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  2. Many would claim it is not even a house anymore. While technically correct... Who cares? Welcome to The House: Season 3, an Azerothian reality show created by Razz Blastwhistle and seized by Flashlens entertainment, now forfeited into the hands of a new collaborative team. The House is an RP event that will take place entirely in discord whose events will reflect a day by day passage of time. It welcomes both the Horde and the Alliance as contestants or as Audience members. The main focus of the show is to broaden horizons and put characters into a place to interact with others they would not normally be around. More information about the house is available on the Discord channel as well as the channel to apply for a spot on the show! All applications are due by July 16th with Day 1 to begin on July 17th! https://discord.gg/WZkPMb
  3. Raindrops fell from the porous cave ceiling in time with Jenivyr’s galloping heart. The woman’s breathing had become ragged as she’d dug into her saddle for her emergency medical supplies. “Please, hold on!” she begged the woman. “I swear I’ll save you!” Not bothering to tie Silkie up, she hurried to kneel beside the woman, lying on Jen’s hastily splayed-out bedroll. Thunder boomed in the distance, setting the mare to nickering nervously. Jenivyr’s hands fumbled against the kit’s clasp before getting it open. Father, I’ll never complain about your insistence on putting medical kits everywhere ever again. She took up a pair of scissors and sheared the torn-up clothes from the woman’s body. Heart skipped a beat twice: first, when she saw just how battered the woman was, and second when she took in just how beautiful she was. “Dammit, Jen! Get a grip!” She tossed the scissors aside and took up the vial of antibiotic medicine, quickly applying it to every open wound in sight. The worst by far as the gash on the woman’s ribs. Recalling her anatomy training, Jenivyr recognized it as the bottom of the woman’s left lung. That would explain the difficulty breathing. Once every wound was treated for infection, Jenivyr moved on to the lung wound. If the lung was punctured, the rapid breathing was bound to collapse it eventually. Jenivyr produced a hollow needle from the kit and carefully chose a spot. She’d practiced this treatment on a pig carcass but doing it to a live human was entirely different. Do it, or she’ll die, she told herself. She pierced the woman’s chest and twisted the needle until blood shot out the handle, spraying her in the face. The woman gasped, then slowly steadied her breathing. Jenivyr noticed that her eyes were open again. “Um, hi,” she said, smiling nervously. “My name is Jenivyr. I found you out there all by yourself. But I’m here to help you now, okay?” She withdrew the needle and traded it for a bottle of red liquid. “I have something for you to drink. It’s a potion my father made. Top-notch stuff. Well, it’s not brandy or anything, but it’ll make you feel a whole lot better.” The woman nodded slowly. Jenivyr smiled. She slid up to the woman’s head and gently leaned it back. The woman opened her mouth, chin trembling. With great care, Jen poured the red liquid. Before long, color returned to the woman’s fine mahogany skin. Just as quickly, she fell back to sleep. Jenivyr took a deep breath. The immediate danger was past, but now she had a lot of work to do to get the wounds stitched and bound. Rain pounded outside as she worked, nimble hands passing a needle and thread through each wound. When she began to fish for a roll of bandages, a sudden flash of light and subsequent BOOM rattled the entire cave. Silkie tossed her head, screaming. She tried to rear up but lacked the room, which made her panic even more. Jenivyr gasped as the horse bolted out into the night. “No! Come back, girl!” She began to run after the horse, but paused and glanced back at the naked woman, stitched-up like an old doll and shivering in her sleep. “I promise I’ll be right back,” Jenivyr said, then turned and ran out into the storm. The wind buffeted her, causing her riding cap to flap angrily against her back. She felt for her hat but winced when she found her head bare. When had she lost it? She was in for a tongue-lashing from Matron Thalia whenever she managed to get home. Silkie was running about wildly, whinnying at the top of her lungs. Jenivyr sprinted with the wind to follow, managing to slip ahead of the horse. She held up her hands and called out, “WHOA! STOP, SILKIE!” The mare stopped running and shifted in place, still rolling her eyes at the booming thunder. Jenivyr took the reins and stroked Silkie’s nose. “There, there. Shh, it’s ok,” she said gently. Her voice soothed the mare to the point where a nearby boom only rattled her slightly. Jenivyr led the horse back towards the safety of the outcropping but halted when she saw a figure in the distance. It was the silhouette of a knight in full plate armor atop a horse carrying a polearm and a shield. The wicked crescent-shaped blade at the end of his weapon shimmered hazily. A flash of lightning gave Jenivyr a glimpse of a band of riders trotting up alongside the first. None was as heavily armored, but each was menacing and eerie. Trembling, Jenivyr yanked Silkie’s reins and ran to the rocks, thankful that the horse followed without needing a verbal command. Did they see me? Are they going to ride me down like they did that woman? Once she reached the safety of the outcropping, she waited to listen for their thundering hoofbeats, but with the storm she couldn’t have distinguished it from the rain anyway. She covered her mouth to keep her breaths quiet, too afraid they might somehow hear her. Silkie nickered softly beside her. “Jenivyr…Vayne,” a voice whispered from behind her. Jenny shrieked and pulled her hunting knife from its sheath, whirling about into a defensive stance. She paused when she saw the woman, hugging herself as she shivered violently. She seemed barely conscious yet stared at Jen with pleading eyes. “It is…them…isn’t it? The riders.” Jenivyr glanced out at the rain, knife still in hand. “Yes,” she answered. “Whoever they are, I guess they must have been the ones who did this to you. I hope – I think they’re gone.” “Then…please…fire. I…cannot feel anything…but the cold.” Jenivyr frowned. “I don’t think I could make a fire with what we have. No tinder and nothing dry. And all of my clothes are soaked through.” She quickly hitched Silkie to a jut of rock and approached the woman. She helped tuck her into the bedroll, which was thankfully dry inside. The woman’s teeth chattered violently. “I…think I am dying,” she said, her voice little louder than a breath. Jenivyr felt torn up inside. She felt so helpless, sitting there as the woman’s life ebbed away. Tears blinded her. “I—I’m so sorry…I’m worthless. My own father knows it, even if he won’t tell me. He sent me to the middle of nowhere so I couldn’t embarrass him. If he were here, he’d know what to do. But it had to be me. It’s a sick, cruel joke!” The woman’s hand reached for Jenivyr’s. “No…not worthless. At least…I’m not alone.” Jenivyr took the hand and squeezed it. “Can you tell me your name?” she said, stifling a sob. The woman’s eyes closed again, a weak shiver racking through her. “Deirdre,” she whispered. “Deirdre. That’s a beautiful name. It suits you.” Jenivyr choked out a laugh. “Oh, look at me. Even now, I can’t help but make a poor attempt at flirting. I’m sorry.” Deirdre replied, “You…like women?” “Yes. People like me aren’t widely talked about among nobles. That sort of thing is usually reserved for extramarital affairs. But I can’t seem to hold onto a courtship for longer than a week, anyway. Men don’t take me seriously.” She looked down at her fancy men’s hunting clothes and sighed. “It’s pretty clear why, is it not?” Deirdre’s eyes flickered open. Her thumb rubbed Jenivyr’s dripping hand gently. “I bet…they’re just jealous.” Jen managed a smile. “You’re just saying that.” “I’m dying. What reason do I have…to lie?” She offered Jenivyr a tired smile. “As far as I’m concerned…you’re ten times greater…than any knight. Any self-proclaimed…hero.” Jenivyr’s heart sank again. “If I was a real hero, I could have saved you.” “Perhaps…there is a way.” Jenivyr perked up. “What do you mean?” “I…have some magical knowledge.” Deirdre’s eyes flashed at Silkie. “How attached are you…to the horse?” Jenivyr blinked. “Um…what kind of magic are you talking about?” “The kind…that can save my life. All you must do…is sacrifice the horse. Slit its throat over me. The blood and soul…will do the rest. Please. It’s my last…chance.” Jenivyr gashed her teeth, heart pounding again. She’s…a blood mage! One of those warlocks like from the war stories! She looked down at the hand still entwined with her own. But she’s also a person. A human being. What is that compared to the life of one horse? She set Deirdre’s hand down gently and stood. She approached Silkie, guilt tugging at her gut. She stroked the mare’s nose and received a gentle nudge in return. But Silkie never hurt anyone. She’s not guilty of any crime…how can I think to kill her so unfairly? “Jenivyr…please, hurry.” Deirdre’s voice seemed as thin as a veil now. Wispy as a ghostly hand on her face. She gripped the hilt of her knife, pulling the mare over to where the dying woman lay. “I’m sorry, girl,” she said. Her eyes were full of tears as she drew the blade across the horse’s throat. The strength of her arm surprised and horrified her. Silkie moaned and spasmed as blood spurted from her neck. She kept twitching for a full minute until the light finally dimmed in her eyes. Jenivyr stared at what she had done, feeling numb inside. The knife fell from her hand, making a dull clatter. Rain fell outside and thunder boomed, but this time the horse did not give her nervous answer. A deep revulsion crawled up Jenivyr’s throat. She almost didn’t notice the crimson and fel-green lights dancing about Deirdre’s body. The woman chanted something in a language Jen had never heard before. Her voice was deep and forceful with a power a dying woman shouldn’t have had. She convulsed much as Silkie had, the lights flowing into her like falls of blood and fire. And then it went dark and silent save for a gentle green glow from the woman’s eyes. Deirdre drew in a deep breath and exhaled, sounding satisfied as one finishing a fine wine. “Thank you, Jenivyr,” the warlock said. The dull green light faded slowly as her eyes crept closed. “I owe you my life.” She seemed to fall asleep then. Jenivyr spent the rest of the night huddled against the rocky wall, soaked with rain and blood.
  4. The snow-white mare’s hooves pounded against the moist soil, the wind whipping through her mane. Jenivyr Vayne balanced in the saddle atop the mare’s back, a smile broadly spread across her face. She had one hand gripping the reins tightly enough to turn her knuckles white while the other hand kept her new hat from blowing off her head. She imagined what her father would say and pretended to laugh in his face. Here in the headlands, no one could tell her no. They couldn’t stop her from enjoying life when she was atop a horse, running like the wind. Where was she going? Officially, she had an appointment to keep with some lordling she was allegedly courting. In reality, she as going where the landscape told her to. She drifted here and there as the wished. The tension in the reins -- the feeling like at any moment she might slip and fly away – it was the best feeling in the world. Then a jolt brought her back to her senses. Her heart skipped a beat as the mare stumbled. “Silkie! Whoa, girl!” She pulled up on the reins, eventually getting through to the horse that stopping would be a good idea. Jenivyr let out a long breath when they finally slowed to a trot. “Now what in the hell was that for? You’re supposed to be good at galloping through tough terrain!” The mare snorted in reply, beginning to walk in a circle as if to give her rider a piece of her mind. Jenny giggled and patted the horse’s neck. “Alright, I admit that was a bit harder than usual. I’ll give you some extra apples when we get home. Now what made you trip up back there?” She clicked her tongue and the mare started up a trot again. The rider inspected the area closely. The day was cloudy and the light was fading in the west, but Jenivyr’s eyes had always been sharp. She had no trouble spotting the issue. A woman, half-buried in the mud. She was dark of skin, yet looked unhealthily pale as though the blood had drained from her body. Thick, black curls caked in mud and dry blood covered her face. She outfit was so badly torn it was impossible to tell what quality it had been. Jenivyr gasped a leapt off her horse. “Light!” she exclaimed, “Are you alright, miss?” She knelt beside the woman, took off her riding glove, and felt for a pulse. A faint beat drummed against her fingers. “Can you hear me?” She brushed the hair out of the woman’s face and saw a flash of green, but it faded so fast she wondered if she had imagined it. The wounded woman’s face was covered in burns and scars, making her look gnarled like an old oak, but her dark eyes still held a shimmer of life before they shut. The woman slumped over, unconscious. “Shit, shit, SHIT!” Jenivyr said, feeling panic wash over her. She was alone out here, having left home too quickly for anyone to follow her. How far had she ridden? Glancing about, she thought she recognized the general area. She was at least an hour’s ride from home, and the clouds were growing darker. A distant rumble punctuated the likelihood of a storm passing over. And then there was the tracks. She saw them now, nearly hidden in the dark soil. Hoofprints. People had ridden this way. Ridden the woman down, in fact. Her body must have been pummeled in a dozen places, but miraculously she was still alive. The tracks were fresh. Could those people circle back around and finish the job? Jenivyr shook her head and took a steadying breath. Worrying about those things wouldn’t help this woman. Steeling herself, she carefully lifted her with one hand beneath her neck and another tucked about her center of mass. It was rather shapely, she noticed. Okay, maybe not the best time to be paying attention to such things… The woman was light enough that Jenivyr could get her up into the mare’s saddle, though she winced at the awkward position the woman was forced to lay in. Jenivyr climbed up and said, “Let’s go, Silkie!” The horse responded immediately, taking off at a quick pace. Jenivyr directed Silkie towards the rocky landscape to the east, where she would find cover from the incoming rain. All the while, she watched the dying woman in her saddle. Who are you? What is your story? Can I save you? The rain began to fall.
  5. “Aaaaaand, done!” Blue presented a key card, designed just the way Cobra had drawn on his note paper. “May it open a path to much happiness for you!” Cobra dug his fingernails into his palms to painfully force down a smile. “It looks perfect, but I’ll let you know if it works.” He reached to take the card, but Blue pulled back. “Unh-unh-uhh! You have to pay up, first! Basic rules of business! Tops has been teaching me.” She smiled proudly at what must have counted for tremendous insight in her mind. Cobra glanced around nervously. The Rat’s Scrap Shop was nearly empty this time of day, as most of the talent was out on the streets already. Cobra had made certain to have as few eyes on this transaction as possible. But he still chafed at the idea of Blue’s form of ‘payment.’ “Do I really have to do it here? Now?” Blue nodded emphatically. Cobra sighed. “Alright, get your stupid mech out, then.” Blue was so giddy at his consent that she overlooked his insult against the scorpid. After a quick hand motion from the woman, it scuttled its way out of the ‘den’ she’d built for it – shaped much like a human’s doghouse Cobra had once seen in a periodical illustration from Stormwind – and clanked to a stop beside a stool. Blue patted the stool top and said, “Have a seat, this will take some time. Oh, but the results will be worth the wait!” Cobra, eye twitching, took a seat as bid. Blue handed him a cylindrical device topped with a rough spider-web pattern of small, slender tubes. The device had a few buttons on the side marked “REC,” “PAUSE,” and “STOP.” A long, curly wire connected it to a box on Sting’s back. “You’ll speak into that,” Blue said, tapping the tubing on the top. She gathered a stack of papers from her workbench, knocking over some fly-swarmed tin cans in the process, and placed them in Cobra’s lap. “Normally, I would have a soundproof setup to maintain recording quality, but this will have to do for the short-term!” Cobra flipped through the pages, eyes boggling at the sheer number of voice lines printed on them. He’d seen typewritten pages as part of blueprints he’d swiped before, but never had they been this chock-full of words. Trying to read them all gave him a headache. He looked incredulously at Blue. “You want me to say all of these?” “Well, of course! I mean, we might not get to all of them today since it takes Sting a while to condense all the voice lines into smaller bit reference files--” Cobra held up a hand to pause her speech. “I didn’t ask for the techno-babble, Blue. How long is this gonna take?” Blue muttered to herself and moved her finger in the air as though drawing on a chalk board. After a moment she replied, “Ten hours, give or take fifteen minutes.” “All that for just a key card?” “Well, key cards are used for high security for a reason! They require lots of expensive materials and very minute but unique patternings to work just right. It takes special equipment and--” “And for some reason you’d rather me pay with my voice than coin or points?” Blue grinned. “You have the finest voice of all my available subjects! Plus not many of the other thieves are as good at reading as you are.” “Oh,” Cobra said, suddenly wracked with guilt. “Thanks, Blue.” The mechgineer nodded casually and pushed a few buttons on the scorpid’s back. “So,” she said, “Shall we begin?” Cobra looked back down at the script, then at the key card in Blue’s coat pocket. Well, nothing for it but to get it over with. He pushed the REC button and said, “Hello, new user. Thank you for choosing me to be your companion. We are going to have such fun together.” --- Blue finally gave Cobra a break nearly five hours later. By then, his throat was dry and sore, he was hungry and tired, and people had begun filtering back into the hideout for their nightly revels. Cobra sat in the reception room slurping noodles and chugging watered-down beer. The key card sat in his pocket. Sorry, Blue, he thought regretfully, When I see an opportunity, I can’t afford not to take it. The mechgineer had removed her coat during the recording session and left it on her workbench when the two of them had split to get dinner. It had been a simple thing to pretend he’d forgotten something, send her ahead to the Sink, then slip back and take the card. Now he had a new obstacle: he had no idea if Tops was in or not. Socks was working the desk again. The last thing Cobra wanted was to ask him and risk his plan being discovered. Cobra leaned back in the couch and slurped down the last of the noodles. I’ll need to get Socks away from the desk somehow, he knew, But how do I keep him distracted long enough to search Tops’ office? His mind drifted to what little he really knew about Socks. The man was known for his boastful exaggerations and embellishments of his past deeds. Like most thieves in the Rat Runners, he didn’t even use his real name. Yet his behavior told more than words ever could. And nothing motivated Socks quite like the nymph of a gnome known as Gretta Grabbyhands. Cobra slid off the couch and dumped his noodle cup into the trash, then made his way into the Sink. The atmosphere was more subdued than usual; even thieves were affected by the ever-present anxiety regarding the fall of Stormwind. No one knew exactly what the development would mean for the Rats’ future, and that made planning ahead impossible. Any thief’s worst nightmare. Cobra went unnoticed easily. His brief fame had faded, and the thieves’ minds were far from present in the moment. He found his target moving between tables, delivering drinks and sultry comments. Cobra shadowed Gretta until she sashayed back to the bar for another set of orders. He slid into a stool near the flip-up countertop and slapped down a silver coin, loud enough to be heard over the bards performing on stage. Gretta stopped and smiled at him. Her elaborate pink updo swayed precariously. “Well howdy, Short-Stack,” she said. “What can I get for you?” She leaned against the bar, her breasts squeezing against her skimpy bodice. Cobra rolled his eyes at the display. How obvious can you be, woman? “I have a little job for you, if you want some silver.” Gretta’s primly trimmed eyebrow rose. “A job, eh? Well, I’ve already got one of those right now. Unless you’re looking for a special service.” “No,” he replied flatly, “I just need you to get Socks’ attention for a few minutes.” Before she responded, Cobra added, “Actually, a special service might be in order. But for him, not me.” “Oh-ho! Doing the ‘big man’ a favor? You keep this up, and you’ll be in his good graces before long. I’ve been upping the charge on him lately since he calls on me so often.” Cobra spun the coin on the barstand. “How much?” Gretta fluffed up her hair. “Fifteen bolts.” Cobra’s nose twitched. Fifteen of my hard-earned silver bolts for that bastard! Reluctantly, he retrieved the remainder of his coins from the pouch in one of his hidden pockets. Just relax and get it over with. Make them count. He handed over the bolts, leaving only a handful of copper hexes in the pouch. He had a reserve of silver split between his various hiding holes, but this was a significant dip into his funds. Gretta took the coins and secreted them away in a secret pocket of her own – in her bodice, of course. “Thank you kindly, young’in. I’ll let Maggie know to take over for me and get that slippery man in the back for a while. I’ll make sure to tell him who threw the favor his way.” “Wait,” Cobra called as she turned to leave. “Just tell him it was a friend. No names.” Can’t afford to make him suspicious of me for no reason. Gretta shrugged. “Weird way of making friends, but it’s your money, pal.” “Thanks. Oh, and Gretta, have you seen Tops around tonight?” “I have. He’s in his booth meeting with members from those Copperfingers, the gang from Platform Twenty-Five. He’ll be busy for a long while yet.” Cobra nodded and slid out of his stool. Gretta took his departure as an invitation to depart herself. I should have located Tops first, but at least it’s working out in my favor. Still, no reason to start getting cocky. A few minutes later, he watched Socks walk off with Gretta, leaving the front desk unattended. Typical. He’d rather leave his fellow thieves out in the back alleys all night than miss a chance for a free tumble. Once the coast was clear, Cobra stalked up to Tops’ office door and slipped Blue’s copy of the key card from his pocket. He slid it into the cypher lock and grinned when the light flashed green. The door slid open, revealing Tops’ neatly organized desk and wall space. Cobra slipped in and let the door slide shut behind him. Warily, he scanned the room for sign of any guard mechs but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He crept further in and released a tense breath after a quiet, tense moment. Then he set to work. He checked every set of information pinned on boards hung about the walls, scanned the papers left stacked on the desktop, and carefully opened the desk drawers to pour through their contents. He found nothing regarding any heist plans. After checking everything in sight, Cobra was left with only one drawer unopened. It was locked. Damnation and obsolescence! Tails hadn’t had time to teach him the basics of lockpicking yet. Cobra hadn’t acquired the necessary tools, either. He tugged at the locked drawer angrily, venting his frustration. I can’t let all this preparation go to waste! I will find out what you’re hiding! He took his razor from his pocket and slipped it into the crevice just beside the lock latch. He prodded and pulled and felt a slight give in the latch. I can do this! Straining with all his might, he forced the lock to bend out of shape. Tugging the drawer, he felt it pull more loosely than before. Another minute of prodding and he managed to pull the drawer open completely. Yes! he exalted silently. He sifted through the contents, finding various sets of blueprints and dossiers on many of the high-ranking thieves in the Runners. Tails and Socks were included, as was -- to Cobra’s surprise -- Blue. The blueprints in question explained that tidbit. A factory on the ninety-sixth platform. Almost as high as it gets in the Centrifuge. And these plans…signed by ‘Barbara Redwrench.’ Blue’s sister. It must be. He memorized the factory’s location and returned the documents to the drawer. He forced the drawer shut and fiddled with the latch to get it back into place as though nothing had happened. In the process, his razor blade snapped off, still inside the drawer. Shit. No way to get it back out… Seething, Cobra withdrew from the desk and pocketed the hilt of his useless razor blade. He’ll see the blade next time he opens the drawer. Nothing I can do about that now. Nothing but hope I’m not implicated. He didn’t want to think about what sort of punishment Tops would deliver him should the truth come out. Cobra slid out of the office, shiftily checking for witnesses. A pair of thieves wandered from the workshop to the Sink, but they didn’t look his way. Sweating, the young thief exited the office and let the door slide and lock behind him. Well, tonight wasn’t an utter failure, he concluded. Now I suppose I’ll finish repaying Blue. I couldn’t have done with without her, after all. Somehow the thought of continuing to record her stupid voice lines didn’t seem so bad. He wasn’t sure why.
  6. (( We're back! Even though we did hold a contest last year, we did not advertise here! We hope you can join us! )) The Rooks of Twisting Nether cordially invite you to help us celebrate the Midsummer Fire Festival with our annual Mount Parade around Old Town of Stormwind City! Prizes will be awarded to the best Mount-Gear* matching participants! Bonus points for matching/themed gear, mount, and pet(s)! (( *Transmogrified or actual gear only - those who use magic or temporary illusions will be disqualified from receiving a prize! )) Third Place: 25k Gold Second Place: 50k Gold Grand Prize: Other-worldly Mount** (( ** FREE, PAID MOUNT FROM THE BLIZZARD STORE OF THE WINNER'S CHOOSING! )) (( In the past, we've had nearly 30 participants! This is a fun way to bring both the RP and non-RP communities of TN-RH together! We hope you can join us! )) To participate, simply meet at the Fountain in Old Town at 7PM Realm Time (( CDT - 8PM EDT )). At that time, Rooks' Officers will check-in/register participants and begin the Parade line-up. Once ready, we'll begin our march around the Old Town Circle. (( A pre-parade "pre-game" Tavern-RP event at the Pig and Whistle in Old Town will commence at 6PM Realm Time. )) Be sure to bring fireworks and other celebratory items to commemorate the occasion! WHAT: Rooks' Annual Midsummer Mount Parade WHEN: Sunday, June 28, 2020 at 7:00PM Realm Time WHERE: Fountain at Old Town in Stormwind City WHY: To celebrate and bring together the communities of TN-RH! FABULOUS PRIZES! (( Be sure to whisper or send a message to Atilakai, GM of Rooks, if you have any questions! ))
  7. “Begging your pardons, Miss Blue, but do you really have to come along on the dive with us?” Tails scratched his beard, looking the woman in the lab coat over skeptically. Blue blew raspberries and waved dismissively. “Of course I do! Sting won’t function properly unless I’m there to direct him, and you need him to bring up the haul from the dead slime. Besides, I can’t pass up the opportunity to see the deep dig’s structure! It’s a historical treasure trove of civil engineering down there!” Cobra glanced between the two, uncertain. “Uh, won’t Sting shock us? Water is a really strong conductor.” Tails patted the youth’s shoulder. “What the kid said.” “Oh, I’ve been outfitting him with waterproof circuitry. He’s perfectly safe!” She patted the machine’s frame. The mecha-scorpid made a loud whirring noise and fell limp on the floor. “Whoops. Sting, wake up! Ugh, I thought I had your voice commands fixed!” Tails clicked his tongue. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not sure that thing is gonna make our jobs any easier. It’s been glitching constantly ever since you found it in that scrap heap.” “Sting’s been through a lot, but I know he can do this! I’ve run tests and he’s been 85% successful!” “Even if I thought that percentage was acceptable, I don’t think you’ve got the inclination for this type of work, Blue.” The woman deflated like a pierced football. “Don’t want me around, huh? I see how it is. Well, good luck hauling the stuff without my mech.” She dramatically tossed her head and turned to exit. Tails snorted out a chuckle. “Oh, come back now, lass. Tops gave us orders to bring you, so I’m not turning away your help. It’ll just be…difficult.” She’ll put our lives at risk down there, Cobra thought grimly. Was this what it was like when he first brought me down here? It had been a few weeks since the first dive, and every day since the announcement, they had headed back to the slime chamber and retrieved what they could of its horde. The parts were astoundingly expensive, but many were too heavy to haul up. Cobra had doubts about their usability, but Blue had assured them that after a long cleanse, they would be good as new. Which had led them to yet another of her brilliant ideas. “Sting will impress you both, I guarantee it!” Blue cast off her lab coat, revealing a sporty one-piece diving suit and a rebreather to match the goggles she always wore. Without further delay, she dove into the water. Sting scuttled after her. Cobra winced as the mech flopped in, but Blue resurfaced a moment later, no worse for wear. Tails tapped Cobra on the shoulder. “Good enough for me. What about you, kid?” Cobra shrugged. “As long as it doesn’t mistake me for a deep-sea murloc and zap me.” He removed his outer layer of clothing and slipped into the water alongside Tails. With their rebreathers and goggles equipped, Tails led the way underwater. Blue knew how to swim, unlike Cobra on his first dive. She was pretty good at it, too, since Tails decided to set a fast pace and she never fell behind. Surprisingly, the scorpid kept pace with the trio just as well. It propelled itself through the water with little propellers on its backside. They arrived at the chamber before long. Cobra tossed his glowstick towards the mess the frozen slime had made. The floor remained damp and slippery, though thankfully the slime didn’t seem capable of reconstituting itself. The metal gear was scattered about in a massive collection. Blue squealed in delight at the sight. “So much stuff! I could tinker with this for years!” Tails nudged her shoulder. “First we gotta get it home. Let’s see your bug work some magic.” Blue nodded, then offered Sting a series of hand gestures. The metal creature replied, “INITIATING CLEANUP PROCEDURE.” Then, it crawled over to the pile and scooped up a big black box that might have belonged to a flying machine at some point. It lifted the box with ease and turned back towards the pool entrance. Blue smiled triumphantly. “It’ll take a lot of trips, but he’ll run this sequence automatically. He knows the way back. All we need to do is make sure he doesn’t get taken by other divers.” Cobra eyed the creature. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing a diver would want to risk himself to bring down. She’s awfully protective of that thing. Why do so many gnomes think of mechs like they’re the greatest thing in the world? The rest of the shift was a series of back-and-forth dives. Cobra, Tails, and Blue each took turns diving in pairs while the third watched the Depths entrance to ensure they weren’t interrupted. There was less concern involving the slime pit since it was well-known to divers that it was a literal dead end. The moment Cobra had been waiting for came when he and Blue were on a shift together. They emerged in the slime chamber and watched as Sting scuttled to the pile, choosing the next largest piece of scrap to carry. “Blue,” Cobra said, “What did you do before you joined the crew? I know you were a mechgineer, but where did you work?” The woman beamed at the opportunity to talk about herself. “A factory up in the Manifold! One of the most prestigious producers of mechs in all Gnomeregan. I was a factory supervisor, which basically means I walked the lines and made sure everyone knew what they were doing. I got that job after five years on the line, myself. No thanks to my big sister and her astonishing lack of nepotism.” Cobra quirked an eyebrow at her. “Your sister?” “Yeah, Barbara. She looks a lot like me, except older and dyes her hair red. She runs half a dozen factories up in the manifold.” “She does? Doesn’t that make your family rich?” “She’s the rich one. Nobody else gets a copper penny unless they work for it. I don’t mind having to get hands-on with the mechs, of course, but working the factory line is artless. The moment we finish a product, it’s shipped out. I want to design and teach our mechs. Like Sting here.” She almost patted his head, then thought better of it. The scorpid continued into the water dutifully. The pair of gnomes prepared to follow. “Blue,” Cobra said again, “Do you think you could help me with something? I need to make something that can get me through key card locks. It’ll come in handy with a lot of the old management buildings down in the Depths.” She smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. “I think I know just the thing. Buuuuuut, it’ll cost you!” She stuck out her tongue and dove into the water. Cobra couldn’t help but laugh. She’s a talker, but she still knows how valuable her skills are. And she’s pretty fun to be around, I guess. He dove in after her. --- After a few more hours, Cobra and Tails followed the scorpid into the slime pit for what must have been the fiftieth time all day. Cobra yawned and rubbed oily water out of his eyes. “Some job, eh kid?” Tails asked, wringing out his beard. Cobra sighed. “It sucks. Playing babysitter to an overgrown metal bug…” Tails laughed. “It’s better than having to risk life and limb for table scraps. This is what I call ‘easy money.’ Even if it’s a slog, it’ll be worth the return.” “Is that the same reason you old folks brought Blue onto the crew?” Tails frowned. “That’s a question for Tops, kid.” “He wouldn’t answer if I asked him.” “Fair point. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to say that she’s included in the deal we made for a big heist the boss is planning. Note that the boss makes lots of plans, not all of which work out. In the meantime, Blue is proving herself useful.” “Barely. She’s a resource drain and she talks too much.” “The resources are an investment on future gains, kid. Nothing pays better than being up-to-date on tech in Gnomeregan. ‘Sides, she’s brought us something even more valuable.” Cobra raised an eyebrow at the old man. “Valuable? Like information? Gold?” “Try optimism, kid,” Tails answered, patting the scorpid as it gathered scraps. “Our crew’s been running on competition, meager pay, and an open bar for years now. But we haven’t had a new member as full of passion and energy as Blue in all that time. Watching her work, you can’t help but smile. On the inside, at least. She reminds us of a thing the mechgineers up in the Manifold seem to forget: we’re still people.” Cobra frowned. He wasn’t sure about all this touchy-feely stuff from Tails. His instincts told him that no good could come from people who operated on emotion. Not after what he’d gone through with Mother. After the scorpid had its newest haul gathered, the pair followed it back into the water. They resurfaced and joined Blue on the floor outside the door to Platform 1. The scropid set its load down on the ever-growing pile of scrap, but before it could turn around and head back for another round, Blue clapped her hands, causing the thing to stop in its tracks. “Sting, report power supply!” Blue commanded. After a moment, she remembered to add a hand gesture. “OPERATING AT 15% POWER,” it said. Blue turned to the divers and said, “I don’t have any spare batteries on me, so we’ll have to take Sting home to recharge. This experiment turned out to be a rousing success! Thank you both for keeping my precious Sting safe!” She hugged the metal bug, rubbing her cheek against it as though it were some adorable pooch. Tails smiled as he tucked away his rebreather. “All in a day’s work, darling,” he said genially. Cobra rolled his eyes, forcing down an unwelcome smile. It felt wrong to be happy like this. It felt fake, like the stories of happy families or happy endings in the books he once read. At any moment, this feeling could be snatched away as his mother had once taken the books. But worse than that, he felt guilt. I’m betraying them, he realized. Selling away their secrets to an enemy gang. I don’t deserve to be one of them. He said nothing for the remainder of the job. A long, silent afternoon hauling scrap on carts back to the hideout gave him plenty of time to think. Yet by the time he curled up in one of his nooks for the night, the feeling of guilt had not left him.
  8. Where it had once been dawn, the sun was now far removed from the sky. Just as was the visage of the Grand Magistrix that had been there to greet them mere moments previous. But that didn’t make any sense. The Sin’dorei in disguise blinked as his gloved finger came to rest on his forehead, his mind struggling through a strange haze like that of waking from a dream-- or sobering from some apex of intoxication. And the murmur of various Elven dialects surrounding him was enough to confirm he was not alone. His mind drifted back to his previous conversation. Kal’une, with his inexplicable sixth sense, had mentioned a trap… that of some sort of powerful sorcery... The confused murmurings increased, making it hard for Draco to concentrate. To piece together what had happened, to explain the dramatic shift in time… Time! Could it really be? Could the Grand Magistrix really be wielding such power? The murmurings grew louder with each passing minute, teetering from confusion to the verge of panic before such a climax was mercifully averted by a much-welcomed voice. “It worked! I mean-- of course, it did. Your soldiers are safe, Generals.” “Blood Knights, get into formation!” “Elune be praised that all is not lost. Come, we have a war to finish.” The women left the Archmage’s flank, ignoring the dark-clad figure who kept his head down as they passed. They had troops to attend and command, and Visca was thankful for this as much as he was for the cloth that censored his features from view. A dramatic reveal of a dead champion of the Elven peoples of Azeroth was not something any of them needed before the battle truly came underway. His fingers twisted at the ring under his gloves, ensuring the illusion remained in effect before approaching the grey-haired man that overlooked the Concourse of Destiny before the gates of the Nighthold itself. Behind him was a contingent from the Kirin Tor. An unwelcome sight in usual company, but welcome enough to be ignored for now given current circumstances. “It pleases me to see the three of you got out in time.” “My apologies for being unable to remove you from the enchantment, it was risky enough to get them out. If I had pushed our luck any further… the flow of time itself was in jeopardy.” “Then you made the wisest decision. How long were we stranded here?” “A few weeks. Maybe a month or two? We’ve been laying the groundwork to ensure such a trap won’t be sprung on us once more. We already have a strike team within the fortress itself, we will be joining them once everyone is back in order.” “Already inside? I’m glad to see our position was not put to waste.” “You… sound quite familiar, have we met?” “Only in passing.” The response was quick, followed by a slight pause. “...War brings out all kinds, and this city is not as large as we like to pretend it is. I am certain our knives in the dark were brought to your attention at some point.” That contingent was becoming a lot harder to overlook. “I see. Y--” The Archmage seemed unconvinced. Of course he would be. They had brushed shoulders enough back in Shattrath. But he was mercifully cut off, forced to put aside his interrogation from their new visitors. “THE WRETCHES ESCAPED THEIR PRISON, HAVE THEY?” A demonic voice rang over the entirety of the Concourse before erupting into brutal laughter. “NO MATTER, YOUR SOULS ARE FORFEIT-- THEY’LL MAKE NICE FUEL FOR OUR ENGINES.” This had certainly caught Visca’s attention, a merciful diversion from the questions of his identity. Reinforcements of Demon and Nightborne alike had made their way beside savage Doomlord master, the warlocks of their number opening their portals to summon more demonic forces to swarm the armies trapped between them and the magically sealed gates into the Nighthold. “Work on getting the gates open, we shall cover for you!” Visca shouted over his shoulder, refusing to take the time to stop and address the Archmage appropriately. For what was once the front lines had now become the rear, and the former Lord-General would not stand back as his people risked their lives. He drew his twin Ebonfeather Longblades as he waded his way through the tight formations Lady Liadrin had drilled into her men. Visca would have been impressed, had it not been for his sheer frustration as he tried to join the fray. Any moment those portals would fully form and be allowed to pour further demonic reinforces. Before they were given the chance-- the unthinkable happened. From behind enemy lines, a grave treason was committed as select members of the Duskwatch sunk their spellblades deep into the backs of those vile summoners. And with the spell left incomplete those tears in the fabric of reality were slammed shut once more. The effect was as sudden as it was devastating, the illusions peeling away to reveal the true visages that of the Illidari that was only further confirmed from their warcries. This was a merciful stroke of fate for those Elven armies that were cornered between the Legion-aligned forces and the fortress that stood still defiant to the Archmage’s attempts to pry through its steadfast defenses. Both sides moved to gain ground in the clashes, the ensuing chaos of Illiadri harassment granted the united elven armies the advantage they needed to push forward to head off their attackers. But such a move was not without risk, and several paid the price at the business end of a Felguard’s axe. Visca was almost among their number. His reflexes were just quick enough to head off the attack. Not where the axe would land, but into the wrists of the creature. He was uncertain how well the thin metal would handle the direct force of something so massive. He felt the burning blood of the demon seep into his dark brigandine, a flick of his own writs severed that of the Felguard opponent. The axe hit the ground, an Illidari decapitated the creature from behind. A wordless nod was shared between the two before the Illidari rushed back into the fray. Visca moved to join them, his foot stumbling upon the corpse of one of his own-- a Sin’dorei Blood Knight under the command of Lady Liadrin. The Knight looked young, from what Visca could tell through what little was visible from beyond the visor. This loss allowed sorrow to swell within the tall man, a sorrow short-lived as it burned into rage as imps assaulted him, the first backhanded so hard its skull splattered one the stone edge beyond the greenery strip that was trampled upon countless times during this military endeavor. Another was dispatched with a quick slice in two, a third managing to leap upon Draco’s back. With searing flames, it ruined the leather to expose one of the strips of metal armor beneath. The vile creature stabbed its nails between the strips, forcing blood to pool to the surface of the Elven man’s skin, which rapidly formed a spike to eliminate the creature. But the fury at the loss of a Sin’dorei life had not subsided, it likely never would. It would remain a stain upon the Shattered Son’s soul as every loss he witnessed did. The fury fueled his voice as he shouted over the battlefield back toward the Kirin Tor at work at the gates that barred their way. “How much longer do you and your wizards need to break that seal?” “We’re working on it! The Grand Magistrix is a master of her craft!” “Work on it faster! People are dying!” The exasperation evident in his voice as Visca passed over the corpses of his people to delve back into the fray of the warzone that was taking place. With each slice, another of the demonic scum fell victim to the enhanced strength of the Shattered Son. Each swing of the blade maneuvered him closer and closer to his newest goal: finding the Illidari from before. Their meeting was more of a clash of their forms. “You! This battle is taking far too long, if we keep this up we will lose too many to provide proper support to those within. What do you say we finish this off by removing the head of the beast?” “I like the way you think.” The Illidari nodded with a grin, a motion gathered more of their number. “We’ll go high, striking fast. You go low and hammer it home.” With their makeshift tactic decided, the two parties sprung into action. From on high came the winged fury of the Illidari, their quick strikes with glaives in hand harassed the Doomlord where he stood. His blade menaced them in the sky, though found no purchase, for they were too quick for the likes of such a hulking brute. “STAY STILL, COWARDS!” Visca charged from below, dodging those of his army that attempted to stop him. To reach their target he had to keep his momentum. Hellfire rained from the sky, it claimed two of the unfortunate to be caught unaware. The others continued their aerial dance with a grace and speed to keep them unsinged from the flames the monster summoned. Almost there. “Now!!!” The five Illidari that remained within the sky struck in unison at the Doomlord’s face. The Demon moved his hand to cover form a physical barrier for his face, one was blocked and crushed within the creature’s foul grip. The other four slipped through his grasp. One had overcorrected, the aim of the glaive tinked harmlessly upon the massive hunk of armor protecting the monster. Flames erupted from his mouth, igniting the third Illidari who fell lifelessly at the demon’s foot and was trampled under a hoof in spite. The second struck true, blinding the demon in his left eye. And the final grabbed the demon by his horn and guided his glaive into the back of the neck of the creature. “YOU WILL PA---AGH!!!” From below, Visca struck as the hoof pressed the corpse of the fallen Illidari further into the stone. His razor-edged Longblades sunk into the flesh at the knee, craving the kneecap free from its socket of muscle and cartilage. The empty socket collapsed as gravity gnashed the two bones together, only for the force of the eye wound to further destroy the Doomlord’s balance. Down tumbled the giant. But Visca wasn’t done. He couldn’t afford the creature to remain alive after this, the infernal fury of such a monster would only further the deaths of his people. Instead, Visca watched his new target rapidly approach as two Illidari now mounted the back of his neck as they stabbed mercilessly. When it was time, the Shattered Son dodged the majority of the mass that crumbled underneath its own weight-- his Longblade remaining in the perfect spot of the underside of the Demon’s neck to finish the job. Thoroughly severed, the head rolled into the Legion forces from behind. Those who withstood the rolling head of their commander soon found themselves coated in a flood the vile burning neon fluids that ruptured as his dam of demonic flesh burst. The conflict was over, it gave those who assassinated the Doomlord a chance to catch their breath. “...You must be this ‘Shattered Son’ the Slayer sent us to aid. The Shal’dorei that is not.” “...Perhaps. Who is this ‘Slayer’ you speak of?” Once again they had sown chaos in the ranks in the forces that threatened them. It felt better on this side of subterfuge. “The Slayer that has worked with this so-called ‘Shattered Son’ to bring revolution to the streets of Suramar, that has hindered Legion occupation here with the group known as ‘The Ebonfeathers’. Colorful names.” “Ah. So you’re friends with Kal’une.” Visca spoke as he worked to shove the corpse into the water below. “‘Kal’une’. Yes.” “...Where is he?” Visca asked, his body tensing from the sound of a series of explosions in the distance. “We could use him today.” “Didn’t you hear?” Smirked one of the Demon Hunters. “He’s working on a feint to buy us time to do this right.” “A feint but not quite.” Another one responded with a smirk. “The gates are breached! Sorry we couldn’t join you sooner, but we had a bit of a mess to clean up out front.” Archmage Khadgar called, announcing the outer reinforcements’ presence to those inside and the strike team accompanying them. It ended the conversation at hand, allowing Visca to slip back on the illusion that had gotten him this far as the Elven armies regrouped and began their march behind the accompanying Kirin Tor forces at Khadgar’s flanks. “I’ll see to fortifying our position here. Thalyssra, your guidance has been invaluable to our champions so far. They’ll rely upon your wisdom in the battles ahead.” “The people of Suramar owe these heroes a debt we can never fully repay. I will stand with them until the end.” Thalyssra departed with the strike team to delve further into the Nighthold, to end this tyranny of the Grand Magistrix once and for all. “I’ll keep an eye on your progress. Good luck!” Smiled as he pulled out a scrying orb. The Kirin Tor with him worked to draw from the energies of the fortress itself to reform a defensive barrier should further reinforcements attempt another flanking maneuver. The armies within moved with haste to secure the courtyard, each not wanting their fallen brothers in the battle to be in vain. The Shattered Son felt this emotion tenfold, it only tempered by the nearing closure of another successful insurgency of his career.
  9. Murue

    A Reunion

    It had been almost a week since Myria had replied to the invitation. The time since seemed to both slow to a crawl and then also suddenly be on her before she could fully grasp what was happening. The young warlock sat in the Legerdemain Lounge’s most pushed back table she could seat herself at. The wall may as well have been to her back, yet her safety wasn’t what was driving her nerves. There was a clock. A loud, obnoxious thing. Or had it actually been that she was just focusing too much on every little thing? The clinking of glass as what she assumed was a new server clumsily almost dropped her tray. The obnoxious goblin making some joke in a language she didn’t know. A barker yelling out the day’s news from over the din of the city around them. Hoofbeats. Myria raised her head from the book she wasn’t actually reading. Her eyes turned to the door, waiting to see who was coming in next. The wolf’s instinct made her tense but the draenic couple walking in seemed to permit her the relaxing exhale that she needed. It wasn’t the corpse. The thought occurred to her that's how she had been referring to him more and more recently. She didn’t even get a good look at him aside from the glance of him in his armor. She did however know, he was dead. Undead. It didn’t sit right with her, but at the same time she recognized it made sense. Why wouldn’t he be undead? The moment he arrived was of course the moment she had lost focus. By the time she had regained her attention, he had spotted her. The death knight looked across the room at her and smiled. His face was ripped almost from ear to ear, held together only by disgusting dark twine. Myria flinched and in turn so did he. The dead man shrugged, as if to say ‘I get it’. He then walked over to her table and stood at the opposite seat. His hand, normal seeming save for the pale cold dead color of the flesh, rested on the back of the chair. “May I sit?” Myria was looking at him. Her face unreadable as the mix of thoughts and emotions made it difficult to express. The corpse’s disgusting, abominable smile shifted but remained a sickening sight. The warlock realized she was staring and nodded. “Y-Yes, please. Sit. Make yourself comfy…” The corpse paused then nodded, almost cheerfully, as he pulled the seat back and plopped down into its cushion. The death knight’s hands laced their fingers together and then there was silence. The awkward silence had garnered some onlookers but lost them almost as quickly. “So,” began Myria. “You’re my dad? Mum didn’t exactly paint you as the knightly sort.” James raised an eyebrow. His smirk straining the twine. “No. No I was not. As far from knightly as I could get without being an utter bas-err, well without being a monster. I take it you don’t remember me much then?” Myria shook her head. “Just what mum told me and I think a few dreams I had as a child but not really, no. I was what, three when you disappeared?” This cut the death knight a little, though that hadn’t been Myria’s intention. He nodded, his body relaxing in a dismal fashion. As if he were slumping into the uncomfortable truths that were liable to be brought up. “That’s about right. You weren’t very big at all. Kept disappearing into boxes and barrels every time we packed up the wagon.” The young warlock seemed confused by this. “Wagon?” “Yeah,” James responded, nodding as if to confirm it further. “We didn’t exactly live in one spot. We had a big wagon. Maybe you’d call it a carriage but we lived in it. It was like a moving house pulled by two rather stubborn nags.” “I don’t remember.” “I’m not really surprised. I don’t remember being that young either. Given what was happening at the time...no, nevermind. You had your own issues I can guess…” His smile never stopped seeming sinister. The jagged and unhealing wounds beneath the stitching seemed to ensure it would always have a malicious tinge to it. It made it hard for Myria to read him. “Yeah, you could say that. I know you guys thought Gilneas would be safe and it was for a few years but you know how that went. It got worse when mum left me with auntie Breigha. Poor old lady disappeared one night just a few months in too. Though I expect the poor old maid got mugged or bit or something one night.” This twisted smile seemed to look sort of like a W for a second. Was the dead man frowning? James sat back in his chair, thinking something. “So who took you in then? I know it’s not easy for a child to get by on their own. Especially in a town like Gilneas proper.” “I got picked up by a pissy warlock named Scriehemn. He’d been picking off urchins and orphans and homeless folk to offer up to the Legion. He was after mum’s books. Got me along with them.” “And you learned how to summon Ahn’Kheralhath.” This made Myria pause. “How do you know her full name?” “We’ve crossed paths. More than once. Never pleasantly. I think it’s best that the fewer details shared on that the better. I will tell you I know that’s only a third of her name and that unless she’s had a massive change of personality in recent times, she is a massive bitch.” Myria just blinked. Her clear attempts to suppress whatever thoughts she may have had about the demon and the dead man claiming to be her father were painfully inadequate. Perhaps the disgust was a sign maybe it was all true. After this regretful moment she looked back up at him. “Can I ask where you were? I mean, after you got free I mean.” James’ frown became more mournful. The twisted ruin of his face allowed at least that it seemed. “I spent a number of years...unwell. Nearly a decade.” The warlock’s eyebrow raised. “You’re undead. I didn’t think you could get sick.” The death knight tapped the side of his head where the brain should be. After a moment, Myria mouthed ‘Oh.” and the two sat quietly. A server finally came by to break up the silence. “Can I get you two anything? We’ve a number of a fair selection of ales and wines and our kitchen can make just about anything.” “Just water for me, oh and I’ll be paying for the whole lot when we’re done.” Myria glared at the death knight. He gave her a smile but then gestured for her to order. Then a devilish thought came to her. “Two stouts, a roast chicken, a large slice of ham, steak, the soup you had advertised, a salad, a slice of the apple pie and some bread if you don’t mind to start.” “Coming up dearie.” James waited for the waitress to leave before smirking. “I see we’ve spent time with the dwarves. Not bad company usually.” “Not going to break the bank is it ‘dear old dad’?” “Not really no. I wrote some books I hope you never read.” The calm way he seemed be unphased by either her order or her attempt to catch him off-guard irritated Myria slightly but she was more amused by the notion of the books. “Why?” “Well, one of which recounts the night your mother and I-” “NOPE! NOPE NOPE NOPE! I REGRET EVERYTHING!”
  10. The butler, at first, tried to ignore Pelande as she struck the metal bars and called out. But she was insistent. A maid was eyeing her too, nervous. The situation in the city had everyone on edge. The butler called her over and she shuffled over inquisitively. “Inform our security,” he demanded in a hiss. The maid nodded fearfully and headed inside with haste. Thanks to the circumstances in Suramar they didn’t have the usual contingent of guards keeping watch over their gates. The manor only had its private unit, enough to keep watch over the masters of the place. As he got closer, he realized he recognized this woman. That laborer, again? Even in times like these she somehow found a way to make a nuisance of herself. He’d had to turn her away countless times in the past. She was holding up a piece of parchment, the bill, against the metal bars to show it to him as she usually did. “Call your Master,” Pelande was saying, “or I’ll increase the interest rate again.” “Begone with you. They have more important matters at hand.” She let out a mock-sigh as he dared to come closer, “Come now. Are you telling me the owners of such a lavish place can’t afford to at least make a minimum payment against their bills?” The butler snarled out, “Begone!” Pelande shook her head. “It’d be a shame to have to report this place for being in debt--the guards have been taking a lot of liberty with that lately, I hear, snatching up entire arcwine stores…” He had a bit of coin on him for paying couriers and for deliveries, and thus he begrudgingly dragged it out, heading over to the fence… Only to be completely run through. Pelande let the bill flutter to the ground, and pulled her spear out of the butler and back through the bars of the gate. She then stepped back, swung, and struck twice at precise points at each gate-hinge, just out of the way as it fell to the stones on the ground. It certainly did help, knowing all the little weak points of a building. Security was already rushing out to meet her as she stepped over the body, and she prepared herself for combat. Unfortunately for them, they were not even as experienced as the average city guard, and before long, one, two, and then three had fallen to her spear… but soon it became apparent that what they lacked in experience they had in number. Pelande found herself surrounded by at least a dozen, and thus, let out the agreed-upon signal--a whistle. There came a deafening sound as a ring of explosions went off around the walled courtyard. She’d made sure they were placed right against the main supports so as each went off, the walls crumbled like a sandcastle against the tides. The security forces were thrown into chaos and Pelande herself had to shield her eyes against the ensuing dust cloud. But out of it rushed her salvation. And as much work as she’d put into building those walls, it kind of felt good to watch them come down. That's what you get for not paying your debts! She wasted no time, only quickly confirming the presence of her allies before heading into the manor building itself. Two maids were trying to barricade the door but were no match for her as she kicked it down, and they fled. There was no sense in killing them as the important thing now was to keep moving and head toward the apex of the building as she’d been instructed. Hopefully, the Commander’s plan would work.
  11. The drink burned on the way down, but Cobra would be damned if he let it come back up. He gulped and displayed his tongue for the crowd to see. “There’s a good lad!” Tails cried, slapping his back encouragingly. “The boy can hold his liquor!” The other thieves gathered clapped and cheered. “I could drink as much as you, old man,” Cobra replied. The crowd hushed in awe of his challenge, but Cobra was too flush with pride to shrink away from their attention tonight. Tails stroked his messy beard, a devilish grin on his face. “You challenging me, boy? That’s a mistake, but you’re free to make it if you wish.” “Sounds like you’re trying to make me give up because you’re afraid I’ll embarrass you in front of everyone,” Cobra declared cockily. The crowd watched, awestruck. Tails slapped his hand against the bar stand. “Gretta!” he grunted. The glamourous “Grabbyhands” bar matron blinked at Tails’ sudden address. “Yeah?” “Two Westfall Moonshines. And keep my tab open. We might be at this for a while.” --- Cobra violently heaved the contents of his stomach into the toilet. Tails patted his back – not unkindly – and said, “First time’s always like this for kids like us. You enjoy yourself, lad?” The young thief gasped for breath, choked by the sickening scent of his leavings. “Y-yeah. Of course.” Tails bust out a laugh. “Of course you did! I’m sure the alcohol didn’t burn your taste buds until they didn’t work anymore. But trust me, kid, we don’t drink for the flavor or because it makes us feel good.” He waved his hand out at the festive gathering by the bar stand. Socks tried to out-chug Ogre and nearly choked. Blue was watching everyone closely and taking notes. Sting started climbing up a wall beside her before sliding back down, leaving several long gashes in the metal paneling. The mechgineer laughed and patted the metal bug affectionately. “We drink to make the others feel good,” Tails explained. “That way, we’re all responsible for making each other happy. It’s how family works, kid.” Cobra could only gape at him. Family? he thought as Tails stood up and stretched. Family never did anything for me. Why should I stick my neck out for them? He couldn’t help but think about the secrets he’d been selling. He still hadn’t seen the face of the man who came to buy his notes every other week, but he’d had plenty of time to imagine one. He saw a mean, mangled man with powerful hands. Often in his dreams he’d see those hands choke the life out of Blue or beat the brains out of Socks; sometimes even Ogre fell victim to those hands. The worst dreams claimed Tails as their victim. Cobra looked up at the old man now and felt a tremendous, absurd guilt. “T-Tails, I—” The old man patted the young thief’s messy brown hair. “Don’t worry, kid. You might not get it now, but you will. One day. For now, we’re celebrating. Take the time you need.” He walked back to the bar. The others cheered his return and with a start, Cobra realized some were asking Tails if Cobra himself was doing alright. When did this happen? he thought bitterly, When did I get caught in this trap? --- Hours later, Cobra stumbled to the hideout’s front door, his headache pounding behind his eyes. He nearly walked face-first into Tops, who paced in the longue while reading a book. “Oh, s-sorry boss,” Cobra stammered. Tops looked down on him over his spectacles. “Cobra,” he said, testing the name as one might a fine wine, “You did well in the Depths. And on your first dive, as well. Some might call that luck.” Cobra felt his pride bristle. Who do you think you are, fancy man? Tails said my find was the biggest any diver’s had in half a decade! Yet his caution won out and he simply said, “What—what do you think, boss?” “I don’t believe in luck.” He closed his book on a finger, marking his place. “I spent my entire life clawing and clambering to make it where I am now, runt. After everything I’ve had to do, I can’t believe luck was what did it for me. Talent maketh the thief, Cobra. And I believe we’ve found yours.” “S-so I’ll be on dives more often?” “Try exclusively. Unless it turns out this find was, in fact, a fluke. Tails is our best diver, so he can’t babysit you all the time. Once he says you’re ready, you’ll be assigned a partner. Keep up the good work and I’ll consider promoting you, runt.” With that, he continued reading and pacing. Cobra rubbed his aching head. A partner? I don’t want anyone other than Tails! What if they turn out to be someone like Socks? Or worse, they could be clueless, like Blue…oh, dammit! I’ve lost beggar duty! How am I supposed to deliver the notes now? As he stepped out into the back-alleys, the loud clang of the vault door closing behind him, Cobra fought through his headache, trying to think of a way to adjust his plans. He followed the winding passageways towards one of his nearby hiding holes. The quick route took him through town, but he needed to sleep off his hangover sooner rather than later. The bustle of the city street took him off-guard. The dim night lights were on, yet the people milled by at an almost frantic pace. Cobra stuck to the edges of the crowd and listened to passersby talk as they rushed by. “…news just got in. It’s Stormwind.” “They got so far…?” “…thought they were bandits…” “…city’s been sacked…” “How far north…?” “If they can take a whole kingdom…” Cobra’s heart beat faster. What kind of news was this? It seemed the whole platform was out to hear the news. He followed the crowd until they reached the market ring. Everyone was pushing to find a spot where they could see it clearly – a platform was lowering from the Manifold, high above. Cobra looked around at the uniform tenement buildings nearby and spotted a route onto the rooves. He clambered on barrels, window frames, and eventually into the lip of a flat rooftop. There were already other street urchins perched on top, but they ignored each other. Everyone had eyes on the descending platform. A booming voice cut through the din of the crowd: “CITIZENS OF GNOMEREGAN, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ANNOUNCEMENT! THE KINGDOM OF STORMWIND HAS FALLEN TO A HORDE OF UNKNOWN BEINGS! STORMWIND CITY HAS BEEN SACKED AND IT IS UNCLEAR JUST HOW FAR THIS NEW THREAT MAY REACH! THE SPEED AT WHICH THE HORDE HAS SPREAD IS UNPRECENDETED, BUT THE GNOMEREGAN ARMY IS TAKING STEPS TO ENSURE OUR SAFETY IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES! IF YOU WANT TO HELP SAFEGUARD YOUR CITY, GO TO YOUR LOCAL RECRUITER AND SIGN UP TODAY!” The announcer continued giving details, but Cobra had heard all he needed to. Stormwind was a strong city, as far as surface cities go, he recalled from his books, If it could fall so suddenly, could we be next? Regardless of the answer, he knew one thing for sure: the city was about to get a lot busier. And a distracted populace was easily taken advantage of. “Hey you kids! Get down from there!” A man in a mechgineer officer’s uniform commanded from below. Cobra grimaced. He’d been careless and let himself be seen. Now it was time to disappear. “Hey! I said down!” the officer called after the urchins as they scattered for nearby rooftops to run across. Cobra found himself alone with a young girl who kept pace with him along the rooftop pathways. She’s pretty good, he thought. I bet Tails would try to recruit her… “Cut them off! Get up there!” Cobra gasped as the officer’s voice followed them from below. He was mounted on a mechanostrider and easily keeping pace as the throng of people split to give him room. A second officer sprang onto the rooftops up ahead, his strider’s spring coils giving him the lift he needed. “Not one more step, you kids!” The officer commanded. Cobra glanced at his escape route: an old tenement with a basement tunnel. Unfortunately, the guard was standing on its roof. The girl next to Cobra was hyperventilating. Not knowing exactly why, he grabbed the girl by the arm and led her back the way they’d came. “Keep moving your feet!” he yelled at her, “You wanna get busted?” She didn’t answer, but she did manage to keep up still. The first officer sprang onto the roof to try and cut them off, but Cobra had expected that. He opened a hatch in his roof and sent the girl down the ladder first. “Kid! Stop!” the first officer called after him. “I need to talk to you!” I’m sure you do, Officer Friendly… He slid into the hatch and pulled it shut behind him, then fixed the padlock shut. Normally it was courtesy in the Rats to leave secret routes open for quick and quiet travel, but emergencies dispelled the need for politeness. He slid down the ladder as the officers struggled against the lock above him. The girl was already gone when he reached the bottom. So much for recuing the damsel. Well, she would have slowed me down, anyway. He moved through the tenement quickly and quietly. There was another path to the back-alley entrance, but he had to get to the basement without being caught. He rushed down the stairwell, sliding along handrails and passed baffled tenants until he reached the basement door. He tried it, but it was locked. So much for courtesy, he thought bitterly. He whirled and made his way back to the ground floor, fast. He would have to risk making a break for it in the open. The second officer was waiting for him at the front door. “I’ve got him!” the officer shouted. No you don’t! Cobra spun and went back up the stairs. The officer’s boots thundered behind him, but the man was slowed down by all the gear he carried. And the young thief was accustomed to running from the law. He put some distance between himself and Officer Dipshit before exiting the stairwell and taking some corners. Then he found a familiar janitor’s closet and hid inside. He listened at the door, cupping a hand over his mouth to muffle his heavy breathing. A door closed. Footsteps, but not the officer’s boots. Silence. Lost him, he thought, But they’re still in the building. Why the hell do they want me so badly? No one usually cares about some street kids on a rooftop enough to make a chase out of it. As the adrenaline faded, Cobra’s headache returned with a vengeance. I need to get back to my hole and sleep this off. I’ll wind up crashing if I take too long… First he looked around the closet for some supplies. He took a bottle of cleaning solution with a spray nozzle along with a broom handle he broke off to make a jagged wooden point. The handle was long enough to fend off an adult’s reach. He slipped the bottle into a deep pocket inside his outer breeches and strapped the stick to his belt, then decided he was as ready as he could be. He exited the closet quietly and crept for the stairs. He reached the ground floor without difficulty, but as expected, an officer was at the front door. Cobra made his way, unseen, to a window facing the tenement he needed. The window was bolted shut, but he pried the bolt open with the jagged end of his broom handle, then slid the window open and climbed out to the tight alleyway between the two buildings. Garbage was piled just outside and crunched loudly when he stumbled onto it. He gritted his teeth, ready to bolt if someone came to investigate. He breathed a sigh of relief when after a moment, no one came. Cobra sneaked around to the back of the building he needed and tried the door. Locked. I really need to get Tails to teach me lockpicking, he reminded himself. Before he could find another entrance, a clang startled him into whirling around, his broken stick in hand. The first officer had jumped down from the roof above. Idiot! Always check the rooftops before breaking from cover! “Kid, lower the weapon,” the officer said, surprisingly gently. He looked familiar with his slicked eggplant-colored hair. Then it came back to him. “You—you’re the guy…the one whose bag I took. I—is that what this is about?” He backed up slowly, still pointing his stick at the officer warningly. It wouldn’t do anything against a mechanostrider, but he would be damned if he followed the orders of a city guard. “Sorta, yeah,” Slick said, looking a bit embarrassed. “Look, it’s personal. The bag you took, it belonged to my dad. I know you thieves learn not to feel empathy at a young age and all, but I was really hoping I could at least get the bag back.” Cobra gaped at him. Is this a joke? A trick, maybe? I should be running right now… Instead he licked his dry lips and said, “I don’t have your stupid bag, so just leave me alone! I didn’t do anything wrong!” “Well, you did steal sensitive blueprints from an officer of the mechgineer corps…” “You can’t prove that!” Slick scoffed. “Right. Well, Seeing as I have a few buddies who won’t let me forget that I let it happen, I’d say I’ve got enough witnesses to put you in a juvenile detention facility until you’re old enough to shave, kid. So why don’t you just do me a favor and find that bag for me? I could make your life a whole lot worse if you don’t.” Cobra blinked at a shadow moving behind the mechanostrider, then regained his composure. So, it’s going to be like that? Alright, I can play along. “You want your bag…it’ll cost you!” The officer chuckled. “You’re not exactly in a bargaining position, kid. Besides, I don’t really want to do business with a thief. Nothing personal, but I’ve got my dad’s reputation to consider.” “You like your dad a whole lot, but are you willing to prove it? If you want the bag, give me a gun!” It was a stupid, uneven trade, but Cobra didn’t expect any trade to work out, anyway. The shadowy figure was under the strider now. It had a screwdriver in its hand. “A gun? Wow. That’s a hard ‘no,’ kid. Just bring the bag to headquarters up on platform four tomorrow. I promise I’ll give you lunch if you don’t make me wait.” He tapped his strider controls impatiently. “I could steal your lunch without you even noticing. But you’ve got guns and I don’t. And I’ve got your bag. Seems fair to me.” It really didn’t. Bafflingly the officer almost seemed convinced by his argument. “Still, a gun could get traced back to me. I’m not risking my career, even over sentimentality. Sorry pal, but you’ll have to stick to slingshots like the other kids your age.” “And you’ll have to stick with walking,” Cobra said, smirking. The officer blinked, then cried out as his mechanostrider fell over. One of its legs had been detached, leaving it a useless pile of scrap. Cobra gave the shadowy figure a thumbs-up and dashed for the front of the building. The other officer, still on foot, was waiting to cut him off. “You’re not getting away this t—OWWW!” Cobra sprayed the man in the eyes with his cleaning solution and kept running. He ducked between tenants returning to their apartments and made for the stairs. He sprinted to the basement door and crossed his fingers that this time the door would be unlocked. He screeched to a halt when he found the urchin girl at the door already, fiddling with the lock. It clicked and she pushed it open. She blew a bit of strawlike hair out of her face and looked at him, her expression blank. “Uh, thanks,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “I wouldn’t have gotten away without your help back there. You’re good with that screwdriver.” She looked down at the tool in her hand and shrugged, pocketing it. Then she walked into the basement. Cobra followed along, shutting the door behind him. “Do you have a name?” he called after the girl. He almost lost track of her in the maze of pipes leading to the back-alley but caught up to her before too long. She glanced at him over her shoulder before sprinting away. Cursing, he ran after her. She was like a spirit of wind, racing through corridors and around corners, always just in sight as she rounded a turn. He kept pace with her for a while, calling out “Wait!” and “I’m not gonna hurt you!” until finally his headache grew too painful for him to focus on keeping up. He lost track of her. Her echoing footsteps slowly retreated until he was alone with the pipes and the rats. Well, I suppose it’s only fair. She helped me. I may as well leave her be. Slowly, agonizingly, he made his way back to his nearest hiding place. He crawled into the tiny space and curled up with a blanket and a small bite of old bread. He took up some paper and his stolen pen and tried to put words to everything that had happened today. The Rumblers would be eager to know about the banter the other thieves had traded back at the Sink. But between his headache and his guilty thoughts, he couldn’t bring himself to write any of it. Almost unconsciously he started drawing. It was a waste of paper, he told himself, but kept going until his piece was complete. It was a crude attempt at art, but it reminded him of his muse well enough. The girl’s face, her filthy straw-colored hair, and those blank eyes stared back at him. He wondered who she was. Where she’d come from. Who had raised her, if anyone. How long she’d been on the streets. If she was anything like him. Mute, he thought as his eyelids fell heavily, I’ll call her Mute.
  12. When the wailing came, Gor'mul awoke from a dead-like sleep with a sharp jolt of pain in his side. One of his cellmates had jabbed the orc awake, then shook him as the drowsiness threatened to take him back under. He had been dreaming of a hunt, somewhere long ago on Draenor, where he and Matuya spent days in search of clefthoof. She was an incredible huntress, swift with the bow and somehow able to hide herself within shadows too small for Gor'mul. His hulking mass was enough to frighten the beasts they searched for, but it was Matuya who brought them down. Her earthy brown skin took on a gold-like shine in the moonlight, and he wished beyond reason that they could stay in the wilderness forever. Waking from that dream to hear her calling for him, the orc shook his head and stood. It was snowing. Frost had gathered at the roots of what little hair Gor'mul had left, which he scratched at with one hand. Turning toward her voice, the orc waved frantically at one of the human guards. They usually slept at this time, but Matuya's cries had woken them too. Perhaps in an effort to stop her from waking the entire camp, the humans scurried around her enclosure with the few items they could offer a birthing woman in her time of need. He saw steam rising from a bucket of hot water, a few clean looking rags. Her wails sounded tortuous, not the steady birthing calls of the females he was used to hearing when he was young and helped his grandmother. The old Blackrock had been a midwife, and prided herself in teaching her children and grandchildren how to welcome new life into the world. But this was wrong. Matuya's voice was strained, not steady. She was screaming, not breathing into the rhythm of her contractions. Waving to get the human guards' attention, Gor'mul shouted in his own language. "Please! That's my mate! Please, let me see her!" One of the guards stepped away from the others and approached Gor'mul's cage. Over the past few months, they had gotten to know one another in basic ways. This particular guard he recognized by the gold hair on his face and brown eyes. He hadn't been particularly kind, but there was no malice in his eyes either. "Mate?" He asked in orcish, pointing toward Matuya. "Dabu!" Gor'mul yelled, his bloodshot eyes wide with panic. The guard turned toward his awake companions and gave them a look. It was difficult to determine what the look meant, but eventually they seemed to come to the same conclusion and opened Gor'mul's cage. With swords pointed toward the emaciated orc, they led him to Matuya's cage. Standing on thin legs, the Frostwolf was held in a crouched position with a female on either side, allowing her to rest her weight on their shoulders. He hadn't seen her in several days, but Gor'mul was visibly shocked by how thin his mate appeared. The once proud huntress' long black hair had fallen out in thick chunks over the past few months, resulting in a visible scalp. Her face was gaunt, forcing her already strong cheekbones to appear sharp and jagged. With her mouth open he noticed that she was missing teeth, making her tusks appear even larger than they already were. With her eyes squeezed shut, she didn't notice him approach, but the guards allowed him to reach into the cage and take one of her hands. "I'm here!" He said hoarsely, squeezing her frail fingers. "Matuya, I'm here!" The Frostwolf opened her exhausted eyes and turned her gaze on Gor'mul. He saw months worth of suffering in the faded hazel color, but his only instinct was to hold her hand as another contraction wracked her body and made her bony knees shake. Thankfully, the two females helping still had the strength to keep her upright, and one on the ground knelt in front of her, blood falling into her hands as she waited for the baby to make its entrance. Too much blood, Gor'mul thought to himself. He had witnessed births before, and while blood was always present it was never so much as this. Already weak with hunger, he knew that much blood meant that Matuya's chances at survival were slim. "Ha'rega," he said with forced calm, looking into her strained eyes. "You must breathe, and push into each breath. The child has to come quickly, now." The female on the ground nodded in agreement, reaching between Matuya's legs. "I can feel the head but it is not moving," she said gravely. "If she does not have the strength to push it might suffocate like this." "Matuya, look at me," Gor'mul said with another squeeze of his hand. "I can't lose you. Please, breathe, and push when you exhale. Like this.." He took in a deep breath. Wordlessly, she followed his example. Matuya breathed in, then out, and with her breath came a low wail. "Yes, it's moving!" The orcess below her shouted encouragingly. "Like that, Matuya!" Again Gor'mul breathed, guiding his mate to do the same. She followed his example, taking in a deep breath, and then pushing as she exhaled. Slowly, and with no shortage of groaning, a small green infant slipped into the world and into the orcess' waiting hands. A cascade of blood followed, eliciting a pained cry from Gor'mul. Blood born. Children born of such a huge amount of blood usually did not have surviving mothers. They were cursed to live motherless, cursed from their first breath. Shortly after a thick mass of afterbirth fell to the floor of the cage. A tiny cry came from the new life, but Gor'mul's eyes were focused on Matuya. "She must rest," he directed, and pointed toward the afterbirth. "She has to--" "It's not clean," the orcess holding his child said firmly, using her own clothes to clean the wailing infant. "Ayla, Grisla, let her down. She needs to rest. Gor'mul, take the child so we can clean her up." Gor'mul reluctantly released Matuya's hand and, almost robotically, reached for the wailing infant. The weight of it drew a pained moan in his own voice. The infant was so small, it fit through the bars of Matuya's cage without trouble. Though they lacked the girth they once had, Gor'mul's hands were just large enough to hold his child, crying and squirming in the cold. It was female, he realized, and in spite of its size she was perfectly formed. Pressing her against his chest, he held his progeny with the growing concern that his mate might not survive. Matuya lay on the floor of her cage, attended to by her cellmates and cleaned as much as they could manage. Reaching one hand through the bars, she turned her gaze toward the still-screaming infant. "Give her to me," she said weakly. Gor'mul's first instinct was to obey her, but fear gnawed at his stomach. This child, tiny as it was, might survive. It would need sustenance, and Matuya was already fading. A terrible choice stood before him, as he considered the repercussions of allowing Matuya to care for their daughter. Protectively, he held the infant closer, letting her stay warm against his skin. "I can't," he grunted, turning his eyes away from her. "It is.. weak. Malformed. It will not survive. We have to.." "Give her to me," Matuya repeated, her hazel eyes steely as they stared at her mate. It was not a request. "I will not," he said through his teeth, even as his daughter reached for the hairs on his chest. "She is weak, and--" "Give. Her. To. Me," the Frostwolf commanded, her tusks protruding from her mouth like a hungry animal. "Now." Gor'mul felt what was left of his heart break for her, the female he loved more than his own life. "If I drown her now, you might live through this," he argued, pleading with her. "You can have more children, Tuya. You are strong, you can survive. This child is.. she is cursed, and she will curse you too. I am sorry, ha'rega. I can not allow you to die for one weak--" "Give her to me now!!" Matuya's shout was like a wolf's snarl, and somehow, impossibly, the infant stopped screaming. Instead, she turned her small head, already downy with soft purple hair, and opened her eyes. They were the same color as Matuya's, a soft hazel, like the trees and the woods she and Gor'mul once hunted in. The Blackrock whimpered like a child himself, knowing that this baby, however impossibly small, would kill his mate. This blood cursed creature would take the one thing in the world that he had left to love. Pulling it away from the warmth of his chest, he pushed her through the bars. Gor'mul watched with resentment as the baby latched on to Matuya's breast, hungry for life. He watched his mate sigh with relief, closing her eyes in serene calm, as if oblivious to the snow falling around them and the approaching chill. Here, in this moment, in spite of her pain and hopelessness, Matuya felt at peace. The sharp point of a sword at his back reminded Gor'mul that it was a peace he would not be able to share with her. Without saying goodbye, he was led back to his cage.
  13. Water gushed from a pipe somewhere under the foamy water, but it was too dark to see how far under it was. Cobra regarded the water cautiously. He’d never seen this much water in one place before. “They say there’s no bottom,” Tails said as he pulled a luminous green stick from his pack. The light shone on a nearby pipe marked ‘Platform 1.’ Tails continued, “They say you can swim down and down and down for days and never find the end. I’ve dived hundreds of times, and I’ve never seen it. Think you’ll be the one to find it, boy?” Cobra shrugged. “I just want to get my pay. I’m not risking my life to find some stupid floor.” He peered down into the water now that the light shined on it and flinched when a shadow floated down below. Tails guffawed. “Not to worry, lad! It’s just a school of fish. They’ll get out of our way. I know this section better than most. I wouldn’t have picked it if there were dangerous critters down there.” “D-dangerous critters?” Cobra said. He accepted a pair of goggles and a rebreather – both freshly repaired courtesy of Blue and paid for with Tails’ personal points. Cobra didn’t like the idea of taking something that might indebt him further to Tails, but the old man had never once asked for repayment after all his lessons and little gifts. “Flesh eaters, gelatinous bioslime, haywire mechs, and deep-sea murlocs. Worse than any of them are the other divers. If they get ahold of you, they’ll slit your throat to steal your score. There’s no law enforcement below the platforms. A regular free-for-all.” He offered Cobra one of his glowsticks. Cobra accepted it and tied it securely to his belt with a knot Tails had taught him for this occasion. “But if there’s a lawless place right underneath the Centrifuge, wouldn’t everyone come down here to commit crimes, like dumping bodies and evidence?” Tails affixed his goggles and replied, “They would, and they do. But only through the back-alleys like the passage we used to get here. All official entrances to the Deeps have been sealed off for years. Only a few are openable in case the mechgineers decide to send an official dive or security team, and each one has a security system installed to chase off or disintegrate the curious. But they can’t secure all our avenues. The city is just too complex for that.” The old man slipped into the water, exhaling in satisfaction. Cobra approached the water and dipped a toe. It was cold, but that wasn’t the part that worried him. “Tails, I don’t know how to swim,” he admitted. Tails laughed. “Well, I’d be surprised if you did! Most gnomes your age have never left Gnomeregan, and there’s few enough reasons to go swimming in the city. But not to worry, lad; this is just a test run.” The young thief took a deep breath and slipped tenderly into the water. Once it reached his pelvis he tensed and lost his footing, falling in flatly. The cold blasted through his body. Panic set in quickly and he flailed about, desperate to run to safety and unable to even move. He couldn’t tell which way was up for all the foam and shadows and unfamiliar landscape. Then a strong hand took hold of his shirt and he felt himself pulled above the water. He sputtered for air and grabbed at his rescuer relentlessly. “Hey, now! I’m not the shore, boy! You’ll drag us both down like that!” He shoved Cobra to the edge of the water. The boy scrambled out and clung to the metal flooring with a desperate grip. Tails followed him out. “You’ve gotta get over this fear o’ yours, boy. Fear’s just another prison.” Cobra trembled as water dripped off his body. “I can’t…I’m not in control down there. There’s no way out…” Tails sat cross-legged beside Cobra and scratched his snowy beard. “You’ll feel out of control at the start. You gotta learn to swim before you can sneak. No babe learns to dash through cover before learning to take their first steps.” “But—” Tails lightly slapped the boy’s shoulder. “Nope! That’s all the pep talking I’ve got for you, lad. You either try again, or you won’t get put on diving duty, ever.” The old man stood, stretched, put his rebreather in his mouth, and leapt back into the water. He did not resurface. Cobra took a deep breath and stood. He took up his own rebreather and examined it. He saw the slightly pulsing ice-blue stone within; the core of the rebreather was an elemental conversion stone that took in water and pushed out air, making it a perfect tool for long dives. It was also expensive – probably the most expensive thing Cobra had ever held. And that crazy old man just gave it to me! He looked back at the unstill water and sighed. I can’t let that go to waste. Damn you, old timer! He bit down on the rebreather and tied the strap around his head. Then he ran and jumped into the water, extending his feet so he would hopefully know which way was down this time… Being able to breathe helped, certainly, but mostly Cobra kept his panic down through sheer stubbornness. The old man had done this without problem, so he had to do it, too. He found it rather difficult to sink at first and realized that if he kept air in his lungs, he floated much as a balloon in the air. He breathed out and tested sinking down to where the pipes bent into a tunnel: effectively the bottom of the pool. He pushed himself down feet-first, and eventually he reached the bottom. Tails waited for him around the bend, giving Cobra a shock, but he kept his fear in check. He tried to walk to the old man but found his movements both sluggish and abnormal. He quickly lost his footing and began flipping upside-down, which made his panic start to rise. Tails took hold of him and righted him again, shaking his head. The old man demonstrated how to move; he kept his body parallel to the floor and both kicked and pulled the water with his hands. His movements were rather agile despite the water’s resistance. Cobra mimicked his movements but didn’t make much progress. Tails repeated the process a few times until the boy figured out how to move his limbs to propel him in the direction he wanted. Once he seemed satisfied, Tails showed him how to rise and sink in much the same fashion. Then, he led the way beyond their small pool into the corridors beyond. The pair swam past a broken pipe. Cobra shivered at the tickle of the water spewing out and shied away from it. Tails led the pair through a series of twists and turns until they came to the exit of the underwater back-alleys. Cobra stifled a gasp lest he lose his rebreather. Out in front of him was a vast, empty space of pure water. Beyond was darkness, and anything could have lurked just out of view. Cobra froze in place. He felt the weight of that empty space crushing down on him. Desperately, he turned back around to retreat into the corridor. I can’t do this! It’s too much! There’s nowhere to hide out there! He tried to recall all the turns they’d made to get here, but quickly found himself turned around in unfamiliar alleys. That was when he realized Tails was no longer in view. Panic gripped him wholly then. He flailed, forgetting his lessons at once. His bandages fingers clawed at the walls. He pulled himself along, searching for…something. Air, maybe. Or just a place to hide. Eventually, he found the former. He burst out of the water and clambered into a platform. He spat out his rebreather and gasped for air as his nose slowly expelled the water clogging it. He pulled the rebreather straps off his head and tossed it aside, not eager at all to use it again. As he caught his breath, he examined his surroundings. His breath completely stopped for a moment. Above his head, a mass of dull green slime shifted and dribbled onto the floor below. The light from his glowstick seemed to fill it, making it glow brighter and act more animated. Suddenly, the whole of it massed together and fell to the floor below. Cobra yelped and scrambled away from the creature. He considered the water but decided against it in favor of finding a back-alley first. The giant slime slowly slithered its way toward him, scooping up random debris as it did. Cobra noticed that its insides were rife with enough spare parts to build something big. He also noticed he’d left his rebreather on the floor, where it was swallowed up by the slime. Heart pounding, the young thief rushed to search the walls. He found a corridor and took it, but it dead-ended at a huge, thick door. The edges had been sealed shut with a blowtorch. Cobra rushed back to the slime’s chamber and just narrowly avoided being trapped in the dead-end corridor. He continued scanning the wall as his light grew dimmer. He considered throwing it away, but without it he would be blind and vulnerable, a thought which filled him with even more dread. His heart skipped a beat when his foot stuck in something squishy. He breathed relief when he realized it wasn’t the slime. But he screamed when he saw what it was. The skeleton’s internal organs were still intact, though its skin and muscle tissue had all been dissolved. A coating of slime covered what remained, except where his foot had smashed through the intestines. In a panic, he backed up until his head clanked against a low pipe. He fell to the ground, dizzy and in pain. The slime’s sickening sliding sound grew nearer. Cobra almost hit his head again as he rushed to his feet. Which brought him face-to-face with a warning label on the pipe he’d struck. A snowflake – he’d seen the designs of such in his books. Which means…! Cobra felt along the pipe as his light was nearly exhausted. He found the valve just as the slime tickled the edge of his foot. Cobra leapt onto the pipe, barely maintaining his balance as he unscrewed the valve. A jet of frigid air spewed from the pressure release faucet, straight at the slime. Cobra held on for dear life as the huge amorphous creature slowly grew still and stiff. He closed the valve, huffing and puffing from the effort. His weary limbs held out no longer; he slipped from the pipe and grunted as he hit solid ice. His light was gone, but he could see enough to know the entire slime was frozen solid. Using the butt his knife, Cobra hammered at a portion of the slime until he got a chunk loose. The interior was frozen through as well. With that in mind, he dug into the creature in the area where he thought his rebreather had disappeared. He found it, cold to the touch but no worse for wear. He hoped. He hung it around his neck for now as he dug out a few bits of scrap from the slime’s corpse. A light grew behind him, inviting the panic back into Cobra’s heart. More looters? Or is it Tails? Not wanting to take the risk, he slid behind the slime’s body and waited until the light emerged from the pool on the other end of the chamber. “Lad! Hey, Cobra!” Tail’s hushed voice echoed through the room. “Are you in here? Gears and oil, I hope not. We’ve had this place marked as a slime pit for years…” Cobra climbed up to the top of the slime and called out, “Hey Tails! I found something pretty useful!” The old man gasped at his voice but laughed soon after. “You crazy kid, I thought you’d gotten yourself drowned!” He sloshed out of the pool and approached Cobra. “Now what is this you found? We really shouldn’t hang around a slime pit for too—” His light shone on the slime’s frozen body. “—long.” “So Tails,” Cobra said cockily, “How many points do you think this is worth?”
  14. ((The Cast So Far...)) The Wretch / Cobra Mother Tails Slick Ogre Socks Gretta Grabbyhands Tops Blue Mute
  15. The tightness increased around his neck and chest. He tried to wriggle free, but the restraints only seemed to tighten, digging bloody ruts below his armpits and jawline. She stood over him, weeping. Her tears fell from her cheeks onto his forehead. “Why do you make me do this to you?” she asked, as though beseeching a merciless god. “I only want what’s best for you!” “Mommy…please…” He croaked, unable to get enough air. His eyes felt likely to pop out of his head. “You can’t go outside! I’ve told you again and again! Out there, there’s nothing but people who will rob you, cheat you, and hurt you! They take you for everything and leave you bleeding and broken and alone! Why would you ever want to leave? Why? Why!!” “No! NO!! STOOOOOP!” He flailed awake and pulled his knife. His hand went to his throat, but there was no strap there, nor around his chest. He sniffled, but the tears wouldn’t come. She can’t hurt me. I’m free. Thinking the words didn’t make them true, though. --- He knocked at the hideout door, but for once there was no answer. He frowned and tried the knock again. I’m sure I did it right… The door creaked open suddenly, making Cobra jump. He jumped back again when he saw what had unlocked the door: a mecha scorpid with pair of rat heads dangling from its tail. “PASSWORD,” the scorpid’s grainy speakers demanded. “Uuuhh,” Cobra said, staring with his mouth agape. His hand was on the folding knife in his pocket, but his instincts were conflicted over whether to run or not. “PASSWORD NOT ACCEPTED. HAVE A GOOD DAY, MADAM.” The scorpid’s tail reached to pull the vault door closed. “No, no, no! Not like that, Sting!” The scorpid paused as a blue-haired gnome in a badly burned lab coat stomped up in oversized black lab boots and waved downward at it. Cracked safety goggles rested on top of her head and her belt displayed a vast array of engineering equipment. “Sorry, young man. Sting is a rescue. I’m still working on recalibrating his processor.” “Um, who are you?” Cobra asked. The woman patted Sting, who backed up slowly from the door. Cobra hesitantly followed inside when the woman gestured for him to come. “Do shut the door, boy. I prefer not to speak of myself where unknown agents may be listening in.” Cobra wasn’t eager to turn away from the mecha scorpid, but he did as he was told. Struggling with the weight, he swung the door slowly shut and spun the lock until it clicked. How does Ogre do that all day, every day? he wondered. The blue-haired woman reclined on a couch and gestured for Cobra to do the same. He was about to, but the scorpid beat him to it. It snuggled up on a couch, the razor blades attached to its legs tearing into the cushions. The woman sighed. “Guess I’ll have to pay for that. Sorry, but Sting’s command recognition is in what we mechgineers call a ‘transitionary period.’ He’s supposed to respond only to my voice, but he seems to be stuck on hand gestures instead.” “Ah,” Cobra grunted, as if that explained everything. “You’re…a mechgineer?” She smiled, a brilliant expression that set his stomach to rumbling irritably. “Yep! My name’s Be—oh. Code names. I’m Blue! You know, because of the—” “Blue hair, yeah,” Cobra finished for her. Not particularly clever, he noted. “Are you a friend of Tops’?” Sometimes the boss brought clients or business partners into the hideout, but they never spoke to the lesser thieves like him. Blue brushed some goo off a sleeve, which took part of the sleeve with it. “Yeah, we go way back! About two weeks, anyway. His guys rescued me from a lab explosion. Which I definitely did not cause.” She stared at him with her intense orange eyes as if to say, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ “Two weeks…that’s not long after Tops told us not to target engineers. That must have been a cover while he was planning a big job.” He looked at Blue, searching for confirmation of his guess. Blue shrugged. “I don’t know about all that, but I’ve trading info to your boss anonymously for a while now. The heat on me was getting a little too heat-some, so I faked me own death a little. Maybe caused a few not so fake deaths along the way. You know, allegedly.” She’s telling me way more than I should know, Cobra thought. Good. The Rumblers are gonna have to pay me extra for this. I wonder if I can press for more. He asked, “Mechgineers are real rich, though, right? Why’d you make friends with a gang?” “Rich? Pff, I wish. Only the chief thinkers and royal tinkers are rich. They hog all the money while we do all the work, like some overeducated grease monkeys.” Blue crossed her arms and huffed. “Your boss, Tops, he offered me a chance to take my work to the next level. Next month, we’re gonna start by—” “Five minutes, Blue! I left to take a five-minute bathroom break, and what the hell do I find when I come back?” Socks had already entered the room and was staring at the pair of gnomes in the lounge from the doorway to the bathroom. “What did you tell this snot-nose?” The mechgineer stammered, “O-oh! You know, Socks, just the basics like my name and wh-whatnot. Definitely not anything important like, say—” “She only told me she’s in it for the money,” Cobra interrupted, hoping that was all Socks had heard. Damn his soft little footsteps! “I couldn’t get her to tell me anything else.” He glanced at Blue, who smiled appreciatively. He felt an uncomfortable heat in his gut. Socks rolled his eyes. “No more talking to the runts, ‘grease monkey.’ Especially not this one. He’s got some screws loose.” Blue sighed and stood up. When she stretched her arms above her head, Sting jumped straight up and slammed into the metal panel ceiling with a clanging thud. “OW,” it said. “Well, it was nice meeting and not talking about anything important with you, uh—” “Cobra,” he answered. He blinked at her when she walked over. He cringed when she took his hand and shook it. “Oh. Uh, gah.” Blue giggled. “You’re a funny boy. See ya around, Cobra!” She walked down the corridor to the workshop, where the craftier thieves put together equipment with their (mostly stolen) stash of materials. Sock’s voice called from the reception desk, “Are you gonna stand there all day, or do you want your assignment, brat?” Cobra flinched, realizing he’d been staring after Blue. He tripped on his way to the desk, where he stood at attention. Socks flipped through some papers behind the desk’s privacy panel. “You’re on platform thirty-two for street sweeping. The quota is ten silver minimum. No first pickings permitted.” He shoved the papers aside and took a long drink from a bottle of beer. “That’s all, runt. Get the fuck going.” “Where’s Ogre?” Cobra asked, against his better judgment. Socks made an exasperated noise. “None of your fuckin’ business. All you need to know is I’m on door duty, so don’t expect Blue’s pretty face to greet you when you get back tonight. Oh, and you bring your get to me. Don’t bother Tops today unless you wanna get your ass thrown in a trash compacter.” Cobra frowned but departed without further inquiry. If Ogre is out and Tops isn’t to be disturbed…maybe they’re all working a big score. Does it have to do with Blue and her lab? He considered following her back to the workshop and grilling for more information, but with Socks on guard duty, that would be too suspicious. I’ll wait for now, but if I can talk to her in private again somehow, maybe I can find the answer and a solution to my other problem at the same time. Before departing the hideout, he looked back at Tops’ office door, as solid as ever. If anyone could figure a way past a door like that, it was a mechgineer.
  16. Cobra sat on a barrel, wearing a blindfold over his eyes, and called out to strangers passing by, “A bit for a blind beggar? Just a bit, that’s all I’m asking.” Not being able to see the mass of people helped calm his anxious heart somewhat, but he still rankled under Tops’ restriction against pickpocketing engineers. The crowds surged by, off to their boring lives of servitude to the institution. Cobra had learned about how society functioned in part from the books he read in secret as a youth and more recently from Tails and the other thieves. People slept, they woke, they ate and washed themselves. They went to their jobs and worked until the lights dimmed and then returned home, tired but a little wealthier. They ate and washed and went to sleep and the next day the cycle began anew. It wasn’t dissimilar to how his mother had enforced his own life, and due to that, Cobra cringed away from the idea of a “normal life.” A coin clattered on his barrel-seat. “Thank you kindly, sir or madam,” he squeaked. “You’re the one, right? The Snake?” the voice was unfamiliar, but what he asked was what Cobra had been waiting for. He wouldn’t have put himself on beggar duty for anything less than this. The blindfold had been part of the arrangement. No faces, no names. A blind meeting. He nodded, taking the coin and chewing at it. “I left the notes,” he confirmed. “And that was only a little bit of what I know.” “You’ll get us more, then. We Rumblers are tired of Rats stealing our prizes.” An Earth Rumbler, Cobra thought. They were one of the many gangs that ran their operations behind a business front in the middle districts. Lately, they’d been toeing into Rat Runner territory down below, but then, the Rats had been moving further up the platforms the last few years, to hear Tails tell of it. “I have a price,” Cobra reminded the Rumbler. “Half a gold hammering for each delivery.” The Rumbler made a crude noise. “That price for this garbage? You’re out of your gourd, kid.” “You wouldn’t be here if you thought it was garbage,” Cobra retorted, his irritation replacing nervousness. “You haven’t been able to get an informant inside the Rats, but you have tried. Every one of them was too stupid to cover their tracks, and they couldn’t read Tops’ code. I can.” The Rumbler hesitated for a moment, then replied, “Even if you can read it, that four-eyed freak keeps his office locked up tighter than a dwarf priestess’ cunt. You won’t get in.” Cobra bristled and sat up straighter. Massaging his bloody bandaged knuckles, he said, “I will. But until I do, you will pay my price or lose this opportunity.” He waited. The Rumbler made no sound, so he could hear only the clanking of passersby across the metal platform. The pause went on so long that his proud confidence wavered. Nervousness seeped back in. He leaned forward, listening, then reached to remove his blindfold. The sudden clank on his barrel made him jump backwards reflexively. He landed headfirst on the metal floor. He removed the blindfold, but if the Rumbler was in the crowd, Cobra couldn’t recognize him. He stood up and rubbed his sore head. The pain seemed trivial when he saw the pouch on the barrel. His smile grew wider as he counted out the coins within. Forty-eight, forty-nine…fifty silver rams! I could live for a month off all this! And all it had costed was a measly scrap of paper and some ink. And a rebellion. Here in the Centrifuge, it pays to rebel. Mother knew that. That’s why she hurt me. Why she whipped me and kept me locked up. She was afraid of what I could become. And she was right to be afraid. He tied the purse to his belt and hid it within his breeches. Hastily, he returned to the back-alleys and to one of his hideouts. He sifted through the pipes and retrieved one of his emergency coin purses. He deposited most of the silver into the pouch, leaving an unsuspicious amount for himself. Beggar duty was an official responsibility for a Rat Runner; he would be expected to return his day’s earnings to the hideout. The last thing he needed was to be suspected of cheating the boss. The hideout door opened after Cobra’s knock; Ogre’s expressionless face greeted him as ever. “Welcome back, Cobra!” he said cheerily. “Good haul today?” Cobra smiled warmly. “Quite good, Og,” he said, skipping into the lounge, “Quite good, indeed.”
  17. The target was clearly from out-of-town, just as Cobra liked them. The gnome had hair the color of an eggplant, styled with a slick flair that indicated a long time spent self-grooming. His shoes were clean despite the grimy floors of platform twenty-two, and his tailored suit reeked of money. But it was his coin purse Cobra fixated on, and the sack of rolled-up papers on his shoulder. Like most smart rich folk, he travelled with an entourage of followers – mostly engineers – that walked together in a tight group. They had walked a nearly full circuit of the platform while Cobra tailed them. At various points they’d stopped to mark spots in need of repair or improvement, though Cobra couldn’t tell which was which. Another point of knowledge he’d added to his list in the last few months. The group approached the elevators leading off the platform, just as Tails had told him they would. The engineering corps did these routine maintenance checks every fortnight to ensure the lower levels were operating at least at minimal capacity. The Centrifuge, as Cobra had learned, did not divide its energy reserves evenly. The top ten floors all contained vital systems such as the expansion’s life-support and atmospheric controls. Beneath them were the middle platforms, which contained vast residential and mercantile districts that supported the entire expansion. The bottom thirty floors, however, were outdated and, according to Tops, close to being voted as abandoned in status by the Gnomeregan council. It was down here that most of the repair work had to be done, and where the pickpockets thrived most. It took an ambitious thief to target a repair corps, but Cobra’s confidence had grown as his successes piled one after another. As it turned out, Tails had been right about his temperament. He saw threats in every shadow, in every face. Few could sneak up on him, and he’d learned where to sleep in the back-alleys to avoid being disturbed. He could find food in the form of rats and fungi, both of which thrived in the humid lower levels. Many of the Rat Runner thieves stuck to the middle platforms where there were more targets, but Cobra and the other bold pickpockets saw the opportunity in the dingy low town. The corps split up to take different elevators. It was simply a necessity. This part of the expansion hadn’t received upgraded lifts along with the middle and upper sections when the expansion had been built. Once, this area had been a mine dug by old dwarven prospectors, but the ore had long since been drowned. Now, there was little reason to come down here save to keep the geothermal harvesters operational. Cobra slipped into an elevator with one of the small groups. He fit in fine, and he engineers simply cleared their throats and avoided eye contact. Some wrinkled their noses as if to say, You don’t belong here. Even your smell is wrong. Cobra sniffled as if something was troubling him. Before long, he was balling his eyes out, fresh tears leaving clean streaks down his dirty cheeks. The engineers shifted uncomfortably, but the wealthy-looking man with the slick hair smiled at him sadly. “Lost your folks, Sunny?” he asked in a friendly tone. The same tone he’d used for the little girl with the doll back on platform twenty-two. Cobra had noted that and developed his plan around it. He nodded at the man, still sniffling. “Can’t find them,” he whined. The slick man ruffled Cobra’s strawlike brown hair with a gloved hand. “Where did you see them last?” he asked. “P-platform…um…thirty—forty—six?” he stammered. He mumbled a few more numbers in the mid-range to add further confusion. “Well, we’ll just have to check a few levels until we find them, then!” An engineer looked at the slick man dubiously. “Boss, is that really necessary? Doesn’t the Centrifuge have…people for that sort of thing?” The slick man turned to the engineer and said, “Not enough, sadly. Poverty is rampant in this expansion, especially below level fifty.” While he looked away, Cobra flicked the hidden razor in his sleeve, which fell into his grasp unnoticeably. He eyed the strap on the man’s satchel and the string on his coin purse. Not enough time for both, he knew. The engineer scratched his scalp anxiously. “Still, we’re supposed to report back to Central…we could get in trouble for making a detour.” Cobra eyed the floor indicator on the elevator wall. Five more levels… The boss clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “We’ll tell them we got delayed fixing a leak. It’s a common enough problem, but not major enough to turn heads. Just look at the kid, Filbin! He needs our help!” Now. Cobra swiped, ripping through the satchel strap with ease. He scooped up the bag and climbed out the elevator window. Before the engineers could reach for him, he flipped over the side and landed on a flat steel landing for the service stairwell. Without hesitation, he began his rapid descent. He took a turn off the stairwell at platform twenty-eight and ran along support beams for a while, then climbed along a support beam to the wall of the expansion. A gap in the pipes led to a back-alley marked with graffiti in the shape of a rat running on its hind legs. He stopped to catch his breath and listened for the sound of pursuit. All he heard was the whirring of machinery behind the expansion wall. He grinned to himself and rifled through the satchel. The Runners would require the lion’s share of his get, but first pickings was a right granted to the thief. He could take whatever singular item he desired most, unless it was specifically requested by dispatch. The satchel contained blueprints, as he’d expected. It also had the slick man’s spare parts for repairs, a cheat-sheet for parts’ order numbers, a small set of vital repair tools, and a set of notebooks and fountain pens. Cobra’s smile deepened as he took one of the pens. With his loot in hand, Cobra followed the twisting, confusing tunnels back to the Rat’s Nest. The graffiti signs were few and far between, but he knew the way well enough by now. Mostly, the signs warned rival gangs to stay out of the tunnels or risk incurring the wrath of the Rats. Cobra had yet to come across any rival thieves, but he worried that was because they were better at hiding than he was. One final turn led him to a large, sealed vault door marked with cheese-shaped graffiti. He knocked twice, three times, once, then four times. The door groaned, clicked, and swung open with a menacing metallic moan. Ogre towered over him, his face stuck in a permanent scowl. “Hey, Cobra!” he greeted cheerfully. “You got something! Nice work!” The big gnome’s face barely moved as he spoke, giving no outward indication of his joy. Cobra nodded and patted the satchel proudly. “Third time this week. A gullible repairman in some fancy clothes.” “What’d you take for first pickings?” Cobra showed him the pen, his smile wide and beaming. Ogre clapped his meaty hands, his mouth twisting in the vague direction of a smile. “To match that ream of parchment from yesterday! Have you decided what to write yet?” “No. I’m saving it until I come up with something. Is Tails in?” Ogre stepped aside and waved Cobra in. “He’s in the Sink. Don’t forget to give that to the boss, though!” He indicated the satchel and Cobra waved him off dismissively. “I want to show Tails first. Tops doesn’t need to know.” He gave Ogre an innocent look. The big man shrugged. “None of my business. Just don’t do anything to hurt the Rats, and you’re fine with me.” Cobra gave him a passing smile and jaunted in to the Nest. The reception area had a longue set around an old scrap metal coffee table. A few thieves were sharing a drink there while discussing some odd news of raids down south around Stormwind City. Bandits of some sort, Cobra guessed. Nothing to be concerned with. A few hallways extended from the longue, each with its own vault door capable of sealing off the sections of the hideout. Cobra headed down the one marked with graffiti of a sink. At the end of the hallway he emerged in a cozily-lit pub full of thieves being as raucous as underworlders could be. It was quieter than most of the commercial platforms in the expansion, but spending any length of time in the Sink still made Cobra uncomfortable after all this time. Tails sat at a table attended to by a pair of serving girls in skimpy dresses. Tails had one on his lap and was tickling her with his snowy beard. His younger, (though balding and old enough to be Cobra’s grandfather), protégée sat beside him, reclining casually as the other serving girl stuffed her hand down the front of his breeches. Socks regarded Cobra smugly as the young thief approached. “Brought back some bits of paper for the Rats to chew on?” Socks asked, smirking. “Blueprints,” Cobra corrected, “Useful paper. Tops says we need more info on equipment to make big jobs go smoother.” The balding gnome snorted. “If you brought back more coin and less of this ‘useful paper,’ we could buy all the mechs we wanted, runt. Oi, Gretta Grabbyhands, not so tight!” The serving girl shrugged her freckled shoulders. “Sorry, Sockers. I thought I was loosing your interest for a second there. You were goin’ all soft on me.” She winked at Cobra, who grimaced and took a step away. Tails chuckled, still dandling the other girl on his lap. “Little Socks always did have a problem with focus! So, boy, you came by to show me your get, eh?” Cobra nodded. “The job worked out just like you said it would. That tip about the stairwell was really helpful.” Socks snorted and made a kissing face at Cobra. Tails didn’t seem to notice. He replied, “That’s good, boy. But y’know, you gotta make plans for yourself. Whenever you come to me for a job, you already got the ideas in your head, but you make it seem like I’m doing all the thinking. Are you afraid to do the jobs on your own?” Cobra fidgeted with his bandaged knuckles. They’d long since healed, but he kept the bloody bandages on as a warning to others. He wasn’t afraid, not of anything. Healthfully cautious, but not afraid. “I just…wanted you to know I was doing well,” he mumbled. Socks snickered. “Little baby, looking for his daddy’s approval. You never told me you had kids, Tails!” Tails cackled as the woman on his lap left lipstick marks on his face. “Well, hell, I might! ‘Sides, all the Rats look at me like their grandpappy. I been here longer’n everyone else, ‘s only natural the kiddies want to make me proud!” Cobra rubbed his arm, embarrassed. He took a few retreating steps before Tops’ voice halted him. “Cobra. My office. Now.” The bifocaled gnome regarded him with his beady eyes before walking back down the entry hall. “Better skedaddle, boy,” Tails said. “Thanks for stopping by!” Socks groaned as the woman’s hand in his breeches sped its rhythmic motion. “Yeah, yeah, now beat it kid. You’re in the splash zone!” Cobra raced after Tops. He caught up to the boss at the security door to his office. The door was shut, as it always was when no one was moving in or out. Tops was called many things – and always behind his back – paranoid being a common one. The door clicked and slid open. Tops returned his card key to his coat pocket and went inside. His office was cramped, though spacious compared with the thieves’ living quarters. Cobra never slept in the hideout, not after the debacle on his first night with the Rats. One thief’s snore had been enough to start a panic attack, and none of the crew members were pleased about losing sleep over a ten-year-old’s “bad dream.” Cobra left the hideout and found a cozy corner of the back-alleys every night. He had a few regular spots where he stored his personal loot, but he never slept in the same place twice in a row. Tops plopped into his old rotating chair and flicked his gravity spheres, which clack-clack-clacked back and forth like a silvery, segmented seesaw. “Sit down, runt,” Tops said flatly. He poured himself a small portion of amber liquid from a large glass flask marked with measuring lines for alchemical use. He returned the flask to its set, most of which bubbled and sizzled over burners, filling the room with an odd amalgamation of aromas. Cobra did as he was bid, taking a seat in one of the little Tinker’s School chairs. He set his looted satchel on the boss’s desk. “Taken off an engineer corps boss,” the young thief said proudly. Tops regarded the satchel with a sleepy look. He adjusted his bifocals and pulled it closer. After laying the contents out on his desk in a methodical pattern, he nodded once. “Good. This earns you ten.” Cobra felt the blood rush to his ears. A measly ten points? That wasn’t enough to buy a week’s worth of rations! “Oh,” he said, failing to hide the disappointment, “I—I’ll bring more tomorrow!” “You won’t,” Tops replied. His tone wasn’t harsh or loud, but it cut deep regardless. “The engineers will be on alert for our thieves now. Your get will be a setback for the rest of the Runners, runt.” Cobra fidgeted. “I—I wasn’t seen…” “Don’t lie to me. You aren’t good enough at it yet.” He held the cut shoulder strap for Cobra to see. “People tend to notice when their bags are stolen off their bodies.” “But—but you could use the plans and tools. You said you needed them…to keep up with the engineers’ upgrades.” “One satchel of repair blueprints won’t help anything if we can’t get our hands on more.” Tops slid a piece of parchment out of a drawer and wrote on it in precise script. “You will hang this memorandum in the reception area.” He passed the paper to Cobra and began sorting the loot off his desk and onto several piles of similar supplies. Cobra’s heart sank as he read the memo. No more jobs against the engineers! It’s taken me so long to pull a job on one, and all my effort is going to go to waste? “Is there a problem, runt?” Tops asked, not sparing Cobra a look. “N-no, boss.” “Then get out. And don’t forget to hang the memo.” He drew out a logbook from another drawer. A glimpse at one of the pages caught Cobra’s attention. Code. I can read that code! He stored that information away for later use as he withdrew from the office. The metal door slammed behind him, making him skip a step. Cobra’s head fell as he hung the memo in the reception area. The two thieves that had been merrily sharing a drink cursed him bitterly. He understood. The engineers were a ripe target for the Rat Runners. Losing them meant a loss of points for everyone. This loss hurt most because it set back the reputation he’d been building. Gang thieves respected ambition when it helped the whole gang. But when it hurt everyone else, an ambitious thief was nothing but a liability. Cobra forced himself not to run as he made for the exit door. Ogre waved at him as he headed out into the back-alleys. The big man must have read the disappointment on his face, since he said, “Better luck next time, Cobra.” The young thief hunched, wishing he could disappear like a wizard from one of his story books. Word of his failure would spread like a grease fire. He knew by what Tails had taught him that the only cure for a damaged reputation was to lie low and do your fair share. He didn’t relax until he made it back to one of his hideouts. He dug his ream of parchment free of some pipes and examined his looted fountain pen by the dull red alley light. The blank page was more intimidating than he expected. It had taken him a lot of work to get these items; he wanted them to be worth the effort. Unlike my work for the engineers’ bag, he thought bitterly. Stupid rules! Stupid Tops! Stupid ten points! I earned more than that! He gripped the pen so tight his bandaged knuckles went numb. Why should I care what a bunch of Rats think about me? No one owns me! He knew what to write now. It took him some time to remember one of his mother’s encryptions, which took one whole side of a piece of parchment. But after that, it was easy going. This, he thought triumphantly, a smile playing on his lips, is my new rebellion.
  18. Whap, whap. He trembled under the whipping belt. He covered his stinging face with his hands and felt blood gush from a dozen wounds. “—a miserable little shit stain! I should have fucking swallowed you instead of letting you be born!” Whap, whap, whap. “What did I do?” he wailed. “What did I do? What did I do?” “Shut up! Shut up, you waste of fucking space!” Her hand fell again and again. The belt ripped through the thin fabric of his tunic – the last piece of clothing that still fit. Whap, whap, whap, whap. “I’m sorry, mommy, I’m sorry! Don’t hit me again, please! Please!” “Shut up!” Whap. “Shut up!” Whap. “You’re lucky to be alive! You’re lucky to be in here, where it’s safe!” Whap. “You’d be dead without me! You’d be nothing!” Whap, whap, whap. “Thank me, you little shit! Fucking thank me!” “Th-thank you. Thank you, m-mommy.” Whap! Whap! Whap! The wretch woke screaming, his hands reaching for the knife he’d tucked in his pocket before lying down to sleep. He whirled to his feet, narrowly avoiding a low pipe running along the ceiling of the back-alley. A grizzled old gnome wheeling a cart ignored him as he walked on by. The wretch watched him closely, then lowered his knife when he could no longer hear the squeaking cart wheels. That was when he noticed his bag was missing. He didn’t bother searching for it. Whoever had taken it would be long gone by now. He wandered out of the alley, flinching at the sudden rush of a mechnostrider and the throng of people moving down the walkway. He ducked and wove his way to the edge of the platform and leaned over the railing to look down. The Centrifuge glowed with life; the expansion to Gnomeregan had been built deep into the earth and was one of its most populated sectors. Each level held hundreds of residents, dozens of businesses, and miles of pipes running energy to power it all. Not to mention a million places to hide. It had been three days since he’d gotten free. The wretch had been so overwhelmed by the liveliness of the platform outside the apartment complex that he’d nearly gone comatose with panic the first night. He’d found a back alley to hide in and eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion. The following day, he’d treated his wounded knuckles and wrapped them in gauze before exploring the endless alleyways. Towards nighttime, when the lights of the platform were dimmed to simulate the setting sun, he’d slipped out of his hiding place to determine where exactly his home was. A book he’d once read had contained a detailed map of Gnomeregan. From memory and based off a sector map he found at a public directory screen, he discerned he was on the Centrifuge’s forty-fifth platform, nearly halfway from the bottom to the top. He recalled the book saying that the bottom ten levels had been sealed off due to flooding, and that every year engineers discovered the water level to be high than the last. The third day was just beginning, and now that he had the courage enough to walk among the people, he had far less money with which to buy food or clean water. His stomach rumbled angrily at the thought. He followed his nose to a stand at which a mustachioed man was selling hot kabobs. The wretch had never seen anything like it, though he identified it from a description in a cookbook he’d once read. He took a silver coin from his pocket and stepped nervously into the queue. When someone queued up behind him, he trembled until the coin fell from his hand and rolled off the edge of the platform. He ran, ignoring the strange looks from the people around him. Back in the alleys, the wretch followed the pipes until he found a sizable niche to stuff himself into. The space was tight and warm: comforting. His heart rate slowed. But his stomach still rumbled. It wasn’t long before a rat scurried past him. His mouth wetted at the thought of simmering meat. He lunged after the critter, but he was too slow to catch it. The rat escaped into a gap in the pipes too narrow for him to follow through. He curled in a ball on the filthy ground, shielding his eyes from the bright red light illuminating the passageway. “You gotta be smarter than that, boy,” a voice called from above. The wretch yelped and crawled away. He fumbled for his knife. The stranger chuckled, coughing as he did. He shook a hand with stubs for fingers and shook his head. A grimy snow-white beard jiggled on his chin. “No need for violence, boy. Not against me anyway. Rat meat is much tastier.” The wretch kept his hand in his pocket. The handle of the knife in his hand was comforting. He thought briefly of the ruins of his mother’s face. “I—I don’t have any money!” he lied splutteringly. It felt strange to speak after being speechless for nearly three days. The old man flicked his patchwork hat and grinned. “Never said anything about money, boy. You want to catch rats, right? You gotta be quick and clever. It ain’t enough just to chase them when they’re out in the open. You gotta know when and where they’ll be before they get there.” The wretch glanced at the rat’s hiding place. “How…how can you tell?” The old man sauntered up to the wretch. He flinched and shied away, pulling his knife free of his pocket. The man simply chuckled and tapped a pipe with his knuckle. “These pipes are warm for a reason, boy. They carry energy. Life. The rats can feel it, just like we can. They use them to hide, and to keep warm. But they gotta leave the pipes for food. Find the food, and you’ll find the rats.” “But…where…?” The old man gestured back towards the alley exit. “Where there’s people, there’s food. But the rats know better not to risk the people. They lurk in the places where people have been, but don’t like to stick around. You know what I’m talking about, now?” “The…garbage?” He slapped the boy on the shoulder and hooted, causing the wretch to scream and retreat, slashing wildly. The old man dodged out of the way of the knife nimbly. “Atta boy! You’re smart and you’ve got good survival instincts! Take a lesson from the rats, though, don’t go poking in the business of the Mech-Makers. They won’t hesitate to squash our kind.” The wretch took a moment to gather his wits and slow his breathing. Eventually, he said, “Our…kind?” “Yeah, we Rats. The ones who lurk in the places no one else want to be.” “Who says I’m l-lurking?” The old man laughed raucously. “No one! It’s plain on your face! I know a Rat when I see one, boy. By the by, the name’s Tails. What’s yours?” The wretch paused. My name? Not the one she gave me. That’s not me. I can be whoever I want now. “I’m…Cobra.” The old man snorted. “A snake, eh? Well, you were trying to eat the rat, so it makes enough sense. Well, Cobra, I have a group of friends who could use someone of your temperament, if you’re keen on earning some bread n’ salt. Whaddya say?” The wretch – Cobra, now – considered running then and there. But his grumbling stomach stopped him. He couldn’t face the throng of people just yet, but maybe with the Rats he could find a better way to earn his food. He nodded and followed where Tails led. Never once did he take his hand off the handle of his knife.
  19. The wretch’s ragged breaths came like waves pounding a rocky shore. He held the blade between his hands tremulously, still pointing at the motionless corpse on the ground before him. Blood dribbled down his knuckles where he’d beaten them against her face. The steady trickle intermixed with the pool at his feet. The corpse scarcely had a face left to speak of; really, it was only red flesh gashed open half a hundred times leaking grey matter on the carpet he’d cleaned just this morning. It was peculiar; he felt as though his hands should hurt, but it was his heart that hurt more than anything. The way it pounded inside his chest, he was certain it would burst and add to the bloody mess on the floor. I’ll have to clean that up, too, he thought out of habit. But he wouldn’t have to, would he? His mother, that sadistic whore, was dead at his feet. He had done it. He had killed her. He had freed himself, at long last. He made himself look at the corpse again. Her hand was still clutched tightly around his bare, hairy ankle. He flinched out of her grip and dropped the knife. The clatter could have awoken a sleeping god. The wretch couldn’t hold back the tension in his chest any longer. He screamed. His throat was still dry and ragged from the shouting before, but he couldn’t stop himself. It was as if his soul had burst loose. His bloody, cracked fingernails dug into his scalp and ripped out hair by the fistful. He felt warm tears stream down his filthy cheeks and wondered if he had been stricken with grief or joy. Air left his lungs in a storm and returned in minor puffs. Naturally, he fell to the ground, vision fuzzy and senses abandoning him. When he came to, he was on the floor beside her. Her face was inches from his own. It reminded him of a topographical map of the Searing Gorge from one of her books. A bit of brains slithered loose from what might have once been an eye socket. The wretch shivered and pulled himself to his feet. He went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet door. He stood staring at the endless rows of jars and tin cans, his foot tapping restlessly. He closed the door, walked a circuit around the kitchen. “I can eat whatever I want,” he growled. “I can eat whenever I want. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me!” He stopped at the border to the living room where she had died. Her corpse said nothing, so he returned to the cabinet and got himself a jar of pickles. They tasted like vinegar and salt. The crunched like the sand he’d never seen under the shoes he’d never owned. Like the sound a lock makes when it clicks open, revealing…somewhere else. Anywhere else. He ate until the pickles ran out, then drank the juice, then vomited it all on the floor. He wiped his chin and laughed historically. “I ain’t cleaning that up! You can’t make me!” He tried the beer next. She’d always told him he wasn’t allowed any, but he snuck them whenever she was out on a job anyway. This one tasted like his first all over again: a small rebellion. He managed to keep it down. His heart rate was slow enough by this point that he could see and hear and feel clearly. The pain in his fists crept up his arms like creepers consuming a tree. He cracked open a second beer bottle as he walked into his mother’s room. Another rebellion. He kicked porno magazines aside on his way to her desk. The drawers were locked, and he didn’t know how to pick locks. I never learned. I only know what she wants me to know. He decided to start a list of things he wanted to learn, starting with picking locks. For now, a hammer sufficed to see the drawers open. The first had fat black vibrators and nude sketches of the men she’s slept with. Some of them looked familiar. The wretch wondered if one of them was his father. He closed that drawer. The second held notes, all encrypted. He recognized her handwriting intermixed with other familiar sets. He’d worked on her cyphers since he was old enough to speak, so reading these was literal child’s play. They contained detailed accounts of contacts, jobs, assets, and locations for dead drops. The wretch found his mother’s bug-out bag under her heavily stained bed and added the notes to the survival equipment within. The third drawer was full of coins. They were of various shapes, materials, and mints. He did a quick calculation and totaled over two hundred gold. He split the coinage in two and stored half in his bag and the other in a pouch he tied on the inside of his breeches. He returned to the living room as he finished the second beer and stared at the front door on the other side of his mother’s corpse. Just a few steps away. It might as well have been on the other side of the Great Sea. He’d never left. Not for one minute of his ten-year-old life. This cramped, filthy apartment had been his entire world for every conscious moment of those ten years. His only escapes had been his tiny rebellions against his whore mother’s rules. And the books. She’d taught him to read so he could be useful, but he’d learned quickly that he had more freedom in that knowledge than he could possibly have imagined. Her various boyfriends brought him books when he’d asked them in secret. He’d learned of the outside world and become enamored with the idea of seeing it. His mother had found out long ago, and the boyfriends stopped talking to him. His freedom had gone faster than it had arrived. But freedom was no longer in her power to deny. She was a bloody mess on the floor. Yet his bare feet remained glued to the algae-colored, crimson-spotted carpet. The wretch glanced down the hallway he hadn’t dared go down. His room was back there. In truth, it was a cupboard, but he’d made it his personal space for his childhood imprisonment. No, he thought as sweat trailed down his forehead. I can’t go back there. I won’t do it! Never again! He leapt over her body, half expecting her to grab him and drag him down to some deep pit of hell. He ran face-first into the front door and fell hard on his rear end. He felt something squish underneath him and swore his heart stopped. He screamed again and charged the door. He fumbled with the lock and nearly ripped the door off its hinges – or so it seemed to him – and sprinted out into the world. He looked back as he thundered down the long hallway of the apartment complex’s negative seventh floor. He was leaving a trail of blood droplets behind him, he saw. The wretch snickered and coughed and cried all at once. I’m not cleaning any of your messes ever again.
  20. Life is easier when I run cold. Everything is simpler, smoother. Decisions make sense. Everything seems obvious. Cruelty comes easy to the cold. Hatred that runs hot has no time for cruelty. It seeks death, obliteration, ashes. Fire cannot be bothered with drawing out pain, with monitoring the suffering of its victims. The cold can use fire to play its games, but fire itself does not toy. Fire does what it does, or it dies. I am not often cold, no matter how often I try, no matter how easy and simple it makes every choice and action. I could be. I could choose cruelty over destruction. When I am caged to be useful, when I am used like a lantern with its glass walls and quiet fuel, I fall to cold cruelty for a lack of capacity to be true to my nature. Perhaps it would be in my best interests to simply light the way for ruin rather than indulge in it myself. Because there is another side to running hot. And it is distracting. And I find it very difficult to reconcile with what I would like to see accomplished. And yet. It feels as though it is only in my nature to do as I am doing, to be who I am, though it accomplishes nothing beyond extreme satisfaction. When I am cold, life is simple. When I am cold, the Grim is pure logic. When I am cold, decisions are made before they are needed. It's impossible for me to be cold anymore.
  21. Wind was loud in the Arathi Highlands. Without many trees to dampen the breeze, the sound of wind gusting on more extreme days could often be deafening. It was the only thing that could compete with the whistle in Gor'mul's ears, still ringing months after the Siege of Blackrock Spire. He and the dozens of other males who were transported with him sat listlessly in large cages, built specifically for the once enormous orcish captives. As the wind blew, rattling loose chains nearby, he remembered the way they were brought to this green and rainy place. Dragged by their chains from wagons, they were led toward a primitive base manned with a few dozen human soldiers. Without armor or weapons, the orcs were half naked and starved from the journey. It would be something to get used to, along with the breeze of their new "home". Placed in cages with little to no privacy, the orcs were given buckets to defecate in and yet more buckets of water for drinking. If they were the same buckets, no one questioned it. They were provided with threadbare clothing and blankets, as if their size somehow made the chill of Arathi less powerful. Food was limited to bread and grains, sometimes beans and vegetables. There was a noticeable lack of meat, but the longer they remained in captivity, the less anyone complained. A strange lethargy had overcome the orcs, who took to their cages like wounded pets. Gor'mul shared his cage with several other males, all Blackrock orcs, and for the most part he sat in a corner and listened for something to drown out the whistle in his ears. Rarely, however, he had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his mate. Miraculously, Matuya had been sent to the same camp as Gor'mul. It gave him something to search for on clear days, when the guards would allow one or two of the females to walk for short laps around the camp. He would search for her eyes, waving frantically to get her attention, but as the weeks and months dragged on, the less she would turn to face him. Her face grew gaunt even as her belly swelled, though it was noticeably not as large as most orcish pregnancies typically were. Both hope and despair weighed heavy in his chest when he saw her, his beautiful wolf, turned thin and fading with each day. "They're not feeding them enough," he said to one of his cellmates as the females were walked past their cage. Gor'mul's own face had begun to sag, skin hanging limply to bone. "My mate is going to give birth, soon. She needs to eat." "No whelp is going to survive this," one of his cellmates spat, coughing violently afterwards. The orcs passed around a perpetual chill that kept the camps loud with coughs and sneezes. Wiping spittle from his mouth, the older orc grunted before wheezing. "You had better collect water to drown it before it can latch on or that Frostwolf will never let it go." Yes, of course. There was no way the child Matuya carried would be healthy. Not in her circumstances, and even if it was, it wouldn't stay that way. The humans wouldn't allow them to breed in there. His child would be a half starved mongrel, weak and inferior. Thoughts of his father and Juggulator came to mind. If his child couldn't wield the axe, how could it bring honor to his family? Drowning it was the only option, but he knew Matuya would fight him. No Frostwolf would willingly kill her own child. "She would never allow it," he agreed, shaking his head. "Matuya is not like us." "Well then she will die," the old Blackrock sighed. "A mother can't provide for both herself and a child on the scraps they give us. I know Frostwolves. They'll defend their pups to the death. You had better hope it's a male so it gets thrown in here with us once she starves." The thought of the humans throwing a baby into a cage felt ridiculous. Laughable even, but perhaps not impossible. He remembered the slaughter at Blackrock Mountain. If they remembered too, perhaps they were capable of anything. Losing Matuya, however, was not an option. "She will not die," Gor'mul grunted, standing. He still had half a piece of bread from his meal earlier, stale and crumbling in his hand. Waving toward one of the guards, he stuck his hand with the bread through to bars and pointed at Matuya as she walked away from him. "Give it to her!" He shouted, waving the piece of food like a madman. "Give it to my mate!" The human guards stopped their walk and turned toward the orc making a fuss. Matuya looked at Gor'mul, and for a moment he could see the hope still burning in her hazel eyes. Walking her toward the cage, the guards pointed at each orc. "Mate?" One of them said in orcish, pointing at her stomach. Matuya nodded, then pointed to Gor'mul. "Mate," she repeated. Gor'mul felt his chest lighten. The guard took his bread and offered it to Matuya who reached for it gratefully. Then it fell to the ground. The guard crushed it under his boot and shoved Matuya forward, away from Gor'mul. Rage still built in the Blackrock's stomach, but it was weak and thin. He could only watch as Matuya was led away, prodded in the back by the butt of a rifle, her parting glance sad and apologetic. "Stay strong," Gor'mul said reflexively, but how anyone could do that now was beyond his understanding.
  22. Gor'mul stared at the chains over his wrists, cold metal stinging his wounds. The humans had no manacles big enough for his orcish frame, or anyone else's. Instead they wrapped thick steel chains around wrists and ankles, binding the few remaining orcs who survived the Siege of Blackrock Spire. A thin tinny sound whistled in Gor'mul's ears, likely caused by the noise of the battle. He couldn't hear the whistle as screams and metal against bone rang out around him, or as he himself roared loud enough to damage his throat until he tasted blood on his tongue. The cacophony of death shielded him from whatever that high pitched whine was, and he found himself longing for it. There was an itch in his palms where his axe should be, but that axe was long gone, buried in some human's body. He ached for the crunch of bone, again. His mouth throbbed from the clench of his jaw. On both sides, a human held a pike blade close enough to threaten his life if he so much as spoke a word. The whistle annoyed him, but not as much as the babble of humans around him. "March them down," one of the humans shouted, but Gor'mul didn't understand their garbled language. The pull of his chains by another orc in front of him signaled that he should walk, so he walked. Obedient. The very idea made the rage build up in his belly again, and it would be easy to simply use those chains and strangle a few humans before ultimately being put to death. That would be an honorable way to die. Instead, he walked with his fellow prisoners down toward a gathering of yet more orcs, herded like beasts. Somewhere over the human speech and rattle of chains, he could still hear the mad screaming of the Burning Blade. He witnessed them unleashed, cast into the battlefield like wild animals who cut down all in their path. Though trained in the arts of war, he had never seen so much blood in his entire life. Limbs strewn across the battlefield continued to bleed over still-twitching corpses, arrows and swords buried in their cooling flesh. He wondered idly how many of those arrows were Matuya's? How many humans did she kill? Was she even still alive? "Get them in the wagon!" One of the humans shouted, but Gor'mul could only hear grunting. Far away he could see a group of orcs, females mostly, being loaded into a wooden transport led by horses. The females had been stripped of their armor and Gor'mul could see from his vantage point that some were being prodded and checked for any hidden weapons. One of them, a noticeably brown female, was being shoved into the back of the transport. "Matuya," Gor'mul grunted, his eyes widening at the sight of her. Without her armor, her Frostwolf tattoos and brown skin gave her away immediately. "Matuya!" The butt of a rifle took the wind from Gor'mul's lungs. A human barked something at him, likely an order for his silence, but he continued to cough and cover the whistle in his ears by calling for his mate. "Tuya," he wheezed, forcing himself to stand upright and shout toward the females. A few turned toward the commotion, but their human guards continued to herd them into the wagon. "Tuya! Tuya, be strong!!" Another rifle butt to his stomach sent Gor'mul to the ground. He didn't fight the jab, chained as he was, but coughed leaned over and coughed until he could breathe normally again. Humans continued barking their orders, but all he could hear was that high pitched squeal. Grinding his teeth, the Blackrock shook his head, as if perhaps that might dislodge the sound. Another jab of a rifle butt to his back reminded him to stand and walk, and the noise went with him. It went with him toward the gathering of orc prisoners, and it followed him on the wagon set aside for the males. It didn't let up even when he was pushed against two dozen bodies, their injuries and sweat creating a stench that could be detected miles away. The noise was like a friend, a gift of the battlefield, and like the horrors of that day it would stay with him until he died.
  23. Matuya wrapped her hands, again, beside constantly refilled bucket of water next to her anvil. Blood seeped through the thin bandages, the same thin skin torn through as she endlessly hammered weapons. The orcess' soft hands were unaccustomed to the forge, but she agreed to do her part long ago. Sweat rolled down her arms, stinging the wounds as she wound the bandages until the blood was hidden again. Eventually she would wrap them again, but she could ignore the pain for a while longer. Lordaeron was coming, and the Blackrock Clan would not allow the Horde to fall short of weapons. A Frostwolf herself, she was a small representation for her clan in this place, and she would make them proud. Pressing her lips together tightly, Matuya closed her eyes and stood stone still as a wave of nausea passed over her. She hadn't eaten in several hours, but as the humans approached and allies remained missing, their food was being rationed. The nausea, however, had been with her for the past several weeks. She knew what this meant, and cursed the timing. Before she could return to her place, a thick callused hand landed on her shoulder and startled Matuya from her thoughts. "Oh! Gor'mul," she said, shaking her head. "I was just taking a moment to wrap my hands." "Are you alright?" He asked quietly, leaning in so that no one else could hear them over the clanging of hammers and metal. "You look pale." "I'm fine," she answered, smiling beneath the black soot that caked most of their faces. "Just a little sick today. That's supposed to be a good sign." "You should eat something," the Blackrock muttered, glancing behind himself. "There's no point in such heavy rationing if the humans are sending all of their forces here." Pausing to look around them, at all of the weapons being prepared and the excitement of a looming battle, he took in a heavy breath of smoky air and muttered confidently. "We're going to decimate them." "I've heard that they outnumber us," Matuya argued gently. "Without our allies, we may not be able to defend the mountain. The human king leads them himself." "They don't have what we have," Gor'mul said firmly, whispering toward her again. "The Burning Blade are with us. The humans will see their madness and know a death like no other, I promise you that. What I'm worried about is you, and our child." Matuya's smile faltered, as if skeptical of her mate's claim. She shook her head at the mention of their eventual progeny and tried again to smile. "I'm fine," she reassured the Blackrock, tilting her head up to kiss him. The salt from Gor'mul's green skin made her salivate. "It's early days yet." Gor'mul gazed at his mate, sadness coloring his red eyes. Matuya was one of the few remaining in Blackrock Mountain who retained her brown skin, and the color brought back memories of their time hunting clefthooves together in the wild. He had never seen anyone wield a bow the way she could, though she eventually gave it up to accompany him to the forges of Blackrock Mountain. The Frostwolf made a place for herself, her small dexterous hands skilled at hammering the details in smaller weapons, but there was always a softness in her hazel eyes that even the war couldn't harden. When she told him that she carried his child, Gor'mul's chest swelled with pride, and his family celebrated the continuation of their line. There were a few happy days before the rationing, and his mother's untimely death. Now he saw her color fading, and the fear of losing her to the approaching battle drew a tremble in each hand. Squeezing her shoulder, he steadied himself and kissed Matuya's forehead. "I will find you something. Wait here, and--" "To arms! Lordaeron approaches!!" Gor'mul's jaw dropped. Now? So soon? He looked around for his father, but the old orc was gone. "You! Frostwolf!" The voice forced both Gor'mul and Matuya to turn in its direction to find a tall broad-chested Blackrock commander waving the smaller orc toward him. "With me and the archers!" Knowing their time together was short, Matuya kissed Gor'mul one last time. Her lips were cold, he thought vaguely. "Fight well, ha'rega," she said quickly, and then she was gone. Standing alone as chaos erupted around him, Gor'mul considered what he must do. Armor, weapons, and then battle. Perhaps death. Somewhere, his mate would be fighting from a safe distance and this was good. If he fell on this day, she would tell their child about him and his family, and that would have to do. Better for him to die than his mate, the mother of his child. "Victory or death," he said to himself, and prepared for the battle ahead.
  24. The heat of the forge still warmed Throggok's skin as he retreated from its warmth, a bundle cradled in one arm. The orc, clad in the thin protective leather of a smith, disappeared easily through the other members of the Blackrock Clan as they worked endlessly to repair and forge weapons. Day and night the forges bellowed smoke as swords, axes, pikes and hammers were crafted by their skillful hands. Black calluses, numbed by years of such work, were a point of pride and Throggok could feel his tightening around the precious treasure he held close to his chest. Retreating from the crowded anvils, he made his way through the dark halls of Blackrock Spire. The further he moved away from the beating hammers of his brothers and sisters, the quieter the spire became. Here was where they slept, when allowed, and there would be no sleep for the Blackrock Clan until the humans marching toward them were dead. "So too will we sleep," he muttered under his breath, a prayer to the ancestors for a good death on the battlefield. He was old now, and dragged a lame foot once crushed by the weight of an anvil. He could still swing a hammer with the strength of three humans, but he was too slow for the battle that would soon arrive. Throggok found the small cubicle that he once shared with his mate Ashra, now dead from exhaustion. Only days ago, the orcess had fallen into the forge as she worked to reassemble a broken axe. The weapon had taken a beating in its last battle, wielded by their son Gor'mul. He had survived to tell the tale, but their priceless family heirloom was damaged nearly beyond repair. They might have forgotten it, given the battle to come. With the forces of Lordaeron marching toward Blackrock Mountain, what was one weapon? But the axe, Juggulator, was had been passed down from Throggok's father. It earned him the name Spinecleaver, and both he and Ashra agreed that their son should wield it when the final battle came. What they failed to understand, however, was that Doomhammer would push them to their limits in the final days before the siege. No sleep, little food remaining, and their allies missing forced the Blackrock Clan to work harder than they ever worked in their lives. The old fell while on their feet, and this included Ashra. With Juggulator still in pieces, Throggok took it upon himself to put it back together. That was only days ago. Today, as Throggok hammered at the metal he heard the call. "To arms! Lordaeron approaches!!" The smiths would be removed from the forges soon, to join their brothers and sisters in battle. Until then, they worked harder, faster, and didn't notice that Throggok removed himself and Juggulator from his place by the anvil. It was still in two pieces, and if given enough time he would have been able to repair it. The thought of just how much time he spent on this single weapon weighed on his conscience, but he still saw his father's eyes in the grooves of the axe's handle, designed to resemble a spine. No, this piece of their lineage would survive. Pulling out loose bricks from the floor of his cubicle, Throggok dug into the dirt beneath until he had enough space to hide Juggulator. Still wrapped in loose hide, he placed the broken axe inside and placed a hand over the still-warm bundle. "You will taste blood again," he promised. "I swear it." Outside of the cubicle, he could hear the loud slap of boots against stone. They were running, now, to move into position. Carefully, he moved the bricks back into their place and kicked loose dirt into the cracks between them. Satisfied with his hiding spot, the old smith pushed himself back to his feet and pushed open the chest that held his armor and axes. With the future secure, it was time to meet his destiny.
  25. I especially love when the Arcane Guardians almost say "Kael'Thas" and have to quickly change over to "Lor'Themar."
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