"Kohane," Uki begins—forces out, Hizume notes, as if it's taking everything in her not to break and collapse into a heaving, sobbing mess. "Do we...do we really have to do this? Isn't this enough?"
"But he likes this stuff!" Kohane says, and jostles the bag for emphasis; the sounds of crushed aluminum, broken glass, and crumpled newspaper makes Uki wince hard. "He gives us boons, too! The more we give him, the more he protects us!"
"Right, because cheering at wild beasts, mindless zombies, and Alliance saboteurs to their deaths is going to do wonders!"
"So long as we're able to help around the city and stay out of trouble, King Rastakhan will uphold our asylum," Hizume says. "I'd rather not run across any more Alliance if it helps. Let them fight their war. It's not our problem."
She doesn't want to have to remind them—again—that they were lucky to have run into the Darkspear first, when they had landed right in the middle of Nazmir and surrounded by blood troll camps on all sides. She still doesn't know what happened that day or why they're here in what should be enemy territory; her memory (as well as Kohane's and Uki's), of the events leading up to it are all a haze. Yet Rokhan and Talanji were willing to listen and not kill them on the spot. Rokhan was Horde and bled red, there was no doubt about it, and he made it pretty clear the Horde didn't have a stellar relationship with the humans and the other fantasy races running the Alliance across the sea up east. There was a war going on, he said, and both factions were racing across the globe to find allies to support each other's cause for domination and continued survival.
Also, the planet was dying. He said something about a Titan named Sargeras plunging his sword into Azeroth as a last-ditch attempt to destroy it while their forces were stationed on another world that had just hatched, and...well, Hizume's head hurts enough just thinking about it. All the three know is that it's a miracle Azeroth didn't cause the mother of all apocalypses. She supposes it comes from being a planet rife with magic...with that same magic pouring out all across the globe in liquid forms and crystalline structures everyone was fighting over.
Between having to watch the trolls utterly crush the 7th Legion troops at the Zul'jan Ruins, meeting the quiet Warchief (and being promised the Horde would protect them from the Alliance's boy-king and his warmongers), getting looked down at the red-eyed man in the longcoat, and putting up with the fat goblin asking Kohane that if she'd really like to promote her cheerleading club she'd like to take a trip to Kezan and 'try her luck', the best decision Hizume's made in her life was to tell Rastkhan that Your Majesty, I promise you I will do everything as you say and support not only your people but the Horde as well. I'll ask make sure my friends don't do anything foolish. You have my word. We'll be good girls.
Very well then! He had said, with a nod of his head. Prove ta me that my daughter's faith is not displaced, and you shall have the full might of the Zandalari and the Horde at your back. But if you do not, or I should see you are lying, and he leveled a stern eye at the girls, then I shall send you back into da swamps where you were found. And I be thinkin' you don't want to go there, do ya?
No sir, Hizume had said. If it wasn't the face of the human man she had beaned in the face with a rock when he tried to approach them, it was the huts and pits the blood trolls called a home. There were...things, grey and monstrous with large, sharp underbites, stalking the grounds, and vats in the ground filled with something red...something that, as they were running, smelled like blood. No sir, she had said again, more confidently, And that was the truth, because for all its heat, mosquitoes, walking golems, living dinosaurs, and the Forsaken dreadguards that were armed to the teeth and probably wouldn't take kindly to being called zombies, Dazar'alor is a very pretty place.
Rastakhan grinned widely, the crow's feet beneath his eyes crinkling. Maybe it was all the gold he was decked out in, but in that moment Hizume thought him to be very handsome. Good! You are a smart girl. I would hate to be proven wrong again. Talanji! Take the girls to the Grand Bazaar. Tell the staff at the Spirits Be With You to make arrangements for beds, and let those at the Taste of Zandalar know they shall not turn them away unless they dishonor the pact. Then, when they are acquainted, send them to the Terrace of Crafters so that they may learn from our very best. Through you the Horde will have their supplies for their fights on the warfronts. Through you, Zandalar will rise again!
Of course, Your Majesty, said Hizume, bowing as low as she would go; Kohane and Uki followed mere seconds later. We won't disappoint.
How long ago has it been now?
Hizume attempts to backtrack as far as her memory will allow, all the way up to the day they were sent to another world (Kohane likes to call it D-Day, but Uki thought it too morbid and, after much back and forth, got them to settle on Warp Day).
Three months. It's May fifth, which is just two days shy of three months since Warp Day. They've been working up and down Dazar'alor since then, and it seems like the Zandalari, and the Horde (barring Nathanos Blightcaller, whom Hizume silently dubbed him as Captain Jackass), have somewhat warmed up to them. At the very least, they aren't giving them the side-eye anymore, and the bartender doesn't grouse as much as he used to about putting up with the 'deformed runts' trying to beat the happy hour. King Rastakhan's even had them called up to chat with them atop the Great Seal, wanting to hear more about this strange place called Japan and their work habits, something Hizume is more than happy to oblige (and only for that, she keeps telling Uki; she's not there to ogle at him).
For a world at war and likely to be set on fire in the near future, everything seems to going well.
Except for...this. There was one other thing Rastakhan had them promise to do, if they were going to stay in Dazar'alor, and Talanji gently but quietly insisted the girls get to doing soon, if they didn't want to make the King doubt their intentions.
Speak with Natal'haka, and talk it over. When you have decided, present your offering to the Speaker and come up the Great Seal to let my father know your decision.
Just one? Hizume asked.
They aren't given ta sharin'. You only have ta pick one, it doesn't matter, but I advise you do it as soon as you are able. My father cannot be pressed to worry over a minor issue when there are other things that must be dealt with.
So they had talked it over, three days after they poured over the tomes Natal'haka had them borrow.
Hizume looks over at Uki. She wonders if she regrets giving in to her curiosity.
She wonders if any of them regret ever pissing off whatever cosmic deity that's sent them here.
Then she glances at the Hefty Ultra-Strong garbage bag in Kohane's hands (how it got dragged across the space-time continuum is one thing she's not going to think about, but it's a wonder it's lasted this long) and the bright, enthusiastic expression and thinks that, for all her childlike mannerisms and simplicity, being transported to another universe has probably been the best thing that's ever happened to her.
Hizume wants to sigh, shake her head, throw her arms up in the air. Anything, really, but that would just reinforce Uki's position to not wanting to be here; she's rather quite fond of staying alive and hoping Azeroth doesn't blow up. (That would also make her think she doesn't want to be near her precious 'Rasta-sama', and by all the nine circles and eighteen levels of hell, if she hears so much as a syllable come out of that girl's mouth she will run her down so hard during practice she'll be screeching like the monkey that she is.)
Uki winces again, and not from the impending ritual they're about to do. But she doesn't say anything about it, merely turns to Kohane and gestures at the rusted sword sticking out of the pile. "Go on. Let's get this over with. Before I turn tail and the little bastards decide to pop out and swarm me." She adds this last bit under her breath, looking back down the path they had come with a pained grimace.
Hizume sympathizes. No one likes having a pack of tiny saurids trample them, much less chew on their ankles.
"Okay!" Kohane says, and goes over to the sword. "Lord Jani! We're back!" She reaches out and touches the blade.
The world goes red: the seas run crimson, the sky bleeds mahogany, the sun shines a burnished ivory and turns the motes floating around them Halloween scarlet. It shifts the earth beneath their feet as much as it changes the air into something warm, stifling, and reeking of forgotten produce left to spoil. It's a powerful stench, overwhelming the salt in the air in its intensity. The first time they had called upon the loa it had almost made Hizume sick, and the next few times set her to try to keep from breathing in too much. Now? Now it's no different than putting out a candle.
"OH GOD-" is all Uki manages to say, and then she's lifted up off her feet. Head thrown back, hands raised up to clutch at the invisible force that strangles her in its mercy, legs kicking uselessly.
Something tall and slim emerges from the literal cloud of rot and dust, talons clicking against the sunken brick tiles. She can see his long tail swishing idly back and forth behind him. His scales shine the barest hint of magenta and blue, filtered as they are through the dimensional lens that layers his realm. His thin, oblong head bends down at them and the garbage, wide eyes flitting between her, Uki, and Kohane in rapid succession.
Jani opens his mouth in a smile riddled with twin rows of little sharp teeth. "Greetings...richmon."
"OH MY GUH," Uki chokes out, and this time Hizume's heart really goes out to her. If she didn't sound like she was about cry just before the summoning, she does now.
"Ya be stayin' out o' trouble for ole Jani, ya?" the Big One asks, turning his gaze on her. His eyes sparkle with dark glee. "Ya bein' a good likkle girl like ya said you was goan ta be?"
"YUH, YUH, YES," she sobs, and tries to nod. "I'M BEING GOOH."
"Hek hek hek! This pleases Jani! Pleases Jani greatly! Now then, what brings ya to da Shrine of Scavengers today, richmon?" He looks at Kohane.
"We've got a great big haul this time, Lord Jani!" she says, and opens up the garbage bag, the twist-tie long since discarded. "My friends and I went all over the beach picking up trash that washed ashore. You wouldn't believe all the garbage people throw away! It's unreal! The fish could get hurt!"
"Aye? Ya be doin' the world a favor! Show ole Jani whatcha got there, likkle one." He creeps closer until he's right in front of Kohane, snout pointed down at the bag.
Hizume takes this moment to step forward and spread the bag open more while Kohane digs through it. There's glass in there, broken shards from wine and beer bottles here in the Spirits Be With You and aboard the Horde vessels that come now and then to deliver goods from Kalimdor. She made sure the girl had her gloves on before they left to go find the latest trash pile that's been sighted and claimed by Atal'Jani worshipers off the coast of Warpart Rastari.
"Look here! A can of Kaja Cola!" Kohane takes it out and places it on the ground by the pile. Gallywix's ugly mug is plastered on the aluminum (pointing at the person with the words I WANT YOU FOR BILGEWATER CARTEL – APPLY TODAY! In large font that positively screams), something which makes Hizume sneer in disgust. A shame it was only dented and not crushed by the tides of time and mother nature. "There's a few more in here." Those come out and placed in a row by its brethren.
Jani nods, tapping each lightly with the end of his nose. "Aye. People can be so careless. Not ev'ryone knows dat one mon's treasure can always be anotha mon's loa. Ya be givin' me sometink dirty and dented. Ah, but what about somethin' glassy and glossy?"
"There is glass here, my Lord," says Hizume, and she reaches in to take out the blue and gold shards wrapped in cellophane. Azerite-coated shrapnel from a grapeshot, Hobart Grapplehammer determined once he inspected them. From Xibala, too, although he couldn't say whether or not it came from the Dark Iron dwarves or any guns the Nightborne or Sin'dorei stationed in the ruins might have been carrying; there was just enough of a hint for him (and for Hizume, who found them) to let them know there was magic in them. "Every little bit counts when it comes to war, but even our Horde allies forget themselves to salvage what they can. After all, nothing comes without a cost." She sets the shards behind the cans in a way the sunlight strikes off them.
It does the trick, drawing Jani's eyes to them. He emits a high-pitched, gurgling growl that's akin to a moped motor starting up. "Yes! Dey cost so much fortune. Richmon, poormon, it don't matter what ya are. Most ev'ryone forgettin' how much time and money be goan into makin' da things you use. Now," his gaze flicks back up to them, past them, to Uki, "how about sometink soft an' silky for ole Jani to lay his poor, tired head after a long day, eh?"
"FUH," Uki tries to say, staring at the saurid down the length of her nose. "FUH…."
Hizume whirls around so quickly she can feel the muscle pull in her neck, but she's too hot and awake to care about that. "Uki," she hisses with all the heat she can pack into that name without tipping Jani off. Uki, don't you goddamn DARE, she wants to add.
Jani cocks his head. "Fuh…?"
"Food?" Kohane posits tentatively. "Yeah, Uki, we have food!"
"Uki," Hizume stresses, because if she had to choose between being chased across Nazmir by a group of angry Alliance scouts and being polymorphed into a saurid for possibly the rest of her life because her junior's tongue beats out her brain in a foot race, she'd take the first option in a heartbeat.
She finally spits it out, stretched and strained: "FUH. FUH. FUHGIVE ME."
"Eh?" Jani parrots smugly, and opens his mouth wider to flick his tongue out. "What dat ya be sayin', killah? I can't hear yah, hek hek! Hek hek hek hek! Speak up, mon!"
"I SAID...I'M...SORRY!" Uki issues a sob, tries to shake her head in a futile display of defeat. Or an attempt to breath through increasingly crushed lungs, it's hard to say with her. "KOHANE...LOOK IN...THE BAG."
"SPIDERS. JAR AT...THE BOTTOM. S-S-SOFT AND SILKY! OH!" Uki's mouth goes slack. "I SEE...THE LIGHT. KOHANE! ARIMA! I SEE THE LIGHT! THE LUN'ALAI...WEREN'T KIDDIN'!" She begins to hyperventilate and stops kicking. "I'M READY, JESUS! TAKE ME!"
Kohane snaps her fingers. "That's right, Uki! We did get spider eggs! Here, Lord Jani." She doubles over into the bag and straightens back up with the glass jar in hand. "We got these from all the way up in the Zanchul. Apparently there was some big fight going on with one of the King's advisers. The Atal'Jani were saying this would make you and your children very happy!"
She shows the Big One the jar, to which he leans in for a closer look. The spiders are dead, on their backs with their legs sticking up in the air or curled in on their bellies. These were the ones they had managed to scoop up while the Atal'Jani were scoping the place in the dead of night, when the hubbub had died down and the guard patrol had retreated downwind toward the Sliver. They had said that Yazma had been slain, fell in step with the Prophet Zul among the rest of the Zanchuli Council in their plot to assassinate Rastakhan and force even the great kingdom of Dazar'alor to its knees when the blood trolls delivered their dark magics beyond the swamp into civilization. A lot had happened just before the girls had come: the King being wounded in the attempt, the Council running amok in Atal'Dazar, the strange goings-on in the desert of Vol'dun, and the Horde army marching on Nazmir into a place called the Heart of Darkness with the Princess Talanji to put an end to the madness and the creature that lay waiting in the depths of the earth to be unleashed, G'huun.
(Needless to say, Hizume didn't press her fellow adherents for further answers on...whatever this G'huun thing was. Just flashing back to those first couple, nightmarish hours waking up in Nazmir was enough to get a general idea of what it was capable of. The fact that Kohane had quieted after the Atal'Jani resumed their business with unhurried, eager anticipation of the mess the Rastari left behind spoke volumes.)
The expression on his face brightens unfiltered, murderous glee that would compete with the nastiest of Hollywood's blockbuster psychopaths; Hizume can't stop the shudder crawling down her spine when Jani's pupils contract to black, paper-thin slits. "Yesssss~" he croons, and elicits a few sharp, high whistles with the click of his tongue. "Yes! Not so high an' mighty now without yer mistress now, eh, ya likkle, godless bastards?! Dat's what ya get when ya be messin' with powers beyond ya comprehension! Hek-hek-hek! Hek-hek-hek! HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK!" He tosses his head back and cackles. This far away from the Port Authority, away from the commotion of soldiers doing drills and expedition vessels preparing to set sail to replenish their azerite stocks, the sound ricochets off the mountains rising at their side and across the ocean in long, powerful spurts that threaten to roll Hizume flat and crush her until all that fills her ears and replaces her heartbeat is the sound of that laughter.
Kohane joins Jani by laughing right back, high and joyous and clear. Hizume can't decide if she should bemoan the fact that the girl is too innocent for her own good or get on the ground, assume the fetal position, and join Uki in her vain attempt to summon Jesus, Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster for salvation. "I'm glad you like it, Lord Jani! Uki managed to pick out the biggest, fattest ones she could find. We couldn't fit them all in here, so I hope this is enough for you!"
"Did ya now?" Jani purrs, and gives Uki a smug look that's just the right amount of mocking. "Ya be tryin' to curry me favor? After whatcha did to me children?"
Uki nods numbly. Her face is turning a very concerning shade of blue that almost matches Hizume's hair.
Jani grins. "See? That wasn't so hard. Ya keep it up, ya be swimmin' in ole Jani's fortune! Ya like that, dontcha?"
"Hek! What am I sayin'? O' course ya do! Now then, likkle ones," he says, regarding Kohane and Hizume, "show me what else ya be bringin' ta me."
"Of course, Lord Jani!" says Kohane. "Anything for you! We were extra slow and careful this time!"
And so they were, and for the next few minutes they present to Jani the spoils they made off with it on their scavenging trip along the coast. A crocodile's egg, white and pearly with nary a speck on its surface. A piece of a Pterodactyl's talon, presumably snapped off from a fight or old age. The gold-white lion of an embossed Alliance emblem that still retained its shine despite the nicks and water marks all over it (and the dark, dry spots that Hizume still hopes, against her better judgment, isn't blood). A large, green scale from one of the brutosaurs further upland, bright enough for them to see their reflections in. Yellowed, ink-washed papers of indecipherable origins stamped with what Hobart thinks might be the cog-shaped symbol of Gnomeregan Covert Ops. Clam shells and gold rings big enough to be fitted on a troll's tusks. A jewelry box full of colorful, uncut gems: green viridium, orange solstone, golden beryl, kyanite and rubellite and kubiline, lined with velvet that had long since lost its original color.
When they're done, and Jani finishes appraising the last of the trinkets, Kohane asks, "How did we do? Do you like what we got you?"
Jani straightens up and nods approvingly. "Aye! I accept ya tribute! Ya done go above 'n' beyond the call o' duty ta tickle Jani pink, mah minions. For ya efforts, I be extendin' me blessin' to open da forgotten, lonely paths only my kind and me faithful are privy to. Use dem to ya advantage, richmon; if your eyes cannot find them, look to one of my children. They might just be pointin' the way."
More treasures hidden away somewhere, waiting to be found, means more workloads to sift through and break down into materials, and more materials to work with means there's a better chance of making them into stronger reagents for craftsmen to use or selling them in the auction house or busk at the Grand Bazaar. All of that equals more work orders and less time to sleep. At the same time, that also means their chances of getting more of their cut from their employers just got higher. Hizume can just taste the seasoned brutosaur burgers on her tongue, setting her mouth to water and the little voice in the back of her head that demands she rein in her impulses, she's a cheerleader, goddammit, just imagine how much weigh you'll put on with all that fat that brutosaur must've had on it.
Hizume tunes it out. Dazar'alor may not have a McDonald's or a 7-Eleven, but it's been a while since any of them have had brutosaur burgers, stuffed clams (flash-frozen with frost magic and shipped straight from Plunder Harbor), seared simmerfin, or any kind of the more expensive meals. Maybe Kohane doesn't feel the same way (after all, food is food), but she's sure that between herself and Uki the girl could go for more than overcooked tikka and helpings of fruit and cheese platters they nick from the Royal Meat Rack before they're tossed out at the end of the night.
She swallows, licks her lips, and manages to say in a steady voice, "Thank you, Lord Jani. We appreciate your patronage. Uki, especially."
Uki makes a sound that perfectly imitates a train whistle.
"Yes! Thank you, Lord Jani!" Kohane beams. "I'll be sure to make a cheer for you next time we meet!"
Jani issues a growling chuckle. "Ya do that, likkle one. Spread ol' Jani's deeds, so that all of Zandalar and the South Seas hear of me kindness and good deeds! Take this now, as a sign of me favor. May you always be findin' friends in low places, wherever ya go. Be good now! Very good. Life always finds a way." He looks past Kohane and Hizume toward Uki, and the light in his dilated eyes is cruel, his smile resonating with the promise of cruel mischief. It feels dark, ancient, of times long past beyond all the thousands of years Earth has ever known in its short life of human prosperity, speaking of rituals and cultures so far removed from the likes of enlightenment people have so claimed to have moved past them when in reality it is far from the truth. It is speaks of secrets in the dark, on cold winter days and warm silent nights; and it doesn't matter if that ever occurs to Kohane, for these are the things Hizume never wants to find out, and if she should somehow die so soon and so young before they're sent back to Earth or fulfill
whatever purpose they've been given until that time then she would be happy to never have to find out what they are and what horrors await for those that truly, seriously incite a loa's wrath.
"Hek-hek-hek! Hek-hek-hek! HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK HEK!" On that note, the clouds swallow Jani whole, head tipped back in raucous, howling laughter, until only his eyes, emerald and wickedly sharp, remain shining in the red dark. Then those, too, are gone, the air clears so that the scent of salt and surf are rife in their noses, and the filter over their world slowly drains away to be replaced by the bright, tropical colors of the jungles, the beach, and the sea.
Uki drops to the ground like an anvil on her knees and starts coughing and wheezing, shaking uncontrollably with one hand wrapped around her throat. "OH GUH!" she hacks tightly. "OH GOOD GUH….!"
"Are you all right?" Hizume asks as she puts a steady hand on the girl's back. The words are mere automation, because she knows damn well that no, Uki is far from just all right, not after being used as a gateway channel between the spirit world and the realm of the living.
Uki picks her head up and looks around, eyes wide and delirious. "Jesus? Jesus, where are you?" She whirls on Hizume. "Arima, do the Zandalari have a Jesus here?"
Hizume grimaces. "Does Bwonsamdi count?"
"Momma no!" Uki wails, and now brings Hizume's imagination to fruition by flopping onto the turf in a fetal position to cry.
Hizume backs away slowly, hand raised in midair. She shakes her head, more from disbelief than anything else that should rightly disturb her, and turns around. She hears her name being called, and sees Kohane doubled over in the middle of a big, ornate treasure chest that's appeared in the middle of the trash pile. She goes to her. "What have you got there?"
"Crates!" Kohane says, straightening up. "They look the kind the deckhands on the Banshee's Wail carry for the warfront operations. I don't think I can pick them up."
Hizume nods. War resources, then. With how much the Horde have been fighting to maintain their hold on Ar'gorok, they're going to need plenty more for when they make the attempt on assaulting Stromgarde again. "I wouldn't try. We can pay one of the Atal'Jani out here to carry them back for us. What else is in there?"
"Oh, just the usual. Lots of necklaces we can replace and sell for a few silver; oh, maybe gold, if we're really careful cutting all that ore up! Stinkbomb casings for the engineers...um...some tusks…more of those effigy things that look like Lord Jani—wow! Look, Hizume!" Kohane stands up and spins in a playful circle, capping it off with a flourished point to her head. "A boot!"
A very old, very ratty boot, with holes in the toes and the threads on the soles worn completely down. "That's, uh...that's pretty cool, Kohane. It suits you."
"There's one in here for you and Uki, too! Here!" Kohane goes back to the treasure chest and hands her the overly large men's working boot as though it's the first place trophy in the World High School Cheerleading Championships and Kaminoki just beat every single school in a miraculous landslide.
This boot looks like it's seen better days. Much better. It's about twice the size of her head, too. "Uh...thanks," Hizume says. She accepts it, giving it a cursory once-over. Then, after a moment's hesitation, raises her arms and places it on her head. She spreads her arms out side by side. "Ta-da," she intones.
"Amazing," Kohane breathes in awe. "Make sure you take good care of it, Hizume! I know I will with mine. Lord Jani would be so sad if we didn't."
"Of course. Take care of yours, as well."
Kohane nods vigorously. "I will, I will! Hey, Uki! Come over here! Let me put this boot on you! It's a knee-high!"
"Never again!" Uki splutters, and shrinks herself even further into the ball she's made of herself. "I'll never look nor touch a saurid with these sinner's hands ever again!" she chants in a muffled voice.
"I, uh, don't think Uki feels like wearing it right now," Hizume interjects. "Not tonight, at least. Maybe in the morning she will, when she feels better. Right, Uki?"
"Jesus loves me, this I know…!"
Hizume sighs, feeling the first telltale signs of a headache coming on. And here she had thought Kohane would be the first to break amid all the horror and nightmare fuel that made Nazmir the wonderful place that it is. Boy howdy, was she ever wrong.
Maybe now, and for the times that come after, Uki will get it through her thick skull and learn it's not a good idea to piss off a loa ever again.