Author: korinaka PM
Shifting loyalties are not just misplaced obligation, and sympathy for the devil has nothing to do with time and its products. Old debts, grey areas, and blind traditions force a troll and a human to set aside petty battles and face a common threat.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Adventure - Troll & Human - Chapters: 4 - Words: 31,161 - Reviews: 49 - Favs: 37 - Follows: 51 - Updated: 12-13-10 - Published: 01-16-10 - id: 5671461
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Thanks again to WoMo and Biskuits!
As always, feedback is appreciated!
Neetya could not remember much of her life as a human.
She could very barely recall the scent of pinewood, the warmth of a fire in a hearth, and a solid but yielding mass of a person beside her at almost constant intervals. She remembered the stable that had been built with bare hands, and she remembered the chestnut mare and grey stallion that lived there. She remembered that they bred one summer and produced a frail, knobby-kneed, speckled calf that bayed loudly whenever its mother cleaned it. A house made of wood and stone, a peaceful lake filled with fish, her belly rounded with child. A man with hard brown eyes and short black hair, his name starting with an M and ending with some forgotten song that had once rolled off of her tongue.
Neetya remembered smoke and flames, devouring wood and hay from the stables. Horses whinnying in fright and pain, splashes in the lake at the approach of a band of rotting dead, her M grabbing the steel broadsword in the chest at the foot of the bed and protecting his companion with a fury she had never witnessed in any mortal man—would never witness again, as passionless as she saw the world around her.
The memories stopped shortly after a specter of a human wallowed through the bedroom door, its skin dripping off of its bones in chunks of fetid flesh and maggots. They picked up again with her stumbling blindly from the brink of muddied oblivion, Sylvanas Windrunner looking up and down at her three newest recruits in thinly veiled disdain.
"My queen?" a weedy water reed of a man had uttered in a gravelly voice, his neck forever bent low in an injury he had sustained at his death.
"Give the woman an apothecary tome and send her off to Faranell," Sylvanas had said in the voice of a ghost. "Bring the men swords and leave them with me."
Neetya had been pulled to a dank underground labyrinth with walls that dripped from moisture and rot. Screams and moans colored the air, and the smell of chemicals had nearly made her retch. The water reed had left her sitting on the cold stone floor atop a double staircase, trying to piece together the time that had passed between M and now.
Faranell, bones sticking exposed from his hips and fingertips and cheeks, had not given her a second glance. In front of him, two students clung to his every word, excitement lighting the normally dim glow of their eyes. A man with hardly any jaw—a sight she had recoiled at initially—had grabbed her around the arm and made her to stand. Faranell had taken his two wards to a room in the back, and a deafening screech of agony, sounding distinctly elven, followed shortly.
"Welcome to the Undercity and to…undeath," he'd said casually, handing her a heavy, dusty book with words written in a foreign dialect of Common on the front. "Faranell would like you to read this. You will tend to the prisoners while you learn to speak Orcish and other basics. Keever is pleased to meet you, young one." It had taken her a while to figure out that the near-jawless man was Keever and spoke of himself in the third person. His brain had obviously been damaged in some insignificant way during his time as a human. There were many forsaken like this—most simply missing limbs or extremities, some unable to remember speech or common sense, trapped in an animalistic and dumb existence. Scores of these men and women were used as front-line guards for the Undercity, often outfitted in nothing but rags and a mace. The worst of them—those unable to follow simple instructions or attack whatever wasn't forsaken—were killed, their bodies sent to Faranell as viable scraps.
The number of escapees from Faranell's hellish grasp increased twofold in the time Neetya studied underneath him. For the two years she spent in his care, not a single subject died, and Faranell's studies came rather to a halt. She, along with many other new forsaken, had grasped tightly to the hope that a cure might yet be discovered, that she could return to life and continue living as she had before death. It was a foolish thought, but it kept her sane through the hours spent wracked with grief, wondering at the fate of her M, at the horrifying emptiness of her womb. She read tome after tome vigorously, certain that she could find the cure if she just kept trying, keeping her experiments to frogs, wolves, and other local fauna. She quickly rose in the ranks of Faranell's underlings, and while he dismissed pupil after pupil for fear that they were releasing his prisoners, Neetya crept every night to these poor imprisoned souls, keys to their cages and cells in hand. She harbored no resentment for humanity or life. She embraced it; loved it; craved it so badly that it hurt. She protected life and turned away the notion that forsaken were alone in their pain and should inflict this pain on others. The humans, constant participants of Keever and Faranell's tests and games, particularly touched her.
Every day she waited for hard brown eyes and short black hair. For M. If he would only be brought to her; if only she knew what had become of him. If only they could push back against the chains of this life of despair and anguish together. She tried to forget images of him lying prone on the floor, bleeding and still. She had to have some hope to cling to, as impossible as it seemed.
For all the waiting and hoping Neetya conjured, M never came, and after some time, she resigned herself to the fact that he never would. Faranell eventually discovered her deeds and quickly banished her from his warren of stone and death and sorrow, and Sylvanas looked upon her in disgust. Before any punishment could be carried out, she had escaped on a rickety goblin zeppelin to Orgrimmar, her pockets emptied by the ship's captain. Thrall had taken her in without a second thought at hearing of Faranell's experiments and Neetya's actions, smiling gently at her and requesting proof of her prowess as an apothecary. She had shown him, and shortly after, he had given her a permanent residence and shop in the Valley of Wisdom.
The dry heat of Orgrimmar shrunk her skin against her bones. She kept her flesh from rotting any further by concocting all manner of potions and bathing herself in them. Incense and candles burning in her shop kept the hot stench of her decay at bay. At some point during her time in Orgrimmar, beautiful, voluptuous Zul-kraa had stumbled upon her, teenaged and crying quietly from some unknown frustration. She'd bought a mana potion and Neetya had asked her to return to her shop tomorrow.
Zul-kraa was a bad shaman. She never erected the right totems, and her spells were always sloppy. If they did happen to be clear and perfect, they never hit their intended target. Neetya had offered her an apprenticeship at her shop for a summer, just to test out the waters of a different life. Zul-kraa had found her calling, or so she said, and that calling was steeped in dank chemicals and the preparation of potions.
Zek'jaf staggered awkwardly into Neetya's life shortly afterward. He was the most disproportionate teenager she had ever seen, with a too-long body and lanky, free-swinging arms. His hands and feet seemed too large and looked as if they weighed down his figure. He stood upright, where he towered heads above everyone else, until he was about twenty. The slouch came natural to male trolls as they grew older, and it seemed he'd had particular trouble with inheriting it. He was the constant companion to Zul-kraa, who berated him about the size of his tusks, the light tint of his skin, and his disinterest in hunting every day for years. It was only when Zek'jaf found just how good he was at hide-and-seek, when he bought his first set of daggers, when he dominated Zul-kraa and the other youths at free-running every single time, that the teasing stopped. He was a talented rogue and loved it, and no amount of shoving toward his father's bow and arrow could change that.
Neetya had seen the relationship between Zul-kraa and Zek'jaf flower, wilt, and then blossom again. Zek'jaf's less-than-reputable stature in the wealth of young trolls that took residence in Orgrimmar had cemented to Zul-kraa that he was not a suitable or capable mate. Zek'jaf was always chasing after her and Zul-kraa after the men with long, gilded tusks and a steady froth of women at their flanks at any given time of the day. As Zek'jaf grew into his body slowly, filling out those lithe arms and legs and softening the angles in his face, his skills as a rogue increased exponentially. He was no longer the butt of any cruel jokes from the other children, and Zul-kraa began seeing him as more than weird-looking, gawky Zek'jaf from the red-streaked butte outside of Orgrimmar. She began seeing him as a man who was more than able to take care of himself and could easily take care of another.
Zek'jaf had taken to this kindly. He and Zul-kraa had been twenty-one and nineteen at the time, respectively, and they tried the flirting game for a couple of months. While Zek'jaf had brought Zul-kraa a clutch of flowers once every week, eliciting a happy huff of amusement from Neetya whenever he ducked, embarrassed, inside her shop, Zul-kraa was less than impressed. The pull of men who could strangle harpies with their bare hands and who sported a myriad of scars across their dark-skinned bodies became too strong for Zul-kraa to ignore. Flowers sat untouched and dying in tied bouquets upon Zul-kraa's work desk in the shop. Zek'jaf's visits became less and less frequent. The progression of their relationship slowed to a stop, and no more flowers came. Zul-kraa became enamored with other trolls, and Zek'jaf became enamored with not thinking about it. He honed his skills in this until he and Zul-kraa's frozen relationship became nothing more than a faded series of events he tried—seemingly successfully—to push out of his head.
Then Lara had been dropped into their laps, and Zul-kraa, seeing her resilient rock of a man tending to another woman, panicked. Zek'jaf and the thin muscles in his arms, the ropy veins in his hands, the ever-gentle look in his scarlet eyes, had been put on the back-burner for years, but now, with the both of them well into their mid twenties and not having taken partners, the reality that he could be lost forever became all too real. Neetya did not think that Zul-kraa saw Lara as a potential threat, but she was certain that it drove home a bitter truth to the troll woman: If she wanted to be with Zek'jaf at all for the rest of her life, she needed to do something about it. She needed to stop sitting on the possibility that some better, more attractive, stronger troll could happen along and sweep her off of her two-toed feet.
Zul-kraa's want for Zek'jaf seemed shallow even for Neetya, but Neetya would never judge. She hardly knew anything about troll culture and could not pass any decisions on the content of Zul-kraa's character based solely on outside observation. Perhaps Zul-kraa really loved him. Perhaps the reality of Zul-kraa's encroaching age and the insistence of her elders to find a partner were not forcing her to simply settle. Perhaps Zul-kraa could live happily with Zek'jaf for the rest of their days, but it didn't seem that way now.
Zul-kraa kicked over a potted cactus. "Zek'jaf! Dat brute! Dat stupid lok'dim!"
The reverting to Zandali signaled that Zul-kraa was not going to stop cursing Zek'jaf any time soon. She continued for several moments until Neetya raised a bony hand to stop her. "I doubt Zek'jaf meant for any of this to happen," she said calmly, though her mind was racing as she held the notice that had been tacked to the door of her shop.
To the Proprietor(s) of this Shop,
It has come to the Attention of the Orgrimmar Guard that a wanted Criminal has recently been witnessed fraternizing with You or Workers of your Shop. Please be advised that a random and thorough Inspection and possible seizure of your Belongings may follow this Notice. Any Belongings taken will be re-released to You or your Workers at the end of the Investigation, unless said Belongings must be kept as viable Evidence.
Please be present in your Shop between 9AM and 5PM over the next Week to answer any Questions from the inspecting Guard. If You are not present, a Guard still has full Authority to carry out the Inspection.
Pending the Results of the inspection, You or one of your Workers may also be detained for further Questioning.
Lieutenant Negal Dreng
Zul-kraa stormed inside the shop, beginning to straighten things out, and Neetya read the notice over and over again. Zek'jaf had very clearly gotten himself into some kind of trouble in attempting to sneak out of Orgrimmar, and this guard in particular wanted him badly. It didn't spell good news that he had taken to harassing she and Zul-kraa.
Neetya looked out over the Valley of Wisdom. Braziers were being doused by sleepy city guards, and a few lone citizens wandered the streets, clutching shawls or coats closely to them in the chill of the November morning. The sun had begun to creep over the monolithic walls of Orgrimmar, casting beams of pink and yellow light over the ground.
This notice was very obviously a formality, some semblance of civility, forced by Thrall. Whether or not Thrall knew of the seriousness of the situation, she did not know, but the lieutenant did not seem as though he was simply going to look through their shop and ask she and Zul-kraa few questions. There was little doubt in her mind that she and Zul-kraa would be apprehended and questioned about Zek'jaf.
She only knew the truth, and that is all that she could tell them. She looked back at Zul-kraa, busily lighting incense and dusting out the sand that had blown in overnight, and felt an overwhelming sense of dread—for herself, for Zul-kraa, and most of all for Zek'jaf.
She only hoped he was not foolish enough to return.
Zek'jaf and Lara walked silently through the night. As the dawn approached, the scorpids tucked away their stingers and burrowed into warm homes. The morning birds sat precariously atop cacti, chirping and warbling to each other.
The only time Zek'jaf spoke to Lara was when he asked her if she was doing alright, sometime around six o'clock in the morning. She had nodded solemnly and said not a word, and so they continued on into the afternoon. He would have rather they had talked, because it was a momentous task to keep his mind from straying to thoughts of Dreng, Neetya, and Zul-kraa. Worst-case scenarios and hundreds of possibilities raced through his head, and he'd been grinding his jaw for about an hour before any real distraction occurred.
Lara had stopped and reapplied the potion from Neetya to her collarbone and wrists, and all at once, the power and potency of it wrapped Zek'jaf up in its thick malodorous cloud. His head throbbed and he pushed her to the left and in front of him, downwind, which she did so grudgingly. Shortly afterward, a blood elf strode by on his gangly hawkstrider, silver hair flapping behind him like an angry flag. He didn't spare either of them a glance.
Even during the fall months, Durotar and The Barrens were deceptively hot. With the setting of the sun, the temperature fell, and with the rising of it, it rose considerably. Today was no exception, and the heat bore down on the land viciously. At some point during their walk, the blazing heat began to affect Lara much more than she let on. Zek'jaf checked on her periodically, and until now, she seemed to have been faring well. He managed to see around the hood covering her head and noticed that her face was flushed dark red. Sweat made her neck and forehead slick.
"Do you need to stop?" he asked for the second time, unsure how to handle the tension between them. He could feel it lessening since the night before, but traces of it still lingered. He wiped the thin sheen of sweat that had formed at his hairline. "An' I can take your pack if you bee needin' some rest."
"I'm fine," she responded curtly, shifting the pack on her back as if for emphasis. He heard the sound of glass vials clinking together as she readjusted it.
"You don' have to be actin' tough, mon. I'm ready to stop, myself."
She stopped for a moment, looking up at him from beneath the hood of her cloak. The normally pale tint of her face was flushed a healthy red. The neck of the clasped cloak dipped low, revealing her chainmail armor and the oil stains that marred her flesh underneath. Her eyes searched his, darting quickly back and forth like she was in a vivid dream.
He turned away slower than he would have hoped, looking toward the sun burning a yellowed hole near the middle of the blue sky. "We can make camp, rest up, and then continue when the sun sets."
"How far are we from Ratchet?" she asked, sounding hopeful and dejected all at the same time.
He hummed low in his throat as he surveyed the empty road they walked upon, searching for any telling landmarks. He saw a small violet raptor hunting in the distance and knew that they weren't far. If they continued much further south, perhaps for another two hours, they would happen upon Crossroads, and from there it was east to Ratchet. "If we walk through the night tonight, we'll get there before sunrise tomorrow."
They set up camp in the overhang of a rocky cliff, some median distance away from the centaur-inhabited oasis. It wasn't the best place to set up camp for the night, but anywhere else would leave them in clear sight of any passing travelers. Lara looked ready to drop if they took so much as another step, and he wasn't so well off himself. Scores of harpies and a few more raptors patrolled in the cover of the mountainsides and sparse forests, but the centaur hunting groups kept their areas blissfully free of predators and other harmful creatures. Zek'jaf would rather face the centaurs than the chance of being seen by a harpy, a raptor, or some theoretical scout Dreng had sent out.
Their hidden camp faced away from the road, so Zek'jaf started a dull fire for warmth and then dug his fishing pole and bait from his backpack. Lara watched him curiously, legs crossed and her pack in her lap. She had the cloak draped unclasped and loosely around her shoulders, the hood down. He could see now that her armor was ill-fitting; in some places it was too large, in other places too small. Her chestplate hung away from her sternum, and dim firelight licked at the topmost curves of her breasts. He made a note to not acknowledge them any further.
"Dinner," he said, standing with the fishing pole slung over his shoulder. He pocketed a canister of damp soil and half-alive worms. "Are you comin'?"
"There are centaurs in the oasis," Lara said, pulling the cloak tighter around her shoulders. "If you hand me one of your daggers, I can help you ward them off."
Zek'jaf gave her an amused glance as they started toward the oasis. "One of my daggers?" he drawled, struggling not to laugh. "No. No, I think I be okay."
Lara's features twisted into an expression of mild anger. "I know it probably seems like I'm an incompetent fighter because of the…condition I was in when you found me, but I am a capable paladin, you know."
"I not be doubtin' that."
"I studied for many years at the chapel in Stormwind under some of the best swordsmen of the Holy Light."
"Impressive," he lilted.
She pursed her lips at him, obviously not fond of his banter, but Zek'jaf was in a better mood than he had been in days. This was partly due to the fact that he was just about to go fishing, just about to eat, and just about to rest, he realized with a contented sigh, before he felt a tug at the leather holster on his left thigh that had him dropping the fishing pole and recoiling defensively.
Lara looked guiltily at him, straightening from her sneaking stance.
He was confused for a moment, but the situation dawned on him and he burst into laughter. "Tryin' to sneak my dagger," he said incredulously. "Strange leetle thing. What point you be tryin' to prove, hmm?"
"Your reflexes are…better than I thought," she admitted, not as amused by her failed actions as he was. "I didn't think trolls made good rogues."
He patted her on the back gently, bending to pick up his fishing pole. "Anybody be makin' a good rogue if they be tryin' hard enough." He paused to consider this thought for a moment. "Well, maybe not tauren."
Lara chuckled at this, a soft sound in direct opposition to his harsh guffawing. Humans would make good rogues, he thought, but Lara probably wouldn't. Her steps were too heavy and her hands too shaky. And besides that, she was a paladin—a servant of the Light—a do-gooder. He couldn't convince her to pickpocket someone if her life depended on it.
In the distance, a female centaur and her child treaded water in the oasis's water in silence. On the banks opposite those that Zek'jaf and Lara were standing on, a centaur armed with a bow and arrow stood guard, his chest puffed out proudly.
"What should we do?" Lara asked, looking up at him only momentarily.
"Nothin'," Zek'jaf answered, settling into a seated position in the soft grass and sand. He took the canister of worms from his pocket and unscrewed it, digging through the soil for a plump specimen. "They won' be botherin' us if we be' mindin' our business." He could feel the indecision rolling off of Lara in waves, but she eventually relented, slowly lowering herself a few feet away from him. He continued to bait his hook, the worm writhing languidly around the hook's entry points, and then cast it into the water with a grunt. The line sailed through the air, invisible except for the small dot at the end that was the hook and worm, and it landed in the water a few yards away from the centaurs with a muted "plurk."
The centaur family watched him and Lara, the male edging toward them and the mother and child toward the banks. After Zek'jaf remained perfectly still for more than ten minutes, paying them no mind, they returned mostly to their business.
He propped the fishing rod between his folded legs, supporting his weight with two stiff arms behind him. He watched Lara remove her greaves and linen socks and dip her toes in the water, and then saw her splash water on her face. After a few moments, she dried herself with the traveling cloak and then replaced her greaves and socks. To the west, the sun began its sleepy descent.
"Cold?" he asked, and she seemed startled for a moment before shrugging.
He nodded, adjusting the fishing rod in his lap. He thought he felt a tug, but upon further inspection, found nothing. He recast his line.
After a half hour, the centaur family left, disappearing into the darkening trees. Lara was drawing shapes in the ground with a stick, her chin resting on her drawn knees.
"You can rest," he offered quietly. His voice seemed loud in the solitude of the oasis. "I'll watch you." He realized the implications of his words a bit too late, but he played it off like he didn't understand such crazy human social cues. It worked, because Lara said nothing of it. She only seemed to consider his offer for a moment, looking him over.
He smiled wanly. "You can probably be trustin' me by now."
"I'm too hungry to rest," she said, her eyes following the line of his fishing pole out into the lake. The dimming sunlight glinted off of the near-invisible fishing wire. His red bobber floated undisturbed.
"Not much fish here," he murmured. "The goblin miners around here be usin' this as a fishing hole for a while, drove the centaur out for years. Centaurs be comin' back slowly, but they be scared now." He looked to her, expecting her to be looking at him, but she was too preoccupied with her stick-drawing.
For only a moment, she seemed to be suspended in the reds and pinks of the sun's last rays of light, her nose pointing toward her knees and her toes pointing toward each other. Zek'jaf was not entirely certain what name he could give this emotion, because he had never experienced it before. Blind curiosity? Muted interest? She was not beautiful to him, but surely she was beautiful to those of her race, even with the dirt on her cheeks and her chapped lips. As a troll, he thought, entertaining himself while she made ripples with the stick in the water, she might be at least somewhat attractive. He tried to imagine Lara with lavish violet skin and adorably curved tusks, but all that came to his mind at this was an image of Zul-kraa, so he banished the thought entirely.
He lay back and looked up at the sky, hushed colors of dusk bleeding against twilight. Very soon they would be coming upon Ratchet, and he and Lara would be separated. A satisfied mood overtook him, and he settled into the warm, sandy oasis grass, tense muscles relaxing until he hardly realized Lara was there at all. He could see the tips of three palm tree fronds from this position, and he watched them sway.
A searing pain in his left leg jolted him into his previous state of awareness.
Lara also stood with impeccable speed, grasping for a weapon that was not there before crouching defensively, pushing her cloak over and behind her shoulders. It dragged on the ground as she paced closer to Zek'jaf, who was busily attempting to put out the fire that had melted the leather of his pants.
"There's a mage nearby," she whispered.
"I noticed," Zek'jaf said wearily, unsheathing a dagger and pulling on the black hood. He shook his head to properly fit his ears through the appropriate slits in the fabric and then slunk behind a palm tree. Lara stood anxiously in the open, shifting back and forth.
Another bolt of fire ripped through the dim light, sizzling out in the oasis's water when it found no mark. He heard the shuffling of feet not far off, some barely audible whispering, and what sounded like plate armor moving together. Zek'jaf caught a better look at Lara while the area they stood in was briefly illuminated as another firebolt sailed by, and the look on her face sent a small lance of panic and guilt through his heart. She had no weapon and no cover. She was a sitting duck, fear twisting her smooth human features into lines and furrows.
She glanced to Zek'jaf, it being dark once more, but he could no longer see her expression. He readied himself to make a motion for her to join him while the coast was clear, but she faltered for only a moment before taking off at a sprint in the opposite direction that the fire had appeared from.
His first thought was something along the lines of "She runs awfully fast for all that armor on her." His second thought was muffled completely by freezing pinpricks clawing up his legs. He looked down and found his feet frozen in place, with ice partially formed over most of his calves and shins. He struggled vainly, chipping at it with his daggers, but by the time he was freed, three figures—four—five—six or more—crowded around him. He heard hurried footsteps follow the path Lara had taken, crunching sand as they progressed. At the moment, he was too worried about his own safety to care much for Lara's.
"We will not hurt you if you do not struggle," a voice croaked, one of the figures holding a torch close to his face. He shied away from the heat, cringing. Two figures made to tie his hands behind him, but he struggled valiantly, kicking and throwing long limbs every which way. A poisoned letter opener was deflected from pricking one of his attacker's ankles and kicked out of the way, injuring Zek'jaf's left hand badly. His daggers were removed from his grasp as well, and with a strangled cry, an arm was wrenched behind his back in an arm bar. Subdued, Zek'jaf lay still, hoping beyond all hope that Lara would return for him on a rescue effort as he had done for her. They tied his hands behind him at the wrists and his feet at the ankles.
The torch was stuck in the sand, and the wielder stepped beside it. It was a human man outfitted in profligately decorated mauve and silver robes, possibly the mage who had cast the fire and ice spells, with a gnarled grey beard and gentle green eyes. "I must apologize for attacking you. Some of us believed you to be rogue centaurs." He cast a knowing glance at the group of people behind him, shrouded in the dark. "What were you doing with the human woman?" he asked, his voice raspy but not openly displaying any malice or ill-intent.
Zek'jaf could see that the two that had tied him up were equipped with heavy black-spiked armor, now that his adrenaline had fallen and he could clearly survey his surroundings. They looked to be guards of some sort, possibly hired hands. They loomed over him as he lay in a half fetal position, trying to quietly slip his wrists and ankles from the ropes that bound them, but finding them to be unrelenting. "I was helpin' her," he managed, sounding exasperated but not terribly frightened. This was a front, as Zek'jaf was currently very scared for his life and was sweating bullets that had nothing to do with the desert's warm nighttime temperature. He glanced every few seconds to where Lara had taken her leave, his hope dwindling with every passing second. While he was sure now that her follower was not going to harm her, he was still worried that she would not be brought back. If that were the case, she wouldn't be able to give her testimony, and Zek'jaf's story would surely be discounted by this group.
"Helping her to what...or whom?" the man asked, and the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes seemed to soothe a bit. The shadows from the flickering torch still gave him a much harder edge than he would have had in full light, though, and Zek'jaf did not hesitate in his answers.
"Ta Ratchet. I saved her life and was plannin' on gettin' her home safely." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his fishing rod begin to tremble violently.
Several shadowed figures behind the old mage stirred and murmured, floating between each other like phantoms. The two armored guards folded their arms and presumably waited for further instruction, the steel on their bodies shuffling and making a noise like rice in a tin can with every movement.
"We shall see," the mage said softly. Neither anger nor disbelief clouded his tone, as before. He turned around to face his peers, cloaked by darkness. "Has Tanin returned?"
"I can see him not many paces away," Zek'jaf heard a woman from the back say, and he watched the mage curl his hand around the torch once more. After a few moments, Zek'jaf could see this Tanin, his eyes glowing milky and hushed in the dark. As he came closer, it became very apparent that the man was a night elf. At his side, clutching his arm, was Lara, and Zek'jaf's spirits soared. Tanin positively towered over her, seeming indifferent to her small hands pressed tightly to him.
They stepped beside the torch, and Lara's face became frightfully blank when she saw Zek'jaf in his reduced position of power. He wasn't sure what this meant for him.
"The troll says that you were not his prisoner," the mage spoke again, holding the torch at half an arm's length from his body. "Is this true?"
Lara said nothing.
"He says that he was aiding in your escape to the Eastern Kingdoms and that he saved your life. Is this true?"
Lara said nothing again, though she released the night elf's arm. She looked at her feet. His fishing pole began to inch toward the black water.
Zek'jaf's stomach turned. "You won' tell them?" he asked—demanded, really, his voice taking on a sharpened edge in response to the feelings of betrayal that soured his insides. "I saved your life, stupid girl. The least you should be doin' is tellin' the truth so they don' kill me!"
The mage raised a placating hand before anyone could respond to this. "There will be no unnecessary death tonight." Behind him, a cacophony of protests broke out that Zek'jaf agreed wholeheartedly with. "Another mouth to feed!" he heard; "Unnecessary," another murmured. The mage, their apparent ringleader, said nothing, and the dissenting whispers eventually died.
The old man gave Lara a knowing look and then nodded toward the night elf. He made a few hand motions that Zek'jaf failed to decipher, and then suddenly Tanin was transforming into a Moonkin with a burst of light that petered out like a dying candle, leaving a colossal, furry beast to stand beside Lara. Zek'jaf caught one more look at Lara during this burst of light, but she was now looking up at Tanin's new form, marveled and humbled by the massiveness of the creature. With renewed anger, Zek'jaf looked away, pressing his cheek into the stiff grass. Not a trace of guilt on her face. Perhaps this was why nobody ever helped humans. They were greedy, horrible beings that took anything and everything for granted. It seemed the blond man of his past was the exception, rather than the rule. With a final stab of agony, he watched his fishing pole slink into the water like a snake retreating to its den. That was an expensive fishing pole.
After a moment of conversation in a foreign tongue—elven, maybe, but definitely not Common—that passed between the druid and the mage, Tanin hefted Zek'jaf up onto his shoulders like a goat ready for market, pressing his face into fur that smelled of dirt, leaves, and sweat. Tanin's gratuitous beaded and hemp-weaved necklaces cut uncomfortably into his stomach, but he didn't complain. It would do no good. No pressure was being applied to his injured hand, and for this he was grateful. The best he could do would be to wait until the Alliance group stopped for camp and then try to convince them all that he had absolutely not kidnapped Lara. And anyway, why would he? There was no reason for him to have kidnapped her and then be travelling so openly with her. She wasn't even restrained!
He scoffed into Tanin, adjusting his weight more comfortably on his shoulders. Tanin glanced back halfway at Zek'jaf but made no argument or comment.
The mage approached Zek'jaf and Tanin, but he did not focus on them. Instead he reached out to something to Tanin's right that was out of Zek'jaf's sight.
"You are in good hands, Lara."
"Now you be talkin'?" Zek'jaf spat, sneering at nothing. "Convenient." Even as he did so, though, he felt a wave of unease about the situation. How did the mage know Lara's name? He saw Lara attempt to step forward, but Tanin rested a heavy clawed hand on her, and she stilled.
"You can be assured that you will not be harmed, either," the mage said, the statement obviously being directed at Zek'jaf. "Lara will tell us her story when she is ready. In the meantime, we will travel a while longer until we can camp for the night. I will hear your story then."
"Why am I bein' held captive, mon?" Zek'jaf argued, wriggling against Tanin's tight hold. "Why not jus' kill me?"
"We are not murderers." One of the armored men scoffed loudly at this statement. "And it is a precaution," the mage continued. "My name is Erlan. You can address me as such."
"Why don' you release me and escort her yourself? I certainly don' want her."
Erlan chuckled warmly at this, and Zek'jaf felt the claws of death recede significantly. It didn't sound like the laugh of a murderer; that much was for sure. He tried to quell the nagging insistence that there were worse fates than death. "We can risk neither detection nor an attack from any allies you may have nearby, my troll friend."
Zek'jaf considered asking the mage just who he was and what his group was doing this deep in Horde territory and also, really, just where he got off calling him his "troll friend," but he decided against it. He would get no answers. "We have supplies," Zek'jaf tried, thinking about he and Lara's packs left at their campsite. "I would be grateful if we could stop and retrieve them."
The mage considered him for a moment, the torch by his face dispelling any blue hues of moonlight. "Very well," he said finally. "Lara will direct us, in case you are to lead us to a trap. Or worse," he added, seemingly as an afterthought.
Lara showed them the way, albeit sloppily and with much confusion and corrections made by a very upset Zek'jaf. They found him and Lara's supplies and took them, dousing the flickering embers of their fire while they were there. They then continued in a decidedly southward manner.
After two hours of traveling in darkness, Zek'jaf stopped struggling. They passed Crossroads at a distance, walking with the torch unlit and guided only by moonlight along the mountains' bases. At one point he'd politely asked Tanin to shift his position because he was stiff as a bone, and surprisingly, the hulking druid had acquiesced. Again, Zek'jaf was assured that he was in no direct danger.
Lara walked between Tanin and Erlan, her face impassive in the moonlight. He cast her several glares that could kill, but she never seemed to notice him. Again and again he cursed himself for ever deciding to help her. He imagined what he would be doing now if he'd left her to die by the Stonetalon Mountains. He wondered what Leb was doing, alone in his pen and waiting for his master to return. He wondered if his mother had gone shopping in Orgrimmar yet. He wondered how much Zul-kraa and Neetya would worry when he arrived home later than schedule. He occupied himself by imagining being asked questions about his travels; his wounds being cooed over; plate after plate of food being brought to him.
Food, he thought glumly. He missed it so.
He wasn't sure exactly what time it was, but at some godawful hour before dawn, he saw a beacon of hope: The Great Lift's central totem stood sternly at the horizon, reaching toward the brightening sky.