“Are you going to send me to prison without supper?”
Anduin smiled at his father, waiting for the tension to lift and Varian to move on to more important worries. Honestly, there was a time and place to worry about past agreements with the Horde, and Garrosh Hellscream’s trial wasn’t it. Instead of smiling back, Varian just stared at him.
Anduin cleared his throat. The smile fell awkwardly from his face. “Father?”
He’d expected his father to laugh and admit he was being silly. Of course he wouldn’t throw his son in jail for something so inconsequential, and as soon as he realized that he would see that there was also no reason to continue being angry at Jaina. This was the first time in a long time that Anduin had seen him fail to react to a gentle prod like that, and the silence was scaring him. It was like being eleven years old again, with a father who was struggling with himself.
After a long, uncomfortable moment, Varian sighed and broke eye contact. “Right now, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I shouldn’t have let you become so involved in this. It’s not safe. Our enemies are already trying to use you as leverage. It’s better for everyone that you go back home to Stormwind and keep out of sight until the trial’s concluded.”
“What? You…” Anduin shook himself, scrambling to gather his thoughts. “You can’t send me away! I have a job to do here!”
“Not anymore you don’t,” Varian said harshly. “Now that people know you’ve met with Bloodhoof in the past, your willingness to help with his defense looks suspicious. If you continue, Stormwind’s loyalty to the Alliance could be called into question.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Anduin realized he was shouting, and stopped to take a deep breath. There had already been enough yelling for one day, passers-by were starting to turn and stare. His heart was pounding, and he tried to force it to slow down. He’d spent months here in Pandaria, facing down everything from angry beasts to armies, so how was it possible for a simple argument with his father to still affect him so much?
Straightening up, he squared his shoulders and looked Varian directly in the eye. “Nobody is going to believe that, Father, and you know it.”
His father was just overreacting, the trial had him on edge. That was all it was. If he could just get him to calm down and think for a moment, he would realize what a far-fetched idea it was that anyone would accuse Stormwind of betrayal.
“Of course they won’t,” Varian snapped. “But they’ll say it anyway.” He crossed his arms over his chest and sank down into a chair, the forced casualness of the gesture offset by the stern glare he was now sending Anduin’s way. “I don’t have time to argue with you, Anduin. People are already furious that you’ve agreed to help Bloodhoof with his operations, this is the perfect excuse for them to attack you. The kingdoms of the Alliance know you well enough not to accuse you, but they’re not the only ones upset. Right now, you’re a liability.”
“Not more than Jaina, and you’re not locking her up!” Anduin challenged. In the back of his mind he knew that if it wasn’t for Jaina’s teleportation abilities, Varian would very likely have ordered her locked up. It wasn’t a good idea to test his father at a time like this. Still, he had to try. He didn’t have Jaina’s mage powers, and he wasn’t the leader of any powerful orders, but there had to be something he could use. He cast about in his mind for ideas. What could he could say to knock his father off his current train of thought? “I’ll… I’ll run away again!”
The threat fell flat. Varian had increased the number of guardsmen patrolling the city and stationed around the keep since the last time he’d been home. There was barely an inch of the city that wasn’t under constant watch, and Anduin knew that if he made a serious effort to run away he would be located and brought back almost instantly. Escaping from a search party wasn’t the same as escaping from an army.
Varian rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome to try. And I don’t doubt that you would try, if you saw an opportunity. Which is why you’ll be staying in your room, with guards stationed nearby.”
“But you said I was old enough to make my own choices!” Anduin argued desperately. “You said it would be good for me! Besides, if I just vanish, people really will think it’s suspicous! It will look like you’re hiding something.”
“I have allowed you more freedom of choice because I was assured that it would be safe.” Varian waved a hand in the air. “Things have changed. No matter how heavily guarded we are, no matter how well the Pandaren enforce peace, we still have enemies here. As long as tensions are running this high, you’re in danger. I’m sorry, Anduin, but your safety matters more than your feelings. Come on, we’re getting you a portal back home. Now.” He stood back up and signaled to some nearby guards to be ready in case Anduin decided to make a break for it.
For a moment, Anduin wanted to try. He wanted to draw himself up, say “you can’t make me,” and push his way through the guards to hide himself in the crowd. The reality though was that his father could make him go. He could signal the guards to grab him, carry him through a portal to Stormwind Keep, and make sure he was locked inside no matter how much he objected. His dignity and his pride struggled for control, but after another minute of glaring at Varian and grinding his teeth together, he relented.
“Fine. I’ll go.” Anduin turned on his heel and stalked away to where the trial’s mage provided portals, not waiting to see if his father and the guards were following him. He knew they were.
After staying so long in Pandaria, it was odd for Anduin to be back in Stormwind. His room was in one of the far back corners of the keep, and although it was small, it was bright and welcoming. A large window looked out over the lake, and there was a connected washroom that even had running water piped in by newly-installed gnomish pumps. It was cozy and smelled like home, and Anduin would willingly spend hours there under normal circumstances, but now it felt like little more than a glorified cell. He’d tried the door three times in the last hour, but it was still locked. He knew there were guards outside, he could hear their armor moving every now and then as they shifted their weight, but they wouldn’t answer him when he tried to speak to them.
He’d given up on trying to get a response from outside and had retreated to bed, where he was sitting up against the headboard sullenly twirling a quill pen between his fingers. He’d been in the process of detailing that day’s portion of the trial in his journal, but wasn’t sure what, if anything, to say about his current situation. The trial was historic and he wanted a record of it, not a record where his personal problems overshadowed it. Then again, wasn’t the point of a journal to keep track of one’s thoughts? It wasn’t like he could write any more play-by-plays of the testimony, not unless his father changed his mind. And how likely was that?
Not very likely, he concluded with a bleak sigh. Letting the hand holding the pen drop into his lap, he leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes. This was humiliating. What had his father told the other leaders of the Alliance to explain his absence? Did anyone know he was locked up in here like a misbehaving child? It was getting dark out, and he’d spent most evenings of the trial wandering around the temple grounds and buying food from the Pandaren vendors. Surely someone would have noticed he wasn’t there.
A sudden tapping at the window made him jump. Was someone throwing rocks? He knew that there were some local families living around the other side of the lake, maybe someone had seen his light on and decided to vent their frustration about one of the many problems the kingdom currently faced. That was all he needed. Grumbling under his breath, he crossed the room and threw open the curtain.
Instead of rocks, the source of the tapping was a clawed hand, which was attached to something with glowing eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth that was hovering just outside his window. Anduin stumbled back with a yelp before his brain could catch up and realize that it was only Wrathion. Then his thoughts took another sharp jump forward. What was Wrathion doing in Stormwind? Anduin had assumed he was returning to the Veiled Stair at the end of each day’s activity.
It was usually hard to distinguish between a dragon’s various facial expressions, but the unimpressed look on Wrathion’s face was impossible to mistake. He perched on the windowsill and said something, but his voice was muffled by the glass.
Anduin glanced over his shoulder nervously at the still-locked door. His guards were just outside, and would certainly be on edge after hearing him yell like that, but if Wrathion had taken the trouble to fly all the way up here just to tell him something then it must be important. He pulled at the window’s latch, which had been stuck for years, until it finally gave way with a sharp click. Then he set to pushing the window up. It went unwillingly, in a series of shuddering jerks, while Wrathion looked on in disgust.
When he finally got the window open wide enough for Wrathion, he pushed his way inside, flapped delicately down to the ground and hissed “I said be quiet, you’ll blow my cover. This is a delicate operation, you know?”
“Is it?” Anduin asked in a whisper, still working on processing Wrathion is in my room. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I didn’t know. Are you going to explain what you’re doing?”
Wrathion shuffled his wings in a way that approximated a shrug. He was occupied with crawling around Anduin’s room like a curious dog, apparently taking stock of his possessions. “I’m breaking you out, obviously,” he whispered back. “Just how many useless objects do you own? You can’t take any of this. Don’t you have a backpack anywhere?” He nudged open the closet door and stuck his head inside.
“Breaking me out?” For a moment Anduin was blown away with gratitude. Wrathion would do that for him? Then he was suspicious. “Why? What’s in it for you?”
“Anduin, I’m hurt,” Wrathion answered in a forced-casual tone of voice, continuing to dig around in Anduin’s closet. “Why wouldn’t I want to help my friend, who has found himself in such an unfortunate predicament? No, the real question is, what’s in it for you?” He turned at last to face Anduin, his eyes flashing in the lamplight. “You’re frustrated, because you’ve been deprived of your chance to see a change in Hellscream. I can give you more time to see that noble quest through.”
Anduin’s suspicions deepened. “What are you up to?” He went to sit next to Wrathion, who had located his rucksack and was casually stuffing clothes into it. “And give me that, none of those things are yours. It sounds like you want me to go on some kind of trip. I can’t do that unless I have a good reason for it.”
Wrathion sighed and allowed Anduin to take his things back. He sat back on his haunches and looked him over, then shook himself slightly as he shifted into his human form, kneeling on the floor. Reaching out, he placed his right hand on Anduin’s shoulder and leaned forward to stare into his eyes.
“I really am trying to help you, Anduin. The others don’t want me to involve you, and I haven’t had much say in the matter. They’ve agreed to allow you to come along, but it has to be soon. You have two choices.” He held up two fingers on his free hand, and purposefully ticked one down when he spoke again. “You can send me away, stay locked away up here, and not do anybody any amount of good.” Anduin tried to shrug his hand off, but he gripped tighter as he continued speaking, moving forward so he could reach out his other hand and press his extended index finger into Anduin’s chest. “Your second choice is to come with me. I have a plan, but I can’t tell you what it is unless I know you want to be a part of it. You will get your chance to prove yourself, to show the world just what you are capable of. There will be challenges that you are uniquely suited to meet. It will be dangerous and we’ll be going a long way, but if you play your cards right, you will be instrumental in helping to secure the future of Azeroth for years to come. Then you can return in triumph, and with nothing the worse for your absence. Are you with me?”
“I…” Anduin blinked at him. As far as Wrathion’s motivational talks went, this one actually wasn’t bad. He was being awfully direct, and seemed to be in some kind of a hurry, so his speech was less flowery than usual. But in the past he’d only watched Wrathion recruit people. The full intensity of it had never been directed at him before, and he suddenly understood why people were so willing to do what Wrathion asked of them. It was very hard to even consider saying no when confronted with such a strong vote of confidence, and in human form Wrathion’s eyes glowed almost hypnotically. He had to remind himself that he’d seen Wrathion’s plans turn out in unexpected ways many times in order to muster a scrap of skepticism. “…What others?”
Wrathion grinned at him, but failed to put his heart into the expression. He looked manic. “That’s one of the things I can’t tell you yet, I’m afraid.” He dropped the fake smile, it looked like forcing it had become physically uncomfortable. “I’m also afraid that you might not, to put it gently, get along with them very well. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I’ve entered into a temporary contract with some very…” he paused. “…Opinionated allies.”
Anduin was suddenly filled with concern. Wrathion was trying to act like normal, but it wasn’t normal for him to hesitate. At the very least, he was very stressed about something, and seemed to really want Anduin’s help. He frowned. There was a chance he might offend Wrathion by implying that he’d gotten himself into something he couldn’t handle, but he needed to know what was going on.
He reached up and grabbed Wrathion’s right hand, gently pulling it off his shoulder and trying not to show his surprise when he heard claws disengaging from the fabric. “Wrathion, are you… feeling all right?”
“Yes! I’m fine.” Wrathion pulled his hand away. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Anduin chewed on the inside of his lip. Wrathion wasn’t hurt, and he didn’t look frightened. But still… He tried again. “These people you’re working with. Are they dangerous?”
Wrathion almost laughed. “Everyone I work with is dangerous. You know that.” He smiled again, and it was genuine this time.
“Even me?” Anduin couldn’t resist asking.
“That depends,” Wrathion answered, tilting his head and pretending to think it over. “Are you someone I am working with?”
There really wasn’t much of a choice, was there? Wrathion was his friend, and involved in something dangerous. He was being asked to help, and if Wrathion wasn’t lying, he would get more time to work with Garrosh. It sounded like a perfect chance, even if it also sounded terrifying. Anduin sighed. His father would be angry, but if he could really do that much good then maybe he’d be forgiven. It would be worth it. Anything was better than just sitting here waiting for news.
“All right,” he said, trying to keep the slight shake out of his voice. “I’ll help you.”
Wrathion’s shoulders dropped, like he’d been holding tension in them, and he gave Anduin a genuinely grateful look. “Then I suppose I’ll have to reassess my definition of danger.”
Anduin swallowed and took a deep breath, then another, then stood up. “Okay. So what do I have to do?”
Instantly, all traces of worry or relief dropped from Wrathion’s posture. He jumped up and dusted himself off, all business. “You’ll need to prepare yourself for a journey. We won’t be able to leave right away, as we are still waiting on some allies to join us, but there will be little opportunity to gather supplies for yourself once you’re out of here. I’ll be breaking you out tonight, before anything can happen that would break my allies’ tenuous patience with this operation. Pack light, but bring as many essentials as you can. In three hours, Left and Right will infiltrate the castle and deal with your guards.” He waved a hand to cut Anduin off from voicing his worries. “Don’t worry, your guards will not be harmed. They’ll simply be rendered briefly unconscious. Left and Right will sneak you out the back, and you’ll take the portal by the lake to Pandaria. I will meet you there.”
In his typical dramatic fashion, he changed back to his dragon form and flew out the window before Anduin had the chance to ask any more questions.
Anduin was left alone with his thoughts and a half-packed rucksack. He lifted it up to check what was already inside, and tried to guess what else he might need. Wrathion hadn’t explained anything, but as always, the things he didn’t say told more truth than the things he did. More time to work with Garrosh? Dangerous allies? Anduin wasn’t stupid. These were things Wrathion had omitted from his explanation for a reason, and he had probably flown off in such a hurry so as to have more time to come up with some positive spin for them. From all indicators, the plan involved an assault on the Temple of the White Tiger, probably before the conclusion of the trial, and certainly with the intent to disrupt it.
Disrupting the trial would logically lead to one of two outcomes, and Anduin doubted that Wrathion would promise him a chance to see a change in Garrosh if the intent was to kill him. This was difficult to look past, but nobody could change if they were executed, and very few people could change by rotting in a cell for the rest of their lives. He just hoped there was a plan for the moment after the initial escape. As Garrosh was now, simply letting him loose was a dangerous and stupid idea.
He considered backing out. When Left and Right came for him, he could just tell them that he’d thought better of his agreement. Wrathion would probably let him do that… but whoever his “allies” were might not. Anybody who would want to free Garrosh would have no qualms with killing him if they decided that he already knew too much. He was in over his head and nothing had even happened yet. This was exactly why he had always been told not to make a promise unless he knew the details of it.
Maybe this was how Wrathion felt too. It was comforting to know that there would be at least one person he could count as a friend.
Now, where was his first-aid kit? He knew he had one somewhere.
Three hours and ten minutes later, Anduin was walking swiftly around the lake, trying not to look suspicious. Left and Right had given him a hooded cloak to match theirs and told him to keep his head down and move quickly. There were very few people out so late at night, especially so near to the outskirts of the city, but portal sites were always minor activity hubs and his breath quickened with nerves as they approached the small gathering of tents. Right didn’t look too badly out of place, but would it really be possible to get an orc and the Prince of Stormwind through a public portal without anybody noticing?
Right cuffed him on the back of the head. “Face down. We came in this way. Stop acting like a frightened rabbit and nobody will look at you twice.”
He realized he’d been throwing panicked glances around at anyone who came close. “Sorry.”
There was no reply, but he hadn’t been expecting one. He managed to stop himself from fidgeting as the portal came into view, but couldn’t help holding his breath when they walked past the Pandaren guards. The portal was five steps away, and nobody was shouting angrily at them. Three steps, and the mage holding it open gave them a cheerful nod but kept most of her attention focused on channeling her magic. One step, and he could see Paw’don Village shimmering on the other side. His heart beat wildly. This is really happening. Then they were through, and Left and Right were roughly pulling him away from the portal.
They’d left their mounts, two dark-feathered gryphons, in a small grove a short walk from the village. They set a fast pace toward it, and Anduin had to rush after them the entire way. He ignored the way his knee twinged when he had to run a few steps to catch up. It wouldn’t be long before someone noticed he was gone, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that he would go back to Pandaria. Hopefully Wrathion’s idea of a safe hideout would be a good one, because Anduin was sure that his father would order the entire continent turned over once he was reported missing.
“Where are we going?” he asked as he climbed up onto Right’s gryphon.
Neither of them answered him, just kicked their mounts into flight. It was worth a try, but it looked like they’d both hit their daily quota for conversation. Anduin went to pull his compass out of his shirt pocket. If they wouldn’t tell him where they were headed, he could at least try to guess from their direction. A sharp gust of wind made him think better of it and grab onto the saddle in alarm. Better to hang on, and make sure that his great escape didn’t end with him crashing into an unidentifiable smudge on the landscape somewhere.
He lost track of how long they flew, but it must have been most of the night. The Jade Forest below them gave way to a channel, and they headed upward to the Kun-Lai Summit. Anduin carefully tucked the cloak more tightly around himself, wishing he had thought to put on warmer clothes before they started. The air up in the mountains was freezing, and he felt like his hands were going to stick to the saddle. He grit his teeth and clung on. He couldn’t ask for a break. It was like trying to walk a long way on his hurt leg, if he stopped then he wouldn’t be able to start again.
As if taking pity on him, Left and Right steered their gryphons up away from the snow-capped peaks. They were more exposed up high, visible to any watchful eyes, but they were free from the chilled currents generated by the snow-capped peaks.
It was still uncomfortable though, and after a while Anduin gave up on any pretenses and closed his eyes. He clung to the gryphon, curled up, and tried to block himself from thinking about the passage of time until they finally landed.
“You’re here! And you made good time, too.”
Wrathion. Anduin opened his eyes, slightly surprised that they hadn’t frozen shut, and released his death grip on the saddle with considerable effort. He winced at the numb ache in both his hands, and looked over his shoulder to the ground. There was probably no good way to dismount, he was certain that as soon as he was on the ground he would topple over.
“You look terrible,” Wrathion commented, casually walking up and patting the gryphon’s flank.
Under normal circumstances that would warrant a return insult, but Anduin was already having enough trouble keeping his teeth from visibly chattering. He opted instead to scowl as menacingly as possible. After all, if he looked any worse the wear from the flight, it was technically Wrathion’s fault. He gathered his strength, mentally counted to three, and swung his leg over to dismount.
As he expected, he stumbled the moment his feet touched the ground. His leg was sore all the way up to his hip, and he could barely feel his toes. He made a point to topple into Wrathion, which caused him to let out a satisfyingly surprised grunt.
The impact jolted him back a step or two, but he managed to get an arm around Anduin and keep him on his feet. “Now now, this is no time to be dramatic, Prince Anduin. Don’t worry, it’s warmer inside.” He began half-supporting and half-dragging Anduin over to a large door cut in the mountainside, where an enticingly warm draft was billowing up a darkened staircase leading down into the ground. “Welcome to the Ruins of Korune.”