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The Light, Forsaken

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Imagine: Stormwind City, crown jewel of Elwynn Forest.  It’s white walls tower over the tallest trees, the gates stand imposing, yet welcoming - friends may enter, but one who comes as an enemy will never see the inside.  Blue shingles everywhere, a kind of chromatic resonance chosen by the Stonemason’s Guild, before they became the Defias Brotherhood.  Over everything hung the iconic Lion of Azeroth, banners and flags flapping in the breeze.

It's the busiest city this side of Ironforge, hundreds of miles away, dug deep into the mountains of Dun Morogh.  Dwarves would say their metropolis is the pinnacle of Azerothian craftsmanship, a gnome would point to the spinning gears and elevators of the irradiated city of Gnomeregon, but humans?  Humans knew the real place to be was Stormwind.

But not today.

The streets were empty.  The bank, usually the busiest place in the city, patrons standing in line for hours at a time, stood deserted.  The great forges in the center of the Dwarven District stood cold.  Even the beggars, a common site after decades of war, had disappeared from their corners.

Had there been some disaster?  Disease?  Had some monster come in the night, sweeping people up without a trace?

No, not unless that monster was named Grief.

Today, Stormwind was in mourning for the loss of a great man.

Varian Wrynn had died valiantly, giving his life to save the survivors of the slaughter at the Broken Shore.

Mardynn hadn't seen it happen with her own eyes - she'd been one of the first aboard the retreating gun ship, and had thus made her way belowdecks - but she’d felt the ship rock as the fel reaver’s massive hand took it, heard the screams as the great King had lost his grip on the rope ladder.

The veterans of the Shore were granted a special place at his funeral.  They were arranged in a block in front and to the left of the Archbishop, who was giving his eulogy.  

It was beyond belief.  Someone had died for her.  And not just anyone.  King Varian himself.  She felt… empty.  Undeserving.  How much good had she done in the end?  How many wounds had she healed, only for the grateful men to be felled anyway?  Her life didn't matter.

The life of a king?  And a king like Varian?  That mattered.

Not a poor, orange haired little priest who had only just had her first taste of war.

The Archbishop droned on.  To his left, Varian’s son, Anduin, stood tall, with his hands clasped behind his back.  He was pretty, but she couldn't even take a little pleasure in that today.  How much pain was he hiding underneath that princely facade?  How did he possibly feel about losing his father, after going through so much with him?  Mardynn suddenly felt selfish.  They were all hurting.

A nation was hurting.

Beside Anduin, Genn Greymane, King of Gilneas, had his hand on the boy’s shoulder.  He had taken his human shape for this ceremony, and the lines of his face seemed even deeper than they had a few short hours before.  His ceremonial sword and pistol hung on opposite sides of his belt, gleaming in the discordantly bright sun.

Next in line stood the Council of Three Hammers - Moira Thaurissan, Muradin Bronzebeard, and Falstad Wildhammer.  Each was clad in a ceremonial coat of mail, emblazoned with the colors of their respective clans.  They each looked grim, and it was hard to see from where Mardynn stood in the throng, but it looked almost like Moira’s eyes were shimmering.

Capping off the line was the gnome Gelbin Mekkatorque, this time outside of his powered armor.  Mardynn had only seen him once before, from a distance, on the battlefield.  He was standing straight as well, but tears ran freely from his eyes, thin lines staining his cheeks.

On the Archbishop’s other side stood the leaders of the Night Elves.  Mardynn wasn't sure what their titles actually were, but Tyrande Whisperwind looked every bit as regal as any of the other leaders standing in a row.  Malfurion Stormrage looked… sleepy.  Irritation buzzed through her for a moment.  How dare he look so… unfazed?

Next to Malfurion was Prophet Velen - though “stood” hardly seemed the appropriate verb.  Did an ancient tree, gnarled and wise, simply stand?  No, it just was.  He had a look of deep contemplation and sadness carved into his wrinkled, bearded face.  Had he known what would happen?  They said he had dreams of what was to come.  If he did, though, it hadn't stopped him from mourning.

Finally, there was Aysa Cloudsinger, a young Pandaren woman.  She had only joined the Alliance a few years earlier, and she had only been a leader for as long, but she looked serene and in control.  That was the Pandaren way, as Mardynn understood it: to bury emotion deep down in the name of peace.  Or something.

Mardynn had never actually talked to a Pandaren about their philosophy.

Mardynn tried to listen to what the Archbishop was saying, but Light, he was so dull.   The king deserved so much better than this.  He deserved a true orator, a master of the craft, someone who could take a crowd and make them feel every accomplishment, every twist and turn of his life, who could make them care.

That person wasn't Mardynn - she had a tendency to ramble once she really got going, and stuttered in front of crowds, but… He was a great man.  He deserved the best funeral Stormwind could offer.

The line of leaders stood before a statue of the king, holding his sword over his head with a triumphant smile.  Mardynn doubted it had been commissioned for the funeral, or as a memorial - it was much too soon for that to have been carved from scratch.  More likely, it had been repurposed from something else.

Still, looking up at the image of her king, that horrible empty sadness filled her again.  He was gone.  He was really gone - one of the greatest kings Stormwind had ever seen. And not only that, but he had died for the Alliance.  For all of them.

For her.

Her vision wavered unexpectedly, and it took a moment to realize that she was crying.  A quiet gasp escaped her chest, and her shoulders shook, trembling like a leaf in the wind and pounding rain of a hurricane, and the tears fell down her face.  At first, it was only a single tear, tracing a line down her cheek, but it was followed by more and more, a waterfall of emotion and grief.  She grieved for herself.  She grieved for Varian.  But most of all… most of all, she grieved for Stormwind. They’d lost something they’d never be able to replace.  Anduin would have a hard time living up to the name Wrynn.

It was at that moment, tears on her face and her hands over her mouth, that she knew.  She knew her calling.

She had always known that she wanted to help people.  She had volunteered for the assault on the Broken Shore, and nothing had prepared her for the horrors she’d seen there.  She’d been part of it, but she hadn't known.  Not in her heart.  Not where it mattered.

“For the Alliance,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut tight.  “For the Alliance.”


 

The sea air smelled not like salt and brine, but sulfur and decay.

It was all Mardynn could do not to choke.  She couldn't breathe.  She couldn't breathe she couldn't breathe how in the Light’s name supposed to fight or heal this was wrong this was wrong wrong wrong and she couldn't breathe and they were all going to die every single one of them on this ship and all the other ships and and

She took a shuddering breath, slapping herself across the face.  It didn't matter what the air smelled like.  There was oxygen, and that was enough.  Her cheek burned, and she focused on the pain, using it to center herself.  

The air felt wrong.  That's the only way she could describe it.  It wasn't just the way it smelled, though.  It was the way it felt unnatural on her skin, too thick, like she was submerged in water.  It was the way it was too hot, even now with the sky thickly overcast.  It was the way she could almost taste the unnatural magic suffusing everything, bleeding over from the rent into the Twisting Nether.  

Ehldrenor looked up at the sky beside her, his ancient face worried.  “Reality is thin, here,” he murmured, gazing out at the unnerving plume of green light shooting into the sky.  The clouds swirled around the beam as if forming a tornado - a common enough occurrence in Westfall, where she’d been as a small child - but it never quite came together.  He rubbed the patch of hair on his chin, one of the tentacles there twitching slightly.  Mardynn had only known him a few days, but even that was long enough to notice a nervous tic.  “The portal must be larger than we knew.”

“Does it matter?” asked a growling, oddly modulated voice.  Mardynn glanced over at her other bunkmate, Islorus, who was covered in dark, fitted plate, carrying an enormous black sword in one hand.  Both the armor and the weapon were covered in glowing blue runes, from a language Mardynn didn't recognize.  “The island is going to be swarming with demons either way.”

Her stomach swirled unpleasantly, and she pressed a hand to her stomach, struggling to take another deep breath.  She gripped her staff, a simple length of white painted wood about as tall as she was, a large blue sapphire she’d picked herself embedded at the head, hard enough to leave marks on her fingers.  The feel of the familiar grain soothed her a little.  She’d had the staff a long time.  

Ehldrenor, sending her discomfort, placed a heavy, gauntleted blue hand on her shoulder.  “It will be okay.  It is frightening, but it is survivable.  You will make it through.”

“If you fight,” Islorus grunted.  “You have to be willing to take life by the claws and hold onto it.  Hope gets you nowhere.”

That shut them all up for a few moments.  The boat rocked placidly from side to side, the wind whispering on the sails.  They had about an hour until landfall.  An hour to prepare for the horror of war.  The island loomed ahead like a gargantuan beast of stone, watching them with eyes of green.  Waiting to devour them whole.

“This is.  Stupid.  But… can I ask you both a favor?” She tugged at her sleeve with her free hand, a blush touching her too-pale cheeks.  She was wearing a silver and blue robe that was a great deal more ornate than she felt she deserved, though she appreciated that it was enchanted well enough to block a sword blow.  Would it be enough to shield her for a demon’s jaws?  Or their fel magic?

Islorus was silent, but Ehldrenor nodded.  “I will do what I can.”

“Can you…” She sighed.  “Can you both stay with me?  I'll follow you wherever you go, but I don't want to be alone.”

“Babysitting duty?” Islorus snorted and looked away, and for a moment Mardynn thought he was going to really laugh in her face.

Ehldrenor gave him a look, then nodded at her. “My shield is yours, child.  My shield is yours.”

Islorus rolled his eyes.  “I suppose there’s worse things than being followed by your own personal healer.  Fine, kid.”

Mardynn smiled quietly.  Calling them friends might be pushing it, but… allies.  People to protect, and who would watch her back.

She wasn't ready.  Not by a long shot.

But maybe she’d get through this in one piece.


 

After the ceremony, Mardynn didn't know what to do with herself.  What could she do?  She'd cried herself out long before it had all been said and done, before all the leaders had had the chance to say their peace - Anduin's in particular had set her off harder than ever.  The crowd had stood resolute in silence for nearly ten minutes after the speeches were over and the doves released, each arm raised in one final salute, before finally beginning to disperse.

Mardynn had been one of the first to leave.

She walked the streets of the city, her staff slung across her back on a leather strap, it's weight more than a little comforting.  She had nowhere to go, nowhere to be.  There were wounded to be tended to at the Cathedral, but she didn't think she could pray in the state she was in.

That wasn't like her, she thought ruefully as she kicked a pebbled down the cobbled walk.  Normally, she’d be able to kneel down and say the words and mean them no matter how she felt.  No matter what she was dealing with.  But today… She’d closed her eyes, and she saw nothing but gruesome images of death.  Blood and violence.  Silence brought only the sounds of men screaming in agony.

She shuddered, pushing those thoughts away as best as she could.  The edge of the walkway was close, and if she squinted, she could see her reflection in the still waters of the canal that ran through the city.  Nothing much to look at.  Too short, too thin.  Her hair was too orange, her eyes too brown.  Not enough muscle to look intimidating.

Seeing the streets of Stormwind so empty was unnerving.  She passed someone every now and then, but they looked much the same way she imagined she looked herself - ghosts, drifting through a haunted city.  The fact that the sun was shining down on them, not passing through them, didn't make them feel any more corporeal.  

How long did she walk?  She wasn't sure.  The whole city seemed so unfamiliar.  She saw the sights, she recognized them, but they felt like something alien.  As though the fundamental wrongness of the Burning Legion had followed her back to civilization.

She noted vaguely that she'd made her way to Old Town - the only district that had escaped burning at the hands of the first horde, before Mardynn had ever been born.  The orcs were still erstwhile enemies and uneasy allies, but Mardynn had heard the stories.  Ehldrenor had spoken in vague terms about the orc’s genocide of the Draenei, but he hadn't needed to go into the horrid details to get the picture.  

Now that she was here, she had an idea where she was going - one of her favorite places in the city.  The Pig and Whistle Tavern, one of the oldest establishments in the entire city.  Mardynn wasn't a carouser or even much of a social animal, but there was something about the atmosphere - the warmth, the lighting, the gentle buzz of voices all around you - that was one of the best places to sit and have a meal.  It helped that the food was good, too.  The other races often mocked humanity for their refusal to properly use spices, but that didn't hold here - they had a spicy chicken recipe that burned your tongue and left you desperate for more.

Or at least, that's how she felt.  They'd threatened to take that dish off the menu more than once.  The order provided plenty of food, but it tended to be bland and unfulfilling.  They claimed it had to do with avoiding "arrogance" and "ostentatiousness," but Mardynn didn't really see how those had anything to do with what food you ate.

She paused outside the front door, inhaling the smells wafting from the tavern.  Baking bread and cooking meat and the faint undertone of sweaty bodies... It smelled good.  It smelled honest.  She could use a meal like that.

The door slid open without a creak, and a man dressed in ragged, homespun fashion stumbled out, a half empty mug of ale clutched in one shaking hand.  "Coming... They're coming..."

Mardynn took an uneasy step back.  Drunkards, on today of all days?   It was disgraceful, and a little bit insulting.  Didn't they know how to properly grieve?

"Just..."  He burped, sending a cloud of ale into Mardynn's nose.  "Just the beginning..."  He wavered, then took a stumbling step down the stone stairs.  His foot caught, and he tumbled, arms pinwheeling.  The mug flew, the spilled ale cutting through the air like a splash of blood.  

Mardynn yelled something incoherent and rushed forward, catching the poor bum on the way down.  He was much heavier than she was, and she nearly went down in a heap under him.  "Gah!  Light!" She grunted, struggling to hold him up.

The man moaned pitifully, and dragged his feet beneath him again.  He looked around, disoriented - Mardynn saw his eyes for the first time, that they were bloodshot and runny.

"Sir?  Are you okay?"  He smelled foul, but this was what she did.  Helped people.

His red eyes widened suddenly, his hands snapping out to grip Mardynn's shoulders like a pair of vices.  He leaned in, almost close enough that they could have kissed, and she could see blood on his teeth - his lip was bleeding where he'd chewed it down.  " Run."

Mardynn tried to pull away, but his grip was so strong.  "Sir?  Sir, I don't..."

"Run away!" He shouted, and spittle rained down on her face.  "They're coming!  The demons!"

the great beast loomed overhead, stinking of sulfur, massive sword gripped in both hands and raised high as it prepared to strike, leathery wings spreading out to each side like great black sails-

" We can't fight them!  Nobody can!"  He shook her a little.  "They're here, and th-this is their world now..." Tears began to run down his pockmarked face.  "Maybe i-if you run far enough, you'll be safe." His voice suddenly became very small, and he broke down weeping.  "M-my Annie... She..."  He sobbed brokenly, and released Mardynn's hands, his arms going limp.  "It doesn't matter.  We're all just... Just fuel for the fire."

He staggered off, swaying from one side to the next.  His cracking voice began to sing a humming funeral dirge, slightly off key, but Mardynn knew the words.   A Hero's Reward.

She stood there, frozen, for a long time.

Memories came rushing back.

 


 

The great beast loomed overhead, stinking of sulfur, massive sword gripped in both hands and raised high as it prepared to strike, leathery wings spreading out to each side like great black sails in the storm.   Doomguard, she thought crazily as the thing prepared to split her head with it's flaming sword.   I'm going to be killed by a Doomguard.

A great wolfish roar rang from just behind her, and a form in black armor darted past her as quick as a blink.  Islorus.  He raised the sword to parry, and the heavy clang rang throughout the din of combat.  "Girl, now!"

Mardynn blinked, pushing through the all-consuming terror, and forced her heavy, aching limbs to move.  She gripped her staff with both hands and murmured a prayer, feeling the Light in that special place behind her eyes, and touched it to his back.  Light flared brightly from the sapphire head, and golden light engulfed Islorus.  

With sudden strength, he heaved, throwing the doomguard's sword back, buying enough time to sweep out with a heavy armored leg.  The doomguard's poise crumbled, and he fell to his knee with a crack and a roar as something snapped.  Islorus struck, opening the demon from groin to throat, and again, severing the monster's ugly head.

Mardynn started to shout an encouragement, a cheer, something to keep her own confidence strong, but something caught her eye, and the exclamation died in her throat.  To her left, one of the lines was beginning to fail.  A gnome's head was torn from his shoulders by a Doomguard's bare hands, while nearby, a felhound ravaged a screaming night elf woman, blood splattering everywhere.  Suddenly, everywhere she looked, all she could see were the dead and dying - to her right, she laid eyes on a corpse that looked like it had been picked up and dropped by something from an impossible height.  It was all she could do to keep herself from bursting into screams.  This wasn't what she'd feared.

It was worse.

Just before the demons broke through, a shining beacon of light - of Light - had rushed into the breach, hefting a shining shield and a blazing sword too big for anyone less than a Draenei to wield with one hand.  Ehldrenor cut left and right with a roar of hatred, impaling the felhound before engaging the Doomguard.  He took a blow that would have shattered bones on his shield, and the Light suffusing his sword flared as he struck with it.  The Doomguard died screaming.

Keep moving, Mary.  Keep moving.  If she could keep moving, keep focusing on one thing at a time, she could do this.  She could block out the horror and keep her attention on what needed to be done.  The night elf needed her.

She ran forward, kneeling behind Ehldrenor's bulwark, laying a hand on the poor woman's forehead.  Her throat was torn open, her breastplate opened, and something that looked suspiciously like a set of broken ribs poked out.  This woman had only seconds to live.  Mardynn closed her eyes, trusting the Draenei paladin to keep her safe as she worked, and began the chant.  "Light, hear the plea of this humble woman," she murmured, running through the words.  The chant was not magical, but a kind of catechism, something to focus the mind and bring the heart in touch with the Light.  The woman was done fighting, no matter what, but Mardynn could at least make sure she would live to fight another day.

She finished the chant just as the night elf shuddered and the golden light in her eyes flickered, but thank the Light, it was enough.  The wound on her throat closed completely, leaving a horrible scar.  She would be lucky if her voice was unaffected.  Her ribs cracked as they came back together, bones knitting, new flesh crawling over the rent area.

The night elf gasped once, air filling her lungs once more, and her eyes rolled back into her head.  Unconscious.

Mardynn understood that.  Being healed took a lot out of you.  Part of the energy came from the infinite grace of the Light, but part of the power of any blessing came from the recipient.  She hooked her arms under the unconscious woman’s armpits and started to drag her back, out of danger.  No matter what else happened, she could do this.  She could save lives.


 

All she could do was remember.

The pain, the fear…

The stench of intestines and worse..

When she finally blinked and managed to look around, the poor drunk man was gone, and she was standing on an empty street.  Near her foot, a grate gurgled. Water in the sewer system below.  Not the growl of an angry demon.

She was in Stormwind.  If she was safe anywhere, she was safe here.

Then why did her clothes still smell like blood?

She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself, as if she could hold her emotions inside by main force.  Long breaths.  In.  Out.

Suddenly, she wasn't hungry anymore.

With a heavy heart, she climbed the stone steps up to the door and pushed it open.  It was heavier than it looked, and when she entered, her staff bumped the frame loudly.  The few patrons inside looked up, briefly, then went back to their drinks.

The lighting was warm and homey, with wide windows lining one wall, and oil lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  A crackling fire roared merrily in the hearth, and one of the serving girls was tending it with an iron poker.  Tables were arranged in an orderly pattern, usually full to the brim - but not today.  The counter was long and clean, and the bartender scrubbed at it idly with a wet rag.  A set of stairs led upstairs to bedrooms, and a hallway behind the bar let out in the kitchens.  Blue runes places strategically around the room pumped cool air into the place - magic cooling was expensive as it got, but the Pig and Whistle was practically a landmark.  Several rugs strewn across the floor and murals on the walls added color.

The patrons of the tavern all seemed as ghostly as the people she'd passed on the street.  They all seemed to have had one drink too many, and most of them were staring morosely into their mugs.  One man was idly drawing circles on the bar with a dirty finger.  Even the bartender looked down in the dumps, and he was as cheerful a man as Mardynn had ever had the pleasure to know.  Altogether, the atmosphere was about as sad as she expected.

Except for one.  He sat at the far end of the bar, black furred back hunched over a huge plate of cooked meat.  As Mardynn watched, he lifted a hunt to his snout and ripped off a distressingly large hunk, sharp canine teeth tearing through it like a hot knife through butter.  She could hear him all the way from here.  Mardynn could hardly tell one transformed worgen from the next, but that shade of fur and those glowing, frosty blue eyes meant it could only be one person.

Islorus.

Cautiously, as a prey animal approaches a watering hole where predators have been known to lurk, she approached him.  Yes, now that she was closer, there was no mistaking that musty smell and the rough texture of his fur.  If he was here, eating…

A swell of anger rushed through her, and she punched the undead wolfman in the shoulder.  “You didn't go to the funeral!”

Islorus' head whipped up to look at her, snarling, and for a moment, Mardynn was absolutely positive that he was about to rip her throat out with his teeth.

She froze.

They stayed like that for a long moment.

The bartender broke the silence.  “Er, Mardynn?  Is there a problem?”

Islorus narrowed his eyes.

“Nope,” she squeaked.  “No problem.”

The bartender looked unconvinced.  “Right.  Well, just let me know if you need anything.”

Her eyes flicked over to the man.  He was tall, with his hair bound back in a ponytail to keep it out of the way.  He was clean shaven, but there was a small nick on his chin.  “Could I get the usual?” She tried to smile.  “Thanks, Jim.”

The bartender rolled his eyes.  “At least somebody eats that garbage.” He turned to Islorus, clearly determined to defuse the situation.  He liked to say that it had been ‘years’ since blood had been shed in his tavern, and he liked to keep it that way.  “Sir, how is your meal?  Can I get you anything?  Another ale, perhaps?”

Islorus still didn't look away.  “It's acceptable.” Finally, he glanced back to the bartender. “Another ale, yes.  And one for my friend , here.”

Mardynn blanched and raised her hands as if warding something off.  “Oh, no, that's okay.  You don't need to do that.  I have money, and-”

Light… Was that a snarl or a smile? “It's on me.”

Mardynn went white and took a seat next to Islorus.  It was probably better not to fight it.  She'd have had a single mug of ale anyway.

Maybe punching the scary dead man with the big teeth hadn't been such a good idea.

Jim bustled off to deliver her order to the cook.  Islorus ripped off another strip of unidentifiable meat and swallowed without chewing.  “Who taught you to hit, girl?”

Mardynn blinked.  “What?”

Islorus rolled his eyes.  “Who taught you to hit?   You swing like a gnome.”

Mardynn was pretty sure that comment was insensitive, but she let it slide this time.  See? Self restraint.  “Nobody taught me.  They don't teach you things like that at the Abbey.”

“Bloody useless, then.” Rip. Tear. Swallow.  The bartender returned with their drinks and a bow, then faded off into the distance.  “I'll need to teach you to throw a punch if you're going to help me.”

Mardynn blinked. “Help you?  First of all, I'm mad at you! Second of all, aren't you more of the lone wolf type?”

Islorus barked out a laugh.  “Be mad all you want.  He wasn't my king, and I didn't ask him to die for me.  That's what war is, girl.  Loss.  Don't get close to anyone.  How many people died out there?  How many grains of sand were there on that beach?  What does it matter?”

Mardynn shook her head.  “That's a horrible way to look at that.  Those people had lives.  Families.”

“Did they?  Did you ask them?” He waved a hand.  “Most soldiers have nothing.  That's why they become soldiers.  Not for a cause.  For food in their bellies.  Revenge, for the good ones.”

“Life always has value.”

“Then what does that make me?” He bit off another piece of meat.  “Look, I'm not here to debate philosophy.  I’m here because you're useful to me.”

Useful?  Mardynn’s brow furrowed.  “Then how did you know I'd be here?”

“Didn't.  Coincidence.  But after I heard what I heard, I was thinking about finding you.  You and that goody two shoes paladin.  I need a few extra sets of eyes, and I'm fairly sure you two weren't involved.  Timing.”

Mardynn shook her head.  “You're going to have to do a better job explaining that one.”

“You saw that drunk guy go stumbling out of here right before you came in?”

She nodded uncertainly.  “Yeah.  He was… ranting.  Raving.  He told me to run far away.”

“Name’s Aloric.” Islorus tapped the counter with one sharp claw.  “Sort of my fault.  He was a lot more coherent before I fed him all that alcohol.”

Mardynn threw up her hands.  “Why?”

“He was sick with grief.  I thought getting him bloody knockdown drunk would help him.”

“When has that ever helped anyone?!”

Islorus grunted.  “Not the point.  See, he had a story.  He recognized me for what I was - a mercenary - and approached me for my help.  Now listen carefully.”

Mardynn didn't know what to say, so she stayed quiet.  Her food arrived, steaming and smelling divine, and she forced herself to dig in.  Thank the Light for the ale.

“He told me all about his daughter.  Normal as they come.  Lived alone, had a dog, no boyfriend, blah blah blah.  He's staying with her - he's from Goldshire, she lived here in Old Town - and he hears a bump in the night.  Whatever, right?  Everyone’s bloody house creaks now and then.  But this codger, he goes to investigate.  Follows the creaks.  Opens his daughter’s bedroom, and it's a horrorshow.” He gestures grandly, almost looking as though he were enjoying this. “There’s blood everywhere, but it's not just splattered around the room.  Oh, no.  It's been drawn out of her, and used to paint ritual signs and runes in demonic all over the floor and the walls.  The whole room stinks of blood and sulfur and demon, and she's lying there, on her bed, her mouth open in a scream, her eyes plucked out, her body withered and desiccated like one of those troll mummies in-”

Mardynn went white and put down her fork.  “Couldn't this have waited until after I ate?”

But Islorus ignored here.  “But this guy, he's not magically inclined at all.  He can't read any of the words or identify any of the circles.  She's been ritually killed and used for something, but he doesn't know what.  So naturally, he goes for the constable.  Screaming the whole time, I imagine.  He pulls him out of bed and drags him to the room and… nothing.  The room is clean.  Empty.  Not even a hint of blood in the air.  Her body is gone.  Gets marked down as a runaway.  But this guy, he knows what he saw.  How could he not? So he starts digging.  Investigating, himself.  And you know what he turns up?  The result of all his bloody searching?”

Mardynn's eyes were wide.  “What?”

Islorus took a long draught of ale.  How did he do that without human lips?  “His daughter.  Annie.  She wasn't the first.  He started talking to family members of the disappeared, and he found five more murders exactly like hers.  The moment they turn their backs on the bodies… They're gone.  Law enforcement doesn't believe a thing.  Thinks it's just hysteria at losing a relative.  But this guy knows what it means.”

“What does it mean?” Mardynn whispered.

“The Burning Legion.  They're here in the city.”

Mardynn looked down at her food.  It was delicious, but the last vestiges of her appetite were gone.  She pushed it away.  That lovely smell had turned cloying.  “What…” She cleared her throat.  “What does this have to do with me?”

“Aloric is rich.  He’s hired me to investigate. He doesn't trust anyone from the city.  He's paranoid.  But I was out of the city during the murders.  I have an alibi.”  He looked over at Mardynn.  “And you're just a stupid kid, but you've got a good head on your shoulders.  My expertise is killing.  I need a partner.  Someone with different perspective.  And I want Ehldrenor because he's been dealing with the Legion for hundreds of years.”

“Islorus… I don't know.  I'm not a detective.  Aren't there… I don't know, private eyes you could ask?”

Islorus shook his head.  “I want you two.  I'll split the profits forty-thirty-thirty.  Don't you want to save the city?”

Mardynn was silent. Wasn't this what she was looking for?  A way to help the Alliance?  Investigating an incursion by the Legion was certainly that.

But… Light, she never wanted to see another demon in her life.

She took a deep breath, chugged down every last bit of liquid in her mug, and nodded.

“Alright.  I'm in.”

Chapter Text

 

The Undercity smelled like death.  Its citizens were near-universally, perpetually trapped in some state of decay or another, and the scent of their halted decomposition filled the drafty, stone tunnels.  Rivers of green sludge, dotted with pale and sickly fish, flowed in rings around the circular maze of a city, bubbles popping occasionally and releasing clouds of noxious mist into the air.  Even much of the food was left out and rotting - most of the Forsaken had lost their sense of taste along with their first lives, and they were all, as a rule, immune to disease.

The Undercity smelled like home.

A light breeze ruffled Salissi’s long, straight greenish hair, and she grunted in vague annoyance.  The breezes in the wide, empty hallways reminded her of the surface, a place she had no intention of returning to on her own.  If the Dark Lady commanded, she'd go to the ends of the earth, but she was happy here .  This was where she’d made her home .  She wasn't ostracized here.  Far from it.  She was welcomed here.

Cleanliness wasn't a universal in this city of the dead, but Salissi’s black clothing was immaculate and well-kept.  Not a speck of dust to be seen, even after she'd visited one of the deepest, most abandoned catacombs of the city.  Her trousers reached her ankles, where they met shiny black shoes, and a white undershirt peeked out from under her smooth black top.  Her gnarled hands were sheathed in expensive black leather gloves, and a dagger hung at her waist in an inconspicuous leather sheath.

If Salissi had still had the ability to whistle, she would have been.  Her mood was just that good.  She took a turn without looking ahead and sauntered into one of the trade quarters. The tunnel opened up wide as she turned, though the air didn't grow any less stale.  Perpendicular to the tunnel ran the river of unidentifiable sludge, and along the wall was a series of wooden storefronts.  Painted signs proclaimed their goods, from HIGH QUALITY ALCHEMICAL INGREDIENTS to ARMORER SHIELDS AND HELMETS.  She idled in front of one store advertising fresh leather, shrugged to herself, and entered.

The proprietor smiled at her with a bow.  His fingers were worked to the bone - literally, and his hair was a scraggly black patch that looked more like a mohawk than anything otherwise recognizable.  “Ah!” he said in a gravelly but friendly voice.  “What can I get for you, my dear?” He set down a piece of leather he was working on to give her his full attention.  The store was covered in various bits of clothing and strips of hide; in this place, you could buy pre-made or custom order something to fit.  Ever since her old go-to had gone out of business, she'd been looking for a replacement.

Salissi leaned on the counter, cheerfully smiling - a hard task to master with just her upper lip.  “Just browsing,” she said with a wink of one of her glowing golden eyes.  “Though, now that you mention it, I could use a repair on one of my gloves.” She wriggled her left hand out of her glove, and slapped it down onto the hard surface.  “There's a tear on the left thumb.”

“This is nice work,” he said, fingering the supple material with a raised eyebrow.  “Marlow’s?”

She shook her head.  “Alphonse’s, before he disappeared.”

The leatherworker picked up the glove and nodded, lifting a small magnifying device to his eye to examine it.  “Looks like one of the seams has come undone.  Shouldn't be too much trouble to fix.  Come back in a few hours?”

Salissi raised a hand in assent.  The proprietor named a price and she paid it, sliding a few rough silver coins across the counter.  They made polite chit-chat for a few minutes, before she finally smiled and bid him good afternoon.

The cool air of the Undercity felt strange, but oddly pleasant, on the exposed whitish skin of her exposed fingers.  A few snatches of song drifted through her head, unbidden.  She couldn’t remember the lyrics, but the notes she could recall were cheerful.  Something from her old life, perhaps.  It wasn’t that she had trouble remembering herself as human, per se - she just rarely thought about those times anymore.  It was almost as though they had happened to someone else.  Someone who had been a lot more unhappy.

She visited a few more stores - not buying anything, but simply enjoying going from place to place, looking at things that were shiny and new and pleasant.  Her coin-pouch burned a hole in her pocket, but apart from clothes - her weakness - and her work gear, she liked living small.  Even though her apartment was in a prime location, the center ring of the city and near an elevator, it was small, furnished mainly with things she needed.  And as a living corpse, she didn’t need much.

Finally, she came to the last place on the row.  The boards on the storefront were in good condition, but the paint was peeling a little.  ORGRIMMAR POTIONS, the sign read, above a roughly painted orcish insignia, but Salissi doubted the little store was officially affiliated with the city.  She peered through a tiny window on the door, into the establishment.  It was empty save for a large orc bustling away at something with his back to her.  What she could see of the place was clean, and bottles of all different shapes and sizes rested on just about every visible surface.  On the door was a smaller placard reading WE’RE OPEN, and she touched it gently, as if reading it with her fingers, and quietly flipped it over.  CLOSED.  She left it like that, then pushed the door open.

A bell jingled overhead, and she couldn’t help but glance upward.  “One moment!” The orc called loudly, and a moment later, there was a puff of bluish steam rising over his head.  He reached into a bowl beside him, filled with tiny corks, and plugged the bottle he was looming over.  He turned, wiping his brow with a dirty-looking rag, and smiled through his tusks.  

Salissi smiled back, leaning back against the door with her hands clasped in front of her.  “Good afternoon!” She said cheerfully, her voice, as always, slightly rough.  “I’m an alchemist myself, and I’m looking for a partner.  You don’t have to agree to work with me without proof, of course, but I heard you were the best, and I’d like to take a look around.”

The Orc looked flabbergasted.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

She waved a hand and clicked her iron lower jaw on her remaining natural teeth.  “Doesn’t matter, friend.  I’m just checking the quality of your products.”

The Orc - a card on his desk read KURDOK - seemed to grow a little suspicious.  “You can look, but I don’t offer free samples.  Quality guaranteed.”  There were junkies who would do anything for a bit of mana.  Even rob a potions store.

Salissi stepped forward to examine a wall of bottles.  “Not to worry.  I have a nose for these things, you understand.  I’ll just be a few minutes.”  She picked out a vial that looked promising, filled with a viscous yellow liquid, and sniffed. Earthroot base?  And… Silverleaf?  Hardly what she was looking for.  She recapped the vial and pulled down another, preparing to smell it, too.  

This went on for several minutes.  Kurdok looked bored at first, then impatient, then confused.  He kept glancing out at the door, as if wondering why he hadn’t had any other customers.  Salissi knew, after all, that the business he did was more brisk than this.

Still, she methodically pulled down bottle after bottle, checking each for its contents.  

Finally, finally, Kurdok growled.  “What’s your game?  We both know you’re not here for what you say you are.”

Salissi frowned innocently.  “Game?  There’s no game.”  She made a show of hesitation.  “Although… I’ve heard things.  Heard rumors.”  She glanced back at the door - nobody was on their way in.  “You’re the orc to talk to if you need something a little…. Extra.”  She tapped the dagger on her hip for emphasis, then tossed him a pair of shining gold coins.  “For your troubles.”

The Orc caught the coins, and his eyes widened.  She could see the greed in his piggy little eyes.  She was right.  She’d been right.  He gave her a furtive look, then nodded.  “What do you need?” He whispered.

She slipped over to the counter, her own eyes unblinking.  “Crippling,” she said.  “I want time with the bastard.”  Her fingers twitched restlessly, as if remembering something terrible.

He nodded.  “Wait here.”  He ducked behind the counter and pulled a key out of his pocket, using it to unlock a small trapdoor in the floor.  He pulled out a small, round bottle, filled with a clear, sludgy oil.  He set it down on the counter.  “Now,” he whispered.  “Remember.  This can’t be traced back to me, and it’s not cheap.”

Salissi snatched it up and tugged off the cap off, bringing it to her nose.  The smell was acrid and unpleasant, with a hint of nightshade.

Exactly what she was looking for.

The Orc frowned, reaching for her.  “Hey, you haven’t paid for tha-”

She smashed the bottle onto his face.  Oil splattered all over him, into his mouth and eyes and on her clothes, but she’d used the hand that was still gloved.

Kurdok grunted, stumbling back, and for a second, he seemed to fail to understand what had happened.  His forehead was bleeding slightly, around a chunk of glass that had lodged in his skin.  He blinked once, twice, and roared, throwing himself over the counter at her.  Bottles shattered and flew, and Salissi noted an inkwell hit the ground and break.  He hit her like a charging bull, and she had time to note that she should really stop underestimating how fast orcs could go from zero to bloodlust before she hit the ground, hard.  If she’d had breath, it would have been knocked out of her.

Kurdok grabbed her neck and started to squeeze, using every bit of his orcish strength to strangle the life out of her.  Salissi just stared up at him hatefully.  Five… Six… Seven…

His hands shook, and his grip weakened.

There it was.  Just a few more seconds, and she’d be able to…

...Grab him by the wrists, twist, and flip him onto his back like a sack of potatoes.  He lay there, unmoving, staring up at her.  His mouth trembled, but the paralysis was setting in - and he’d gotten a huge dose.  He wouldn’t be able to move a muscle, but to breathe.

Salissi stood, brushing dust off her front, and smiled down at Kurdok.  Her windpipe was crushed, her throat deformed, but her spine untouched.  That was all that really mattered.  She’d have to pay to get it fixed up, though.  She took a few steps to stand over him.  “You can’t strangle a Forsaken, you absolute idiot .”  She kicked him for good measure.

He grunted.  Something - probably a rib, broke.

Salissi sighed.  “So not only are you guilty of possessing unlawful poisons, you’re guilty of selling them without a license.”  She sauntered over behind the counter, and rummaged around until she found a list of clients.  Illegal clients.  He wasn't even using a simple cipher.  Light.   Orcs.  “And from the looks of this, you’ve been selling to known enemies of the Dark Lady.”  She tapped a name.  “I recognize this one.  Aldrich Trell.  He was an Alliance assassin, wasn’t he?”  

His eyes shot wide.

She sighed again, letting the paper fall to the glassy, wet floor, and stepped back over to him.  “ And.   That wasn’t enough for you, was it?”. She looked down at him the way you’d look down at a particularly stupid child.  “You assaulted one of the Lady’s Deathstalkers.  Do you know what the penalty for that it?”

He quivered his head from left to right.  

“Neither do I.  I’m sure I’ll remember in a minute.”  She laughed.  “Hey.  You wanna know something funny?”  She tapped her metal jaw replacement with one finger.  “You’re wondering how I got this.”

Her captive audience was silent.

“See, I used to be human.  Can you believe it?  Little old me.  And I was a housewife!  A housewife.”  She seemed to find this hilarious.  “And I lived in Lordaeron, and I was happy.  But do you know what happened then?”  She squinted.   “There was this serial killer.  The Red Hand.  He met me at a tavern and spike my drink with crippling poison.”  She grinned at him.  “Yes. That very same poison that’s running through your veins.  He took me to my home, and made me watch the whole time as he cut up my family, leaving me for last.  He leaned over me…”  She knelt down by his head and drew her dagger, drawing its tip gently over his cheek.  

He struggled in vain.

Salissi was silent for a minute.  Then she smiled again, tapping his chin with the blade.  “He grabbed me by the jaw..”  She did the same to him.  Orcs could bite through just about anything living, but she wasn’t worried now.  “And twisted , and pulled .”  She gave his jaw a small tug, just to demonstrate.

He tried to pull away, but he was too weak to move even a little.

Salissi took a long pause to savor the moment.  “And then, before I could finish bleeding out…”

Her dagger whipped out and stabbed him deep in the eye.  His whole body convulsed, but it was muted.  The poison was still doing its work.

She looked him straight in the eye until he finished dying, then stood.  Inspected herself.  No blood on her, except for a tiny bit smeared on her exposed hand.  That was good.

She left the store, where the sign still read CLOSED, and walked down to the store to pick up her glove.


 

The door of her apartment slammed shut behind her, and Salissi cracked a wide yawn, metal lower teeth clicking against her natural upper mandibles.  Home sweet home.  Her place was small - not that there were many mansions in the Undercity - but she’d made it something special.  It was just two rooms.  

The first, the one she’d just stepped into, was a living area - a long wooden couch, with cushions that were not even a little moth-eaten, took up one wall, and a small table lay out in front of it.  On the ceiling was a dim chandelier.  It wasn't expensive, but she had spent nearly six months pay on an enchantment that would keep it lit at all times.The far wall was taken up by bookshelves - mostly fiction, though there was a good sized section on the anatomy of various races and another on potion brewing.  She wasn't the best amateur alchemist in the city, but she was far from the worst.  

She stepped over to the bookshelf and ran her fingers over the spines.   Blood and Bone.   That was a good one.  One of the most famous romance novels written by one of the Forsaken, about the forbidden love affair between a dead man and his long-lost human wife.  But she wasn't in a romantic mood, was she?   The Dark Lady’s Arrow.  Another interesting choice, though not for the reasons the author had intended.  He had demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of what it was the Lady’s Dark Rangers actually did.  

Hmm… Maybe it was time to make a run to pick up some new books.

Ah!  The shelf was packed tight, but she managed to jimmy out the tome she’d been looking for.   Winter’s End.  Not fiction, this one, but an account of the fall of the Lich King.  Something she’d, well, missed.  She’d bought it years ago, and it had been right here gathering dust.  She’d missed quite a few major events while she’d been dead, and even more before she’d regained her mind after her resurrection.

Her mind.  She paused, halfway back to the couch with the book.  Her mind still felt so fragile, even after all these years.  She was happy now.  Happier than she had ever been as a human.  This beautiful city was her home.  She knew it's winding corridors and dusty catacombs like she knew the back of her bony hand.

But every time she thought of that time… thought of what she had been, her grasp on reality seemed but a fingernail’s breadth from slipping back into darkness and madness.  She rubbed at her throat, wishing it were fixed already so she could take a calming breath or two.  She loved herself.  She couldn't stand the thought of losing it.

She steadied herself, then turned and passed through the doorframe on the last wall, into the bedroom.  This room was unlit but for what trickled in from the living area.  That light was all she really needed - the glowing golden orbs that had replaced her rotting eyeballs were much more proficient at seeing in the dark.  The Undercity was lit as brightly as it was for the benefit of the rest of the Horde.

Her bed took up one corner of the smaller room, heavy white blankets strewn over the mattress.  Forsaken didn't require sleep to function, but they could if they wanted, and Salissi found it useful for calming her mind and recharging her tired limbs.  Besides, it was expensive and comfortable.  Lounging there with a book was exceedingly pleasant.  It was how she spent much of her free time, when she wasn't working or shopping or at a bar.  A large painting dominated the wall over the bed’s head, depicting an idyllic landscape of trees - the misty, dark forest of Tirisfal Glades.  In the distance was the crumbling city of Lordaeron, below which her beloved Undercity sprawled.  The painting was a first edition, done just a few years prior by an up-and-coming forsaken artist.  

People didn't think her people were ever artists.  They thought they were all death-obsessed murderers and freaks.  Some of the best artists in the world were undead.

The flood was covered in a lovely blue-green rug, woven from something rough and scratchy that felt good on her bare feet.  Sometimes, she liked to just take off her clothes and lie on her back on it, her strawy hair spreading out around her in a halo, staring up at the stony ceiling.  

Right now, though, there was nothing she wanted more than to hop into her bed with a book and lose herself in it.  There was no need to report a failure or a partial success, this time, so all she’d need to do was wait until the appointed time to let her superiors know that Kurdok was taken care of.  

Fate had other ideas in store, though.

A rough knocking came from the door.  Salissi slowed to a halt and regarded it suspiciously, then sighed and tossed her book down on the bed.  It'd be there once she’d dealt with her visitor.  It was an odd time for someone to visit, though.  People who knew her tended to visit earlier in the day.  That meant that this person was very ignorant, or very important.

She crossed over to the door, said a quiet prayer for ignorant, and opened it.

The Forsaken who stood there was tall and regal.  He had a runner’s build, lean but muscular, and he was missing all the flesh on his hands.  He wore shining, well-kept leather armor that smelled freshly oiled, and a deep purple hood hung over his gaunt face.  His arms were crossed over his chest in a deep salute.  She recognized him, even without the Deathguard’s outfit.  

His name was Tellis, and he was one of the Dark Lady’s most trusted runners.  She’d have thought he would be out somewhere in Hillsbrad, or Silverpine, maybe.  Even Orgrimmar, delivering the Lady’s word to the rest of the Horde, now that her power was absolute.  How often did she use him to run messages to her agents in the Undercity itself?

“Deathstalker Salissi?”  His voice was surprisingly clean, for all that she knew his throat had been badly damaged and never healed.  He had a tendency to speak quickly but clearly.

Salissi’s mind was blank.  She couldn’t think of a single reason this man would be here, at her door.

Her face slightly concerned, she returned the salute, though of course she didn’t hold it nearly as long as he did.  “Of course, Tellis.  What are you doing here?”

He cast his eyes downward, as befit his rank.  “The Dark Lady has great need of you.  She says you are to report to her private quarters at once.”  Tellis looked a little pale - apparently, he didn’t know what he was doing here either, and he’d worked through the implications.  He wasn’t stupid.

Salissi blanched a little herself.  “Her private chambers?  You’re sure?”

He nodded impatiently, but when he spoke he enunciated as if to a particularly stupid child.  “Yes.  I never forget a message.”

“Was there anything else? Anything she said?”  Salissi felt more than a little desperate.  Lost.

What was going on?

“That was every word.”

Her brow furrowed.  All she could think of was that the Dark Lady must have wanted to avoid even the slightest chance of her message being waylaid.  And how long had it been since she’d delivered a mission personally?  They weren’t friends - Sylvanas didn't have friends - and it wasn’t quite a mentorship, but they did have a relationship that was slightly more personal than professional.  Salissi was absolutely devoted, and in her debt.  The Banshee Queen knew it, and had a kind of vested fascination in watching her rise through the ranks.  But Sylvanas was so cold and distant and… Well, busy.  They hadn’t-

Tellis cleared his throat.  “Your response?”

Salissi glanced back into her apartment, a vague sense of unease washing over her, mostly to buy time.  She turned back, frowning, and nodded.  “You saw her, Tellis.  Should I be dressed for violence?”

He looked her up and down coolly, noting the dagger on her waist.  “Time is of the essence, I think.  Come dressed as you are.”


 

Sylvanas Windrunner was the most beautiful woman Salissi had ever seen, and she was dead.  She could only imagine what her beloved Dark Lady had looked at when she was alive.  Not that it made much difference.  Once you were dead, either you lost all faith in appearances, or you started to see the beauty in everything.

Salissi was the latter.

“How long has it been since you were raised, Salissi?” Sylvanas lounged back in a comfortable chair, one of the only furnishings she had in the private room she called her chambers. She didn't even have a bed.  The Banshee Queen was far too busy for anything so mundane and useless as sleep.  In her left hand was a goblet, inscribed with a skull - Salissi didn't know if it represented someone in particular, though it had strange long hair and cold eyes - though it wasn't wine she was drinking.  It smelled sour and pungent from where she stood at the far end of the room.

Salissi bowed deeply.  “Seven years, my Lady.  Though I didn't come into your service until you returned from Northrend.” She'd cleaned her hands and retrieved her glove, carefully wiping off and scrubbing away a few droplets that had made their way onto her chest.

Sylvanas nodded wistfully, her red eyes far away.  “I remember it well.  You were pathetic, as I recall.  Crying on the city’s doorstep.  I don't know how you made it so far from Deathknell without an escort.”

Rather than being insulted by this, Salissi grinned, as if remembering something nostalgic.  “I’d never touched a weapon in my life, and I thought I was a monster.  Thought we were all monsters.”

“So you became one,” Sylvanas said wryly.

“You saw my potential.” Salissi shrugged.  “You taught me to survive.  Gave me power.  Made me one of your right hands.  It's not about morality.  My life for you, Dark Lady.”

“I’ll need loyalty like that in the days to come.  Of all my Deathstalkers, you may not be the fastest or the most skilled,” she gestured with her goblet, and greenish liquid swirled, “but I have never regretted placing a mission in your hands.  Kurdok was a buffoon, you understand, but he had dangerous friends.  I needed someone I could trust.”

If Salissi had still had tear ducts, her eyes might have swum.  “Thank you, my Lady.  I only do as you command.”

A slight smile touched Sylvanas’ cold lips.  A rare sight, and one that made Salissi swell with pride.  “It's a new dawn, Salissi.  The Horde has a new warchief, and for the first time, it's one of us.  The Forsaken.  I had hoped this day would come, but I never expected it would come so soon.” She was silent for a moment, though she didn't seem to be done talking.  “I have plans within plans, Salissi.  New allies.  A Horde to command.  But there is a problem, and it's one I can't trust to just anybody.”

Salissi's chest swelled.  “Anything you command, my Queen!”

Sylvanas nodded.  “It may be nothing.  A slight miscalculation in the movement records.  But it could be the start of something I have no intention of waiting to deal with until after it's too late.  Three nights ago, a large shipment of material travelled from the Undercity and met up with a contingent from Brill.  They travelled to Sepulcher, where experiments were to be carried out in secret.  Hidden in the rest of the supplies, there were sixteen barrels.  Or there should have been.  When the supply caravan arrived, there were only fifteen.”

Salissi frowned.  “What's so important about these barrels?  Surely we can just replace them.”

“Replacement isn't the issue.” She drained her goblet, then set it aside, balanced on the arm of her chair.  “Those barrels contained vials of plague.”

Salissi’s golden eyes widened.  “Plague?  How much was in the barrel?”

“Fifty vials.  Each is enough to wipe out an entire city - and this is the New Plague that's missing, based on the strain commissioned by the traitor Dreadlord Varimatheras.  We have no immunity to it.”

Salissi stood in stunned silence.  “Who knew about the transfer?”

“Me.  A few of the apothecaries, both here and at Sepulcher.  Theoretically, none of the rest of the caravan. I’ll provide a list.  It could be any of them, but we could have a spy in our midst, Salissi.  Not only are the plague vials potent weapons as they are, but a group with enough intelligence could reverse engineer them.  They could create a true doomsday weapon, or they could create something to wipe us Forsaken from the face of Azeroth.  Either is unacceptable.”

Salissi nodded.  Fifty vials of plague… it was unthinkable.  It was insane.  The Forsaken had the plague, but they rarely used it.  If the Alliance got their hands on it, what would they do?  Or anti-undead terrorists, like the late Scarlet Crusade?

Or worse?

The Burning Legion had entered Azeroth.  She hadn’t been there, but she’d heard the stories, read the intelligence.  Vol’jin was dead, and Sylvanas had become the supreme leader of the Horde.  The Legion wanted to eradicate all life on the planet.

What if they had stolen it?

“Light…” She breathed.

Sylvanas sighed quietly.  “You see my dilemma.  I don't have many men to spare for this.  You can requisition whatever supplies or material you need, but you'll be on your own.  News of this theft cannot be allowed to escape.  Do you understand me?” Her voice turned hard, cold, threatening.

Salissi swallowed, the blood frozen in her veins still somehow finding a way to run cold.  “I understand, my Lady.”

“Good.  You will begin immediately.  All other missions are as of this moment on indefinite hold.  For you, nothing matters but the retrieval of the plague.”

Salissi’s mind began to race, considering theories, possibilities, scenarios.  There was so little information to go on.  She nodded, though, her jaw dead set and serious.  “You can trust in me.  I’ll find them.”

Sylvanas nodded, then gently waved her away.  “Good.  Now, go.”

Salissi bowed again, deep as she could. “ My life for you.”


 

Her leather armor was worn, well-loved, and reflected not a bit of light.  The darkened leather covered every inch of her body below the neck, a thick layer of protection against the enemies of the Forsaken.  Magical enchantments had been laid into the hide, silent runes on the inside of the material lending it a strength equal to the best steel.  Gloves on her hands.  Small pauldrons to ward off glancing blows.  Around her neck and chin, she’d wound a dark scarf that wouldn’t protect her from anything crushing but which should lend protection against anything cutting - like a knife to the throat.

Her belt was full.  On each side hung a black hilted dagger, long enough to be intimidating but too small to be even a short sword.  On her back, but still within reach, was holstered a small, wide-bore pistol.  A pouch held ammunition, another pouch contained various herbs, and a line of vials held a pair of healing potions and a pair of poisons.  

Salissi squeezed her hands into her glove, slapped the leather plate on her chest a couple times, and grinned.  For all this was, for all that she was - this was where she belonged.  This was her element.  

Spy.

Assassin.

Deathstalker.

The Banshee Queen’s right hand dagger, and the shadow at her back.

She stepped out into the open air of the Undercity, took a blessedly deep breath, and surveyed what she could see.  The dirty, bustling city of the dead.  Her beloved home.

It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

“First things first.  Where's that oaf of a paladin?”

Mardynn gave Islorus a look out of the corner of her eye.  “He saved your life, you know.”

“What?”

“The oaf.”

“He did?” Islorus grunted.  “I guess he did.  Whatever.  Doesn't matter.  Where is he?”

Mardynn shrugged.  The two of them were standing outside the Pig and Whistle, and clouds had drifted over the sun.  It gave the street a tired, mournful feel, the buildings casting their shadows over them.  By all appearances, someone had had a little too much to drink and thrown up by the stairs on the way out.  She was trying not to think too hard about that, because it didn't seem like it was bothering her companion at all.  A flock of birds flew overhead, and she had a longing to with them, to leave the city before something really bad came with the killings.

What was coming?  She didn't know.

“I should just tell you I don't know and save him from your company,” she started, “but I talked to him before the funeral.  He said he was going to the Cathedral, to contemplate.”

Rather than being insulted by the jab, Islorus’ eyes seemed to brighten.  “Oh, got a little spine, now, have we?”

Mardynn blushed slightly, but held her ground.  “I've always had a spine.  Not your fault you couldn't see it.” Frankly, she was terrified of the worgen.  He was foul tempered and nasty, if nothing else, but they'd made a deal in there.  They were partners, if only temporarily.  He wouldn't kill a partner.

Would he?

Her blush faded to something a bit more pale, and she felt a little sick. Light, what was she doing?  He was undead, she couldn't forget that.  No matter how long they worked together, he was still one of them, an Other, and the church taught them all to be very, very wary of those who had tasted death and returned.

Islorus was silent.  He seemed to be trying to read her - and if there was one thing she knew, it was that people could read her face like a book.   Light.  

“A-anyway.”  Mardynn shivered, though it was still well above warm in the city.  “Should we get going?  We might need to be fast if we want to catch him.”

Islorus watched her for a few moments more, then nodded.  “Let's move.”

He didn't wait for a response before he started walking.

Mardynn sputtered.  “Hey, come on!  Wait up!” She hustled to catch up, which wasn't so easy in her robe.  Running in that thing was certainly a skill to master.

He didn't turn when she reached his side, nor did he slow down.  Not once did he have to stop and ask for directions; not when they passed the gate of Old Town, not when they passed a troop of Stormwind guards in blue, not as they crossed a sturdy stone bridge over the canals.  The city’s paths could be winding and confusing to a newcomer.  Islorus clearly wasn't one.

“How long have you spent here?” Mardynn asked as they walked - or jogged to keep up, in her case.  “You seem to know your way around.”

“Lived here for a few years, between the Northrend expedition and when we found Pandaria.” He didn't even look at her as he spoke, but it didn't seem like he was using his concentration to navigate.

“I can't imagine you staying in one place that long.  Especially in the city.” Mardynn tried for a little laugh.

“You think I'd be a farmer?”

She shook her head.  “No, you're a mercenary.  How much work does one of those get in a city like this?”

“More than you’d think.  Got a job today, didn't we?”

They entered the Cathedral District, passing under a large wooden gate and through a tunnel of white brick.  All of Stormwind was built this way - in case of fire or disease or invasion, each district could be locked off and held separately.  A force trying to take the city would have to fight through not one heavy gate, but half a dozen, while all the while the walls rained down flaming oil and arrows and magic. Though, of course, that hadn't been needed since it had been rebuilt stronger after it burned in what was now known as the First War.  It was the center of the city, and the largest district, though there weren't as many winding streets and shopfronts.  It was built in a large ring of roads and buildings, all surrounding the gargantuan, beautiful Stormwind Cathedral.  

“I suppose…” She wasn't sure.  Something was off about it.  “I don't know much about you.”

“Keep it that way, kid.”

They passed a fountain, water raining down over a grinning marble child, and she had an absurd, childish urge to splash the dour worgen with it.  Did they smell like wet dog when they were wet?  Maybe, but it probably wasn't worth getting her face clawed off for it.

But oh, how she wanted to.

“You're a cliche, you know that?”  She’d lagged behind a little, and she hustled to catch up.

He grunted.  “Am who I am, girl.”

Mardynn sighed.  “Can you use my name, please?  Or something other than ‘girl?’ I'm an adult, and I'm a full priest.”

“You're also a kid.”

She groaned.

“I never tried to pretend I was likeable.  You glommed onto me all by yourself.”  They turned a corner, and he stopped, eyes sweeping from left to right.  

They'd stepped out into the open courtyard surrounding the Cathedral, and the massive building towered up before them, resplendent in white, stained-glass windows proclaiming the faith.  Spires reached up to the heavens like the fingers of a benevolent god, looming up above everything in the city.  It was here that Mardynn had lived for the last five years of her life, and it was here that she'd truly learned to give her life over to the Light.  She prayed at its altar, slept in its dormitories, eaten in its cafeterias.  Stormwind was her city, and its Cathedral was her home.  It filled her with wonder every time she saw it.

Islorus didn’t seem nearly so impressed.  He was probably just used to it, she thought.  It really was a marvel of architecture, built without the use of any magic at all when it had been reconstructed from the original.  No one could look upon it for the first time and feel nothing.  Not even a curmudgeon like Islorus.

“Not here,” he grumbled.  “Must be inside.”  And again, he started walking without a word.  

Mardynn sighed, then jogged up to be by his side.  “Just be careful, okay?  They’re used to seeing worgen, but death knights are kind of, um, rare, here.”

“We don’t like the Light,” was his only reply.

“How can you not like the Light?” She’d heard stories of the Forsaken, that the touch of the Light burned them, even as it could heal them of their injuries.  The church taught that this meant that they were abominations, fit only to be destroyed.  Mardynn wasn’t sure of that.  That rhetoric was dangerously close to what had led the Scarlet Crusade into ruin, and she’d read all about them.  Mostly, Mardynn just felt sorry for them.  What must it be like to live without the comforting touch of the Light?  It was almost too terrible to imagine.  “Does it burn you?”

“In a way.”

Mardynn waited, but nothing else seemed to be forthcoming.  “Elaborate?”

“No.”

She sighed again.  This was hardly turning out to be a fulfilling partnership.

By the time they were ascending the great carpeted stairs leading up to the Cathedral’s entrance, they were silent.  Mardynn wasn’t sure now was the time to push for details on Islorus’ past.

If it ever would be, that was.

Islorus led the way, and she followed, even as she grumpily thought that she’d make the better guide.  She only lived here, after all, and by his own admission he’d avoided the place.  Inside, everything was wide and grand, made of stone and lavishly decorated with paintings and religious icons, but he didn’t seem to have much trouble finding his way to the main area of worship.

With today being as somber as it was, there were more people here than usual.  Many of them, mostly humans, were dressed in black, heads bowed as they prayed for their fallen king.  One, nearby, was praying not for Varian, but Anduin, that he might rule as well as his father.  To one side, a small family of green-haired gnomes huddled in a circle, hands linked as they prayed.

And in the far corner, kneeling before a small, glowing purple crystal, was a familiar Draenei.  Mardynn broke out into a grin and slipped past Islorus, heading over to greet him, but she came up short.  Ehldrenor was big, even for a Draenei, four symmetrical tentacles dangling from his chin beneath a black goatee, a pair of horns jutting straight back from his tangle of hair.  His skin was a rich blue, and today he wore not his battle armor, but simple trousers, through the back of which protruded his long tail, and a dark vest.  A simple longsword was belted to his waist, nothing at all like the great slab of metal that his war-weapon had been, and his shield was nowhere to be seen.  His left hand wore a metal gauntlet - the only armor he wore - and he held it over the crystal like a piece of meat over a fire.

He was chanting quietly in a language Mardynn recognized as his native tongue but couldn’t translate, and a pair of tears had trickled down from his closed eyes.  He hadn’t bothered to wipe them off.  

Whatever he was doing, it was clearly intensely personal, and Mardynn didn’t want to interrupt it in the slightest.  What they wanted to say to him could wait until the end of his prayer.  Or whatever it was he was doing.

Islorus had different ideas.

The worgen loomed over the paladin, arms crossed over his chest.  “Hey, Draenei.  We want to talk to you.”

We.  Mardynn wanted to shrink away and hide.  Possibly forever.

Ehldrenor chanted for a few more moments, though he seemed to have lost the rhythm.  He sighed, then looked up at the two of them, his glowing blue eyes seeming somehow to swim.  He slowly raised a heavy arm and wiped his face, clearing off most of the evidence.  “Did now truly seem the time?”

Islorus opened his mouth to say something that was probably rude, but Mardynn cut in.  “We’re so sorry, sir, but we’ve just come across some important information, and we wanted to, um, enlist your aid.”  That sounded official and important enough, right?

Light.  She hadn’t even been the one to interrupt and she felt terrible.

Islorus nodded.  “Murders.  Burning Legion.  Cover ups. Demons.  Evil, probably.  Interested?”

Ehldrenor took a moment to compose himself.

“It’s a chance to fight evil, and your type loves that kind of thing.  Nobody else is going to do anything about this.”

Ehldrenor sighed, stood, and faced Islorus.  “Tell me.”

Out of respect to the believers in the cavernous central room of the Cathedral, where anything above a whisper echoed tremendously, Mardynn had ushered the two men outside to conduct their business.  Islorus put up a bit of a fight, since he seemed to want to get past the boring exposition, but Ehldrenor quickly took her side in the matter.

Mardynn sat on a stone bench, legs together and tiny hands on her knees, her back to the magnificent stone fountain that dominated the center of the courtyard.  Shrubberies and small trees lined the area, and everything smelled vaguely of lavender and peacebloom.  It was as idyllic as the city got, and Mardynn had spent many a happy afternoon right here.  The streets were busier here than they were in the other district, mostly thanks to the church.  There was a steady trickle of people - mostly human, but representatives of all the Alliance races passed at one point or another.

Islorus and Ehldrenor stood a few feet in front of her, one to each side.  Ehldrenor asked fewer questions than she had, at first, while Islorus spelled out the relevant details.  Only once he had finished did the questioning begin.

“This man,” Ehldrenor asked, “you are sure of his credibility?”

Islorus shrugged.  “Sure as I can be.  He told me what was going on while he was stone cold sober, and I looked into the man's eyes.”

“And what did you see?”

“Saw a man who was scared and hurting, but sure of what he saw.  I have some places to start.” From his pocket, he withdrew a journal, smaller even than Mardynn’s.  

She leaned forward.  The cover looked brown and unmarked.

Islorus delicately flipped open the cover with one claw, then held out the front page to the paladin.  From where Mardynn sat, it looked like a short list of names and addresses.  “The other witnesses that he'd found.  Maybe they're all crazy together, but it's somewhere to start.”

Ehldrenor rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  One of his chin tentacles twitched.  “We must verify whether or not these killings were Legion or not.  They could be copycats, using their imagery to divert attention from themselves.”

“Could be,” Islorus mused.  “Sure as hell wasn't a crime of passion.  Not with the amount of work it would take.”

“Should we start there?” The vague sense of fear had passed from Mardynn's gut, for the moment, and now her curiosity was welling up.  She didn't know much about investigation.  “Find an expert?”

“On demonic imagery?” Ehldrenor asked. “Not a bad idea.  We need to find out if this fits the operating procedure of any known demons or species.”

Mardynn blinked, suddenly suspicious.  Not of Ehldrenor, but on something… elusive.  She felt like they were being watched.  Was that just her overactive imagination playing tricks on her?  Or was it something more? Her eyes darted to the passerby.  They didn't look like they were listening in, but… had they seen that dwarf before?  Was that night elf man glancing in their direction a little too often?  She shivered, even though the sun had come out from behind the clouds.

Islorus didn't seem to think there was a problem.  “It's a step, but I don't see it as the first one, old timer.  We don't have enough to go on.”

“Even what we have should be enough to-”

Mardynn shook her head to clear her thoughts.   Focus.  “Maybe we should visit the other witnesses?  They might have noticed something important.” She nodded at Ehldrenor.  “You know demons better than the three of us, so maybe you'll pick up on something even they don't know is important.”

The two of them looked at her.  Ehldrenor looked thoughtful.  Islorus nodded.  “Not a bad idea, girl.”

Mardynn glanced up at the sky.  A flock of birds flew by, their wings forming a V-shape against the blue and white sky.  “I mean, unless someone's got a better idea.”

Ehldrenor was silent.

Islorus nodded, then consulted the book.  “John McAvoy, Dwarven District.  Erica Stone, Old Town.  Elisseaia, Mage District.  Dinny Gearsward, Dwarven District.  Illia Droman, Trade District.  Those are our witnesses.  Couple of details on each.  More exact addressed.”

Ehldrenor blinked.  “You have homes in the Trade District?”

Mardynn piped up.  “A lot of the shopkeepers live upstairs, same buildings as their stores.  They double as residential.”

“Any objections to just starting at the top of the list?  We can hit John, then stop at Din on the way out.” Islorus pocketed the notebook.

“As long as nobody actually gets hit,” Mardynn said, and laughed nervously.

They both looked at her.

She coughed once into her hand, then stood, brushing off her backside.  “Anyway!  Let's get moving,” she said just a little too cheerfully, and started walking.

They followed after a moment later.


 

There was a reason Mardynn never came to the Dwarven District.

It stank.

The smells of hot metal and dirty water filled every last corner of the place, and smoke had settled into every last cobblestone on the street.  Oh, she'd been here a few times, of course, on this errand or that, but it was hard to stop and admire the sturdy, beautiful Dwarven craftsmanship through what felt like such a constant haze.  In the center of the district, great furnaces burned, pouring heat out into the street, and on any day other than today, the forges and anvils would be alive with the constant BANG, BANG, BANG of hammers on molten steel.  Every district in the city was color coded - this one’s roofs were a kind of rusty brown, which did it's beauty no favors.

Like the Cathedral District, this place was busier than other areas of the city.  For once, Mardynn found herself towering over a crowd of people.  Gnomes and dwarves passed everywhere she looked - this was the one place in the city where humans found themselves outnumbered, and they didn't mourn the same way humans did.  To a dwarf, she suspected, the most meaningful way to deal with one’s grief was to hold it inside you while you worked, to honor their memory through labor and internal emotion.  She’d never been close to a dwarf, but she'd never seen one cry.  Gnomes, on the other hand, she'd seen cry quite frequently.  She’d always sort of respected then for that honesty of emotion.  With a gnome, you usually knew where you stood.

They stood on a street somewhere in the east, holding a map Ehldrenor had grabbed a week or so before from the Visitor’s Center, when he'd first come to the city.  Islorus looked more irritated than Mardynn had seen him before.  “Where the bloody hell is Coal Street?”

“Ask for directions?” Mardynn asked.

“The day I ask for directions from a dwarf is the day I take out my sword and carve out my own heart.”

Mardynn just stared at him, eyes wide.

Ehldrenor laughed heartily.  “I've never met a dwarf with a good sense of direction above ground.”

You learn something new ( and racist , she thought) every day.  She sighed.  “What about a gnome?”

Islorus considered this. “If we can find one that doesn't look so tasty to eat.” He bared his teeth, as if hungry.

Where was a rolled up bit of the Stormwind Herald when you needed it?  “You're hopeless.  Just wait here.”

Ehldrenor slapped Islorus on the back, then followed her.  

The worgen just stood there, dumbstruck.  “It was a joke, you imbeciles!” He called after them.

A few minutes later, after Ehldrenor and Mardynn had gotten the attention of a small group of passing gnomes, they were well on the way to their destination.

Coal Street looked like a bad place.  Run down houses, dirt road, lots of suspicious looking alleys.  The kind Mardynn would absolutely not want to go alone, though she thought she could hold her own against a man or two with a knife.  Islorus, in his wolfish form, covered in plate with a huge two-handed sword slung across his back, and Ehldrenor, with his bulk and surety of movement and sword at his side, were not the type of people who got waylaid often.  

Still, you heard the stories.   Bandits butchered by adventurers, reports say they tried to rob them.  You get desperate enough, even a person like Islorus looked like a meal ticket.

They found the house.  It was old and decrepit.  Boards covered the sole window on the bottom floor, and it looked almost like something had been eating the eaves up above.  The paint was peeling, and the door was cracked - Mardynn suspected the hinges were rusty, loud, and grating, as well.  

She held up a hand to her companions, then stepped up to the door.  She smiled back at them.  “Let me handle this.  I'm not intimidating like you guys are, and he might be jittery.” She cracked her tiny knuckles.  “And I'm good with people.” She glanced at Ehldrenor.  “No offense.”

Islorus made a rude gesture with his claws, but he stepped back.

Mardynn knocked.  And waited.

And waited.

“He probably thinks we’re bloody home invaders or something,” Islorus commented with a disdainful sniff.  “As if he’d have anything I want.”

“Patience, my friend,” Ehldrenor said.  “A man beset by demons may not trust strangers.”

Just as the words were out of his mouth, the door creaked open just enough for Mardynn to see a wide eye peek through.  “Who are you?”. His voice was muffled, suspicious, and there was an odd edge to it - tension and fear, maybe.

Mardynn smiled her warmest smile.  “Hi, John, I’m Mary.  I’m from the church.” She gestured back without looking away from the eye.  “These two are my friends.  We’re here to help.”

“Help…?” The eye flicked nervously from one to the next.  “I told the last one who came here.  No one can help.”

“We can.  This is what we do.” Only sort of a lie.  Mostly one of verb tense, when it came to her specifically.

He regarded her for a long moment, then disappeared.  The door slammed shut, and chains inside started rattling.

“Oh, this is good,” muttered Islorus.  “First guy we see and he's a crazy.  What a great omen.”

Mardynn shushed him just as the door opened all the way.  The man was taller than her, but shorter than either of her companions, and he had a wild shock of black hair.  He looked to be in his early fifties or late forties, though it was hard to tell for sure with the stress lines around his eyes.  They were bloodshot and wild, as if he hadn't slept in months, and he was thin enough that Mardynn suspected he hadn't been eating as much as his body needed.  He pointed at her.  “You come in. The others stay.”

“I need them,” she said gently, speaking slowly.  “They're smart too.  We all want to work together to solve the case.”

John McAvoy considered this for a moment, then pointed at Ehldrenor.  “You can come in, too.  The wolf stays outside.”

Islorus snarled.  “Listen, buddy-”

McAvoy flinched.  Ehldrenor tapped the side of Islorus’s head, his face grim.  “Don't push him.  The man is suffering.”

Islorus turned the snarl to Ehldrenor, then seemed to deflate. “Fine.  I’ll go chat up Din.”

“Do you realize how frightened a gnome might be of you?  We stay together.  Guard the door.  The Burning Legion may attempt to stop us.” His voice was dead serious, but there was a bright twinkle in his eye as he followed Mardynn into the house.

Islorus looked to the left, then to the right, and sighed.  He sat down on the stoop, looking forlorn and angry.

Mardynn shut the door on him.

The interior of the house was, if anything, worse than the outside.  Everything Mardynn could see was covered in a fine layer of dust, except for the marks of cleanish floor where McAvoy had been.  An old, old couch took up part of the room, and it looked like a knife fight had taken place on top of it.  There was a broken lamp on one wall, and one that was dirty, but intact, on the ceiling.  She suspected that there was a dead mouse or something behind a piece of furniture, because the whole room smelled worse than it did outside.

Ehldrenor was the first to speak; McAvoy was simply watching them warily.  “Is this where the attack took place?” He asked, looking around at the damage.

McAvoy shook his head nervously.  “N-no, it was back here.  But first…”. He hesitated, glancing between them.  Mardynn noticed a long stain of something on his shirt.  She hoped it was food.  “I want to know something.”

Mardynn nodded, gesturing for him to continue.

He straightened a little.  “The demon.  If you catch it.  You’ll kill it, right?”

Ehldrenor shrugged.  “We will do our best, though a demon must be killed in the Twisting-”

Mardynn punched him in the shoulder.  He blinked down at her.  “We’ll take care of it.  We’ll do everything we can to make sure it doesn't come back.”

The poor man laughed suddenly, as if she had just told an incredible joke.  “I pray every day that it comes back, ” he said with a haunted look in his eyes.  “I want it to come back and take me too.  But what you people are doing.  That's the next best thing.”

“Justice?” Mardynn said helpfully.

“Revenge.”

Ehldrenor put a massive hand on McAvoy’s shoulder.  “Revenge solves nothing, my friend.  It only darkens the heart, and it gives no true satisfaction.  Now, justice, on the other hand-”

“Justice?   Justice?” He pushed Ehldrenor’s hand away, hard.  “Do you want to put the light forsaken demon on trial?  ‘Will the defendant rise, and please not eat the defense?’  Don't give me that garbage, draenei .  You wouldn’t speak to me of justice if you'd seen what I've seen.”  Tears began to flow from his eyes, but his voice remained hard.  “We were together for thirty years.   We survived the orcs together.  We survived the plague together.  And I come home and find him literally torn limb from light blinded limb.  Do you know what it's like to find your bedroom covered with your soulmates blood, alien?  To see him and know that the last thing he felt was horrific agony that you can't even imagine?” He set his jaw.  “I should send you away right now.  Someone like you will never understand.  Either of you.  Justice.  What a joke.”

Mardynn couldn't move.  She just stood there, her mouth hanging open.  His words… well, they hurt.  And that made her feel guilty, because the pain this man had endured… it was beyond her.  She’d had friends, yes, and she'd seen people die of sickness and disease and yes, by violence at the Broken Shore.  But this was so something else entirely.  She had no reason to feel hurt.

But she did.

Ehldrenor just looked sad, though his posture hadn't changed at all.  “My friend, I understand more than you can imagine.  But in the moment of grief… I know what it is to lash out.”

“Don't condescend to me.  I know how you see me.  Poor and crazy and mad with grief.  Someone to pity.  Boo hoo.  Save it for someone who cares.”

Ehldrenor finally had the good sense to stay quiet.

Mardynn approached him, hesitantly.  She wanted to cry herself, but this was part of what she'd trained herself to be.  She was strong for other people, even when she felt so weak.  “John,” she said gently.  “I don't know what it's like.  I’m sorry we offended you.  No, I'm sorry we hurt you.” She took another step closer. “I know I don't feel what you feel. I've never experienced a loss like that.” She reached out for him.  

He flinched away.

She smiled quietly, and took him into an embrace.  He smelled like sweat and body odor, and his whole body went rigid, but trembling at the same time, and his ratty hair tickled her cheek.  “We only want to help.  We only want to find this killer and bring them to heel.  We can't bring your husband back, but we can make sure nobody else has to hurt like you do because of them.”

John finally let out a sob, wrapping his arms around her tiny body and squeezing tight.  “It's not fair…. It's not fair…. We were so… so….”

“I know,” Mardynn whispered.  “I know….”  Her own tears wanted to come, but she held them back.  There would be time for that later, maybe.  “Do you think you can show us the room, maybe?  There might be something to find.”

John nodded roughly, though his face was still pressed into her hair, arms tight around her.  There was nothing creepy or invasive about it - this was a man who probably hadn't had any real personal contact since the love of his life had died, who desperately needed the touch of another to help soothe those open wounds.  That was part of the job of a priest: to heal.  Physical wounds or emotional, it didn't matter.

This was what Mardynn had been born to do.

Ehldrenor was standing behind her, and she could tell from the silence that he felt more than a little awkward.  Maybe Draenei simply didn't do physical touch that way.

She let him cry it away, giving him all the time in the world.  She liked Islorus, she really did, even if he was sort of unpleasant, but she found herself a little glad that he wasn't here right now.  He wouldn't have been content to just let this happen.

Finally, he pulled away, rubbing at his eyes and looking away in embarrassment.  He looked like even more of a mess than he had at first, but there was something in the way he held himself that seemed a little more confident.  He had a long way to go, obviously, but maybe she had helped to set him on the right path.  She didn't want to just use him and leave.

He took a shuddering breath and nodded.  “Okay.  Okay, I…” He moved over to face Ehldrenor.  “I’m sorry I exploded on you.  This is so hard…” He shuddered again.

Ehldrenor simply smiled sadly.  “As I said, my friend.  I understand grief.”

John nodded, smiled a little, and closed his eyes.  “Alright.  I’ll take you.  It's just… back here.” He led them to a door at the back of the house, and gently placed a hand on the rough wood.  “It was… in here.  There's not much to see, but… I'm sorry.  I can't go in there.  Not yet.”

Mardynn pushed open the door, and found….

A bedroom.

That was all.

The walls were painted white, clean and bright.  They looked new, if anything.  There was no sign of blood or runes or writing or anything out of the ordinary on them.  There was a cheap decorative painting of a scenic forest - Mardynn thought it looked like Elwynn - but it was completely undamaged.  The bed took up most of the middle of the room, and it was made, as if a housecleaning service had been through only this morning.  The floor was rough hardwood, the kind that blood would be easily stuck in, yet it was clean as anything else in the room.

But then, they hadn't really expected anything else.  That was the modus operandi of the killer or killers - a glimpse of death, but no evidence left.

Still, they entered and started to look around, digging for anything that might look like a clue.  Under the sheets, nothing.  Behind the painting, nothing.  Mardynn ran a hand over the cool walls, as if she might find them slick with invisible blood, but they felt like paint and wood.  Ehldrenor even got down on the floor and sniffed, then proclaimed it free of the smell of blood.  They turned every corner, but it was all clean.

“So, we're operating under the assumption that this happened, obviously.  The cleaning is thorough.” Ehldrenor said.

“What could do that so quickly?  They must have had only minutes.  You can't use soap and water that quickly.”

Ehldrenor pondered.  “Magic?”

Mardynn’s eyes widened. “The killer was a mage?”

“It's very possible.  Use the blood for a ritual, summon a demon perhaps, then use a spell to wipe away the blood.”

“A druid might be able to do that, too, but they don't really seem like the murdering type.”

Ehldrenor shrugged.  “Or a warlock.  Though I would expect the cleaning to be a bit more destructive.  Like a fire.”

“Hmm,” Mardynn said.  “What about potions, or something?  Would be be possible to use a magical cleaning solution to erase it?”

“Possible, but I don't think it's very likely.  Again, remember the window of time the killer had to work with.  With as much blood as there allegedly was, you would think they'd miss a drop somewhere.”

“True…” She looked around the room.  That was a lot of area to have to clean.  “Can we really rule it out, though?”

Ehldrenor shook his head.  “It's still a possibility.  It depends how fastidious they were with the blood they used.”

Mardynn grimaced, then blinked.  She stepped slowly out into the middle of the room.  “There's something bothering me, here.”

Ehldrenor cocked his head.  “Something?”

She raised a hand to quiet him, then closed her eyes.  She inhaled slowly, then exhaled, clearing her thoughts the way she had been taught since she was a child.  She focused, slipping quietly into a deep meditation, then directed all of her attention to her nose.  In… out.  In… Out.  In…

And there it was.

Just barely there, at the very range of her senses, was a smell that she hadn't been able to pick up on on her own.  A familiar smell.  A smell that sent tremors of queasiness running through her stomach.  

Sulfur.

She was suddenly able to place that feeling that had been toying at the edges of her consciousness - it was an echo of that same unreality that has permeated the air of the Broken Shore.

“A demon,” she breathed.  “It was here.”

Ehldrenor frowned.  “I thought we knew that.”

She shook her head, her eyes still closed.  “No, we knew it looked like demons were involved.  Could have been someone was trying to summon but failing, or being a copycat killer.  But this feeling…”  The nausea got worse.  “It's unmistakable.  The Burning Legion was here.”

 

Chapter Text

How to describe the Apothecarium?

A place of wonders and a place of horrors.  Where the Undercity’s greatest minds slave away on experiments and projects, creating… and breaking down.  It's the place where dreams are made and destroyed, where the enemies of the Forsaken feared most of all.  

The outside was fair enough.  Sweet and smoky and buttery smells mingled in the air, a wall of alchemists mixing.  One particularly rotten man in a robe pounded Khadgar’s Whisker into a fine powder, while another with a topknot stirred something that looked like torn strips of Felweed into a thick bluish sludge that smelled like daisies.  A third was slaving away with a rag, wiping a foul-smelling soot from his area.  A few stands stood in the wide open stone room, selling potions and reagents to anyone who dared approach the Apothecarium.  All in all, just another center of trade and commerce.

But far in the back, a tunnel lurks.  A tunnel feared by anyone with sense.  It's dark and musty and decrepit, like the people to whom it caters, but the place it leads…

Oh, the place it leads.

Salissi stood before a huge jar of green fluid, both taller and wider than she was.  It was the color of snot, and it bubbled madly like water on a boil.  Ricket, the apothecary acting as her guide, had told her it was a new form of embalming fluid, one that would better halt the decay of their servitors and enhance their range of movement.  She tapped on the glass with one bony knuckle, and the whole thing seemed to reverberate.  Ricket looked nervous.

“What's it made of?” She asked curiously.

Ricket listed about a dozen chemicals, starting with something called “formaldehyde” and only getting more and more obscure from there.  “And a few secret ingredients,” he said with a wry smile.

“Is it people?”

Ricket groaned.  “No, it's not people.  Why does everyone always think we make everything out of people?”

Salissi shrugged.  “We do sort of make a lot of things with people.”

He waved a hand dismissively.  “Not nearly so much as you would think.  And not as much as we used to.”

Salissi was fascinated.  “Like what?”

He seemed to be starting a list, but Salissi waved her hand after the first item.  “Well, there are still the abominations-”

“Can you show me?” That was something she'd always wanted to see.  The big lumbering flesh golems were everywhere in the Undercity, dripping unidentifiable fluids from half a dozen lines of stitches, huge fleshy hands wrapped around their chain-and-hooks and the handles of their oversized cleavers.  Salissi had once seen an abomination cut a rebel in two from the tip of the head to the groin with a single blow, and she'd been entranced by them ever since.

The poor apothecary looked uncertain.  “Don't you have… business here?”

Salissi nodded.  “I do.  But it's a good idea to inspect random elements for any irregularities.”. This was mostly a lie, though she might strike it lucky...  She just liked looking at cool things.  “Got something to hide?” She smiled sweetly and touched one of the daggers at her hip.

He sighed.  “Right this way.”

He led her through a few rooms where things she couldn't even describe were taking place.  Most of them involved brewing fluids of some kind, and each room was an exciting new smell.  One smelled of liferoot, and seemed to have something to do with edible cave moss that could be grown in the city and fed to visitors.  The next, rot and decay, as clunky pipes delivered the green fluid she'd seen before into syringes, which were injected into rats.  Each rat’s tiny throat was cut, but the animals didn't seem to mind.  They scurried in mindless circles without the need to breathe.  

Finally, they opened into a room that was particularly horrific.  Shelves lined with human bodies lined the walls, and blood-spattered axes and saws swung on hooks.  A cabinet filled with jars and vials sat open on one wall, and huge needles with thread sat in spools.  In the center of the room was a half finished abomination, and it was disgusting.  Its flabby white belly hung down over the table to which it was strapped, and where its legs should go were simple gaping holes of meat.  The head was half finished, roughly down the middle; the left side was there, but the right was not.  The skull was empty; either they didn't use brains, or else this one had yet to be installed.  The whole thing smelled like death and vinegar.

Salissi’s eyes were wide as she walked slowly around the room, taking in each fresh sight. “Which part is the magic part?”

Ricket rolled his eyes.  “If you mean, ‘what animates the golem,’ it's the thread.  It's enchanted and infused with a variant of the original plague, utilized by the Scourge during the third war.  But don't worry.  It's no longer lethal.  It's been modified.”

“How does it work?” She picked up a spool of the thread, holding it up to her eyes, as if she could see the magic if she squinted hard enough.

He narrowed his eyes, and plucked the thread from her fingers.  “Our abominations need only a brain and the thread to function.  The ones the scourge used were more flexible, but ours are under control.  We need only complete the body, then use a simple activation phrase.”

Salissi leaned in.  “What's the phrase?”

Ricket looked tired.  “Do you speak elven?”

“No.” She rubbed her jaw.  Damn thing was getting a little sore.

“The phrase is simply ‘Rise and obey’ in ancient Thalassian.”

Salissi nodded, looked around, and settled on the rack of corpses.  “Where do the bodies come from?”

“The war effort,” Ricket said, turning to look at the bodies.  “Enemy soldiers who don't need their bodies anymore, mostly.  We hardly ever kill anyone specifically to use their corpses anymore.”

Salissi nabbed another spool of thread and stuffed it into a pocket.

He turned back.  “Any more questions?

Salissi smiled widely.  “Nope!  Now,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper, checking the names on it. “Can you take me to Apothecary Estoc?”

He led her through a few more halls, past rooms of experiments and alchemy.  He seemed a bit more cheerful now that they were back on task - someone might get in trouble, but it probably wouldn't be him.  Having him off balance was the other reason for running him around the Apothecarium - it would make him worse at hiding things.  Not that he seemed to, of course. He'd been involved in packing the wagon, but nothing else.  It had disappeared long after he'd touched anything, and he didn't know about the secret cargo.

Finally, they passed through a heavy metal door, into a stone hallway that looked almost like a converted jail.  Wooden doors lined the hall, and each bore the name of a different apothecary.  Offices.  Something so mundane in such a nightmarish place made Salissi grin.  She rubbed at her metal lower jaw.  It was heavy, and it made expressions difficult, but she loved it.  It was more stylish than a bone or wood prosthetic would have been, and there was a fun element of intimidation to it.  During normal interactions, it was just a part of her face, but when she was putting on her game face?  It helped.  Especially since, well, she didn’t especially look like the threatening type.

“This time of day,” Ricket began, as they clumped down the hallway.  A rat ran by her foot, and she turned her head to watch it go.  It wriggled through the crack under the entrance door and disappeared.  “This time of day, he should be in his office.  Working on formulae, usually.”

“What do you think of him?” She asked.

Ricket shrugged uncomfortably.  “He works hard.  Gets a lot done.”  He glanced back at her, and his whisper was conspiratorial.  “I don’t like the plague doctors.”  This was slang for the men and women who worked with the plague.  “They’re…” He fumbled for words.  “Cruel.  Working on abominations and potions and embalming fluid is honest work.  Plague… That’s a bad way to die.  What do you need him for, anyway?  Has he done something wrong?”  All he’d been told was that she needed to speak to Estoc with regard to the shipment in question.

“Maybe,” Salissi said cheerfully.  “That’s what I’m here to find out.  And no, I can’t tell you. It’s classified.”

He nodded uncertainly.  “Alright.”  He shook his head as they stopped in front of a particular door near the end with a placard reading ESTOC.  “You Deathstalkers….  You creep me out.  You know that?”

Salissi frowned.  “I’ve been nothing but polite.”

He waved a hand.  “Yes, but… Ah, never mind.  My apologies.  I’ll wait at the end of the hallway.”  He walked off, looking down at the floor morosely as if he expected her to execute him on the spot.  Which was ridiculous, really.  She had the powers of judge, jury, and executioner, but he’d done nothing wrong.  A little rudeness was par for the course on investigations.

She knocked on the door.  It was solidly build; the thing didn’t rattle at all.

“I’m busy,” called out a raspy voice.  “Go away.”

“My name is Salissi.  I’m a Deathstalker.  You know why I’m here.”  She didn’t bother putting any particular malice in her voice - a visit by a Deathstalker was serious business, and impersonating one simply wasn’t done.  That was punishable not only by death, but death by torture.

There was silence for a long moment.  She waited patiently.  Finally, the door opened a crack, and a suspicious golden eye peered out,  “Show me your insignia.”

Salissi blinked, then tugged off the glove on her right hand.  With her other hand, she drew the dagger that hung on the right waist.  She flipped the blade over, then presented it to him.  Just above the handle was carved a replica of the Forsaken crest.  She touched a pale finger to the dagger’s pommel, and the lines of the insignia began to glow a sickly green.

The eye inspected the light for a few moments, then nodded.  “Very well,” he wheezed, pulling back far enough to open the door.  He wore a crimson robe that hung loosely over his skeletal frame, and his face was emaciated and weathered.  His hair was scraggly and falling out in patches, though he hadn’t bothered to comb over the bald spots - or anywhere else, for that matter.  He bowed deeply.  “It is an honor to be seen by one of the Dark Lady’s right hands.”  He spread his hands widely, welcomingly.  “What may I do for you?”

Salissi sheathed the dagger and pulled the glove back onto her hand.  “You’re Apothecary Estoc?”

He nodded.

Salissi held out the paper.  “This is your signature on the shipping manifest?”

Estoc took the sheet, and carefully examined it.  “Yes, I signed this.  And before you ask, yes, I inspected it all myself.”

“And when the wagon departed, it contained exactly sixteen barrels filled with plague fluid?”

“And each barrel contained fifty vials, yes.”  He turned to his desk and rummaged, shuffling papers and quills and bits of reagents.  “Ah.”  He retrieved a small, empty glass container, holding it delicately between two thin fingers.  It was about an inch long, and no more than a third of that wide. “The vials were of this design.  I don’t know how useful that would be, but every detail helps, yes?”

Salissi took the vial, rolling it between her fingers.  That something so small could bring so much destruction… It was fascinating.  Horrifying, yes, but… “Who else knew about the vials?”

Estoc thought about this.  “No one here, in the Undercity.  The order came from my brother Tiroc in Sepulchur, and it was approved by the Dark Lady herself.  Unless one of her messengers broke the seal without anyone knowing…”

Salissi thought for a moment.  “You seem awfully frail.  Who moved the barrels?”

“My assistant, Jacques.”

Salissi raised an eyebrow.  “And you neglected to mention him a moment earlier, because…?”

Estoc shook his head, and a condescending smile touched his lips.  “Oh, no, my dear.  Jacques is a zombie.  He doesn’t know anything, I’m afraid.”

Zombies were often used for raw physical labor.  They didn’t need food or drink, but unlike Forsaken, the poor dumb creatures were little more than simple automatons.  Do this, go here, lift that.  The only thing that was enhanced by their resurrection - if one were to be very generous in calling the process that - was their physical strength.  One zombie, properly raised and maintained, could possess the strength of four or even five men.

Salissi nodded.  That made sense, but it wasn’t quite a lead.  “Where is he?”

“Examination room 503,” he said promptly.  “It's time for a check up.”

“What does that entail?” She asked curiously.

“Flushing out the embalming fluid and replacing it.  Cleaning up the tears that accumulate and sewing them shut.” Zombies had a limited lifespan - over time, damage accumulated and didn't heal.  Eventually, they simply fell apart. Maintenance only prolonged, it did not save.  “Cleaning.  Polishing the eyes.  Changing clothes.  Renewing the spells.”

“Did you know the donor?”

He smiled widely.  “Trade secret.”

Salissi raised her hands in defeat.   “Alright, alright.  I don't want to know.” She slipped the vial into her pocket, alongside the thread and other materials.  “Did you organize the convoy from Brill?”

He shook his head.  “I just piggybacked on something that was going to happen with me or without me.  The timing was convenient.”

“Who organized it, then?”

“The supply master over there.  I think he goes by Dust?”  

“Dust.  Got it.  Just one last question, and I’ll let you go for now.  How far did you see the cart?”

The apothecary rubbed his chin.  “I saw it out of the city.  Jacques pulled it, of course. We met up with the caravan at the bottom of the hill, just across from the zeppelin towers.”

Salissi pondered these facts for a minute.  Assuming this was all true, the Undercity side of things was fairly clean.  Only Estoc knew or was involved, and his zombie had done all the heavy lifting.  That meant that the theft had occurred sometime after leaving the city, in the wilds of Silverpine Forest.  Allegedly, no one had seen a thing.

She’d have to visit Sepulcher eventually, but first, her next target was clear: Brill.

The time for playing around was over.  It was time to go.


 

Salissi stood in front of one of the elevators dotting the upper central ring of the Undercity, and for the first time a sense of genuine fear began to crawl through her belly. She wasn’t scared of death.  She wasn’t scared of the plague.  She was intimidated by the thought of what would happen if the stolen plague was used, but that was manageable.

What really scared her was leaving .

She hadn’t left the Undercity since the day Sylvanas and her retinue had found her on the approach to the ruined palace of Lordaeron, huddled alone on the side of the road, shivering as if cold.  She could hardly remember that day, or all the days before - She knew she’d been raised by the Val’kyr, she knew she’d been offered a place among the Forsaken, and she knew she’d been so horrified by what she’d become that she’d slapped that hand away and run.  How things had changed!  She’d stumbled, alone, from Deathknell in the west into the wilderness, the enormous trees of Tirisfal Glades dwarfing her, lost in the mist.  She didn’t know how long she’d wandered, alone, afraid, hating herself and the world.  She killed duskbats with her bare hands and ate them raw, not knowing that she no longer needed to eat.  She outran darkhounds with feet that were somehow more fleet than her own had ever been.  She’d made beds of gloom weed and hid from wandering skeletons.  She’d lost her mind.

The day the Dark Lady saved her was the day she’d begun to rediscover herself.  In a rare moment of kindness - or maybe cold calculation, seeing her for what she could be - Sylvanas had offered her a bed and a job, training her, teaching her to use a dagger instead of a kitchen knife, a sword instead of a rolling pin.  Daggers were her specialty, but she knew how to swing a sword, how to chop with an axe, how to crush with a mace.  She was a decent shot with a bow, a better shot with a rifle, and she could sink into the shadows with the best of them.  She could brew poisons to kill as well as potions to strengthen.  She’d killed orcs and trolls and elves, and even a human spy or two.  She’d beaten a pair of angry Tauren in a fistfight.  She was fast, she was graceful, she was deadly.

And now, she was scared.

A pair of abominations flanked the elevator, and she tried to take her mind off of things by examining them.  These two were a sickly bluish color, and they gazed out vacantly at the hallway.  Seemingly seeing nothing, but in reality, seeing everything with their bulging eyes.  There was a quiet drip, drip, drip of embalming fluids from the arm of the one on the left.  It didn’t seem to care.  The great hulking things simply stood there, their arms waving slowly like flags on a breeze, weapons sharp and shining and deadly.

Between them, the heavy stone door slid upward.  With an unnecessary deep breath, she stepped into the great circular elevator.  Was that a bloodstain on one side?  Interesting.  How had that happened?  She felt a little better for a moment, then her stomach dropped out as the heavy platform rocketed up toward ground level.  

This was disconcerting.

With a heavy thud , it stopped, and an identical door to the one below opened.  Feeling slightly dizzy, Salissi exited the elevator just a bit too quickly, as if she expected the floor to simply drop out from under her.  And, well, it would, if she waited too long.

The door crashed behind her, and she found herself in another stone hallway, sloping upward.  The air felt somehow lighter here.  A little less stale, though she probably wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t spent so long down there.  She followed the hall up, up, and up, and thanked the Light for her increased endurance.  She would get tired eventually, but not as quickly as your average living being.

Finally, she reached the first great chamber - the tomb of Terenas Menethil, last king of Lordaeron.  In the center of the room, a great stone sarcophagus lay, and on it were engraved the words:

HERE LIES KING TERENAS MENETHIL II - LAST TRUE KING OF LORDAERON.

GREAT WERE HIS DEEDS - LONG WAS HIS REIGN - UNTHINKABLE WAS HIS DEATH.

“MAY THE FATHER LIE BLAMELESS FOR THE DEEDS OF THE SON.

MAY THE BLOODIED CROWN STAY LOST AND FORGOTTEN.”

Salissi stopped in front of it, staring down at it.  She’d been a citizen of Lordaeron, and so Terenas had been her king all her life, but she hadn’t exactly known the man.  A king was a king was a king, she supposed, and this one was the father of a monster.  Still, she felt she should stop and pay her respects.  He deserved that much.  

She knelt down gently before the monument and bowed her head.  “Rest easy, great king.”  For a moment, she wondered.  How different would the Forsaken be if Terenas had been raised as one of them?  Would he still be their king, eternally in death, or would the Dark Lady still have led them to freedom?  Did blood trump loyalty, when that blood ran cold and congealed?

Salissi didn’t know.

After the appropriate amount of time, she stood, brushing dust off of her knees.  Taking that moment was… comforting, in a way.  She couldn’t quite put her finger on why, but it almost felt as if she had Terenas’ blessing.  

Things would turn out okay.

She’d make sure of that.

She rested her gloved hand on the lid of the sarcophagus and nodded once, then turned to go, leaving the tomb behind.

A few more winding tunnels.  Doors.  She passed a couple Forsaken, here and there, on their way back into the city.  Salissi nodded to them, and they nodded back.  Politeness wasn’t dead, at least.  The Undercity wasn’t exactly bustling, but usually there was more foot traffic than this into the city.  She couldn’t decide if it was a good omen or a very bad one, and that fear began to creep back into her bones.

She lingered for a few moments in the throne room, a great, open cavern of a room dominated by the throne up on a dais at one end.  Though it was as dimly lit as the rest of the city, the great blue and gold design on the floor, centered around the crest of Lordaeron, was magnificent, the curtains and statues around the room breathtaking.  It reached up to the heavens, balconies lining the walls where emissaries from all the old nations could stand and speak, where all could address the king.

This was where it happened, she thought.  This is where Terenas died, and Lordaeron had become a city of the dead. The son had succeeded the father, only to abandon his kingdom when his master called, like a starving dog to heel.  Then the Forsaken had risen.

The Forsaken had made the rotting city their home.

They said that if you listened closely, here, and closed your eyes, you could hear the echoes of the past.  That what had transpired here had marked this room, left a psychic imprint on the very air.  She had heard tales of people hearing Terenas’ last words, and even Arthas’ threats, and she’d wanted to believe.  She stood at the exact center of the throne room, and went silent.  The air was quiet here.  Nothing disturbed the almost oppressive sound of silence but for the distant echo of footsteps somewhere in the castle’s halls.  She waited a full minute, but… nothing.  No voices from the past.

Disappointing.

But really, who was she trying to fool?  She was distracting herself, that was all.  Focusing on childish rumors instead of what she was really doing.  She was trying to forget that she was leaving.  That cold, hard fact got stuck in her head like a lump in her throat, and she swore.  This was ridiculous.  She was a cold hard killer, secret police and assassin and spymaster all in one, and yet she was afraid of a little fresh air.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But that didn’t make the fear any less real.

She walked out into the huge courtyard, and for the first time in nearly a decade, she saw the sun.

A hazy white fog lay over the courtyard, giving everything a kind of misty sheen, but… that wasn’t the amazing part.  It was brighter than she remembered, casting everything in a brilliant glow that was completely unrivaled by any of the lamps and torches in the Undercity.  She blinked once, twice, and her eyes slowly began to adjust, the sights fading from blinding to merely bright.  The sky, too, was something that she had forgotten.  A deep cerulean, dotted with puffy white clouds.  Something darted across the sky, ducking and weaving.   A bird, she thought with wonder.   That’s a bird.  When was the last time I saw a bird that wasn’t plucked and cooked? Another joined it, and another.  Soon a whole flock of them whirled overhead like a chaotic tornado of feathers mixed in with a complex, but strictly ordered dance hall.  She watched them with her mouth open until they finally disappeared out of sight, over a wall.

She watched after them for a while, hoping they would come back, but they were gone.  She blinked again, looking around the courtyard again.  She was standing on a great drawbridge, over a moat of familiar green sludge, and the center of it was dominated by a great broken marble statue.  She had no idea what it had once been, but somehow, in this light, even the ruins looked beautiful.

She crossed the yard, eyes wide, looking at everything she could lay her eyes on.  Tiny translucent spirits darted this way and that, glittering in the sunlight.  She reached out to touch one of them once; it hissed and sped away.  Salissi laughed.  Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Maybe she could really do this.  Maybe-

She came to the final doorway.

She froze.

The courtyard had been beautiful, but it was still part of the city.  She was further than she’d been in a very long time, but she hadn’t yet left .  To take another step, to go out that door… She really would have left. And there was no going back from that.  Her breath quickened, and she squeezed her eyes shut.   No.  No, she was not going to have a panic attack, not now.  Not after so long.  She was strong, she was deadly, she-

She was freaking out.

Outside, the fog was deeper, though still it was illuminated by the dazzling sun.  In the distance, she could see a pair of towers rising up to the heavens, a pair of needles.  At the top of one a Goblin zeppelin lumbered in, and a magically amplified voice piped “Zeppelin ta Durotar is here!  All aboard for Durotar!”

Durotar.  That was even farther away, on a continent all the way across the world, where the orcs had made their home.  The thought of that distance was like a poisoned knife in her guts.

“Oh, Light,” she moaned, and bent over, putting her hands on her knees.  Her breath was coming faster and faster, and though her heart no longer beat, it felt like it was racing, like it would explode straight out of her chest.

Home.  She was leaving home.  The smell of bats and faint decay… Her Dark Lady.  Shopping in the market rings.  She shuddered.  She could do this.  She couldn’t .  She....

She threw up, heaving and gagging, splattering the floor with an ugly goo.  She hadn’t eaten recently, and Forsaken innards were…. Weird.  She stayed like that for a few extra seconds, breathing hard.  It had cut off the panic attack, at least, though nausea still coursed through her at the thought of any of it.

Strangely, though, she actually felt a little bit better.  She felt… Not confident, exactly, but determined.  She had a job to do, and she had never failed a job.  She was a Deathstalker.  Sylvanas trusted her.  

She would do anything for Sylvanas Windrunner.

Even this.

Salissi wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve, took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and walked out into the real world.

Chapter Text

In a fairly shocking turn of events, Dinny Gearsward actually was a gnome.

She was a nervous looking little thing, though Mardynn supposed she was actually fairly tall for one of her kind.  She was almost the size of a small dwarf, which meant she towered over her peers.  She was wringing a dirty old dishrag in her chubby little hands, and her wide brown eyes flicked back and forth nervously, not unlike John McAvoy’s.  Her hair was an unwashed pink, set in ragged pigtails to either side of her head.

Having something like this, where everyone was convinced you were crazy, happen probably did that to you.

Dinny lived on the edge of the district, just a few doors down from the great spinning entrance to the Deeprun Tram.  This area of the city was much cleaner, much safer than their last destination had been, and here Mardynn didn’t get the sense that there were angry men waiting for her companions to turn their backs to jump her and snatch her coin purse.  As they’d approached the relatively tiny - but not quite gnome sized - front door, there had been a faint rumbling underfoot - the tram departing on its run to Ironforge.  It was a little disconcerting, though Ehldrenor and Islorus hardly even seemed to notice.

Again, Mardynn had been the one to knock.  This time, the small door had opened wide, and they’d found poor Dinny shivering in the opening.  “Y-yes…?”  She’d squeaked.  (“Squeaked” was one of those words that gnomes hated, thought it was patronizing, but hearing the poor girl, there wasn’t much else Mardynn could describe it as.).

Mardynn knelt down, putting the two of them at eye level.  She smiled warmly, while her two very large companions lurked a good distance back.  It was surprising how quickly she’d found herself becoming the face of the group, but honestly it wasn’t as if the other two had amazing people skills.  Islorus was impatient and grouchy, while Ehldrenor was stiff and overly righteous.  As a priest of the church, Mardynn had experience with people.  “Hello.  Dinny?”

The gnome nodded.

Mardynn held out her hand.  “My name’s Mardynn.  I’ve heard some terrible things, and I’d like to help you.”

Dinny hesitated, then haltingly shook Mardynn’s hand.  “Oh… I don’t know.  I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do for me.”

Mardynn shook her head.  “Ms. Gearsward, maybe you misunderstand. I’ve heard your story, and I believe you.”

“You…” Dinny shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter.  He’s gone.”  Her huge eyes blinked once, and suddenly shimmered.  “It’s over.”

“I don't think it is.  There have been others, and I think you know that.”

She saw now that the gnome’s skin was pale, and that there were heavy bags under her eyes.  “Others?  You mean…”  She looked down.  “That man who came by to talk to me.  The scraggly one.  The angry one.  That’s who you mean.”

Mardynn nodded.  

“I didn’t listen to him.  I wouldn’t talk with him.  He scared me.  Why should I talk to you?”  She sounded defeated.  Mardynn could understand that.  Why would she want to relive those horrors?

“I know it’s hard.  I know it’s scary.”  She spoke as gently as she could.  “But this isn’t about revenge.  It’s not about anger.  We want to save lives, and we think this could be bigger than we know.”


 

“Look at the pathetic, little thing.  She’s not going to talk.”

“She will talk, my friend.  Have faith in Mardynn.”

Islorus was leaning back on a decorative anvil set into the sidewalk, arms crossed over his chest.  Ehldrenor stood a few feet to his left, upright, arms at his sides.  They watched the young priest talk to the frightened gnome, though they could hardly catch more than one word in three.

“You sure believe easy.”

“And you don’t believe in anything.  You saw how she was able to convince McAvoy to speak with us.”

“To speak with you.  Racist bastard.”

A trickle of people passed through the street between them and the house, most headed toward or away from the entrance to the Tram.  Mostly dwarves, of course, but humans and gnomes dotted the parade.  They even spied an elf or two.

“Ah!  Look, there they go!”

“I’ll be damned.”

The gnome had retreated inside the house, and Mardynn was following, ducking her head under the wooden frame.  Just before she was out of sight, she turned, grinned at them, and gave them a thumbs up.

She was in.


 

The inside of Dinny’s house was adorable and miniaturized, though Mardynn would never have dared so say so out loud.  Luckily, she was short, or else she would have had to bend over to move around inside it, rather than having the very top her head just barely brush the ceiling.  It was very nicely decorated, the walls a homey blue color, while the floor was a polished hardwood that Mardynn could almost see herself in.

From the central room where she stood, several other doorways branched off, and there was even a set of stairs in the back, though she wasn’t sure she’d be able to navigate it.  

Judging from the dishcloth and the state of the house, Dinny had spent the last week or more obsessively cleaning the place, as though by scrubbing hard enough, she would be able to remove the sense that something so unprecedented had taken place here.

Dinny led Mardynn to a small kitchen, where Mardynn found a table with four chairs that were much too small to sit in.  Dinny gestured vaguely at the table.  “I know I don’t have any big people chairs, but please, have a seat.  I’ll make tea.”

Mardynn eyed the chairs for a moment then gently nudged the nearest chair to one side, out of the way.  She took a seat on the floor, and found that the table wasn’t actually an inconvenient height this way.  “Thank you.”

Dinny bustled around for a few minutes, using some kind of small iron box powered by nothing Mardynn to see to heat a surprisingly normal-sized teapot.  As it rattled to a boil, she opened a cabinet to retrieve a pair of mugs.  Mardynn noticed, over Dinny’s shoulder, that she had quite a few different sets - one obviously gnome sized, then several of increasing sized meant for the different races of the Alliance.  Did she have “big people” guests often?  Dinny pulled out one of the gnomish mugs as well as one that was perfectly sized for a human, and the teakettle began to scream.  Before the piercing noise could get too grating, Dinny had already snatched it away from the contraption and started pouring.  She seemed… Remarkably focused on the task.

Mardynn couldn’t blame her.

It took a few more moments to fix the tea - it was jasmine, lightly flavored with peacebloom - and the two of them sat across from each other in silence.  Mardynn spooned more than her share of sugar into her cup, trying to figure out how to begin the investigation.

Mardynn held the mug between her hands, savoring the warmth on her skin and the gentle scent.  “Tell me about yourself.”

Dinny shrugged, looking down into her own teacup as though she might find answers there.  “There’s not much to tell.  I’m a tech on the Deeprun Tram.  I inspect and repair the tracks, mostly.  Almost more smithing than engineering.  Pay’s good.  Hours aren’t terrible.”

Mardynn nodded.  “Seems like a good deal.  Priesting doesn’t pay much, you know.”  She smiled to show that this was a joke.

Dinny tried to smile back, though she must have known how forced it looked.  “You must do so much good, though.”

“Ah, I try,” Mardynn said.  “It’s not always easy, but I woudn’t trade it, you know?”

Dinny nodded.  “Sometimes it feels like repairing tracks is all I’m good for, but I try not to let it stop me.  That tram is the backbone of the Alliance.  I’m proud of what I do.”

“Oh, come on.  There must be something special about you besides work.”

Dinny hesitated.  “Well… There is one thing.  But you probably won’t believe me.”

Mardynn shook her head.  “I’ll bet you a silver piece I will.”

That got a genuine smile from Dinny.  “No bet.  But alright.  I have a perfect memory.  I remember everything I’ve ever seen with perfect clarity.”

Mardynn’s eyes widened.  “You mean… Even…”

A shadow seemed to fall over Dinny’s face.  Before, she had been nervous and shy - now?  She seemed like one possessed by death itself.  Her eyes went blank.  Her cheeks seemed to sag.  Even her hair seemed to grow muted, without any change in the light.  “The night I came home from work and found my brother.  I remember it all.  I remember every.  Last.  Detail.  Do you understand what it’s like, Mardynn?  I still smell the blood.  His blood.  A-and worse.  I remember exactly how the bed looked, soaked with half-dried blood.  I remember how they had torn his poor body into chunks.  I remember where each one lay.  I remember how each one dripped with his precious blood.  I remember his head , torn away, propped up on the pillows like he was asleep, but his eyes were wide open, and his-”

“The writing!” Mardynn blurted.

Dinny hesitated.  “The… I’m sorry?”

“The writing!”  Mardynn was excited, and she knew how horribly inappropriate it was, but she couldn’t help it.  This was real!  “Every one of these murders that we know of had writing on the walls. Runes that nobody who found the bodies could read or replicate.  But you could!  Dinny, this is a real lead!  This could be the clue we need!”

Dinny was at a loss for words.

“One moment!”  Mardynn rummaged through her bag, and finally pulled out her tiny notebook and permanent ink quill, the ones she used as a diary and a conduit for her prayers.  She opened to the back page, which she knew would be blank, and slid it across the table to the gnome.  “Dinny, Dinny I know this is hard, but I need you to think back to that day.  Think back to what you saw.  Remember what was written.  I need you to replicate it as best as you can.”

Dinny just looked down at the paper, her face white.  She didn’t move.  “I remember,” she whispered.  Her eyes were filled with tears.

That expression sent a pang through Mardynn’s stomach, but this was too important to stop.  “Please.  It could save so many lives, Dinny.”

Dinny still didn't move.

“It’s what your brother would have wanted.”  She felt guilty almost the moment the words left her mouth, but… They needed this.  The key to everything could be in those words.

Dinny blinked slowly, then looked up at her.  She regarded Mardynn with agony in her eyes, then looked down back at the paper.  She picked up the pen and started to sketch; uncertainly at first, then faster and faster.

Mardynn watched her, fascinated and sick at the same time.  What must it be like to live your life with the burden of knowing everything that has ever happened to you?  What must it be like to remember the most traumatizing event in your life without losing a detail, without time to blur the wounds?  And she was making Dinny relive that.

Suddenly she hated herself just a little more.

After nearly ten minutes, Dinny finished.  She dropped the pen as if it were a snake, and made no move to hand any of it back to Mardynn.  She looked…  Broken.  Defeated.  Pale as a ghost, and leaning heavily on the table.  Mardynn reached over and took the book. Two pages had been filled with symbols that made Mardynn feel uncomfortable to look at.  She couldn’t understand what they said, but some part of her knew on a fundamental level that they were wrong.

“Thank you,” Mardynn said quietly.  “This is bigger than you know.  And… I’m sorry.”

Dinny looked up at her with those huge, haunted eyes.  “Use them.  Save those people.  And please.”

“Please?”

“Don’t come back.”


 

“Eidetic memory.”

“Eido-what?”

Islorus sighed.  “That's what she was talking about.  A perfect memory.  It's rare, but it's slightly more common among gnomes.”

Mardynn’s forehead scrunched.  “How do you know that?  I’ve never even heard of it.”

Islorus grumbled vaguely.  If Mardynn hadn't thought him all but incapable of it, she would have thought he seemed… embarrassed.  “Read it in a book, once.”

“The Prophet has something like that,” Ehldrenor put in helpfully.  “It is partly what makes him a such a perceptive leader.  He knows the signs of things better than anyone.  Perhaps this is why she is so good at her maintenance work?”

“Probably…” Mardynn allowed.  Her heart wasn't in this part of the conversation.  

“You okay, kid?” Islorus was the first to notice.  There wasn't exactly concern in his voice, but the curiosity was real.

“Yeah, I'm… I’m fine.” She put on a brave face and smiled.

Ehldrenor’s eyes narrowed as he leaned in closer to examine her. “You are pale.  Very pale.  What happened in there?”

Don't come back.   Mardynn shook her head.  “I just.  I think I pushed her too hard.  I made her remember things she didn't want to, and… I don't know.  I made her dwell on them.” I remember how they had torn his poor body into chunks.  She shivered, even though the day was warm.  

A thought struck her suddenly, one that she had hardly even begun to consider.   This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  Again, that feeling of being watched rose up in her, stronger than ever.  Goosebumps covered her arms, under her robe, and she looked up into the sky.  It was bright and pleasant, but there was something harsh about the light now.  She turned her head, searching the passerby, but none of them seemed to be giving more than a passing glance.  Or were they?  Any one of them could be some kind of cultist for the Legion.  Any one of them could be-

A heavy purple hand touched her shoulder, and she nearly jumped.  “Mardynn?”

Right.  Back here.  Focus.  “Sorry, I guess I spaced out a little, there.”

Ehldrenor smiled warmly.  “You touched death in there, child, even if indirectly.  When you aren’t properly steeled for it, it leaves quite the mark.  It will pass.”

“How?  How can you be ready for something like that?  That much anguish?”  She shook her head.  “It was so…. intense.”

Surprisingly, Islorus spoke up.  “It’s like building a callus. You encounter it, and you hurt, over and over, and each time you get a little stronger.”  He bared his teeth. “Or you break.  But something tells me you’ve got more strength in you than you look, girl.”

“The first time I encountered the Legion, I broke down,” Ehldrenor said.  “I wasn’t prepared for what they do to people, and I threw down my weapons and ran.  It fills me with shame, but shame can be a powerful motivator, don’t you think?  You did well at the Broken Shore, Mardynn.  You fought like a veteran of a hundred battles.”

“I understand the Broken Shore.  That was war.  But this...”  She gestured helplessly.  “The grief is harder to deal with than the actual bloodshed.  It…”  She struggled for words.

Islorus looked about as compassionate as he ever had.  “It’s a reminder that it’s real.  That we’re playing for keeps.”

Mardynn just looked at the worgen for a moment.  “...Yeah.  Yeah, that’s it exactly.”  Was he trying to comfort her?  Did he have the capacity for that in him?  Or was he just trying to keep a valuable asset from snapping?

“Anyway,” he mumbled, and seemed almost embarrassed.  “Let’s see what you found.”

“Oh, right.”  Mardynn opened the small book to where Dinny had drawn the symbols, and held it out.  “I can’t make heads or tails of any of them.  They sure didn’t teach this stuff in the church.  But when I look, I get this feeling…”

Islorus took the book first.  He examined the pages for a few moments, and his face seemed to almost unconsciously twist into a snarl.  Finally, though, he closed his odd blue eyes and shook his head.  “I can’t read them either.  I don’t even know if they’re Demonic or not.”

“Let me see,” Ehldrenor said.  Islorus shrugged and passed him the book.  Ehldrenor did the same, then nodded sagely.  “I can’t read them either, but I recognize some of the forms.”  He gestured Mardynn over, then pointed at a particular symbol.  “This one.”  He pointed to another, then a third.  “These two.  These are descended from old Eredari, the language my people spoke before Sargeras tore us apart.  The language was as twisted by time and evil as their bodies, those who joined the Legion.  Man’ari.  This word says something about ‘fear.’  This one over here shares a root with ‘time.’  The rest, though...”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know the base language.  Nathrazi, perhaps, or Annihilani, or even common demonic.”

Mardynn felt a little sick, and so looked away from the writing.  “Do you know anyone who can read this?”

Ehldrenor thought about this.  “I don’t believe so.  Velen might, but it would be very difficult to get an audience for something like this.”

“What about a Warlock?  Would they be able to read it?”

“Hmm…”  Ehldrenor rubbed his chin, and his tentacles twitched.  “They might know two or even three of the languages, depending on their studies, but the whole thing…  It would be a longshot.  And I would rather not rely on their kind to stop this.”

Mardynn frowned.  “I don’t like their kind either, but can we really say we’re above asking them for help?  I don’t-”

Islorus finally spoke up, cutting her off from what she’d been about to say. “I know who we can see.  I know who will be able to read it.”

Mardynn brightened.  “Really?  Why didn’t you say so?”

He glanced at Ehldrenor.  “You’re not going to like this, big man.”

Ehldrenor folded his arms over his chest.  “I suspect not.”

“They’ve only just arrived in the city, but it sounds like the King trusts them.  There’s rumors about them, but I hear they might be able to do exactly what we need.  If what I hear is true, anyway, they might be even more dangerous than the warlocks, but their instinctive knowledge is unparalleled.”

Mardynn was lost.  “Who?”

“The ones who fight fire with fire.”  Islorus bared his teeth in a slightly terrifying grin.  “The Illidari.  The demon hunters.”

He was right.

Ehldrenor didn’t like it.


 

“They’re abominations.”

“So am I.  Or did you forget what I am?”

They stood together in the rolling parkway of the Mage District, their feet on soft grass.  Just as the Dwarven District had been brown, the roofs here were a deep purple - reminiscent of the colors of the Kirin Tor.  According to rumor, this was where the Illidari - the surviving followers of Illidan Stormrage - had set up their enclave, and to which the strange newcomers had mostly kept to themselves.  No one knew much about them, other than that they had taken demonic power into their bodies and become weapons against the Legion - though whether they had any loyalty to the Alliance beyond that shared goal was up for debate.

“You’re undead.  Not a demon.”  Ehldrenor’s voice was as cold as Islorus’ eyes.  “There’s a difference, and you know it.”

“That hasn’t stopped people like you from calling me a monster for being what I am.  Death knights are outcasts, just like they are.  We’re closer than you think.”  Islorus was on the defensive this time, and Mardynn thought she could understand why.  These demon hunters, death knights like Islorus… They had quite a lot in common.

“You haven’t consorted with demons .  There is no recovery from corruption like that.”  Ehldrenor’s hand drifted to the hilt of the sword at his side.  Islorus noticed, and his eyes narrowed.  Mardynn thought that it seemed more a gesture of self comfort than a threatening one, though Islorus might not interpret it that way.

“I was also a servant of the Lich King.  You don’t get more evil than that.  Do you have any idea what he made me do?  The innocents I slaughtered, without hesitation?”  He snorted.  “I suppose not, or you wouldn’t accept me so readily.”

Ehldrenor had gone pale, but his face was set and resolute.  “Even had serving that creature been a choice you made, you have more than atoned for what you have become.  It doesn't influence you the way the Legion would.”

Mardynn stepped between them.  “Stop!  Ehldrenor, I’m sorry, but I’m with Islorus this time.  I think he’s right.  The Illidari might be able to help us.  They hate the Legion as much as we do.  Maybe more.  We don’t have to like it, but… They’re the only lead we have.”

Islorus leaned back on his heels, self-satisfied.  Ehldrenor’s face darkened.  “Mark my words.  They will lead us into darkness.”

Mardynn sighed.  “Your concerns are… Noted.  Can we please just see what they have to say?  We can always find a second opinion.”

The great Draenei paladin heaved a massive sigh.  “Fine.  But my hand will be on the hilt of my sword the whole time.  I won’t let them turn against you.”

Maybe we should have just left him somewhere , Mardynn couldn’t help but think.  He was diplomatic at the best of times, but to a people whose very existence so offended him, who knew what he might do?  But it was too late for that now.  He was here, and he was going, and he was going to try to protect her.  Part of her was a little flattered, but mostly she was just… Exasperated.  She could hold her own if she had to.

Still, they kept walking.  As they drew closer and closer to the enclave, the streams of people around them started to dry up to a trickle, down to nearly nothing.  By the time they reached it, the foot traffic had become all but nothing.  Nobody wanted to mess with the Illidari.

The enclave was.. Surprisingly normal, if you ignored the denizens.  All it was was a simple dead end of buildings, circled around a small area of grassy parkland.  There was no decoration that proclaimed it as claimed by anyone other than citizens of Stormwind, and the buildings were clean and well kept, from what she could see.  In one wall, which Mardynn suspected was the edge of the district, a tunnel burrowed away, out into the sunlight on the other side.  What made the place distinctive were, well…

The demon hunters.

There were dozens of them that Mardynn could see.  Nearly all of them were Night Elves, their slender frames and purple and blue skin exotic and beautiful in the sunlight.  Two or three of them seemed to be High Elves, their soft hair fair and their skin pale, but they were vastly underrepresented.  That wasn’t what was strange, though - Mardynn had seen elves before.  These elves all looked somehow both vastly different and strictly uniform.  They all wore blindfolds of one description or another, from simple strips of dirty cloth to ornate masks that covered the whole face.  From their hair extruded a pair of horns on every one of them, though no two looked precisely the same in either size or shape.  Most wore simple trousers, and nothing on the chest; the men were chiseled and lean at the same time, and the women (who wore little more than bandages over their chests) were fit and rippling just below the surface with muscle.  Tattooes of unrecognizable designs wrapped around their bare flesh, and continued under their scant clothing.  

Mardynn couldn’t help but stare, that feeling of vaguely wrong unreality coming over her again.  They were so beautiful but so strange, so unnatural and yet so perfect.

Ehldrenor hadn’t been kidding about his sword - he gripped the hilt tight, his face hard and guarded.

Islorus looked… strangely pensive.  

“You’re an odd bunch,” said a soft, lilting voice from off to the side, jolting them out of their reveries.  They turned, to find another demon hunter - this one, a young night elf woman, was wearing what looked like ornate black and green leather armor, gold finish twisting and playing along the edges.  Her skin was a sickly, pale purple, and she seemed a tad underfed, her face bony and pointed.  Her horns were thick, curling ram’s horns protruding from her shoulder length, rich blue hair.  Red tattoos like splayed fingers lay on her face, and when she grinned, Mardynn saw that her canine teeth had been filed into - or simply grew as - pointed fangs.  “A human, a worgen, and a draenei walk into a tavern.  I wonder.  What comes next?”

Ehldrenor seemed ready to unsheathe his sword, but Mardynn put a hand on his forearm and stepped forward.  “We need help, and we thought your people could help.” Now that she was closer, she could see a faint green glow eminating from beneath the edges of her simple blindfold.  There was something entrancing about that, and Mardynn realized she was having trouble looking away.  She blinked, shook her head, and held out her hand.  “My name is Mardynn.”

The demon hunter stepped closer, smooth as a sinuous shadow, and placed her hand in Mardynn’s.  Her skin was surprisingly smooth and warm, not at all rough, despite the patches of scaly flesh on the other hunters.  Mardynn looked down at them; the elf’s fingernails seemed almost manicured, but… they were made of a substance that looked more like bone than nail.  Her grip wasn't particularly strong, but Mardynn could feel the power in those hands like a coiled spring.  “Anareila.” She held the grip for just a moment longer than necessary before releasing Mardynn, that grin playing along her strange lips.  “But you can call me Ana.”

Mardynn nodded nervously, then gestured to her companions.  “This is Islorus - don't worry, he won't bite,” (Islorus bowed, that wolfish grin on his face) “and this is Ehldrenor.  He, um, might.”

Ehldrenor gave a curt nod, not taking his eyes off her for a moment.  

“Nice horns,” Islorus told the demon hunter.

“Nice teeth,” Anareila said pleasantly, as if discussing the weather.

Islorus guffawed, then padded over to slap her on the shoulder.  “I like you.”

“I’m flattered,” Ana said, and dropped a curtsy that was so deep it was almost mocking.  When she rose, her face was bright, and she glanced at Ehldrenor.  “Your friend may not bite, but I do.” She clicked her teeth to demonstrate.  “Cause trouble, and you'll have more than me to deal with - and I don't need my glaives to take you out.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Ehldrenor growled.

“Let's not,” Mardynn sighed.  

Ana giggled, then twirled a hand in a lah-dee-dah kind of way.  “I can behave myself if the blueberry can.”

Islorus laughed again.  “You're one to talk, kid.”

“I am a plum , thank you very much, ” Ana said, mock offended.  Or maybe really offended.  It was a little hard to tell.

Ana really wasn't what Mardynn had expected out of one of the legendary demon hunters.  She'd expected someone more… outwardly dangerous.  Standoffish, perhaps.  Ana was just… friendly?

And warm.

“Can you settle something for us?” Mardynn cut in before they could get too off track - or before Ana antagonized Ehldrenor into violence.  “How many demonic languages can you understand?”

Ana tilted her head.  “Spoken or written?”

“Written.”

Ana glanced upward, started counting on her fingers… and grinned wide.  It was a little unsettling. “All of them.”

Mardynn’s eyes widened.  “All of them?”

Ana nodded proudly.  “Name a demon, I can speak its language.” She pounded her chest.  “Think the demon I ate was a bookkeeper.”

“The demon you…”. Mardynn frowned.  “...Ate?”

The elf waved her hand dismissively.  “You don't need to know.” Her smile widened.  Suddenly, it seemed as if her canines weren't the only teeth that were fangs.  “Or maybe you do.  You see, I killed a demon.  And ate its heart.” She slowly raised a hand to her lips and licked it gently, as if getting the last bit of sauce.  “And then I killed it again.  And I ate it again.”. Her voice had changed.  It was still soft and musical, but now there was another element to it, something intense and uncomfortable and wrong.  “And again, and again, and again.  Do you know what demon tastes like, darling Mardynn?  It's indescribable.” She licked her lips, this time, and her whole body shuddered in remembrance.  “The most delicious part is how eventually, you come to enjoy it.  To crave it.” Anareila stepped forward.

Mardynn found herself stepping back, unsure how to react.  The change had been so sudden.

Ehldrenor stepped forward, sword in hand.  The other demon hunters all around the enclave had focused in on him, but none of them had moved - yet.  “Stay back.”

Anareila sighed and bounced back on her heels, raising her hands in mock surrender.  “Whatever you say, blueberry man.  You all need to know what the world is like.”

Ehldrenor snarled.

Anareila laughed merrily.  It was a genuine sound, and Mardynn found herself actually almost put at ease by it.

“If we can please stay on target,” she said, a little grumpy.  “It doesn't matter how.  You can read all the demonic languages?”

Ana nodded.

“Then…” Mardynn ran down a brief version of the facts of the murders, including what they'd been able to find out. As she spoke, interest filled Ana’s face, and she leaned in closer, as if to hear better.  “...And she wrote down what she remembered in my journal.” She pulled the journal from her bag and opened to the drawings.  

Ana took the book and frowned.  “Well, I have good news, and I have bad news.”

“Good news?” Islorus asked.

“The good news is that this is definitely demonic.  Perfectly legible.”

Mardynn’s heart sank.  “And the bad news?”

Ana turned the notebook on its side as if trying to find something hidden, and her brow furrowed over her blindfold.  “Your friend must have misremembered.  This is gibberish.”

Ehldrenor snorted.  “No more than I expected from one of them.”

Mardynn shook her head.  “No, that's not possible.  She has perfect memory.  This is what she saw.”

Ana shrugged.  “I don't know what to tell you, then.  The words are correct, but this is no sentence structure or grammar any language I know used.  It's just a jumble of words.”

Islorus frowned.  “You're saying they went through all this trouble for a ritual, and didn't even bother getting the summons right?”

“I don't know what I’m saying.  But look: fear lord terror of terror bring hound and forth dread disease fire dead to fire infect in of terror… It goes on like this.  You can't just write anything and make something happen.  There has to be meaning.  This is just a list of words.  If they were trying to pull off a ritual, then they're idiots.”

Mardynn grimaced.  “But that doesn't make sense!  Why go through all this trouble to write in blood if you're not going to use it?”

Ehldrenor grunted.  “Because she's a charlatan, and she doesn't know what she's talking about.”

Ana somehow managed to convey the idea of rolling her eyes through the way she tilted her head.  “Ask any of my brothers and sisters.  Ask a warlock.  Ask a demon, I don't care.  They're all going to tell you the same thing.” She smiled sweetly.

Mardynn was too busy being confused to enjoy that smile.  “There has to be a reason.”

Islorus rolled his shoulders.  “Maybe it wasn't a ritual?”

“Then what?” Mardynn couldn't imagine anything else.  “It couldn't be a message, or they wouldn't have cleaned up the writing.  Or they would have written in something like common demonic, that would be easy to translate.”

Ana raised a single finger.  “I have an idea.  I will share it on one condition.”

“A condition?” Mardynn asked.

Ana tapped her chin with the finger, and her lips twisted into a smile.  “You let me join you.  I’m bored here, in this enclave.  I want to help solve the mystery and fight the Legion.”

“Okay,” said Islorus, at the same moment that Ehldrenor growled, “Absolutely not.”

The two of them glared at each other.

Mardynn looked from one to the other, then sighed.  Did she trust Anareila?  Not really.  Not as far as she could throw her lithe body.  But something in the back of her head whispered to let her in, to allow her to assist them.  A demon hunter could be greatly advantageous.  She had knowledge that the three of them didn’t.  Information about the Legion.

But that moment .  When she had seemed to turn.  What had that been?

Who was Anareila?

Finally, though, she nodded.  They had to make a leap of faith sometime, she supposed.  “Ana, you can join us.  Just don't… don't antagonize Ehldrenor anymore than you have to, okay?”

Ana pouted.  “But he’s so easy to rile up!” The pout became a girlish giggle. “Alright.  Whatever you say, darling Mardynn.”

Islorus looked from the demon hunter to Mardynn and back, looking thoughtful.  Ehldrenor looked mad, but he was holding his tongue.

“Um.  Right.” Mardynn smiled uncertainly.  “What's your idea?”

Ana clapped her hands once.  “Practice!”

Mardynn frowned.  “Practice?”

“Or experimentation.” Anareila waved a hand.  “One of those.”

Mardynn didn't understand, but Islorus’s eyes widened.  “Then all of this… These murders.  You think they're just a warm up?”

She looked between them, lost.  “A warm up?  What do you mean?”

Ana smiled sweetly.  “Imagine you're our culprit.  You have a goal in mind - perform a ritual, to do… something.  Set that part aside for now.  You know it works, but the execution,” she giggled, “no pun intended, needs to be perfect.  You need to get in, get out, fast.  You need to be able to get writing on the walls, maybe you need a witness, and - here's the important thing - you need to leave no trace.  You don't know if you can pull it off exactly right the first time, and like most big rituals, messing it up will have disastrous results.”

Mardynn's eyes widened.  “So you perform the murder a few times first, to practice everything.  Write junk on the walls, since you’re not performing the ritual, but testing to be sure it can be done.”

Anareila nodded.  “And that means…”

The gears kept turning.  “It means it's going to happen again.  And it means that one of these times…”

“Go on.”

“They're going to use the death to power a ritual.  And it's going to be big.”

Ana snapped her fingers.  “Precisely.”

“We have a time limit,” Mardynn breathed.  “We need to find the killer before they're confident in the murder method.”

Islorus nodded.  “And they could be ready at any moment.”

Chapter Text

Brill was only a scant few miles from the Undercity, but even that made for a harrowing journey.  

Salissi’s emotions ran wild.  Part of her was still sick with anxiety and fear, but she was surprised to discover that a still greater part of her was… well, thrilled.   It had been so long since she'd seen birds, or trees , or even natural mist.  Tirisfal was hauntingly beautiful, and the way the sunbeams cut down through the trees and the fog was as beautiful as anything she'd seen in all her years in the Undercity.  She’d barely even left the front gates, and already the beauty was overwhelming.  

Before the walk could truly begin, though, she paused at the bottom of the hill.  It was… yes, right there.  At the side of the road.  It was cleanly kept grass, now, not a muddy divot in the ground, but she could almost see herself still lying there, ready to let it all end.  This was where she'd given up.  This was where her second life had truly begun.  This was where-


 

Water poured from the sky, a torrential downpour that matched the chaos in her mind.  For once, there was no fog - the rain had washed it all away.  There was plenty of fog inside her, though.

Her.

That was all she could think of herself as.  Her, or The Girl.  Had she had a name once?  She must have, but that was lost like her tears in the rain, lost like so much of what she had been. All that was left was this rotting excuse for a body.

The girl lay in the mud, face to the sky.  Dirty water filled her empty eye sockets, but still she could see.   Why could she still see?  It was just another reminder of the abomination she had become.  She was cold, but she could barely feel that anymore. Was that a sign that she was slipping away into blessed oblivion for a second time, or was she simply immune to the temperature?

Where was she?  Who was she?

She was The Girl, and she was dead.  Wasn't death supposed to be peaceful?

Where had the Light gone?

Lightning flashed, and she squeezed her eyelids shut with a whimper.  Barely a moment later, thunder crashed like the sound of an angry God, and she curled herself into a ball.  She was covered in mud.  Worms writhed all around her, dancing in the blessed moisture, but she didn't care.  

They should be eating me, some vague voice whispered in her head.  Decomposing rotting return this flesh to the earth the circle of life this is wrong this is WRONG WRONG WRONG

Her thoughts slammed to a halt as she realized she was babbling out loud, and she barked out a laugh that made her own skin prickle.

The Girl stared at her hand.  It was white, far too white.  Some of the others she'd seen had bones poking out from their skin, but thank the Light, the Light that had forsaken her, that her skin was gnarled but intact.

(wrong)

She closed her hand into a fist, then opened it slowly, unfurling her fingers like the petals of a flower. No, she could be no flower. She raised it to the sky, a dark silhouette against the stormy clouds, and another flash of lightning illuminated it from behind.

How long had it been?  How long had she been in the ground

(the red hand laughing)

before that angel of death had brought her back?  How had she

(the red hand laughing as he twisted her)

died?  Had she had a

(her jaw free as her husband and infant son watched)

family?

She stiffened, and her hand came down to cup her chin - or else, the air where her chin had been, where her tongue flapped uselessly.  That horrible laughter bubbled up again, and she curled tighter into a ball.  Her hands beat at her temples uselessly.  “Go away,” she mumbled, strange sounds coming from her jawless maw in some semblance of words.  “I don't want to remember I don't want TO REMEMBER PLEASE-” Her shout faded into laughter, and tears rolled down her face, and she choked on a sob.

She didn't want to remember dying, but the images played over and over in her head.

How long did she lie there?

Time didn't matter.  An hour?  A day?

All The Girl knew was that when the Angel appeared and saved her life, it was still raining.

The first thing she noticed was the sound of hooves.  Her eyes were closed, and she was sobbing, and it didn't matter.  People had passed her by before, they would pass her by again.

“Another one.” The voice was a woman’s voice, cold and clipped.  The hooves stopped.  “Another mindless.”

“They’re becoming more common, milady.” This voice was rough, growling.  “The val’kyr are not so gentle as the dead may need.”

“I've seen what's on the other side, Nathanos.” There was an introspective quality to the woman’s voice.  Something quiet.  “This is a blessing.  They don't know it, but I have saved them from a fate far worse than they will ever know.”

The Girl wanted to laugh at the woman.  This?  A blessing?  But she could barely lift her head, let alone offer defiance.

“Yes, milady.” The male voice hesitated.  “Shall I have the men clear her off the road?”

“If you must.  My people do not like to be reminded of them.”

Rough hands grabbed The Girl’s arms, and her eyes flew open.  She screamed, the sound more like a banshee than that of a woman, and twisted and rolled.  The grips broke, and she flung herself to her feet.  Her eye lights rolled like a crazed horse, and she took a step back.

Two undead clad in purple leather armor approached her, their faces cold and uncaring.  Behind them, on a pair of skeletal horses, sat a man and a woman.  The man had once been human, and his pale skin and glowing red eyes matched the woman’s.  An almost living, brown beard framed a handsome, solid face.  

The woman…

She was beautiful.  Clad all in black, with a hood pushed up over her head, her face was pointed and severe, all hard lines and cold calculation.  Her eyes were a deep crimson, what The Girl could see of her hair was silver, and her mouth was a tight line - but even as The Girl watched, it twisted into a small smirk.  Long ears pulled back from her head, poking out of holes cut in the hood - even in her disoriented state, The Girl could recognize an elf.  A column of what appeared to be soldiers surrounded the two, but they hadn't moved to help their brothers.  “This one has some spirit left, it seems.”

The first soldier made a grab for her, but The Girl darted back, then grabbed him by the wrist.  She twisted, and something snapped, the soldier howling in pain.  She shoved him forward, into the second soldier, and they both went sprawling in a heap on the ground.  Her eyes whipped from side to side, and she grabbed a heavy branch that had been knocked down by the storm.  Thunder cracked, and she rained blows down on the two undead men, screaming in rage and terror.  Neither could withstand the blows long enough to get to their feet, and one of their noses caved in with a hearty crunch.   Black sludge dribbled from the ruined orifice.  

The man on the horse - Nathanos? - touched the bow at his back.  “Milady? Shall I…?”

The woman raised her hand in a halt gesture.  “No.  Not yet.” She swung herself down from her horse in one graceful motion, and approached The Girl.  

The Girl flinched back, raising the branch in a defensive posture, but the woman only smiled coldly.  “Do you know who I am?”

The Girl blinked, confused, and shook her head.  

(wrong wrong wrong)

“My name is Sylvanas Windrunner.  I'm the reason you're here today.”

The name meant nothing to her, but… Rusty gears started to turn in The Girl’s mind, and something clicked.  “You,” she hissed.  “You did this!” Before she could stop herself, she swung the branch like a massive club, aiming directly at the elf woman’s head, hard enough to shatter bone.

Rather than try to dodge the blow, the woman raised a hand and simply stopped the swinging branch an inch from her face.  The Girl strained, but the woman simply pulled , and the branch tumbled away to the side of the road.

Without hesitation, not even feeling the torn skin on her palms, The Girl roared and lunged forward, hands twisted into grasping claws, ready to tear this arrogant woman apart with her fingers.  Her nails were practically claws, after all.  It wouldn't be hard.

Between one moment and the next, though, The Girl found herself unable to move.  Sylvanas had taken her by the throat, and squeezed.  It didn't seem to matter that she couldn't breathe, but something about the way the former elf applied pressure was terrifying.

“A few pounds of pressure more, and…” Sylvanas tilted her head.  “Your neck snaps and you go back to that hell that is death.  What's your name?”

She wanted to fight, but she just… couldn't.  All the violence had gone out of her.  Even through the rain, The Girl felt a tear run down her cheek.  “Don't… I don't… remember…” The words were barely intelligible, but the other woman who called herself Sylvanas seemed to understand.

Sylvanas gave her a look that was almost sympathetic.  “Perhaps that's for the best.  Your old life is over, and you will have to accept that.  Why keep something that will tie you to it, like a name?” She stared hard into The Girl’s eyes, and she found herself utterly unable to look away, no matter how hard she tried.  Those softly glowing red orbs were… hypnotizing.  She found herself sagging, going limp in the woman’s grip.  

She only cried harder, though.  “I don't… I can't…” She could barely get the words out, and she still barely knew where she was.  “You made me a monster.”

Sylvanas smiled with grim humor.  “We’re all monsters here.  It isn't so bad as it seems.”

The Girl squeezed her eyes shut tight.  “I don't know what to do.”

“I think I can help.” Sylvanas lowered her to the ground, releasing her throat.  “You have good reflexes and combat instincts.  I think you have potential.”

“P… Potential?” The Girl sniffed, looking up at Sylvanas’ face.  There was a desperation in her voice, a need for direction.

“I am in need of agents I can trust.”  Sylvanas snapped her fingers.  “Nathanos.”

The man jumped off his horse and walked to her side.  “Yes, my lady?”

“Find this girl a place to stay, then take her to the Deathstalkers.”

He smiled wryly.  “Another one of your little projects, my lady?”

Sylvanas sniffed, but she hardly seemed annoyed.  “I see what she could become, with time.”  Her eyes turned distant.  “I pity them, you know.  The weak ones.  They too are our brothers and sisters, even if we must do what has to be done with them.”

“Yes, my lady.”  Nathanos bowed deeply, then offered his hand to The Girl.  She glanced nervously from Sylvanas to the man and back, and Sylvanas nodded.

The Girl took his hand, clad in a leather glove, and sniffled.  He gave her an encouraging smile, and began to lead her away.  “You're a lucky one, girl.  The Dark Lady doesn't often take an interest in strays.”

That's what she was, wasn't she?  A stray.  A broken stray.  She shuddered, and looked down at the ground as they walked.  “I don't want this.”

Nathanos opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get a word out, Sylvanas called out.  “Girl.”

The Girl ground to a halt, turning her whole body back to look at the Dark Lady.

“When I was a girl in Silvermoon, I had a friend who you remind me of.  She was always dirty, always ready for a fight.  We used to sneak out and play in the forests at night.  A boy tried to touch her once, and she broke his nose.” She smiled fondly.  “I haven't thought of her in decades.”

Nathanos looked confused, and a little concerned.  “My lady?  Are you feeling alright?”

The Girl listened with rapt attention.

“If you are to live with us, you need a name.” Sylvanas’s deep red eyes regarded her calmly, and she paused. “She had a good name.  A fitting name.  Until you remember your old name or think of something better…. Call yourself Salissi.”


 

The Girl-

No, Salissi.

Salissi wiped a tear from one cold cheek, staring down at the patch of grass where she’d lain so long ago.

Sylvanas had given her everything.  She'd never be able to repay that debt.  How could she?  Her life for the Dark Lady.

She lingered there for a long few minutes, haunting that ground like a lost spirit.  Finally, she saluted, crossing her arms over her chest.  Sylvanas was long gone from this place, but her memory would always be here.

In a way, Salissi thought she would be here forever.  There would always be a part of her that was that scared girl, shivering in the cold she could barely feel, waiting for hypothermia or starvation that would never come.  

She'd come so far.

Finally, she turned, leaving the grassy patch behind.  

She made for Brill.

The road was hilly and winding, and the trees reminded her more and more of grasping fingers as she walked; would they reach down and grab her, pulling her back into the ground?

She'd spent too long in the ground.

Still, she steeled herself.  She was Salissi.  She was strong.  It didn't matter that this place was new and unfamiliar.  She could do this.  The Dark Lady needed her, and the Light would burn her before she would let her Lady down for any reason.

Tendrils of mist swirled around her feet as she walked, and the bright sun disappeared behind dark clouds.  In a way, that was comforting.  She was used to the dark in a way she would never again be used to the light.  Shadows lengthened, and some of the trees almost seemed to have faces, grimacing in distaste at her as she passed.  A breeze rustled the leaves overhead. Whispers in the fog.  

She passed several travelers on her short journey, and each time they nodded at her as they passed.  She smiled brightly and nodded back.  These people were used to the outside.  They didn't know what she was.  That was fine with Salissi; a little genuine interaction was nice every now and then, and you didn't get that if everyone knew you were the queen’s assassin on sight.

One of the travelers was missing a jaw - she’d lost hers due to the circumstances of her death, but for many Forsaken, they just sort of fell off during the decomposition process, before the raising.  The muscles and ligaments didn’t hold.  To this individual, Salissi recommended a good location in the Undercity to obtain a replacement, of whatever material you desired.  The traveler thanked her, tipped her a pair of shiny silver coins for the tip, and walked on, standing just a little bit straighter.

That felt good.

After what felt like eons, but couldn’t have been more than an hour or two, Salissi arrived at Brill.  Salissi had passed through the small town once before, when she had been out of her mind in the beginning, but it had looked far different, then.  Back then - she only barely remembered this - the town had been more than a little decrepit, consisting of old Lordaeronian buildings that hardly seemed to have been maintained since the original plague.  The place had looked one step from falling apart, not unlike the fledgling nation of the dead that it represented.  The architecture had been typical human construction.

Sometime between then and now, however, a great reconstruction effort seemed to have taken place.  Gone was the moldering wood and rotting eaves; in their place were curving structures of stone and metal.  The glass in the windows was all tinged a slight purple, stained glass in the most basic of structures.  The inn was both taller and narrower than she remembered; from the little she remembered hearing about the project, the thing extended a good distance down into the earth.  Not only that, the town seemed to have frowned; it extended much further in every direction than she remembered.

Dominating the center square was the crown jewel of the artistry on display: a towering, almost frighteningly lifelike stone statue of the Dark Lady herself, Sylvanas Windrunner.  She stood with her hand on her hip, her head tilted, as if to say “Is this all?”  The tiny skulls on her shoulder pads were bigger than Salissi’s head, her cape splayed out like an enormous sheet of thin rock.  The outfit was a bit out of date - Sylvanas had recently covered her midriff with a piece of dark enchanted leather, but apart from that, the statue was the spitting image of her Lady.  She stood just outside the pointed metal fence surrounding the base, gazing up at it for a long minute.  It really was beautiful.

The town was far more bustling than the last time she’d been here, as well.  Men and women - mostly undead, but a few other Horde races dotted the crowd here and there - moved from place to place in throngs, and a quiet murmuring filled the air.  It was strange.  Usually crowds were loud, but here, under the watchful eye of the stone Sylvanas, nobody seemed to want to raise their voice.

That was, of course, until she finally approached the the building she suspected to be the town hall.  She raised her hand to open the door, and paused; there was shouting coming from inside.  The voice was gruff, deep, gnarled; it wasn’t a young voice, but neither was it exactly the voice of the elderly.  She couldn’t quite make out the words.  It paused every few moments, a calm voice replying, then continued its angry tirade.  Salissi waited.  She didn’t want to be a part of whatever was going on in there, even as nosy as she was.

Finally, the voices ceased, and heavy stomping came toward the door.  Salissi stepped back and to the side, and it was a good thing she did.  The door burst open as if a (probably goblin-made) bomb had gone off on the other side.  In the doorway was a hulking orcish form, far larger than that idiot Kurdok had been.  He was clothed in ornate robes of grey and maroon and black; the gloves on his meaty hands appeared to be made of gold.  Curved, multi pronged spikes jutted out from his heavy shoulderguards.  A heavy green gem was inset into his belt, which glowed softly.  It matched his staff; the thing was taller than Salissi was, and probably heavier, too.  It looked to be made of steel; on the bottom, what looked like a rotating saw blade sat idle; the head was bigger than the orc’s, also glowing an electric green, with strange electrodes dotting the sphere, and four curved iron spikes jutting out from the four cardinal directions.

The orc’s hood matched his robe, but there was something unusual about it: there were round blue lenses set into it, covering his eyes, soft blue light pouring out.  His face was older and wrinkled, but there was nothing weak about what she could see.  His heavy teeth were set in a grimace of anger, and she could see that one of his tusks was chipped and cracked.  A long tuft of ragged beard protruded from his chin.

Idiot, ” he growled in orcish, storming past Salissi without sparing her so much as a glance.  From behind him was a growl, and a huge red and black creature, almost doglike, with a skull for a face, followed on all fours.  A felhunter.   Warlock , she thought.   What’s an Orc warlock doing in Brill? Making trouble, at that.

She watched him go, the crowds giving him and his demon a wide berth, as he strode toward the tavern, just a few doors down.  He walked with a slight limp, though it wasn't pronounced enough that he needed to use his staff to help him stay upright.  It seemed like it would be useless for that task anyway, though, with that weird blade on the bottom.

Interesting.

She filed him away for future reference, and entered the town hall.


 

The man they called Dust was a smarmy bastard, and it was just about all Salissi could do to not hit him in the face.

She'd like to see him make that stupid smug face of his without a jaw.

The man leaned back behind his desk, fingers clasped in front of him, smiling disdainfully.  He was especially rotten - in more ways than one - and his hair was a frizzy ring around the sides of his head.  He would have benefitted greatly from a hat, she thought grouchily.   No wonder that Orc was so pissed off.  I should go buy him a drink.   One side of his mouth was quirked up in a disdainful smile.  

Apparently, he didn't think much of Deathstalkers.

Still, she just stood ramrod straight in front of him, arms behind her back.  Mostly to keep herself from reaching for a dagger.  

“Yes, I remember the caravan you're talking about,” he said smoothly.  He even sounded like a politician.  “I should have the manifest somewhere, here…”

He opened a drawer on the desk and took his time rummaging through it, clearly taking sadistic glee in making such an important person as her wait.

She tapped her foot impatiently.  

He ignored her.  After what seemed like forever, he pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment.  “Peacebloom, silverleaf, copper….” He tapped the paper with a bony finger.  “Ah… earthroot.  This must be what you were looking for.” His voice dripped so much sarcasm that Salissi thought she might drown, and she didn't even need to breathe .  “The case of the missing earthroot?”

Salissi sighed quietly.  “It's not earthroot and you know it.  This is above your pay grade, Dust.”

Mock horror dawned on the supply master’s face.  “There is no such thing, my dear.  I know everything that goes on in my caravans.” He spread his arms expectantly.  “They are my life’s work, you see, and I do my best to take care of them.”  He held up a finger, and shook his head sadly.  “Except, it seems, that isn't as true as I thought.”

“The Dark Lady doesn't tell anybody everything, Dust.”

He smiled graciously.  “Please, call me Supply Master.”

“No.”

Dust shrugged.   “As you wish, my dear.  What I'm trying to say is that I will not have such apparently vital and dangerous things shipped in my caravans without my knowledge.”

Salissi grit her teeth, stiffening.  “I didn't make the call.  I didn't know about it myself until the Dark Lady informed me herself.  You know you're just blaming the messenger.”

“I'm not blaming anyone.  I just want to know what's going on under my nose.”

Salissi huffed out a breath.  “It's.   Classified.

Dust looked at her sadly.  “Then I suppose we have nothing to discuss.”

Salissi wanted to shriek.   Bureaucrats. “ Okay, okay, look.  I swear, by the power and honor bestowed upon me by the Dark Lady, that once this theft is resolved, you’ll be the first to know what was stolen and who was responsible.”  She clenched her fists behind her back.  “And if you knew me, you’d know how much that oath means to me.”

Dust rubbed his hands together softly. “Hmm…”  He leaned forward.  “Alright.”  Again, he raised a finger.  “On one condition.”

Salissi desperately supressed the urge to rub at her face.  “Just tell me what it is you want.”

He raised his eyebrows.  “Well, if you are truly so close to Sylvanas herself, then… well, our budget here in Brill isn’t what it once was…”  He trailed off, eyes wide and innocent.  “I’m sure you understand what I mean.”

“Light blind me, you want a bribe?

Dust pressed a hand to his chest in shock.  “A bribe?! Heavens, no!  It is simply a small request for my town’s benefit, as there is oh so much to be done and oh so little gold to go around…”

Salissi sighed again.  “Alright, you’ll get your message.  I can’t promise anything more than that the Dark Lady will see it, but you’ll get it.”  She stood up a little straighter.  “Now, tell me what you can about those barrels.”

Dust shrugged.  “Heavy.  Nondescript.  I received a note and a hefty sum from an apothecary in the Undercity.  I did as ordered and included them in the shipment, but I assure you, when the barrels left Brill, the seals were uncracked.  No one knew what was inside them, not even myself.”

Salissi nodded.  He wasn’t the most trustworthy guy she’d ever met, but you didn’t hold down a job like this if you weren’t capable of following orders and keeping a secret.  “I’ll need a list of all the personnel who went with the caravan.  Anyone who might have had a chance to handle the barrels at any point.  Or even to see them.”

Dust nodded, and slowly began to search around the desk again.  Salissi groaned,  He paused, looked up at her, and smiled.  “Patience is a virtue, my dear.  I remember that much from my days at the church.”

Salissi raised an eyebrow.  “ You were a part of the church?”

He waved an idle hand.  “Before I died, dear, before I died.  Ancient history.  I’m not any more interested in talking about my past than I’m sure you are in talking about your own.”

Salissi nodded. “Fair enough.”

He came out with another sheet of parchment, running a finger down it’s length with a small nod.  “This is it.  Everyone who was a part of that particular caravan.”  He slapped it down on the table, spun it with one hand, and slid it to the edge on her side.  “I guarantee that’s the complete list.”

She stepped forward, finally unclasping her hand.  She’d always loved the smell and the feel of new parchment.  This wasn’t quite new, but it was close enough for government work.  She read down the list.  

Deathguard Linnea

Deathguard Simmer

Deathguard Lundmark

Deathguard Kel….

And on and on, about fifteen names, until she reached the last item on the list.   Inventory: Two abominations, seven pack zombies, six skeletal packhorses.

There was no further information on the group of Deathguards or caravan workers, just names,  but it was a place to start.  She tapped the first name on the list.  “Are all of these people back in Brill?”

Dust nodded, once again reclining in his chair.  “Yes, they should be.  They were all contracted to a man to be a part of the return trip, with supplies from Silverpine and Hillsbrad.”

“And when do they leave?”

He shrugged.  “You should have about three days before they start to trickle away on the next set of caravans.  Some of the Deathstalkers will still be on duty, but the caravan workers all have the next day or two off.”

Salissi nodded, folding the paper into a square small enough to fit in a pocket.  “Thank you.  You’ve been… very helpful.”

Dust grinned widely.  He was missing teeth.  “Don’t mention it, my dear.  Just don’t forget the deal we made.”

“Trust me.  I won’t.”


 

The next step of her investigation was clear, but there were two things she wanted to do before beginning the inevitable tidal wave of interviews and interrogations.

First, she wanted to check out the Orc who had been raising such a stir with the Magistrate, earlier.  She wasn’t positive that he was connected, but he was an outlier, and in her experience, coincidences were far and few between.

Second… She needed a drink like a five silver prostitute needed the Light.  Dealing with Dust had not put her in a very good mood.

Those two things could be accomplished at the same place - The Gallow’s End Inn.  

They hadn’t even tried to give it a fitting name.  She sort of loved it.

Inside, it both was and wasn’t nearly as dead as the name suggested - all but a few of the patrons in the main dining room were Forsaken, but they were as lively as any crowd she’d seen in the Undercity.  In one corner, a group of men that looked like they’d been about eighteen when they died swayed drunkenly and belted out an old Lordaeronian drinking song together, in off key, gravelly voices.  A troll was snoring gently on another table, and from the wooden rubble and smashed glasses off to the other side, she’d just missed a particularly rowdy bar fight.

The orc stood out like a sore green thumb.  He sat at the bar, facing away from her, a huge tankard dripping condensation in from of him, his felstalker sitting patiently and panting at his heels.  No one seemed to be willing to sit within three stools of the guy.  His hood was down, though she couldn’t see his face from the entrance.  The back of his head was bald and just as green as the rest of what little she’d seen of him; on top was a messy gray mohawk that was halfway comical.  As she approached, he lifted the tankard and slugged back a few heavy gulps, then slammed it down on the bar with a heavy thunk .

“Government, right?” Salissi said lightly with a grin, sliding in beside him and onto a stool.  On the opposite side of the demon, of course.  She didn’t want to get too close to that one.  

“Hrm?” The orc grunted, his eyes flicking over to her.  They were milky and white; he was blind, then, or the next best thing to it.  Might explain the goggles.  She’d ask later, maybe, if she were feeling particularly rude.

“I heard you shouting at the Magistrate.  What’d you do, eat his dog?  That’d be big news in this town, you know, since nobody even knew he had a dog.”  She winked, then held up a hand to the bartender.  He wandered over, rubbing at a (much smaller) mug with a rag.  “I’ll have what he’s having.”

The orc raised an eyebrow.  He seemed to be sizing her up.  Not completely blind, then.  “That’ll knock you on your ass, skullface.  You’re pint-sized.”

Salissi grinned.  “First of all, that sounds like a challenge.  Second of all, I can hold my alcohol very well.  Third of all…”  She rapped the steel of her jaw with her knuckles.  It made a hollow tap tap tap sound.  “This isn’t skull, it’s steel.  Much better.”

He grunted again.  “You’re a talkative one.”

“So are you, if what I overheard was any indication.”

The bartender slid a foamy tankard, just as large as the orc’s, in front of her, and she flipped him a coin with a wink.  He caught it, and in the time it took her to blink, it was gone.  He was efficient.  Not particularly friendly, she supposed, but efficient.

The orc gulped ale again.  “And what did you overhear?”

Salissi lifted the tankard - it was almost as big as her head - and took a long pull.  The flavor was unfamiliar, but bold, and bitter as the day was long.  Nothing like they served in most places she’d been to in the undercity.  An orcish brew, perhaps?  “Enough.”

“So what do you want?”

“I want to know what you found.”  She drew her finger through the ring of moisture left over from where the tankard had originally sat, watching him out of the corner of her golden eyes.  “It must have been something big to get that worked up.”

“Doesn’t matter.  People hear what they want to hear.  Place could be burning, and people like that Magistrate would still insist that everything was normal.”

“And let me guess: at the rate they’re going, soon they will be?”

The orc reached idly down to scratch the felstalker’s head.  Like a dog, it leaned into the touch.  He didn’t answer.

Salissi took another drink, wiped her mouth, then offered her hand. “I’m Salissi.”

The orc didn’t even look at her hand.  “Korlon.”

Salissi rolled her eyes, then pulled out one of her daggers.  That got the orc’s attention, but he seemed more vaguely curious than worried about it.  She flipped it around to show him the insignia on the hilt.  “Do you know what this means?”

He blinked slowly.  “You’re a deathstalker.”

She nodded proudly.  “Have been for years.  See, I’m proud to be Forsaken.  I love the Dark Lady.  If you know about something that’s threatening her or her subjects, I would love to know.”  She was on a mission already, so she couldn’t just drop everything and go follow other leads, but her word carried enough weight that she was sure she could get an investigation going if she thought the situation called for it.  

Korlon seemed to consider this for a long moment.  He rubbed at his scraggly beard with a meaty, green hand.  “You know what I am.”  This wasn’t a question.

“A warlock?”

He nodded.  “I was in this town on business.  A favor for an old friend of mine.  You don’t need to know the specifics.  Why I was here in the first place doesn’t matter.”

Salissi wasn’t quite sure that was true, but she nodded anyway.

“I knew something was wrong from the moment I got here.  And before you get all touchy , no, I don’t mean all you undead.  I know your smell and I’m used to it.”

Salissi frowned.

The orc didn’t seem to notice.  Or maybe he just didn’t care.  “There was a familiar air, here.  One every warlock learns in his first days of apprenticeship, if he wants to survive.  I was here for three days, and every day that feeling in the back of my mind got worse and worse.  Xel here could smell something, too.  Every so often, we’d pass a spot, and he’d just go crazy.  So finally, I investigated.  The room next to mine in this inn was one of those... “ He grimaced.  “Hotspots.  So I gathered some materials.  Forced the door.  Performed a ritual to capture images of the past.  Find the residue.”

Salissi leaned in. This was something more than she had expected.  “What did you find?”

Korlon drained his mug, then slammed it down onto the bar.  The bartender gave him a dirty look, but hobbled over to refill it.  “This wasn’t the first ritual that had been performed in this town in the last week.”

“Another ritual?”

Korlon eyed her, his gnarled face grim.  “Blood sacrifice.”

Salissi’s eyes widened.

His eyes were distant.  “The whole room lit up, the way that only blood does when it’s been used as a magical reagent.  It covered the room.  I could make out runes on the walls, in the bloody residue.”  He sniffed the air, as if the coppery scent of blood lingered, even here.  “More blood on the floor in the corner, from a second person.  Like they used one for the ritual, and made one watch.  Fear has a power of it’s own, you know.”  He went silent for a moment. “There were the remains of a circle on the ground.”

“What kind of circle?”  Salissi could feel her stomach sinking.  She thought she knew the answer even before he told her.

“A summoning circle.  A powerful one.  And it was active.  Something came through, in the last two or three days.”

Before Salissi could properly digest this, the felstalker - Xel - growled.  It was a rumbling, basso sound, one that she could feel deep in her own chest, rattling the mugs on the bar.  While they’d been talking, the bartender had disappeared.

Korlon slowly reached back and drew up his hood.  The goggles settled over his eyes, and with a click, they locked into place.  As they did, soft blue light began to emanate from the opaque glass.  Slowly, silently, he reached to his side, where the strange, mechanical staff leaned against the bar.  It flared into ghoulish green light.

Salissi didn’t need to be told that something was wrong.  The felstalker’s growl had been the first clue, but something else was even more telling: the tavern had gone completely silent.  She touched her daggers, ready to draw them in a heartbeat.

In the dead silence of the common room, dozens of shuffling steps filled the room, along with the sharp thud thud thud of one single pair of heavy boots.

The orc exhaled slowly, then tilted his head back in a questioning gesture.

Salissi knocked back the rest of her ale, wiped her heavy jaw, and nodded.

A smug voice purred,  “The bitch queen’s pet, and a washed up old war hero.”  A quiet laugh filled the silence.  “The Legion has no need for people like you.”  Metal on leather - the unmistakable whisper of a sword being drawn.  “Tear them apart.”

And the room exploded into action.