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Everything posted by RiktheRed21

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?”
  7. ((The Cast So Far...)) The Wretch / Cobra Mother Tails Slick Ogre Socks Gretta Grabbyhands Tops Blue Mute
  8. 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.
  9. Cobra sat on a barrel, wearing a blindfold over his eyes, and called out to strangers passing by, “A bit for a blind beggar? Just a bit, that’s all I’m asking.” Not being able to see the mass of people helped calm his anxious heart somewhat, but he still rankled under Tops’ restriction against pickpocketing engineers. The crowds surged by, off to their boring lives of servitude to the institution. Cobra had learned about how society functioned in part from the books he read in secret as a youth and more recently from Tails and the other thieves. People slept, they woke, they ate and washed themselves. They went to their jobs and worked until the lights dimmed and then returned home, tired but a little wealthier. They ate and washed and went to sleep and the next day the cycle began anew. It wasn’t dissimilar to how his mother had enforced his own life, and due to that, Cobra cringed away from the idea of a “normal life.” A coin clattered on his barrel-seat. “Thank you kindly, sir or madam,” he squeaked. “You’re the one, right? The Snake?” the voice was unfamiliar, but what he asked was what Cobra had been waiting for. He wouldn’t have put himself on beggar duty for anything less than this. The blindfold had been part of the arrangement. No faces, no names. A blind meeting. He nodded, taking the coin and chewing at it. “I left the notes,” he confirmed. “And that was only a little bit of what I know.” “You’ll get us more, then. We Rumblers are tired of Rats stealing our prizes.” An Earth Rumbler, Cobra thought. They were one of the many gangs that ran their operations behind a business front in the middle districts. Lately, they’d been toeing into Rat Runner territory down below, but then, the Rats had been moving further up the platforms the last few years, to hear Tails tell of it. “I have a price,” Cobra reminded the Rumbler. “Half a gold hammering for each delivery.” The Rumbler made a crude noise. “That price for this garbage? You’re out of your gourd, kid.” “You wouldn’t be here if you thought it was garbage,” Cobra retorted, his irritation replacing nervousness. “You haven’t been able to get an informant inside the Rats, but you have tried. Every one of them was too stupid to cover their tracks, and they couldn’t read Tops’ code. I can.” The Rumbler hesitated for a moment, then replied, “Even if you can read it, that four-eyed freak keeps his office locked up tighter than a dwarf priestess’ cunt. You won’t get in.” Cobra bristled and sat up straighter. Massaging his bloody bandaged knuckles, he said, “I will. But until I do, you will pay my price or lose this opportunity.” He waited. The Rumbler made no sound, so he could hear only the clanking of passersby across the metal platform. The pause went on so long that his proud confidence wavered. Nervousness seeped back in. He leaned forward, listening, then reached to remove his blindfold. The sudden clank on his barrel made him jump backwards reflexively. He landed headfirst on the metal floor. He removed the blindfold, but if the Rumbler was in the crowd, Cobra couldn’t recognize him. He stood up and rubbed his sore head. The pain seemed trivial when he saw the pouch on the barrel. His smile grew wider as he counted out the coins within. Forty-eight, forty-nine…fifty silver rams! I could live for a month off all this! And all it had costed was a measly scrap of paper and some ink. And a rebellion. Here in the Centrifuge, it pays to rebel. Mother knew that. That’s why she hurt me. Why she whipped me and kept me locked up. She was afraid of what I could become. And she was right to be afraid. He tied the purse to his belt and hid it within his breeches. Hastily, he returned to the back-alleys and to one of his hideouts. He sifted through the pipes and retrieved one of his emergency coin purses. He deposited most of the silver into the pouch, leaving an unsuspicious amount for himself. Beggar duty was an official responsibility for a Rat Runner; he would be expected to return his day’s earnings to the hideout. The last thing he needed was to be suspected of cheating the boss. The hideout door opened after Cobra’s knock; Ogre’s expressionless face greeted him as ever. “Welcome back, Cobra!” he said cheerily. “Good haul today?” Cobra smiled warmly. “Quite good, Og,” he said, skipping into the lounge, “Quite good, indeed.”
  10. The target was clearly from out-of-town, just as Cobra liked them. The gnome had hair the color of an eggplant, styled with a slick flair that indicated a long time spent self-grooming. His shoes were clean despite the grimy floors of platform twenty-two, and his tailored suit reeked of money. But it was his coin purse Cobra fixated on, and the sack of rolled-up papers on his shoulder. Like most smart rich folk, he travelled with an entourage of followers – mostly engineers – that walked together in a tight group. They had walked a nearly full circuit of the platform while Cobra tailed them. At various points they’d stopped to mark spots in need of repair or improvement, though Cobra couldn’t tell which was which. Another point of knowledge he’d added to his list in the last few months. The group approached the elevators leading off the platform, just as Tails had told him they would. The engineering corps did these routine maintenance checks every fortnight to ensure the lower levels were operating at least at minimal capacity. The Centrifuge, as Cobra had learned, did not divide its energy reserves evenly. The top ten floors all contained vital systems such as the expansion’s life-support and atmospheric controls. Beneath them were the middle platforms, which contained vast residential and mercantile districts that supported the entire expansion. The bottom thirty floors, however, were outdated and, according to Tops, close to being voted as abandoned in status by the Gnomeregan council. It was down here that most of the repair work had to be done, and where the pickpockets thrived most. It took an ambitious thief to target a repair corps, but Cobra’s confidence had grown as his successes piled one after another. As it turned out, Tails had been right about his temperament. He saw threats in every shadow, in every face. Few could sneak up on him, and he’d learned where to sleep in the back-alleys to avoid being disturbed. He could find food in the form of rats and fungi, both of which thrived in the humid lower levels. Many of the Rat Runner thieves stuck to the middle platforms where there were more targets, but Cobra and the other bold pickpockets saw the opportunity in the dingy low town. The corps split up to take different elevators. It was simply a necessity. This part of the expansion hadn’t received upgraded lifts along with the middle and upper sections when the expansion had been built. Once, this area had been a mine dug by old dwarven prospectors, but the ore had long since been drowned. Now, there was little reason to come down here save to keep the geothermal harvesters operational. Cobra slipped into an elevator with one of the small groups. He fit in fine, and he engineers simply cleared their throats and avoided eye contact. Some wrinkled their noses as if to say, You don’t belong here. Even your smell is wrong. Cobra sniffled as if something was troubling him. Before long, he was balling his eyes out, fresh tears leaving clean streaks down his dirty cheeks. The engineers shifted uncomfortably, but the wealthy-looking man with the slick hair smiled at him sadly. “Lost your folks, Sunny?” he asked in a friendly tone. The same tone he’d used for the little girl with the doll back on platform twenty-two. Cobra had noted that and developed his plan around it. He nodded at the man, still sniffling. “Can’t find them,” he whined. The slick man ruffled Cobra’s strawlike brown hair with a gloved hand. “Where did you see them last?” he asked. “P-platform…um…thirty—forty—six?” he stammered. He mumbled a few more numbers in the mid-range to add further confusion. “Well, we’ll just have to check a few levels until we find them, then!” An engineer looked at the slick man dubiously. “Boss, is that really necessary? Doesn’t the Centrifuge have…people for that sort of thing?” The slick man turned to the engineer and said, “Not enough, sadly. Poverty is rampant in this expansion, especially below level fifty.” While he looked away, Cobra flicked the hidden razor in his sleeve, which fell into his grasp unnoticeably. He eyed the strap on the man’s satchel and the string on his coin purse. Not enough time for both, he knew. The engineer scratched his scalp anxiously. “Still, we’re supposed to report back to Central…we could get in trouble for making a detour.” Cobra eyed the floor indicator on the elevator wall. Five more levels… The boss clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “We’ll tell them we got delayed fixing a leak. It’s a common enough problem, but not major enough to turn heads. Just look at the kid, Filbin! He needs our help!” Now. Cobra swiped, ripping through the satchel strap with ease. He scooped up the bag and climbed out the elevator window. Before the engineers could reach for him, he flipped over the side and landed on a flat steel landing for the service stairwell. Without hesitation, he began his rapid descent. He took a turn off the stairwell at platform twenty-eight and ran along support beams for a while, then climbed along a support beam to the wall of the expansion. A gap in the pipes led to a back-alley marked with graffiti in the shape of a rat running on its hind legs. He stopped to catch his breath and listened for the sound of pursuit. All he heard was the whirring of machinery behind the expansion wall. He grinned to himself and rifled through the satchel. The Runners would require the lion’s share of his get, but first pickings was a right granted to the thief. He could take whatever singular item he desired most, unless it was specifically requested by dispatch. The satchel contained blueprints, as he’d expected. It also had the slick man’s spare parts for repairs, a cheat-sheet for parts’ order numbers, a small set of vital repair tools, and a set of notebooks and fountain pens. Cobra’s smile deepened as he took one of the pens. With his loot in hand, Cobra followed the twisting, confusing tunnels back to the Rat’s Nest. The graffiti signs were few and far between, but he knew the way well enough by now. Mostly, the signs warned rival gangs to stay out of the tunnels or risk incurring the wrath of the Rats. Cobra had yet to come across any rival thieves, but he worried that was because they were better at hiding than he was. One final turn led him to a large, sealed vault door marked with cheese-shaped graffiti. He knocked twice, three times, once, then four times. The door groaned, clicked, and swung open with a menacing metallic moan. Ogre towered over him, his face stuck in a permanent scowl. “Hey, Cobra!” he greeted cheerfully. “You got something! Nice work!” The big gnome’s face barely moved as he spoke, giving no outward indication of his joy. Cobra nodded and patted the satchel proudly. “Third time this week. A gullible repairman in some fancy clothes.” “What’d you take for first pickings?” Cobra showed him the pen, his smile wide and beaming. Ogre clapped his meaty hands, his mouth twisting in the vague direction of a smile. “To match that ream of parchment from yesterday! Have you decided what to write yet?” “No. I’m saving it until I come up with something. Is Tails in?” Ogre stepped aside and waved Cobra in. “He’s in the Sink. Don’t forget to give that to the boss, though!” He indicated the satchel and Cobra waved him off dismissively. “I want to show Tails first. Tops doesn’t need to know.” He gave Ogre an innocent look. The big man shrugged. “None of my business. Just don’t do anything to hurt the Rats, and you’re fine with me.” Cobra gave him a passing smile and jaunted in to the Nest. The reception area had a longue set around an old scrap metal coffee table. A few thieves were sharing a drink there while discussing some odd news of raids down south around Stormwind City. Bandits of some sort, Cobra guessed. Nothing to be concerned with. A few hallways extended from the longue, each with its own vault door capable of sealing off the sections of the hideout. Cobra headed down the one marked with graffiti of a sink. At the end of the hallway he emerged in a cozily-lit pub full of thieves being as raucous as underworlders could be. It was quieter than most of the commercial platforms in the expansion, but spending any length of time in the Sink still made Cobra uncomfortable after all this time. Tails sat at a table attended to by a pair of serving girls in skimpy dresses. Tails had one on his lap and was tickling her with his snowy beard. His younger, (though balding and old enough to be Cobra’s grandfather), protégée sat beside him, reclining casually as the other serving girl stuffed her hand down the front of his breeches. Socks regarded Cobra smugly as the young thief approached. “Brought back some bits of paper for the Rats to chew on?” Socks asked, smirking. “Blueprints,” Cobra corrected, “Useful paper. Tops says we need more info on equipment to make big jobs go smoother.” The balding gnome snorted. “If you brought back more coin and less of this ‘useful paper,’ we could buy all the mechs we wanted, runt. Oi, Gretta Grabbyhands, not so tight!” The serving girl shrugged her freckled shoulders. “Sorry, Sockers. I thought I was loosing your interest for a second there. You were goin’ all soft on me.” She winked at Cobra, who grimaced and took a step away. Tails chuckled, still dandling the other girl on his lap. “Little Socks always did have a problem with focus! So, boy, you came by to show me your get, eh?” Cobra nodded. “The job worked out just like you said it would. That tip about the stairwell was really helpful.” Socks snorted and made a kissing face at Cobra. Tails didn’t seem to notice. He replied, “That’s good, boy. But y’know, you gotta make plans for yourself. Whenever you come to me for a job, you already got the ideas in your head, but you make it seem like I’m doing all the thinking. Are you afraid to do the jobs on your own?” Cobra fidgeted with his bandaged knuckles. They’d long since healed, but he kept the bloody bandages on as a warning to others. He wasn’t afraid, not of anything. Healthfully cautious, but not afraid. “I just…wanted you to know I was doing well,” he mumbled. Socks snickered. “Little baby, looking for his daddy’s approval. You never told me you had kids, Tails!” Tails cackled as the woman on his lap left lipstick marks on his face. “Well, hell, I might! ‘Sides, all the Rats look at me like their grandpappy. I been here longer’n everyone else, ‘s only natural the kiddies want to make me proud!” Cobra rubbed his arm, embarrassed. He took a few retreating steps before Tops’ voice halted him. “Cobra. My office. Now.” The bifocaled gnome regarded him with his beady eyes before walking back down the entry hall. “Better skedaddle, boy,” Tails said. “Thanks for stopping by!” Socks groaned as the woman’s hand in his breeches sped its rhythmic motion. “Yeah, yeah, now beat it kid. You’re in the splash zone!” Cobra raced after Tops. He caught up to the boss at the security door to his office. The door was shut, as it always was when no one was moving in or out. Tops was called many things – and always behind his back – paranoid being a common one. The door clicked and slid open. Tops returned his card key to his coat pocket and went inside. His office was cramped, though spacious compared with the thieves’ living quarters. Cobra never slept in the hideout, not after the debacle on his first night with the Rats. One thief’s snore had been enough to start a panic attack, and none of the crew members were pleased about losing sleep over a ten-year-old’s “bad dream.” Cobra left the hideout and found a cozy corner of the back-alleys every night. He had a few regular spots where he stored his personal loot, but he never slept in the same place twice in a row. Tops plopped into his old rotating chair and flicked his gravity spheres, which clack-clack-clacked back and forth like a silvery, segmented seesaw. “Sit down, runt,” Tops said flatly. He poured himself a small portion of amber liquid from a large glass flask marked with measuring lines for alchemical use. He returned the flask to its set, most of which bubbled and sizzled over burners, filling the room with an odd amalgamation of aromas. Cobra did as he was bid, taking a seat in one of the little Tinker’s School chairs. He set his looted satchel on the boss’s desk. “Taken off an engineer corps boss,” the young thief said proudly. Tops regarded the satchel with a sleepy look. He adjusted his bifocals and pulled it closer. After laying the contents out on his desk in a methodical pattern, he nodded once. “Good. This earns you ten.” Cobra felt the blood rush to his ears. A measly ten points? That wasn’t enough to buy a week’s worth of rations! “Oh,” he said, failing to hide the disappointment, “I—I’ll bring more tomorrow!” “You won’t,” Tops replied. His tone wasn’t harsh or loud, but it cut deep regardless. “The engineers will be on alert for our thieves now. Your get will be a setback for the rest of the Runners, runt.” Cobra fidgeted. “I—I wasn’t seen…” “Don’t lie to me. You aren’t good enough at it yet.” He held the cut shoulder strap for Cobra to see. “People tend to notice when their bags are stolen off their bodies.” “But—but you could use the plans and tools. You said you needed them…to keep up with the engineers’ upgrades.” “One satchel of repair blueprints won’t help anything if we can’t get our hands on more.” Tops slid a piece of parchment out of a drawer and wrote on it in precise script. “You will hang this memorandum in the reception area.” He passed the paper to Cobra and began sorting the loot off his desk and onto several piles of similar supplies. Cobra’s heart sank as he read the memo. No more jobs against the engineers! It’s taken me so long to pull a job on one, and all my effort is going to go to waste? “Is there a problem, runt?” Tops asked, not sparing Cobra a look. “N-no, boss.” “Then get out. And don’t forget to hang the memo.” He drew out a logbook from another drawer. A glimpse at one of the pages caught Cobra’s attention. Code. I can read that code! He stored that information away for later use as he withdrew from the office. The metal door slammed behind him, making him skip a step. Cobra’s head fell as he hung the memo in the reception area. The two thieves that had been merrily sharing a drink cursed him bitterly. He understood. The engineers were a ripe target for the Rat Runners. Losing them meant a loss of points for everyone. This loss hurt most because it set back the reputation he’d been building. Gang thieves respected ambition when it helped the whole gang. But when it hurt everyone else, an ambitious thief was nothing but a liability. Cobra forced himself not to run as he made for the exit door. Ogre waved at him as he headed out into the back-alleys. The big man must have read the disappointment on his face, since he said, “Better luck next time, Cobra.” The young thief hunched, wishing he could disappear like a wizard from one of his story books. Word of his failure would spread like a grease fire. He knew by what Tails had taught him that the only cure for a damaged reputation was to lie low and do your fair share. He didn’t relax until he made it back to one of his hideouts. He dug his ream of parchment free of some pipes and examined his looted fountain pen by the dull red alley light. The blank page was more intimidating than he expected. It had taken him a lot of work to get these items; he wanted them to be worth the effort. Unlike my work for the engineers’ bag, he thought bitterly. Stupid rules! Stupid Tops! Stupid ten points! I earned more than that! He gripped the pen so tight his bandaged knuckles went numb. Why should I care what a bunch of Rats think about me? No one owns me! He knew what to write now. It took him some time to remember one of his mother’s encryptions, which took one whole side of a piece of parchment. But after that, it was easy going. This, he thought triumphantly, a smile playing on his lips, is my new rebellion.
  11. Whap, whap. He trembled under the whipping belt. He covered his stinging face with his hands and felt blood gush from a dozen wounds. “—a miserable little shit stain! I should have fucking swallowed you instead of letting you be born!” Whap, whap, whap. “What did I do?” he wailed. “What did I do? What did I do?” “Shut up! Shut up, you waste of fucking space!” Her hand fell again and again. The belt ripped through the thin fabric of his tunic – the last piece of clothing that still fit. Whap, whap, whap, whap. “I’m sorry, mommy, I’m sorry! Don’t hit me again, please! Please!” “Shut up!” Whap. “Shut up!” Whap. “You’re lucky to be alive! You’re lucky to be in here, where it’s safe!” Whap. “You’d be dead without me! You’d be nothing!” Whap, whap, whap. “Thank me, you little shit! Fucking thank me!” “Th-thank you. Thank you, m-mommy.” Whap! Whap! Whap! The wretch woke screaming, his hands reaching for the knife he’d tucked in his pocket before lying down to sleep. He whirled to his feet, narrowly avoiding a low pipe running along the ceiling of the back-alley. A grizzled old gnome wheeling a cart ignored him as he walked on by. The wretch watched him closely, then lowered his knife when he could no longer hear the squeaking cart wheels. That was when he noticed his bag was missing. He didn’t bother searching for it. Whoever had taken it would be long gone by now. He wandered out of the alley, flinching at the sudden rush of a mechnostrider and the throng of people moving down the walkway. He ducked and wove his way to the edge of the platform and leaned over the railing to look down. The Centrifuge glowed with life; the expansion to Gnomeregan had been built deep into the earth and was one of its most populated sectors. Each level held hundreds of residents, dozens of businesses, and miles of pipes running energy to power it all. Not to mention a million places to hide. It had been three days since he’d gotten free. The wretch had been so overwhelmed by the liveliness of the platform outside the apartment complex that he’d nearly gone comatose with panic the first night. He’d found a back alley to hide in and eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion. The following day, he’d treated his wounded knuckles and wrapped them in gauze before exploring the endless alleyways. Towards nighttime, when the lights of the platform were dimmed to simulate the setting sun, he’d slipped out of his hiding place to determine where exactly his home was. A book he’d once read had contained a detailed map of Gnomeregan. From memory and based off a sector map he found at a public directory screen, he discerned he was on the Centrifuge’s forty-fifth platform, nearly halfway from the bottom to the top. He recalled the book saying that the bottom ten levels had been sealed off due to flooding, and that every year engineers discovered the water level to be high than the last. The third day was just beginning, and now that he had the courage enough to walk among the people, he had far less money with which to buy food or clean water. His stomach rumbled angrily at the thought. He followed his nose to a stand at which a mustachioed man was selling hot kabobs. The wretch had never seen anything like it, though he identified it from a description in a cookbook he’d once read. He took a silver coin from his pocket and stepped nervously into the queue. When someone queued up behind him, he trembled until the coin fell from his hand and rolled off the edge of the platform. He ran, ignoring the strange looks from the people around him. Back in the alleys, the wretch followed the pipes until he found a sizable niche to stuff himself into. The space was tight and warm: comforting. His heart rate slowed. But his stomach still rumbled. It wasn’t long before a rat scurried past him. His mouth wetted at the thought of simmering meat. He lunged after the critter, but he was too slow to catch it. The rat escaped into a gap in the pipes too narrow for him to follow through. He curled in a ball on the filthy ground, shielding his eyes from the bright red light illuminating the passageway. “You gotta be smarter than that, boy,” a voice called from above. The wretch yelped and crawled away. He fumbled for his knife. The stranger chuckled, coughing as he did. He shook a hand with stubs for fingers and shook his head. A grimy snow-white beard jiggled on his chin. “No need for violence, boy. Not against me anyway. Rat meat is much tastier.” The wretch kept his hand in his pocket. The handle of the knife in his hand was comforting. He thought briefly of the ruins of his mother’s face. “I—I don’t have any money!” he lied splutteringly. It felt strange to speak after being speechless for nearly three days. The old man flicked his patchwork hat and grinned. “Never said anything about money, boy. You want to catch rats, right? You gotta be quick and clever. It ain’t enough just to chase them when they’re out in the open. You gotta know when and where they’ll be before they get there.” The wretch glanced at the rat’s hiding place. “How…how can you tell?” The old man sauntered up to the wretch. He flinched and shied away, pulling his knife free of his pocket. The man simply chuckled and tapped a pipe with his knuckle. “These pipes are warm for a reason, boy. They carry energy. Life. The rats can feel it, just like we can. They use them to hide, and to keep warm. But they gotta leave the pipes for food. Find the food, and you’ll find the rats.” “But…where…?” The old man gestured back towards the alley exit. “Where there’s people, there’s food. But the rats know better not to risk the people. They lurk in the places where people have been, but don’t like to stick around. You know what I’m talking about, now?” “The…garbage?” He slapped the boy on the shoulder and hooted, causing the wretch to scream and retreat, slashing wildly. The old man dodged out of the way of the knife nimbly. “Atta boy! You’re smart and you’ve got good survival instincts! Take a lesson from the rats, though, don’t go poking in the business of the Mech-Makers. They won’t hesitate to squash our kind.” The wretch took a moment to gather his wits and slow his breathing. Eventually, he said, “Our…kind?” “Yeah, we Rats. The ones who lurk in the places no one else want to be.” “Who says I’m l-lurking?” The old man laughed raucously. “No one! It’s plain on your face! I know a Rat when I see one, boy. By the by, the name’s Tails. What’s yours?” The wretch paused. My name? Not the one she gave me. That’s not me. I can be whoever I want now. “I’m…Cobra.” The old man snorted. “A snake, eh? Well, you were trying to eat the rat, so it makes enough sense. Well, Cobra, I have a group of friends who could use someone of your temperament, if you’re keen on earning some bread n’ salt. Whaddya say?” The wretch – Cobra, now – considered running then and there. But his grumbling stomach stopped him. He couldn’t face the throng of people just yet, but maybe with the Rats he could find a better way to earn his food. He nodded and followed where Tails led. Never once did he take his hand off the handle of his knife.
  12. The wretch’s ragged breaths came like waves pounding a rocky shore. He held the blade between his hands tremulously, still pointing at the motionless corpse on the ground before him. Blood dribbled down his knuckles where he’d beaten them against her face. The steady trickle intermixed with the pool at his feet. The corpse scarcely had a face left to speak of; really, it was only red flesh gashed open half a hundred times leaking grey matter on the carpet he’d cleaned just this morning. It was peculiar; he felt as though his hands should hurt, but it was his heart that hurt more than anything. The way it pounded inside his chest, he was certain it would burst and add to the bloody mess on the floor. I’ll have to clean that up, too, he thought out of habit. But he wouldn’t have to, would he? His mother, that sadistic whore, was dead at his feet. He had done it. He had killed her. He had freed himself, at long last. He made himself look at the corpse again. Her hand was still clutched tightly around his bare, hairy ankle. He flinched out of her grip and dropped the knife. The clatter could have awoken a sleeping god. The wretch couldn’t hold back the tension in his chest any longer. He screamed. His throat was still dry and ragged from the shouting before, but he couldn’t stop himself. It was as if his soul had burst loose. His bloody, cracked fingernails dug into his scalp and ripped out hair by the fistful. He felt warm tears stream down his filthy cheeks and wondered if he had been stricken with grief or joy. Air left his lungs in a storm and returned in minor puffs. Naturally, he fell to the ground, vision fuzzy and senses abandoning him. When he came to, he was on the floor beside her. Her face was inches from his own. It reminded him of a topographical map of the Searing Gorge from one of her books. A bit of brains slithered loose from what might have once been an eye socket. The wretch shivered and pulled himself to his feet. He went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet door. He stood staring at the endless rows of jars and tin cans, his foot tapping restlessly. He closed the door, walked a circuit around the kitchen. “I can eat whatever I want,” he growled. “I can eat whenever I want. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me!” He stopped at the border to the living room where she had died. Her corpse said nothing, so he returned to the cabinet and got himself a jar of pickles. They tasted like vinegar and salt. The crunched like the sand he’d never seen under the shoes he’d never owned. Like the sound a lock makes when it clicks open, revealing…somewhere else. Anywhere else. He ate until the pickles ran out, then drank the juice, then vomited it all on the floor. He wiped his chin and laughed historically. “I ain’t cleaning that up! You can’t make me!” He tried the beer next. She’d always told him he wasn’t allowed any, but he snuck them whenever she was out on a job anyway. This one tasted like his first all over again: a small rebellion. He managed to keep it down. His heart rate was slow enough by this point that he could see and hear and feel clearly. The pain in his fists crept up his arms like creepers consuming a tree. He cracked open a second beer bottle as he walked into his mother’s room. Another rebellion. He kicked porno magazines aside on his way to her desk. The drawers were locked, and he didn’t know how to pick locks. I never learned. I only know what she wants me to know. He decided to start a list of things he wanted to learn, starting with picking locks. For now, a hammer sufficed to see the drawers open. The first had fat black vibrators and nude sketches of the men she’s slept with. Some of them looked familiar. The wretch wondered if one of them was his father. He closed that drawer. The second held notes, all encrypted. He recognized her handwriting intermixed with other familiar sets. He’d worked on her cyphers since he was old enough to speak, so reading these was literal child’s play. They contained detailed accounts of contacts, jobs, assets, and locations for dead drops. The wretch found his mother’s bug-out bag under her heavily stained bed and added the notes to the survival equipment within. The third drawer was full of coins. They were of various shapes, materials, and mints. He did a quick calculation and totaled over two hundred gold. He split the coinage in two and stored half in his bag and the other in a pouch he tied on the inside of his breeches. He returned to the living room as he finished the second beer and stared at the front door on the other side of his mother’s corpse. Just a few steps away. It might as well have been on the other side of the Great Sea. He’d never left. Not for one minute of his ten-year-old life. This cramped, filthy apartment had been his entire world for every conscious moment of those ten years. His only escapes had been his tiny rebellions against his whore mother’s rules. And the books. She’d taught him to read so he could be useful, but he’d learned quickly that he had more freedom in that knowledge than he could possibly have imagined. Her various boyfriends brought him books when he’d asked them in secret. He’d learned of the outside world and become enamored with the idea of seeing it. His mother had found out long ago, and the boyfriends stopped talking to him. His freedom had gone faster than it had arrived. But freedom was no longer in her power to deny. She was a bloody mess on the floor. Yet his bare feet remained glued to the algae-colored, crimson-spotted carpet. The wretch glanced down the hallway he hadn’t dared go down. His room was back there. In truth, it was a cupboard, but he’d made it his personal space for his childhood imprisonment. No, he thought as sweat trailed down his forehead. I can’t go back there. I won’t do it! Never again! He leapt over her body, half expecting her to grab him and drag him down to some deep pit of hell. He ran face-first into the front door and fell hard on his rear end. He felt something squish underneath him and swore his heart stopped. He screamed again and charged the door. He fumbled with the lock and nearly ripped the door off its hinges – or so it seemed to him – and sprinted out into the world. He looked back as he thundered down the long hallway of the apartment complex’s negative seventh floor. He was leaving a trail of blood droplets behind him, he saw. The wretch snickered and coughed and cried all at once. I’m not cleaning any of your messes ever again.
  13. Another for Nagoda of the Gold Plain
  14. My first try at a mood board. This one's for Brinnea Velmon.
  15. “You should put another lightforge net on that hill. The hunter has claws like steel and won’t be hindered by a brisk climb,” Brinnea gestured with the stump of her right arm. She felt a phantom finger point as well, but where it should have been there was only empty air. Christa pushed the wheelchair and nodded at a pair of squires, who quickly set to work at the fortifications. “That should do for the east side. What about the north?” “Trenches and stakes. The land rolls down naturally, but it’s hard to see as you enter. She’ll be eager to attack after missing me the last time. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll fall in. More realistically, it will make it harder for her to maneuver out of camp.” Brinnea felt the need to stand and stretch her legs. It was a maddening feeling, the desire to move what cannot be moved. Christa made an affirmative noise and passed the order along. The knights following the sisters seemed less than amused by this display. The dwarf man wearing captain’s colors least of all. “I won’t just stand idly while this death knight gives commands," he had said when Brin asked to be shown around. Brin had replied, “I am merely pointing out what should be done to safeguard against a more threatening undead foe. The safest precaution would be to leave me in the river you fished me from.” Christa cut the head off that conversation immediately. “That takes care of the parameter,” Christa said. “Now we need to discuss where you’ll be during all of this.” “Dangling from a gallows like meat for a trap,” Brinnea replied without a trace of sarcasm. “We talked about that plan.” “It’s the smartest play.” “Not for you, it isn’t.” Brinnea huffed. “It’s not as if I can move myself around anyway. Keeping me in clear view at all times will ensure that monster will be visible as well.” Christa gestured to the watchtower at the center of the encampment. “At the top of that, you’ll have walls and archers about to protect you. We knights are the best equipped to kill this hunter. You won’t be in any danger.” “Not until she cuts through your archers. I don’t need anyone risking their lives for mine.” The dwarf cleared his throat. “Don’t I get a say in this?” Christa scowled. “You had your say, Captain Redstone. But I have the command here, and I have elected to ignore your say.” “We are of equal rank, Velmon! And what you intend to do here is a serious waste of Silver Hand resources!” “A powerful undead abomination is coming right for us. You think I intend to miss that opportunity?” “From all we have heard of this monster, it only cares to kill your no-limbed, deadweight sister and anyone who gets in the way of her.” Brinnea sighed. “The creature is erratic, dangerous, and subservient to a deceased witch of the Burning Legion. Without anyone giving her orders, she’s like to go on a mad killing spree in distress. The safest thing is to put her down using me as bait.” The dwarf sniffed contemptuously. “Aye, you’d know all about killing sprees, wouldn’t you, Butcher?” Christa opened her mouth to reply, but Brin cut her off with a pleading look. The older sister composed herself. “My plan shall come in effect. I am taking my sister to the roof of the tower. Captain, you shall remain below to lead the shield wall. Dismissed.” Christa wheeled Brin away, leaving the stout knight with a flustered expression. *** “Why did you come this way, Brinnea?” Christa asked as they watched the sun set from the roof of the watchtower. The pink light painted the clouds a dreamy color. “I wanted to see Andorhal,” Brin answered. One last time. “To what end? Home is long gone. All we can do now is try to build a new one.” “I tried that a few times. I’m no longer built for such endeavors.” Christa had nothing to say to that. Brin looked her sister up and down. She had always been tall and thickset, but now she was stern and proud and full of purpose. The Light had a plan for her. I was left alone in the dark, despite my cries for help. “What will you do about the limbs?” Christa asked. “You death knights have means of replacing them, right?” “I haven’t counted myself as one of the Ebon Blade for years,” Brin said, “I won’t even be able to make my own rune blade, let alone have limbs replaced.” “You must know someone who could fix you up.” Brin smiled callously. “Haven’t you heard? I’m a friendless killer. A butcher of innocents. Even more sinister folk don’t want anything to do with me. I’m a waystone for bad luck.” Christa’s brown eyes flashed angrily. “I’ve had enough of that despairing tone of yours. Even as a little kid you were always moaning about your lot in life. I need a straight answer from you. No bullshit. Did you kill the Gilneans in Valsharah?” “I may as well have.” “Explain. Speak up and look at me when you talk. Were you not forced to kill them by Cynthia?” The witch’s golden eyes flashed in the back of her mind. You wanted it, the eyes said. You enjoyed it. “It’s true that she commanded me to go to the camp. I was to scout the defenses and begin an attack if the opportunity was ripe.” “And did you?” Brinnea nodded. “I didn’t know whose camp it was until I got there. Esmerra.” Brin spat the name hatefully. “She deserved to die. She sacrificed me, my daughter, and Parigan to that black-hearted devil-woman. She deceived us hoping to profit from our deaths.” “So you killed her?” “I did. I called for the demons to attack. I unleashed undead on the town. And when I had her cornered I showed no mercy. She died screaming, torn to shreds by ghouls. And I…I felt light afterwards. Like I’d removed a stain from the world and took a weight off my shoulders. I’m sick, Christa. There’s something broken in me that can’t be fixed.” Tears welled in her eyes. Brin lifted a hand to wipe them away, but there was no hand to lift. She cursed and rubbed her face on her bicep. “I don’t know about all that,” Christa said nonchalantly. “Mother always said if you’re sick, go to the healer.” Brin looked up at her. “What are you saying?” “I’ve known men and women who went mad on campaign in Northrend. They went to a man in the Storm Peaks, and when they returned they were back to normal.” Brin was about to ask more when a shout called her attention to the base of the tower. “She’s coming! She tore the cavalry to shreds! Ready yourselves, fools!” Christa swore. “Damn Redstone! I told him to hold position, not send our heavy horse out to scout!” She picked herself from her seat and took up her mace and shield. She looked at Brinnea with eyes set like stone. “Stay here. I’ll be back soon.” Brinnea felt a rush of panic. You don’t know that, she almost said. Then Christa was gone. It was full dark now, and torches shone across the camp below. Shouts told Brin where to look. The hunter moved like a shadow in a sea of shadows. She came from the east, down the hillside. The lightforged net didn’t trigger, so she must have leapt over it. Bits of armor and weapons rained down on the defenders, forcing them to stay put as the hunter charged downhill on her spiderlike limbs. The archers nocked, drew, and loosed. The hunter took two blessed arrows and screeched angrily but did not slow down. She barreled into the shield wall. Brin had been expecting her to cut through the paladins like she had the mercenaries in Arathi, but these knights were made of sterner stuff, and blessed by the Light as well. The hunter retreated, pelted by arrows and weapons that burned her at the touch. She spouted acid but shields of light kept the defenders mostly unharmed. The hunter limped around the side, aiming to climb the side of the tower no doubt. Christa emerged from the tower with a pair of squires attending her, each armed with a shimmering silver lance. Christa herself looked fierce in silver plate and bearing a heavy oaken shield against the creature. The hunter leapt overhead, but Christa slammed her out of the air. The trio cornered the beast against the side of the tower. She seemed to have damaged her limbs, so the beast could not scamper up the side to escape. Christa stepped back as the archers hailed arrows down on the hunter. With one final ear-splitting scream, it was over. Brinnea let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Brin had two of the archers help her downstairs to her wheelchair, where Christa met her. “A quick one, that,” she commented simply. “I can see how you had so much trouble, so poorly armed as you were.” Brin smiled. “You’re not even out of breath. I’ll admit, you’ve gotten pretty good at what you do.” Christa smirked. “Well, I haven’t been sitting on my hands all these years, have I? Do you want to see the body? It might set your mind at ease.” Brinnea nodded. When they reached the corpse, Brinnea realized for the first time how young the girl looked. She must have been a beauty at one time, but not her mouth was twice as long as a normal one and her teeth were a jagged ruin of metal shards. Her eyes were black and yellow and lifeless, but Brin could swear she saw a hint of gratitude in them, as if she were happy to finally be at rest. “Christa,” Brin said, “What’s the name of that man in the mountains? The one who cured those soldiers?” “They never mentioned a name,” she replied. “But I can tell you where to find him.” As they returned to the tent Brin was recovering in, the death knight glanced out at the vast, dark fields of Lordaeron. In the distance she saw lights that she knew belonged to Andorhal, the place she once called home. And in that dark distance, she glimpsed a grey figure lope across the field. The wolf looked at her with uncertain eyes. They were eyes that spoke to her clearly. This is not the end of the road.
  16. Brinnea woke to a searing pain and a dull hunger. She lay in a simple cot with a scratchy blanket, but it may as well have been a cloud for how much she could feel of it. When she tried to move, her body rebelled and lay still. Her arm and leg itched furiously. She tried to scratch at her arm but found that her left hand was missing – as was her right arm. Memory flooded back along with another wave of pain. She didn’t bother trying to reach her itching phantom leg. “Brin, you’re awake,” a familiar voice said at her left side. Brin struggled just to turn her head and look. “Christa,” she rasped. Her sister. She stood by the bed looking haggard; her armor was dinted and dingy, her hair messy and overgrown, and her eyes were bloodshot and drooping. She was the most beautiful thing Brinnea had seen in months. Christa adjusted the covers on Brinnea’s body. “We don’t have a proper healer here for you,” she said, “But I plan on capturing some animals for you. It should help you get back to your feet.” She winced when she realized what she said. “Where are we?” Brinnea asked. “A small farmstead. The Silver Hand is helping the farmers get settled in safely. With the Forsaken distracted to the west and south, we finally have some breathing room to rebuild Lordaeron.” “The war still rages?” Brinnea wasn’t sure why she cared, but she asked anyway. “Yes, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. Sylvanas escaped when Lordaeron fell to the Alliance. Forsaken resistance is still strong in places. Not strong enough to kick up fuss about us knights.” “You remained neutral?” Christa nodded. “And I intend to stay that way. If we play our cards right, Andorhal might be free for human settlement again soon. I thought I might open an inn there if that happened.” “That would suit you,” Brin said. “I wish I could be there to see it.” “You aren’t dead yet, sister. Not truly.” “It’s only a matter of time. Besides, Andorhal won’t be a home for me. Only another place full of enemies.” “You don’t know that for certain,” Christa said, but she didn’t sound like she believed herself. When Brinnea was silent for a long while, Christa stood to take her leave. “Thank you,” Brinnea said. “Christa, thank you.” She opened the door and replied without looking back, “It’s what sisters are for, aren’t they?”
  17. Brinnea drifted beneath the night sky, numb to pain and everything else the world had to offer. The stars looked so serene, way up high where no one could touch them. They were safe and bright, like little dots of life in a sea of darkness. Lines flew between the stars as if some cosmic being were tracing the constellations. They formed a complex pattern, more complex in fact than any constellation Brinnea could name. The lines spider-webbed together to form a face. Her face. “Look at you, hmm,” she said. Her starry smile shone on Brinnea’s battered body. “You’ve lost some weight. If you want my advice, you ought to have gone in the other direction. You are much too flat to turn any heads, child.” Brinnea blinked tiredly. “What do you want from me?” she asked. “Why do you always assume I am the one that needs something, hmm? You look like the corpse you should have been long ago. You are the one who needs me.” “I don’t need you. I never have.” “Who was it that showed you your true potential? Who was it that, when you were torn by indecision and fear, pointed you down the right path? I gave you the will to claim justice over the wrongdoers and the power to protect those you care for, hmm.” “You threatened everything I cared for. You killed people I loved. You broke me.” “Only in breaking can we be remade stronger. The gods made us with weakness as a cruel joke, but out of spite you made yourself strong. You used me for that. And you want to use me again.” “I won’t. There is nothing left to fight for. No one depends on me anymore. All I can do is bring pain to them now.” “Like that girl? What was her name, hmm?” “Stop.” “Jessaya, that was it. Bronto said he killed her, did he not? I could feel your quiet rage. You stopped to watch while he was torn apart because it gave you joy to do so. And you say you have no need of me, hmm.” Brinnea felt cold tears on her cheeks. Or perhaps it was water from the river. “I never wanted to hurt anyone. It wasn’t my fault. I never asked for this!” “If that was the case, you would have killed yourself years ago, hmm. But you resigned yourself to live on. You used this curse to reshape the world. You took my first lesson to heart. Do you remember it?” Brin closed her eyes. She remembered… She rode through the snow in the shadows of dragons. The deathcharger pressed through the snowdrift unflinchingly until it and its rider were swallowed by the cavernous maw of the Wyrmrest Temple. Brinnea dismounted and dusted snow off the twin lions of her tabard. Seeing the lions split by a line of white powder set a frown on her face. She brushed off an unwelcome thought and pressed on to her mission. Her contact was waiting in the bazaar by a stand selling glacial salmon. The death knight leaned against the stand as if considering the meat on display. A black-haired woman dressed in a spider-web pattern robe of green and gold sidled up to the stand with a casual grace that spoke of confidence. She took a steak of salmon meat and inspected it. The merchant smiled at her and spoke his price. “That price is nearing robbery, hmm. The red dragonflight doesn’t take kindly to thieves in their temple. I’ll take three pounds at half that price, or I’ll have a word with the draconids.” The kal’uak merchant smiled nervously and conceded to the price. Brinnea watched the whole transaction, befuddled. “I’ve never seen anyone strongarm a salesman like that,” she said. “Lesson one of living on Azeroth,” the woman said, tossing Brin the salmon steak. “Use what talents you have to the fullest. And never settle for a bad price.” Brinnea liked her immediately. She introduced herself with an outstretched hand. “Cynthia,” the robed roman replied proudly, “Cynthia Blackmane.”
  18. Her joints stiffened, and she was forced to stop at the ruins of a village swallowed whole by weeds. Ransacked houses stood roofless, just barely tall enough to be substantial in the enormous field of ghostly grass. Brinnea managed to get herself inside the wreckage of a chapel with an intact door. She sealed the entrance with a fallen beam and collapsed on a pew. She rested but did not sleep. She focused and cleared her mind, but the memories clawed at her psyche like a ravenous horde. She sat up suddenly when she imagined the sound of banging against the giant door, and the snarls of ghouls. She calmed herself enough to remain seated. Her body ached like an open sore, and the hunger for killing blanketed her like a swarm of ants. She gazed at the altar and the bent and broken symbol of the Light’s Hand. As if by some reflex, she called out in a whisper, “Oh, Holy Light, watch over and guide me. Oh, Holy Light, reach out ahead and illuminate my path. Oh, Holy Light, cast my foes aside and take me into your embrace.” Long silence followed, accompanied only by tiredness and hunger. She sighed. Well, what did you expect, Brinnea? Your prayers were never answered before you were a killer. It was her own voice this time, though it was of little comfort in any case. Night fell. The uncertain sounds of life outside took up a limp chorus, a testament to the weak and weary land. Then a pained shriek cut through the quiet. Brinnea stood. The sound died quickly, and silence took over. The death knight took up a dot of wood tipped with splinters and waited. Something scraped along the ground outside. The sound approached the chapel and stopped, just outside the door. Brinnea thought she heard a sniffing sound. Then a mighty crash fell on the door. Brin ran to it and braced it with her shoulder. Another crash sent a shiver through her bones. A third blasted a hole inches from her face. A bright yellow pupil ringed with black spied her through the hole. The creature it belonged to hissed. “I found you, found you found you! It’s finally time! Finally time to taste your flesh!” Brinnea shoved the wooden stake through the hole, but the creature was quick to avoid it, and quicker to catch it in her jagged, oversized teeth. Brin pulled back the stick at half the size it had been. The creature screeched, and the door shuddered again. Brin channeled a rune, straining as the hunger grew greater. She flung a blast of cold wind against the door, fortifying it with a wall of solid ice. Frantically, she searched and found a broken window. Brinnea sprinted for it and dove through, ignoring the tear the broken glass made in her breeches. The creature roared, and the door blasted to cold splinters back in the chapel, but Brinnea ran out of sight in the weeds. This place is bound to have a forge. She moved carefully through the weeds until she found a wrecked forge. Some old rusted hammers and bits of metal lie strewn across the dusty floor. She took up a hammer that was in decent shape and slid it into a pocket, then a rusty dagger, and a sword broken in half, and went outside. No more running. The hunter scuttled in the grotesque manner it had in Arathi, advancing at the speed of a horse’s gallop. Its limbs were unnervingly elongated and seemed to bend as if made of rubber, but with every movement Brinnea heard a shriek of metal. The death knight took up the hammer and threw it, but it clanged off the creature’s body and fell in the weeds. The hunter’s limbs returned to a normal shape and it advanced at a sprint on two legs. Brin drew the broken sword. The creature lunged; an oversized set of claws flashed at Brinnea’s face. The death knight ducked under the attack and drove her blade at the bright yellow eyes. The monster dodged and bit at Brin’s hand, but she wedged the blade into the enormous maw and had her dagger out in a blink. In another blink, she slid it into the soft flesh of the beast’s throat and twisted its head around until the rusted blade cracked. The beast fell to the ground with a clunk. Brin took a step back and waited, still tensed. A stab of pain shot up her arm. Some of the creature’s green blood smeared on her forearm and hand, where it smoked and crackled at her skin. She knelt and wiped the spots in dirt until the searing pain ceased. Her skin was left pocked with sickly twisted skin. “Eh-hehehe!” Brinnea flinched and stood, only for her ankle to be snagged. She tumbled to her back and bit back a scream when blades sunk into her calf. The creature stood over her, a massive black tongue sliding across her jagged teeth and hungry yellow eyes eating at Brinnea ravenously. It drew the dagger blade from its throat and ate it in one bite. “Time to feast! Time to eat! Time to feeeeed!” It yanked the death knight’s leg until the tendons strained and bones crackled. Brinnea yelped and clawed at weeds, desperate to get free. The creature smiled widely, saliva trickling from its mouth. “Rip and tear!” A sickening crunch followed. Brinnea’s vision went white from the pain. Blood splattered across the weeds, painting the ghostly white canvas with dark red. The death knight became insensate. As her mind went blank, it took over. It moved her hand and channeled a rune to freeze the wound shut. The creature was busying itself feasting on Brin’s severed leg. The shadow of the death knight clenched its fist and limped at the hunter. The bright yellow eyes looked up from its feast just in time for the fist to smash it with a force like iron. The shadow punched again and again, until it dented the metal bones it its jaw and shattered its jagged teeth. The loose teeth turned the creature’s tongue into a pincushion leaking acidic blood. Brinnea’s hand smoked, but she felt only a dull echo. Black tendrils slithered from the broken skin in the creature’s cheek and writhed outwards, as if searching for something to grab onto. Brinnea’s hand grabbed them. They gripped at her fingers almost tenderly. Brinnea’s shadow released the tendrils and pressed the creature to the ground with a foot and gripped its head with a shadowy death grip. The creature grunted and grumbled. It spoke in awe, “You…you feel the same…the same as my lovely lady. My lady, my lady! Have you come back to me, my lady?” The tendrils in its cheek stretched and gripped Brinnea’s hand again. The shadow wavered and Brin felt clarity returning as if waking from a dream. “No,” Brinnea said, horrified, “You…so that’s who you are.” The creature frowned. “You aren’t her. Bring her back!” It thrashed under foot, sending Brin flying through the weeds. “Give her back! My ladyyyyyy!” The creature scuttled at Brinnea. The death knight’s eyes widened. Run. I have to run! She scrambled to her foot and reinforcing the frozen crutch on her stump-leg. She limped as fast as she could, but the creature caught up in seconds. It slashed her back, and the claws dug in like fish hooks. Brinnea gripped the weeds, the dirt, anything she could grab, but she was caught. The creature grabbed her shoulder and forced her to face it. “I’ll strip the flesh from your face! She must be hiding underneath!” Brin screamed. She froze a dagger on her fist and jabbed it at the beast’s neck, but it shattered on the second shot. The broken flesh stitched itself back together in seconds. The creature yanked at Brin’s arm. She watched helplessly as raw red tendrils stretched and snapped. Then the bones crackled and splintered. It was an odd thing. To Brinnea, it felt as if she were no longer in her body. She was watching this happen to someone else. It certainly wasn’t the first time. This couldn’t be happening to her. Her logical side took over. The creature was distracted chewing the meat off her arm. Using her stump of a left arm, she eased herself shakily to her foot and crutch and limped away into a pumpkin patch. Through the weeds, she saw a stream flowing away westward. Somehow, she managed to make it to the waterline and fell in. The monster’s angry screeches sent a last shiver through Brinnea. After that, she closed her eyes and let the bloody flow wash her away.
  19. Brinnea’s stolen mount fell and did not rise at the border between the Hillsbrad Foothills and the Plaguelands. It had been a long, weary journey, and often the death knight had pressed the horse beyond its limits to evade the Forsaken and Alliance both. A brook choked with bones and gore nearby as Brinnea gutted the beast and prepared a rune of rebirth. The process was taxing with only one hand, but it gave her time to think. She regretted it instantly. A noble beast this was, a voice slithered from the shadows of her mind, I suspect it was looted from a fallen knight. A worthy steed. Not for the likes of you. “Shut up,” Brinnea said, “Go away.” It is only fitting that it should die in your service. Who is more noble than you? Brinnea the Butcher, scourge of the savage Horde! “Don’t call me that. Crawl back to the grave where you belong.” Brinnea fixed her thoughts on the rune she carved in a stone tucked between her knees. Oh, but you need me. Where would you be without me, hmm? “A better place. Home.” You mean dead. I have kept you alive all these years. My wisdom guides you, even now. Why, would you have abandoned that boy back in Arathi before you had met me? “Stop it.” You wouldn’t have escaped without him to distract that beast. Better he die than you do. What could a lowly sellsword do for this world that you cannot? “You are wrong. I am no better than he was.” You survived. He died. That makes you better, hmm. “No. You’re wrong.” Then why did you leave him? Why did you leave all of them, hmm? “They wanted me gone. Wanted me dead. I had no choice.” There is always a choice for those with the will to make it happen. Those ungrateful fools should have thanked you for all you did! You rid the world of dozens of their enemies. Hundreds, even! Who are they to cast you out, hmm? The stone shattered between her knees. Brinnea stood and ran. She left the dead beast behind, trailing its blood from her fist as she went.
  20. Meditating was the closest Brinnea ever came to sleep, and it often proved a poor substitute. She had no need for sleep to restore her physical strength, but her mind was troubled by wakefulness. Unconsciousness, however opened her to reliving her darkest moments, so she avoided sleeping. In Pandaria, the monks had taught her to clear her mind of the past and future, allowing her mind to focus on the present. With enough focus, she could ease the storm in her mind, and pen those dark thoughts where they could hurt no one. Brinnea was never very good at focusing on the present, though. In battle, she predicted her enemies’ moves by how their bodies shifted from stance to stance, but that sort of focus was a fixation on what is to come. The future was where her thoughts drifted. This road is treacherous, and Bronto keeps a large party to ensure I am secured, she thought, breaking into the peace of her meditation, We are bound to meet some unsavory types on the way north, the way he and his Raiders charge everywhere, and me in this cell on wheels. She opened her eyes, giving up on her focus altogether. She looked at the wrought-iron bars on the cramped cell in the oxcart ploughing along the Arathi road as though going to market with a harvest. Someone will think to pick the harvest before too long. Only, who will it be? If the Forsaken attacked, they would kill Brin on sight. With one hand, no armor or weapons, and no mount to aid in an escape, Brinnea wouldn’t make it far even if she could escape the cage. As for the Alliance… Two days prior, an Alliance mounted scout force had halted Bronto and demanded to know his business. The sellsword had proved shrewd and managed to bribe the scouts to forget they were there. Whatever he expected to get from the Ebon Blade at journey’s end must have been worth quite a bit. The Alliance likely would not prove useful in earning Brinnea’s freedom, which left only bandits and the tribal folk of Arathi, neither of which would stand against a charge from Bronto’s heavy horse. Things will be different in the Plaguelands, Brinnea assured herself, Even with the paladins fighting the Scourge constantly, the mindless undead are prolific. One major attack is all I would need. Which meant that for now, she had to wait. Brinnea shut her eyes and forced herself to ignore the odds of her survival and focused on the present moment. She breathed in and out to center herself, each breath an exercise in and of itself. “What’s she doin’ in there?” one of the riders said, cracking the fragile shell of Brin’s mind. “She’s just sitting, forget about her,” another rider answered. The first rider said, “She’s breathing an awful lot for a dead girl. We sure this is the right broad?” “Boss says so. I don’t doubt it. Hey, get back from those bars, squirt!” Brinnea opened her eyes and turned her head to see a boy no older than thirteen shying away from the cell. He was one of the unmounted followers that carried whatever didn’t fit in saddlebags. They also made camp and cooked every night, like squires with no prestige. The second rider was scowling at the boy. He said, “Do you have any idea who that is, kid?” The boy answered wistfully, “She’s the Butcher of Kaur-he, isn’t she? She’s like a living legend!” “Half-living,” the first rider corrected. “Unless she’s pulling the wool over Boss’s eyes.” “Her eyes glow blue like one of them dead knights,” the second rider said. “I once saw a wizard make a rabbit appear out of thin air,” the first rider replied, “Glowing eyes ain’t shite compared with that.” Brinnea looked at the boy, who was watching her like she was some work of art or exotic animal. He’s young and gullible. If I could speak to him alone, I might be able to trick him into giving me something I can use. Yet when he looked at her, for a moment she saw the same fascination her children would look at her with. He couldn’t have been much older than August, either… Cast those thoughts away, or you will never escape here. It doesn’t matter how many atrocities you must commit to reach your goal at this point, the world will hate you regardless. But what is my goal? Her intention was to reach Andorhal. Whenever she pictured her goal, she envisioned the Andorhal of the past: her home. The real Andorhal looks nothing like that anymore. A shout grabbed her attention. It sounded like a warning at first, but suddenly changed pitch into fear and pain. Brin looked in the direction of the scream, but it was at the head of the column, her view of which was blocked by the oxen pulling her cart. The column came to a stop. “What the fel?” the first rider said. “What is that?” said the second. The boy’s face was a mask of horror. “By all that is holy…” “TO ARMS, MEN!” Bronto’s command sent the whole column abuzz like a swarm of bees protecting their hive. The second rider growled, “Boy! Stay by the cart, and for the love of the Light, keep your distance!” The youngster replied nervously, taking up a shaky guard with his spear. Brinnea craned her neck to see the front of the column, but with so many bodies and horses moving about, she saw little. Then a horse flew up into the air and fell back down twenty feet off the road. “Light, deliver us…Tyr protect us…Red Mother save us!” the boy prayed desperately. “Boy,” Brin said just loud enough for him to hear her over the chaos, “Boy, look at me! I know you have no reason to trust me, but whatever is out there clearly has your friends soiling themselves. I can help.” “You’re lying! If I let you out, you’ll just run away!” “Where would I go? Bronto’s horses would run me down before I got fifty paces.” Unless I took one of his horses. “Let me out, and I’ll watch your back. When whatever is out there is dealt with, you put me back in my cage. I swear on my parents’ graves. I swear it on the Holy Light.” The boy looked tempted for a moment, but before he could do anything, another shout drew his attention. A horse and its rider flew straight for him. He dove out of the way and the armored horse crashed into the side of the cage, sending the whole cart heaving off the side of the road. Brin felt her teeth gnash together, heard the crash of wood on dirt, and the screams of men dying all around her. When she finally stopped moving and her head stopped spinning, she found herself still in the cage, which had fallen sideways. Not ideal, but this might be my only chance. The Bruisers are being annihilated by something big. Brin stood shakily and grabbed one of the bars at her chest level and activated a rune. Frost soaked the iron, turning it white. It grew colder until the metal began to crack, and then she tugged with all her strength. The bar gave on one side, so she bent until a section snapped off completely, just wide enough to fit through. Two, no, three more bars and I can crawl through. She set to work quickly. The screams were drawing closer. “She’s coming right for us! Light, what is she doing with…LOOK OUT!” The side of the cage thudded wetly, and a man choked on blood on the other side. Brinnea had heard the sound often enough to recognize it. The fourth bar gave way, and the gap was finally wide enough. Brin forced herself through, taking one of the iron bars with her. Her shirt tore on a jagged piece of metal and dark blood splattered the grass, but she paid it no mind. A horse whinnied and rolled its eyes nearby, the hand of a corpse still holding tight to the reins. She sprinted for it, glancing at the carnage behind her only to see if anyone gave chase. Her foot snagged on something and she nearly fell on her face. Looking back, she saw a man clutching her ankle desperately. “Help…us…” he said. Then he vomited blood and fell over limply. Only when Brin stood again did she see the man had lost the lower half of his body. She continued toward the horse, but someone else had reached it first. She slowed her pace and took aim with her length of metal and threw it. With a clang, it ricocheted off the rider’s head and disappeared into the grass. The rider fell from the saddle and struggled to rise. Brin leapt onto the horse’s back and chanced a look back at the column. Little moved among the long pile of corpses on the road, but she recognized Bronto by his Tauren-horn helmet. He carried a tower shield and a hand axe and stood before a figure that appeared to be no more than a woman in tattered rags. Rags soaked in blood. “COME ON, YOU CREEPY BITCH!” Bronto roared. She came. He raised his shield, but her hands crashed through the wood as though made of steel. She hissed and tugged at the shield, forcing Bronto off-balance. He swung with the axe, but it clanged against her collarbone and snapped in half. The mercenary stared at it, baffled. The woman’s mouth unhinged like a snake, displaying inhumanly large teeth all sharpened to jagged, metallic points. They dug into Bronto’s neck and when she tugged back, half of his throat came with her. Bronto fell with a thud. While Brin was watching the battle, the rider had stood and grabbed the horse’s bridle. Brinnea kicked at him, and he fell back. Then she saw his face; it was the boy from before. The woman was drawing closer, down on all fours like some beast. She’s no worgen, though. She scuttles like some spider. Brin wheeled the horse around and gave the boy one last look. “You’d better start running,” she said. He did. She took off at a gallop. By the sounds she heard behind her, the boy didn’t make it far.
  21. Charlotte yawned loudly, earning her dirty look from the grey-bearded dwarf. The other children were all bored too, she could see, but Charlotte was the only one who made a sound in her boredom. “Young lady,” the old Master Gorum grumbled, “Is there something you wish to share with the class?” “No, sir,” she replied sleepily. “Good. Now, as I was saying...conjuring arcane energy is a balancing act. Too much, and your spell will go out of control. Too little, and it won’t be able to sustain itself.” His grey hairs wobbled as he droned on, almost hypnotic in their movements. Charlotte felt her eyes grow heavy… She was in the Plaguelands again and sitting astride a donkey. Friede was there, the woman who called herself Sister and had been like a mother to her for her first five years. The dwarf kept Charlotte still in the saddle as they crossed the hidden path in the southern hills near Chillwind Point. It only remained a secret so long as they crossed in silence. The thrill of the crossing set Charlotte’s heart racing. Her feet jittered in place excitedly. “Cut it out, will you?” the student in front of her said between clenched teeth. Charlotte huffed and tucked in her legs. Her fingers drummed along her desk as Master Gorum rambled on and on about balancing mana when conjuring arcane power. None of these dummies have ever cast a spell before, but I can throw fireballs bigger than Gorum’s wrinkly head! Without realizing it, she pulled on the familiar and comforting presence of power always just within reach. Her fingers glowed with orange light as the power wrapped her like a warm blanket all over. Charlotte looked nervously at the lecturing Master, but he was too fixated on a dusty tome he was reading from to notice her. Charlotte moved her fingers like a puppeteer does to move his puppet’s strings and watched a little flame like a candle’s light up above her hand. She imagined a little man dancing through the air and focused her vision on the flame. Before she knew it, the flame took the shape she had in mind. The dancing man flickered magically as he pranced above her hand. Charlotte thought he looked lonely dancing alone, so she focused and made a second little fire to look like a woman in a flowing dress of yellow light. The two flames danced together like Charlotte had always imagined her mother and father would. “Miss Blackmane!” Master Gorum’s voice snapped Charlotte back to reality. The flames died down in an instant. “What do you think you are doing?” He sounded mad, but weirdly surprised, too. “I, uh—was just testing out what you were talking about, sir,” she replied with one of her winning smiles. The dwarf’s slate-grey eyes measured Charlotte for a long moment. The girl shrunk into her seat when she realized all the other kids were staring at her with open mouths. How long had they been watching her play with her fires? “Little lady, step into my office and wait for me. I will speak with you after class ends.” Charlotte’s face flushed as the stupid kids snickered at her. They were all babies compared to her; most of them had never been out of the city. I’ve seen demons and witches and places they’ve only heard of in stories. The dwarf’s office was decorated with stones, stones with writing on them, shiny stones, stone furniture, and more stones. All the rocks made Charlotte feel like she was being buried alive. Out of spite, she made a new dancing couple and let them prance along the floor. When they left her hand, they sputtered out within a couple seconds, but they were still pretty when they faded into ashes. Master Gorum entered the room as she released one of her couples. He watched curiously as they leapt up and poofed into nothing. Charlotte folded in her legs and smiled innocently. “You are a rare talent, young one,” the dwarf said. Charlotte blinked. She thought she was in trouble, but he just sounded impressed. “Thank you, sir.” “If I remember correctly, you received some training from your grandfather, Torven Velmon, in Dalaran, yes?” She nodded. “And further training from one Mardalius Anterius, a half-elf and well-known battlemage. Impressive instructors for one so young. Even more impressive are the results of their brief training. A mage with enough mana could theoretically conjure fire at your age, but to have such control over the flames is usually only seen at novice or apprentice level.” Charlotte shrugged. “My first spell exploded grandpa’s stove. I made ice once, too. I blocked a witch’s black fire with it, but it made me tired.” The dwarf stroked his beard. “Yes, I imagine it would. I won’t lie, girl, the level of spellcasting you display has dangerous implications. Someone your age using a spell too powerful to contain could have deadly consequences. I have known students to strain themselves so greatly that they drained all the mana they had, leaving them as empty husks. Not a pretty sight. I am going to recommend you for advanced courses. If you show as much aptitude for coursework as you do spellcasting, you may make apprentice before the year is out…” Charlotte smiled, but on the inside, she was kicking herself. Now I’ll have to listen to even more boring teachers! They’ll have me doing homework forever at this rate!
  22. Swords flashed silver and blood spurted green and black across the verdant field. The undead reeled silently, his sword hand fallen from his wrist. Brinnea closed the distance in a long stride and cleft his head free. Only one enemy remained standing. He didn’t hesitate. With her arms extended mid-swing, the death knight was an easy target. The Forsaken hacked down at her arms with all his undead strength. Steel bit into blackened flesh. Brin gritted her teeth and hissed as she plunged her blade into her final foe’s head. He fell over, twitching. The ground drank his blood greedily. “Shit,” Brin cursed, looking down on the ruin of her left arm. The Forsaken’s blade had shortened it at the elbow, leaving a black stump spurting corrupted blood. She tore cloth from a dead man’s cloak and fashioned a clumsy bandage with her hand and teeth. This wasn’t the first time she had lost her left hand. In fact, it was the fourth. The first time her hand had burned off by a witch’s grim spell, which had left a lingering curse on the arm. She replaced the hand, only to watch it blacken and rot away. She shortened the limb even further before replacing it, but the curse remained. Sighing, Brinnea retrieved her sheath from the undead who held it before she had broken loose. Her arms and armor had been stripped from her, leaving her in breeches and tunic. Without her hand, she had no way of putting on her armor. It is probably best that I leave it behind anyway, she thought. I may hide my identity in Forsaken lands with some luck and my hood and cloak, but there are too many who know me by the saronite plate. Adding in the lack of mount since her charger had fallen into the spike trap, she had little hope of keeping the armor without dragging it the rest of the way. And she had no net or sack to tie it up in. She cinched her belt and wrapped herself in her faded shadowskin cloak. She had extra clothes in her saddlebags, but there were too many enemies on her trail to take time backtracking. She stretched her leg – formerly wounded by a pit stake – and found it healed well enough. The Forsaken had been enough to repair her wounds from the fall. Before she started north, Brinnea glanced back the way the Forsaken hunters had brought her. She had been riding away from the mercenaries when the ground fell away beneath her horse. Jessaya had taken cuts but was able to climb out before the undead came. Brin had been stuck and had to wait until the hunters dragged her out. Given their numbers, she decided playing dead was her best bet, and in her undead state, it was rather easy to pull off. After they had taken her a short distance, she sprang loose and took up her blade. Everything after was simple butchery. Jessaya got away. The mercenaries are after me. That orc as well. She’ll be fine. Yet she lingered. For the remainder of the day, and the following night. Half the next day passed before the first pursuers came upon her. She had not been idle in that time. She had arranged the bodies and their skeletal-horse-drawn cart into a defensive position, ringed on one side by a small slope and the other with bodies, arrows from the hunters’ quivers dug into the earth like miniature stakes, and the cart itself on which she stood. The riders ringed her makeshift fort on all sides. The man with the tauren horn helmet whistled at the sight of the battle. “You’ve been busy, Red.” “Bronto,” Brinnea said icily, “Your people have bled enough on this hunt. My reward cannot be worth the men you’ve lost.” Bronto grinned, his smile aglitter with golden incisors. “It’s even more worthwhile, actually. Fewer shares means more for everyone. And now, you’ve got no horse, no orc friend, and…oh! You’re even short a hand. How quaint.” Brinnea had fixed a dagger to her stump when she heard the hoofbeats approaching. She pointed it at Bronto. “I don’t need two hands to tear you apart.” “Two hands tend to help, though. Oh, and I wouldn’t count on miraculous last-minute rescues this time. That big green shit and the little blonde bitch you were with? We already had our fun with them. Now it’s your turn.” The Bruisers laughed cruelly, weapons clattering against shields and one another. The horsemen approached at a trot, keeping a tight formation. Brinnea’s arms felt heavy as lead. Jessaya… Her sword clattered against the armor of the dead hunters where Brin dropped it. She began untying the dagger from her stump. “You win, Bronto,” she said, “I stand no chance, that is plain.” Bronto sniffed, looking disappointed. “Aye, true. Can’t say I expected such meek surrender. Bruisers, collect her head.” Brinnea held the dagger’s point under her chin. “Not so fast,” she warned, “One more step and I’ll end it myself.” Bronto watched her, befuddled. “I believe you’ve missed the first principle of delivering a threat, Red.” “You’ll get a heavy purse for me dead, certainly. But if you give me to the right person, alive, then you’re in for ten times what the Alliance have put on my head.” She pressed the point into her skin, spilling a dribble of blood. The mercenaries looked at their leader, unsure. Bronto looked rather silly with his face scrunched up in deep thought. “This is a ploy to escape. A plot to kill me. Everyone knows you’re not to be trusted, murderess.” “True. If you took me captive, it would mean greater danger. But my odds of survival are higher – and your reward much greater – this way.” “Then tell me, Red, who would I deliver you to? Who has such coin and such a passion to collect you?” “The Knights of the Ebon Blade. I was a champion among their ranks, and gold means less to them than any who offer you bounty. Take me to Acherus and you will have it.” It was a bluff; the Knights cared little for Brinnea, though they would likely accept her back into their ranks if she offered herself. She only hoped her lie was masked well enough. Bronto thought a long while, then flashed a golden smile. He chuckled, a throaty laugh for the throat of one thirsty. Or hungry. Hungry and lusty and greedy. I’ve won myself another day, at least. He said, “Agreed.”
  23. “She should have visited us by now,” Charlotte said for the sixth time. Once more, and we’ll have good luck, August thought to himself. Waller said seven is a lucky number. “She’s busy,” the wolf boy replied, uncertain. That the Night Vanguard would be affected by the talk of war August heard daily in the streets of Ironforge, he had no doubt. But Lupa always looked after us before. She thinks of Charlotte before anyone else. Even me. “Ugh! Why did she send us to this stupid place? It’s so stuffy in Ironforge!” the strawberry-haired girl jumped up and down on her bed, thankfully covered with a mattress since the bed itself was carved from the very rock of the mountain. The room they slept in was fancy, August supposed. He’d only ever slept in one dwarven house before, and it was nowhere near the size of this one. It was enough to make him feel like a blind pup all over again. August carefully watered his potted plant at the window. Summer was drawing to a close, and sunlight would be scarce in Autumn, so he kept the window open as often as he could. Charlotte had once complained of the draft – the mountain wind was cold no matter what time of year it was – but August was adamant about keeping the plant healthy. “It’s the only plant I brought from the Grove,” he had explained. Charlotte had only huffed and pouted. August was glad she didn’t threaten to burn it like she did everything else these days. “If she can’t come visit us, then we should go visit her!” Charlotte said. August shook his head, not bothering to look away from his plant. “She said to stay. She said it was too dangerous in the Grove. We’ll be safe here.” “But it’s so booooooring!” the girl shouted, falling on her mattress with a loud plop. Waller entered the room, rubbing his temples sleepily. “Children,” he said in his gravelly dwarven tone, “It’s the weekend. I don’t get to sleep in often. So why in the bloody hell are you making so much noise at the crack of dawn?” “August opened the window again,” Charlotte complained. The boy glared at her. “She was jumping on the bed,” he retorted. “Yeah, well—” Waller lifted his hands and shook his head, his oddly short beard jiggling as he did. “I don’t want to hear it. Why don’t you two go out for a breather while I catch some more winks?” “I will, but August is just going to stay with his stupid plant.” “It’s called Kingsblood,” August insisted. “Besides, Mama hasn’t visited us yet. She promised to visit us every week!” Guess that’s good luck for us, then. “Every week she can,” Waller reminded the girl. “Brinnea’s busy. The Vanguard’s at the front of a war. There’s no telling when she’ll be able to come next.” That didn’t quell Charlotte’s displeasure at all. The girl leapt off the bed and darted by Waller’s legs and out into the long hall that served as their dining room and living space. August breathed a sigh of relief and continued to tend to his Kingsblood. If I keep this up, it should sprout into a full bush, then it can survive the winter. “Boy, you’d best follow her,” Waller said, dashing August’s hopes. “But I—ok, fine.” August set his watering can aside and ran after his sister. Brinnea had twice told him to watch after the girl. The first time had been the first she’d ever spoken to him alone. She sat him down on a stump at the shore of Pandaria. He remembered the mountains towering overhead as she spoke. “August, your mother was a brave woman, so I know you’re brave, too. My daughter means the world to me, and I will do everything I can to protect her. If you want to be part of our family, then you’ll have to do the same. We look out for each other. Can you do that?” He had nodded, not fully knowing what he had gotten himself into. When they were readying to leave for Ironforge, she had looked him in the eyes and made him repeat his promise. Maybe I should have just stayed in my garden, he thought sullenly. August’s garden had been his safe place where he grew plants of all kinds, some he didn’t even know the names of. Master Calrin, his druid teacher, had told him how impressive it was for an eleven-year-old to grow so many in so short a time. It made him proud to think on it… …and sad, as well. Charlotte had already made it to the front door, but the way was blocked by Waller’s cousin Shea. Charlotte couldn’t stand the portly dwarven woman, but lately she couldn’t stand anyone else, either. “Doesh the little princesh want to go for a walk in the big, bad mountain?” Shea mocked. She smiled on the side of her face that still worked. August didn’t understand it much, but Waller had told him in private about Shea’s troubled health in her youth. She had once had frequent attacks that paralyzed the flesh of her face. At times, it would droop and she could scarcely control her own tongue, but she had improved over the years. Now, she only slobbered occasionally, and her words were mostly intelligible. “Move, Shea! And stop calling me that!” Charlotte stamped her foot, but the sound barely echoed beyond the great feasting table resting in the hall’s center. August liked the table. It was made of polished wood to shiny he could see his own face in it, and it was marked with a howling wolf’s silhouette in the center, framed by a full moon. That was Charlotte’s sigil, they told him, but it reminded him of his old home in the woods. “The little princesh tried to run off half a dozen timesh,” Shea slobbered, “I didn’t loosh half my witsh when I losht half my face. If you’re going anywhere, it’sh with someone who can bring you back at the end of the night.” “Then August can come with me. Just let me go, already! I’m sick of this stupid place!” The girl yelled in frustration, and a ball of fire formed in her hand. Shea’s one set of working eyelids widened, and she backed up a pace as Charlotte hurled the ball at the huge hearth at the far end of the room. The flames exploded, filling the room with smoke in seconds. Coughing, Shea ushered Charlotte and August outside by their collars. Waller joined them shortly after, his sleeping gown grey with ashes. Charlotte snickered. “Oh, so you’re laughing now, are you? D’you think I brought you into my hall out of the kindness of my heart just to let you burn down the place, child? No! No more magic in my hall! I won’t have it!” Charlotte launched into another round of loud complaints before Shea shook her into silence. August would have felt bad, but ever since he’d come to Ironforge, his druidic magic had forsaken him. This just seemed fair. Waller sighed. “Listen, girl, I know how hard this is for you. But the reality is, you need to be patient. You’re meant for great things, but great people must be patient, or they’ll let everyone down who looks up to them. Do you want to let people down?” Charlotte shook her head. “Good. Now run along and try not to burn down the Great Forge. I don’t know how you’d do it, but I’m sure you’d find a way. Boy, make sure she gets home by sunset.” August nodded, and followed Charlotte, who had started jogging off the moment Shea released her. The girl started a full sprint once the dwarves were back in the hall and out of sight. August was easily faster than her, but he hung back for now. I don’t want to get yelled at again, but I don’t think I can avoid that today. The pair wound their way from the West Arm of the Commons up into the Mystic Ward. They passed by the academy where they were instructed in the refined arts and the high sciences. They passed the great stone building layered in runes where Charlotte was taught the ways of the arcane, and they flew by the pools of knowledge where the dwarven mystics conducted rituals. At least, that was what August had heard. Mostly the children just used it for water games until the grey-bearded dwarves chased them away. Finally, they came to a stop at the foot of a standing stone marked with runes they had been learning to read. Charlotte could already read Common and most of Dwarven, but August was still a novice at any reading whatsoever. Every day when his instructors would point at a shape and say a word, he would cock his head and stare, but he failed to commit any of it to memory. Rather than dwell on it, he focused on his favorite subjects: herbology and biology. Charlotte sat down by the headstone and kicked her slippers off her feet. She kicked at the water half-heartedly and stared at the ripples. August wasn’t sure what to do, so he sat down alongside her. “It’s just not fair,” his sister mumbled. “Why would she leave us here? It’s not fair…” She whipped up a fireball and tossed it into the water to make it steam. Her quick and careless use of fire magic made August uncomfortable, especially because she was growing better at it. The mystics taught her all sorts of things in that big stone building, but August wasn’t allowed in, and Charlotte mostly just complained about how smelly the old women were, so he learned not to think on it much. “You wanna play with Colin?” August asked hopefully. Though he and her were seeing eye-to-eye on fewer things lately, they always enjoyed playing with Colin together. Charlotte smiled. She sprang up, drew out her fiery orange chalk, and sketched her runes in the ground beside the pool’s edge. As she walked in the circle, filling it in with complicated script, more children came around them, curious of what was going on. August wrinkled his nose at the smell of the chalk. It reminded him of rot and fire, but he supposed it was worthwhile given the result. Charlotte skipped backwards once the circle was complete. She waved her hands and chanted in her sing-song voice, and the runes began to glow like a low hearthfire. August took an instinctive step back. This part was never precise. A puff of smoke took to the air, and for a moment the space was hot as the Great Forge half the mountain away. When the smoke settled, a short dog made of living flames bounded about in a circle, chasing his own tail. About his neck was a blue collar with a silvery snowflake pendant, which August knew made it safe to touch the dog. He stepped forward first, aware of the eyes on him as he pet the fiery dog. The other children gasped at first, then burst out in cheers and laughs. They swarmed in, and Colin reveled in the attention. Charlotte quickly began to explain the dog and the magic that made him cool to the touch, but August’s attention was drawn elsewhere. An old hermit wearing a pointed hat sat on the edge of the pool with a gnarled staff across his lap. Though the brim of his hat concealed much of his face, August could see a single eye watching him closely. The eye was dark and glittery like a black pebble in a lakebed and made him shiver when he looked into it. “C’mon, August, Colin is getting away!” Charlotte nudged the boy’s shoulder. The fiery dog was halfway to the Great Forge, most likely drawn by the heat of it, and the pack of children were in hot pursuit. Parents were roaring after them, shouting in Dwarven all the while. August began to run, knowing he could catch up to the children and even outrun them without issue, but his gaze kept drifting back to the hermit. The man watched him as he went and raised a hand as a farewell. When night came in Ironforge, you knew it not by the dimming light nor the position of the sun as August had learned in the shadowy woods of Silverpine. In Ironforge, bells would ring and be heard across the city, ringing once for each hour past midday or midnight. Eight strikes marked nighttime, and August made certain Charlotte knew of it. It took a great deal of time to get her back home, and by then the ninth tolling had begun, and Shea mocked the girl’s lateness with a jape. Charlotte acted proud and defiant until the bathing started. Once Shea was done with her, Charlotte’s flesh was red and raw. The girl slipped on her bedclothes with many groans. August couldn’t sleep that night. In his dreams, he ran with his pack, and his heart raced as they neared a kill. He carried a knife in hand, as he always did, but his kin carried only tooth and claw. When the prey fell and it was time to deliver the final blow, he woke in a pool of sweat. Charlotte snored fitfully – when the girl fell asleep, she slept like the dead, only noisier – so August stood up and opened the window to let the cool air in. He could hear a bird’s cry somewhere out in the grey-black sky. August sometimes dreamed of flying instead of hunting, but in every dream, he had a pack again. He was whole again. He looked at Charlotte, feeling guilty. Brinnea was like a mother to him, a guardian and a guide like his first Lupa had been years ago. But she was not his mother. Nobody could replace her, though she had not been of his father’s pack. And Father… The bird’s cry grew louder. August wondered if it was alone, and how long it had been. Birds of prey hunted alone, he knew. Unlike the wolf, the bird did not know family. Did that make the bird happier? Was it better to always be alone? August had no answers, so he tried to tend to his plant a while to ease his mind. But the bird’s cry drew nearer, as though it were right in front of him. A shadow flew over his head, straight through the window and into the room. August’s first thought was of Charlotte. He whirled around, his knife suddenly in hand. The shadow of a bird had vanished and left in its place the hermit from the pool in the Mystic Ward. “Oh, hello,” the one-eyed man muttered, “Bloody windy outside. I thought you might have the window shut.” “Who are you?” August demanded. He wondered if he should shout to bring Waller and Shea, but instead he waited. “You may call me Wilmar, young one, for that’s my name. To call me anything else would be awfully confusing.” The man’s dung-brown hair was long and seemed uncut for many years. It ran down his back to his waist like a fur cape while his beard jutted out in wild tufts. He had only one eye, and that was dark and red where most eyes were white. He placed his gnarled staff against the wall and drew a smoking pipe. “What are you doing in here? Why were you watching us earlier?” August tried to make his voice sound strong and sure, like Brinnea’s, but he must have seemed a little thing to this man, and weak. “I can always sniff out potential, young one. Believe me. And I know what it’s like to feel the call of the wild, only to have it shut away from you like a dog trapped in a kennel or a bird in a cage. That’s why I was watching you. Why I’m here…well, that’s to train you, of course.” A light smoke filled the room as Wilmar lit his pipe and puffed. Charlotte did little more than twitch at the disturbance. August lowered his knife. “You can train me? You can make me a druid?” “Well, the Emerald Dream makes the true druids. I can show you a path and tell you how to walk it, and the rest will be up to you. So, what do you say?” There was little thought in August’s head other than his reply, which was immediate: “Yes!”
  24. Kimba grunted as Isi set him down against the trunk of a tree. The sounds of battle ringed through the woods, and all around the groans of agony of the dead and dying gave the black bull some discouraging thoughts. His head throbbed painfully, and every time he reached to feel for his right-side horn, he bristled angrily to feel it shortened and jagged. “Human bastard,” he seethed. “I never saw the shots coming. I didn’t even know guns could hold more than one bullet at a time. Not ones you can carry with you, anyway.” His leg was bleeding as well, but it was his horn that truly concerned him. He’d walked off worse wounds, but never had anyone managed to take one of his horns. “I think it adds character,” Isi said as he waved a medic over. “The beach is nearly secure. Sylvanas herself made an appearance.” “Get my leg patched up, and we’ll go see her up-close.” Isi’s face twisted with a mixture of excitement and fear. Kimba couldn’t blame him. The medic, however, was less emotional about the idea of rushing Kimba’s treatment. “The bullet is buried in the flesh,” the undead said, “It will require time to remove, and it is not serious enough to warrant immediate action. I have others in critical condition. If you’re in such a rush to go to battle again, then by all means. Don’t come crying to me when your leg mortifies.” “I don’t intend to.” Isi helped Kimba limp to the beach. The dead lay half-buried in the sand underfoot as the tauren approached the mass of Horde soldiers. Catapults fired at the Alliance navy as the ships fell back, desperate to avoid their vast range. Kimba’s Braves were abuzz nearby. Once they approached, Kimba could see why. “Lyra, what are you doing out here? I told you to stay in camp.” The elf looked around at the elves, seeming strangely curious rather than upset. “They’re like me,” she said simply. “So that’s who you’re fighting.” Isi handed Kimba off to another brave and stepped to Lyra’s side. He awkwardly placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry you had to see this, Lyra. We hoped we could spare you. Come on, I’ll take you back to camp. You’ll be safe there.” Lyra cocked her head at Isi’s hand, then glanced out at looming Teldrassil. “I was going to stay at camp, but I thought I heard something call to me. I think…it was out there.” Kimba frowned at the nearby catapults. They were changing aim from the fleeing fleet. “What could they be aiming at?” He got his answer only a moment later, when the fiery boulders let fly across the expanse of water and crashed against the massive tree. Kimba blinked and stared. So that’s the way of it, he thought, Sylvanas is certainly making a statement. “An’she, no!” one of the braves shouted. It might have been Isi, but there were hundreds of voices crying out all around: night elven captives and Horde soldiers alike. Kimba sighed and told his brave to let him go. He used his spear to prop himself up, instead. I must show my strength, or they’ll start questioning. This wasn’t the first time he’d led troops after such questionable actions from superiors. “Isi,” he said. The boy didn’t seem to hear him. He was clutching Lyra as if he might fall over. The elf looked to be clutching her stomach in pain. “Isi! You need to take her back to camp. Now.” Isi didn’t ask questions, but Kimba worried he was so struck he might have misheard. He led Lyra away nonetheless. Now to keep the others in line. What a pain in the ass this is. I’m going to need a woman when this is all over, or I may well lose my wits.
  25. “Really? You once at a whole kodo roast by yourself?” Lyra asked excitedly as they rode. The little elf shared Isi’s kodo, who was having difficulty crossing the shattered ruin of Darkshore. She wore some elven-style clothes they had scavenged for her. They fit loosely about her slim frame, but they were the best that could be found under the circumstances. Kimba snorted as many Braves who had long known him implored him to tell the story. “Ah, yes. When I was five stone lighter and a hell of a lot hungrier. My brother Rumba was caught boasting that he could eat a whole dragon. We had been marching the Barrens for half a year and supplies had run out weeks prior. Wild game was scarce with the Alliance and Horde armies moved in across from each other, so we were down to eating grass and bugs and anything else we could get our hands on. “Well, I retorted that I’d like to see him try to hunt down a dragon. Also that our brother Qarn would castrate him if he ever mentioned doing such a thing in his presence. Our elder brother loved dragons; he even pledged loyalty to them during the Scourge War. “Rumba relented and said, ‘Fine, a kodo, then. I could down a whole rack of kodo ribs in one sitting.’ So we made a bet. When we made it home, we’d have our families fire up a feast and we would race each other to eat a whole kodo each. And so we did. But after I beat him on eating the ribs, I kept going. Every last ounce of meat that kodo had to offer, I gobbled them down and asked for seconds.” Isi faked a gag and shook her head. “Boss even ate the poor beast’s balls. I’ll never get that image out of my head.” Lyra giggled girlishly. The other Braves joined in laughing, their own voices much throatier. Lyra had a way of causing joy in the troupe. When Kimba had received the order to march on from Fargaze Village, he made certain the girl was asleep so she wouldn’t have to see the devastation they left behind. The girl had been none the wiser, and morale was all the better for it. “I wonder if I’ve ever eaten kodo,” Lyra mused, “I can’t seem to remember the taste. I’d love to try some.” Kimba shrugged. “We never let out tireless companions go to waste. I’m certain the war will cost us a few, but we’ll eat well in their memory. You’ll get your share then.” Isi gagged again. “Just as long as you don’t make us eat every part of them!” Lyra said, “You’ll never know if you like it until you try it, Isi!” Kimba snorted as Isi shook his head vehemently. Then their kodo tripped on a loose shelf of rock and nearly fell down a sudden steep drop. Isi cried out as she fell, tumbling head over hooves on the slope. Lyra managed to stop a short way down, but the Brave and the kodo fell all the way to the bottom and splashed down in river rapids. “Isi!” Kimba roared, already dismounted. “Someone get some rope!” He peered down to try and spot the fallen Brave. He resurfaced, belly-down, further down the rapids. “Dammit! I’m going down there!” Kimba slid his way down the hill, hooves screeching against the rocks. Lyra watched him as he passed, rubbing her head sorely. The black bull reached the bottom and took off down the wet pebble riverbed after Isi, who still wasn’t moving. Up ahead, the river tumbled down another steep cliff. Kimba hastened, charging like a cannonball. A shadow passed overhead. A bird flew down and landed on Isi’s back. Kimba shouted, “Leave her alone, you crow! You’re not eating this one!” The bird’s shape changed suddenly. It turned green and its body morphed in a liquid fashion like nothing Kimba had ever seen before. Suddenly, the bird was no more, and a giant squid took its place. The cephalopod gripped a large boulder with two of its strong legs and the rest spiraled around the unconscious Brave’s body. By the time Kimba reached them, Isi was lying on her back on the pebbles, bleeding from half a dozen cuts. “Isi! Breathe, dammit!” He pushed on his chest, feeling the faint outline of breasts that spoke to his true nature. He shook his thoughts away, pushed away his errant stirrings. He focused on Isi – on his mouth and lungs. He pushed again and again until finally the Brave sputtered out water and took a deep breath. “Oh, boss,” Isi muttered, “Thank An’she I didn’t die with my last thoughts being you munching on a kodo’s balls.” Kimba fell back, breathing hard and laughing at the top of his lungs. “Thank that bird-squid thing. That’s what did the real work.” He looked to where the strange morphing creature had been and saw in its place Lyra sat cross-legged and naked as when they first found her. “Hi Isi,” Lyra said, “I’m glad you’re not dead.”