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  1. Last week
  2. At twelve years old Delphinia Acontis was fairly tall for her age, and she drew herself up every inch of it as she approached the high counter. "How much?" Anxiety coils in her gut, but her chin is lifted, pre-pubescent voice demanding as much respect as it could. The woman across the counter splutters, blinking down a long nose through thin spectacles. "W-what?" "I'm 'ere to buy. I got coin. Jus' somefin' simple, for my little brovver." Shifting, she pulls a pouch from under a secret sling within her shirt. Da would beat her senseless if he knew she'd been skimming off the top. Still, this was important. "Love, I think you might be--" "I got coin. You got no reason not to serve us!" The pouch rattles as she slaps it down on the counter to punctuate the point. She feels her brother bury his face in her side at the shouting, dropping a hand to his shoulder to comfort him. "Shh-!" The woman raises her hands defensively, glancing around the room and meeting a few gazes now watching the exchange. Shame rises hot into Delphie's face. "Di' you jus' shush me?" "This is a library!" The woman finally manages, in an exasperated half-whisper. "Fine, we'll jus' take our coin someplace else. C'mon Didge." Snatching the pouch off the counter, she spins on her heel, brother in tow against her side. Hugging Didge a little tighter, she braces for the cold blast of winter air on the other side of the heavy oak doors. "No, no, it's alright. You don't have to go." Rounding the desk, the librarian hurries after them. Like bartering in the market, they always come running when the business threatens to leave. She turns, trying to look confident and judgmental despite the blush clinging to her cheeks. "So you'll sell us a book?" The librarian takes a breath, coming down to a less imposing height on one knee. "We don't sell books here--we're a library. Libraries let people borrow books, you don't have to pay." Delphie glances around skeptically, taking in the tall shelves that stretch back into the building. The woman's tone rankled her pride, but she tries to swallow it down, failing somewhat. "Seems a shi' way to run a shop." Instead of being offended, the woman actually laughs softly. "It's not a shop, it's a... public service. We get our money from taxes, donations, and to some extent, fees." "Fees?" Hazel eyes snap to the older woman's face, cautious of this new catch. "Well people can't keep the books forever, or we wouldn't be able to loan them out to others. So, we let them have them for a certain amount of time, and if they're late bringing them back or lose or damage them, we'll charge a fee for that." "An' that's it? Wha' abou' those wankers? How much do it cost to jus' sit about in here readin'?" "Nothing, as long as you don't ruin any of the books or anything. You're welcome to come in and read for as long as the library is open. You just have to keep your voice down and not bother the other guests." She smiles at them gently. "You wanted a book for your brother?" Delphie looks down at the mop of tight curls pressed against her side. "Gotta teach 'im 'is letters." He peeks out at the librarian, shuffling shyly further behind his sister. "None of the books we got... they's all too hard." "Alright. Well let's get your hands washed so you don't leave any smudges on the books, hm? There's a lavatory over there. Then once you're done, I'll meet you over by the fireplace with some good books for learning to read, alright?" After a moment's consideration, Delphie nods, and soon finds herself hoisting her brother up to help him reach the sink in the washroom. "You're gettin' too 'eavy for this." She mutters into his back. Still, there's something almost sweet in the reminiscence of days when she had constantly carried him; or there would be, if her legs didn't feel about to buckle. "Make sure you use lots of soap. An' ge' a drink. They's prolly go' good water 'ere." Didge hums a little response in place of words, before finally announcing a small, cheery, "done!" Gently placing him back on his feet, she demands an inspection of his hands (wet, but acceptably clean) before moving on to her own. The water prickles at her frostbitten fingers and she grimaces at her features in the mirror. Small wonder the librarian had asked them to wash up, the way her face was smudged with dirt. She takes a moment to clean it, making herself wince as she scrubbed too hard at an old black eye. "Awrigh'?" His tiny voice sounds concerned. "Yeh, I'm fine." She wraps an arm protectively around him once again as they head back out into the main room and make their way over to the fireplace. It roars, grand, warming the whole building from the winter chill outside. Sitting down just in front of the grate, Delphie feels warmer than she's been since fall, though the heat bites painfully into her frozen feet. Didge flops onto the outer hearth, sprawling out and soaking up the warmth of the stones with his whole body. In just a few minutes, she watches more color come into his face than she's seen in months. He looks contented, and lets out a little noise to match. He turns his attention from the fire to her face. "Yous smilin'." He points gleefully up at her. "So? I smile all the time." "Not real smiles." He half crawls, half flops himself across one of her legs. Delphinia's brow knots in concern, and her lips part to start some denial or retort, but she's cut off by a soft WHUMPH and a weight against her back. She jumps, startled, a strangled cry escaping her, dislodging the blanket that had been tossed around her shoulders. Turning, she can't quite reign in the terrified look she gives the librarian. "Shhh! I'm sorry, it's alright. Though I'm afraid I might make you wash your hands twice. My husband accidentally packed me a second lunch. I thought you children might like to have it." The lie is easy for Delphie to detect, but she takes a moment to search the woman's face for the reasoning behind it. Pity. A war between hunger and pride rages in her gut, the pain of her stomach winning out. She looks down, ashamed, as she accepts the handout--a mince pie wrapped in cloth and a tin filled with potatoes. "Fanks." Didge pipes up from her side, earning a surprised look from his sister. He barely spoke to the rest of their family, let alone a stranger. "You're very welcome." Delphie watches her leave, unwrapping the food they were given. The smell of it alone made her salivate and her jaw ache with hunger, but she passes it to Didge. When he breaks off half and hands it back, she hesitates for a moment, wanting to make sure her little brother got his fill. Watching him tuck in happily, she decides to follow suit and let him have the lions share of the potatoes if need be. She forces herself to eat slowly, despite how long its been since her last decent meal, knowing eating too fast could make her sick. Before long, the pair are nestled under the thick wool blanket on a rickety old couch near the fire. Hands cleaned (a second time) and full bellies, Delphie reads softly from a children's book. She hesitates and trips over sounds and words, stuttering across letters. Why did ds and bs need to be so confounding? The librarian would flit by regularly, no doubt checking that the ruffians weren't stealing something; but Delphie couldn't be angry about it. After all, her constant hanging about meant that Delphie could ask her about words she wasn't sure of (never occurring to her that that might be the reason she was there). Didge loved every moment of it, soft little happy hums and gasps of delight at colorful illustrations on the pages. Warm, quiet, content, Delphie eventually feels Didge nodding off against her shoulder. She nestles her chin in his thick curls, taking a break from reading to watch the snow collect on the windowpanes. Closing her eyes, she wonders how it's possible to feel so safe in such a strange place--and if it's possible to feel that way more often. "Delphie?" She jumps slightly, realizing she had dozed off. Her hands instinctively move to her hidden coins and her knife, finding nothing amiss. The fire still roars in the hearth, the snow still collects on the window, the book still stretches across the blanket on her lap. And most importantly, Didge was still curled up against her side. "Yeh?" "Like it here." "Me too Didge." "We'll come back?" Wriggling down deeper into the blanket, she pulls her baby brother into a tight hug. "Yeh, we's gonna come back every day we can. Learn all the fings books got to teach. All their secrets!" She whispers excitedly. "We'll be the cleverest thieves in all Gilneas!" Didge giggles, returning the affection. He smiles down at the book, running a tiny hand over an illustration of some exciting battle filled with wizards, elves and knights. He pauses, his little brow drawing together and looks up at her questioningly. "Why thiefs?"
  3. Hey guys! In celebration of the armistice IC and our new server merge between TNRH and Maelhoof Co. OOC, the Horde RP guild Sanctuary (with the Alliance RP guild The Honorborn) will be hosting a cross-faction in-game RP tavern night at World’s End Tavern led by Cerryan-TwistingNether, horde side; and myself Delphinia-TwistingNether (send a whisper for a group invite)! This will be a public event, and we will be trying to encourage people from our new cluster to attend, so anyone can come! This will take place at: World’s End Tavern, Shattrath on Friday, Aug. 7th at 6PM PST | 7PM MST | 8PM CST | 9PM EST
  4. Earlier
  5. Qabian stood leaning against the back wall of the embassy with a handful of other hangers-on as the so-called leadership of the Horde discussed their armistice. How he had managed to get there or what right he had to be there, no one seemed to question in the moment. A little peace between the Horde and the Alliance never stopped the Grim. Never stopped him, either, although other things did, now and then. Lor'themar acting as the speaker made Qabian feel vaguely ill. He wondered where Rommath was. The Grand Magister probably knew the whole debacle would provoke physical disgust, especially given what was going on with Dar'khan's little gang of disciples multiplying through Stormwind, and had the good sense to stay home. But peace and co-operation came in waves, ebbed and flowed. The more co-operation between the Horde and the Alliance, the greater the threat on the horizon seemed to be, and Qabian couldn't help notice the sense of foreboding, not just in himself, but in everyone in the room, and outside in the city beyond. Sylvanas' disappearance exacerbated that. Whatever was coming next was going to be bad, and she was either going to be the catalyst or woven inextricably into it, as Garrosh had been before her. The story was getting tired, but the necessity of survival superseded everything else. Qabian stepped quietly outside before the ambassadors finished speaking, once he realized Thrall was going to force a council on them. Seeing how well that had worked out for the Forsaken recently, clearly it needed to be modeled. Kumai waited for him near the gate. "You and I aren't to speak to each other anymore, remember?" Qabian said with a frown as he approached her. Kumai smirked at him. "Haha, very funny," he answered her smirk with a roll of his eyes and a scowl. They had taken on each other's mannerisms and their ability to communicate without saying anything was useful. Kumai reached into a pouch at her side, then tossed a pinch of soft dust in the air, before using her fingers and a shimmer of heat to weave it into a shape: the knives and shadows of the Grim. Behind the floating image, Kumai raised an eyebrow at Qabian. Qabian shook his head. "I don't know. There is always an ebb and flow to such work, and in theory, now is the time to prepare as the horizon promises there will be much to do, but..." He hesitated, looking past Kumai around the rough, omnipresent browns of Durotar stone. "Nazjatar has changed everything irrevocably. For me," he amended. "I may continue my project in Northrend, pretend it can hold my attention indefinitely when there is really no way that it can, but at least it is something to occupy my mind between the everyday struggles while we await that horizon's approach." He turned away from the embassy and the orc he was speaking to. She was one of the few people he could consider a friend without them ever insisting he address them as such, but the urge to pull away from even those few seemed to increase every day. She stepped up behind him and put her hand on his arm. "You have not yet found your Nazjatar. Or you have and you have already moved beyond it," Qabian said quietly. He didn't flinch from her touch, but he spoke to Kumai without looking at her. "I think I may need to find my way on my own." Kumai held her palm out in front of Qabian's chest with the Grim symbol still floating above it. The dust shifted its shape, showing a series of figures, all of them women: a shorter proportioned elf figure with a lot of curves, a tall figure with much longer ears and that characteristic shal'dorei arrogance in her stance, a small raggedy bony figure with knives aggressively stabbing at the air, a few other elves of varying shapes in various stances suggesting violence, then a small copy of herself right down to the little dust figure floating above her copy's hand. Qabian watched the series of images, then sighed. "I know. I am not alone. But I should be." He sidestepped Kumai's incoming punch with a curt laugh. "I know, I know. I know where to find help if I need it, but I don't even know if I want help at this point. We must wait and see. No, I must wait and see. I will grow into my role as a wizard locking himself away in a tower. You must go ahead without me." Kumai nodded. She let her dust lose its magic and gather in her palm, then closed her fist around it. The two Horde mages gave each other simultaneous lazy salutes, as if they'd practiced synchronizing the gesture and the mirrored smirks that followed before they turned away from each other, walking separate ways out into the city.
  6. To anyone standing amongst the crowds gathered, the air outside of Grommash Hold was thick. Orgrimmar, situated in an already hot and dusty part of Durotar, was roasting at the peak of summer. The smell of sweat from thousands of different Horde citizens mingled alongside the wafting aroma of food from a nearby feast that was being laid out as the crowds waited. Most of them weren’t waiting for the food. They were common folk of all kinds; orcish tradesmen, goblin merchants, Forsaken refugees (to name a few), and their goal wasn’t an invitation to the celebratory feast being laid out for the Horde’s leaders, it was to catch a glimpse of those leaders together. It might have been the first time many people would have seen them together, or some of them even at all. Calia Menethil was rumored to be arriving, and Princess Talanji rarely left Zuldazar. The idea that they would all be gathered in the capital city together was too exciting for most to pass up. Vilmah was one of those common folk. The Warboss of Sanctuary had little intention of staying for the feast itself, even if she had earned a place there after years of service to the Horde. What she wanted was to satiate her curiosity and see for herself that the Horde had indeed moved forward, finally, and the dream of peace between the allied races and the Alliance was actually becoming real. The diminutive orc stood beside a few others, but she had shoved her way forward and stood against the street a few yards from Grommash Hold’s entrance. Dressed in a blademaster’s attire, her beads, katana, and scars held enough sway that no one bothered to question her place at the front. Though she usually left it loose around her shoulders, she took the time to tie back her hair into a few braids, decorated with beads to match her beaded necklace. She wore no expression, but the sweat on her brow wasn’t just the effect of the crowd and the dry Durotar heat. Vilmah stared at the entrance and waited. When the Horde’s leaders finally emerged, she let out a deep breath of relief. Nobody was injured, and for the most part, nobody looked too angry. Perhaps Talanji looked less than pleased, but as far as Vilmah could tell their meeting seemed to go as expected. Thrall, his familiar face weary with duty, turned his attention to some children a few feet from her and waved with as much of a smile as their former Warchief could muster. Vilmah felt her heart freeze for a few seconds, recalling the words he spoke to her as if they were yesterday. Have you come to serve the Horde? A cheer erupted from the gathered audience and she joined them, raising her arms, both flesh and mechanical into the air. Their leaders formed a little procession that led to the feast, waving at their people. Vilmah noticed that some were a bit more enthusiastic on this front, and Lor’themar specifically took the time to smile with a twinkle in his good eye. The Warboss, however, kept her attention on Thrall. “How long do you think he’ll last this time?” Came a voice from behind her, then a chuckle. Vilmah clenched her jaw. She was used to hearing people speak ill of their former Warchief, but it seemed even less appropriate now. Taking in a calming breath, she made the valiant attempt to clear her mind of the budding anger that was being pricked by both words and the blistering Durotar sun. “Who knows. His mate isn’t here, you think he’s going to stay alone?” Came another voice, triggering a twitch in Vilmah’s eyelid. “Maybe if he wanted to. Thrall could have a mate in every continent,” the first voice laughed. “Maybe that’s why he’s got that little place in Orgrimmar. Why go back and forth when you can enjoy a few different shades of green?” “Excuse me,” Vilmah said calmly, turning around to face the voices. An orc and a blood elf stared back at her, bemused. “I don’t think the Warchief.. Thrall, would appreciate your insinuation.” “The former Warchief is too busy wining and dining Princess Talanji to care what we think,” the blood elf said with a grin. “Lighten up, this is a celebration.” Chewing on her tongue, Vilmah forced the rage bubbling in her stomach back down. Why be so upset over a few strangers teasing Thrall’s honor, anyway? Exhaling through her nose, she turned back around and watched as the Horde leadership walked toward their feast. Thrall looked particularly downtrodden, his shoulders slumped with an invisible weight. “What’s her problem?” Muttered the elf. “Probably wishes she was the one keeping Thrall in Orgrimmar,” the orc said under his breath. Vilmah had to stop herself from using her left arm, but her right one seemed to have a mind of its own. At more than a foot shorter than the other orc, she didn’t have the reach to punch him as squarely in the jaw as he would have liked, but she was the perfect height to knock the wind out of his stomach. A strange silence overtook the crowd surrounding them as dozens of eyes turned toward the commotion. The orc fell backwards and hit the ground, both the wind and his pride knocked out of him. A flash of red clouded Vilmah’s eyes as thoughts of what she could do to this disrespectful orc were listed in the back of her mind, pushing her to act. It took a few seconds for them to fade, even as her eyes faded back to hazel. All the while, she and the other orc held each other’s gaze. “Ha! That’s what you get, Kro’han!” The blood elf said finally, slapping the orc’s shoulder as the rest of the crowd erupted into laughter. After all, what was a little fist fight amongst seasoned soldiers of the Horde? Kro’han grinned sheepishly, and accepted Vilmah’s mechanical hand to stand again. “Well it ain’t the first time my mouth has gotten me into trouble,” he said remorsefully, shaking his head. “Sorry ‘bout that, ma’am.” “Don’t apologize to me,” Vilmah said with a forced calm, her heart slowing from the drums she felt in her temples. Sighing, the hint of a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Just don’t push your luck. Thrall might not be Warchief anymore, but if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here. And if I was his mate, I wouldn’t have let you off so easy,” she added, elbowing him good naturedly. As the Horde leaders’ presence faded from view, the crowd began to disperse. Vilmah remained on the street, the heat of so many packed bodies slowly fading to give her a little more air. Kro’han and his friend laughed to themselves and left with the crowd, their little conflict with Vilmah practically forgotten. With the chatter of the crowd dying, she could hear her own thoughts more clearly, but Thrall’s voice was still on her mind. The armistice was signed, and peace between the Horde and the Alliance was finally becoming a reality. This was the dream she had been fighting for, ever since she took her first trip out of the Valley of Trials and met the shaman who would change her life, introducing her to both the concept and the guild known as Sanctuary. For nearly ten years she bled for the Horde, was bled by the Horde, and still stood by the possibility that someday Thrall’s vision could be reached. Now, with it actually happened she considered her place in this city, where her life once burned for her loyalty, and wondered what the world would need with a Warboss if there was no war? Nearly ten years since she swore allegiance to the Horde and promised her blade to Thrall himself, she stood alone on the streets of Ogrimmar and considered his question again. Have you come to serve the Horde?
  7. The last time Baern strode through Thunder Bluff, there had been blood. The Bloodhoof braves he walked past? They would have been his targets. The bustling tipis and longhouses nearby burned or looted. Instead, here he was, flanked by a pair of Ashtotem braves, just another tauren visitor to this tauren city. They stuck out, but less than he'd expected. Few regarded him with more than a passing glance and those that did linger only offered a few seconds of cold glaring before moving on with their day. The most garish thing about them was the warpaint they wore, but even that wasn't exactly uncommon. Farmers selling melons and leatherworkers tanning hides would also bear markings on their faces, chests and arms. In his head, he'd thought it an act of pride and dignity. A warrior chieftain standing tall as he went to meet with another. In reality, it felt more like the blustering of calves than the markings of warriors. They certainly had the build of warriors. Baern had ornate bone pauldrons carved in the shape of eagles with an enchanted axe strapped across his back. His warriors also wore thick plate, though they carried pairs of weapons to Baern's one. If anything, it was Baern's totem that stuck out the most. Few tauren carried totem harnesses like these, though it was common of Chieftains. But, through it all, they weren't stopped or bothered or harassed or harangued. Instead, they were just allowed to pass. Tauren coming to Thunder Bluff. Baern had been exiled years earlier, and yet? No one seemed to care. They got caught in a small queue passing from one level of the central bluff to the next, where Baern realized the sheer size of the central totem in the city. The great tree that formed the backbone of Ashtotem's hospital and guildhall was maybe half as large as this, even though he felt it a towering achievement. When they finally did reach the top level of the city, a tauren orator spoke the news for everyone to hear. "The Armistice has been signed! The Fourth War has ended! Your sons and daughters will be returning home from the front! The banshee queen remains at large! Horde forces are retreating from Darkshore and Arathi! The Armistice has been signed!" He went on and on like that, repeating the news and answering questions for the commonfolk gathered to hear it. Baern himself had only heard a few days prior, when the missive for this meeting arrived. Chieftain Baern Ashtotem, it read. I hope this letter finds you well. Nominally, your tribe and mine are enemies. And yet, your tribe stayed away from the war, healed the wounded, and rescued my generals when I crossed Sylvanas. Perhaps it is time we spoke, Chieftain to High Chieftain. It was that detail that irked Baern. High Chieftain. He hadn't told anyone about the meeting, even Arahe. Baine wasn't exactly someone she respected. Indeed, she loathed him for a variety of excellent reasons. Baern's reasons, on the other hand, hadn't proven true. Magatha Grimtotem, who he'd thought should lead the tauren, had shown her true colors when she abandoned her tribe to chase the power behind the Doomstone. Baine, who he'd thought a puppet of Garrosh and the Alliance, had shown his by standing up to Sylvanas and refusing to dishonor the Horde. It was this that motivated him to attend the meeting. A certain shame he felt in harboring that contempt for years. Still. High Chieftain. It embittered him. He'd arrived about on time, shephered into the longhouse by attendants. They waited for only a moment before being brought into another room with leather walls, this one containing a large, wooden pipe propped up on a wooden stand. A peace pipe, he'd realized. When two chieftains met, it was common for them to first imbibe from the pipe as an agreement not to draw arms, and then imbibe again to seal whatever agreement that were to be making. Shatichi the ritual was called. Shared breath. "I'll be just a moment," the attendant said to Baern and his braves, before slipping through to the next room. "Are you going to smoke that, Chieftain?" One of them asked, skeptical and indignant about the ritual. It was ceremonies like these that the Ashtotem found to be weak and unbecoming of the tauren. Even Baern's own memories of the mechanics of Shatichi came from his father relating them with mockery, as if such a thing was hilarious for any tauren to be caught dead doing. "Hau," intoned High Chieftain Baine Bloodhoof, slipping through the flap and entering the room before Baern had an opportunity to answer. Like Baern, he wore a totem harness and feather headdress, but both were grander and more ornate than Baern's. The room went silent while the attendant placed some herbs in the pipe, and applied a small fire spell to get them to begin smouldering. The process only took a few seconds, but Baern felt as though the moment hung between everyone in that silence. The attendant stepped away and Baine gestured to the pipe. "Chieftain?" Baern dropped his head low without hesitation and imbibed the grainy smoke, though his deep breath didn't last long. He coughed violently, spewing smoke and instinctively bringing one hand to his ribs, rubbing them like he used to. A small snicker came from one of his braves, but he ignored it and stepped aside, wordlessly letting Baine draw in the smoke much more gracefully. For him, the smoke streamed slowly and smoothly out of his nostrils and a small smile crossed his face. "Not used to smoking a peace pipe, I assume?" "It's not common that the Ashtotem engage with other tribes diplomatically," Baern answered. At least, he was able to keep his fur from fluffing up in embarrassment or his ears from flopping down in submission. "Well, Chieftain Ashtotem, I'd like to welcome you to Thunder Bluff. We breathe the same breath, so as long as you remain here, you and your braves are guaranteed safety, security and hospitality. I'm very glad that you answered my summons." Summons. It's the details that irked Baern. "I agree that it's important we talk," Baern said bitterly. "If I need to smoke a peace pipe and come to Thunder Bluff to do so? Fair enough. Let's talk." Baine nodded, the smile dripping a bit off his face. "Come, let's speak outside." The attendant held up the flap and Baine stepped aside to let Baern through. "Chieftain--" one of the braves interrupted, sounding anxious. "It's fine," Baern cut off. "But--" "It's. Fine." Without another word, Baern took Baine's offer and led the way out through the flap. There was another behind that, the sun clearly shining out from the other side. The braves remained behind, following Baern's implicit order, as the attendant did Baine's. Without too much preamble, they found themselves walking out the back of the longhouse towards a less used walkway right on the edge of the bluff. "I much prefer the fresh air," Baine says as they walk, "so for most of my meetings like this I sneak out back. If we start to draw too much attention, we can head back inside." "Do you have meetings like this commonly?" Baern asked, skeptically. "Recently, yes. There are many tauren tribes spread through Kalimdor. Many chieftains who want my ear." "Well, you shouldn't count me among them," Baern said bitterly. "I'm happy to answer whatever questions about Ashtotem you might have but make no mistake. Ashtotem is not Horde and neither am I." "You know, once the armistice was signed, I had one advisor counsel me to attack your village. He's a spiritwalker, an old one, who remembers vividly how the Ashtotem got their name," Baine says, though there isn't much of a threat in his words. "And I considered it, asking for a little more information on the village. And then, I heard about this hospital, the Ashtotem Hospital, and thought: This must be some mistake, some strange coincidence. But, no, sure enough, there's a hospital in Ashtotem Village. It's managed by the Cenarion Circle and treats both Horde and Alliance soldiers. And that, I thought, was very interesting! One of the most fearsome and warlike tribes of tauren, who were staunchly neutral in Sylvanas' war. Refusing to fight or even raid other tauren. Instead, I read a missive from Sunwalker Khrane in Taurajo reporting that the Ashtotem actually helped them repel invaders and have been dutiful trade partners for the better part of a year. And then, Cromor, one of my most trusted commanders, tells me that you, Baern Ashtotem, were responsible for rescuing him and five other my best warriors. Not Hamuul Runetotem or Sunwalker Dezco or Aponi Brightmane. They refused to cross the banshee queen, which I hold no ill will for. But you, aligned to no one, did so." "So, on one hand I have a stubborn tribe that preys on other tauren. A tribe that has been responsible for, what? How many tribes have the Ashtotem burnt to a cinder? And on the other, I have a leader that has healed my wounded, traded with my people and rescued some of my closest friends. What am I to do with that?" "The Ashtotem also stood side by side with the Bloodhoof in the Battle of Mount Hyjal. You and I met there, in fact, when our fathers agreed the Ashtotem would be the vanguard for the right flank," Baern points out. "That's not true," Baine counters, though his tone isn't confident. "I met your brother. You and I never met..." "I was by Mourne's side the entire battle. You and I met. You complimented my armor.” A small silence grows between them, until Baine breaks it with a small chuckle. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember this at all,” he reports. “I remember meeting your brother and your father, though, which did cause me to wonder how they had died.” Baern lets it go. “My father died during the Cataclysm. He drowned when the Thousand Needles were flooded. My brother was killed. Or rather, I killed him.” “Because he was feeding the Ashtotem demonblood?” Baine asks. “Precisely. I’d left the village to fight as a mercenary on Draenor and in Pandaria, only to return and find my brother corrupting the tribe. I killed him, then the Dreadlord who convinced him to go along with it.” “Very noble of you,” Baine notes. “Well, it led to war with Darkcloud Pinnacle, so not exactly that noble,” Baern says bitterly. “Yes, I remember that. I think one of my advisors told me not to worry, it was just Grimtotem infighting.” “In a sense. My great-grandfather was Grimtotem and my great-grandmother was Ashtotem, both children of chieftains. That marriage bound our tribes together and guaranteed safety, security and supplies for one another. When I killed my brother and then asked for those three things from Darkcloud Pinnacle, the Grimtotem denied me. The violence escalated until we repelled their attack, I flew to the Pinnacle and killed Ohmr, their chieftain,” Baern recounts. “After the war, I told the Grimtotem at the Pinnacle, if they wanted to follow a warrior they could become Ashtotem and return with me. And a good amount did that.” “And that’s when you re-established the Ashtotem as their own tribe,” Baine surmises. “I see. I’m surprised so many Grimtotem were willing to join you.” “I never was. The Grimtotem respect strength, but even with the tribes we destroyed over the years, there were always converts.” Talking about it so casually forces Baern to pause for a moment. He didn’t mean to sound callous, but it was callous. “Which, now, I see as something of a boon. A young Bloodhoof in my village has started writing down the stories of the Ashtotem and many of them include the customs and culture of tauren tribes long dead.” Baine holds his tongue, watching a pair of young braves walk along the path behind them. It’s obvious that conflict is apparent on his face. “Grim solace if I’ve ever heard it,” he says, after a moment. “But I certainly see the good that you’re trying to do. Baern, I’d like you and your tribe to join the Horde. There have been enough divisions in our ranks, it’s the time the tauren were finally united.” It was a plea Baern expected but with less… persuasive energy than he’d imagined. There was a hesitation there, a reluctance. He had come ready to bargain and barter, hoping to extract real concessions from the High Chieftain for helping unite the tauren. But Baine, by his tone and face, seemed to offer as a matter of course. Was he just exhausted? Drained from the war, the council, the armistice and everything in between? “I’m open to the idea, at the very least,” Baern grants. “I left the Horde on a principle, one that I have to admit was poor.” “You mean, the coup?” Baine asks. “Indeed. I think few tauren understand the thought process of the Grimtotem, at the time, but we saw Garrosh as the murderer and Magatha as the scapegoat. There was a great amount of respect for your father among the Ashtotem, at least. We trusted her when she said she was innocent and it made so much sense that Garrosh killed him to cull the closest rival to Warchief. Now, though, it’s beyond clear that Magatha couldn’t be trusted and that you weren’t some witless pawn.” “Apology accepted,” Baine answers with a soft smile. “But-- I have bigger considerations than that. Ashtotem houses more than just tauren. We have Night Elves who live there, working in the hospital. One of our mesas is dedicated entirely to a group of Death Knights I’ve allowed to remain. These are independent citizens, not Horde citizens, and I would never evict them from their home.” Baine closes his eyes and puts up his hands. “Granted. I expected as much and I’m more than happy to allow my chieftains to govern the inhabitants of their village as they see fit. Trade, however, with the Alliance is not open and would need to be ended.” “That’s fine,” Baern agrees. “I have no active routes with the Alliance, at this point. We were trading with New Thalanaar on the way to Camp Taurajo, but Teldrassil changed all that. Now, our only real trade partners are Desolation Hold, Camp Taurajo and the Speedbarge.” “Yes, I’m prepared to make that route to Desolation Hold even stronger. I understand that you have a hard time farming in the desert of the Needles, so I’ve instructed that we open up some of our stockpiles to flow south through the Hold.” “I’m much obliged. We’re doing much better on food now than last year, but the village grows bigger by the day and I’d like to keep those costs down, if I can.” Baern allows himself a small smile. This was turning out better than expected. “I’d also like to send someone here to represent our interests with you in any day to day decision making. There’s a Bloodhoof warrior in my village, Kimba Goldplain, who I think would love to return to Thunder Bluff.” “You mean, you want to send me an advisor?” Baine asks. “I suppose if that’s what you want to call it, yes,” Baern answers, a little unsure of himself. “As I understand it, tribes send representatives to Thunder Bluff.” “Some do,” Baine answers apologetically, “but most of the smaller tribes keep their best people close to the chest rather than wasting their time in Thunder Bluff.” “Are you saying if I did send someone here, you’d ignore them?” Baern bites back harder and harsher than he’d intended. “I have a limited amount of time, Chieftain, and I choose what advisors to bring on very carefully,” Baine explains. His mouth hanging open, Baern blinked and shook his head. Rationally, he understood the High Chieftain’s viewpoint, but those feelings of shame, indignity, and embarrassment flourished among the denial. “If you want me and my people to rejoin the Horde, I want a voice in Thunder Bluff. That’s very important to me and, I think, very reasonable!” Baern shouted, despite himself. “I agree,” Baine responds soothingly, like a father trying to calm down a child on the brink of tantrum. “But you must understand that it takes time for some of the lesser chieftains to bend my ear, especially chieftains that have the history of the Ashtotem. I believe in the good work that you’re doing and I’m grateful for everything that you’ve done for me. Rescuing my generals. Taking in refugees from my tribe. Healing my soldiers. But it just takes time…” Lesser chieftains. The rest of Baine’s words, no matter how respectful or well-reasoned, whistled past Baern’s ears like an inaudible wind. The only words in that response he found were lesser and chieftains. Over the last two years, Baern had killed his corrupted brother, killed the dreadlord who corrupted him, freed his people from the clutches of the Legion, became chieftain to an impoverished, starving village, killed a fel lord in single combat, died, became Valarjar, earned the trust of Bloodtotem, Bloodhoof and Death Knight refugees, rallied his people to defend against an overwhelming foe, defeated that foe, absorbed half of that tribe, built a hospital, avoided war, and helped heal the earthmother beneath his hooves by working with the Champions of Azeroth. Baern remembered a time when he thought himself a villain. A raider whose only purpose was to kill, conquer and dominate other people. He hated when the Ashtotem called him a hero, a title he hadn’t felt worthy of. But over time, that self image had bled away and he began to see himself through the eyes of others. It was satisfying, comforting even, to think he’d been able to shed that old life, earned the kind of dignity and honor that even Baine Bloodhoof would have to take notice of. That was never the truth. The truth, Baern realized, was all Ashtotem’s dramas and trials and victories and defeats were the movements of a few thousand tauren of a small tribe in a small village on the fringes of civilization. The shame and embarrassment bubbled to the surface as Baern realized Baine had been waiting patiently for him to say something, anything, with an empathetic, patient and even caring look on his face. Shame’s knife twisted in Baern’s gut. Even in this moment of humiliation, the High Chieftain wasn’t even heartless or oblivious enough that Baern could hide those feelings with indignant anger. “I don’t think it’s the right time,” Baern said finally, his voice fraying from speaking so quietly. “Things are going well in the village and with the tribe. I can’t disrupt that, at the moment.” Mercifully, Baine nodded. “If that is your wish, I’ll respect it. I do think there is a great potential for good among your tribe. And great potential in you, Chieftain.” “Thank you, High Chieftain,” Baern agreed, offering a sad smile, an implicit apology for overstepping bounds. Wordlessly, they returned to the room with the peace pipe, where Baern and Baine shared another breath together. This time, the Ashtotem chieftain didn’t descend into a coughing fit, and with just a bit of formal farewells, he and his two braves activated their hearthstones and returned to the windswept mesas they called home.
  8. The room is dark, only the faint glow of some herbs growing in the windowsill and the moon’s light illuminating the room. A fine, ornate desk of copper and wood takes up most of it, the room small with most of its space crowded in by bookshelves, paintings, and other mementos throughout the years. So obviously her space, and hers alone, noted by all of the small knick knacks and hand me down items on display. A mish mash of little treasured things speckled between medals and trophies of note. The door clicks closed behind her and lamps immediately hum to life, casting the stone walls and marble floor into a cocoon of warmth, the light reflecting off of her skin and giving it a healthy glow that’s been missing from it for the last few weeks. As she shuffles to the plush velvet chair of red she passes by her reflection in an old mirror, the edges frayed and black with age, but she quickly moves on past, not wanting to dwell on her gaunt cheeks or dimmed eyes. The last few years had not been kind to her. Multiple wars, a new love and heartbreak all in one, loss of friends, family, and one of her own. A strained marriage that at times feels so magical, light and loving and all things wonderful. And others feels dark and suffocating, like tendrils wrapping around her throat until her vision swims with dark. She pushes the memory back, instead letting her eyes rest on the dreaming glory so perfectly encased in resin, looking as fresh as the day it was plucked. It’s a bittersweet thing, the memory of a lost love aching too, but in a different way, almost a comfort because a piece of the woman never truly left. Her essence humming inside Amalyn’s heart until the end of time. The chair makes a terrible noise as she pulls it out, the marble protesting in a shock to the serenity of the room, an inevitable thing in this world. Peace never lasts long. She takes out the black, leather bound book, looking old but not worn, as if it’d seen little use. Truly it hadn’t, oftentimes she’d throw herself into something new, a project, or her work, instead of taking the time to reflect back on her life. You cannot dwell on the present or past when you are always looking forward to the future. But that meant running away, and oftentimes, you simply have nowhere else to go. The priestess pulls out her black feather quill, her favorite and a staple to her desktop’s decor, and opens the book, the spine cracking with disuse. She thinks for a moment, but decides to just let her thoughts flow out as they come, as she lays its tip to the page. ~~~~~ I sometimes look at my life and wonder how I got to where I am today. A husband, a child, a small army of people at my beck and call, willing to give their lives for me just because someone pays them to. I’ve had people under my command as well, I practically ran a small town and provided not only physical healing services for them but mental ones too. And now I carry a banner I previously held before, because their ideals and philosophy are most aligned to what we are trying to do, and yet I feel like a stranger to them. I’ve been on a mission, yes, but I had no time prior to get to know any of them, not even the leader whom I’ve sworn my loyalty to, was I able to get a word in with. I’ve sat for hours in the infirmary, I’ve healed the hurt and sick, and yet I feel like a transient, a passerby who is merely a useful ghost in a time of need. Outside of my family, I do not feel like I have people relying on me, looking up to me for answers to their life’s problems, and it frightens me that that is what I hinge my life’s worth on. It’s not enough that I am a faithful wife, or a loving mother, but that I only feel fulfilled anymore when I can solve others problems and bring peace to this world. I wonder what will happen when I can no longer fight. When my children have long left our home and my body deems it’s time to give up, what will I do then? Will I be able to deal with those feelings of inadequacy, or will I have lived a fulfilled enough life by then to be sated in this underlying need? I do want to get to know the people of Sanctuary, I really do. I miss the feeling of having a community, a family, but when I look around I cannot help but feel I am not needed. An outcast, of sorts. I’ve devoted my life to the light, to healing wounds and easing troubles minds, but as war winds down, what do those of us who know nothing but it do? Ha, I speak as if I’m some war-weary veteran with grey hair and countless scars to match, but if I think about it, war is really all I know. I completed my studies at the academy and immediately fell into working alongside my husband, a man I met before I was even finished becoming a full-fledged paladin. It wasn’t until some years later, while I was pregnant with our daughter, did I turn to priesthood and forever changed my life again. But truly, war is all I have known, and it’s something I’d never wish on anyone else in this world. I’ve tried to protect our daughter from it, but she’s at that age where she’s becoming much more aware of her surroundings, of the world and all of it’s horrors, and I cannot stop it. I would never lie to her, I never have, but sometimes I yearn for the days when she was still a sweet little bundle I could so easily hold against my breast. When calming her and making her happy was as easy as humming a soft tune and holding her close. I long for the days when my husband came home every night. But that- that is for another time, I think. I worry, though, for befriending the people of Sanctuary. Will I be able to open myself up again? Can I allow myself to be vulnerable and allow myself to be loved? Am I even deserving of such love after everything I’ve allowed to happen? I suppose I should speak to my husband on it. He so easily endears himself to others and is beloved by so many, it was no shock I had been so taken by him all those years ago. And it is no surprise I still devote my life to him after all we’ve been through, concerns for my daughter aside. It has been quite some time since I last wrote in this journal, its spine still sturdy and intact, perhaps I should change that. ~~~~~ Amalyn puts the book away, sets the quill back into its resting place, and leans back in her chair as she lets her eyes close. She feels weary and old, spread too thin and yet fearing it’s never enough. Always feeling like she could do more. Help more. Give more people aid and bring more people peace. Right others wrongs and still be a loving wife and mother all along the way. A soft knock sounds at the door and from the other side she hears, “Mama?” It’s late, Saturna should be in bed by now. “Come in my love.” The tension and tiredness she’d been holding onto seeps out of her a bit, just enough to allow a smile to touch her lips as her daughter peeks her head into the room. She opens her arms and motions of the girl to come join her at the desk, concern for the look on her face. “I had a bad dream.” The girl whines as she wraps her arms around her waist and buries her face into Amalyn’s bosom, the priestess wrapping her own arms around the girl tight as she sits in her lap. “I’m sorry sweetheart, want me to make it better?” She kisses the top of the girl’s head as her hands rub up and down her back, the girl nodding yes as she cuddles in close. It’s all she needs before she starts humming a soft tune, one she came up with when Saturna was still a babe, as she lets some of her magic do it’s work. Within minutes the girl is asleep, her face relaxed, no trace of the nightmare that had plagued her before remaining on her soft and porcelain features. The room grows quiet again, a piece of peace settling across the pair in the hush of night as Amalyn is left once more with her contemplation of life. Amalyn - Twisting Nether - Horde
  9. I sometimes look at my life and wonder how I got to where I am today. A husband, a child, a small army of people at my beck and call, willing to give their lives for me just because someone pays them to. I’ve had people under my command as well, I practically ran a small town and provided not only physical healing services for them but mental ones too. And now I carry a banner I previously held before, because their ideals and philosophy are most aligned to what we are trying to do, and yet I feel like a stranger to them. I’ve been on a mission, yes, but I had no time prior to get to know any of them, not even the leader whom I’ve sworn my loyalty to, was I able to get a word in with. I’ve sat for hours in the infirmary, I’ve healed the hurt and sick, and yet I feel like a transient, a passerby who is merely a useful ghost in a time of need. Outside of my family, I do not feel like I have people relying on me, looking up to me for answers to their life’s problems, and it frightens me that that is what I hinge my life’s worth on. It’s not enough that I am a faithful wife, or a loving mother, but that I only feel fulfilled anymore when I can solve others problems and bring peace to this world. I wonder what will happen when I can no longer fight. When my children have long left our home and my body deems it’s time to give up, what will I do then? Will I be able to deal with those feelings of inadequacy, or will I have lived a fulfilled enough life by then to be sated in this underlying need? I do want to get to know the people of Sanctuary, I really do. I miss the feeling of having a community, a family, but when I look around I cannot help but feel I am not needed. An outcast, of sorts. I’ve devoted my life to the light, to healing wounds and easing troubles minds, but as war winds down, what do those of us who know nothing but it do? Ha, I speak as if I’m some war-weary veteran with grey hair and countless scars to match, but if I think about it, war is really all I know. I completed my studies at the academy and immediately fell into working alongside my husband, a man I met before I was even finished becoming a full-fledged paladin. It wasn’t until some years later, while I was pregnant with our daughter, did I turn to priesthood and forever changed my life again. But truly, war is all I have known, and it’s something I’d never wish on anyone else in this world. I’ve tried to protect our daughter from it, but she’s at that age where she’s becoming much more aware of her surroundings, of the world and all of it’s horrors, and I cannot stop it. I would never lie to her, I never have, but sometimes I yearn for the days when she was still a sweet little bundle I could so easily hold against my breast. When calming her and making her happy was as easy as humming a soft tune and holding her close. I long for the days when my husband came home every night. But that- that is for another time, I think. I worry, though, for befriending the people of Sanctuary. Will I be able to open myself up again? Can I allow myself to be vulnerable and allow myself to be loved? Am I even deserving of such love after everything I’ve allowed to happen? I suppose I should speak to my husband on it. He so easily endears himself to others and is beloved by so many, it was no shock I had been so taken by him all those years ago. And it is no surprise I still devote my life to him after all we’ve been through, concerns for my daughter aside. It has been quite some time since I last wrote in this journal, its spine still sturdy and intact, perhaps I should change that.
  10. Dear Diary, My heart is racing right now! Today seemed like just another normal day, until this evening. Shellene handed me a letter that she said arrived earlier. At first I thought it might be from Dad, but I could see right away from the writing that it wasn't. That's when my stomach started doing flipflops, because I wasn't expecting any other letters from anyone. So it could only be one thing. I took the letter upstairs to my room to open it, and my hands were shaking when I did. I was pretty sure it was going to be a rejection letter, and I was almost hoping it was. The idea of actually going on the show seems terrifying to me! Why did I even apply, what was I thinking! So I unfolded the letter, held my breath and read it. Oh my gosh, Diary. I'm going to be on the show!! What am I going to do?! It's so scary to think of going off on my own for something like this, not knowing anyone else there! I'm so scared, but I am excited, too. Matron Nightingale was not very happy with me! I guess she didn't really take it serious, or didn't know what it was, or both. They are letting me go, though. And now, I have to pack for about a month and a half. That's a really long time! I'm mostly finished packing right now, I'll do the rest of it in the morning. I don't know how I'm going to sleep, tonight. In the morning I'll finish getting the rest of my things together, and then Shellene and Aldren are going to arrange a flight for me down to Booty Bay. I've never even been to Booty Bay alone. I hope the other people on the show are nice, and they like me. I hope I like them. Maybe I'll make some new friends. I wonder if there will be anyone my age there. I wonder what islands we'll be going to? Oh, I'm really nervous! But I think this will be the adventure of a lifetime. And I'm for sure going to bring you to write in. Ok, Diary. Goodnight. Next time I write in you, we'll probably be on a boat!
  11. Dear Diary, I am so nervous right now! I can finally talk about what I wanted to mention last night, but I ran out of time. And it's the reason why I was emptying out my drawer yesterday and found you. Let me explain. There is a game show called The House that has been around for a couple of years. I've heard of it before, but I didn't see anything from the first season. I just heard a little bit about it. They say all kinds of crazy things happened, but it was pretty dangerous. Then the last season was earlier this year, in the winter time. I saw a couple of episodes from that one after I heard people talking about it in town. It didn't seem nearly as bad as the other season I heard about. Mostly it looked fun. They were playing some game where they kept having to taste different potions that would do different things, like turn them invisible, or into a giant, or they'd start bleating like a goat. And in another episode, they were following some clues that would lead them to a secret room in the house. It just looked so interesting. I enjoyed watching the ones I saw, but I didn't think much about it and forgot about it after that. Well, a couple of weeks ago I saw some of these flyers posted up around town. I took this one, because there were more of them around. It's going to be on a boat this time! And go to some islands! At first I got excited because I thought I'd try and watch more of it this time. But then I got to thinking. What if- just what if- I applied, myself? What a crazy idea. I really wasn't sure about trying it. But at the same time, if I didn't at least try, I'd never know. I'm not even sure if I want to do it, it sounds so scary when I think about it! But also, exciting. I went ahead and sent in an application. I'm sure I won't get picked. But at least I tried. I don't even know what I'd do if I did get selected! I did tell the Matrons about it. They aren't too sure what to make of it, but they didn't tell me not to. The deadline for people to send an application is tomorrow and then they'll announce who got picked to be on it, I guess. So at least after tomorrow I'll know one way or another, and I can stop worrying about it!
  12. Dear Diary, I can't believe I forgot about you! It's been a really long time since I wrote. I guess I just got so busy with my studies, and then moving back to Stormwind was a big change. I was just cleaning up my room and found you tucked way in the back of my dresser drawer, under some old clothes I haven't worn in a long time. But I'm so glad I found you again! Since it's been over four years since I wrote anything, it's really impossible to talk about all the things that have happened since then. When things got bad with the war, Mom and Dad (Kexti and Juli) decided it would be much safer for me if I came back to Stormwind. It was really hard at first, and I was so sad. I was still able to go visit them in Dalaran sometimes, but then Mom got busy with things that kept her away, so it would mostly just be Dad and I. He used to write to me a lot more, but I think when he's out in the field fighting, it gets too hard to keep up with. I just really hope he's ok right now. I miss him and Mom. I've been keeping myself busy though- I was going to join Twilight Empire, but that got messed up by the War also. At the orphanage, they were telling those of us that were old enough that we should try to find a guild to join. And that's why I was going to join them, but then I ended up doing something even better! At the orphanage, Matron Nightingale said she saw something promising in me, and asked if I'd stay on there and help to mentor some of the older kids that will be leaving soon. Just kind of in various ways, depending on who they are and what they might need. Some of them I help with their studies, or just talking to them about what they might expect when they leave and how to find a guild or a trade skill that they'd enjoy. Some of the girls, I teach self defense and how to use some of the things Dad taught me. And sometimes I'll talk to some of the new orphans that come in that might be scared or confused, because I remember how I felt also, when I lost my real Dad. They just want me to be a positive influence on the kids, and they said it's easier for the other kids to relate to someone closer to their age, and especially someone who has been through it. Anyway, in exchange for that I get room and board at the orphanage. I like it because I feel like I can make a difference to people. I think Mom and Dad would be proud. I try to pass on the values I learned from Sanctuary, also. Also, look at this photograph that my friend Aldren took! A bunch of us were outside because it was snowing, and I was writing a note to my friend Heidi, and he took this picture. I didn't even see him do it! I think it's neat, though. I love the snow falling in it. Ok goodnight Diary, I'll try to remember to write in you more often. Plus, I have something exciting to talk about, but this is getting too long so I'll do it tomorrow. Goodnight!
  13. 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!
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. “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.
  17. (( 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! ))
  18. “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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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, 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!”
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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?”
  25. ((The Cast So Far...)) The Wretch / Cobra Mother Tails Slick Ogre Socks Gretta Grabbyhands Tops Blue Mute
  26. 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.
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