"I'm an assassin, not a bloody courier." Rumer tossed her head back and let the last drip of rancid alcohol touch her tongue. In disgust, she flung the empty wineskin aside.
She and Pasha, her giant mistsaber mount and sole companion, had been trudging for miles along the Barrens' Gold Road. It was dry and hot, the sun parching the grass and their lips, and the only fools stupid enough to live in that clime were the reeking Tauren with their thick hides and hardened hooves.
"You're poor and you're drunk," Pasha said in a low growl.
That was only half true. If she hadn't spent what little gold she'd acquired through picking pockets on half-strength booze, she wouldn't have taken the menial job of delivering a package to the goblin town of Ratchet.
But she was a horrible caretaker, and Pasha deserved a warm meal and a hot bath.
For herself, she didn't care.
Afternoon heat waved over the Plains and a southerly breeze rippled the dry grass. Even the animals, kodo, giraffes, and plainstriders, all sought relief in the shade of the stubby trees.
Pasha stopped and sniffed the air. His eyesight was much better in twilight, but Rumer saw them clearly enough.
Tauren scouts at the Crossroads. A Horde camp in the middle of nowhere.
Being a descendant of one of the first races on Azeroth, Rumer had been born into the Alliance faction, and all her studies had been centered on the glory of the human bloodline of Wrynn kings and the noble Stormwind Empire. And though she was in league with neither the Alliance nor the Horde factions, her fingers sought the handles of her twin daggers all the same.
"We go around," Pasha said.
"And lose this opportunity for wealth and a bit of juicy flank?"
"They serve nature as do you, Night Elf, and live humbly off the land. You would be wasting your time looking for fortune there."
Pasha was right. He always was. And she was in no condition to fight alone against their hunters and warriors and the elements their shamans commanded.
The Crossroads outpost had always been a favorite place to raid amongst the cadets of SI:7 and the Royal Guard. They'd return from training missions with adrenaline overriding their brains and praising the King's name as they regaled their latest adventures terrorizing the minotaur-like creatures. She had always thought the cadets were stupid and never took part in their forays.
But now she saw the truth of their victories.
The Barrens was vast and mostly void of shelter or camouflage; there would be minimal places to hide, no shadows to slip into during the height of the sun. This was not the time to cross enemy lines. Only the brave (or stupid) would come here to fight.
And she was neither.
Rumer hoped the Tauren sense of smell was less developed than Pasha's. After all, how often did bovine need to hunt for food?
"Fine," she said. "We go around."
They'd taken a mere step off Gold Road onto the sandy earth when a scout targeted them.
An arrow sliced through the air just missing Rumer's right arm, and a horrifying lowing for defenses rang out.
Instinctively, she leaped onto Pasha's back, crouching low over his neck, as he sprinted towards safety some yards away behind a thicket of giant thorns.
She jumped off and held the mistsaber's face in her hands. "Head to the east and follow the cliffs. Keep low, and we'll meet in Ratchet."
"You're coming with me," he snapped.
"No. You won't be able to outrun them with me on your back. Now, go!"
"What are you going to do?"
Rumer peered through the thorny brush. "Hide," she said.
Pasha looked around at the likelihood of that. "And if that doesn't work?"
"Fight. Now, go!" She slapped him on the hindquarters and with a roar he shot out from behind cover and raced east.
Rumer didn't like this, but she wasn't about to show fear to her companion. She remembered the stories cadets told of Tauren warriors attacking with brute strength. As it were, they were twice her size, a towering mass of muscle, fur, and leather armor. It had been said that for every humanoid a Tauren killed, they added a braid to their coarse manes.
She refused to have her life commemorated in hair and began to devise a plan.
More often than not, her plans entailed stalking through the shadows and attacking from behind before her victim even noticed. This, however, was going to take much more finesse.
Perhaps she could use the Tauren physique and their braids against them. Plotting a path, she would lure them into the grove of thorn bushes several yards away.
If only she hadn't finished all the wine…
Tauren scouts atop their tamed kodo dragons were fast approaching, warriors joining the hunt, but not fast enough for Rumer's taste. She said a silent prayer for Pasha's safety, then revealed her hiding place and whipped two throwing stars coated with poison as her attackers neared.
Holding her ground until the last possible moment, she sprinted toward the grove, strafing between the thorny bushes.
The Tauren were smart, or perhaps it were the kodo, but they dismounted and sought her on foot. Blades screeched through the air as the warriors began to attack. She dove between the bushes and rolled under low branches, all the while the brutes lunged after her and slammed their blades into the dry earth just a second too late.
Dust rose, and Rumer used the cloud as cover. She was agile and maneuvered easily while the hulking Tauren were not so lucky. Their fur and long braided manes caught on sharp thorns, tore from their skin, and left clumps of bloody hair behind.
The hunters who stood at range continued to fire arrows into the thick dust in hopes of striking their female enemy, but she evaded the barrage. Their warrior counterparts did not fare as well as obsidian-tipped arrowheads embedded themselves into their plate armor.
An arrow screamed by close to Rumer's face, and she just barely ducked out of the way. It would only be time before the Tauren smartened up and surrounded the grove until she was trapped. Picking her way, she moved deeper into thorns and headed toward the back.
The dust here was thick from activity that even she had trouble seeing. She heard the heavy snorting of an encroaching warrior and felt hot breath flaring from his nostrils on her face. Alcohol could desensitize many things but not the natural instincts of a long line of assassination rogues.
Her plan to snare her attackers in the thorny bushes had only managed to deter them marginally and anger them more. These warriors were used to battle scars, and the odd chunk of flesh ripped from their hides was more of an annoyance than anything.
It was time for her to fight.
Luckily, one pesky Night Elf enemy was hardly worth summoning the powerful shamans of the tribe, so a melee attack could still be possible.
Rumer unsheathed her daggers and crawled to the safety behind a thick cluster of thorny stalks. As a Tauren passed, she sprung up and slashed its neck from behind. Blood dripped and stained the dry earth dirty brown. Wheeling around, she slashed another across his belly then plunged both blades deep into its heart.
An arrow stuck fast into her back and she collapsed onto her knees. As she twisted to reach it, another lodged in her bracers. She could feel a serpent's sting begin to course through her veins. Time was running out, and she had the disadvantage once again.
Ripping the poisoned tip from her forearm, she scurried out of sight just as a volley of missiles rained down upon her. The arrow's shaft in her back broke off in the brambles, tearing flesh from between her shoulder blades, and she yelped in pain.
There was no time and she dared not remove her tunic to pull out the arrowhead. Her only chance was heading for the rocky outcropping to the east. Cutting a path from left to right would make her harder to target, but she knew she only had a minute at best before her lungs and legs would collapse.
Taking in a last deep breath and bracing for the pain, Rumer shot out of the grove and sprinted. A stream of hunters' deadly ammunition whistled through the air and stabbed the earth around her. She wove among the feathered shafts and was soon out of range from even the most elite Tauren marksmen. With any luck the scouts would clean up the bodies of their fallen brethren and return to their posts.
Slowing but not stopping, Rumer surveyed the perimeter of the outcropping; Savannah Highmanes prowled lazily in the heat and she hoped Pasha would take care crossing the plains. Though he was much larger than any of these lions, he had become somewhat domesticated since she had rescued him, and he had lost some of his survival instincts.
She pushed her worry for Pasha far back in her mind and continued to look for a safe place to rest.
A shadow fell across the face of the rocks about mid-way up the outcropping. She scrambled up to it, wincing as the arrowhead ripped deeper into her flesh. There was a crevice not large enough to call a cave but just deep enough for her to crawl into and camouflage herself against the enemy.
She unbuckled her bracers where blood and poison foamed at the open wound then stripped off her back armor and leather chest piece. Unencumbered, she reached overhead with both arms and yanked out the stubby end of the arrow. Her eyes stung with tears as she roared in pain but at last she could breathe.
With fingers smeared in dirt and blood, she wrapped a swath of cloth around her forearm and balled the rest up to press between her wounded back and the rocky wall. She grabbed the Tauren's stone-sharpened arrowhead and whipped it over the ledge, listening to it scrape against the rocks as it fell.
What she wouldn't give for a drink right now, but a quick search of her knapsack proved fruitless. In it were only two small bottles of poison and the parcel she was to deliver to an undisclosed goblin in Ratchet. She cursed the shady Human who promised she'd be paid 100 gold pieces at completion.
If she lived long enough.
Sighing, she let her eyes close. There would be no harm in resting just a bit until the sun set and she could head south in the shadows.
Sleep for Rumer was never more than a half-conscious state. Something terrorized her at night even in the comfort of a warm, friendly tavern. Something that kept her senses heightened even when she needed rest. It was then, in those brief moments of darkness, that she relived the night her sister was abducted and she was left alone.
Jerking awake, Rumer noticed the air was crisp and the stars shone in the clear, velvet sky. It was time to move, find Pasha, and collect her gold.
There were moments, as she crept through the shadows and darted from one covering to the next, that she cursed her life as a rogue. She could never walk along the open road or feel the sun on her face for very long. She'd been trained to be mistrustful and wary, and many times these skills had saved her life but, more often than not, they saddened her. She wandered without aim and didn't allow herself to form close relationships. Her father had betrayed her and her sister, and SI:7 had shunned them because of it.
So she drank.
The last mile to Ratchet was open plain, but Rumer had darkness on her side. She ran with fervor to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Goblin seaport, anxiety building inside. She and Pasha hadn't been separated like this since they began traveling together, and she needed to make sure he was all right. If anything happened to him, it would be her fault, and she would never forgive herself.
She picked her way down the rocky cliffs instead of taking Gold Road into town. Goblins were generally aligned with the Horde faction, but she'd been told the ones who resided here were neutral. Unless you happened to pick a fight with them. Even so, she stuck to the shadows.
A few outbuildings stood far from the main section of town and accommodated the most feared of classes, Warlocks. And though they were often shunned by the mass populations, they had their own circles in society. Rogues, however, were discriminated against even by their own kind.
The Broken Keel Tavern sat high on a ledge overlooking the port. As she approached its entrance, a low hiss crept from behind the palm trees. Rumer turned on her heel, a dagger clutched in each hand. A ghostly white figure leaped at her, knocked her down. Two giant paws pinned her shoulders and a rough, thick tongue licked her face.
"Your breath stinks, Pasha," Rumer said with a laugh.
A purr erupted in his throat. "So does yours," he said and continued licking.
"Okay, okay, you're hurting me." In a swift movement, Rumer posted one of his legs and flipped him over onto his back. She allowed herself to steal a short hug against his furry neck before she got up.
Wiping the spit off her face, she said, "I've got a package to deliver, so make yourself scarce."
Pasha purred again, nodding, and bounded back to the shadows of the palm trees.
Brushing off what little dirt from her clothes she could, Rumer entered the inn.
Her eyes shifted over the inhabitants: an Orc peon who'd seen better days, a few Human deckhands, and an Undead female leaning against a wooden post. She chose a seat in the corner where she could still see the door and ordered the strongest ale the innkeeper had to offer.
When he arrived with her drink, she set the package down on the table. The Goblin eyed it suspiciously.
"Know someone who might be waiting for this?" she asked.
Innkeeper Wiley sneered and said, "Not offhand, but I've seen that symbol before."
Rumer had barely noticed the blue smudge on the upper left-hand corner of the package before she had shoved it into her knapsack and accepted the quest. But now as she looked at it, it seemed familiar. The lighting in the tavern from a few stumps of candles and a torch flaming at the far end of the room was poor and, when she looked up to inquire further, Wiley was gone.
In his place stood a magnificent male Blood Elf with long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.
"I believe you have something of mine," he said and slid into the seat across from her.
The Blood Elves were known for their slim, athletic builds and delicate, feminine beauty almost as much for their addictive and destructive natures, and Rumer was having a hard time keeping her thoughts focused. She pulled the package closer to her nonetheless.
"My payment?" she asked.
The Blood Elf laughed heartily. "Spoken like a true mercenary." He spilled a pouch of gold coins onto the table and raised his eyebrows at her.
Hungrily, she snatched it up but wouldn't relinquish the package. Curiosity got the better of her, and she wanted to know what could be worth so much to him.
"Maybe it's worth more. After all, I almost got killed at the Crossroads trying to deliver it."
"You should recognize the seal, my dear Whisperra. Or have you forgotten?"
The blood in Rumer's veins ceased to flow and a high-pitched ring sounded in her ears.
Her voice came out hushed and husky when she spoke. "How do you know that name?"
The Blood Elf's eyes widened slightly as he sat back in his chair. A softer look replaced his haughty expression. "I should have known," he said almost to himself then reached out his hand in greeting. "I am Captain Thalo'thas Brightsun, a mercenary ship runner, and you are her sister? The resemblance is uncanny."
Rumer's brain reeled and it wasn't from the Innkeeper's ale.
"You know her? She's alive?" She jumped up from her seat and towered over him, slamming her palms against the rough wooden table.
"Breathe, child. I saw her some time ago on my last trip through here. She was alive and well."
"Where is she? What happened to her?"
"I don't know. She was gone before morning. But I overheard her talking that night in the shadows when she thought I was sleeping."
"What did she say?"
"She spoke of your father. His execution."
"Yes, for treason," she spat out. Her father, Ebon Nightblade, had been a spy amongst the King's operatives and he'd been caught trading secrets with the Horde. It was the reason she could not return to her beloved home in Teldrassil. It was also the reason she'd been exiled from SI:7 and her sister had been abducted.
Brightsun's eyes warmed a shade. "It was a conspiracy, she said. And your sister found out who gave the orders."
Rumer shook the thought around her brain. A conspiracy to kill their father? No, she wouldn't believe it. She had heard the charges brought against him. She had heard him admit his crime to them. If he wasn't guilty, he would have surely defended himself. No, Whisperra must have been wrong.
But her sister was alive. And she must find her.
"I believe you still have my package," Brightsun said not unkindly, breaking her thoughts.
Rumer looked down at it, at the blue seal she had thought had just been a smudged stamp. Where had she seen it before?
Of course. The Alliance's royal seal.
"Do you know who she was talking to that night?"
Brightsun took the package and stood up. "No, but Grimble will. He's the shipmaster down on the docks. No one passes through this port without his knowledge."
Capatin Brightsun started to walk away then turned back. He threw a sparkling gem on the table in front of her. "This should be more than enough to clean up you and your cat and make further inquiries. I do hope you find your sister. Give her my best."
Rumer nodded and snatched up the gem.