Where's Anee?"

Daerek glared at her, but said nothing.

"Oooh," she crooned. She may have been smiling, but it would have been impossible to tell with that much metal being part of her face. "I love when they fight it. Whenever they fight, I get to add to my collection." She snapped the pliers right in front of his nose.

"I know who you work for," Daerek said, unimpressed by her threats.

"Do you?" she said, crooking her head delightedly. "So do I. She's so shiny and useful. Her name is Gold and you can take her anywhere." She cackled, then stalked around behind him and leaned down over him as she placed the mouth of the pliers around his pinky finger. "Care to reconsider answering the question? Where is Anee?"

Daerek kept his mouth firmly shut.

The snap of the small bone reverberated up his arm to the base of his skull. He bit down on the inside of his lip to keep himself from screaming, but a grimace of pain crossed his face.

She leaned further over him, two bone fingertips under his chin to tilt his face up to hers. "Lovely," she said. "But we're just getting started. Where's the girl?"

When the second bone snapped, he couldn't hold back a reaction to the pain.

~~

The orc yanked Daerek's head from the water by his hair and the human gasped for air.

"The girl?" the dead woman hissed.

"I told you," Daerek grunted, his voice hoarse and as flat as it had been once the real pain had started. She hadn't broken him yet. He wouldn't let her. He'd survived worse. "I don't know. She just left."

"Fine. We're done here." The woman made a gesture and the orc dropped Daerek to the wooden floor where the young man groaned quietly and rolled onto his back.

The results of the past few hours were far from pleasant. Several of his fingers had been broken. One of his arms and a kneecap were massively swollen, shattered by the swung weights that had battered the bones. The other arm had pieces of skin sticking up from where they'd been tugged and peeled back. Both his shoulders had been torn from their sockets. There was a collar around his neck with inward facing spikes, hiding small round burn marks and a brand that looked like the Horde symbol on one side of his neck. His face was left curiously unmarred, but was slick with water after several threats of drowning, including one that required resuscitation.

The woman stepped to one side of the small room and held a hand to her ear as she spoke. Her voice was quiet, but audible.

"Nothing," she said. "I believe he may actually not know, but I'd need more time to be sure."

A pause.

"Three days. Starvation, loud noise, keep the lights on-- Yes, sir." She stepped back across the room to where Daerek lay, her stance and tone of voice betrayed her disappointment. She leaned down over him, peering into his face. He winced when she brushed a wet hair off his forehead. "Lucky you," she said. "He found her. You're not needed anymore."

Suspicion crossed Daerek's face, his eyes narrowing. "I thought you worked for Gold," he muttered.

She laughed lightly. "Someone has to hand her over."

"You gonna kill me now?"

"No, sweetie." She stood and gestured for the orc. "That's not my job." She tugged the black bag back over Daerek's head, then the orc slung the the young man roughly over his shoulder. "Dump him outside Findle's. Someone from the Uncrowned will trip over him," the dead woman's voice said. The orc grunted in response.

There was a sharp pain at the back of Daerek's head, a single note in the symphony of pain he was feeling, and then everything went dark and, for a time, he felt nothing at all.

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Qabian    68

Espionage is never simple. Whatever you are trying to get from your enemies, someone on your side is simply waiting for an opportunity to give to them.

Back when Kael'thas was still a force to be reckoned with, Qabian played the double agent game consistently and not always smoothly, but he recognized early which side was going to win, and he refused to go down with the ship. With the current state of the Horde, there were many and more who would like to see Sylvanas knocked off her pedestal, but Qabian was not one of them. He had his issues with her, but compared to his issues with Thrall and Garrosh, they were minimal. His days of playing the Horde against itself were at least temporarily over. 

He did, however, have enough experience to realize that whatever was happening on his side would be mirrored on the other. For the moment, the easiest of his enemy to exploit were the Dark Irons. There would always be those who, while following their queen as faithfully as they could, wouldn't be able to resist sticking it to their old enemies whenever the opportunity arose. 

Now that there were some Dark Irons skulking around the Kirin Tor hoping to help fight demons, they were also relatively easy to contact. In exchange for whatever they needed that he had the ability to provide, usually murder easily traced to someone other than the person who ordered it, Qabian had a small number of Alliance mages willing to work for him.

However, after the past several weeks, Qabian was getting seriously tired of seeing dwarves. Yes, they'd done everything he asked, even after he went to check their reports himself after the third false sighting, but every time he met with them and they gave their collective shrugs he had to resist the urge to just burn them all to ash. He was sure they could sense it in him, but they all seemed perfectly content to keep draining him of resources as long as he was willing to offer. Qabian began to wonder if he wasn't being played.

Qabian burst into his room in Silvermoon and tossed his blade to one side with a clatter. Unrolled on top of his desk was a crude map of Azeroth, details unnecessary for its purpose. Red ink Xs were scattered across Alliance-controlled locations. Qabian snatched up a quill, dipped it in something, and slashed a new red X over what would have been Nethergarde Keep. He dropped the quill haphazardly and began to pace about the small room.

His hunt for the girl had been concerned with covering as wide an area as shallow as possible, just scouting for sightings, not precise locations or hideouts. He was fairly certain she wouldn't be audacious enough to hide anywhere neutral or Horde controlled, which reduced the search area considerably. The Isles themselves were well covered. But all the while he pulled the puppet strings of another plot, his dwarves continued to turn up more and more nothing.

He tapped the map as he passed by it in his pacing. "If I were trying to hide..." He muttered to himself, then amended his thought. "If I were a scared human girl trying to hide, and not in any of the places I've already looked. Hmm, Pandaria or Outland?"

~~

Allerian Stronghold was in flames behind Qabian when the goblin tracked him down with the message. The light from the fires lit the page as he read the jagged dwarvish words. 

"She's been spotted in the Shrine of Seven Stars. I'm confident it's her this time. She will be difficult to get to, though. She does not seem to leave. -K"

A horrible grin stretched across Qabian's face. The location was more than enough. He opened a portal to Undercity. It was time to prepare Anee's next package.

Edited by Qabian
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