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Posts posted by RiktheRed21

  1. 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 The bottom thirty floors, however, were outdated and, according to Tops, close to being voted as abandoned in status by the Gnomeregan council.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.

  2. 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.”


    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?”


    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.

  3. 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.

  4. “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.

    • Like 1

  5. 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?”

    • Like 1

  6. 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?”


    “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.”

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.”

  12. “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!”

    • Like 1

  13. 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.

  14. “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.”

  15. Kimba looked about with disgust at the village’s ruin. Night elven corpses lay sprawled in grisly pieces, often with fingers clawing at their throats desperately. Wisps wept softly as they glided by wistfully, drawn towards the same direction as if caught by a rogue wind. The braves around him were as disquieted as he was, for the most part. Some reveled in the easy victory, those Kimba knew for cravens and old men praying to go home to see their families before they passed. The young were largely shocked and reviled.

    “Alright, Braves,” he said, “This is our camp for the night. Take whatever you want but leave the dead. They belong to the forest.” The warriors spread about, walking around the bodies uneasily. Kimba set his sights on the largest building, a hollow tree with purple designs depicting some ancient hunt, and across it the same pattern repeated: an eye with a mountain for a pupil.

    A young bull followed behind Kimba like a faithful hound. Isi hid his uneasy better than the others, and that wasn’t the only thing he concealed. Kimba had known him long enough for the boy to confide in him his secret; the boy was a girl. Isi’s body was broad and strong enough to pass for a man’s, and Kimba liked her well enough, so he agreed to consider her a bull and never speak otherwise to the Braves. For that, Isi followed him around and did everything he asked and was generally an amiable student of war.

    “Do you know anything about this place, boss?” Isi asked, his voice sturdy to further hide his nervousness.

    “Aye, I’ve ranged this far a few times,” Kimba replied, “This is the manor of the village elders, the Fargazes. They are a druid clan that speak to the spirits of the woods on the behalf of the people. There is quite a story regarding them, if you’re keen to learn.”

    “C’mon, boss, you know how much I love your stories.” The pair clopped down into the hollow tree, following the winding passage down and down and down into the deep earth. The wind felt still down here, as though time stood still.

    “What the hell, telling the tale in the elves’ own hole seems only fitting. The Fargaze clan first gained favor among Kaldorei during the War of the Ancients. They were a fierce hunter clan before they took up the way of the Dream, so they made for good captains in the war. They could hunt down Highborne mages like no other, and the star of the Fargaze clan was called Shanoris.

    “Shanoris was the eldest daughter of the clan’s patriarch, and the greatest hunter. She had a passion for slaying mages and was a true artist with a glaive. Indeed, she was so good at killing that it became her downfall. For with the war turning sour, Illidan’s draconian tactics appealed to the kill-hungry Shanoris. Though she would not become a demon hunter for some time later, she quickly fell out of favor with the Kaldorei for her love of Illidan, which continued after his dishonoring at the war’s conclusion.”

    The passageway opened wide to a huge entryway, larger than the chieftain’s tent in Thunder Bluff. Kimba continued his tale, reveling in the echo of his strong voice along the wide walls, “Shanoris’ father Idaro swore his life to uphold the balance of nature, and in his oath, he swore to uphold family beyond all else. So when his daughter was denounced and threatened with exile, Idaro did all he could to turn his daughter away from her dark path.

    “But Shanoris was not easily swayed, not even by her own blood. She fled home and found a master of the demon hunting arts. She cut out her eyes and drank in the power of demons and learned to hunt them wherever they appeared. When she returned home to display her power to her younger sister Kyrande, Shanoris was disappointed to find her family had disowned her as well.

    “Before too long, even her beloved sister betrayed her. In one of their secret meetings, Kyrande betrayed Shanoris to the Wardens. The fierce huntress was brought to heel and with her last word against her family, she cursed them. Idaro would never have another child to replace his betrayed daughter. Though she had turned aside Elune’s grace, the spirits of the woods heard her, and the curse was sealed.

    “The demon hunter wasted away in the dark cells for thousands of years, but one day she was awakened. To the Black Temple she and the other Illdari flew, and before long a new prison was made for them. Shorter years went by before she awakened again, amidst blood and fire. Once again, she took up the glaives and flew to battle. It is said that in the Broken Isles, she found her sister in mortal peril, and a nephew as well. Kyrande, the sister, was lost, but the nephew was saved. When the war ended, Shanoris brought the boy home, to these very halls. The story says Idaro at last forgave Shanoris. And the curse? Perhaps it was broken, but perhaps not. Only time will tell.”

    Isi’s bright eyes were lit up with fascination and fixed on Kimba as he concluded the tale. “Where is the demon hunter now?” she asked.

    Kimba shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I heard that story from a night elf who lived here. She was brought to me a couple nights back by the scouts. I asked her again and again, ‘Where is the huntress?’ but she refused to betray any member of the elder family.”

    A quiet moan echoed through the halls. In the dead silence of the halls, it seemed more like a booming crash. Kimba drew his spear and Isi her axe and shield. They clopped towards the sound slowly. Isi whispered, “Could that be her?”

    “If it were a demon hunter,” Kimba whispered back, “We would already be dead.” They followed the sound into a small room no larger than a broom cupboard and discovered a naked night elf girl huddled in some straw.

    Isi gaped at the girl, evidently unsure what to do with her. Kimba put up his spear and removed his fur cloak to drape it over the groggy girl’s hairless body. “What is your name, elf?” he said in Darnassian. Having raided the night elves for so long, he had picked it up at a conversational level from questioning prisoners.

    “D-dad?” the girl asked groggily.

    “Hah! No. I don’t think so,” Kimba replied.

    Isi looked at his confusedly. “What did she say?”

    “She mistook me for her father.”

    “Well, you have a certain…fatherly way about you.”

    If only that were true, he thought to himself bitterly. He took the girl up in his strong arms and carried her out into the light. She had no facial tattoos, which could mark her as a child, but Kimba understood little of the Kaldorei’s culture. Her forest-green hair was tied up in a long braid decorated with folded leaves of autumn colors.

    Her silvery eyes blinked open and she smiled at Kimba. “Hello there,” she said groggily…in Taurahe.

    Kimba smirked. “You speak my tongue? Maybe you’re not as young as you look.”

    The elf giggled. “Looks can be deceiving. Where am I?”

    Isi spoke up, “You’re in Fargaze Village, the elders’ manor. You don’t remember anything?”

    The girl frowned and seemed to be straining. “No, I guess I forgot again. Oh well! You two seem nice. Can I have some clothes? People tend to look at me funny when I go around naked.”

    “I’ll bet,” Kimba said with a chuckle. Having gotten a good look at her earlier, he had felt some stirrings down below. He tried to set them aside, at least until he could figure out how old she was. “Do you remember your name, at least?”

    “It’s Lyra. Lyra…oh—” she chewed at her braid thoughtfully. “Nope! I guess I don’t remember my last name either.”

    Isi blinked at the girl, baffled. Kimba merely laughed. “I like you, Lyra. You may not know much, but you know how to stay positive! I’ll find a place for you to stay while we sort out the clothes situation.”

    “Much obliged! What are your names, if you don’t mind me asking?”

    “Name’s Kimba, and I’m from the Goldfield in Mulgore. That’s Isi from Taurajo.” Isi gave the elf a shy wave. Seems I’m not the only one falling victim to this one’s charms.

    Once they had Lyra comfortable in what was clearly the elder’s own bedroom, Kimba pulled the door curtain to and stalked out of earshot with Isi.

    Kimba said, “The girl doesn’t seem to know about the massacre, so she’s either playing dumb to spy on us, or she’s likely to go mad when she sees the carnage outside.”

    Isi nodded, scratching his lightly furred chin. “Are you planning on bringing her with us?”

    “It would be safer. If she is a spy, we don’t want her running free. If she’s as docile as she seems, then she’ll be in danger the moment she steps out into the forest alone.”

    “Ah, boss, you really do have a heart.”

    Kimba snorted. “Actually yes, I do. You need a heart to pump blood, and blood to get hard.”

    Uck! That’s vile. You should feel ashamed of yourself.”

    “Think that girl’s old enough for me?”

    “Really, boss? I swear, you think like a little boy.” Isi tried to act high and mighty, but Kimba could see his façade crumbling.

    “So you say. I know what you’re really thinking.”

    “What? But I—Well, do you think I have a chance?” Isi had all the innocence of a young boy and girl rolled into one. Kimba patted him on the shoulder.

    “She seems friendly enough. Just don’t mention that we slaughtered hundreds or thousands of her people in the last few days and I’m sure she’ll warm up to you.”

  16. The day was misty and bloody before the sun had peeked over the horizon. The old man sat with legs crossed, surrounded by corpses shorn into pieces. The man thought the cuts masterful and saw an odd sense of beauty in the desolation. Even so, he cursed himself for being sloppy.

    Old age makes clumsy fools of every orc, he thought bitterly as he daubed the small cut on his neck with a finger shortened years ago by some human’s sword. The cut itself was small, but a few inches in one direction and the old orc would have ended his winter days at the hands of some weakling hiding behind his friends. That was no way for a Blademaster to die.

    But you aren’t a master anymore, old fool. No orc can claim that with his sword taken from him.

    Grumbling and stiff from his restful sit, the old man got up and sheathed his blade. He had found it in the possession of a particularly large ogre, but it must have been made for a Forsaken smith. The old man could recognize the craftsmanship of any piece of shaped metal at a glance. He had named it Old Bones since he had felt stiff that day.

    Of course, he felt stiff every day now. Travelling around all the time had become monstrously dull and tiring, but he had little else to do with the Horde settling to restfulness. The Legion had not brought his glorious death, so he had left his home in search for the one who would at last best him.

    And all I’ve found is craven humans and half-witted ogres. Arathi was once home to some of the greatest human warriors. Humans had been his most bitter rivals in his youth, and so it seemed fitting to meet his end here, in the land where he’d bloodied his blade to many times.

    The old man walked stiffly over the bodies and out into the misty sunlight. A fine mist like this made him wish he still had tobacco for his pipe. The thought of it made his lungs itch, and he coughed harshly until spittle dotted the grass at his feet, mimicking the morning dew.

    Hoofbeats in the distance caught his attention. His hand flew to his sword, driven by a lifetime of instinct. Is it more of these cowardly mercenaries? he wondered. He walked toward the sound, prepared to see the beast and its rider fly through the fog. Instead, he heard the animal come to a halt and its rider dismount. No, riders. There’s two of them, both female. One sounds like little more than a child, the other…

    He smiled broadly, licking the gaps where many of his teeth had fallen out, some from blows landed and others from his age. He had spotted them as the mist parted: the girl and the knight. She was a knight of death, human, and in the prime of her youth. She looked strong and proud in her dark blue plate and cloak, and the sheathe on her belt was greatly warn from the drawing of the sword. All the signs of a great warrior were present, and when she spotted him, the sword came to hand in a flash. He drew his Old Bones.

    “Finally,” he said in the human tongue, “I have found a worthy challenge in these drab hills. Show me your art, death knight!”

    “Turn around and go back the way you came. There is only death here.” The knight spoke coldly, her voice like icy needles scratching at the ears. She held her sword in a practiced stance, while the smaller girl hid behind the death knight’s charger.

    “I welcome it,” the old man replied, “I have been too long in this world, and I must not keep my ancestors waiting.”

    “Very well. You were warned, old one.” She advanced, her footwork impeccable. The old man’s heart soared as their blade met. It seemed as though their strikes blew back the mists with a great blast of power.

    He roared, cutting at her blindingly fast from above, below, and either side. She parried and even countered, matching blow for blow. Her sword lunged at his eye like a snake. He ducked to the side and crashed into her with his bare shoulder, smashing her to the ground. She rolled out of range as his blade came down, and her sword flew at his head once again. It parted the mist like paper, but he avoided it expertly. They met again with invisible blades, only breaking off when the woman forced him back, landing a small cut across his abdomen.

    He was laughing now. He felt as if the fire of youth had returned to him, his old muscles and bones turning back time by years and years. He leapt at her, and she yielded ground. He was much larger than her, and his blows came with more ferocity and through a heavier blade, but her sword moved like a swarm of insects. Trying to catch her off-guard was like trying to cut each insect in the swarm one by one.

    Eventually, he overwhelmed her defenses. He managed to catch her just before she shifted her stance fully; she took the full force of his strike on her blade rather than deflecting it cleanly. The sword flew from her grasp, but she was far from finished. Before he could even begin a follow-up, she danced around him, and elbowed his kidney. He fell to one knee with a grunt, and her blade was in her hands again. He began to stand, but his knee popped and stiffened beneath him. He was stuck! No! Done in by bad knees? That cannot be the way I die!

    He was a barely worth more than a clump of rocks before her skill now. She moved within his defenses instantly, and without any leverage, he could do nothing to stop her from disarming him. “Over so soon,” he lamented, “Such a shame.”

    She lay her blade by his neck, but did not cut. The steel was cold as the snows of Northrend, and sent a shiver down the old man’s old spine. “You can still leave with your life,” the knight said, showing no signs of exertion.

    “That would be anticlimactic, wouldn’t it?” the old man replied. “What’s the use of going on, anyway? My body has lost the fire it once did. Better to make a clean end to it.”

    “How short-sighted of you. With your knowledge, you could do much more for your people than you ever did with a sword in your hand.”

    “What do you know of it, death knight? You are no orc.” He eyed the girl hiding behind the horse. Such youthful innocence. She was an example of the human’s failure. Always blooded too late to understand the truth behind bloodshed.

    “I’m no orc, but I’m not stranger to sword work,” the knight said. “I never wanted a sword. I wanted a home. You should use what you have left, not try to hold on to what you used to have.”

    “If you will not kill me, then at least give me your name, death knight. I have the names of every warrior who has ever bested me etched in my memory.”

    She paused for a long moment before stepping back and sheathing her sword. “Brinnea Velmon,” she said. Her hand went behind her back.

    The old man chuckled. “My name is Gorath. It is an honor.” His knee popped back into place, and he leapt forward, his hand on her throat…

    …and the knife she had hidden was pressed against his. They both paused in place. “That’s twice I’ve spared you, Gorath. There won’t be a third time.”

    He released her throat and backed away. “You think it is mercy you have shown to me, Brinnea Velmon? I am cursed to wander until I meet the one who is to claim my life. Every day my body grows older and I approach a dishonorable death. You could have given me what I sought today. I’ll remember your name so I may curse you from the ancestral plain.”

    She smirked, putting away her knife. “You won’t be alone in that.” The two warriors backed away from one another, mutual respect held in their eyes.

    Then the little girl stepped forward and mucked it all up. “Wait!” she cried, “You could…come with us, if you’d like.”

    Gorath eyed her curiously. “Why would I do that?”

    “Jessaya,” Brinnea Velmon said warningly, “Don’t get involved.”

    “He could help you with…whatever it is you need to do!”

    Gorath laughed. “Just because we have not killed one another this day does not make us friends, fool child.”

    “He’s right, Jessaya. Just leave him be.”

    The girl looked between the two, determined. “Why do you have to fight? What’s the point? You two are amazingly talented! You could accomplish so much if you just worked together!”

    “It is not our way,” Gorath said plainly. “Humans and orcs can never be any more than enemies.”

    “Once I thought the same way as you, Jess, but what the old man says is true. Some people just don’t want peace.” Gorath sensed she wasn’t telling the truth, only what he wanted to hear. But he was too busy listening to the hoofbeats grow closer to point it out.

    “That sounds like quite a few,” he remarked as the two women realized they were surrounded.

    The human riders bore spears and swords and axes, and some even carried clubs or huge ogre hammers slung over their shoulders. Gorath took up his sword and smiled at the new arrivals.

    “Fancy that, boys. We found three dead folks in one spot,” one of the riders said. He wore a helm styled with a tauren’s horns and blackened plate armor that gave him the look of a knight who’d ridden through fire.

    The death knight scowled at the riders, her blade raised defensively. She kept the girl behind her, but it would do little good. Even if the two of them were to mount, they would never break through the circle of riders. Even so, she barked back defiantly, “We have no quarrel with you unless you mean us harm. Leave now, if you value your lives.”

    “We rode a long way after your trail, Brinnea Velmon. At first, I thought to overlook your insults to my boys back at Dun Modr. After all, we got what we wanted from ol’ Sio eventually.” The bandits snickered all around them, and the horned knight had a wicked look on his face. “But when I found this—” the man drew a scroll of parchment and unfurled it. A wanted poster, Gorath could tell, with Brinnea Velmon’s face drawn on.

    “—I just couldn’t resist. Ten thousand gold could buy me and my boys all the whores we could ever fuck in one lifetime.”

    The death knight stood her ground, unflinching. Her face was like a cracked mask with that scowl stuck in place. “Last warning,” she growled.

    “And look at what else we’ve caught, boys,” the knight said, ignoring Brinnea’s warning, “Our delayed scouts, all cut apart. At a guess, I would say that wasn’t the death knight’s handiwork, but that of our green guest here. Do you speak Common, savage?”

    The old orc grunted back in Orcish, “Better than you, pig fucker.”

    “Ah, apologies. I suppose you’ll just have to die ignorant. No prisoners today, Bruisers!” The rider whooped and kicked their horses to a trot. The circle closed in around them, spear points aimed at their heads. One of the riders reached to grab the deathcharger’s reins only for the beast to bite half his hand off. The man screamed, and his mount reared fearfully as blood dribbled on its mane, throwing him from the saddle.

    Gorath charged the gap, knocking spearpoints aside with all his strength. The death knight shouted for the girl to mount up, the old man overheard. His senses always seemed stronger in combat, as though nothing could escape his notice. He ducked out of the riders’ circle and struck the rear leg off a horse. The beast tumbled over, crushing the leg of his rider. More horsemen were turning to face Gorath now, but without their flanking advantage, they were nothing to him but fodder for the blade.

    The two women galloped past as he cut down human and horse again and again. The death knight gave him an uncertain look, and he heard the girl protesting loudly, but the horse charged out into the mist unceasing.

    The tauren-horned knight lined up with two pairs of his Bruisers. He held a long-hilted hammer in one hand and a shield in the other. He glared at the orc bitterly. Gorath grinned, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Had your fill, or are you eager for death, human?” he called out in Orcish.

    “What do we do, boss?” one of the Bruisers asked timidly.

    The knight snorted much like the tauren he masqueraded as. “We retreat for now. They can’t escape us once we let the dogs on them. And next time we meet, we bring arrows.” With that, they turned and galloped off into the grey.

    Gorath followed the deathcharger’s tracks as the mist began to fade. He cleaned his blade with a large swatch of cloth as he walked, occasionally taking a swig from his wineskin or munching on horsemeat he’d carved from one of the fallen beasts. The sun was falling on the horizon when he found the end of the trail.

    The death charger had fallen into a pit lined with spikes, but its riders were nowhere to be seen. Bloody tracks led off one way, but soft footfalls trailed the other. Seems the girl made it away from the trap safely, but not the death knight. Whoever made this has her now.

    The thought that his equal in combat had been taken by such treacherous means irked him. He set Old Bones on his shoulder and started off on the bloody trail. I suppose I’ve got the energy for one more fight today.

  17.             When Vilmah had been tasked with brokering peace between two centaur clans out in the dead waste of Desolace, the last thing she expected was for the meetings to take place at the base of a massive waterfall. Instead of grey, dingy dust and dry bones littering the ground, she was welcomed by a gentle glow of greenery and the cries of living beasts. That sound was comforting, but she had to listen hard for it over the ever-present clangor of the huge fall.

                The place wasn’t clear of the presence of death, however. The stink of it lingered wherever the clansmen tread. This place was a haven for them, like Shattrath or Dalaran was for the Alliance and Horde. And just like those grand cities, this place was rife with dirty looks and murderous intent.

                And then, of course, there was the actual dead man accompanying Vilmah. He followed her like a cold shadow, closed-lipped and soft-footed. It was disquieting, but she’d rather have someone to accompany her to this land of hostility, even if it had to be someone like Georgio.

                “Don’t see something like that every day,” Vilmah said wistfully.

                “Not usually.” Georgio spoke little, and so softly it came as a whisper.

                Vilmah scratched one of the scars on her neck. “Where are you from, again, Georgio?”

                “Brill, after the turn. Before, the city.”

                “The city…you mean the capital city?”

                “Yes. I preferred it as it once was, not so as it is now.”

                “I see.” She could understand that. From all Vilmah had heard of the Second War from its survivors, the capital of Lordaeron had been like a fearsome beast no hunter could bring down. The Horde had come close, only to be broken against its dreaded walls and scattered across the northern kingdoms like blades of grass before a gardener’s scythe.

                It had been a city to be proud of. And then Arthas. Her thoughts always seemed to lead back to death eventually. Even in this peaceful place, there was no peace from death. Beyond all else, she felt tired.

                “I think I’ll turn in for the night, Georgio. It was a long ride, and the greetings seemed to stretch on forever…” The ceremonial greetings had been a lavish affair with every respectful ritual possible. And Vilmah had endured them twice, one for each of the centaur clans. Things would be much easier if they worked together. I guess that’s why we’re here.

                “Centaurs are sticklers for tradition. Keep that in mind tomorrow.” Georgio began to slink off towards the circle of tents that marked the moving city of the beast-men. The tents were clearly divided between those stitched of quillboar skin painted red and those of gnoll skin painted green. Centaurs preferred to display their more impressive kills, so Vilmah had learned.

                “Georgio,” Vilmah called out. The Forsaken turned about, his bright yellow eyes burrowing under the orcess’s skin. “You’ve worked with these clans before, right? Have they ever gathered like this without coming to violence?”

                His dead flesh twisted in something resembling discomfort. “Not for years and years, Vilmah Bloodborne. I’d suggest you get a good night’s sleep.” As he slipped into the darkness like a specter, Vilmah promised herself she would do as he warned.



                “It is a great honor to have you here, Vilmah Bloodborne,” the translator said, his voice scratchy and not pleased-sounding in the least. His master, a grey-bearded and one-eyed chieftain painted with bright-red markings, grunted in his own tongue while eyeing Vilmah as a carpenter measures a length of wood. After, he swept his arm over the wide array of food on his long, tall table. It stretched on for several feet in either direction and was lined with centaurs painted just as red, but more humbly than their chieftain. Vilmah felt half a fool sitting in the high chair while the chieftain and his entourage sat all around her. Georgio sat by her left hand, which made her feel a more comfortable. Not by much, but it counted for something.

                The translator spoke again, “Chieftain Gromul humbly offers this meager meal as a welcome from the Pakan people, ever friends of the Horde.”

    Georgio had told Vilmah of the Pakan clan’s history with the Horde. For years they defied the Horde’s presence in Desolace, especially around the coastline area they claimed as their sacred ground. They had been aggressors in a bloody three-way war between themselves, the Horde, and the third party present at this summit: the Komen.

                “If this is what the Pakan count as meager, then I hope to be invited to more feasts,” Vilmah said with a smile. The translator seemed unconvinced by her gratitude as he repeated her words in his tongue. Gromul, however, belched a laugh.

                “Small though this may be, you will find nothing near as great on the tables of the Komen. They have always been jealous of our wealth.”

                “Oh,” was all Vilmah thought to say. This was a delicate situation. Her every action could turn either side against her in a heartbeat.

                “Take care with such honest talk at the meeting today, Chieftain,” Georgio’s whispery voice said, “Remember when you last spoke of Komen wealth at one of these meetings?”

                “My chieftain says he remembers all too well,” the translator replied as the grey-bearded chieftain chuckled, “A glorious battle, and many Komen lay dead by his spear.”

                “And many Pakan as well,” the Forsaken replied with a shrug. “It was mine and Vilmah Bloodborne’s understanding that your people had bled long enough on the spears of your Komen cousins.”

                Vilmah gave Georgio a thankful smile. “Yes, and that is what brings us here,” the translator grunted. “And what brings you to us.”

                The remainder of the meal was all pleasantries and humble boasts. At times the chieftain or one of his chief raiders would mention the Komen in passing. Georgio even managed to coax a small praise from the chieftain’s eldest son.

                “The Komen,” he said, “Have proven hard to kill.”



                Vilmah’s apprehension about this meeting had grown steadily after the feast, and Georgio’s grim temperament did little to ease her nerves.

                “Remember to steer the conversation away from the Second Battle of Tall Grasses,” the undead reminded her for the fifth time that day, “The Pakan are still sore about that loss, and they are like to grow more heated if it is discussed.”

                “Georgio?” Vilmah interjected carefully. The man’s wrinkled grey face watched her impassively. “Why haven’t we discussed the peace terms? Shouldn’t I know what sort of reaction to expect from that? Why all the talk about battles and faux pas?”

                “Because we can control the conversation until the terms are spoken.”

                “What happens after?”

                “One of two things. They’ll either erupt into a full-blown battle then and there, or they’ll simply leave the meeting feeling cheated and sour, but at peace nonetheless. All we can do at that point is hope for the best.”

                Vilmah rubbed her temples irritably. “I think I need some fresh air. How long until the meeting?”

                “One hour. I would be quick were I you.”

                She departed from their shared tent – which Georgio never used, leading Vilmah to suspect he did not sleep at all – and walked around the ring of tents. All around her she saw Komen and Pakan, two sides of the same coin to her eyes. One was painted green and the other red and either used different skins for their tents and clothes, but otherwise they were indistinguishable to her eyes. It made her heart sink to imagine these people, who should have been kin, killing each other for generations.

                “Excuse me, miss?” a voice as clear as running water called after Vilmah. She turned to see a rather small centaur clopping after her. Even more surprising than his voice and size – he was handsome. His long, dark hair was tied back in a neat bun, his eyes were green as grass, and his features were softer and cleaner than the other centaurs Vilmah had met. She noted his green body paint arranged in intricate patterns, a sign of the Komen.

                “What can I do for you?” she asked politely.

                “Well, it is embarrassing,” he said with a strange boyish innocence to his tone, “I fear I’ve lost my favorite quill. It is made from the feather of a thunder bird, about this long.” He indicated with his fingers.

                “A thunder bird? I don’t think I’ve heard of that.”

                “It is native to these lands, and sacred to my people. They are incredibly rare, but we sometimes train them to hunt or to tell when bad weather is coming.”

                Vilmah’s eyebrow lifted. “They can predict weather?”

                “Indeed they can. They can even pass through thunderstorms without fear of lightning. The feather is brown and white, like the hair of a centaur. You haven’t seen a feather about like that, have you?”

                She shook her head. “Sorry.”

                “Ah, it is no bother. I will use a spare for the meeting.”

                “You will be attending?”

                “Oh yes. I am Chief Vlambok’s youngest son, and the most literate. I am Varamor; I serve as translator and scribe.”

                Only then did Vilmah realize they had been speaking Orcish. “Ah, that makes sense.” She chuckled. “Well met, Varamor. I am Vilmah Bloodborne. You speak my tongue rather well.”

                He inclined his head appreciatively “It is a noble tongue, and I have always had a passion for things from faraway lands.” His green eyes drifted to Vilmah’s left arm. She had grown used to the stares her prosthetic received, but she couldn’t help but notice when Varamor’s eyes moved. They were like emeralds when they caught the midday light.

                “Perhaps later we can discuss our cultures with each other,” Vilmah offered.

                “Yes, I would like that,” Varamor said. “For now, my search continues. A pleasure to meet you, Vilmah Bloodborne.” He trotted off gracefully, scanning the ground as he went. Strangely, Vilmah began to feel better about the upcoming meeting. At least one person there won’t be unreasonable.



                “My chieftain finds these terms absolutely unacceptable,” The Pakan translator barked not a moment after Vilmah had concluded reading them. The red side of the negotiating table rumbled to life with grunted complaints and insults. Though Vilmah could not understand them, it was plain to see how displeased they were.

                The Komen on the green half of the long table stood quietly around their chieftain, Vlambok. The old centaur’s beard was long, braided, and white as snow, and his eyes were as green as his son’s. Varamor watched Vilmah, his face flushed with sympathy, as he scratched notes on his clay tablet.

                “How can the Horde expect the Pakan to accept a peace that so blatantly benefits the Komen? We would lose our most valuable boneyard, a stretch of field where we harvest our red paints, and half of our bountiful hunting grounds!”

                Vilmah cleared her throat and replied, “That is the only price the Komen will agree to for the lands you fervently argued over in the Desolate War. In return for the boneyard, flower field, and hunting grounds, you will have unrestricted access to Horde ports along the coast and a lump sum payment of sixty thousand gold as blood pay for the lives lost in war.”

                “The Pakan will never sell the lives of our fallen warriors for so cheap!”

                Vlambok muttered something in his tongue, so quiet he made Georgio sound like a Warsong. Varamor had to lean in close to hear and translate. “My father wishes it to be known that Komen lives were lost in even greater numbers than Pakan in the war. The lands we desire will be sufficient to honor their spirits.”

                The red chief Gromul spat on the table, ushering shocked and angry roars from the Komen side. “That is what my chieftain thinks of your dead Komen weaklings.”

                Vilmah glanced at Georgio as the table erupted into cries of hatred. The undead sat deep in his tall chair and cleaned his fingernails. This is ridiculous! I won’t just sit here and do nothing!

                A veiled, green-painted centaur woman stomped across the dividing line of the table and punched a red centaur in the teeth. The two fell over each other in a heap, strong legs flailing and budging the table aside. Vilmah felt trapped when the wooden edge scraped against her chair.

                Chief Vlambok slapped his hand against the table and cried out at his people, though Vilmah could not tell if he was urging them to stop or fight on. She had no such uncertainty about the red chief. Gromul stood with a smug look on his face while his warriors shouted and shoved at the green centaurs.

                Vilmah roared and shoved the table off her chair, sending a few surprised centaurs stumbling away. Then she slammed down on the red and green surface as hard as she could with her metal arm. She felt the wood bend beneath the force of her strike, causing such a crash that every centaur in the room looked at her, aside from those still wrestling on the floor.

                “ENOUGH!” she shouted, “There has been enough blood spilled between the three of us to fill an ocean! And yet here you all stand, you proud and haughty warriors, having forgotten so soon what death tastes like!”

                The red chief grunted defiantly, though not so confidently as before, “The Pakan cannot accept a peace so poor. It would be like pissing on the pyres of our ancestors.”

                Varamor spoke his father’s words calmly, though Vilmah detected a hint of reluctance “We Komen are ready to lay down our spears for this peace. My father…wishes to offer me as a marriage prospect to seal the deal in blood as well as words.”

                This ushered new grumbles from both sides, but not all sounded displeased. Vilmah realized she was standing on her chair, her metal arm buried in the thick wooden table. She seated herself, feeling her face flush.

                “Not bad, orc,” Georgio whispered. Vilmah smiled embarrassedly.

                Gromul stroked his greying beard thoughtfully. The room quieted when he prepared to speak. “If we are to agree, my chieftain’s grandsons will owe allegiance to him alone.”

                The green centaurs looked none too pleased at that, but Vlambok merely nodded. Varamor kept his fair face guarded. Vilmah could not begin to imagine what he must be thinking.

                “We shall consider this offer further,” the red translator said, “We shall retire for now to think over the terms and meet here again tomorrow.” By the time he had finished translating, half of the red centaurs had cleared from the long, tented table.

                Vilmah released a tense breath and sank into her chair. She eyed the shattered ruin of the table before her, half aware of Georgio slinking off with a brief congratulation on surviving the first day.

                 A shadow fell on her as she lost herself in thought. Vilmah looked up to see Varamor smiling sadly at her. “Today did not go quite as expected, no?”

                “No, not quite,” she replied, “Honestly, I thought it would be worse.”

                He chuckled. His laugh was clear and beautiful, like waves lapping at the shore. “You must have heard some stories about our previous summits. In my youth, I witnessed a hundred brawls between my brothers and Gromul’s sons. But alas, now only his sons attend.”

                “What happened to your brothers?”

                “The war. All but my oldest brother perished, and one of his legs was lamed. Now my sons will be pledged to Pakan should this peace be settled. My father’s blood runs thin.” His green eyes looked forlorn at the broken table, red and green wood chips intermixing like a cataclysm of blood and grass. Vilmah felt strangely guilty.

                A green centaur clomped into the tent, yelling frantically in Varamor’s tongue. The young Komen looked shocked but shouted quick commands with confidence. The warrior ran off at a gallop.

                “Vilmah Bloodborne, the campsite is under attack by quillboar clansmen! I must see to my father’s safety.”

                “Let me help you!” Vilmah shouted suddenly, hopping to her feet. She carried no weapons, yet she could still fight.

                “Very well. On my back!” She followed his directions, and together they raced out into the camp as it devolved into chaos.

                The quillboar had attacked on the green side of the camp, and thus far only the Komen had engaged them in battle. Vilmah spied a pair of spears dug into the earth and pointed Varamor towards them. They both took one up as they raced on to battle. Chieftain Vlambok’s white beard was easy to spot from a distance. He stood surrounded by his fiercest spearmen, who were in turn surrounded by quillboar and their war hounds.

                Varamor shouted encouraging words to his people and led a charge at the quillboar line. The prickly creatures scattered in an instant. Few smaller than a tauren would stand against the charge of centaur, Vilmah thought.

                Once Vlambok was free of his attackers, he embraced his son and clapped Vilmah on the shoulder, saying a few words. “He offers you thanks, Vilmah,” Varamor reported.

                “Tell him to hold his thanks until the enemy is routed.” The green chief seemed to like that. Varamor took a deep breath as they began to charge the enemy once again.

                “I must warn you, Vilmah, I am no talented fighter. My brothers would have been more use here.”

                Vilmah patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t think about that. Focus on the here and now. One enemy at a time. Focus on now, and it will be over before you know it.”

                He seemed to gain confidence at that. The line of centaur grew as Varamor rallied loose spearmen to follow. By the time they crashed against the quillboar line, the young centaur was screaming a warsong alongside his brethren, and his song was the most haunting of all.



                Night was falling. After the battle, Vilmah walked the field of the dead, seeing quillboar bodies and centaurs painted green scattered everywhere. She looked hard for Pakan markings but found none. Once she thought she had found a pack of them, only to discover that the red was made by splatters of blood.

                “They didn’t even try to aid us,” Varamor said, giving words to Vilmah’s thoughts. “Though what more could be expected from those savages?”

                “Perhaps they didn’t want to cause further panic,” Vilmah offered feebly.

                Varamor sighed. “My father will do nothing. It is clear those blood-hided monsters had something to do with this. The quillboar have never been so bold as to attack us with all their strength.” He trotted off towards his father’s tent. “Come, Vilmah. I am certain my father will have a place for you.” Feeling uncertain, Vilmah jogged after him.

                The green-painted warriors were bickering angrily in the chief’s tent when they arrived. Vlambok looked somehow even older than before. Varamor was waved to his father’s side, and Vilmah alongside him. “What are they saying, Varamor?” she asked when they took their places.

                “The obvious. The Pakan are liars and traitors and should be dealt with in kind.”

                And break the peace we came to forge. And here I thought we were so close. Vilmah said nothing, only listening as Varamor translated.

                “Chalwar, father’s prime warlord, says we should attack at once, so to catch them off guard. Gulin, our storm witch, claims this to be folly, as the red brutes would expect such a response. My father urges patience, as always.”

                “What do you think we should do?” Vilmah looked up at his eyes, so full of life, and uncertainty also.

                “I don’t know. My mind tells me that we need this peace, but my heart says we should never bend our legs to those murderers.”

                She understood him. She had felt such pain before. That only made it harder to tell him, “If your people should choose war with the Pakan, I will not be able to help. I came here to make peace, not pull the Horde into war again.”

                “I know,” he said sadly. He continued to translate for her, but the discussion only led around in circles for hours on end. At long last, the green chief beseeched his people to tend to the dead, set sentries in case of further attacks, and hold the peace until morning. “In the meantime, my father will sleep like the dead. I fear his strength is waning, and Chief Gromul knows it.”

                Vilmah departed the tent feeling sore from riding, tired from fighting, and restless with anger. The Pakan are bullies, it is plain to see. Yet I cannot stand against them. Surely there must be something…

                “Orc woman!” a voice called out, thick with the accent of the Komen. Vilmah looked to the incoming centaur, painted green, and carrying a body in his arms. A bipedal body…Georgio!

                “What happened?” she demanded.

                “He found in battle,” the centaur said in simple Orcish, “Quillboar spear in neck.”

                Vilmah examined the wound. A spearhead still lay in his throat. Georgio opened his eyes and saw her, but when he tried to speak he spat green blood in her face. “Hush, Georgio,” she said calmly, “You’re going to be alright. Komen, healer!” The centaur seemed to understand her, and he raced off.

                The undead shook his head. He twisted free of Vilmah’s grip and started scratching something in the dirt. Vilmah read it as he wrote. “Not quillboar…are you saying someone else attacked you?” Georgio nodded. “Who, then? Was it the Pakan?”

                He began scratching out a response, but the Komen returned with a healer, and he scraped mud over his work. Does he not trust the Komen? What happened to you, Georgio?

                The healer took the undead into his tent and gestured for Vilmah to stay outside. It was far too crowded to try and sneak in, so she did as she was bid. If Georgio couldn’t trust the Komen, then he must have been attacked by one of them. But why?

                Vilmah shivered as the night grew cold. She knew one thing for certain: if one Horde diplomat had been attacked, the other would be in danger as well. She made her way to her tent to retrieve her sword and shield. “If they come after me, this won’t be enough,” she muttered to herself as she tied on her swordbelt. If there was one person she knew she could trust, it was Varamor. She made for his tent at a quick pace, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.

                When she arrived, the chief’s son was nowhere to be seen, though the entrance to his tent was guarded. She snuck around to the darkest side and crawled beneath the hide wall. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my intrusion, but I’m sure he’ll understand since it is a matter of life and death.

                The most striking feature of the tent was the finely polished desk sitting in the center, covered with heaps of papyrus and parchment and clay and stone tablets. They were written on in dozens of languages, including Orcish and the bizarre script of the Qiraji Vilmah was somewhat familiar with.

                She spied all sorts of writing utensils as well. There were styluses for the clay tablets and chisels for the stone, inkpots and quills of every color imaginable, and even metal-case fountain pens. The collection was laid out neatly, showing pride in something uncommon among Varamor’s people. It brought a smile to Vilmah’s face. And then she noticed a prominent feature: a great brown and white feather marked with little frills of green.

                “Thunder bird…” Vilmah muttered quietly. He had said it was lost, yet here it was. Curious, she sifted through some of the writings, focusing on the Orcish script. There were many poems, and all of them mournful. Some even made Vilmah’s heart stir and her eyes blink to hold back wetness. The saddest of all spoke of the pain of loss. The loss of love.

                “I lost you to red storm, my love…” she read aloud.

                “And to red storm my vengeful heart is cast.” Varamor’s voice made Vilmah jump. “That was the hardest for me to write, but I made myself write it over and over, in every language I knew how.”

                “You…you were in love, but the war…”

                “Yes, the war. It took everything, as wars do. But it was the Pakan that did the taking, and the Komen that gave all. You saw them all today. You saw all of Gromul’s sons, hale and healthy.”

                “But not your brothers.”

                “Nor my sweet love, Leyanah. She was named for a gentle spring flower. But flowers do not live when the red storm comes.” His green eyes were glassy before he shut them.

                Vilmah shifted uncomfortably. “I…I’m sorry.”

                “You have no reason to be. It is the Pakan who should be sorry, but the truly guilty never are.”

                “There is still a chance for peace, Varamor. You know that, don’t you?”

                “No. I gave up on that dream when my spring flower was taken from me. Now all that is left is war. The only true chances for peace are in your death, or that of your enemy.” His fine, mournful features now appeared sinister in the low light. But above all, he looked desperate.

                “Why did you attack Georgio?”

                “I’ve known the undead for a long while. He is dutiful, and his heart is closed. He could never be convinced, so I had him was silenced.”

                “Convinced of what?”

                “That my people are not afflicted by the same evil as the Pakan. But you, Vilmah, you could bring the tale of what you’ve seen here back to Orgimmar. You could tell all the Horde that the Komen are a people worth fighting for. I could never hope to win a war against the Pakan myself, but that will not stop me from trying.”

                A horrid thought crossed Vilmah’s mind. It hurt even to think it, but she had to ask. “The quillboar, that was you as well?”

                “A simple enough trick. You’ve seen the Pakan tents with quillboar skin and needles. The red savages have done the same to us with gnolls in the past.” He shook his gnoll-tooth necklace pointedly.

                Vilmah glared. “You brought your own people to harm…”

                “There was no other way! My father would do anything, even sell me, to prevent further war.”

                Vilmah eyed him desperately. “Don’t you see what you’re becoming, Varamor? This warmongering…you’re becoming the very thing you hate so much!”

                He shook his head sadly. “There is no other way. I had hoped you would see.” He walked to the entrance of his tent and dropped a totem on the ground. Vilmah started after him. “Varamor, I won’t let you—”

                A shock ran through her body and she fell back from the entrance. The centaur looked at her pitifully. “Don’t try to struggle against the storm, Vilmah Bloodborne. It only hurts worse if you do.”

                Vilmah drew her sword. “Release me, Varamor!” she shouted, but he was already galloping away. “Varamor!” She swung her sword, only to feel the shock again, this time driving her arm numb. She gasped. The air was growing thin around her; she could not breathe.

                Desperately, she tried to push through the invisible wall with her metal arm, but the shocks made her heart flutter uncontrollably. She flung herself back and gulped what air she could, feeling her vision fog up.

                Her thoughts went to old friends, old enemies, and old kills. She saw smiles and skulls and blood. She heard cries of friendship, cries of hatred, and cries for mercy. Guilt tugged at her like a bird’s talons. Guilt at failing, and at leaving people behind that she’d sworn to help. She felt guilt for not stopping those who hurt her friends, and guilt for killing those that did not deserve to die.

                Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Just close my eyes, and the guilt goes away…

                Her eyes flashed open. She spasmed for breath that would not come, but she forced herself to focus. Focus on one enemy, then the next…

                She grabbed the nearby desk to help herself up and clumsily spilled half of its contents to the floor. She picked up her sword and threw it at the totem, but the invisible wall stopped it short with a crackle of lightning. Vilmah nearly fell over with the effort but supported herself on one knee. Her hand brushed a feather.

                Thunder bird! She thought desperately. The brown and white feather looked only like a smudge of colors in her hand as she crawled her way to the tent entrance. She gripped the end of the quill and pushed the pointed tip through. The wall crackled around the feather, and she felt the hot numbness take hold of her arm, but the feather did not stop. The tip touched the totem’s surface just as she faded to black…

                Light came rushing back, and air filled Vilmah’s lungs. No breath had ever tasted so sweet. Her eyes refocused, and she saw the totem was knocked over. She tested the air of the tent entrance and found she could pass through. She gathered her sword and shield and sprinted clumsily. She was no huntress, but she could see the freshest tracks led through camp towards the massive waterfall.

                She spotted Varamor and a small warband at the start of the hill road and knew she could not catch up to them before they reached the summit. With bows in hand, they have a perfect vantage point to rain death on the Pakan. And when the red centaurs take up arms, the sentries in the Komen camp will have no choice but to take up arms as well.

                Vilmah knew she had to reach the top before that happened. She sprinted to the base of the hill, found the driest stretch of rock, and began climbing. The road up to the top was long, roundabout, and winding. She knew that from her long ride down to the camp. The climb up was straightforward, but it would take a great deal of strength to outpace centaur legs.

                I have no other choice. Dawn will break before the reach the summit. She would just have to rise faster than the sun.



                She clawed up the last few feet, her heart a lump in her throat, as the sun’s first light brushed her back. Her muscles were jelly, her fingers covered in cuts and blisters, her metal arm was almost too heavy to carry, and her lungs were stretched thin from breathing hard, but she was alone at the top. I made it in time.

                She seated herself with her sword in her lap, as was the custom of a Blademaster. She steadied her breath and let her stamina return. As she waited, she listened to the thrum of the waterfall, as she had all night long. She felt the sun lick at her neck, and the sweat pour down her brow. She felt alive. Nervousness faded away as the quiet of battle took hold in her mind.

                Varamor crested the hill with a bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. When he spotted Vilmah, he gaped at her like a guilty child stumbling into his parent. She stood, blade in hand and shield strapped to her metal arm.

                “I’m giving you one last chance, Varamor,” she called out to him, “Go back and give peace a chance.”

                “I must do this, Vilmah. For my people.” His warband climbed the hill and took positions around him, bows trained on Vilmah. She lifted her shield and hoped her plan would work.

                “If you want to prove yourself, fight me alone.”

                “I am no great fool to think I would have a chance against you alone, Vilmah Bloodborne. Else I would have dealt with you more directly before.” He called a command to his warriors and they advanced in three groups of two, two from the sides and one directly.

    So much for that idea. Time to improvise. The flankers drew bows and loosed while the direct charge readied their spears. Vilmah ducked down and lifted her shield over her head.

                The arrows flew faster than lighting. Two ricocheted off her shield, while the others bit through flesh. One scraped by and did not stick, but the fourth dug into her leg. She growled and leaped forward to meet the spearmen. Seems I am the fool who stands against charging centaur now, she thought dimly.

                Her shield caught one spear and she grappled the centaur into the other as the second spear sliced open her arm. Her sword arm fell limply, so she bashed the two centaurs with her shield to incapacitate them. Then she used their bodies to cover herself from the other warriors’ arrows. They circled her, but she kept herself covered in every direction. She felt like a beast caught in a trap, but the bowmen dared not come any closer.

                “I’ll give you the same honor you gave me, Vilmah,” Varamor said, “Throw down your shield, and I will spare you.”

                Vilmah growled back ferally, “You’re lying. You can’t have me live to tell the Horde you were the aggressor. If I die, you can claim the Pakan did me in.”

                “You are as sharp of mind as you are with sword. But that won’t—”

                “VARAMOR!” The chief’s son whirled around as the green chief himself thundered to the top of the slope, his own noble guardians in tow.

                Varamor gaped at him and said a word Vilmah recognized, the Komen word for “father.” The two screamed back and forth, but Vilmah could not follow their conversation. She focused on binding up her wounds in case she needed to defend herself again.

                Vlambok approached Varamor carefully, his arms outstretched. Varamor was weeping now. He screamed another word Vilmah recognized and wheeled about, charging towards the cliffside with his bow at the ready. He screamed the same word again and again as he readied his arrow. His bowmen looked uncertain, but at a word from the chief, they threw down their bows and knelt. Varamor never slowed.

                Vilmah sprang into his path, her shot leg throbbing painfully. Her wounded arm still hung limply, so she left her sword behind and readied her shield. Varamor charged straight ahead, his green eyes turned to a vile shade of poison where once they had been grass. All around her became the thundering of hooves and the crash of the waterfall.

                He screamed his warcry and aimed a shot at Vilmah. The orcess ducked down and the arrow thudded into her shield. She charged forward and slammed the shield down with all the strength she had left. The force of his leg hitting the wood and metal splintered her shield and yanked her metal arm clear off her stump, but Varamor went down in a heap. Then Vlambok’s guardians ran in and held him down with their strong forelegs. All the while, the chief’s son screamed in agony his word of desperation, and Vilmah felt only pity and pain.

                “LEYANAH!” he yelled as his legs, bent and broken, flailed in the air.



                Chief Vlambok came to visit Vilmah in her infirmary bed two days later. By then, she had told Georgio all of what had happened, and the undead could manage a few grunting words. Mostly he said “Damn.”

                Vilmah stood shakily with a crutch when Vlambok entered the tent. He waved for her to sit, and he himself knelt alongside her. A new translator stood to say his words in Orcish.

                “My chief says that his heart weighs heavily on his son’s downfall. But he thanks you as well for putting an end to his scheme.”

                Vilmah lowered her head humbly, not feeling particularly praiseworthy. “I am sorry for your losses, Chieftain. Will the Pakan listen to further offers of peace?”

                “That is a more difficult matter. Word has gotten out of what young Varamor intended, and the Pakan curse the Komen name with much fervor. They demand we turn over Varamor as prisoner to face Gromul’s justice.”

                Vilmah looked at Vlambok, shocked and apologetic. “They’ll kill him…”

                “Yes, my chieftain knows this. Yet what alternative exists? To go to war?”

                “That would not end well for anyone.”

                “Exactly as my chieftain thinks. But what kind of man is a chief who betrays his own son to his death so that his winter days might be peaceful?”

                Vilmah had no reply to that. There is no right answer here. In every direction pain ways, only in some there is less pain than others.

                But Vlambok watched her expectantly. Desperately, even. She saw the same painful hope in his eyes that she saw in his son’s. He needs my answer. He cannot make the choice, so he asks it of me instead.

                She took a deep breath. “Chieftain, I only came here with one goal: to make peace. At times to reach that goal one must first make war. I know it seems like trying to go west by walking east, but nothing in life is straightforward. We can never tell if we are walking the right way, but we keep on because to turn back is to give up.

                “Varamor turned away from the path, but you still have a chance to keep your people from straying. You can still try.”

                His nod was slow and painful to watch. His head fell, and he seemed to grow a hundred years older all at once. Vilmah’s heart ached worse than her wounds.

                “My chieftain thanks you for your words, Vilmah Bloodborne. The peace talks will resume tomorrow. He gives you his word.”

                Vilmah shrank back onto the furs and tried to rest, but her mind would not quiet. Georgio sat up in his furs and looked at her with his wrinkled, grey face.

                “Damn,” he said.

                “Yeah,” said Vilmah. “Damn.”

    • Like 1

  18. Near on a week passed before Brinnea left Dun Modr. Though loathe to admit it, even to herself, she had become attached to the girls in Matron Sio’s boudoir. Ever since she saved Jessaya from the drunkard Vic, the other girls had pestered her with questions and requested help with anything from braiding hair to making beds. Brinnea didn’t mind lending a hand, and they quickly caught on. Their company was worth the pestering, so far as Brinnea was concerned, but the more comfortable she became, the more anxious she was to depart.

    When she did, it was early in the morning, before the sun could rise. It was at that hour the boudoir was most quiet, when all the drunkards had fallen asleep and the late-night lechers had fled to bed before their wives could wake and find them gone. Brinnea had stolen out while Sio slept, and left all the money the gruff matron had secreted into her purse. I never asked to be paid, Brinnea had thought, I shouldn’t have even stayed as long as I have.

    Now the sun was rising to her right, over mossy green hills. The crossing of the Thandol Span lie behind her now, and before her rose wave after wave of green hills. This was the land of the most ancient human civilization, the Strom. Arathi Highlands was true to its name; the death knight found herself riding up and up and up as she ascended from the dull basin the Wetlands sat in on the other side of the wide Thandol gap. Beneath the grass and dirt Brinnea knew there were relics to be found, some as old as she was and some far older. This was a land where civilizations rose and fell – one massive graveyard buried beneath pleasant green hills.

    The wolf made its appearance known again a few miles north of the Span. It baffled Brinnea that the beast would have waited so long for her to leave Dun Modr, let alone follow her across the great stone bridge over a massive, wet, and windy gorge. A lone wolf seeks a pack where it can find it, I suppose.

    A few miles more, and Brinnea found the road blocked by two boulders as large as she was. Given that the road was tightly flanked on both sides by hills, making going around on ordeal on horseback, she immediately suspected a trap. She dismounted and clambered up a hill, her sword drawn and ready for an ambush, but when she reached the top, she could see no sign of anyone or anything. A pair of birds weaved about one another in an angry dance up above, and the wolf was nowhere to be seen, both otherwise there was nothing of note.

    “Nothing to do but move the boulders aside,” she mumbled to herself. A wind whipped at her cloak, as if trying to reply. If it was speaking to her, she did not know the tongue.

    A sudden yelp back down the road caught her attention as she slid down the hill. The wolf eyed her and barked. It lifted its head, and the bark flew into a wild howl. Brinnea’s eyebrows knit in annoyance. “Did it occur to you I didn’t want to attract attention, mutt?”

    The wolf kept up its howl, and padded up and down the road. It kept looking at her with its unnervingly focused eyes. She called out to it loudly, “Go bother someone else! I’m a poor replacement for the pack you lost!” The wolf sprinted down the road, away from her. Guess that finally drove it away, but for how long?

    Brinnea set to work moving one of the boulders. There was little chance of removing them entirely from the road with such steep hills to either side, but at least she could move one so there would be a narrow s-shaped gap to ride around. Any travelers with carts would be out of luck, but that wasn’t Brinnea’s problem. She found a thin, sturdy tree a way off the road and hacked at it until the little trunk gave way. She shaved off the branches and returned to the road. The trunk was sturdy enough to serve as a lever, but getting the proper leverage took much longer than anticipated. Eventually, she managed to get the boulder to budge, but the process of moving it out of the way was gradual and often resulted in the damn thing rolling back the way she had moved it from. Frustration was among the emotions left to Brinnea, though she could have done without it right about now.

    While considering better methods of moving the boulder, she happened to glance back down the road, expecting to see the wolf coming back. When she saw no sign of it, she felt oddly disappointed. “Get ahold of yourself, Velmon,” she muttered, and set back to work.

    The screaming started a few minutes later. The wolf’s howl accompanied it, making it hard to know for sure, but it sounded just like a girl’s scream. Brinnea listened closely, uncertain. It could have just been a bird with a peculiar cry; it wasn’t as if she knew the fauna of this region well.

    The screams stopped of a sudden. Brinnea told herself to pay it no heed, but before she knew it, she was clambering into her saddle and leaving her boulder and level behind in a cloud of trail dust.

    Not a mile south of the road obstruction, she came across a dead horse swarmed by flies. The smell of it was fresh, and there were clear marks indicating the rider was dragged off the road by something with deep footprints. “Ogres,” Brinnea said.

    Something moved behind her, too soft to be one of the great oafish clansmen responsible for this mess. She whirled about, and lowered her blade when she saw the wolf padding up to her, its fur a reddish brown she hadn’t noticed before. “You’re growing bolder to get so close to me, mutt,” she said.

    The beast panted and watched her expectantly. She imagined it speaking to her; Are you going to do something about this mess?

    “What’s there to do?” she replied, “Anyone taken by an ogre is bound to wind up in an ogre’s supper.”

    They could still be alive.

    “It’s none of my business. I have more important things to worry about.” She turned towards her horse.

    Some urgent meeting you have to get to? And here I suspected you were wandering aimlessly.

    “I know where I’m going.”

    But you don’t know what you’ll do when you get there, do you?

    Brinnea spun to shout back, but the wolf was gone. She looked around and caught sight of its tail retreating up the hill, in the direction of the ogre trail. “You have to be joking!” Brinnea exclaimed, but when she remounted, she followed right along, looking back at the northward road woefully.

    The trail was clear enough, but Brinnea lacked the skill to interpret how many or how fast her query was moving. Based on how long it had been since the screaming, she figured the ogre or ogres couldn’t be more than a couple miles ahead of her. She urged her charger into a gallop. Even at a dead run, an ogre couldn’t outpace a horse. The wolf bounded to try and keep up, and Brinnea was surprised at how long it managed to do so. Before too long, it fell behind, panting and yapping. The ogres are like to hear us coming with all this noise. Oh well, I prefer a fair fight, anyway.

    She caught sight of them after ascending a hill. They were within a couple minutes’ ride of her, and had lit a fire under the cover of a heavy stone outcrop. A stream trickled beside them, no deeper than Brin’s ankle, she guessed, but it would be an asset in the fight to come. The death knight couldn’t tell if the captive was alive or not; they appeared only as a white and yellow smudge in the distance. The ogres, on the other hand, stood out greatly. There were three of them, more than enough to overwhelm Brin if she wasn’t careful.

    She rode around the ogre’s camp, sticking to the shadows. It seemed that they hadn’t spotted her yet, so she intended to keep it that way. She made her final approach with the westering sun at her back and the stream at her side. The ogres stirred from their seated position as she approached, cantering carefully. Ogres were dull creatures, but smart enough to set traps or tame wild beasts. She watched closely for any sign of a trap.

    “HEY!” one of the ogres roared at her, “THIS OUR CAMP! NO STEALING!” The three ogres faced her, two carrying crude clubs, and the other a net and spear shaved from the trunk of a tree much larger than Brin’s lever. Their captive was wrapped up tightly in another net. A great boar was turning on the spit over the fire. Luckily the beast seemed a better feast than the small woman the ogres had captured, else Brin’s detour would have been for nothing.

    “I’m here for the girl, the one you idiots pulled from her horse,” Brinnea said calmly. Her sword rested in its sheath for now. Let them think I’m not hostile. They’ll underestimate me and charge blindly.

    “NO LIKE HORSE!” the head ogre shouted back, “WE EAT GIRL INSTEAD! BRING SKIN BACK FOR TENT!”

    “I didn’t ask. You’re going to give her to me. Now.”

    The ogre with the spear and net laughed first, but the other two joined in, as if just getting the joke. “YOU STUPID! YOU NO BEAT US! YOU WANT BE FOOD TOO?”

    “If you want a taste of me, you’ll have to come get me.” As expected, all three sprinted at her, roaring and bashing their weapons against their chests, bare but for a few furs and leather straps. Brinnea wheeled her horse to run down the line of the stream. Once they were chasing her, big feet clattering along the wet pebbles, she drew her blade and pointed it at the water behind her. In a flash of blue light, the water began to freeze. The ogres were too dead-set on her to even slow down. All three fell over on the patch of ice, making a great THUD!

    Brinnea spun her charger around and urged it to do what it was made to do. The killing was bloody, brutal, and brief. Her sword flashed thrice in wide silvery-blue arcs, each time turning red midway through. She raced past the ogres, and left them with three slit throats.

    Brinnea came to a stop at the camp and dismounted. The wolf was there now, gnawing at the nets angrily. Brinnea drew her knife and cut the animals free first, shooing them away easily enough. Then she freed the girl. Somehow, Brinnea wasn’t surprised to recognize her.

    “Jessaya, were you following me?” She helped the girl sit up and looked over her head. It was cut and bleeding, but her eyes focused when Brin passed a finger in front of them, so she figured her brain was likely safe.

    “Yes,” the girl admitted quietly. She was always quiet and shy. It was part of why the men liked her so much. That, and her absurd youth. Tonight, she wore one of her white robes covered by a cloak of foxfur she must have stolen from Sio along with the horse. Her clothes were dirty and tattered, but still usable. Brin noted with annoyance than the girl wore only underclothes beneath the robe.

    “You’re going straight back to Dun Modr in the morning,” Brinnea said.


    Brinnea hushed her with a look. “There are worse things than ogres about. You’re lucky to have been saved this time, but your luck won’t last.”

    “But if I stay with you…”

    “You won’t.” I’m more dangerous than anything you’ll face on the road.

    “Why not? You’re all by yourself out here. Everyone needs company.” The girl was utterly innocent, her eyes telling a story of hurt and sadness, but hope too. It was too much for Brin to look at. The wolf lay nearby, warming its fur by the fire. Brin noticed Jessaya watching the beast carefully.

    “You’re going back, and that’s final.”

    “It’ll be dangerous for me to go back by myself now,” Jessaya replied, “And without a horse now. I couldn’t ride very well, but it was faster than walking.”

    Brin sighed. The girl was right, but the last thing she wanted was to delay her travel further. “You’ll just have to tread carefully and hope for the best.”

    The girl was devastated, Brin could tell. Better sad than company with a walking disaster. Her odds could be worse. It’s only a couple days back to Thandol Span.

    Brin picked meat off the spitted boar and offered it to Jessaya. She ate hungrily, thankful for the food. Brin tossed a few meaty ribs at the wolf too, when she saw it eyeing the meat and licking its chops. The charger, Sparklehoof, stood sentry out in the open. It and Brin were the only ones not eating.

    “I didn’t just come because I wanted to,” Jessaya said after a while. “I’ve been hearing about Vic’s company for a while from the girls. They’re called Bronto’s Bruisers, and they practically own Dun Modr. After you kicked Vic out of Sio’s, the word was they wanted blood for being made fools out of.”

    “You think I didn’t notice?” Brinnea asked rhetorically. “I’ve been keeping the Bruisers out of the boudoir for a week.”

    “But you left. They didn’t even wait until morning before they came to Sio demanding free tumbles for the whole company. ‘When one Bruiser gets shortchanged,’ they said, ‘All the Bruisers are robbed.’ Sio couldn’t stop them with you gone.”

    “So you came to fetch me back?”

    “No. I just wanted to get away, like you. Sio will find a way to survive. She always does. They probably won’t leave you alone, either. They might have sent people out here hunting for you.”

    Brin cleaned off her sword with cloth and tempered the edges with a whetstone. “They can certainly try.”

  19. The mission statement of the Magic Protection Service is “To observe, inform, and secure the study of magic for the benefit of all.”

    Magic is tool, and like all tools it must be used responsibly. The MPS exists to secure the use of magic so that all may coexist.

    The MPS is not an enemy of magic. The founding member of the Service is renowned mage, Fjalla Gladstone, who has seen the magical society grow and adapt much over her seventy years. She has seen magic used and abused aimed at both the protection and destruction of life throughout Azeroth and beyond. Gladstone and her associates strive to encourage protection and discourage destruction, while keeping the magical community thriving.

    Similarly, the Service takes responsibility for the abuse of non-magical people by magic users. Rogue mages presenting a danger to society are not tolerated by the MPS.

    The MPS recruits from all walks of life. Be you mage or layperson, you can provide to the Service, and provide to Azeroth.

    Join, and Serve.
    ((Feel free to contact me by personal message here, on Discord at RikTheRed21#0639, or in game at Fjalla-Ravenholdt if you are interested in joining.))


  20. ((Warning: sexual themes and language))

    The wolf followed her for ten miles before she lost sight of it. By then, she was nearing the northern crossing at Dun Modr. Brinnea swung west from the highlands down to the cobblestone road leading onto the Thandol Span. From there, she would continue north.

    But for how long? How far would she go? Brinnea had lain awake the night prior, unable to close her eyes for fear of nightmares, thinking about her destination. Or rather, her lack thereof. Once upon a time, she had lived in Lordaeron, at a well-travelled town called Andorhal. But now, Andorhal was deep within Forsaken lands, and any Forsaken would attack her on sight. Yet, she felt unavoidably drawn to Lordaeron, as if called home by something familiar.

    Five more miles passed, and the wolf padded out into sight again, carrying a half-eaten squirrel. Brinnea realized then that she must have slowed her pace, else the beast would not have caught up again. She groaned at herself for wasting precious time before she realized that time didn’t mean much to a soldier with no war to fight.

    Night began to fall when Dun Modr appeared on the horizon, just around a tall hill. The dwarven fortress had once guarded the border between dwarven Khaz Modan and the human kingdoms to the north. But since the Second War, Dun Modr had fallen into disrepair, and after the Scourge and Forsaken invasions, the bordering human kingdom Arathor was almost entirely wiped out. That made the crossing a hub for oddities, wayfarers, and vagrants of all sorts.

    Brinnea meandered into the town square beneath the dwarven fortress. If she was to travel north, she needed to prepare. Glancing back, she saw no sign of the wolf following her here. The throng of people all about explained that. Humans, gnomes, dwarves, worgen, and even elves wandered about the mossy ruins of Dun Modr wearing largely threadbare clothes in hundreds of styles. Even now, nearly twenty years after the Scourge attacked the northern kingdoms, people were still reluctant to let go of their homelands. Yet, the people here all looked filthy and gaunt. Food and clean water was scarce in these hills, it seemed.

    Brinnea dismounted at a squat wooden structure. A sign nailed to the unsteady beam serving as a roof marked it as a stable in both Common and Dwarven script. Brin searched for the owner of the meager establishment while fishing coins from her purse, and settled for handing a couple silvers to a mud-speckled boy who might have been a very young human or a ten-year-old dwarf. He muttered a half-hearted thanks and took to her steed as she instructed.

    Brinnea kept a hand on her purse as she walked through the town, not enchanted by the idea of having it cut from her belt by some desperate soul. The crowd was brimming with folks who looked down on their luck, but also with merchants crying wares marked at ten times the price Brinnea would expect at Greenwarden’s Grove or Menethil Harbor. Typical of merchants to exploit the poor in such a way.

    She set her sights on the stone buildings up the hillside. They looked less ramshackle than the lower square, so she hoped for better wares than down where she was. At the very least, she expected better security.

    Wandering eyes latched on her for uncomfortable lengths of time. Rough looking men and women sat, squatted, or leaned along the sides of the road, carrying weapons auspiciously. There were no guards about wearing Ironforge badges, nor the mountaineers that the dwarves of Khaz Modan used to patrol the far reaches of their clans’ holds. No, this land was ruled by those with the coin to pay for protection. Brinnea noted that the mercenaries mostly flocked near merchants, taverns, and whorehouses. Any of the three would have enough coin to pay for them with the times as they were. She moved quickly to get away from their vulturelike gazes.

    In the upper part of the town, Brinnea finally found some of the garrison. Most were milling about as if there was no job to do. A pair of them sat at a Hearthstone board drinking cheap ale and laughing raucously. She felt the need to smack their heads together and yell, “You are defenders of the weak, now act like it!” But then again, who was she to judge?

    The shops she passed had more potential than the merchant stalls in the lower square, but that didn’t make the prices any fairer. Criers announced goods in stock at exorbitant prices. Brin shook her head, gazing down at her half-empty purse. For these people, this much is a fortune, she thought to herself, And yet I still may beggar myself before I depart north. Ludicrous!

     Brinnea finally settled on a humble shop built into the hillside. The crier outside welcomed her with a sly smile that made her nervous. She kept a tight hold on her purse until she was finished with her purchases.

    By the time she exited the shop, her purse was light, but her pack was full. She had enough cloth to make bandages, rope for various uses, bits of leather and metal for repairs, a couple tools to replace old and rusted pieces of hers, paper and ink for letters, (though she had only picked them with great reluctance), and a cleaver for chopping firewood.

    The store owner had looked at her skeptically and asked, “No food for your travels?” Brinnea had answered, “My horse and I don’t eat much.”

    Outside the store, the sun had sunk below the hills and night began to set in. Chirps from a million crickets filled the air in chorus, heralding the end of the day. People stepped quickly about their final business. Brinnea followed suit; it would not do to be out and about at night in a place like this.

    She noticed the thugs following her almost immediately. They weren’t trying to be stealthy about it. Three men, a dwarf and two humans, followed her loosely down the hill path. They had swords on their belts and leather on their bodies. Tattoos marked them as belonging to some mercenary band, unless Brinnea’s eyes deceived her in the dim light. That was trouble. Kill three thugs and you might be safe from further violence, but kill three members of a band of hundreds and you had better skip town before the sun rises.

    She tried to lose them by ducking into a tavern, but she misread a sign and ended up standing in the front room filled with fox fur decorations, soft-looking fox fur couches, contented and eager looking men fiddling with their coin purses, and mostly naked women. The sight of it all brought back uncomfortable memories for Brinnea, but at least the three men hadn’t followed her inside.

    The matron of the establishment approached her, carrying a board with a stack of papers and a candle in one hand and a quill in the other. She examined Brinnea skeptically. She was a dwarven women of freckled complexion and coppery hair tied up in businesslike braids. Her green eyes were stern and unwavering. When she spoke, she sounded very much like a man.

    “Good ‘eve, lass. My name is Sionnach, though you can call me Sio. What can the Foxy Sisters provide ye tonight?”

    Brinnea cleared her throat awkwardly. “Nothing, miss. I was only…passing through.”

    Sio’s eyebrow rose at that. She did not seem the type to enjoy having her time wasted. “Just passing through me house? Well, sorry to say, there’s no back door, so ye’ll have to pass back the way ye came.”

    Brinnea did not welcome the thought of searching for a tavern with the streets the way they were. Before the matron could walk away, she said, “Perhaps I could stay here tonight? I have coin.”

    Sio wheeled about, twirling her quill between her fat fingers. “My rooms are reserved for my daughters’ company. I’m afraid I have no gentlemen to provide you entertainment. So, unless you are—”

    Brinnea cut her off there, “I am not interested in that. But perhaps we could come to some arrangement for a place to lay my head tonight.”

    “What sort of arrangement?”

    Brinnea tapped the hilt of her longsword. “I could provide protection for your establishment tonight.”

    Sio pursed her lips thoughtfully. “And ye’d charge nothin’ so long as ye’re allowed to stay the night?” Brinnea nodded. Sio made some marks in her papers and waved for Brinnea to follow her. “Ye’ll stand guard in the corner. Swords make men nervous before a tumble, which isn’t good fer business. Stay here, out of sight.” She directed Brin to a chair, which the death knight sat in happily. Her joints ached from a long day of riding and walking.

    Sio went on describing the sort of things to look out for to aid security before she waddled off to see to other guests. Brin settled in to watch her surroundings. Her mind wandered back in time all the while.

    Brinnea, her mother Maria, and her sister Christa had lived in a run-down hut outside the walls of Lordaeron City after they left home to escape her father. While their mother fought a nasty fever, Christa and Brin had to look for ways to bring in coin, lest they all starve. Weeks went by with little work to be found, and their bellies grew emptier with each passing day. Christa had been the one to come up with the idea.

    “The brothels always pay their girls well,” she had explained to their mother as she lay in bed, “And Matron Kathy said I could start so long as I tell people I’m fourteen. They’ll never notice I’m younger by two years.” Maria had been adamant they never whore themselves out in such a way.

    “You are my daughter, Christa,” Maria said sternly despite her weak state, “You are not a piece of meat for men to buy and sell.”

    Brinnea had spoken up then, “But mother, we have nothing else to sell. And besides, we’re all girls.”

    She looked about now at the scantily-clad women, some no older than twelve as her sister had been. She saw through the masks they wore. They put on brave faces, even managed to look pleased to do their work. Perhaps some of them really were. A few hours of pleasure, a few hours of soreness, and at the end of the day, you had enough food and water and rest to feel comfortable. But none of them looked truly alive underneath those masks. Brinnea sighed softly. Not for the first time in her life, she felt powerless.

    “What do you mean, ‘you owe me?’ You charge silver for that sort of tumble?” A man, red-faced and drunk, stumbled out of a back room shouting and waving his fists wildly as Sio tried to calm him. He wore the same leathers and tattoos as the men who had followed Brin down the street. She watched him carefully.

    “What did the girl do wrong, Vic? Jessaya’s never made a mistake large enough fer such anger before!”

    The red-faced man looked all the wilder for Sio’s words. “Well clearly your standards are lax, Matron! That little slut just up and bit me! Like a fucking mutt, she just bit me!”

    The girl he pointed at with his angry red finger was in tears, holing sheets about her body to cover herself. She looked a teenager to Brin, though on the younger side. Her hair was a pretty shade of yellow, like a honey bee’s hair. Brinnea placed a hand on her sword’s hilt, eyes fixed on the escalating situation.

    Sio remained calm, unperturbed to be looking up at the angry man. “Vic, please! ‘twas a small mistake. Nothin’ to get so wild about! And ye will not storm out of me house without settling yer debt again!”

    A vein popped out of the side of Vic’s head. “A small mistake? She could have taken my bloody cock off! I ought to knock her teeth in!”

    “Please, sir,” the honey-haired girl wept, “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to!”

    Vic took a step forward, and his eyes said everything Brinnea needed to hear. In a flash, she was between the two, sword unsheathed. She held the point to his throat and flashed an icy glare at him. The man shrunk back in horror, though not too far, for Brin’s sword followed.

    “Pay what you owe and get the fuck out of here,” Brinnea snarled. Vic fumbled for his purse, a little too slow for Brin’s liking. She yanked it off his loose belt and tossed it behind her to rest at Jessaya’s feet. Then she kicked the red-faced man to the door.

    “That was…excessive,” Sio said quietly. “Vic’s a lout, but he’s never hit one o’ my girls before.”

    Brinnea sheathed her blade, still eyeing the door. “People change,” she said icily.

    Jessaya tackled Brinnea with a hug. The death knight held her arms outwards in surprise. “Thank you, miss!” the girl said tearfully, “Thank you so much!”

    Sio pocketed Vic’s purse and tugged at Jessaya’s sheets. “A’right, girl, enough. Go clean yerself up and eat some supper.” The girl obeyed, glancing back at Brin with thanks in her eyes. Brinnea returned to her chair as Sio muttered to herself about death knights and bringing down the mood and losing clients. Brin’s thoughts were on the man she had threatened. He must have been a member of a mercenary band, and a tight-knit one to have tattoos on even a lowly member like him. Killing him might have brought worse wrath upon her, but if she had hidden the corpse, the rest of the band may have never found out. Now, though, he was likely to run straight to his friends and stir them up with his drunken, red-faced fury.

    As the night went on, Brinnea became more convinced she would have to leave town before dawn.

  21. Full Name: Lanette Wetwhistle

     Date of Birth: September 4

     Age: 32

     Race: Goblin, Formerly Steamwheedle Cartel

     Gender: Female

     Hair: Cyan, shoulder-length

     Eyes: Blue

     Height: 3 feet

    Weight: 40 lbs

    Place of residence: Dragonsroost Port

    Place of Birth: Booty Bay

    Known Relatives: Not among the living

    Religion/Philosophy: Money

    Occupation: Goblin Engineer, Pet Tamer, Sailor, Gun for Hire

    Group/Guild affiliation: Borrowed Time

    Enemies: Bloodsail Buccaneers, Southsea Freebooters, any and all slavers, some warlocks, the naga, the Venture Company

    Likes: The smell of the sea, animals, sleeping under the stars, tinkering, the tropics, photography

    Dislikes: Snow, ice, the color white, Northrend, snow cones, and ice cream

    Favorite Foods: Pineapple

    Favorite Drinks: Piña colada

    Favorite Colors: Teal, Brown

    Weapons of Choice: Rifles, Grenades, Rockets, Traps, Tasers, Knives

    Physical Features:  Angular facial features. Sharp eyes. Messy hair tied up with skull-pattern pendants.

    Special Abilities: Wild imagination. Can put together workable contraptions quickly and with limited supplies. Can tame just about any beast, given enough time and resources. Trained in wilderness survival, specialized in tropical jungles. A spirited climber and excellent swimmer.

    Positive Personality Traits: Open-minded and logical. Easygoing. Can keep a secret.

    Negative Personality Traits: Aloof, disinterested. A natural liar. Lacking in social graces.

    Misc. Quirks: Loves to spend as much time around the water as possible. Seems to hate everything cold and related to ice or snow. Paints all her gear bright and tropical colors. Photographs everything.

    MusicEscape -- Rupert Holmes


    She spent her early life growing up in Booty Bay with her parents, both fishers. Pirates raided the bay and killed her parents. She was taken as a slave and sold to a plantation, where a warlock stripped away her ability to think for herself. A hero saved her and the other slaves from the plantation and gave them kaja kola, which restored their minds slowly. She still relies on the kola to keep her mind from being addled, since she was brainwashed from such a young age.

    Reliance on kaja kola has made her brain move twice normal speed. She’s able to hold a conversation while also rapidly coming up with complex plans in her mind. This makes her a natural improvisor, and made her a natural engineer.

    After the hero dropped her off back at her home, she felt lost and out of place. She got a sailing job with the cartel, but disliked all the rules and structure. Eventually, she left the cartel in pursuit of her own self-image. Though she is still looking, she has managed to gather numerous skills she enjoys practicing, including pet taming, hunting, survival skills, photography, and exploring. Nowadays, she drifts between jobs. In fact, she heard of a really nice job, just the other day. Something about a mercenary company in the Twilight Highlands…


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